We’ve discussed Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction series here before. These books are the longest-running and most complete overview of the short fiction in the genre that money could buy. The Summation–Dozois’ comprehensive essay about the state of science fiction–at the beginning of each book is worth the price of admission on its own.
I’ve been a bit down in my reviews of some of these volumes lately, mainly because I saw them following the same depressing trend as the rest of the genre–while the writing is uniformly excellent, the stories themselves are boring, and they are beginning to fall into a predictable pattern. With all of time and space to play with, is it possible that so many of the “year’s best” stories harp on the same theme? It’s always the same: someone with no power (usually from an oppressed group or subgroup) does something and the reader comes to understand how power works and how the oppressed feel and act. The American culture wars writ large… and yawn. Individually, the stories can be inspiring and interesting… but a dozen of them together make for a dull slog. Thankfully, there’s usually a dark and twisted Alastair Reynolds tale in there somewhere to break up the monotony.
In fact, I have often pointed to Dozois as being one of the main motors of this trend. After all, he spent more than thirty years as the single most important tastemaker in the genre. If he said it was good, then it was good. No questions asked.
And then Dozois went and died on us in May.
Though I never knew him personally, never sold him a story and had been critical of some of his recent selections, he was an important literary figure in my life (and even more for others). Collections he edited, alone or with others, take up quite a bit of lineal yardage in my bookcases. I knew his name very well as a teenager, long before my first story sale, or even before it occurred to me I might have stories worth telling.
So I decided to take a step back and to look at his work in the context of the current state of the genre by dipping into two of the Year’s Best books, one recent and one a little earlier.
The earlier volume was The Year’s Best Science Fiction – 10th Annual Collection, chosen precisely because it comes from a time before I was writing in the genre and from a time before the culture wars overran the SF world. This one collects stories from 1992 – I was in high school then.
This one was interesting indeed. You see, the trends that were to shape the nineties and noughties were already there: despite the fact that a lot of the stories had a very eighties feel to them (eighties feel in SF is hard to explain except to say that I know it when I feel it), the choice of some writers who would come to make a deep impact on the field, and themes such as environmentalism and diversity were already present. Dozois wasn’t so much leading the charge as he was reading currents that it would take others a decade or more to recognize.
The recent volume was The Year’s Best Science Fiction – 31st Annual Collection, which covers stories published in 2013. My verdict? This one was a little better than the preceding pair, and the hope from the thirtieth edition was realized. In this volume, the trend to have fewer and fewer of the more preachy stories continued, and the quality and enjoyment factor, as a consequence, increased.
I still need to read four more of Dozois’ volumes (I hope the publisher clearly and explicitly either ends the series or assigns a new editor instead of keeping Dozois alive as a zombie) to see if this trend continues, but I suspect it might (stay tuned for future reviews).
If it does, it will be Dozois’ greatest prediction: while the 2018 Hugos were, due to internal politicking in the SF world, a tinny and hollow celebration of one group’s politics, with absolutely no relationship to literary merit (through no fault of the winning writers, I hasten to add, all of whom probably do have literary merit), Dozois was looking forward to the time after the politicking was done, and a new SF genre more accepting of both racial and political diversity came into being.
While everyone else was shouting, Dozois was busy reading everything, regardless of politics, and thinking. My suspicion, pending the few volumes I still have left to enjoy, is that the shouters on both side’s of SF’s divide will catch up to Dozois sometime in the next decade.
His adult voice among squabbling children will be sorely missed. And so will his summations… man, those were awesome.
Gustavo Bondoni’s latest Science Fiction novel is entitled Outside. You can buy it here.