The-Very-Best-of-the-Best-edited-by-Gardner-Dozois

Yesterday Santa Claus came to visit me in February. Since 2002 when I joined Audible.com, I’ve wished for an audiobook edition of one of Gardner Dozois giant Year’s Best Science Fiction annuals. Sadly, Dozois died last May and none of the 35 volumes were ever produced on audio. But before he died, he created The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction and it’s out in hardcover, ebook and audiobook editions.

Unfortunately, the subtitle to this volume is flat out wrong. It only collects the best stories from 2002-2017, but that’s because Dozois had already published The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction back in 2005 and The Best of the Best Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels in 2007. I had hoped this new volume would have been Dozois legacy collection reflecting the full 35 years. But be that as it may, it’s still a giant collection of great science fiction and over 39 hours of science fiction short stories on audio, which is something I love. Vivienne Leheny and Will Damron do a fantastic job of narrating these stories, and my new wish is for someone to hire them to create audiobook editions of the earlier volumes.

Last year the three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame came out on audio. That means I can listen to some of the most remembered science fiction short stories from 1926-1964. This is why I had hoped this new audiobook would have given me the best short science fiction from 1984-2017 to listen to, but that hasn’t happened. I’m not complaining. This new book is great in both quality and quantity, and I’m quite appreciative of all the wonderful stories I’m getting to hear for the first time. I’m just greedy and want more. I want audiobook publishers to produce more anthologies of great short science fiction, and I’m now particularly anxious to hear the best short fiction from 1965-2001.

And, there’s even another problem for me, other readers, editors, and publishers. No one reader, no matter how experienced, can identify all the best stories for all readers. Tastes just vary too much. If you look at our Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories by Year list, which has the citations listed for each story, you can see which stories Gardner picked as his favorite, and which ones he didn’t. Or if you use our CSF Query program to look at stories for 2002-2017 you’ll see only one story Gardner picked for The Very Best of the Best on our list.

The 38 stories from The Very Best of the Best covering 2002-2017 with links to my reviews are:

  • The Potter of Bones by Eleanor Arnason
  • Rogue Farm by Charles Stross
  • The Little Goddess by Ian McDonald
  • Dead Men Walking by Paul McAuley
  • Tin Marsh by Michael Swanwick
  • Good Mountain by Robert Reed
  • Where the Golden Apples Grow by Kage Baker
  • The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter by Alastair Reynolds
  • Glory by Greg Egan
  • Finisterra by David Moles
  • The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm by Daryl Gregory
  • Utrinsque Cosmi by Robert Charles Wilson
  • Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance by John Kessel
  • Useless Things by Maureen McHugh
  • Mongoose by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette
  • Hair by Adam Roberts
  • The Things by Peter Watts
  • The Emperor of Mars by Allen M. Steele
  • Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain by Yoon Ha Lee
  • Martian Heart by John Barnes
  • The Invasion of Venus by Stephen Baxter
  • Weep For Day by Indrapramit Das
  • The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi by Pat Cadigan
  • The Memcordist by Lavie Tidhar
  • The Best We Can by Carrie Vaughn
  • The Discovered Country by Ian R. MacLeod
  • Pathways by Nancy Kress
  • The Hand Is Quicker… by Elizabeth Bear
  • Someday by James Patrick Kelly
  • The Long Haul, From the Annals of Transportation, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009 by Ken Liu
  • Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight by Aliette De Bodard
  • Calved by Sam J. Miller
  • Emergence by Gwyneth Jones
  • Rates of Change by James S.A. Corey
  • Jonas and the Fox by Rich Larson
  • KIT: Some Assembly Required by Kathe Koja and Carter Scholz
  • Winter Timeshare by Ray Nayler
  • My English Name by R.S. Benedict

Our meta-list system recognized 37 stories from the same period:

  • Breathmoss by Ian R. MacLeod
  • The Cookie Monster by Vernor Vinge
  • The Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford
  • The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker
  • Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan
  • The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Voluntary State by Christopher Rowe
  • Little Faces by Vonda N. McIntyre
  • Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
  • The Calorie Man by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Little Goddess by Ian McDonald
  • The House Beyond Your Sky by Benjamin Rosenbaum
  • Yellow Card Man by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang
  • 26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss by Kij Johnson
  • Exhalation by Ted Chiang
  • The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Ray-Gun: A Love Story by James Alan Gardner
  • Eros, Philia, Agape by Rachel Swirsky
  • Spar by Kij Johnson
  • The Island by Peter Watts
  • The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window by Rachel Swirsky
  • The Sultan of the Clouds by Geoffrey A. Landis
  • The Things by Peter Watts
  • Under the Moons of Venus by Damien Broderick
  • The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson
  • The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu
  • Close Encounters by Andy Duncan
  • Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan by Ian McDonald
  • The Game of Smash and Recovery by Kelly Link
  • Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal El-Mohtar
  • The Visitor from Taured by Ian R. MacLeod
  • Things with Beards by Sam J. Miller
  • Touring with the Alien by Carolyn Ives Gilman
  • A Series of Steaks by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
  • The Martian Obelisk by Linda Nagata
  • The Secret Life of Bots by Suzanne Palmer

Practically no overlap. Why? If The Very Best of the Best is actually what it says it is, why don’t we see more overlap with the stories our system identified by means of tracking popularity? An easy answer is there’s a lot of great SF short stories, more than enough for every editor to pick different favorites. But what if there are other motives besides claimed quality that go into selecting a story for a best-of anthology?

For example, the first story in The Very Best of the Best is “The Potter of Bones” by Eleanor Arnason. It’s a beautiful tale that was nominated for a Nebula but has only been reprinted in anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois or Arnason’s own collection. I don’t know if Gardner intentionally selected stories that hadn’t been reprinted often, or if Gardner has a very unique taste in science fiction. My guess, it’s a little of both. An honest title for this collection might be Gardner Dozois’ Favorite Science Fiction from 2002-2017 That He Believes Deserves More Attention.

On the other hand, the second story “Rogue Farm” by Charles Stross, has been included in at least seven anthologies. That seems to disqualify my theory, but I’m not sure.

A troublesome paradigm shift is going on in publishing short science fiction right now. The short stories that get the most attention, especially for awards, are those that are published online where people can read them for free. And it’s becoming more common for online publishers to include both a text and an audio edition. Free online stories compete for readers with stories that are published in magazines or original anthologies behind another kind of paywall. The old print magazines, Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF have dwindling readerships. The prestige of getting published used to be seeing your work in print. But I wonder if short story writers now prefer online publications because they get more readers.

I could speculate endlessly about what are the best SF short stories or how they are identified by editors and discovered by readers, but the bottom line is I’m very happy with The Very Best of the Best. I hope thousands of SF fans buy and listen to it because that should encourage audiobook publishers to produce more SF anthologies on audio. But if you don’t like audiobooks, there are print and ebook editions.

Finally, there are two tributes to Gardner by Robert Silverberg and James Patrick Kelly that I want to recommend. They just appeared in the new issues of Asimov’s Science Fiction but are available to read online. I got to study with Gardner when he spent a week as our resident instructor for the Clarion West workshop I took in 2002. He was a man I will remember and I’ll always be grateful for his encouragement and writing lessons.

James Wallace Harris, February 27, 2019

13 thoughts on “The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois

  1. You said, “An honest title for this collection might be Gardner Dozois’ Favorite Science Fiction from 2002-2017 That He Believes Deserves More Attention.”

    Gardner probably would have agreed. When he took over the editorship of Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year from Lester del Rey with the Sixth Annual Collection (the anthology series which preceded his more famous one the VBOTB is drawn from), he wrote an introduction to that volume which said “Best” volumes “should really be called ‘Gardner Dozois Picks the Stories He Liked Best This Year’ or ‘Terry Carr Really Enjoyed These Stories,’ or some such.”

    There are some classic-caliber stories in both lists.

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  2. I’ve made a list that places the apparent lack of overlap in context. In brief, some stories in your search results were fantasy, and couldn’t be included. But the most startling finding is that there is a LOT of overlap with Gardner’s annual volumes!

    Here goes:

    Breathmoss by Ian R. MacLeod—this one is disqualified from The Very Best of the Best by virtue of the fact that it was already included in The Best of the Best, Volume One.

    The Cookie Monster by Vernor Vinge—not in TVBOB, but it was in YBSF 21, so Gardner didn’t overlook it. You can call it a semi-overlap.

    The Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford

    The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker

    Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan—clearly not a science fiction story, so not eligible for The Very Best of the Best (TVBOB).

    The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi—it was in YBSF 22, so another semi-overlap.

    The Voluntary State by Christopher Rowe—it was in YBSF 22, so another semi-overlap.

    Little Faces by Vonda N. McIntyre—included in YBSF 23, so not completely overlooked.

    Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link—clearly a fantasy story; not eligible for TVBOB.

    The Calorie Man by Paolo Bacigalupi—included in YBSF 23, so not completely overlooked.

    The Little Goddess by Ian McDonald—overlaps with VBOB.

    The House Beyond Your Sky by Benjamin Rosenbaum—included in YBSF 24, so not completely overlooked.

    Yellow Card Man by Paolo Bacigalupi—included in YBSF 24; a sort of semi-overlap.

    The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang—included in YBSF 25.

    26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss by Kij Johnson—clearly a fantasy story; nowhere near SF, and so it couldn’t be included.

    Exhalation by Ted Chiang

    The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi—included in YBSF 26.

    The Ray-Gun: A Love Story by James Alan Gardner—included in YBSF 26.

    Eros, Philia, Agape by Rachel Swirsky

    Spar by Kij Johnson

    The Island by Peter Watts—included in YBSF 27.

    The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window by Rachel Swirsky—not science fiction, so not eligible for VBOB.

    The Sultan of the Clouds by Geoffrey A. Landis—included in YBSF 28.

    The Things by Peter Watts—included in VBOB.

    Under the Moons of Venus by Damien Broderick—included in YBSF 28.

    The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson—included in YBSF 29.

    The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu—clearly a fantasy story, so you wouldn’t expect it in VBOB.

    Close Encounters by Andy Duncan—included in YBSF 30.

    Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan by Ian McDonald—included in YBSF 33.

    The Game of Smash and Recovery by Kelly Link—included in YBSF 33.

    Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal El-Mohtar—clearly a high fantasy story; it couldn’t be included.

    The Visitor from Taured by Ian R. MacLeod—included in YBSF 34.

    Things with Beards by Sam J. Miller—included in YBSF 34.

    Touring with the Alien by Carolyn Ives Gilman—included in YBSF 34.

    A Series of Steaks by Vina Jie-Min Prasad—included in YBSF 35.

    The Martian Obelisk by Linda Nagata—included in YBSF 35.

    The Secret Life of Bots by Suzanne Palmer

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    1. Of course, to get on our list (which Piet help build) required 5 citations, and Gardner’s annual best-of-the-year volume was one citation source. For a short story to get 5 citations, especially the latest stories, was greatly helped by being in multiple best-of-the-year volumes, or being nominated or winning multiple awards.

      But Piet, don’t you think odd that Gardner passed up stories with 5+ citations to include in his Very Best of the Best anthology? That’s why I wonder if he excluded stories that had already gotten a lot of exposure.

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  3. Jim, there’s simply no way for me to tell. I know that the Modern Classics anthologies omitted many stories that Gardner thought were already very well known; perhaps too well known, at the expense of a host of other stories that were approximately just as good. But I don’t think he did that with the Year’s Best. Gardner always said that you have to give the reader what it says on the box, so he really tried to select the best material he could. Besides, a Year’s Best volume comes out fairly soon after the original publication of the stories, so there’s no time for the stories to become over-exposed.

    When it comes to The Very Best of the Best, though, some years had passed since most of the stories had appeared, so it’s possible that there may have been an element of favoring stories that other editors had overlooked. But that’s just idle speculation. I really don’t know either way.

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