Year’s Best Annuals and the Consensus View of SF

During the coming nine months ten companies will publish no fewer than nineteen separate books collecting the best science fiction, fantasy, horror, paranormal romance, noir, long, Australian, Nebula nominated, Tiptree shortlisted, and even overlooked stories that were published during the 2005* calendar year.

Now, given that trade journal Locus reported that it saw a record 3,000 short stories in 2005, and noted that even that represented only a small sample of the number of stories actually published, nineteen books collecting maybe 300 stories may not necessarily seem like a lot, especially given that a number of those books will appeal to quite different readers. And, if industry insiders might expect some kind of reduction in those numbers over time, it doesn’t explain the value of the year’s best annual. What interests me the most, as an editor of three different year’s best anthologies myself, is the role that these books play in defining what science fiction (or fantasy) is for the modern reader.

If you look back to 1950, say, most original science fiction was published in magazine form. Only a small handful of science fiction books were published, mostly by small presses, and those were usually repackaging of material that had already appeared in magazines. It was possible, as has often been noted, for a single energetic reader to have time to read every single piece of science fiction published, think about it, write about it for his or her very own fanzine, and become an active part of the dialog that was science fiction. Things began to change in the early late ’40s/early ’50s. The first anthologies began to appear (mostly reprinting material from the magazines), the number of magazines began to fall, and the number of books from major publishers began to increase. The influence of the magazines, and editors like John Campbell, began to wane and science fiction began to trend.

Setting aside the socio-economic reasons for this change, one of the major effects was that after 1950 the amount of science fiction published began to increase, and certainly by the mid-50s it had reached the point where no single reader could easily read everything (something that was improbable by the 60s and impossible by the ’70s). It’s interesting that this period coincides with the publication of the first years’ best annual series, Best SF Stories, co-edited by T.E. Dikty and Everett Bleiler.

One of the roles that I believe the year’s best began to fulfill – first with Dikty & Bleiler, but later with Merril, Carr, Wolheim, Harrison & Aldiss, Del Rey, Garnett, and now Dozois, Hartwell et al. – was the role of consensus maker. No single reader, even a year’s best editor who is paid to do it, can read all of every single published piece of science fiction. However, when an editor gathers together a dozen or more stories that he or she considers to be both the ‘best’ and ‘science fiction’ in a single book, it gives readers an easily consumable snapshot of the field. Inevitably, these selections (along with the ever increasing number of awards and even book reviews), influence what readers think of as science fiction, what they know about what’s happening in the field, and what they think about who is doing it best. In effect, rather than have every reader read everything, you reach a situation where readers can read a subset of stories, reviews and so on, and that helps to give them a good idea (hopefully) of what’s happening in the field.

Which brings me back to 3,000 stories and nineteen annuals. Do we need nineteen? I don’t know. I know that four of those are year’s best science fiction volumes, which I think is the largest number of year’s best SF series to appear in a single year. Not everyone will read all of them (though that would be nice), but if a reader were to do so, I suspect that they’d see a consensus there too. For all that Dozois or Hartwell or Horton or I might have different views of what science fiction is or what the best might be, it overlaps. There’s a common understanding, at some level, about what the field is doing and when it does well. That’s why I think year’s bests are important, why I read and edit them, and why I’d recommend them to readers who love science fiction.

* Except for the Nebula volume, of course, which has its own period of eligibility.

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