January 2009

Paul Kincaid

Science Fiction Skeptic

Apostrophizing the year

So, after twenty years, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror is no more. Originally edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, more recently by Datlow with Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, this monumental anthology has been a reliable signpost to the genre (or genres) for two decades. They line my shelves (or rather, since I’m in the midst of reorganising the shelves, they stand in piles on the floor), and they are often the first port of call when I want to check on a particular story. The demise of the series now seems like a sudden disruption of our world, the disappearance of what had seemed like one of the most stable parts of the literary landscape.

And yet…

The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror was the natural companion to Gardner Dozois’s equally monumental The Year’s Best Science Fiction. It wasn’t that they came from the same publishing stable, it was that they shared the same ethos, the same approach to their task. Big was clearly best. For much of its life the Dozois anthology has had, emblazoned across its cover as though it were the most important thing about the book, the claim that it contains more than 250,000 words of fiction. (This claim has left me uneasily sensing that size is more important than quality -- never mind the quality, feel the width -- a sense that seems reinforced by some of the truly dreadful stories that have turned up in both anthologies over the years.) The emphasis on size gives the inescapable impression that these two books aim to be comprehensive: read us and you have read everything worthwhile from the last year. This is patently not true even if you just consider the alarming number of award winners and shortlisted works that have escaped their nets entirely; though it is, perhaps, a worthwhile ambition.

The aspiration to be comprehensive is revealed also in what goes around the fiction. The pages of "Honourable Mentions" that both Dozois and Datlow et al included were so extensive that, the year I counted, they added up to well over 800 titles. Each year, in his long introduction, Dozois catalogues the dire straits of the genre, the falling circulations, the disappearing markets (and we mustn’t forget that Fantasy and Science Fiction has just cut its publication schedule in half), the doom and gloom of a genre in near-terminal ill health; and each year he lists so many "Honourable Mentions" as to suggest some form of rude health somewhere in the genre. The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror counterpointed Dozois’s long solo effort with an ever-increasing list of introductions on the year in horror, the year in fantasy, the year in film, obituaries of the year and so forth.

Without being privy to the thinking of the publishers, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the reason the series was cancelled was economic. With three editors to be paid, several nonfiction contributors, a huge list of story rights to be bought, not to mention the challenge of physically producing such a hefty tome at a price people might be prepared to pay: I suspect its relationship with profit might not have been all one might expect.

And nowadays it holds a far from unchallenged position in the market.

I think the first Year’s Best sf series was the one Judith Merril edited under various titles between 1956 and 1967. Though this was modelled on Best American Short Stories, where one of her own stories had appeared, her intention was probably less to highlight the year and more to expand understanding of what constituted science fiction. She included a story by Jorge Luis Borges, for instance, probably the first time his work had been identified with the genre. Before Merril’s series had run its course, Donald Wollheim and Terry Carr started their World’s Best SF, though Wollheim and Carr split in 1971 and Wollheim continued the series with Arthur Saha (who would also succeed Lin Carter as the editor of Year’s Best Fantasy Stories). Carr, of course, would start his own Best Science Fiction of the Year in 1972. For me, throughout the '70s, the Carr anthology served as my introduction to many of the writers (Le Guin, Tiptree, Wolfe) who would shape my understanding of the genre (I felt his off-shoots, best novellas, best fantasy, were less successful). The Wollheim, by contrast, despite the ambition of its title, always seemed a vapid, predictable affair.

Both series staggered on beyond their sell-by date until the deaths of their editors (Carr in 1987, Wollheim in 1990), but other best of the year anthologies were emerging. Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison managed nine issues of their series; in Britain, David Garnett edited the Orbit Science Fiction Yearbook for three years; in America, Lester Del Rey also managed three issues of Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year then editorial duties were taken over by Gardner Dozois for another three issues (which were noticeably fatter that Del Rey’s volumes, and would, of course, later be reborn as the monumental series we know). These various anthologies form interesting repositories for a sometimes idiosyncratic collection of fiction, but you probably wouldn’t turn to any of them as a representative portrait of the year.

Since the mid-'50s, therefore, we have always had one, and more usually two or three best of the year anthologies. Then along came Dozois, closely followed by Datlow and Windling, and by their sheer, all-encompassing bulk they threatened to swamp the market. Why would you want another anthology when everything is here? But gradually, perhaps tempted by the obvious commercial success of the big boys, or perhaps reacting against their overwhelming size, other rivals ventured onto the scene. First David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer with their Year’s Best SF and Year’s Best Fantasy, and then others. Lots of others. A year or so back I counted at least 10 best of the year anthologies, by now there are certainly more.

If we’re being really picky, there probably aren’t 10 stories a year that genuinely qualify as "best," let alone 10 anthologies worth!

Of course, "best" in all these titles has always been used loosely. Of course, the contents of these books overlap (though often less than one might expect), and the acknowledgements pages tend to reference other best of the year editors enough to give the impression that they swap story suggestions: this isn’t best enough for me, but it might be for you. And, of course, several of these anthologies have restricted purviews: stories from the small presses, stories first published on the Internet, American stories. Nevertheless, ten-plus anthologies, for a genre that has supposedly been in terminal decline for decades?!

Actually, I wonder if the plethora of best of the year anthologies isn’t itself a symptom of decline. Methinks the genre doth protest its health too much.

The truth is, we are over endowed with best of the year anthologies. The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror may have held a special place in the genre for 20 years, it may be a canonical anthology that we will turn to again and again to rediscover certain key stories, but it is just one among too many. How can we mourn its passing if there will be another two along any moment? And indeed, even as the death of one anthology was being announced, we heard that Ellen Datlow has signed to edit a Year’s Best Horror for another publisher. And so it goes on.