15 March 2004

Time for the Bests

Update: Over at the Asimov's discussion boards, Gardner Dozois has kindly and helpfully posted the contents to all of the Year's Bests for 2003. If you can stand the complaints about the distinctions between science fiction and fantasy being blurred or not being adhered to, it's a good discussion.
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In an earlier post, I mentioned the table of contents to Ellen Datlow, Gavin Grant, and Kelly Link's Year's Best Fantasy and Horror collection, and now Kathryn Cramer has helpfully posted the table of contents to Year's Best SF 9 and Year's Best Fantasy 4, which she edited with David Hartwell. The contents for Gardner Dozois's collection and Karen Haber & Jonathan Strahan's are also posted at the Asimov's message boards. Thus, we can now see what the editors of these various collections agree on, and the directions their books take.

There isn't, alas, a single "Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Etc." book, so each volume inevitably selects based not only on the editors' perception of a story's quality, but also on its genre. That can be difficult these days, as the overlap between the various collections shows. Also, there are the inevitable problems of packaging, with the Hartwell & Cramer and Haber & Strahan volumes particularly limited in size (though Jonathan Strahan has overcome that slightly by editing a collection of "best novellas" for the Science Fiction Book Club).

Many things could be said about these collections. The first is that each looks like a good value for the money, particularly if you don't take the title too seriously. Every reader will have differences with each of the editors, which is natural. There's an added problem of the ethics of editing such a volume -- for instance, with Dozois and Datlow the editors of two of the major short fiction markets, and Link and Grant both publishers and editors, it's possible to say there's a bit of a conflict of interest, as they are all forced into the position of choosing from stories they've already bought, since exempting stories they first published would not be an accurate representation of the field. (Dozois inevitably puts every Asimov's story he doesn't reprint onto the "Honorable Mentions" list at the end of his book each year, which makes it a handy index, but...) With Terry Windling having departed as Datlow's co-editor, that volume is now faced with the problem of one of the editors (Kelly Link) being one of the best short story writers in the field. Datlow chose one of Link's stories ("The Hortlak", which Datlow herself originally bought for The Dark anthology) for her half of the book (against Link's protestations, she said, though the protestations didn't go so far as to not granting the reprint rights), thus putting herself in the position not only of having bought the story twice, but of putting it into a book for which the writer is also a co-editor.

None of which is going to matter much to the average reader, because it doesn't particularly affect the quality of the books -- Dozois has chosen good stories from Asimov's, Datlow has chosen some good stuff from SciFiction and her own anthologies, and regardless of Link's connection to the Year's Best anthology, every story she publishes is still of remarkably high quality. I'm sure if you asked the editors if they would have chosen the stories even if they hadn't originally published them, they would offer a wholehearted yes. And just try finding someone to edit a collection who doesn't already know a bunch of writers. Heck, they've probably reprinted stories from writers they think are loathsome human beings. I don't think this mitigates the ethical dilemmas of a Year's Best collection, but I do recognize that pragmatic considerations trump ethical ones in this case. It would certainly be nice to have editors who edit nothing else and write nothing else, thus cutting down on conflicts of interest, but I don't know of any publisher willing to pay a living wage for one anthology per year.

Moving to practicalities: There is quite a bit of overlap among writers in the anthologies, but less so of specific stories. Michael Swanwick is in all of them, with his story "King Dragon" reprinted a few times. "The Fluted Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi (from F&SF) looks to be the only story chosen by every editor (I'm not doing a scientific study of the lists, so I may miss a connection or two -- more obsessive readers are welcome to correct my mistakes). The most pleasant surprise is that George Saunders, generally considered a mainstream writer (his primary market is The New Yorker) makes it into the Datlow/Grant/Link volume with "The Red Bow" and the Haber/Strahan with "Jon". I've written about Saunders before, and I'm glad he's getting attention from within the SF field. The biggest disappointment to me is that Jim Kelly's "Bernardo's House" only made it into the Haber/Stahan volume, and his "Mother" didn't make it into any of them, though it seems to me both stories are some of the best he's written. Also, I happened to like "The Only Known Jump Across Time" by Eugene Mirabelli, but nobody else ever mentions it.

If I were forced to choose only one of the anthologies to buy, I'd probably go with the Haber/Strahan, which surprises me, because I haven't much cared for the previous Bests Haber has edited with Robert Silverberg. Either my tastes are changing or Jonathan Strahan has moved the book closer to my kind of stuff. The Dozois and the Datlow/Link/Grant volumes are still the largest, and the latter does a particularly fine job of discovering good work in places the average SF reader might not look. I admire, though disagree with, the purity of purpose of the Hartwell/Cramer volumes, which really try to stick to specific definitions of science fiction vs. fantasy, and I was particularly pleased to see they've chosen two stories from Cosmos Latinos, a fascinating anthology of Latin American SF, even though those stories weren't originally published in 2003.

Thankfully, we're not limited to only having to have one of these books, and altogether they at least show that 2003 was a particularly good year for short fiction. Don't just stick to these editor's choices, though -- at the very least, treat yourself to a copy of Album Zutique or Trampoline.

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