I’ve doubtless read many works of fiction that have passed through Gardner Dozois’ hands as an editor. Until now, however, I don’t recall reading any of his own fiction. I’ve remedied this by snatching When the Great Days Come from the New Books shelf at my library. I like anthologies, I really do, but as a novel lover first and foremost, I always find myself overcoming a certain prejudice towards shorter fiction. Fortunately, Dozois makes that prejudice easy to overcome in this case.
One advantage to the anthology of a single author’s work is the insight it provides into that author’s recurring motifs and themes. Every writer has them, some more obviously so than others, and short stories often reveal them more boldly than the lengthier, multi-faceted narratives of novels. I noticed several recurring motifs in Dozois’ work—he is fond of brownstones as the habitations for his main characters, who are often socially isolated, everymen who have a weird or astounding encounter with the Other.
Dozois’ stories almost always concern the clash between the human worldview and the Other worldview. Sometimes this manifests itself as tales of first contact: “Chains of the Sea”, where the spaceships land and make contact with the masters of Earth—not humanity, nor our AI children; “Ancestral Voices”, where an accident during landing turns an alien ambassador bearing messages of peace into a crazed, electromagnetic monster. Other times it involves the conflict between humanity and posthumanity (“Recidivist”, “A Kingdom by the Sea”, “A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows”). He’s also a master at switching up perspectives, taking us inside the mind of a rat (“When the Great Days Came”) and even cats (“A Cat Horror Story”).
A few of Dozois’ stories also deal with tensions within the United States, particularly between North and South. I’m neither American nor very familiar with American history, so some of the subtleties here escape me. In “Counterfactual”, Dozois posits an alternative history where the General Lee refused to surrender, complete with a writer imagining a universe where Lee did. In “Dinner Party”, economic recession reignites the hostilities between North and South, while in “The Peacemaker” and “Community”, two different visions of extremist religion co-opting government play out. (These are a little uncomfortable even these days, given some of the hypocritical rhetoric coming out of certain parts of the American political arena.) These weren’t my favourite stories (though “Counterfactual” is a really fun thought experiment), but I did find Dozois’ conjecture about how the United States might implode in times of economic or natural catastrophe fascinating.
To single out one story for commentary, though, let me point to “Chains of the Sea”. I like it because it doesn’t try to be too overbearing in its “humans are not in charge” theme. Aliens land in their impenetrable, inscrutable spaceships. Humans can’t make contact; the AIs, who are somewhat more intelligent than they allow their human masters to believe, can’t make contact. Interspersed with narration of how the various governments and authorities are trying to deal with this crisis, there are scenes that follow Tommy, a young boy who sees Other People (fairy folk!). Obviously these two plots must be related in some way, but it’s not entirely clear how at first, so I had to have faith. Gradually, though, I was intrigued by the fatalistic tone of the story—the idea that humans might one day meet their end not of our own doing but simply because another species, one that barely recognizes we are here, decides they want the planet. Add to this the idea of all these other species that have lived here, undetected, for all human history … and that makes a pretty interesting story.
Dozois’ writing style is heavy in narration and light in dialogue. Many of these stories, in fact, have almost no dialogue at all. Rather, he will spend pages and pages describing a character’s thoughts or actions. Many of the stories involve loner characters who spend most of the narrative isolated from other beings. I haven’t read any of Dozois’ novels, so I don’t know if they are similar in style, and I’m not sure I’d enjoy reading an entire novel with paragraphs of such dense description. However, for short stories, one only needs to look to the majority of this collection to see that it works fine. I didn’t like every story—for example, I found “Morning Child” difficult to follow or enjoy—but the gems here definitely outweigh any of the less-than-sterling items.
When the Great Days Come is a great anthology by a great science-fiction writer. I’m glad I pulled it off the shelf. Like most anthologies, it’s uneven in its quality. But it makes up for that with a few stellar stories and a very consistent tone—one of humanity embroiled in constant conflict, the fight for survival, with our darker impulses always essential to our salvation. Gardner Dozois spins a good tale and has a top-notch imagination.