I don’t remember the first time I found a copy of an anthology that proclaimed itself to contain the best science fiction of a particular year. I am also not sure how many of them I had seen and read before I realized that there were multiple publishing houses putting out those annual collections. It was difficult to tell because they had such similar names: “[YEAR]: the World’s Best SF,” or “[YEAR]: the Annual World’s Best Science Fiction,” or “The World’s Best Science Fiction the Year: [YEAR]” or “The Annual [NUMBER] Edition Year’s Best S-F” and so on. And let’s not even get into the fact that 90-some percent of the stories included were written by authors in the U.S., with only a small number of authors from the UK, Canada, Australia, or another English-speaking country getting in.
I was 18 when I went on a buying binge picking up as many editions of the series edited by Donald Wolheim as I could, as I had read a few of his previous collections and found they more often contained several stories I liked than some of the others. Wolheim’s taste was close enough to mine that I could count on several good ones in each collection. And it was good to know an editor I could count on to find good ones. I’d been a little shocked at just how many stories I had disliked in some of the other similarly named collections. When I was younger, I assumed that if the name of the book included “The Best…” that it ought to be true, and thus had a few unpleasant surprises.
Of course now it seems obvious that any list of The Best of anything is going to be subjective. When you also understand that in order for a story to be included in one of these collections, the editors have to contact the author or representative and get permission to include their story. For a few decades, every publisher that had a science fiction/fantasy imprint seemed to be publishing one of these annual collections, so they were competing against each other. So if, say 12 stories wound up in one editor’s collection, that doesn’t necessarily mean they were the top (in the editor’s opinion) 12 stories published that year, but rather were the 12 out of a longer list which the editor was able to negotiate a deal.
One upside was that the various annual Best of anthologies usually didn’t have any overlap.
I love them, even though there were always at least a few stories that I didn’t like. There was always a story that I did like written by an author whose name I didn’t recognize, giving me someone knew to look for. Another nice thing was the variety of type of story. Even though they were all picked by the same editor, the stories seldom had anything in common. Themed anthologies can be cool, but sometimes they’re a bit hard to get through because when the stories all fall into a single theme and are all picked by the same editor, some can feel a bit repititious.
Another thing I love about all of those competing Best Of book series is that there are thousands and thousands of copies of the books in hardcover and paperback out there in used book stores. So if, like me, you love to browse all the bookseller booths or tables at sci fi cons, or can easily spend hours wondering in a used book store, you are likely to run across some of these little treasure troves at a reasonable price.
The last few years I’ve read lots of blog posts—and listened to some spirited discussions—about the idea of a science fiction/fantasy canon. Books that every fan or every aspiring right should have read. Unfortunately a lot of books from days gone by that were important to the development of the genre, and/or were beloved by many fans over a span many years, don’t hold up so well for younger readers. Heck, sometimes they don’t old up for us old fogies! I still remember the utter horror I felt when I found a copy of a fantasy book that I had absolutely loved when I was 10 or so, only to find some really blatant anti-semitism and problematic treatment of native peoples when I found a copy again as an adult. As a kid, that stuff had sailed right over my head, but I can’t in good conscience recommend that book now without at least a warning.
So I don’t think it’s right to insist that someone isn’t a true fan or doesn’t understand the genre if they haven’t read specific books. But I do think that we benefit from being familiar with the roots of our favorite genres. And I think that all writers benefit from reading broadly and occasionally reading things outside their comfort zones. Which brings us to another thing I like about these old Best Of collections. Select any one at random and you will get a number of short stories written by a bunch of different people. It’s a lot easier to get through a short story that challenges you in one way or another, than to get all the way through a novel. It’s one way to get samples of some of the roots of the genre without amassing a pile of old books many of which not only will you never be interested in reading again, but that you can’t force yourself to get all the way through.
And odds are, you will find at least one story you like a lot. Which may send you looking for more stories by an author you’d never heard of before. That’s always fun.
Not to mention the possibility that a bad story can serve a good purpose, even if it is only an example of the kind of writing you never want to do yourself.