Hartwell, David G., ed. 1998. Year's Best SF 3. New York: HarperPrism.

Reviewed 30 August 1998

Year's Best SF 3 (cover) This collection competes with Gardner Dozois's to present the "best" in short-form science fiction published in 1997. It's a considerably shorter book, and costs considerably less. This year, you get what you pay for.

Hartwell is upfront about his editorial bias:

[T]his book is full of science fiction—every story in the book is clearly that and not something else. I personally have a high regard for horror, fantasy, speculative fiction, and slipstream and postmodern literature. But here, I chose science fiction. It is the intention of this year's best series to focus entirely on science fiction, and to provide readers who are looking especially for science fiction an annual home base.

Well, at least he's honest. I question whether this is at all appropriate. This bias essentially allows a marketing category to determine apparent worth—something that Mr. Hartwell has (justifiably) railed against at length in The New York Review of Science Fiction. And, of course, it begs the principle question: what exactly is "clearly" science fiction? Is, for example, utopian fiction inside or outside the definition? Or does it depend upon some other indefineable characteristic?

And what about the stories? There's significant overlap with the Dozois volume, particularly when considering Dozois's honorable mentions. The real distinction is one of taste. Harlan Ellison would find no home in Hartwell's book, even, I suspect, for such as "Repent, Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman." One irony in Hartwell's selections is that they read like early 1990s Analog stories, but Analog is the only professional print source that he doesn't mention as a source in his introduction. This is borne out by the stories he chose that Dozois did not recognize. Only the Landis story "Turnover" stands out as a "mistake," in that Hartwell (correctly, in my opinion) recognized it as a fine story and Dozois did not; the rest are down to taste.

The biggest downfall of this book is that it is essentially contextless. Hartwell makes no attempt to summarize the year, or to mention much in the way of sources, or to do more than pay homage to the authors' illustrious past with the teaser introductions. An anthology need not do any of these things, but suffers in comparison when its competition does. And some context is desperately needed—if only to explain why Hartwell would not include stories like Stephen Baxter's "Moon Six," Bill Johnson's "We Will Drink a Fish Together . . .", and Greg Egan's "Yeyuka" among the year's best science fiction.

Nonetheless, this is largely a matter of taste. Hartwell's book has only a couple of mediocre stories, and quite a few very good ones.

Overall rating: 3 stars
Good.
Certainly worth buying if you can't afford the Dozois, or if you don't want to stretch at all beyond the traditional core of science fiction. This particular volume reflects that 1997 seemed to be a "down" year for short science fiction more than anything else.


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