Year’s Best Science Fiction

Somewhat Scholarly Reflections on Science Fiction, Part 2

For Part I of this series, see here.

Dozois Year's Best 30

As lovers of all literary forms, from Romance to the classics, we don’t turn our noses up at anything, mainly because we know that everything is interesting in its way.

But not everyone shares our eclectic preferences or polymath tendencies.  For decades, the literary establishment considered Science Fiction writing to be little more than a lowbrow diversion suitable for children and the lower classes.  The pre-pulp and pulp eras of the genre are probably the most illustrative of the times when that attitude was prevalent.

After WWII, however, the tide shifted and the stereotypical science fiction fan was a pimply male who was better in the classroom than on the playing fields of the world.  Fans of SF clustered together and fandom–a pioneer that showed today’s myriad fan communities the way forward–was born.  The fiction, of course, was still dismissed as something that was fine for teenage boys: you know, rocketships and robots and that sort of thing.

Both of these stereotypes over-generalized, of course.  The literature being published in the pulps was often excellent… and the postwar fans were not all pimpled nerds.  Having said that, there were arguments that upheld both of those assumptions, and no one was particularly concerned with debunking the prejudice except for SF fans themselves, and no one really cared what they thought.

In the sixties, those postwar teens had become adults, and deeply resented the ghettoization of their beloved genre.  They set fingers to typewriters to prove that SF could be grown up as well, and proceeded to bombard the world with reams of mostly-forgotten prose (Dune being the major exception) that proved that the genre could do character-driven stories, stream-of-consciousness, literary sexuality, drug-addled confusion, angsty existentialism and pop psychology just as well as the literati of the day.  It was the New Wave.

Luckily for the genre, that particular tendency soon died out and SF went back to its roots in the seventies. After the new wave, the genre was more mature and held a much higher profile (more thanks to Star Wars that anything the New Wave did for it), but it was still easily recognizable as the genre which had been born in the pulps and not some weird thing that Andy Warhol would have written had he been a writer.

The eighties, which we discussed here continued the pendular swing towards action-driven SF, but the pendulum swung back decisively in the nineties.

With a few honorable exceptions, the more visible genre is now dominated by character-driven, agenda-driven literary fiction, and is bitterly split roughly along political party lines in the US.  At the risk of over-generalizing, Democrats seem to appreciate the high-quality writing of the genre the way it is, and are at the helm of many of the established magazines and also at least one of the major houses while Republicans find the current iteration of SF to be mind-numbingly dull and overly focused on politics over substance (this is the essence of the famous Sad Puppies schism).  They are also the core audience of one of the publishing houses.

Other than the two we’ve mentioned, the rest of the houses don’t actually care about the color of the politics if they think they can sell the book, so there is more literary diversity on the bookshelves than in the magazine spectrum but, as the talent in SF is supposed to come up from the magazine world, even the big houses’ output does tend to skew a little to the left.

So why am I rehashing and oversimplifying the history of the SF genre?  Easy, I’ve been catching up on my reading of Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction Anthologies.  Though I’m still a couple of years behind, I recently read #29 and #30.

A quick note for those new to the genre: Dozois, a former editor of Asimov’s is the current taste-maker of the SF genre.  Vastly experienced, he is hugely respected in the field and can be essential in making (or ignoring) promising young writers.  He specializes in the short form, which means that he can turn an obscure story in a mag into a famous piece just by including it and praising it in one of his anthologies.

Anyhow, Dozois’ taste has evolved over the years, perhaps matching, perhaps leading, the genre’s swing towards more literary sensibility and political activeness and less entertainment.  The two or three Year’s Best books before #29 had been pretty dull and more concerned with diversity of voices than diversity of content, broken only by the occasional Alastair Reynolds tale (Reynolds is always high-concept fun and I honestly think he doesn’t care about politics at all… at least that’s the impression I get from his fiction).

Dozois Year's Best 29

And #29 was just another one of these.  Kind of a slog.  Some good stories and some great writing in there, but not enough to become a memorable collection.  Sort of another grey monument to the “diversity” era of SF.  The worst of it is that the individual stories are all generally good.  The problem is that, when taken together, they put the problems of the genre into sharp focus.  No one seems to want to deviate from the norm and after two dozen tales, it does get monotonous.

Number 30… gives me hope.  There seemed to be less grey porridge in there, and a few more tales that march to their own drummer.  Reynolds, of course, but also a brilliant one by Stephen Popkes.  It just seemed… better than any of the prior ones, perhaps a sign that, after a couple of decades, the pendulum is swinging back towards the sense of wonder that has been lacking in the genre for so long.  (or it might have been the fact that they re-used the cover art from Foundation and Earth, and this colored my thinking!)

Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov

Of course, this might just be a flash in the pan.  Both of these came before the Puppies controversy.  That ended with the establishment simply retrenching and covering up their ears, trying to yell louder than the opposition–as it does in every walk of life–and widening the gap.  Time will tell if Dozois took the same line.  Our review of the anthos from the next few years should answer that.  Stay tuned!

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Somewhat Scholarly Reflections on Science Fiction – Part 1

Today, we begin what we hope will become a popular, long-running and Nobel-Prize-Winning* series on Science Fiction.  It will likely have a focus on literature, at least initially, but will be perfectly willing to include movies, comics and any other interesting subjects.

It will also be open to Fantasy and certain types of Horror, as much of the audience for the three genres overlaps.

Worlds_Best_Science_Fiction_1969_cover

1969 Worlds Best SF – Edited by Donald A Wollheim

A couple of weeks ago we reviewed and analyzed one of the many Year’s Best collections that the Science Fiction / Fantasy genre: the Wollhein 1989 Year’s best SF.  Suddenly, it dawned on us that that review of a book that has proven to be a minor volume in genre history is actually an excellent starting point for comparing eras.  So let’s call that post the honorary “Part Zero” of this series.

A logical place to start was with a couple of collections that could be compared directly to that ’89 book.  We chose the 1969 and 1972 Wollheim Year’s Best collections, but not without some trepidation, as we will explain a little further below.  But misgivings aside, these fit the bill perfectly – by choosing the same editor, we avoid questions of wildly differing taste and bias, and by going back nearly two decades, we get enough of a gap that contrasts are notable.

The first thing one notices about these two titles is how much more recognizable the names of the authors are than on the 1989 edition of the same collection.  Genre fans will all recognize Sheckley, Anderson, Silverberg, Aldiss, Knight, Delaney, Lafferty, Foster, Sturgeon and Lieber from the older books.  And everyone, even non-genre readers will perk up at seeing the names Vonnegut, Clarke and Ellison – three writers whose names appear on the tables of contents of the 69 and 72 books whose stature simply isn’t matched on the 89.

Why were so many important names present?  Well, there are a couple of reasons.  The first is that during the late sixties and early seventies, the writers that made the genre important were still active and close to their primes.  The amazing Golden Age of Science Fiction has, to date, never been equalled, and the writers active in the 30s and 40s were still around.  Just look at that list again.

1972 Wollheim Years best SF

1972 Year’e Best SF – Edited by Donald A Wollheim

The second reason is that SF briefly became chic in the sixties due to a combination of experimental writing in the genre and, quite possibly, an excess of recreational drug use by editors of journals such as The Atlantic and The New Yorker, who allowed their hallowed pages to be sullied by this basest of genres.  Also, in order to be able to say that one read Playboy for the articles, one needed to be able to discuss the articles – and there was some SF there as well.  This mainstream exposure is still why casual readers recognize names like Bradbury or the aforementioned Clarke, Vonnegut and Ellison.

The second thing one notices is just how much difference the editor makes in one of these collections.  We’d had some trepidation in selecting the era because of an intimate knowledge of Judith Merril’s anthologies of the same era.  Possibly fueled by the same drugs as the editors of the journals, she seemed to have a knack for selecting kaleidoscopic  jumbles of words which, though possibly beautiful, were not ideal places to extract meaning.  It was like reading a modern artist or looking for the truth in the patterns generated by a lava lamp. Perhaps you had to be fully immersed – in every aspect – in sixties culture to appreciate the stories.  Like they say: If you remember the sixties, you weren’t actually there.

Wollheim’s selections were not aimed at making a statement about pop culture, but rather are core SF tales that explore ideas about how the world will be like some years in the future.  That is what SF used to be about, and is still what good SF is about today, whether the changes be technical, social, ecological or political.  It can reflect and comment about the present, of course, but if it isn’t done obliquely, it becomes preachy and unreadable – and a lot of the (thankfully now forgotten) SF of the sixties fell into that trap.

It defeats the purpose of this analysis to do a story-by-story rundown, but suffice to say that even the Vonnegut tale is almost completely devoid of impossible dreaming – although it is admittedly weird.

So, compared to their peers, these two books hold up reasonably well, but how do they stack up against the 1989?

 

Without taking into account individual highs and lows, such as the excellent “Peaches for Mad Molly” in the ’89 collection the older books are better overall.  I believe that is driven mainly by the fact that the level of the writers was higher, as was the purity of the genre elements.  By 1989, science fiction was in a transition between the popular but looked-down-upon work of the 40’s and the literary but boring SF of today.  Sometimes that transition produced masterpieces (Dune, or Ender’s Game are examples), but more often muddled works that attempt to be socially relevant but really only succeed in being vague, preachy or both.

The older anthos are highly recommended, with some true classics among the more pedestrian tales.

 

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*We refuse to believe that there is no Nobel Prize for blogs.  This should be reviewed.  We may need to put a clause in our manifesto making this an explicit goal of the site.