The Year’s Best Science Fiction #21, edited by Gardner Dozois, (St Martin’s Griffin, 2004)
Year’s Best SF 9, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (Eos, 2004)
Year’s Best Fantasy 4, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (Eos, 2004)
Science Fiction: The Best of 2003, edited by Karen Haber and Jonathan Strahan (iBooks, 2004)
Nebula Awards Showcase 2004, edited by Vonda N. McIntyre (Roc, 03/04)
That’s right, it’s just about that time of year again, or at least it is as I write this. By now, the last of the assorted “Best of” anthologies for the previous year have come out, with maybe one or two stragglers still to hit the shelves. We’ve seen a pretty good crop emerge over the past few years; joining the venerable Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Duzois are the Year’s Best Fantasy and Year’s Best SF series, both edited by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, and Science Fiction: The Best of 2003, edited by Karen Haber and Jonathan Strahan. (Hey, there’s only so many ways to say ‘Best of.’)
By far and away, the best of the best is still Dozois’s massive volume, a shelf-threatening monster that goes above and beyond the call of duty to collect more than 300,000 words worth of science fiction. And let’s face it, you’ll find all of the major names in here: Michael Swanwick (“King Dragon”), Vernor Vinge (“The Cookie Monster”), Harry Turtledove (“Joe Steele”), Terry Bisson (“Dear Abbey”), Kristine Kathryn Rusch (“June Sixteenth At Anna’s”) and so forth. It’s not surprising that a large percentage of the stories found here were originally published in Asimov’s, Analog, or F&SF, though more than a few of the remaining entries first appeared in two original anthologies: Live Without A Net (Roc, 2003) and Stars: Original Stories Based On The Songs of Janis Ian (Daw, 2003). If this particular collection has any weakness, it’s that relatively few of its stories come from small press anthologies or magazines. However, there’s one major component to the Year’s Best that allows it to stand out in the crowd, and that’s Dozois’s lengthy and in-depth overview of the science fiction field for 2003. It’s a near-comprehensive round-up of every aspect, from magazines to anthologies, from the major publishing houses to the small presses, from new novels by major authors to the debut efforts of new talent, from fiction to non-fiction to movies to television, and so on. Major awards are likewise covered, and momentary respect given to those notables in the field who passed on.
Frankly, anyone can bring together a couple dozen stories and, with all validity, express their opinion that these are the best of the year. However, Dozois’ analysis of the year is impressive and invaluable to anyone with interest in the field, rivaled only by the essays to be found in the companion volume, Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (this year edited by Ellen Datlow and Kelly Link; I’ll be discussing it in my next column, most likely). Throw in a list of Honorable Mentions for stories Dozois thought worthy of mention even if he didn’t have the space for them, and you end up with the Rolls-Royce of “Year’s Best” collections. No fan of science fiction should be without this collection.
I know, after that, anything else might seem like a letdown, but rest assured, the other offerings are just as good in their own ways. Hartwell and Cramer, for instance, range further afield in their efforts to collect what they consider to be the best in science fiction and in fantasy. A number of authors appear in both Hartwell’s Year’s Best and in Dozois’s Year’s Best; apart from Nancy Kress’s “Ej-Es,” there’s very little overlap in terms of stories. In here, you’ll find Michael Swanwick’s “Coyote at the End of History,” Joe Haldeman’s “Four Short Novels,” Gregory Benford’s “The Hydrogen Wall,”Allen Steele’s, “The Madwoman of Shettlefield,” Stephen Baxter’s “The Great Game,” and many more. The strength of this collection lies in its diversity, presenting a number of strong stories from authors new and old. However, it’s almost purely a fiction collection, lacking the in-depth analysis that’s become Dozois’s hallmark. Still, Year’s Best SF 9 is a lovely collection and well-worth checking out. The differences in tastes between the editors of the various collections mean that the readers are the true winners.
Likewise, Cramer and Hartwell have done a great job of bringing together almost two dozen stand-out fantasy stories, resulting in a good, solid collection that really does showcase some of the field’s high moments of the previous year. Neil Gaiman is in here with “Closing Time,” and Michael Swanwick continues to make his presence known with “King Dragon.” Terry Bisson’s “Almost Home,” is here, as is Gene Wolfe’s “Of Soil and Climate,” and Tanith Lee’s “Moonblind.” Octavia Butler’s “The Book of Martha” and Kelly Link’s “Catskin” likewise provide reasons to check this book out. Year’s Best Fantasy 4 is a worthy addition to the “Best of” shelf.
Then you have Haber and Strahan’s collection, which manages to gather just over a baker’s dozen which they consider to be the best. Some familiar names pop up, and once again, there’s considerably little overlap between the various anthologies. Jeffrey Ford’s “The Empire of Ice Cream,” Lucius Shepard’s “Only Partly Here,” Michael Swanwick’s “Legion’s in Time,” Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Confusions of Uni,” and Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” are some of the highlights. Again, Science Fiction: The Best of 2003 is primarily a fiction collection, with just a brief introduction to serve as a primer for this volume. If you’re looking for a quick roundup of some really good stories, you’ll do pretty well here. There’s not much to distinguish it from the others of its ilk, but it has nothing to be ashamed of.
The last in this mini-essay is a book of a different color altogether. The Nebula Awards Showcase 2004, edited by Vonda McIntyre, examines the best in the science fiction and fantasy field from the viewpoint of the writers, editors, and so forth themselves. Presented each year by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), the Nebula Awards are some of the field’s highest honors. Thus, we have this book, containing short stories, novellas, and even excerpts from books that made it to the final ballot, reprinting both the winners and some of the almost-wons. Thus, in here you’ll find Ted Chiang’s “Hell Is the Absence of God,” “Bronte’s Egg” by Richard Chwedyk, “Creature” by Carol Emshwiller, and an excerpt from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, all of which won their respective categories. Then you have nominees like Michael Swanwick’s “The Dog Said Bow-Wow,” Charles Stross’ “Lobsters,” and Adam-Troy Castro’s “Sunday Night Yams at Minnie and Earl’s.” Adding to the qualities of this book are the various introductions written for each story by the authors, and the assorted essays touching upon relevant topics. Of note is Molly Gloss’ “A Few Things I Know About Ursula,” looking at SFWA’s 2002 recipient of the Grand Master Award, Ursula K. LeGuin. Another essay looks back at the man who essentially created SFWA, Damon Knight. Among those sharing their memories and experiences with one of the field’s most notable (and occasionally notorious) personalities are Fred Pohl, Leslie What, and James Gunn. A third essay honors the 2002 recipient of SFWA’s Author Emeritus, Katherine MacLean. I will note that the stories and excerpts contained here were all published in 2001; there’s a bit of a time delay between publication, award, and then publication of the showcase anthology. My opinion is that if you really want to see what the SF field itself thinks best represents its efforts in a year, this is a perfect book to pick up.