With all the Best of the Year volumes arriving over the past few months — from Jonathan Strahan, Rich Horton, Neil Clarke, and David Afsharirad, and more due next month from Gardner Dozois, Paula Guran, and others — it’s hard to remember those dark years in the mid-20th Century when there were only two or three.
Hard, but not impossible. Don Wollheim, Lester del Rey, and the great Terry Carr all had Best of the Year anthologies back in the mid-70s. I know because I bought and cherished them as they showed up in bookstores, starting around 1977 or so. I think my favorite editor of the batch was Terry Carr, who was already famous for his exemplary work at Ace at the time.
How good was Carr at extracting the cream of the crop from the digest magazines in the 70s? Depends who you ask of course, but in general Carr’s reputation was stellar. I’d read plenty of anthologies from the era, but I didn’t remember the magazines I read at the time well enough to say for certain.
However, I recently had the opportunity to do a little primary research of my own. I bought a collection of vintage Analog magazines from the early 70s, back when Ben Bova was editor, and I’ve spent a week of warm evenings on the porch with them, pretending I was Rich Horton.
I’ve been dipping into them more or less at random, reading Larry Niven’s “The Borderland of Sol” (from the January 1975 issue, left), Roger Zelazny’s “The Engine at Heartspring’s Center,” Orson Scott Card’s “Follower” (the first Card story I ever remember reading), and a few others.
How do they stack up?
I expected to be blanketed in the warm glow of nostalgia, but it’s been pretty rough going, to be honest. Mostly I just end up dissatisfied and occasionally annoyed. Clearly I’ve been spoiled by the level of writing in today’s genre magazines like Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Lightspeed, because far too many of these tales are simply a labor to get through. Apparently science fiction has come a long way in four decades.
The winner of the bunch was the Zelazny, although the Card wasn’t too bad. Even the Niven tale — which won the Hugo Award in 1976 — I found choppy, predictable, and just a little too preoccupied with the cool science at its core to really shine as a story. But at least John Schoenherr’s cover art is still great (click the image at left to embiggen).
So how did Carr do with essentially the same material? Let’s have a look at The Year’s Best Science Fiction #4, published in 1975.
I won’t pretend I read with anywhere near the thoroughness Carr clearly did. For one thing, he only picked one story from Analog, the Zelazny (the only one that would have made the cut by my assessment, too), which was nominated for a Nebula. The rest of the book he filled chiefly with tales from anthologies (Final Stage, Wandering Stars, and his own Fellowship of the Stars and Universe 4), rounding it out with one story each from F&SF, New Worlds, and Science Fiction Monthly. Seems like anthologies were the place to go for good writing in the 1970s.
To fill his Table of Contents Carr chose established talents like Frederik Pohl, Michael Moorcock, and Philip K. Dick; future stars like Ursula K. Le Guin; and made a virtual sweep of the stories that would win the major awards that year — including Robert Silverberg’s Hugo-nominated and Nebula Award-winning novella “Born With the Dead,” Niven’s “The Hole Man” (Hugo winner for Best Short Story), and Gordon Eklund and Gregory Benford’s “If the Stars Are Gods,” winner of the 1975 Nebula Award for Best Novelette.
That’s a damned impressive success rate. In an era when science fiction was still shaking off its pulp-era fascination with gosh-wow tales of science, Terry Carr had a keen appreciation for the subtler arts of fine prose, character, and especially originality of idea and execution. The stories in The Best Science Fiction of the Year #4 have aged far better than their contemporaries.
Introduction by Terry Carr
“We Purchased People” by Frederik Pohl (Final Stage: The Ultimate Science Fiction Anthology, 1974)
“Pale Roses” by Michael Moorcock (New Worlds 7, December 1974)
“The Hole Man” by Larry Niven (Analog, January 1974)
“Born with the Dead” by Robert Silverberg (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1974)
“The Author of the Acacia Seeds and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics” by Ursula K. Le Guin (Fellowship of the Stars, November 1974)
“Dark Icarus” by Bob Shaw (Science Fiction Monthly, April 1974)
“A Little Something for Us Tempunauts” by Philip K. Dick (Final Stage: The Ultimate Science Fiction Anthology, 1974)
“On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi” by William Tenn (Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 1974)
“The Engine at Heartspring’s Center” by Roger Zelazny (Analog, July 1974)
“If the Stars Are Gods” by Gordon Eklund and Gregory Benford (Universe 4, March 1974)
The Science Fiction Year by Charles N. Brown
Carr produced sixteen volumes of The Best Science Fiction of the Year between 1972-1987, before his death in 1987, the last three titled Terry Carr’s Best Science Fiction of the Year (and the final one, Terry Carr’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year). He also briefly experimented with novellas, publishing two volumes of The Best Science Fiction Novellas of the Year in 1979 and 1980, a book I still miss.
The Best Science Fiction of the Year #4 was published as a paperback original by Ballantine Books in July 1975. It is 304 pages, priced at $1.95.
See all of our recent Vintage Treasures here.