Gardner Dozois’ 1984 The Year's Best Science Fiction: First Annual Collection is an anthology of short speculative fiction.
Out of deference for possible reader fatigue at what is a seven page review, I am prefacing my story-by-story rundown with a few general comments.
There have been many, many, many Best Science Fiction anthology series over the decades. At thirty-five volumes, plus two best-of collections, Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction Annuals were almost certainly the longest-running example of this genre.
I once asked Dozois about his process. I had assumed a legion of pixies winnowing the field down for him but, no. As far as I can tell he read voluminously, across a range of sub-genres. Thus, one finds material like the McDevitt that would have been at home in Astounding next to more literary efforts like the Tiptree or the Lee; horror is found cheek by jowl with more conventional SF. In general, authors represented here tend to have at least a decade or so (sometimes much more) under their belt. I don’t know if that reflects a preference by Dozois for established authors or if it just tended to take that long for them to hone their craft to his satisfaction. Sometimes, what made a story worthy of inclusion is not clear. I’m looking at the Anderson. It’s pleasant enough but best? Mileage varies, apparently.
The one blind spot he seems to have had, one that lasted though the entire course of this anthology series, and affected other anthologies, is that he doesn’t seem to have read women as comprehensively. Or perhaps he just didn’t care for their work. In any case, he seems to have been content with stories by women being between 20 to 30 percent of the total.Mind you, I suspect if I were to survey rival best-of series of the same era, even fewer women would be represented.
At thirty-six years old, this collection is as contemporary to us as Groff Conklin’s 1948 A Treasury of Science Fiction was the year The Year's Best Science Fiction: First Annual Collection was published. Contributors to this collection, now-elder statespersons of the field, were then dewy-cheeked striplings. In many cases they were considerably less dead. At nearly four decades remove, the early 1980s seem to be more like the late 1970s than I appreciated at the time.
The Year's Best Science Fiction: First Annual Collection is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), and here (Chapters-Indigo). I did not see it on Book Depository. I recommend the ebook edition if possible  because it looks like used copies of the hardcover run a thousand bucks or so.
If you like to know what’s in the tin, here follow some short comments on each work.
Introduction: Summation: 1983 • essay by Gardner Dozois
A snapshot of the now long-ago year 1983, in which the discerning reader will note the early signs of trends now well established, most particularly the division of SF authors into a small handful who do very well and the vast majority who do very poorly. Ah, midlist, your death was so protracted.
I had totally forgotten the drama of Timescape’s sudden demise or the bold (by which I mean utterly unacceptable to SFWA) initiative with which Simon and Schuster planned to replace it. The ultimate and unintended result was that Baen Books effectively replaced Timescape as S&S’s SF line, albeit with a lot more independence than Timescape had.
Cicada Queen • [Shaper/Mechanist] • (1983) • novelette by Bruce Sterling
A political prisoner discovers that the end of his sentence will not free him from the cutthroat political machinations of his era.
The Shaper/Mechanist stories are a nice combination of “cool, shiny toys” and a rich assortment of societies I’d hate to live in.
“Beyond the Dead Reef” • [Quintana Roo] • (1983) • short story by James Tiptree, Jr.
An encounter with enigmatic sea-life.
Slow Birds • (1983) • novelette by Ian Watson
Two unintended consequences of a cruel practical joke: a young man vanishes, and humanity begins to understand the origins of the enigmatic and quite deadly artifacts that have of late made intermittent appearances in England.
Ian Watson is a quietly competent author in the British style and a fairly frequent contributor to anthologies like this. If you were only to read his novel-length material, you might have the false impression that he became less productive in the 1990s. What appears to have happened is that he turned his hand to short fiction.
“Vulcan's Forge” • (1983) • short story by Poul Anderson
Solar proximity complicates efforts to examine a semi-molten world, as do emotional issues.
This feels like the product of an earlier era than it actually is.
“Man-Mountain Gentian” • (1983) • short story by Howard Waldrop
A champion sumo wrestler anticipates his final, greatest match, with a contender whose secret technique may win the day.
Hardfought • (1983) • novella by Greg Bear
Faced with an enemy older than many stars, humanity prevails in the war but abandons its soul.
“Manifest Destiny” • (1983) • short story by Joe Haldeman
A 19th century American soldier of fortune believes that he has grasped the secret of invincibility. He fails to properly appreciate the boundary conditions of his gift.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an arrogant man who thinks he has a get-out-of-death card will embrace hubris right up to the moment he discovers the hard way that he’s overlooked or misunderstood an important clause in the contract.
“Full Chicken Richness” • (1983) • short story by Avram Davidson
A comic piece about an especially delectable food.
“Multiples” • (1983) • short story by Robert Silverberg
A woman desperate for love embraces an extreme therapy that she hopes will turn her into the person she wants to be.
This story exists in the intersection of the 80s fascination with multiple personality disorder and the era’s approach to dating, Sybil meets Looking for Mr. Goodbar ….
“Cryptic” • (1983) • short story by Jack McDevitt
Why would a researcher dedicated to SETI conceal evidence that he has found proof of alien life?
The alien motivations and technology may be disappointing, not to mention alarming, but at least they are comprehensible. McDevitt’s not a Cosmic Horror sort of writer.
The Sidon in the Mirror • (1983) • novelette by Connie Willis
Does a friendly face conceal an implacable killer?
I was distracted by the way that Willis’ characters use the word ‘star’ when they mean ‘planet.’
“Golden Gate” • (1982) • short story by R. A. Lafferty
A well meaning patron embraces the role he feels society needs him to fill, only for time to pass him by.
Blind Shemmy • (1983) • novelette by Jack Dann
Thrill seekers ante their organs in a high-stakes game.
“In the Islands” • (1983) • short story by Pat Murphy
Two friends grow apart but there’s time for one last goodbye.
I can’t imagine that this story was intended this way, but it could be read as an answer to “what if H. P. Lovecraft had not been violently xenophobic?”
Nunc Dimittis • (1983) • novelette by Tanith Lee
An aged vampire queen faces the impending death of her beloved Renfield and the complications involved in recruiting his replacement.
Blood Music • (1983) • novelette by Greg Bear
A brilliant computer scientist hacks biology and in so doing demonstrates the difference between being smart and being wise.
“Her Furry Face” • (1983) • short story by Leigh Kennedy
A self-pitying male researcher looks for love in all the wrong places.
Guys like this are why Policy 33 exists. He’s also why ethical research guidelines exist.
Knight of Shallows • (1983) • novelette by Rand B. Lee
Roger Shapiro is murdering his way across the timelines, leaving a trail of dead Roger Shapiros in his wake. It’s up to one Roger Shapiro find out why and put a stop to the murder spree.
“The Cat” • [Solar Cycle] • (1983) • short story by Gene Wolfe
The tale of an unfortunate aristocratic woman and her spectral cat.
The Monkey Treatment • (1983) • novelette by George R. R. Martin
Thrilled at the prospect of a weight loss treatment that works, our hero makes the classic mistake of not asking how it works.
Martin can be seen as fundamentally a horror writer.
“Nearly Departed” • [Deadpan Allie] • (1983) • short story by Pat Cadigan
The woman was mostly dead, but not quite so dead that an unfortunate contractor could not be assigned the task of examining her fading memories.
Hearts Do Not in Eyes Shine • (1983) • novelette by John Kessel
Memory erasure seems an easy Band-Aid for betrayal and alienation … but can forgetting the past eliminate the core issues that drove a couple apart?
Carrion Comfort • (1983) • novelette by Dan Simmons
A trio of psychic vampires have entertained themselves for decades by orchestrating murders. Eventually they turn to the most delicious prey of all: each other.
This is a horror story. A horrid story. Content warnings galore, starting with child harm.
Gemstone • (1983) • novelette by Vernor Vinge
A young girl discovers that her grandparents fundamentally misunderstood the curious alien object found in an Antarctic Dry Valley.
The story ends on a melancholy note, but it seems to me that the protagonist now knows how to wake the unfortunate visitor, which is at least a partial victory.
Black Air • (1983) • novelette by Kim Stanley Robinson
A young man, helped by miraculous intervention and bilingualism, lives through the attack of the Spanish Armada.
Honorable Mentions: 1983 • essay by Gardner Dozois
Dozois lists over two hundred stories that didn’t quite make the cut for inclusion. If you buy the book, you may want to browse the list to see if there’s something that appeals to you.
- I wish to take this opportunity to complain about the ebook layout. Each story has an introduction. The short works that follow aren’t clearly marked off from the introductions. Every single time I had to stop reading and figure out what was introduction and what was story. This is a minor gripe to be sure, but the problem was so utterly unnecessary!