Best sf seven; science fiction stories, edited by Edmund Crispin

Another of Faber’s ‘sampler’ anthologies, though the series was a getting a bit conventional and well-established by the time this volume came out in 1970. Crispin himself contributes a slightly curmudgeonly foreword bemoaning the way in which sf was, by 1970, being – shock, horror! – taken seriously by some mainstream critics. And how people were beginning to write in the field who had a lot of style but no substance in terms of plot or ideas. He takes a side-swipe at some contemporary authors for “veering over into new territory without warning”, people like Brian Aldiss, Tom Disch or J.G. Ballard. He doesn’t blame them for his perceived decline in sf – at least not directly, which is just as well because two of them are in this collection! – but sort of suggests that it was then their fault that people imitated them and weren’t necessarily very good at it. It would be intriguing to know who he had in mind and to see where those ‘new’ authors are today, 40 years on…

As to the stories; well, again, there’s a mix of the good, the indifferent and the classic. The collection starts with Fred Pohl and ‘The children of night’, a political piece with an alien invasion backdrop which works out to be a fairly ordinary piece about human redemption and a spin doctor making good. Kurt Vonnegut’s short ‘Harrison Bergeron’, which is an anti-PC polemic twenty years before political correctness was invented, is followed by Maurice Richardson’s ‘Way out in the continuum’, which was probably truly way out when it was written but today reads like the worst sort of sf that those who do not know the genre think is what it consists of – all 4-D chess and Lunar Fungus wine and Mercurian feely actresses in “In a rocket to the Moon with Asteroth”. It’s actually quite well written, but the cultural cringe I got as a modern reader made me not want to go back to it.

A squib from Isaac Asimov and a tedious ‘lost in hyperspace’ piece by Eric Frank Russell follow, but just when I was losing hope, I came to two giants – Brian Aldiss’ ‘Heresies of the huge god’ and Roger Zelazny’s ‘The doors of his face, the lamps of his mouth’, a story I loved in my twenties and which still holds up well now (apart from the duff planetary science). Some odd R.A. Lafferty and a ‘tell me, Professor’ tale from Alan E. Nourse followed, and then I finished on three highs: ‘The music master of Babylon’ by Edgar Pangborn (‘I am legend’ except that the lone survivor is a musician), ‘Protect me from my friends’ by John Brunner and ‘Come to Venus melancholy’ by Thomas Disch.

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