When Gardner Dozois passed away in 2018, he left behind a major legacy in the world of science fiction. Dozois was an accomplished writer and won two Nebula Awards for his short stories, but his most significant and influential contribution to the genre was undeniably his work as a short fiction editor.
His career in that regard was long and illustrious. He edited Asimov’s between 1984 and 2004. He edited a bookshelf’s worth of anthologies, including all 35 volumes of The Year’s Best Science Fiction series, published between 1984 and the year of his death (the last installment was published about two months after he passed.) He was nominated for Hugo and Locus Awards in the editing category almost every year he was active, and won the Hugo Award for Best Professional Editor 15 times between 1988 and 2004.
In other words, he was a giant in the field, which makes the publication of his final work, The Very Best of the Best, a major event in science fiction history.
The title is admittedly slightly misleading: Dozois previously edited two Best of the Best anthologies in 2005 and 2007, covering stories from the series’ first two decades. The Very Best of the Best covers the remaining years, bringing together 38 standout stories published in the volumes released between 2002 and 2017.
Thirty-eight stories translates to a weighty tome, with a heft and page count that hints at the range and depth of talent on display within. The table of contents includes severl writers who have risen to prominence in the last decade or so—Aliette de Bodard, Indrapramit Das, and Sam J. Miller among them—alongside long-established writers with publishing credits and awards stretching back to the 1980s and even earlier: Charles Stross, Kage Baker, and Pat Cadigan.
The stories originate from a range of publications, with a noticeable emphasis placed on other anthologies (some edited by Dozois himself), and Asimov’s (11 of the stories were first published in that magazine). There are also contributions from Clarkesworld, Interzone, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and Tor.com.
It’s hard to imagine how one would go about selecting stories for an anthology that spans so many years and has the potential to include so many outstanding writers. No doubt hard choices had to be made, but the 38 works that made the cut offer an eclectic assortment of moods, styles, settings, and voices, and any fan of sci-fi should be able to find several favorites in this book.
Dozois famously favored “adventure SF and space opera,” and this volume features plenty of fiction in that vein—loaded with action, space battles, and even space pirates (check out “Mongoose” by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear, a winning combo of space pirates and sentient spaceships). That’s not to suggest these stories are merely chases and explosions; Dozois clearly also highly valued strong characters and emotional nuance.
The wide stylistic range is a boon for readers. You can enjoy a quietly compelling near-future tale like Maureen McHugh’s “Useless Things,” set on the border between the US and Mexico in a bleak time and an equally bleak landscape; then dive into the distant future and into deep space in Robert Charles Wilson’s dizzying, fiercely imaginative “Utriusque Cosmi” or Yoon Ha Lee’s mind-bending “Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain,” about some very strange, terrifyingly powerful weapons.
One thing all stories in The Very Best of the Best share is the sort of richly textured universe-building that submerges the reader in vividly drawn fictional worlds that feel as if they extend beyond the edges of the narrative. At the heart of science fiction’s allure as a genre is the ability to captivate while challenging concepts of what the world is and what it could be, to be daring and thought-provoking while also being hugely entertaining, to conjure dazzling futures or terrifying ones, while taking you on a roller-coaster ride of experience and emotion. Certainly, taken together, these stories deliver all of that.
Which stories a reader will favor depends largely on personal taste and inclination. For example, if you love Martian stories and the work of Ray Bradbury (that would be me), then “Where the Golden Apples Grow” by Kage Baker is a sheer delight, full of working class, truck-driving Martian settlers and crunchy, gritty detail. Or maybe you want a rugged, up-close-and-personal perspective on what it might be like for regular people to live through a superhero versus super-villain story? In that case, Daryl Gregory’s harrowing “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” is just what you need. Do you want a rowdy and deliciously irreverent story about the future of humans merging with technology and living their best lives beyond Earth? Pat Cadigan’s “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi” will be right up your alley.
Other stellar stories include Aliette de Bodard’s award-winning “Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight,” an exquisitely crafted tale of grief, family, memory, and tea; and Lavie Tidhar’s moving, deeply unsettling “The Memcordist,” which imagines a future that feels almost too probable, in which one person’s entire life is streamed live for their followers, from cradle to grave.
In short, no matter what kind of science fiction fan you are, it’s likely you’ll find a lot to love in this anthology. For fans of Dozois the editor, it is clearly a must-read.
In the preface, Dozois writes, “All I’ve done, over the years, is to offer you a chance to read the stories that I myself enjoyed”. For him, the act of sharing what he loved was no small thing. This anthology is yet another testament to the importance and endurance of his legacy as an editor, and his influence on the genre he loved so passionately.