Isaac Asimov died on April 6, 1992. The Great SF Stories 25 (1963) was published in July 1992 and was the last volume in the series. On the last page Greenberg let us know:
I had assumed all along that Martin H. Greenberg (who died June 25, 2011) had been doing most of the editorial work for The Great SF Stories series, but felt that hunch confirmed when Isaac Asimov’s introductory comments went missing from volumes 24 and 25. I’ve now read volumes 1-18 and 25. I love this series. I read volume 25 out of order because my short story discussion group voted to group read it after Christmas.
This series has always been unique because Asimov and Greenberg were reevaluating the best stories of the year with many decades of hindsight. Here are the stories they picked as the best of 1963 from 1992:
Back in 1964, Judith Merril picked these stories as her favorites for 1963:
For some reason, Merril included “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” in her 10th Annual in 1965.
In 2022 the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list remembers 41 titles from 1963 in its database, but here are the stories that got at least two citations. 1963 wasn’t a remarkable year, especially since it takes eight citations to get on the final list. Meaning, only “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is really remembered today.
After all these years, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is the obvious best SF story for 1963, and the one most remembered. Most science fiction fans discover it today in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame v1. “They Don’t Make Life Like They Use To” is another favorite, but it’s mostly forgotten in 2022, as is “New Folks’ Home.” “No Truce With Kings” won the Hugo for short fiction that year but I just don’t think it holds up or is remembered, even though the ideas within it are interesting. The more remembered Poul Anderson story should be “The Man Who Came Early.” The surprise story is “Turn Off the Sky” by Ray Nelson, however, it will probably only appeal to fans of the Beat writers.
I doubt many of these stories will get reprinted in the future. It’s a shame that The Great SF Stories 1-25 (1939-1963) hasn’t stayed in print. They are becoming collector items and can be a bit expensive to collect. Scans were available on the internet, but they’ve been taken down from the obvious places.
Below are my stories notes for the group discussion:
Story 01 of 13 – “Fortress Ship” by Fred Saberhagen
If Magazine (January 1963)
Retitled for collections as “Without a Thought”
1st story in the Berserker series
In not a very auspicious beginning to the Berserker series, “Fortress Ship” introduces us to the idea of alien intelligent robotic spaceships programmed to destroy all life in the galaxy — a doomsday weapon. This story was interesting because it proposed programming a game of checkers with boxes of colored beads and a set of cards for specific moves. The first computer checker game was in 1952. I wonder if Saberhagen knew about computers? The Berserker series is about AI minds, but I don’t know if that concept was known in 1963.
In “Fortress Ship” a Berserker ship the size of New Jersey is destroyed by three small human spaceships. I haven’t read the series, but I bet Saberhagen made it more difficult in later stories. Berserker minds understand human minds and can use our languages. I’ve read on Wikipedia that other alien species also fight the Berserkers. I’d like to read more in this series.
Story 02 of 13 – “Not in the Literature” by Christopher Anvil
Analog (March 1963)
Anvil imagines a world where people haven’t discovered electricity but are still trying to orbit a satellite. Not sure if the story takes place on an alternative history Earth or on another planet. But at the beginning of the story, the attack of a wasp-like creature called a drill on Alarik Kade suggested another world to me. On first reading, I thought the drill was some kind of assassin’s drone device. Rereading it makes me think it was only some kind of insect. That means it could be an alternate Earth story I suppose, where a wasp is called a drill.
I found the whole beginning of the story odd. It was a kind of slapstick physical comedy. It doesn’t match the tone in the second part of the story.
I assume Asimov and Greenberg liked this one because of the chemical-engineered world that couldn’t conceive of electricity. And that’s a neat idea. Especially trying to imagine how they could build a rocket with telemetry without electricity. On the other hand, the storytelling was disjointed at best.
Story 03 of 13 – “The Totally Rich” – John Brunner
The setup for “The Totally Rich” reminded me slightly of “Vintage Season” or “Sailing to Byzantium” with Brunner imagining a class of rich people who live undetected by us ordinary folks. It reminded me of those classic stories because of the elite vacationers in time, and the elite far future citizens who party at one recreated city after another, are like the elite rich in this story, who can have nearly anything they want.
Derek Cooper is tricked by Naomi, one of the elusive rich in Brunner’s story. She’s had a whole picturesque village built with actors playing all the citizens just to fool Derek into working for her. That’s the power of her wealth. But she wants something impossible, something her money can’t even buy. She hopes Derek, given enough time and money can invent what she needs.
This is a great setup for a science fiction story. I thought it was going to be at least a 4-star story. But then, Brunner doesn’t satisfy my expectations, leaving me with a 3-star story.
I tend to think it would have taken a full novel to play out the idea Brunner began, and he didn’t want to do that. The quick tragic ending just didn’t work for me.
Story 04 of 13 – “No Truce With Kings” – Poul Anderson
F&SF (June 1963) (Hugo Award – Best Short Fiction)
I was really looking forward to reading “No Truce With Kings” after enjoying Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early” so much a couple weeks ago. Plus, Kings had won a Hugo, even though I find it impossible to believe it beat “A Rose for Ecclesiastes.”
Unfortunately, my expectations were misplaced. “No Truce with Kings” is too long, too muddled, and just too damn political. Did Poul Anderson really believe humans were better off living under feudal societies? Did he really want to downsize the government that much?
I thought “No Truce With Kings” was murky because I never could picture the battles, or even know which side to sympathize with. I wanted to side with the aliens, the nation builders, and even the feudalists.
If anything, this story made me feel humans are too stupid to deserve to survive. It glorifies war in the worst ways.
On the other hand, there’s lots of good writing in this story.
Story 05 of 13 – “New Folks’ Home” – Clifford D. Simak
Analog (July 1963)
“New Folks’ Home” is a lovely little tale that reminds me of WAY STATION, another Simak story about a human serving as a contact on Earth for an alien interstellar community. I identified with Frederick Gray because I’m seventy. It’s interesting that Simak was only 59 when he wrote this story. I guess it was his fantasy for old age.
Story 06 of 13 – “The Faces Outside” – Bruce McAllister
If (July 1963)
Odd story about humans kept in a giant aquarium. As I read it I thought it would be a story that would fit in the VanderMeer anthology. Then I noticed that Merril had included it in her 9th Annual, which reinforces that thought. Not my cuppa tea.
Story 07 of 13 – “Hot Planet” – Hal Clement
Galaxy (August 1963)
“Hot Planet” by Hal Clement reminded me of “Brightside Crossing” by Alan E. Nourse, another hard SF story about surviving on Mercury. Both stories have been invalidated by time and newer science, but both still present good old fashion science fiction adventure.
What was significant about “Hot Planet” was Clement’s use of women scientists.
Story 08 of 13 – “The Pain Peddlers” – Robert Silverberg
Galaxy (August 1963) (2nd story from this issue)
Silverberg’s writing in “The Pain Peddlers” is what I consider great hack writing. He’s obviously mastered the technique of writing short stories for the pulp/digest markets. This isn’t a great story, but it’s very readable and competently entertaining, and a solid addition to the magazine, even a worthy entry for an anthology, but to be honest, not one that will be remembered.
Story 09 of 13 – “Turn Off the Sky” – Ray Nelson
F&SF (August 1963)
Wikipedia says Nelson was the guy who invented the propeller beany as a symbol for science fiction fans. It also says he gave LSD to Philip K. Dick. The F&SF intro said he was working on a book about beatniks in Chicago. I’d like to read that.
“Turn Off the Sky” was quite an interesting read, especially if it was written four years before it was published. Mainly for the satire on radicals and beatniks. It appears to be pro-capitalist, but I’m not sure. I thought it funny with its quip about arguing over Marx and Robert Heinlein.
The story was readable and fun, but it was more impressive in its dealing with the 1950s subculture, especially, anticipating a lot of stuff that happened in the 1960s counter-culture. It even has a sitar being played years before George Harrison made it famous.
Story 10 of 13 – “They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To” by Alfred Bester
F&SF (October 1963)
Linda Nielsen thinks she’s the last person on Earth. Like Ralph Burton, played by Harry Belafonte in the 1959 film THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL, Linda is fixing up her apartment by taking whatever she wants from a deserted New York City. I mention this movie because it’s a favorite movie and I pictured it as I read “They Don’t Make Life Like They Use To.” I love the last person on Earth stories. My all-time favorite novel is this type is EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart.
However, I’ve always thought it would be neat if the last person on Earth was actually the last person, but in these stories, someone else always shows up. In the movie, it was Sarah Crandall, played by Ingar Stevens. Since Bester describes Linda as Nordic, I wondered if he saw the movie with the Nordic Stevens and decided to just start with a blonde. Also, in the last people on Earth stories, the second person is generally of the opposite sex, so the plot develops sexual tension. In a number of these stories, a third person shows up. Usually, it’s two males fighting over one female. Another movie example of this is THE QUIET EARTH (1985).
Bester brings about an interesting twist in the end that finally convinces Jim Mayo and Linda Nielsen to get it on. This satisfies us readers who have been waiting for that action, but it wraps up the story too quickly, at least for me.
However, the ending reminds me of another last Adam and Eve story, “Quietus” by Ross Rocklynne. It’s in THE WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN. Read it here:
Story 11 of 13 – “Bernie the Faust” – William Tenn
Playboy (November 1963)
“Bernie the Faust” captures a certain time and place in New York City that I’ve only learned about indirectly from plays, movies, and books. It reminds me of stories about Seventh Avenue such as I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE, and makes me wonder if Willian Tenn was intentionally trying to create Jewish humor science fiction?
“Bernie the Faust” has a kind of funniness that needs to be acted out in a play or episode of the old TWILIGHT ZONE, or at least heard in an audiobook.
My favorite book by Tenn is OF MEN AND MONSTERS, which isn’t humorous. It’s a wonderful adventure tale that if you haven’t read, please don’t read about, not even the blurbs on the book cover. Everyone gives too much away.
Story 12 of 13 – “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” – Roger Zelazny
F&SF (November 1963)
I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve read “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” over the past fifty years. I wish I could find the words to explain how much I admire this tale. This time as I read the story, I was noticing how effective Zelazny was using short and medium-length sentences to convey information but imply a great deal more. My own prose is too verbose. Zelazny isn’t Shakespeare, or even particularly literary, but he moves the story along without wasting words.
Story 13 of 13 – “If There Were No Benny Cemoli” – Philip K. Dick
Galaxy (December 1963)
As I read this story, I marveled that Philip K. Dick even imagined this story. What a creative mind. Earth has been through an atomic war. Human colonists from Mars have returned to rebuild civilization, but their work is interrupted by another faction of human colonists from Proxima Centauri returning to Earth to rebuild civilization. There is political strife between the two groups. A neat invention in this story is a kind of AI that produces The New York Times. It seems to know everything going on in the world and influences the rebuilding of civilization.
James Wallace Harris, 1/20/22