James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

Scattered Pictures

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Second Annual Collection  (The Year’s Best Science Fiction, book 2)

By Gardner Dozois 

30 Jun, 2020

Special Requests

1 comment

Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

Gardner Dozois’ 1985 The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Second Annual Collection collects the best science fiction published in 1984


I dread Dozois’ Years Best s when they arrive in my inbox for the same reason that I’d encourage people to purchase them: each volume is a massive tome, filled with a wide selection of the best SF on offer that year1. On a per page basis, the reader certainly gets their money’s worth. As well, the recommended list, works that didn’t quite make into the volume, is quite lengthy. All that’s between you and those stories is a few hours on ISFDB tracking down any anthologies in which they might be found. 

If that weren’t enough, his lengthy Year in Review sections are an invaluable guide to the state of science fiction in the year of publication. For example, when this volume came out, both Ace and DAW published more books than the then-infant publisher Tor, which might surprise people too young enough to remember when Tor didn’t consume the pulp paper output of several forest moons. Time and fortune being what it is, some of the imprint and publisher names will be unfamiliar. Year’s Best’s publisher at that time, Bluejay, is mentioned in glowing terms a number of times. Bluejay has been gone longer than the median human has been alive.

As to the standouts…

Negative:

Blued Moon. This is a very Willis madcap comedy. Great if you like that sort of thing. I don’t.

Press Enter ? I regard this gloomy technophobic tale as the border between Fun Varley and Glum Varley, actually. It’s unfortunate that an Asian woman is described as dead ringer for a cartoon Tojo.”

Promises to Keep is yet another example of the Those darn taxpayers don’t want to pay for Buck Rogers stuff just because it has no clear utility story, subgroup why are these spaceships crewed?” How many variations of this story have I read, anyway? Lots and lots. This adds little to the genre. 

The Lucky Strike. An irritatingly implausible tale. The author assumes that FDR, who ordered the A‑bomb built in the first place, would have been less likely to drop it than Truman. This alternate history works out just as some guy in the 1980s would have liked it to work out. I could go on and no doubt will … in comments. To paraphrase Bruce Sterling (?), everyone needs to read at least one Kim Stanley Robinson story to see for themselves what they don’t like about it. [Editor’s note: some people like KSR.]

Good:

Salvador is an evocative product of an era when the US seemed doomed to endless foreign quagmires. The wheel of history has turned. The quagmire is Central America and not the Middle East or Central Asia.

Bloodchild . Butler was the queen of one-sided social arrangements. 

New Rose Hotel. An elegant Dirty Rotten Scoundrels Noir . The narrator describes his Eurasian lover in exoticized, infantilized terms, which is both unfortunate and pretty much what I expect from SF of this vintage2, Yet if he’d seen her as an equal, could she have played him so nicely?

The Map” is something of a mood piece but it puts me in mind to try The Book of the New Sun again. 

Pursuit of Excellence. The story’s characters adopt an essentially eugenicist perspective (unsurprising, given that there were still active eugenics programs when it was published). The manner in which the mother sabotages her son’s upbringing on what amount to ableist grounds is evocative of modern-day Bad Parenting of the better they die of measles than be neuro-atypical” school. The parallels must be unintentional (given that the plague-rat movement is recent), but underline the sad fact that humans make bad choices in all too predictable ways. 

The works synopsized above are the ones I regard as the most noteworthy of a (mostly) impressive collection of stories3. The others are still worth your time, even if I didn’t care to expand an already too voluminous review going into detail on all of them. Consider, if nothing else, that this thirty-five-year-old anthology is still in print. That means something.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Second Annual Collection is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: One caveat, one that will be recurring as I work my way through the books, is that Dozois’ view of what was the best in SF for any given year reliably tilted towards works by men. About a third of the stories in this volume are by women, a bit above average for the series, and about a fifty percent increase over the first volume. 

On the subject of demographics, Octavia Butler is the sole POC in the book. That’s a ratio I expect will change by the end of series. 

2: See also At the Embassy Club,” in which a thirty-year old man pursues a sixteen-year-old girl. 

3: What other stories, you ask? Briefly,

Introduction: Summation: 1984 • essay by Gardner Dozois

What it says on the tin. Fascinating as a snapshot of a long-vanished era. Imagine a time when Tor published fewer books than either DAW or Ace.

A Message to the King of Brobdingnag • (1984) • novelette by Richard Cowper

An ambitious effort to feed Earth’s ever-growing billions dooms the planet. 

The Affair” • (1984) • short story by Robert Silverberg

A married businessman carries out a telepathic affair with a woman he has never met.

The Map” • [Solar Cycle] • (1984) • short story by Gene Wolfe

A boatman takes a foolish treasure hunter to an ancient city.

Interlocking Pieces” • (1984) • short story by Molly Gloss

A transplant recipient insists on meeting the person who will voluntarily donate the body part on which her continued well-being depends.

Trojan Horse • (1984) • novelette by Michael Swanwick

A patient’s mind is rebuilt with a recording of dead woman’s mind. Her doctor is given to creepy schemes. 

Bad Medicine • (1984) • novelette by Jack Dann

A man who compulsively samples various cults witnesses a disturbing conflict between spiritual leaders.

At the Embassy Club” • (1984) • short story by Elizabeth A. Lynn

An aristocrat discovers that his daughter is romantically involved with an off-worlder. He acts to put an end to it. Matters do not play out as the old man expects.

The Kindly Isle” • (1984) • short story by Frederik Pohl

A researcher on the run puts a bucolic tropical paradise to evil purposes.

Rock On” • (1984) • short story by Pat Cadigan

Rock and roll’s technology may be brand new, but the exploitation of talented artists by empresarios is all too familiar. 

Sunken Gardens” • [Shaper/Mechanist] • (1984) • short story by Bruce Sterling

A terraformer stumbles over one of the Red Planet’s hidden secrets.

Trinity • (1984) • novella by Nancy Kress

A scientist goes to extremes to sabotage the dangerous research to which her god-obsessed sister is devoting her life.

The Trouble with the Cotton People” • [Kesh / Always Coming Home] • (1984) • short story by Ursula K. Le Guin

Emissaries undertake a long journey to discover why traditional trading partners suddenly began sending subpar goods, only to discover that humans find it difficult to admit error. 

Twilight Time • (1984) • novelette by Lewis Shiner

Dispatched to the past by a time machine, the political prisoner is astounded to find himself in a past quite unlike the one he remembered. It features secretive aliens, plucky girls, and perhaps … hope for a different future. 

Black Coral • (1984) • novelette by Lucius Shepard

A disagreeable American racist is transformed when he accepts an offer of exotic drugsfrom one of the despised islanders among whom he lives.

Friend • (1984) • novelette by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel

A starship’s psychologist is outmaneuvered by a cruel co-worker.

Foreign Skins • (1984) • novelette by Tanith Lee

An arrogant self-styled Raj graciously grants a beautiful beggar woman refuge in his household. He doesn’t know what she is or what she might do.

Company in the Wings” • (1983) • short story by R. A. Lafferty

A mundane man visits a myriad of worlds, none of which he can remember.

A Cabin on the Coast” • (1984) • short story by Gene Wolfe

A young man saves his one true love from the fair folk, but at a terrible personal cost. 

Honorable Mentions : 1984 • essay by Gardner Dozois

What it says on the time. This is quite long.