Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Sense of Wonder: Short Fiction Reviews (2009-2017) by Gardner Dozois

Sense of Wonder: Short Fiction Reviews (2009-2017), Gardner Dozois (Advent/ReAni­mus Press 978-1718795051, $19.99, 444+60pp, tp) May 2018.

A good example of what we’ll be missing – in this magazine in particular – can be found in Dozois’s Sense of Wonder: Short Fiction Reviews 2009-2017, which collects the first nine years of the Gardnerspace columns he wrote for Locus (in his introduction, Dozois makes it clear this title was foisted upon him by Charles Brown, who more or less browbeat him into doing the column during a dinner at the 2008 Worldcon). He also points out that “this is a collection of reviews, not, for the most part, in-depth critical analysis or astute generalizations about the SF/fantasy fields,” and he’s right: the col­lection organizes 105 columns year-by-year (months and issue numbers are not given, but are easy enough to track down), and few individual stories seldom rate more than a brief sentence or two. It’s not meant to be read cover to cover, so the separate indexes for authors and titles – which run to more than 60 pages – are essential, giving the book value as a record of nearly a decade’s worth of short fiction, as it originally appeared in magazines, websites, original anthologies, and chapbooks. (Confusingly, though, book titles are included in the author index, while story titles have their own index.)

I’ll cheerfully confess that, when reviewing a reprint anthology or a year’s best, I’d often find myself checking back to see what Gardner had to say about a story on its first appearance. We didn’t always agree, but just as often I would find that his brief, pithy remarks nailed with precision the flaw in a story that to me just seemed a bit off. One story, for example, “was considerably too long for its weight,” while another simply “stops with large plot-points left up in the air” and yet another “would work better without quite so many historical infodumps.” It’s es­pecially interesting to watch Dozois trace the careers of writers who emerged during this period, such as Ken Liu or Sam J. Miller, although it takes a bit of flipping back and forth from the index to watch such development. It’s also fascinating to see Dozois’s prodigious memory at work, as he compares new sto­ries to old ones by authors such as Edgar Pangborn, Fritz Leiber, or Joanna Russ. Even though I suspect the newer authors may never have read those older tales (or in some cases even heard of their authors), the comparisons provide a living demonstration of the balance between continuity and innovation that characterized Dozois’s editing as well. For someone who vocally championed what he called “the good old stuff” in one of his anthologies, Dozois always showed a genuine appreciation for what struck him as new or different, though occasionally he can sound a bit crabby in complaining that a story by Ken Liu or Karen Joy Fowler might as well have been published as mainstream, with a little pruning.

Inevitably, the more prolific short fiction writers rate the most mentions (I counted 74 for Robert Reed and 45 for Lavie Tidhar, and 39 each for Aliette de Bodard and Nancy Kress), but simple name-checking may cause you to overlook the occasional paragraph of more general critical commentary, such as when Dozois defends his argument that “the novella may be the perfect length for a science fiction story” in introducing his review of Jonathan Strahan’s Godlike Machines anthology, or when he offers a sharp and concise two-paragraph assessment of Edgar Rice Burroughs as a lead-in to a review of John Joseph Adams’s Under the Moons of Mars. Sense of Wonder isn’t designed to be approached like an essay collection, and I expect to be using it largely as a reference work, but only by dipping into it here and there can we come across such nuggets. Dozois never got around to writing his Big Book on SF, but the insights that glitter through these hundreds of pages of at least offer a glimpse of what we might have seen.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the November 2018 issue of Locus.

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