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Robert Silverberg

LATE IN THE winter of 1971 I attended a science fiction convention in Boston, and, setting out by car for New York when it ended, I became entangled in an unexpected and altogether horrendous snowstorm. Under near-blizzard conditions I crawled tensely westward until, some fifty miles out of Boston, all traffic on the Massachusetts Turnpike halted, and stayed halted for perhaps an hour while some inconceivable mess was being unsnarled somewhere down the road. Two science fiction writers had been unlucky enough to cadge rides from me that awful day: the veteran pro Gordon R. Dickson and a chap named Gardner R. Dozois, who had sold perhaps two or three stories. During the interminable halt on the turnpike, Dozois got out of the car to peer at the chain of cars, many miles long, piled up in every lane in both directions. As he did so, the driver of a car fifty feet or so to our rear leaned out his window and aimed a camera at him.

“That cat took my picture!” a dazed and astonished Dozois muttered, getting back into the car.

As well he might have done. For Gardner Dozois, circa March 1971, must have seemed a weird-looking apparition indeed to that snowbound New Englander. Picture it: a gaunt young man just under six feet tall with a vast cascade of shoulder-length blond hair of an eerie voluminous sort covering most of his face, a strange bushy beard blowing in the icy gale, the glint of inquisitive eyes behind big steel-rimmed glasses, and—am I imagining this?—a bulky and grotesquely dilapidated raccoon coat. I mean, weird, man. This was 1971, and the phantoms of the Haight-Ashbury still stalked the land, but even so this was quintessence of hippie materializing on the turnpike, and no wonder that man took the picture. Does he realize, though, that the shaggy hippie whose snapshot he grabbed was already, there in 1971, one of the most gifted writers in the United States, at the age of twenty-two or twenty-three?

Notice that I didn’t say “one of the most gifted science fiction writers.” He was that, too. But it is possible to be an outstanding science fiction writer, to create undying classics of the genre and win whole squadrons of Hugos, without ever mastering more than the rudiments of prose style. Whereas Dozois, barely old enough to vote, had begun one of his early stories with this paragraph:

Did y’ever hear the one about the old man and the sea? Halt a minute, lordling; stop and listen. It’s a fine story, full of balance and point and social pith; short and direct. It’s not mine. Mine are long and rambling and parenthetical and they corrode the moral fiber right out of a man. Come to think, I won’t tell you that one after all. A man of my age has a right to prefer his own material, and let the critics be damned. I’ve a prejudice now for webs of my own weaving.

I invite your attention to the rhythms of the prose, the balancing of clauses, the use of alliteration, metaphor, and irony, the tough, elegant sinews of the vocabulary. It is a paragraph of splendid construction, a specimen of prose that shows honorable descent from Chaucer and Shakespeare, Pope and Dryden, Defoe and Dickens, the prose of a man who knows what he wants to say and says it eloquently and effectively. It is the opening paragraph of “A Special Kind of Morning,” which Dozois wrote in 1970 and which I chose, not at random, to be the first story in the first number of New Dimensions. Many science fiction writers, including a lot of the great ones, are content to be mere storytellers, using whatever assemblages of words may be handy to convey their meanings. Dozois is a storyteller too, and no mere one—“A Special Kind of Morning” is a vigorous and violent tale of war with a structural underpinning worthy of Sophocles—but he is concerned as much with the way he tells his stories as with the events he is describing.

A good writer should make good use of his eyes and his ears. What was Dozois looking for, when he stepped out of my car that snowy day? What things did he see in that dreadful vale of immobile vehicles, what impressions did he record, what use did he find for the moment, its sights and sounds? Here is a paragraph from “The Last Day of July,” New Dimensions 3:

Blinking and squinting, John moves away from the house. His shoes click on flagstone, then swish through grass as he strays from the path. The grass whispers around his legs, caressing his ankles, rasping abrasively against the material of his trousers. His vision returns slowly, and as it does he feels the earth roll majestically under his feet in a long sea swell, like a giant’s shoulder shrugging uneasily in sleep. The sky is a brilliant blue. He can sense the house behind him, the top half rising up and over him, a cresting wave about to topple. Now it is the house that is distasteful—again it seems brooding, mournful, unwholesomely confining.

The shoes click and swish. The grass whispers and rasps abrasively. The earth rolls in a long sea swell, the house is a cresting wave about to topple. The thrust of the paragraph is psychological, but the changes of spirit take place beneath an accretion of concrete detail, of vivid and immediate simile and metaphor and physical description. Melville understood these things, and Joyce, and Faulkner. So did Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett; so do John D. MacDonald, Fritz Leiber, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Cheever, Anthony Burgess, Mary Renault, Graham Greene, and Cecelia Holland. Good writing knows no boundaries of genre. It depends only on respect for language and grammar, a sense of the structure of the sentence and the paragraph, and a keen perception of sensory data. Gardner Dozois is as skilled a worker in prose as there is in science fiction, and it is a skill that came to him early, though probably not gratuitously.

He has chosen to publish most, perhaps all, of his work in the science fiction magazines and original SF anthologies, and so I suppose he must be labeled a genre writer, although in fact much of what he has written is only marginally science fiction by my own fairly restrictive definitions. I doubt that Dozois would have been able to get much material published in John Campbell’s Astounding, say, circa 1938–55, or in Horace Gold’s Galaxy, circa 1950–55; those two great editors would simply have found his work irrelevant to their purposes. Much of what he does is irrelevant to my own purposes at New Dimensions, though I admire it greatly even as I decline to offer it as science fiction. The standard furniture of science fiction—robots, androids, spaceships, time machines, planetary exploration teams, alien life-forms—is rare in Dozois. His stories tend to take place ten or fifteen years in the future and to explore the consequences of one significant change in the contemporary situation; and they are rooted, it seems to me, in the radical sensibility of the Sixties, the awareness that American twentieth-century life seen from the lower depths is not quite as pretty as the television/suburbia/mass-media/Establishment view of things. Not all his work is like that, of course: “A Special Kind of Morning” is classic science fiction, full of pulp-magazine inventiveness, although not at all handled with pulp-magazine klutziness, and his novella “Strangers” (New Dimensions 4) creates an alien world and an alien civilization with skills worthy of Philip José Farmer. But the more familiar sort of Dozois story is the one like “The Visible Man” or “Where No Sun Shines,” firmly grounded in the here and now, and achieving its science-fictional effects through Dozois’ sense of the alienated nature of twentieth-century humanity, of the fundamental strangeness and dislocation of life in our times. (“That cat took my picture!”)

Because he chooses to work outside the mainstream of what is at best a marginal realm of the publishing world, and because he works painfully and slowly in a field where the basic pay-scale has scarcely improved in forty years, Dozois’ career has allowed him no more than a subsistence income, and he is in little danger of losing touch with the submerged world that is the source of his fiction. He still looks like a shaggy hippie, or did when last I saw him a year or two ago, although he is no longer gaunt at all, not even remotely. He is about thirty now, I calculate, since he says he was seventeen when he sold his first story (“The Empty Man,” If, September 1966). He has been a full-time writer since his discharge from the Army in 1969. (Dozois was a military journalist stationed in Europe, where, he says, he learned “how to adroitly administer the Big Lie, cover up unapproved news, pink-ribbon-wrap approved news, turn defeats into victories, and hordes of other Magical Tricks and Sleights-of-Hand.”) He lives in a dismaying part of Philadelphia, and, since his income from his fiction is unlikely to support him even on the level needed there, he does a little editing on the side. Which is not an unhappy notion, because every first-rate writer is also a first-rate editor, for an audience of one, operating a well-honed set of inner filters to strain all the dross from his own work, and it is usually not difficult for such a writer to externalize that filtering process in editorial work.

So Dozois the editor has been a first reader for Galaxy Magazine, though not lately, and serves just now as primary filtering system for the new Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. He has dabbled in anthology-making with considerable success: his books include A Day in the Life, Another World, Beyond the Golden Age, and Future Power, the last done with Jack Dann. Lately he has replaced Lester del Rey as editor of Dutton’s Best Science Fiction of the Year series, a shift that ought to produce remarkable transformations in the content of that anthology. In the science fiction world, anthologies are customarily edited by people close to the center of things, people who exercise power that is not entirely derived from their status as editors of anthologies; the fact that Dozois has been doing anthologies, and doing them successfully, indicates that for all his Dostoievskian submergedness he is becoming a member of the inner circle, a wielder of power, and it is an odd paradox that must afford him some amusement as he guns down the roaches.

Dozois the writer is still an outsider. Most of the readers have no idea even how to pronounce his name. (“Do-zwah” will do it.) He has never won a major award, though he has gone five times to the final Nebula ballot and been a Hugo finalist four times. There are good omens in that; it is not very surprising that Dozois, a writer’s writer, a master technician, would repeatedly be a Nebula nominee, since Nebulas are awarded by the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America. But Hugos come from the fans, the readership-at-large, a group in which skills of the nature of Dozois’ are often not only not appreciated but are actively resented. That his stories show up so frequently on the Hugo ballots indicates that a substantial sophisticated minority within the Hugo electorate finds deep rewards in his work: a good sign, both for Dozois and for science fiction in general.

Still, he has not been highly visible as a writer. The in-group of writers and fans knows and respects him, but to the casual SF reader he is still Gardner Who? Undoubtedly the fact that he is yet to publish his first novel is responsible for this, since nowadays science fiction is basically a paperback phenomenon, and a writer whose work is not to be found in the bookracks is a writer whose existence remains unknown. Dozois’ longest work to date is the novella, “Strangers,” published in New Dimensions in 1974 and a Hugo finalist; it runs about two-thirds the length of a standard paperback novel, so it should be no great task for him to transform it into one, but to date the rumored expansion has not appeared. He did collaborate with George Alec Effinger on one full-length novel, Nightmare Blue, but that book never reached the levels that either of these gifted writers attains alone, nor was it published in any very conspicuous way. Ultimately Dozois will release some novels and they will gain him the attention he deserves, but until then it will be difficult for him to establish much of a beachhead in the world of commercial publishing.

A science fiction writer who does not write novels generally has a hard time getting short story collections published. (There are exceptions—Ellison, Sheckley, Tenn—but not many.) So it is that the present volume, Dozois’ maiden collection, has been years aborning. Slow worker that he is, he has nevertheless produced fifteen or twenty stories over the past five years, enough for two or three collections, and it is good to see this painstaking, eloquent, and altogether original writer at last given a showcase for some of his best work.

Speaking at a science fiction convention held in Washington, D.C., in 1973, Dozois attempted to articulate his feelings about science fiction and his role as a writer of science fiction. “I may have been attracted to science fiction as a kid simply because it was such a hopelessly underdog sort of genre,” he said. “This struck a sympathetic response in my soul, as I was such a hopelessly underdog sort of kid. . . . My father told me more than once that if I kept reading science fiction it would ruin my life—and considering how things’ve turned out and the amount of money I make per year, he was probably right.” Dozois did not have kind words for the experimental science fiction of the late 1960s: “The New Wave blows it by turning out stories that are indistinguishable from the stories that fill avant-garde mainstream quarterlies and little magazines. . . . The most extreme of these so-called New Wave writers have abandoned the thread of rationality that is part of genre SF’s philosophical heritage, and so have diminished their work.” On the other hand, he went on, “The Old Wave fouls up by continuing to write the same old thing year after year, turning out the same old plots like yard-goods, chewing toothlessly on the same cardboard characters and played-out concepts. . . . The cut-and-dried place that they make of the galaxy, not even as interesting as Earth, leaves us with no surprise that the sense of wonder doesn’t live there anymore. They have abandoned that thread of irrationality, of fantasy, that is part of genre SF’s philosophical heritage, and so have diminished their work.”

And Dozois? “It is time for a synthesis,” he says, “a melding together of all that has been done in the past turbulent decade,” and he aligns himself with those writers who have produced works “that gain much of their power by rationalizing traditional fantasy, that keep the inner power of the dream and the irrational, but attempt to analyze it in terms of the known and the rational, that attempt to fuse yin and yang, to invoke works that will invoke the sense of wonder without insulting the rational intellect.”

It is a commendable goal. I think this collection demonstrates his success.

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