[This was originally posted at Tangent Online. It was intended primarily as a review of the two major anthologies of the year's best short science fiction, The Fifteenth Annual Year's Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois, and Year's Best SF 3 edited by David Hartwell. As it happens, the two between them managed to publish most of my favorite short works from that year, so by adding a mention of the works they didn't publish, I managed to make this work as at least a quasi-summary of my own feelings about 1997's short SF. Comments added in November 1999 are in brackets.]
For someone like me, who reads a lot of short fiction every year, Year's Best volumes aren't too useful as sources of reading material. Generally, no more than five stories in a given selection are new to me. But I still think they are lots of fun, simply because I like to read the Tables of Contents. And, naturally, compare competing ToCs, and compare the ToC's with my own "Best of the Year" list. And try to figure out if there is any sense to be made of the SF world in any given year.
So: what do I think of the contents of the two main SF "Best of" collections this year? First, I'll mention the stories I had on my list that didn't make either collection, in the hopes that interested people will track them down: "The Black Blood of the Dead", by Brian Stableford (really a short novel, sequel to "The Hunger and Ecstasy of Vampires", and probably too long to be included in either collection) [note that in 1999 Stableford published a third installment in this series, also a fine story: "The Gateway of Eternity" (Interzone, January and February 1999); "Ecopoeisis" by Geoffrey Landis, a fascinating look at the real difficulty of terraforming, mixed with a nice mystery, that for space reasons I suspect each editor replaced with weaker but still OK Landis shorts; "On the Ice Islands" by Gregory Feeley (a very fine, tense, "peril in space" story, with lots of original touches); "Get a Grip" by Paul Park (which seems to have gained fame by virtue of its sharing a premise (more or less) with The Truman Show); "Glass Earth, Inc." by Stephen Baxter (there were so darned many good stories by Baxter this year! This one is more Eganesque than usual for Baxter); and "Collected Ogoense" by Rebecca Ore, a tough-minded story of ecological sabotage. [In particular, I think "Ecopoiesis" deserves more notice than it got, though it did get both a Hugo and a Nebula nomination.]
Are there any patterns to be derived from the contents of the two collections? One is a rather low percentage of stories by women. This has been noticed elsewhere, and the relative lack of female-written nominees for Hugo Awards has also been noticed. I have to be honest: my Hugo Nomination list for short fiction had no stories by women on it, and my "best of" list has only 4. I think, for whatever weird reason, there really were more top stories by men this year than by women. Just a statistical freak.
Much has been made in the past of Hartwell's determination that his anthology will consist of "real SF". No slipstream, and no fantasy. By implication, Dozois' collection might be assumed to be contaminated with such stories, and in the past, that's indeed been true. (Not that I would complain: I like a dash of slipstream and a pinch of fantasy in my SF stew.) But this year, I don't believe there's a single story in the Dozois that Hartwell would have excluded on SF purity grounds. And the most "slipstreamish" of the stories in the two books is William Gibson's "Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City", from the Hartwell.
Are there any trends apparent in the stories selected? What about SF subgenres? I'll arbitrarily make a few divisions: Alternate History, Near Future on Earth, Far Future on Earth, Off Earth (Solar System), and Interstellar. Then I'll chop it one more way: Hard SF vs. Soft SF. All these using my own personal arbitrary definitions, which may be very debatable. By my count there are 16 at least somewhat "hard" stories in the Dozois, and 12 "softer" ones. And in Hartwell I count perhaps a 10 "hard" to 12 "soft" ratio. (I'll note that I'm not a very strict constructionist as far as these definitions go.) It's my feeling that this represents a slight trend toward "harder" SF than in past years.
In terms of Setting-based subgenres, I count 15 of Dozois' selections and 14 of Hartwell's as Near Future on Earth, but I would think this has always been the dominant subgenre. The other stories are distributed more or less evenly among the categories, with only 3 selections (two different stories) being set on Earth in the Far Future. Among other tropes, intelligent aliens are an important element of the plot in only 5 selections (4 different stories), and in each case the aliens have come to Earth. (Aliens figure peripherally in a couple more off-Earth stories, and radically altered humans are becoming more and more common.) Time travel is a motif of just one story, and even in that story it's not true time travel. The general impression I get is that the genre is tending to harbor a greater proportion of true SF stories, and fairly "hard" ones, but that the main interest of writers is as always humans, and these days one of the favorite ways to investigate humanity is to see how our essential humanity survives radical change: either the fooling with brain chemistry in Egan's "Reasons to be Cheerful", or the restriction of growth in Stableford's "The Pipes of Pan", or radical changes in physiology to adapt to other planets ("A Spy in Europa" by Alastair Reynolds and "Second Skin" by Paul J. McAuley) or interstellar environments ("Marrow" by Robert Reed or "Guest Law" by John C. Wright). [This theme of radical changes to humans seems to me to be one of the most pervasive themes of the last few years of short SF.]
Which of these anthologies is better? Well, they are both good. Both are well worth reading. As usual, I end up picking the Dozois as the simply on the basis of volume. Another criteria might be "surprise": who picked good stories that a lot of folks might have missed. Dozois chose two good pieces from the anthology Future Histories, which was apparently not available to the public. Both of these stories, though, have since been published in Asimov's. (These are Nancy Kress' "Steamship Soldier on the Information Front" and David Marusek's "Getting to Know You".) Dozois also went to the online edition of the fine Australian SF magazine Eidolon for the colorful story "The Masque of Agamemnon" by Sean Williams and Simon Brown. Both Dozois and Hartwell plucked Greg Egan's "Yeyuka" from an Australian literary magazine, Meanjin. Hartwell picked Terry Bisson's "An Office Romance" from Playboy, and he also chose three stories from the fine original anthology New Worlds (Dozois picked one, but he picked my favorite, "Heart of Whitenesse" by Howard Waldrop). All this said, the sources of the stories in this anthology are for the most part fairly conventional SF sources: there are only the two stories from non-SF sources, and a few more from anthologies. Two from online sources. No stories from small press magazines. I can't point to any stories from other sources that were missed, to be honest with you, but I confess a desire that these anthologies might dig out a few jewels from really obsure places (without wishing them to go quite as far afield as Judith Merril did in her later collections.)
As to the actual stories, here are the high points. My favorite story for 1997 was "The Pipes of Pan" by Brian Stableford, and both editors chose it. This story is based on a nice SFnal premise (long-lived parents choosing to have their children frozen in a pre-pubescent state), and develops it with good attention to the human effects, and with moving results. The other stories which appear in both volumes aren't quite as good: Robert Silverberg's "Beauty in the Night" is a well-done but not very involving outtake from his 1998 novel The Alien Years; Egan's "Yeyuka" is a lesser effort from him, clever enough, and built around a nice idea, but unconvincing in plot and characterization; James Patrick Kelly's "Itsy Bitsy Spider" is a solid story, about an aging actor and his daughter, and the actor's caretaker robot; and Michael Swanwick's "The Wisdom of Old Earth" is another solid pick, set on the Earth somewhat far in the future, contrasting the "posthumans" from offworld with the surviving residents of Earth.
The other high points are mostly from the Dozois: Ian McDonald's "After Kerry" is a moving story of a man's search for his sister, who has escaped their dysfunctional family quite literally: some Eganesque notions filtered through McDonald's more literary sensibilities; Waldrop's "Heart of Whitenesse" is an as-always clever Alternate History, retelling the Conrad story with Christopher Marlowe replacing the Conrad narrator, and the frozen-over Thames replacing the Congo; Egan's "Reasons to be Cheerful" is a fascinating look at the roots of personality; Stephen Baxter's "Moon Six" is the best of Baxter's flood of alternate historical explorations of the space program; and William Sanders' "The Undiscovered" is a nice look at William Shakespeare among the Native Americans.
From Hartwell's anthology I particularly liked Kim Newman's "Great Western", retelling Shane in an alternate historical England; Paul Levinson's clever and engaging "The Mendelian Lamp Case", about some very advanced Amish science; and Terry Bisson's "An Office Romance", a nice take on a future office environment that Scott Adams never imagined.
The two editors each feature a couple of newer writers as well, with strong stories: I was particularly pleased to see John C. Wright's ornate "Guest Law" in the Hartwell, as well as Tom Cool's "Universal Emulators". Dozois chose "A Spy in Europa" by Welsh astronomer Alastair Reynolds, a fine thriller set in Jupiter's system: this suffered only from being not quite as good as the very similar "Second Skin" by Paul J. McAuley, a fine thriller set in Neptune's system. Dozois also chose decent stories by newer writers such as Carolyn Ives Gilman and David Marusek.
For the most part the stories are all quite good: in a churlish mood I would question why Hartwell chose Ray Bradbury's "Mr. Pale" unless as a nod to the man's career, and why Dozois chose the nearly unreadable Peter Hamilton space opera "Escape Route". Saving those choices, and a few nice but slight pieces that I suspect Hartwell included in lieu of longer stories he didn't have the space for, these are two fine anthologies, good if not perfect representations of the higher end of late '90s SF.