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Archive – Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection – Gardner Dozois

Another Interzone review from 2008 – I try hard not to rewrite these reviews, but in this instance I have indulged in some very light editing of the punctuation, to save embarrassing myself.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction – Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection
Gardner Dozois, ed., St Martin’s Press, 652pp, hb

I can’t remember which author it was recently suggested on their blog that short-story writing has become akin to making art-house films. Not that many watch the films, not that many read the stories. To push the analogy a little, you’re producing showcase work for your peers to appreciate, and for a few aficionados to admire. In which case, to stretch the analogy further, does that mean that anthologies are like film festivals? Some are still a little off-piste, while others have, like Sundance, become respected for their independent flavour. Others like Cannes are part of the scenery, though they may yield the odd surprise. And Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction is … a one-man Oscars ceremony, with Dozois, like the Academy Awards judges, moving in mysterious ways when making choices which can sometimes seem puzzling, at other times downright baffling.

I used to rely heavily on Dozois’s annual selection to keep me up to speed with what was going on in short sf; coming back to it, I’m immediately struck by the fact that I have no idea what this ‘best’ means any more. Dozois’s judgement was good enough for me, once, but now I’m more sceptical and less inclined to just take it as it comes. How does Dozois make his choices? When he talks about things being better than the year before, or not as good, what does this mean? Does Dozois have some absolute criteria against which he works, year after year? The reader has no way of knowing.

Every anthology has an underlying narrative, and I must assume that in this instance, it’s Dozois’s personal taste. I know that his tastes are, or were, pretty catholic, and in the past he wasn’t afraid to head for the genre’s wilder shores. However, I read these stories and the science fiction they present seems mostly safe, conservative, old-fashioned even. There is an unsettling strand of sentimentality in his choices, and way too many ‘tomorrow is another day’ endings. It could almost be nostalgia. It is interesting too that while Dozois’s Summation notes many new writers producing short stories so few of this highly active new generation figure in the contents. David Moles gets a look-in with ‘Finisterra’, as do a couple of other newer faces, including Elizabeth Bear, but for the most part I’m seeing the same names as figured in the first copies of Year’s Best that I bought, and I’m sure that can’t be right.

Which is not to say that this anthology is composed of bad stories – none is less than competent, but a number feel rather tired, the more so when grouped together with their peers – more that there are few if any that really stand head and shoulders above the rest. ‘Finisterra’, for sure; Ted Kosmatka’s ‘The Prophet of Flores’, and Chris Roberson’s ‘The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small’. Also, and I surprise myself by saying this, I enjoyed Gregory Benford’s ‘Dark Heaven’, less for any science-fictional element it might have, more for his consummate skill in unfolding what is really a police procedural with aliens at a necessarily slow, considered pace. And of course, there is Ted Chiang’s ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’, which is perhaps the most perfect sf story I’ve read in the last year, and which gives me more pleasure every time I read it.

Oddly, three out of the five stories I’ve mentioned in this paragraph are also included in Dozois’s and Jonathan Strahan’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year #2, which I thought was a much bolder enterprise. One begins to wonder if Dozois’s rubric for this anthology, whatever lurks behind the public ‘best’, has become too narrow for him to admit much of what is now being published under ‘science fiction’. But, as with the Oscars ceremony, whatever we feel about the choices, Dozois’s Year’s Best remains a vital part of the annual publishing calendar, even if we’re no longer quite sure what it’s for.