William Goldman, in his book Adventures In the Screen Trade, gives an insight into the potential problems with any Year’s Best award. Take the 1939 Oscars, he says. Tell me which one of these films won the Best Picture gong that year: Gunga Din; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Intermezzo; The Private Lives of Elizabeth And Essex; Goodbye Mr Chips; Mr Smith Goes To Washington; Ninotchka; Of Mice And Men; Stagecoach; Wuthering Heights; The Wizard of Oz…?
The answer, of course, is none of them. The winner was Gone With The Wind. But it raises a valid point: best of the year is relative only to that year. Any one of the losers in 1939 would make worthy winners in any number of other years. Look at some of the Oscar winners in recent years, for example. Ordinary People? Gladiator? Titanic, for Christ’s sake? Quite obviously the best of a year does not necessarily mean any good in comparison to what has come before. Especially in the year Titanic won….
Which, in my usual roundabout, lack-of-sleep addled way, brings me to the book in question. It’s a good collection of stories, a very good collection of stories. It’s just not a very exciting collection of stories. It’s the best stories of the year. It’s just not a 1939 Oscars kind of year.
From dragon-festooned cover to cover all the obligatory tropes are here. There’s an Earthsea story, a wunderkammer story, the coming of age tales, the friendly witch stories, the modern Lovecraftian tales of unknowable goings-on just out of reach, all the merry range of fantasy subjects that have been visited before. All done excellently, true, but all done.
There are, as always, exceptions that prove the rule. Ted Chiang’s “Hell Is The Absence of God” is another sideways journey into that author’s unique worldview. It won this year’s Best Novelette Hugo, and stands as the most individual and interesting work within these pages. Chiang is rapidly developing the kind of reputation that has previously been set upon writers such as Dick, Waldrop, and Bester, and he would seem to fit within that eclectic pantheon. Likewise, “My Stolen Sabre” by Uncle River serves to highlight a distinctive and idiosyncratic voice that will bear further scrutiny in coming times. James Morrow’s “Apologue”, running at a little less than two pages, evokes both nostalgia and a sense of loss in portions far outweighing its brevity.
These stand as highlights in a book which is never less than extremely competent, and if it rarely reaches breathless heights, at least never causes the reader to discard the tenuous belief that is often the failing of Fantasy stories. If this were the first book of Fantasy you read, if you were a kid and had the kind of cool parents that buy you interesting books for Christmas, this is the kind likely to ignite a life-long passion for the field. If you’ve never before read the types of tales collected within then the stories in this volume couldn’t fail to excite and inspire you.
But if you’re a writer, just starting out and with a desire to make a name for yourself in Speculative Fiction you might do worse than turn your attentions toward the Fantasy genre. As an encapsulation of all that is best within the field, this book points to a year that was competent rather than stellar. A new, exciting, and truly individual voice could be just what the genre needs.