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Somewhere So Far Away

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Fourth Annual Collection  (The Year’s Best Science Fiction, volume 4)

By Gardner Dozois 

4 Nov, 2020

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1987’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Fourth Annual Collection is the fourth volume in Gardner Dozois’ long-running annual anthology series, showcasing the previous year’s best short SF. 

The Dozois annuals stand out because they tend to be tomes, anywhere from one and a half to twice as long as competing Best SF annuals. The price was reasonable. Value for your hard-earned dollar, with the usual caveats: 

  • If you’re specifically for the best SF by women, you’d be advised to seek out supplemental sources.
  • The ever-present risk of serious injury from lifting the hardcover. 

I usually read books from beginning to end in one go, but that method is highly inappropriate for the Dozois Best SF anthologies. 

This is only a year more recent than the previous one but on the whole the contents feel less dated than the 1985 stories. Perhaps some significant watershed had been crossed. For me, the most interesting part is Dozois’ summary of the previous year. Someone would do well to collect those essays into one convenient work.

Introduction: Summation: 1986” • essay by Gardner Dozois

A lengthy discourse on the events of 1986. Notable moments: 

  • Bluejay (Dozois’ publisher) closes without screwing over its authors ;
  • Tor ceases to be independent, part of a general trend towards consolidation;
  • apparently Charles Platt helmed an SF line for Franklin Watts; 
  • Weird Tales died and was resurrected — no doubt for the last time;

… and there’s this very odd comment about awards:

It’s interesting to note that although 1986 saw the publication of a number of heavily advertised novels by some of the biggest names in the genre — Clarke, Asimov, Pohl, Silverberg, Donaldson, Harrison — none of them came even close to making it onto the final Nebula ballot. All were passed over in favor of novels by middle-level writers (such as Wolfe and Card) and by new writers (such as Gibson, Kennedy, Morrow, and Atwood). The same thing happened to a certain extent in 1985 and 1984. Does this indicate a shift in the demographics of the Nebula electorate? Or just a shift in which portion of the electorate still bothers to vote?

Maybe it was because being a big name is not itself reason to give someone an award for their SF? A point lost on some Hugo voters back in the 1980s. 

Dozois is in a bit of a pickle here, wanting to comment on short SF while being aware that as editor of Asimov, he has a horse in the race. His solution is to limit himself to that material about which he can comment positively. Despite that, one gets the sense Dozois was not especially impressed by 1986

R & R• (1986) • novella by Lucius Shepard

Another skillfully crafted, depressing, surrealistic tale about another phase of the US’s forever war, in which men in combat armor fought for no good reason.” 

Hatrack River• [The Alvin Maker Saga] • (1986) • novelette by Orson Scott Card

Nature itself conspires to kill an infant before it can be born, thus preventing the birth of a great prophet. It turns out that nature cannot hinder fate.

This is the first in the Alvin Maker stories, which I remember liking at the time. This contains various elements (like fretful girls and sacrificial children) that Card fans seem to like.

Strangers on Paradise “• (1986) • short story by Damon Knight 

A visitor to a seemingly idyllic world discovers the settlers’ bold history and takes steps to arrange a suitable reward.

This falls into the subgenre of uncomfortable reactions to just how it is Europeans ended up owning formerly Native American land. 

Pretty Boy Crossover” • (1986) • short story by Pat Cadigan

A pretty young man is offered a chance at immortality … of a sort. 

Against Babylon• (1986) • novelette by Robert Silverberg

I will leave this to others to review. I have my reasons.

Fiddling for Waterbuffaloes • (1986) • novelette by S. P. Somtow 

Two Thai brothers in backwater Prasongburi contend against an alien invasion. 

A comedy that doesn’t take itself terribly seriously. It’s quite possible, by the way, that the brothers doomed us all, but at least we got some laughs along the way. 

Into Gold• (1986) • novelette by Tanith Lee

A suspicious guard seeks to protect his leader from the machinations of the witch-woman with whom the leader is besotted, with tragic results. 

Sea Change” • (1986) • short story by Scott Baker

Adults prove blind to alien transformation. Not so a young boy.

Baker! Whatever happened to him? No novels published since 1995’s Ancestral Hungers, although he has published short pieces as recently as five years ago. Not to be confused with R. Scott Bakker. 

Covenant of Souls• (1986) • novelette by Michael Swanwick

Society’s discards seek transcendence, even as doomsday approaches.

Somehow I convinced myself this was part of the In the Drift sequence, which it isn‘t. It’s not nearly as sunnily upbeat about the US’ prospects as In the Drift.

The Pure Product• (1986) • novelette by John Kessel

Time travel offers cynics vast scope for entertainment.

There are enough time travellers are jerks” stories to fill a nice anthology, despite which I don’t think such a book has ever been assembled. 

Grave Angels• (1986) • novelette by Richard Kearns

Premonition of impending deaths offers the chance to avert them — at a terrible cost. 

There is a folk tale I heard from my mother about forerunners, phantom horse-drawn hearses signalling a coming death. I don’t think it ever occurred to my relatives on that side to simply run the hearse off the road.

Tangents” • (1986) • short story by Greg Bear

An adopted boy’s grasp of hyperdimensional geometry is key to making new friends.

This is surprisingly ambivalent (given its vintage) about the benefit to children of colour of being adopted by white people. It’s also a cousin of stories like Star Bright” and The Universe Between.”

The Beautiful and the Sublime • (1986) • novelette by Bruce Sterling

The transformed world of tomorrow may have freed people from economic anxiety, but not of romantic angst. How can our hero save his one true love from an unwanted marriage? 

The first step to fixing this story might have been to make the woman the viewpoint character rather than, as Sterling chose to do, the man determined to win her. This is in many ways a really 1956 story that just happened to be published in 1986

Tattoos • (1986) • novelette by Jack Dann

What drives a Jewish tattoo artist? His dreadful gift.

To clarify, the tattoo artist’s ability is good for everyone else. Him, not so much. 

Night Moves• (1986) • novelette by Tim Powers

Now middle-aged, a man reconnects with the imaginary friend of his youth.

Powers is, of course, a skilled writer. But readers may be distracted by the fact the protagonist is extremely unlikable. He’s the sort of person who, when one discovers he was abandoned as a child, provokes only surprise that it took his parents so long. 

The Prisoner of Chillon • (1986) • novelette by James Patrick Kelly

Capers have consequences, in this case the opportunity to befriend a remarkable recluse.

As I recall, this became part of Wildlife, a cyberpunk/post-humanist SF work I really need to review. 

Chance • (1986) • novelette by Connie Willis

An ambitious academic’s wife gets a tragic lesson about unintended consequences.

The husband is a remarkable (but believable) combination of demanding neediness and total absence of redeeming qualities, a sterling proof of the utility of no-fault divorce. 

And so to Bed” • (1986) • short story by Harry Turtledove

Samuel Pepys documents his experiences with what are clearly Homo erectuses …. erecti? In a world where erectus and not sapiens first populated the New World.

It’s not really clear why the ancestors of Native Americans would not have migrated to the New World and eaten erectus’ lunch long before Europeans made it across the Atlantic. The obvious question — what would have been the consequences from sweet potatoes not making it across the Pacific in pre-Columbian times — fall outside the scope of the story. 

Fair Game” • (1986) • short story by Howard Waldrop

A hunter well past his glory days sets out to confront a savage predator. 

Video Star• (1986) • novelette by Walter Jon Williams

A former gangster short on retirement funds decides to carry out one last job to secure his future. 

Sallie C.” • (1986) • short story by Neal Barrett, Jr.

A rather Waldroppian tale of famous historical figures crossing paths in an alternate Old West. 

Jeff Beck” • (1986) • short story by Lewis Shiner

An unhappy man gets what he wants and all it costs him is everything. 

Surviving • (1986) • novelette by Judith Moffett

A touching story about a woman raised by and then retrieved from a tribe of chimps, as told by an academic who befriended her. 

Note for those leaping to their keyboards: the story name-checks Tarzan.

Down and Out in the Year 2000 • (1986) • short story by Kim Stanley Robinson

A poverty-stricken American does what he has to to make ends meet despite bad luck and outright sabotage by friends. 

Only marginally SF but OTOH it probably won’t seem any more dated in 2050 than it does now. 

Snake-Eyes” • (1986) • short story by Tom Maddox

I’m passing over this one. Conflict of interest. The author is an old sparring partner from the USENET group rec.arts.sf.written.

The Gate of Ghosts• (1986) • novelette by Karen Joy Fowler

A problem child very nearly solves her own problem, permanently, much to the alarm of her mother. 

The Winter Market• (1985) • novelette by William Gibson

An exploration of electronic immortality. The virtual world can free one from a crippled body but is it truly authentic?

It’s weird how many of these stories are about extraordinary people from the perspective of mundane friends and associates. 

Honorable Mentions: 1986” • essay by Gardner Dozois

Pages and pages of works either too long or not quite good enough to make it into this tome.Need more material for your Mount Tsundoku? Consider this. 

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Fourth Annual Collection is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble) and here (Chapters-Indigo). Book Depository does not have it.