Gardner Dozois is Guest of Honor at the Millennium Philcon, and Strange Days is his festschrift and showcase, the veritable Great Book of Dozois. Compiled and edited with NESFA Press’s by now well-honed zealous promptitude, it is a magnificent miscellany, more than 500 pages of stories (approximately half written in collaboration with the likes of Michael Swanwick and Jack Dann) and admiring essays by peers and acolytes (such as Kim Stanley Robinson, George R. R. Martin, and Andy Duncan). The principle of selection followed may be questionedstories available online were rigidly excluded, denying Strange Days the opportunity to be absolutely definitivebut Dozois is one of the finest writers of short fiction in SF’s history, and the feast here presented, twenty-two strong short stories and novellas, will suffice for now...
To read Strange Days is to perceive an odd, and textually fascinating, opposition. In the festschrift essays (which are numerous and possibly a tad repetitious), and to some extent in his own long 1995 Glasgow Worldcon “Travel Diary”, Dozois the manDozois the magisterial editor, Dozois the literary collaborator, Dozois the party animalis pictured as a rambunctious Rabelaisian extrovert, an outrageous raconteur and instinctive practical joker, whose output of fiction, however limited in volume by his extensive editorial duties, should surely exude an equivalent comic energy. And some of it doesbut only his collaborations. The mischief evident there is indeed huge, apt to blast holes in genre boundaries and leap antically through them; Swanwick and Dann seem to bring this out in Dozois, and the Barsoom-addled astronauts of “The Gods of Mars”, the enchanted computer salesman in the exquisite “Golden Apples of the Sun”, and the blundering wizard who spends an “Afternoon at Schrafft’s” are all cheerfully bamboozled by literary circumstance. Susan Casper can elicit a Kuttnerian smile from Dozois, as in their joint modern fairy tale “Send No Money”. But elsewhere, even in some collaborations, there is very little cheer at all; and here is the Gardner Paradox: where does all the joy go when he writes solo, without a social stimulus? (Unless it was always the joy of despair.)
This is not to criticize. Dozois, writing his seminal early stories in the Seventies, was affected very deeply by the romantic pessimism of the New Wave and by the hollow ache the expired New Wave left behind. His writing took an intense, brooding modernist turn as a matter of course; perhaps in any case fundamentally a writer of Horror, Dozois is most productively viewed as a potent precursor to Lucius Shepard, as radically lyrical, as obsessed with the mechanics of the soul under siege. To read pure Dozois is to face authentic metaphysical shock. Protagonists crumble; perceptions implode; the world itself goes bitter and strange. The effect of all this is very powerful indeed, however far divorced from the Chestertonian festiveness of that other, essay-, editor-, and impresario-Dozois, that Falstaff of Philadelphia...
The paradigm Dozois story (and the title entry in his first collection, back in 1977) is probably “The Visible Man”, reprinted in Strange Days. Rowan is utterly ordinary, yet has acquired a vicious celebrity: as a condemned criminal in the authoritarian America of the future, he is ostracized to the point that he can see no one else, while everyone else can still see himsomewhat of a handicap for an escaped prisoner. And to this outré but relatively mundane torture is added another, far deeper, that strips away any pretension to autonomy of will... The setting is plain; the style is rich; the agony is ingeniously varied, an oscillation between the circles of Hell. Dozois’s great literary theme is Everyman in Pandemonium, and although he occasionally strikes the same note twice over (the anti-cyberpunk story “Solace” is too much “The Visible Man” at three-quarters strength), Hell is a spacious and many-storied realm, and Dozois is one of its ablest tour guides.
Highlights of the tour: “Flash Point” pictures modern American society undergoing a withering spontaneous combustion. “The Clowns” (Dann and Casper quakingly in tow) brilliantly intimates the rictus sneer behind the painted smile, to a young boy’s entire undoing. “Down Among the Dead Men” (Dann present but no restraint) afflicts inmates of a Nazi death camp with a vampire over and above the jackboots, and the Holocaust is anatomized with a searing originality. “Dinner Party” is a devastating dispiriting blow to the guts of all arrogant patriarchs, as their world falls apart. “Executive Clemency” (notionally written with Jack C. Haldeman II but all Dozois in affect) diminishes reflex American patriotism to backwater-enclave irrationality, and then kicks the stuffing out of it. “The Storm” and “The Last Day of July” constitute a sort of diptych of parallel psychological ruinations, the first proposing a new (but fortunately impractical) method of suicide, and the second a probably illusory transcendence of world but not of self. But what’s this? Transcendence?!?
For all his rigorous impatience with false modes of consolation, Dozois does, in the end, dole out some slight measures of reassurance. Two of the most substantial and impressive entries in Strange Days manage a glint of optimism, all the more encouraging for the particular painterly eloquence of the stories’ delivery. “Strangers”, the 1974 novella later expanded to book length, is a superb poetic depiction of the love, horribly undermined by mutual cultural misprision, between a footloose (and frankly pretty obtuse) human artist and a misfit woman of an extraterrestrial species. The despondency of Dozois’s vision is intense, but the artist’s ultimate adaptability, his abrupt surrender to an imperative alien yet familiar, carries a strange charge of hope. And “A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows”, the most recent story here, has a cunning indeterminate ending that may just vouchsafe the protagonist, caught between the causes of human and machine, true volition and a hand in shaping the scheme of things.
A smile cracks the Gardner visage after all. Maybe. Conditionally. He would likely dispute it. As the Philadelphia Worldcon honors him, as his party spirit breaks free, savor his visible ebullience, for however fine a collection Strange Days may be, its comforts are sparing, and grim indeed.