07 June 2004

Reflecting on the Bests

Jonathan Strahan has some interesting reflections on the best SF of the year collection he edited with Karen Haber, and there's more discussion over at the Nightshade message boards (including a great note from Lucius Shepard about strict definitions of science fiction and his story "Only Partly Here" -- a subject I almost went on and on and on about, but I'm trying to practice restraint).

I think this year's crop of best of the year collections is interesting in its diversity, a diversity I enjoy, though I know some people think the fact that there's so little overlap between the books means that the SF field is dissolving. I long ago gave up on the idea of the bests being some sort of incontrovertible canon of perfection, and instead I read them as I would other anthologies, and have fun playing the game of "would I choose this?" with each story. Strahan and Haber's book has the largest amount of stories I had thought of as the best of the year before any of the collections came out, but I'm also enjoying the Hartwell and Cramer collection at the moment because it's got a number of stories I missed, including M. Rickert's magnificent "Bread and Bombs" (my subscription to F&SF began with the following issue). Hartwell and Cramer have relatively strict definitions of "science fiction" and "fantasy", and so their collections have a comfortable definitional coherence to them, but it's not a coherence without surprise or breadth of taste. Their last story, in fact, is by Rick Moody, from the Chabon anthology.

Jonathan says he's buried in reading for next year's anthologies, and his note about my recent post on "The Battle of York" makes me remember a criticism I fully intended to include and didn't: it's too damn long. Once we get the basic set-up and have been amused, the story doesn't have enough substance to sustain it over its length. Cut by a third or a half, it would have been a perfect gem. On the other hand, it's so rare that I find an SF story funny that I don't want to knock it. Esther Friesner's "Johnny Beansprout", in the same issue of the magazine, is an example of what a story can be when it doesn't overstay its welcome, and I'd rank it up there with Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" and Kit Reed's "The Wait", but that may just be because light stories about cannibals tickle me.

It's interesting to see how much the Internet has given readers a chance to discuss stories with editors of the various "year's best" collections (see, for instance, Jonathan's blog's discussion board), an altogether valuable trend, because it makes the entire process more transparent and removes some of the guru aura some editors have attained. They're human beings doing an immense amount of reading and making subjective aesthetic choices, and it's nice to be able to see where those aesthetic choices come from. It's also good to have the editors articulate their criteria regarding specific stories, because it helps them to refine their judgments and helps readers to see various ways of valuing stories they might otherwise not care about -- or care too much about.

Now here's a question: how much do you think the Strahan & Haber volume affected the Hugo nominations -- it was the only collection to come out before the nominations were announced, and it's the collection with the largest amount of Hugo nominees for novelettes and short stories. (I forget when nominations were due, so if the book came out after the nominating process had ended, please let me know.) I don't mean this as a judgment, and I certainly don't mind the book coming out early, particularly since it's such a good collection, but I'm curious about other people's thoughts.