Monday, July 23, 2018

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Gardner Dozois

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Gardner Dozois

Gardner Dozois would have been 71 today (23 June 2018). As I have done for a few other people, I thought a Birthday Review composed of stories I've reviewed of his for Locus would be nice. The problem is, Gardner's best work as a writer came before I started reviewing.

(Cover by Paul Alexander)
So, I grabbed my copy of his first collection (The Visible Man, 1977), and reread three of my absolute favorite Dozois stories. I also reread Robert Silverberg's introduction, in which he seemed convinced that Gardner was a woman -- no, wait! That was another book! Silverberg, instead, notes Dozois' exceptional prose skills, and places him as a writer working on the edges of Science Fiction -- he writes "much of what he has written is only marginally science fiction by my own fairly restrictive definitions". (For all that, Silverberg published Dozois repeatedly in New Dimensions.) The interesting point is that Gardner, over time, evolved a similarly restrictive definition of SF.

Anyway, I'll cover these three stories much as I might have had I been reviewing for Locus in the '70s.

"Horse of Air" (Orbit 8, 1970)

"Horse of Air" is one of Gardner Dozois' very bleakest stories, which is saying something. It is told in three voices, two of them the same middle-aged man living in a huge Apartment Tower in a much-decayed future city, one of them some sort of observer, perhaps simply the omniscient narrator. The man observes the outside world from his balcony, which we soon gather is a sort of prison; and his dueling internal voices soon make it clear that his main thoughts are vicious and revengeful. He dreams of some apocalyptic event he can set in motion, and of the aliens who will be the agency of that event. We slowly realize his true position -- why he is where he is, why he can't escape; and the portrait is of a rather ugly person in a very ugly future. And the prose reflects this ugliness -- and still somehow reaches for a mad transcendence by the end. [This seems like one of the stories that Silverberg respected but didn't quite consider SF.]

"A Special Kind of Morning" (New Dimensions 1, 1971)

[I loved this story on first reading it in High School, in a copy of New Dimensions 1 that I borrowed from my school library. It absolutely holds up. It was probably the first story by Dozois to attract major attention.] This story is told by a very old man, one-legged, to a much younger man. They are on the planet Kos, part of the Commonwealth. The frame device is beautifully handled, and very effective. The prose is Dozois at his very best. And it's pure SF -- set on another world, and quite cunningly introducing a rather horrifying and very science-fictional background. The old man tells the story of when he lost his leg. He was a soldier, in the old war on a different planet -- World -- in which the Quaestors overthrew the Combine, leading to World's entry into the Commonwealth. He's fighting for the Quaestors, and the first scene has him observing the utterly terrible destruction of the Combine's second city, D'Kotta. Dozois's extended description of this destruction is magnificent. Here's a short extract: "Did y'ever watch the sea lashed by high winds. The storm boils the water into froth, whips it white, until it becomes an ocean of ragged lace to the horizon, whirlpools of milk, not a fleck of blue left alive. The land looked like this at D'Kotta." D'Kotta destroyed, his team's mission is to lure down a ship carrying reinforcements for the Combine, and destroy it. So far, so simple, but all along we have hints of strangeness -- clones, and nulls, and zombies, and hereditary executive clones, and disembodied brains in the Cerebrum. And all this becomes slowly more personal, and more central to the old man's story -- leading to a powerful resolution.

"The Visible Man" (Analog, December 1975)

[I remember being surprised and excited to see a Dozois story in Analog, and very impressed by the result. I believe I nominated for a Novelette Hugo in what was my first nomination ballot.] George Rowan is a criminal, being transported to Boston for punishment. He has already been treated in an important way: he cannot see any living animal or human. The car appears an empty self-driving car to him, for example. But he gets a fortuitous chance to escape when the car has a blowout, and he runs, still unable to see anyone. Someone he gets to a town (not without running into some people) and then to a shopping center, where he can disguise himself as a blind man. And he is helped by some mysterious people, who tell him how to get to the sea, to escape to Canada and South America, and join the resistance. This is action filled, fascinating writing, and the terror of Rowan's curious semi-blindness is excellently portrayed, leading to a dramatic conclusion. There is a bit of a gimmick ending -- clever enough, and I think I liked it more at age 16 than I do now -- it might have been better if it stopped a paragraph or two earlier. Still, a strong story.

And now the reviews I did for Locus of some of Gardner's later stories -- which were always well done and interesting, but lacked the drive and passion of his best early work.

Locus, April 2002

Another light-toned contribution from the April 2002 F&SF is Gardner Dozois' "The Hanging Curve", the magazine's annual April issue baseball story -- this one about the last pitch in a World Series Game 7, a pitch that literally hangs in the air, unmoving and immovable.  Nice if quite minor.

Locus, June 2006

Best this time around at F&SF was Gardner Dozois’s "Counterfactual", an interestingly different take on alternate histories of the Civil War. This is set in an alternate world, in which the South still lost the war but in which Lee never surrendered but escaped to fight a long guerrilla war, still ongoing in the 1930s. A journalist named Cliff from the Minneapolis Star, also a writer of Counterfactuals, is traveling to Montgomery, Alabama, to report on the ceremony welcoming Alabama back into the Union. He speculates on a possible alternate history, in which Lee decided to surrender. The depiction of Cliff’s real world -- rather a depressing one -- is of course the main point of the story. For veteran SF readers of course further interest comes from recognizing the main character -- and one other character, less obviously a well-known writer.

Locus, January 2017

F&SF for November/December features a rare and welcome appearance from Gardner Dozois, whose fame as an editor should not cause us to forget how good his fiction is. "The Place of Bones" is a short stylish dark fantasy told by the tutor of a younger son of a French nobleman. The young man becomes a prodigious scholar, and discovers a way into the mysterious Dragonlands, somewhere not quite in Southeastern Europe. The tutor tells of their desperate trip into these lands, from whence no one returns, and what they find -- or hope to find -- there.

Locus, February 2018

There is other strong work here (F&SF, January/February 2018) -- for example a sharp-edged story, "Neanderthals", from Gardner Dozois, pitting an enhanced time traveler against a recreated Neanderthal bodyguard, leading to a cynical resolution.


  1. Woukd be nice to see somebody pull together a lifetime retrospective of Gardner's short fiction - I can see the respect people have for his abilities and it would stand alongside his immense contribution as an editor

  2. I agree — Gardner's oeuvre is compact enough for the whole lot to come out in two volumes (maybe one; I don't know what the word count is). I'd buy that! — Piet Nel