Although I read the Clarke anthology and wrote its review first, I’m going to start here with the Dozois book. Gardner Dozois died recently, so this is the last time he’ll compile the best science fiction of the year for our edification. I have read several of his collections and, like most anthologies, I have usually found them a mixed bag of stories I think are great, stories I like, stories that are so-so, and a few stories I don’t care for at all. This last effort, though, is excellent, possibly the finest best of the year he produced – or at least the finest of the ones I have read. A fitting epitaph to a great career in the science fiction field. Every story is good to excellent, and the selection is wide-ranged and touches on many of the numerous facets of the science fiction universe. The Clarke collection, by contrast, as I explain below, is good but imbalanced, leaning heavily towards one type of story to the exclusion of others.
Both books have one immense flaw, which is more pronounced in the Dozois collection – so that I almost returned it to the library without reading it. (Glad I didn’t.) Although the book is an enormous doorstopper, the print is miniscule and the fonts are printed lightly instead of well-defined. It’s very hard on the eyes. My glasses couldn’t cope. I had to take them off and hold the book an inch from my face to be able to make out the words. I would have been much happier if the books had had half the number of stories in a larger and darker font.
Both books had several stories in common, including most of the stories I mention below in my appraisal of the Clarke volume. This is to be expected. The main difference, as I said, is that the Dozois book is much more open and encompassing in range of theme and subject matter. Clarke is just starting out as a best of the year editor, so hopefully he’ll improve as he goes along. Dozois, of course, has been long acknowledged as one of the greatest editors the science fiction field ever produced.
And now on to the review of the Clarke anthology:
Each “best of” editor brings their own particular tastes to their selections. Overall I would say that the proportion of stories I loved, stories I kind of liked, stories I tolerated, and stories I didn’t care for was about the same as most “best of” anthologies I’ve read. Early on I felt there is an unwieldy preponderance of interstellar stories, especially about multigenerational starships, which focus too much on the science and info-dumps of explanation and not enough on story. Most of the book, in fact, deals with space drama, space warfare, space politics, and, as I mentioned, intergenerational spaceships. Not to say that’s a bad thing; one of the best stories in the book, “The Tale of the Alcubierre Horse” by Kathleen Ann Goonan, concerns a multigenerational starship that invokes the mythology of Polynesian wayfaring. Deep space stories are not my personal favorite science fictional fare, however, and I found myself longing for an atmospheric dystopia, time travel conundrum, or far out idea set on Earth for variety.
Eventually I journeyed far enough into the selections to find the type of stories that set my sense of wonder into overdrive. One is “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata, in which a scientist and master sculptor remotely building a monument on Mars must choose between her art and the lives of people in peril. Another favorite is “The Last Boat-Builder in Ballyvoloon” by Finbarr O’Reilly, a dark, truly original tale set in an Irish seaside village that posits a future in which the oceans have been taken over by a race of mechanical squid developed to consume the human refuse dumped into the seas. Other noteworthy stories include “Death on Mars” by Madeline Ashby, “An Evening With Severyn Grimes” by Rich Larson, and “The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer.
Neil Clarke is an award-winning, insightful editor, and I welcome this new series of “best of the year” anthologies as a further opportunity to broaden my reading in the field.