Review: SF’58: The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy

Judith Merril, editor
1958

I’ve been reading a little slow lately – it’s taken me about a month to work my way through this anthology. My reactions to it are a bit mixed, though before looking a bit more closely at it, first a very brief history.  The SF(‘xx) series edited by Judith Merril was a long-running annual series in which Ms Merril attempted to collect the outstanding SF&F for a particular year.  To put things in their proper order, I’ll talk more about this and her when I review the very first tome in this series.

As I said, my reactions were mixed.  I normally read anthologies cover to cover, as I imagine the editor always has some sort of structure or theme development in mind when putting the thing together.  While I did read the first story first, I thereafter hopped all over the shop in reading.  I’m not sure if this affected my reading experience or not.

I felt it was quite an odd bunch of stories – a couple I thought were fantastic, but others were a little strange to my way of thinking.  I just want to mention a couple of my favorites before taking a general overview.

The Wonder Horse by George Byram is a fantasy tale about a mutant racehorse that goes on to be unbeatable, the controversy the horse generates and how it’s owners cope with the sudden fame and fortune.  A very straightforward story, no real surprises or twists, no startling conclusion, and one that perhaps seemed a little misplaced in an anthology of this nature.  To my surprise though, I enjoyed it a lot.  A thoroughly engaging and satisfying read.

The other (and perhaps the) stand-out tale for me was Zenna Henderson’s Wilderness.  Told with extreme skill and wonderfully paced, it relates the experiences of one young woman – a teacher in a very small and remote South-West town – and the discovery of who she really is.  Confused and frightened by her heightened senses, she thinks her sanity to be slowly deteriorating until she meets someone like her and reluctantly accepts her true identity.  I’ve since discovered that those of you familiar with the ‘People’ series from Zenna Henderson will no doubt more-or-less know what they are in for here, but for me it was new and unfamiliar.  Ms Henderson was a very talented writer and I’m certainly looking forward to reading more of her work; she also appears in both Judith Merril’s first Gnome Press anthology and in SF’57.

The Fly by George Langelaan deserves a mention of course.  A tale with which everyone is very familiar now, but nevertheless it was an education to read in it’s original form.  This is (I think) it’s first publication in hardcover, although it was earlier published in Playboy magazine in July, 1957.

Another notable inclusion is Near Miss.  The last Henry Kuttner story to be published; a tribute to the prolific and very popular author who died that year.

Prefacing each tale is a small introduction by Ms Merril and at the back of the book is a Summary and a section called ‘The Year’s S-F, Summation and Honorable Mentions’ – a kind of an appendix or perhaps a reading list for you.  The short introductions add an extra dimension to each tale –  Ms Merril gives us the occasional bit of insight into her choices, a little background or info on the author and/or story.  They make for interesting reading so here they are reproduced for your appreciation.

View this document on Scribd

Complementing the stories are 6 non-fiction articles that comment on various aspects of science fiction and ‘space science’ in general.  The most interesting of which is Sputnik: One Reason Why We Lost written by G. Harry Stine.

In all honesty, I struggle to see how this could be collectively considered ‘The Year’s Best’, but Judith Merril is far more experienced than I when it comes to this kind of thing so I take her at her word.  Having said that though, the inclusion of that non-fiction really adds an extra dimension to this book and this combined with those two or three exceptional tales make the effort worthwhile.

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