INTERVIEW: Gardner Dozois on How Picking the Year’s Best Science Fiction is Like a Steel Cage Match

Gardner Dozois, one of the most acclaimed editors in science-fiction, has won the Hugo Award for Best Editor 15 times. He was the editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine for 20 years. He is the editor of the Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies and co-editor of the Warrior anthologies, Songs of the Dying Earth, and many others. As a writer, Dozois twice won the Nebula Award for best short story. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The 30th annual collection of The Year’s Best Science Fiction will be out this month, and Mr. Dozois was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the new collection, his career, and more!


Kristin Centorcelli: You’ve won an unprecedented 15 Hugo Awards for Best Editor during your career, and the 30th volume of The Year’s Best Science Fiction will be out this month! I read that reading slush for magazines started you on the road to editing…did you ever imagine it would come this far?

Gardner Dozois: No, I just took the work as it came along. The slush-reading assignments were a way to keep myself alive, I was very poor in those days, and when I found out that I was good at it, and, more importantly, when others found out that I was good at it, more such work came along, and I took it. I don’t think it had ever occurred to me at that point that I’d end up as the editor of a magazine. My dreams in those days inclined more toward becoming a major SF writer.

KC: What was one of the most important things you learned while editing for Asimov’s?

GD: Keep an open mind, and always keep an eye out for new, emerging talent. Also, that what most readers are looking for is a good story. It’s nice to have a good story and excellent prose, but readers are willing to forgive much, even pedestrian prose, for the sake of a good story.

KC: Onto the new book! What do you think is special about the new Year’s Best?

GD: It’s exciting this year, as it has been every year for the last thirty, to see good new writers continuing to come along, and to see so many of the older writers continuing to produce excellent work. Really, I don’t think the overall level of quality work being produced in the genre has ever been higher, and I’ve been evaluating it for a lot of years.

KC: Will you tell us a little about your process when choosing stories for a collection or anthology?

GD: It’s simple almost to the point of being primitive. I try to read, or at least look at, all the SF stories I can find published in English in a given year. I write the names of the stories, and their authors, and where they appeared down in a notebook in longhand. If the story has impressed me, I make an asterisk in the margin next to the story. At the end of the year, when I’m putting the Best together, I go back and re-read all the stories with asterisks next to them, and start making tentative lists. Usually I’ll read them all again, and sometimes again, before I make up my mind. When it comes down to the wire, it’s usually a choice between three or four stories, and since I don’t have room for everything even in a book as large as mine, I’ll read the candidates again, and again. I think of this process as making the candidate stories for the last few slots fight against each other, like a steel cage match. The strongest stories win.

KC: As well as editing, you’re a fiction writer yourself. What kinds of SF do you enjoy writing the most?

GD: Fortunately, I have pretty broad-church tastes. I like stories set on other worlds, with aliens and alien civilizations. I like stories set in outer space, with spaceships and warring space navies. I like stories set in the far-future, where humans are barely recognizable as humans anymore. I like stories set in the past, or in alternate worlds—a strong local color component has always been important to me, which is one reason why I also like historical fiction. I also like fantasy, particularly High or Heroic Fantasy, or Sword and Sorcery, although well done comic fantasy in the hands of someone like Terry Pratchett can be great as well. I also read a lot of mysteries, especially historical mysteries, the best of both worlds. I don’t much like horror, and don’t read a lot of it.

KC: When you’re reading, what do you like to see in a good story or book? Is there anything that will make you put a book down, unfinished?

GD: I like to see a good story, of course, one that grips me as a reader and pulls me into the story so I forget that I’m evaluating it professionally and just read it, absorbed with it, as an ordinary reader would be. I like local color, flash, and drama. I like clean, well-crafted, elegant prose. A bad story will throw me out of the story, especially one where the characters do incredibly stupid things and only get away with it because the writer is on their side. Bad writing will make me stop reading a story; a really good story can survive with only serviceable prose, but actual bad writing is a stopper. Mostly what makes me put a book or a story down unfinished is that it’s boring. There’s a lot of boring stuff out there, and once your eyes begin to glaze over, life is too short to bother with it.

KC: Are there any particular stories or novels that have really stuck with you over the years?

GD: Most of the work of Cordwainer Smith and Jack Vance. Ursula K. Le Guin. Fritz Leiber. Edgar Pangborn. Keith Roberts. Much of the work, with reservations, of Robert A. Heinlein.

KC: What have you enjoyed most about your work in editing?

GD: I’ve often said that I’ve read more bad science fiction than anyone else in the world. The positive flip side of that is that I’ve also read more good science fiction than anyone else in the world.

KC: What’s next for you, this year and beyond?

GD: At my age, you don’t make a lot of plans for the long-term future. I’d like to hang around for a while longer so that I can read some more good fiction, and produce a few more good books.

2 thoughts on “INTERVIEW: Gardner Dozois on How Picking the Year’s Best Science Fiction is Like a Steel Cage Match”

  1. Indeed — I think Dozois and other SF/fantasy editors and anthologists, past and present, like David Hartwell, Terry Carr, John W. Campbell, Groff Conklin, etc., are the unsung heroes of the genre–at least, not sung often enough.

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