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Archive – The Year’s Best Science Fiction: 26th Annual Collection – Gardner Dozois, ed.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection
Gardner Dozois St Martin’s Griffin, 639pp, pb

After twenty-six years, Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction is not so much an anthology as an institution. Solid, reliable, it arrives punctually every year, offering over quarter of a million words of short story as well as Dozois’s summary of the year’s activities in science fiction publishing. Its arrival used to be an major event for me and I doubt I was the only one who used Dozois’s selections as a pointer for further reading. If Dozois’s word was not law precisely, his undeniable good taste in stories surely prompted readers to take a few risks in what they tackled.

Times change: there are now various annual ‘best of’ anthologies available, with each editor having his or her own take on what constitutes ‘best’ and, for that matter, what constitutes ‘science fiction’. For all the endless rehashing of the genre wars, not to mention what should and shouldn’t be part of the ‘canon’, that the sf ‘church’ is now such a broad one is in no small part thanks to Dozois’s generous promotion of the likes of Gene Wolfe, Joanna Russ and many others. So where does that leave his own Year’s Best anthology? Does anything, apart from its size and publishing longevity, continue to set this anthology apart? Looking at this year’s volume, it is a surprisingly difficult question to answer.

Not least on the agenda is what makes these thirty stories ‘best’? Nancy Kress’s ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ won the 2009 Hugo for Best Novella, but Elizabeth Bear, winner of the Best Novelette Award, is represented by a story co-authored with Sarah Monette, while Ted Chiang, winner of the Best Short Story, is not represented at all. On the other hand, a number of the Hugo-shortlisted stories do appear in this collection. Pick another award: how about the Nebulas? There’s very little correspondence between those shortlists and this anthology’s contents. Then again, there is very little correspondence between the Hugo and Nebula shortlists, period. I could slice and dice award shortlists all day long, but the fact remains that these are the stories Dozois considers to be the best he saw during 2008.

What strikes me is that they are mostly as solid and reliable as the anthology’s reputation. There are no bad stories here, but by the same token, there are few if any that actually excite me. Take Kress’s ‘The Erdmann Nexus’: this is a well-constructed story, as one would expect, with a neat idea at its heart. I like the fact that she engages with what it means to grow old and that her elderly characters are passionate, mindful, valuable people. Yet this story is just a little too long, teetering on the brink of sentimentality, and that’s typical of a number of stories here, from Maureen McHugh’s ‘Special Economics’ to Daryl Gregory’s ‘The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm’. As one begins reading, there is the sense of being pleasantly enveloped by the promise of a feel-good ending without being truly nourished on the way. By contrast, Ian McDonald’s ‘An Eligible Boy’, set in his future India, while it initially promises something similar, cheerfully wreaks havoc with the reader’s expectations. His other story included here, ‘The Tear’, although very different, is similarly rich in invention.

Invention, novelty (as in new rather than gimcrack): these are qualities which do seem to be lacking in this selection. I am mystified, for example, as to why Charles Coleman Finlay’s ‘The Political Prisoner’ seems to have attracted so much attention in the last year. It’s a study of wrongful imprisonment and endurance of the system, but it feels old and tired as a narrative conceit. And truly, I did not expect to see yet another alternate history featuring a Kennedy brother, but Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s ‘G-Men’ delivers just that. The ‘alternate history’ is little more than a convenient hook on which to hang a thin story of the murder of J Edgar Hoover.

Gord Sellars’ ‘Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moons’ Blues’ is a cleverer and wittier alternate history, examining the fate of the jazzmen who travelled on the Frogships, and I enjoyed it for his knowing reworkings of familiar technology. However, it still feels a little too slick for its own good, and goes down a little too easily. Indeed, the same could be said of many stories in the collection, from Bear’s and Monette’s ‘Boojum’ to James L. Cambias’s ‘Balancing Accounts’ with its robot ship making its way, earning its living. Where is the story that makes one want to rush out and buttonhole one’s friends, saying ‘read this’.

In truth, apart from the two by McDonald (who is anyway one of my favourite writers), there isn’t a story that really excites me. Few that stick firmly in the memory, to re-emerge days later. The anthology feels autumnal, retrospective, conservative and cautious (it seems significant somehow that only one story is drawn from an online magazine, Jay Lake’s wonderfully-titled ‘The Sky That Wraps The World Round, Past The Blue And Into the Black’, which first appeared in Clarkesworld, and which itself reflects on the past). The autumnal chill invades Dozois’s summation of the year, which makes sobering reading as he charts the ups and downs, mostly downs, of the sf industry. And perhaps that’s what this anthology is all about: Dozois’s response to recession, fuelling a desire for stories in which good always triumphs in the best possible way. As usual, Dozois’s generous spirit is shown to best advantage at the end of the collection, with eleven pages of ‘Honorable Mentions’, the Carrollian moment when everyone gets a prize. I’ve seen him mocked in the past for doing it, but it remains a big deal for a writer to be noticed, and part of what Dozois’s Year’s Best has always been about is noticing. I may disagree profoundly with him about the story selection this year, but he remains our witness to the ebb and flow of the genre and of the industry.

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.