The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, Third Series (1954), Boucher/McComas

Bottom Line Summary: There are some good stories in this 1954 anthology of fiction (mostly from 1953) from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF). At the some time, there are a number of stories that I find between Okay and ordinary. My overall average rating is a very ordinary 3.51/5, so “good” but not very good or great. I would not recommend reading this unless you are a big fan of F&SF.

Background: I have a lot of respect and affection for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It first appeared in October 1949 under the editorial team of Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas, both editors I have a lot of respect for. Continuing under a number of editors, today it is one of the oldest speculative fiction publications published today (Astounding/Analog would be the other). Sheree Renée Thomas is the current editor.

I have more than a few issues of F&SF from 1957 to 1975 (155, which averages 8 issues a year for that period) , but I was never a completist. I assume but don’t know that I’ve read all of those issues. I have read and really enjoyed several of the various “anniversary” F&SF anthologies, such as the “The Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction: A Special 25th Anniversary Anthology”, “The Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction: A 40th Anniversary Anthology”, “The Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction: The Fiftieth Anniversary Anthology” .

Last year, I read the October 1953 F&SF, after picking it up to read a story in that issue, “The Ruum” by Arthur Porges. I enjoyed that very good story and several others from the issue, including the great “The Chessplayers” by Charles L. Harness. My thanks to Rich Horton for the recommendation.

I was looking for some reading material for down-time while traveling. I was happy to find “The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, Third Series” (published in 1954 by Doubleday, mostly 1953 stories) in pdf form. This seemed ideal for me, as it was before I had any issues and of an era when I had not read much from F&SF. Also, I enjoy both fantasy and science fiction.

Review: Along with an introduction by Boucher and McComas, there are 15 short stories, 1 novelette, and 8 poems included. These are mostly published in 1953, although four are reprints of earlier publication elsewhere.

Especially when my review is somewhat critical, it is helpful to look at the Introduction to see what the editors were thinking about for inclusion in an anthology. The last page of the Introduction says this:

While not explicitly discussing the story choices, the Introduction does characterize some of them. The 2nd to last sentence notes that “A certain amount of Significance has probably crept in here and there….”. The last sentence states, “Science fiction [and fantasy] is fun.” I take this as interesting but not that helpful about why they included the stories they did.

I did finish reading the book, with no “did not finish” or DNF stories. That is positive. I did not thoroughly consider the poems in any depth, although I read most of them.

There were two outstanding but not quite classic stories, “Snulbug” by Anthony Boucher and “Star Light, Star Bright” by Alfred Bester. I rated both of these at 3.8/5, at the low end of “great” for me. I know that I’ve read both of these before, but probably not for decades. It was great to meet up with them again.

There were a number of “very good” stories, such as “Lot” by Ward Moore, “New Ritual” by Margaret St. Clair (as by Idris Seabright), “Maybe Just A Little One” by Reginald Bretnor (his first published story), and “The Star Gypsies” by Charles L. Harness. At least three of these were new to me, which is positive. I rated all of these 3.7/5.

There are a number of stories that I found “good” but not quite “very good”, and then then there are several that are just not that good. “Manuscript Found in a Vacuum”, a 1952 short story by P. M. Hubbard is a rather trite “message in a bottle” piece originally from Punch. “The Maladjusted Classroom”, a 1953 short story by H. Nearing, Jr. (as by C. P. Ransom) is amusing but slight. “Attitudes”, a 1953 short story by Philip Jose Farmer, is a good but not great “Father Carmody” story.

Overall, my average rating for the stories here is 3.51/5. That is “good” but not “very good”, and a rather disappointing result for what purports to be the best from an approximately annual “best of” F&SF anthology.

I am also disappointed that four of the stories were not original stories in F&SF. This included the 1941 “Snulbug” by editor Boucher (originally in Unknown Worlds), the 1912 “Shepherd’s Boy” by Richard Middleton (originally in his posthumous “The Ghost Ship & Other Stories”) , the 1947 “Maybe Just A Little One” by Reginald Bretnor (originally in Harpers), and the 1952 “Manuscript Found in a Vacuum” by P. M. Hubbard (originally in Punch).

I can understand the editors publishing these reprints in F&SF, especially in a pre-internet era where exposure and memory of older stories would be much more problematic. I do struggle with the inclusion of reprints in this “Best of” anthology. I’m not sure why, but I find it a bit distasteful.

Finally, I struggle with the inclusion of some of the stories in the anthology. I understand that there are potentially a lot of constraints on the choices, some of which I can never know. However, looking at 1953 entries in the Classics of Science Fiction site, there were other choices from F&SF. Here are the entries with at least 1 citation there:

Additionally, in the October 1953 issue, there is “The Chessplayers” by Charles L. Harness. While it does not have any Classics of SF citations or other recognition, it is a great story. Perhaps it was excluded due to the inclusion of “Child by Chronos” by Harness, although I believe “The Chessplayers” to be a better story.

I can discount inclusion of Anderson’s “Three Hearts and Three Lions”; at novella length, it would have been too long for a “Best Of” anthology for this era. I have not read a number of those other 1953 F&SF stories, so I can’t fully judge how good they are. However, I still suspect some of them would have been better than some of the stories included. The Bester “Time is the Traitor” and the Leiber “The Big Holiday” would both be good choices; at the same time, there are already stories by those authors included, and I can understand the editors wanting to include other authors. I do seriously question not including either of the Zenna Henderson stories compared to several of the stories included; I don’t remember “Food to All Flesh”, but “Loo Ree” is a great story.

To summarize, I was happy I read the anthology, but I was somewhat disappointed in the contents. I think I’ll try some additional F&SF Best Of anthologies, which I hope are better.

OTHER REVIEWS/PERSPECTIVES ON THIS ANTHOLOGY: Especially given my less than stellar response to this anthology, I thought it would be good to see what contemporary reviewers thought about it. ISFDB was down this am, but it’s back up now. There were five 1954 reviews, and one summary in 1983.

Astounding, 12-1954 P150
Galaxy, Groff Conklin, 07-1954
Astounding, P. Schuyler Miller, 12-1954 P149
Future SF, Damon Knight, 10-1954

Imagination, Henry Bott, 10-1954
Weird Tales, 10-1954

Looking at these 5 contemporary reviews, they are pretty positive:

  • Groff Conklin, Galaxy, July 1954, “Highly Recommended”. “Of the 16, there were only three that I could not go for.”
  • P. Schuyler Miller, Astounding, December 1954, “These collections never let you down.” “I’m not going to try to pick favorites – I’ll just catalogue ‘em for you.”
  • Damon Knight, Future Science Fiction, October 1954, “There are stories here for every enlightened taste.”
  • Henry Bott, Imagination, October 1954, “This is a rich and intelligently compiled anthology.” “For an evening or two of magic and entertainment, this book is it.”
  • Uncredited, Weird Tales, September 1954, “Admittedly some of the best stories of the year in this genre….”

I’m not at all clear whether the more positive opinion here is just a result of contemporary perspective, or if it is the difference between my taste and theirs. None of this is detailed criticism, and none of it makes me want to change my opinion.

DETAILED REVIEWS/SPOILERS FOLLOW (PRESENTED IN TOC ORDER):

“Attitudes”, a Father Carmody short story by Philip José Farmer in the October 1953 issue. A good story of an interstellar traveler on a starship who is a gambler with a psychokinetic edge. He thinks he is gambling with the natives, but Father John Carmody saves him from a conversion and crucifixion by the natives. I rated this 3.3/5.

“Maybe Just a Little One”, a short story by Reginald Bretnor in the February 1953 issue. This is a really good first story, of a high school teacher who invents cheap atomic power using frijoles. Things end up ok for him, but not as he and his wife expect. This story is familiar; perhaps I read the original elsewhere. (First published in Harper’s 1947). I read this 3.7/5.

“The Star Gypsies”, a short story by William Lindsay Gresham in the July 1953 issue. Interesting story of the Rom, the gypsies, after the fall of civilization. I rated this 3.7/5.

“The Untimely Toper: A Gavagan’s Bar story”, a short story by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt in the July 1953 issue. Checking, this is in “Tales from Gavagan’s Bar”, which I own. I assume I have read this decades ago, but do not remember it. A rather loutish man kills a bat in Gavagan’s Bar, annoying a wizard. The wizard curses him such that his feet are unmoored in time. This skips him forward in time, with more time as he drinks more. Amusing. Rated 3.6/5.

Vandy, Vandy” a John the Balladeer short story by Manly Wade Wellman, in the March 1953 issue. Fun story of John the Balladeer, a 200 year plus old witch man, and Vandy. Based on a song Wellman heard. George Washington comes back and saves the day. Rated 3.5/5.

“Experiment”, a short story by Kay Rogers, in the February 1953 issue. First read in “1960s Tales from Outer Space”. A pretty good story of a Venusian conqueror who decides to investigate the sentiment of human love, with a human singer. She dies of the yellow rot. Rated 3.6/5.

“Lot”, a novelette by Ward Moore, in the May 1953 issue. I don’t remember as much about Lot as needed to see how it connects to the story. This story features a careful and rather annoying man and his rather horrible family fleeing LA after an atomic exchange. He finds all of his family objectionable except his daughter. He leaves all of them but her at a gas station in Buellton. Great Cold War behavior, etc. I understand there is a sequel, “Lot’s Daughter”, and I’m not sure I need to read it. Rated 3.7/5.

“Manuscript Found in a Vacuum”, a short story by P. M. Hubbard, in the August 1953 issue. A rather trite message in a bottle variation originally published in Punch in 1952. Rated 3/5.

“The Maladjusted Classroom”, a short story by H. Nearing (as by C. P. Ransom), in the June 1953 issue. An amusing but slight story of academics fighting over classroom space, a Klein Bottle, and a bit of spatial and temporal displacement. Rated 3.2/5.

“Child by Chronos”, a short story by Charles L. Harness, in the June 1953 issue. A very good story of a woman who is her own mother and daughter, and time travel by magnetron. Rated 3.6/5.

“The New Ritual”, a short story by Margaret St. Clair [as by Idris Seabright], in the January 1953 issue. A very good fantasy of a young woman and a much older, boring and uninterested husband. She discovers she has a magic freezer, and makes changes in him and in her life. Rated 3.7/5.

“Devlin”, a short story by William Bernard Ready, in the April 1953 issue. A rather overwrought story of an Irish neighborhood, their temptation with the prospect of an Irish marching band, and perhaps the entire band being taken to hall by the devil or his emissary. The editors seem taken by the author, but I was not. Rated 3/5.

“Captive Audience”, a short story by Ann Warren Griffith, in the August 1953 issue. A humorous yet horrifying story of advertising after the Supreme Court outlaws privacy from ads. This reminded me of Frederik Pohl’s slightly later (1954) “The Midas Plague”, in a somewhat different vein. Rated 3.5/5.

“Snulbug”, a short story by Anthony Boucher, in the May 1953 issue (originally in Unknown Worlds, December 1941). I’ve always liked this story of an inferior demon and the biochemist who calls him up. The biochemist needs $10,000 for a laboratory for his idea to help avoid embolisms. He tries to use the demon’s very limited powers of time travel to raise the $$, with predictable outcomes. Undaunted, he finally uses psychology. I am not sure if I first read this in Benson’s anthology “The Unknown” or in Boucher’s collection “The Compleat Werewolf and Other Tales of Fantasy and Science Fiction”, but I really like this story. It was Boucher’s first fantasy. I find it a bit of a disappointment, though, that this reprint is in the Best of F&SF. I also wonder about including a story by one of the editors. I know this happened elsewhere, especially when using pseudonyms, but it seems a bit off. I rated this 3. 3.8/5.

“Shepherd’s Boy”, a short story by Richard Middleton in the March 1953 issue (originally published in “The Ghost Ship & Other Stories”, 1912). Another reprint, of a ghost story, with some atmosphere. I am not a huge fan of ghost stories, but Middleton committed suicide at age 29, thinking himself a failure, and I do wonder what other stories he might have written. Rated 3.5/5.

“Star Light, Star Bright”, a short story by Alfred Bester, in the July 1953 issue. I suspect I first read this in Bester’s collection, “Starburst” in the 1970s. A school principal is looking for a young man, a Stuart Buchanan. Stuart’s “summer vacation ” report convinces him that Stuart’s friends are geniuses, and probably Stuart is too. He wants to find them and use their ideas to make a lot of money. He finds Stuart, and is disappeared, as Stuart has a genius for wishing. This is a great story, and my favorite story here original to FS&F. Rated 3.8/5.

My Alfred Bester, including “Starburst”

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