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Claude Lalumière
Posted on Sunday, May 09, 2004 - 05:59 pm:   

Hello Jonathan--
I thought I'd start this thread to discuss the contents of Science Fiction: The Best of 2003, and maybe stir up a bit of discussion about the state of the genre.
I have to say that I felt this volume was the best in this series so far.
Also, please convey my thanks to Karen for the nice words in the introduction about my anthos Island Dreams and Witpunk.

So, below, my ratings (with occasional comments):

+2: Excellent (the stuff "year's best"s should always be made of)

*Jon, George Saunders (my favourite story!)
*The Fluted Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi
*A Study in Emerald, Neil Gaiman
*The Tale of the Golden Eagle, David D. Levine

+1: Very good (worthy of inclusion)

*Flowers from Alice, Cory Doctorow & Charles Stross
*Bernardo's House, James Patrick Kelly

0: good (not great, but not detrimental to the quality of the antho)

*The Empire of Ice Cream, Jeffrey Ford
(Actually, this one, up till the end, I thought was going to be a great one, but I found the ending weak and somewhat cliché -- not worthy of the great writing that led up to it)

-1: passable (not bad, but not deserving of "year's best" status)

*Confusions of Uñi, Ursula K. Le Guin
*Legions in Time, Michael Swanwick
*The Chop Line, Stephen Baxter
*Calling Your Name, Howard Waldrop
*Bumpship, Susan Mosser
*Only Partly Here, Lucius Shepard
(I, of course, loved the prose of the Shepard story -- damn that guy can write! -- but the story itself left me very cold and uninvolved; also it was not SF -- horror or fantasy, maybe, but not SF by any definition)

-2: bad (a blot on the anthology)

*The Cookie Monster, Vernor Vinge


For me, the antho thus averages out at 0.14 -- more than good, but not quite very good.
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Jonathan
Posted on Sunday, May 09, 2004 - 08:55 pm:   

Ahhh. So you're going to get subjective on my ass, huh? First, thanks for the kind words about the book, and I will pass on your message to Karen. Thanks also for starting this thread. The book first became available back in January in e-copy, and there hasn't been a lot of feedback or discussion, so I'm very interested to see what people think.

On contents: I guess a lot comes down to personal taste. My goal was to put together a "Terry Carr style" year's best, with about a dozen or so stories that were terrific to read and were SF. I think we did that. What we didn't do is focus too much on developing an argument about what the field should be, or worrying too much about representing trends. This book is supposed to contain stories that are science fiction and are great to read first, and then worry about those other things later. And I think we did that. I actually think the Vernor Vinge story is very good and I thought the Waldrop and Swanwick stories really showed their strengths on multiple readings. The Ford story is, I think, also much better than you suggest. Not my favorite Ford story of all time, but a very, very good one. I should also say that I acknowledge that Lucius's "Only Partly Here" is not SF. It's a ghost story. It's the one point where my love of a story (I think it's spectacularly good) overwhelmed the stricture about the contents being SF. And, while I might not do it again, I don't regret it. I think it was a service to readers to get it out to them.

I'll be curious to see what anyone else has to say about the book, but generally I'm very happy with it. I do think next year's book will be different, and that the series has room for development. Hopefully the 2004 book will be better, but yeah, I'm happy with what we did.

Jonathan
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Chris Dodson
Posted on Sunday, May 09, 2004 - 10:09 pm:   

Here are my own ratings. I use the standard scale of the American educational system, A+ to F, A being great, B being good, C being average, D being shitty, and F being REALLY shitty.

A+

Stephen Baxter, "The Chop Line"
Jeffrey Ford, "The Empire of Ice Cream"
James Patrick Kelly, "Bernardo's House"
David D. Levine, "The Tale of the Golden Eagle"
George Saunders, "Jon"
Vernor Vinge, "The Cookie Monster"

A

Cory Doctorow & Charles Stross, "Flowers from Alice"
Susan Mosser, "Bumpship"
Lucius Shepard, "Only Partly Here"
Howard Waldrop, "Calling Your Name"

A-

Paolo Bacigalupi, "The Fluted Girl"
Neil Gaiman, "A Study in Emerald"
Michael Swanwick, "Legions in Time"

B

Ursula K. Le Guin, "Confusions of Uni"

Although I had minor quibbles over some of the stories, I think the anthology as a whole is an excellent representation of the state of the field. Aside from the high quality of the fiction, I liked the balance of different kinds of stories -- hard SF, soft SF, space opera, near-future stuff, etc. All the stories are quite different in tone and theme, so the reader never gets bored (not this reader, anyway.)

As for things I didn't like: I wish there had been story notes and a longer introduction, but since you don't have a whole lot of space to work with, it's understandable that you didn't. The other thing I noticed is that there are a whole bunch of typos in the book -- mostly misspellings, a few missing punctuation marks, that type of thing. Of course, that's not your fault, either, but it was distracting at times.

So that's my two cents, which I guess boils down to "Good story selections, bad copyediting."

Chris Dodson
Journal: The Passion of the Chris
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Claude
Posted on Monday, May 10, 2004 - 03:59 am:   

Jonathan:
Re:

Ford: well... most of it was excellent, but I found that ending so predictable and trite that it ruined it for me. The nature of the ending (I don't want to spell it out, for fear of ruining it for those who haven't read it) robbed it, for me, of any possible emotional resonance.

Vinge: I found this one embarrassingly fannish and pandering. Plus the characters were utterly bland and lifeless.

typos: And I'll ditto Chris on the poor quality proofreading. But that's a general problem with iBooks. They should really work on solving that.
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Jonathan
Posted on Monday, May 10, 2004 - 04:19 am:   

Chris: Thanks for the kind words about the book. As I say, I'm proud of it, and am very pleased to hear that you enjoyed it. I do agree with you about the story notes and introduction (as does Karen). We actually wrote story notes and compiled a recommended reading list. Unfortunately though, they, along with a Robert Reed story "Like Minds", were cut due to length. Hopefully we'll be able to find a happier balance for next year's book. Certainly we have a clearer idea of the limits, which means we can work within them more effectively. The copyediting is very unfortunate. Karen and I didn't have any input into it and I haven't been able to bring myself to look. That said, ibooks and Tekno were terrific to work with and I'm optimistic we can make 04 much better.

Claude: I think a lot of it - both with the Vinge and Ford stories - are personal taste. I can't quite see why the Vinge is fannish, but I'm happy to go with the fact that I liked it and you didn't (there are stories in the book I like a lot more than others too). And, as I mentioned above, I hope we can do something about the copyediting.

I do have a question for both of you, and for anyone else interested who's read the book. Copyediting and story notes aside, are there any major ways you think the book's should change? I may not listen <grin>, but I'm very interested.
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Claude
Posted on Monday, May 10, 2004 - 04:31 am:   

Jonathan:
You ask for suggestions:
1. I think you should (thinking here of the Shepard ghost story) be strict about sticking to stories that are at least in some way SF (it is, after all, the raison d'être of this particular antho series). Sticking to the premise is only fair to readers who buy the book based on its stated intent.
2. There should be short blurbs about the authors (but not about the stories: let readers discover the stories)
3. If you do have a "suggested reading" section, you should, to make it meaningful, keep it short: not more than twice as many stories as there are in the book.
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Chris Dodson
Posted on Monday, May 10, 2004 - 04:39 am:   

Ditto what Claude said about sticking to SF stories. However, in regard to the recommended reading list, I disagree. I don't think it necessarily has to be short to be meaningful. With all the magazines/webzines/anthologies that are proliferating, I think there are probably well over 100 good SF stories published each year.

Chris Dodson
Journal: The Passion of the Chris
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Jonathan
Posted on Monday, May 10, 2004 - 04:42 am:   

Claude, I pretty much agree with all of the points you make. The book has an obligation to be science fiction, and nothing else, so including the Shepard was inconsistent with that. It's a story we would likely have included in the 'Year's Best Fantasy' volume we thought we were doing, but that didn't work out. I guess we liked it so much, we couldn't quite bear to let it go. That said, it doesn't fit. On story notes, I don't know about short blurbs, but the notes we wrote were a couple hundred words apiece with biographical and bibliographical notes, mch as in the Dozois year's best. The recommended reading covered maybe 30 items (a little less, I think), so it would have been fairly close to what you suggest.

Oh, and harking back to your original post, what do you think of the state of the field?
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Jonathan
Posted on Monday, May 10, 2004 - 04:47 am:   

Chris: On recommended reading lists, I think there's a need to be clear about what a particular editor wants the list to be. I was surprised by Ellen and Terri's list for the YBFH when I did a count one year and realised they'd recommended about 300 stories out of the something like 1500 or so contenders that were available that year (according to Locus's summaries). I then realised they were making a statement about overall professional quality, places to look at, people to keep track of, and were recognising achievement. I think that's valid and valuable, but I'd rather take the tack of selecting stories that should have made the book, had it but been a bit longer. In the case of Karen and my books, we have about 110,000 words of stories we can reprint. I'm happy to recommend that much again, maybe a little more. I certainly saw enough stories that I liked - novellas especially - that it would have been easy to to make the book twice it's current length.
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Claude
Posted on Monday, May 10, 2004 - 04:57 am:   

Joanthan:
you ask:
"what do you think of the state of the field?"
I put that out there because I was curious to see what other people would say. I don't really want to pronounce myself on this.

Answering this kind of question in public tends to get me in trouble and in the middle of arguments I don't want to have, so I'll skip that. Sorry.
(You can always email me privately if you want.)
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Claude
Posted on Monday, May 10, 2004 - 05:52 am:   

Jonathan:
I'm very sorry that the Robert Reed was the one that was cut: it did seem odd to have a year's best SF without Robert Reed.
as to:
"The recommended reading covered maybe 30 items (a little less, I think), so it would have
been fairly close to what you suggest."
Could you post that list here? I'm sure we're all curious!
And I agree, of course, about putting together a relatively concise list of what the year's best would have been without space limitations. The huge lists of the Dozois and Datlow volumes are so extensive that I find it must be insulting for writers NOT to be included. Plus the long lists take on the aspect of an index, not there to be read but to be consulted.
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JV
Posted on Monday, May 10, 2004 - 07:31 am:   

I haven't seen the book yet, so am not sure what the recommended list consists of in terms of quantity. I think it's more valuable for the recommended list to be short. It's more meaningful for readers and for the writers who are shortlisted.

I liked Jeff Ford's story a lot.

JeffV
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Lucius
Posted on Monday, May 10, 2004 - 07:35 am:   

Actually, though in it, I haven't seen the book either, so can offer no opinion on its contents. I wonder if the author's copies difficulty has been put to rights?
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ellen
Posted on Monday, May 10, 2004 - 09:32 am:   

Jonathan, Claude, and anyone else interested. Far far more than 1500 contenders. I read thousands of horror stories a year from places Locus never heard of and certainly doesn't list. Anyone who has seen my apt knows <g>
Ellen

<<I was surprised by Ellen and Terri's list for the YBFH when I did a count one year and realised they'd recommended about 300 stories out of the something like 1500 or so contenders that were available that year (according to Locus's summaries).
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Jonathan
Posted on Monday, May 10, 2004 - 04:10 pm:   

Lucius - I'm pretty appalled. If you email me your postal address (you have my email address) I'll send you one of the copies I've got. Sorry for the book not being sent out. - J
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Jonathan
Posted on Monday, May 10, 2004 - 04:17 pm:   

Claude: I'll hunt around and, if I can find a final copy, will post it here. I'd considered posting it and the story notes on my website, but decided not to, but I'm happy enough to put the list on this board.

JeffV: I agree about lists being short, but as I say above, it really depends on what the editor is trying to achieve. I have one thing in mind, and I really think that Ellen/Terri and Gardner are doing something at least as valuable, but different.

Ellen: Far more than 1500 <shudder>. I don't even want to know what the stuff is you're seeing. I can imagine a little - lots of things with folds and staples and smelling of odd fluids - and am probably relieved not to have to see it all. One thing I do want to be clear about: I'm not criticizing the approach you've taken with your recommended reading list. I know people who really have been thrilled to make the list, and when I was editing Eidolon it was definitely a thrill to see stories of ours making it on to the list. It's just that it always seemed more a recognition that this work/writer/publication has achieved a level of professionalism, rather than an actual suggestion that anyone should go out and read everything on the list (which I always felt was the idea behind Terry Carr's lists).
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Lucius
Posted on Monday, May 10, 2004 - 05:37 pm:   

Johnathan, I'll do that...
Thanks
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ellen
Posted on Monday, May 10, 2004 - 08:22 pm:   

Jonathan,
I always had more recs than Terri. Kelly & Gavin have more recs than Terri.

With sf, I think there are a lot fewer sf stories out there so it's easier to limit the number. There is SO much horror out there (and fantasy oriented material) that I think both lists would be, of necessity, longer.
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Lucius
Posted on Monday, May 10, 2004 - 09:17 pm:   

I have a question. When did the definition of what was acceptable in these "best of" anthos become so hidebound -- this seems implied by Claude's initial post. I've had fantasy stories included in various "best ofs..." and other authors have had the same experience. My basic feeling is, it's all fantasy, even mainstream stuff, and this seems to have been basically the feeling of a good number of editors past and present. For instance, the Fowler story that won the Nebula. Science fiction? Do we want to reopen that can of worms? :-) Do we want to offer definitions as regards what is or is not science fiction. God, I hope not. My definition of it is, if an editor puts the story in a book of science fiction, then it's science fiction. My story in Jonathan-and-Karen's book was, in my view, a mainstream story about men and women damaged by a tragic event. But it works as a ghost story, if that's how one wants to see it. And how do we define ghosts? By my personal definition, ghosts are a science fiction trope, because I think of them as existentially plausible.

SInce no one's offered any opinion about the "state of the field," let me offer mine. Much of the field is dispersing, melting into general fiction and elsewhere. That strikes me as a good thing for some writers and some writing, perhaps a bad thing for other writers and other writing. Maybe what's left after the dispersal runs its course can definitively said to be science fiction. Me, I don't care one way or the other. It's all perception. If anyone feels different from me, that's terrific. I'm just curious why it matters.
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Claude
Posted on Tuesday, May 11, 2004 - 04:43 am:   

Lucius,
As a rule, I don't like genrification, but, when it comes to thematic anthos, I do find that editors should pick contents that reflect the stated theme.
Ghosts are not usually considered SF, unless, maybe, if the story speculates on the idea of ghosts per se and tries to give a nonsupernatural explanation, etc.
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Claude
Posted on Tuesday, May 11, 2004 - 05:11 am:   

Lucius,
I've always been vocal about this, but I want to reiterate it here to be unambiguous: I think you're one of the finest writers ever, period. Maybe one out of ten of your works, like "Only Partly Here", will fail to connect with me, but otherwise your fiction thrills me to no end.
And, back on the subtopic you started, one of the many things I admire about your fiction is its brash disregard of genre and genre boundaries. You write what the story at hand requires, with as much honesty as you can muster (which is considerable).
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Lucius
Posted on Tuesday, May 11, 2004 - 08:06 am:   

Claude, this whole thing started not because you don't dig the story--people don't like stories of mine all the time; I'm accustomed to it, way past being thin-skinned. I was just looking on my shelf and, glancing through a bunch of old Best Of anthos and saw stories about were-jaguars and dragons and so forth. It's the definition thing that troubles me. Is Margaret Atwood scifi and etc? I come from a place in my head that views dragons and aliens and enormous space ships and Robert Ludlum thrillers and Hemmingway's fantasy life and Celine's grotesque obsessions and Kafka's distortions and Carver's minimalism and most everything else literary as works of the imagination -- I don't believe any of them have significantly more purchase in reality than any other...though I will say that my feeling is that the Time Machine is more clearly a mainstream fiction in its intent and functin than is Catcher in the Rye. It seems that there has been a move afoot over the last twenty years or so to define science fiction in terms of style, to state that it's basically a medium for "storytellers," and not "stylists." Story to these folks seems to mean plot above character, as if these elements were somehow at odds with one another or had no real connection. It's part of a kind of an anti-intellectualism thing that tends to foster such ludicrous entities as the Pre-Joycean society, which posits the theory that James Joyce ruined literature.

And here I thought it was Faulkner.

There seems a great deal of confusion among those who seek defininition for the field. I recently reviewed a film that incorporated science fiction materials and in the review I related it to sci fi films that dealt with similar materials. I received a critique of he review that said I shoudn't have reviewed the film as science fiction, because it's use of science fiction was mainstreamish. I don't want to pick on anyone--I respect this person's opinion, and he well may be right in his estimation; but it seemed redolent in this case of the confusion I'm speaking about. On the one hand Atwood is condemned for denying science fiction, for saying her work is mainstream, and here I'm cited for putting something mainstreamish in a science fiction context? Interstitalism, new weird, what is sci fi, what's not -- I just don't get it. No one has successfully explained to me why these tempests have a teapot.

The fact is that the genre novel and story has taken a hit in the last century; the psychological novel has been elevated to the status of the real quill and genre stuff booted down the stairs. I see this changing now. I think the two poles are migrating toward one another and I'm sort of for this blurring of edges, though I'm not evangelical about it. I don't have time to be evangelical. And right now, I have to go to work....will finish this some other time.
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Claude
Posted on Tuesday, May 11, 2004 - 08:23 am:   

Lucius:
You say:
[It seems that there has been a move afoot over the last twenty years or so to define science fiction in terms of style, to state that it's basically a medium for "storytellers," and not "stylists." Story to these folks seems to mean plot above character, as if these elements were somehow at odds with one another or had no real connection. It's part of a kind of an anti-intellectualism thing]

And I agree with you entirely. And it's a sad state of affairs; and SF has been suffering much because of that attitude.

But my main point is really about theme anthos. Whereas I dislike genrification in general, one of the few exceptions in my thinking is thematic anthologies, where genre -- any kind of genre, from officially recognized ones to newly minted ones -- can be used by an editor to group stories together according to a certain category, esthetic, or vision, and I find that intriguing and fun as a reader.
With that in mind, I like it when editors choose stories that blur boundaries -- certainly Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald" would not be considered SF by everyone, but a good argument can be made that it is -- however (not to harp, but just to use an example) your ambiguous ghost story does not even engage such a dialogue: it just breaks the pact between editor and reader in terms of SF (which Jonathan has acknowledged).
Where it does blur boundaries is between mimetic fiction and fantasy/horror. But that's outside the scope of this particular antho.
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dj
Posted on Monday, June 07, 2004 - 05:32 pm:   

As a reader I prefer a best of that is not obsessed by strict definitions of Science Fiction. It's about reading some of the best imaginative fiction that was published under the banner of SF that year; a sample, if you will, of the good stuff in the field. i don't really care to spend my time reading collections that set out to score points for theoretical positions.

I think the length of the Haber/Strahan Best of is a selling point, as is the speed with which it reaches the bookstore shelves. I also like that it honestly identifies the year it covers. I buy this best of first and then I consider the others when I run across them in the stores.

On "The Empire of Ice Cream"--its entirely subjective to complain just because of an ending you found predictable. The overall story was so fascinating and evocative that a slightly obvious ending in no way distracts from the pleasure of the reading experience--at least for this reader. I'd rather a story with honest passion than one that surprises me at the end.
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Jonathan
Posted on Monday, June 07, 2004 - 05:54 pm:   

Hi dj - Glad you liked the book. It's one I'm proud of. Best - J

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