Thursday, September 15, 2011

When the Great Days Come - Gardner Dozois

Gardner Dozois is probably best known for his work as editor, for which he has won an unprecedented number of Hugo Awards. He was in the editor of Asimov's for twenty years between 1984 and 2004 and has edited an enormous number of anthologies of all kinds, including The Year's Best Science Fiction series, which is up to its 28th annual edition. Recently there have also been a series of cross genre anthologies edited with George R.R. Martin that were generally well received. Dozois' fiction is less well know. He is not a very prolific writer, somewhere between 50 and 60 short stories were published, the first of which appeared in 1966. He has also published three novels, the most recent being Hunter's Run (2007), a collaboration with George R.R. Martin and Daniel Abraham. This book was the only work I have read of Dozois before reading this collection.

When the Great Days Come is the latests of half a dozen collections that have appeared over the years. It is a selection of eighteen stories spanning his entire career and contains an insightful introduction by Robert Silverberg. The oldest stories were published in 1971, while the most recent is a story originally published in one of the cross genre anthologies I mentioned before. Three of them are award winning stories. Dozois got a Nebula for The Peacemaker (1983) and Morning Child (1984) and a Sidewise Award for Counterfactual (2006). The collection contains stories that range from post apocalyptic to alternate histories, first contact and horror/science fiction hybrid. One of the stories even borders on fantasy. They are often very bleak, containing very little in the way of optimism or utopian themes. As such, it took me a while to get though this collection. Although the stories are very well crafted, you don't want to read them all in one sitting. Eighteen stories is too much to discuss them all, so I will just cover a few. I found it very hard to pick favourites, the quality of this entire collection is exceptional.

Counterfactual is the story that opens the collection and is, in my opinion, one of the strongest pieces in it. It's an alternate history, set in an America where the civil war didn't end with General Lee surrendering his army but where the South started a guerilla war that lasted for generations. The main character is a journalist writing a counterfactual (alternate history) on a boring trip to cover a speech by the vice president in one of the occupied southern states. What Gardner does is have the main character examine a future that could well be ours, tugging at Lee's motivation for dispersing his army and wondering how close he came to giving up. He constantly asks the "what if" question letting the reader bounce back and forth between our history and that of the main character. There are some very good stories in this collection but I think I like this one the best.

Two stories that offer a nice contrast are When the Great Days Came (2005) and A Cat Horror Story (1994). In the first story Dozois writes about a great change from the point of view from a rat. He very carefully avoids anthropomorphizing pointing out several times that smart as they may be, we can't project human emotions on these rodents. He only hits at the evolutionary path these creatures are about to take, to which the rat is completely oblivious. Somehow Dozois makes this story work without a sentient character.  In a A Cat Horror Story, Dozois does the opposite. It deals with a gathering of cats telling tachometer stories of the horrible faith that may befall each of them. They include such evils as cars, castration and euthanasia. Despite being a cat person, I didn't think it was the strongest story in the collection but in combination with When the Great Days Came, which I like a lot, it works nicely.

Ancestral Voices (1998), written in collaboration with Michael Swanwick is one of the longest pieces in the collection. I guess you could see it as a first contact story. The story contains two points of view. One of a creature struggling to override his survival instincts, the other of an old woman who encounters it. It's a very bleak story, one that could be said to have happy end but one plagued by regrets and suspicions of manipulation. What I liked about this story in particular is the pacing. Dozois and Swanwick build to the climax carefully and deliver a twist I didn't see coming until they wanted me to.

In A Special Kind of Morning (1971), the author explores the emotional scars on a veteran of a brutal war. The story is basically told as a monologue. The veteran is speaking to a younger man or boy but other than that we never learn anything about him. The setting feels like a far future story, one in which reliance on technology has reached such extremes that it leaves society wide open to attacks with the most primitive means. I guess this soldier discovers post traumatic stress all over again during his campaign. Given the publication date I wonder if the Vietnam war had anything to do with writing this story.

I guess A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows (1999) matches A Special Kind of Morning in a way. The main character is also an old man, famous for making a political statement on the desirability of applying all kinds of technology to the human species to lengthen their lives, or to become in effect immortal, as well as the emergence of artificial intelligence. His message was a bit too subtle for the general public but his followers still hold him in high regard when his eightieth birthday approaches. Dozois uses what the main character things of as time travellers to impress the seriousness of the decision the main character will be faced with. Although it takes a few pages for this choice to become apparent, the author already builds the tension early on in the story. I also liked the rather ambitious ending of this story. It fits somehow. A story about the how a decision is made, rather than what the decision is.

As I mentioned earlier, I thought almost all of these stories were very well written from a technical point of view. They were very well paced in particular. Structured so as not to give the twist of the story away too early. The tone of most of them is very dark though, making When the Great Days Come a somewhat depressing read. That being said, I like the way in which Dozois delivers the punch of his stories. The endings are often ambiguous, yet fit the tales perfectly. They leave the reader to mull over the larger theme of the story, rather than the fate of the main character as often as not. Some readers may find his style a bit verbose at some points but that was not something that bothered me in any of these stories. When the Great Days Come is a great collection. It took me longer than I expected to make my way though it, but is was reading time well spent.

Book Details
Title: When the Great Days Come
Author: Gardner Dozois
Publisher: Prime Books
Pages: 359
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-60701-278-8
First published: 2011

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