Profile of Gardner Dozois

The Hagiography Of St. Dozois

Did you know that Paul McCartney used to be in a different rock band before Wings? Okay, maybe that was too easy. Here's another. Did you know that Gardner Dozois is a better writer than he is an editor? No, really, listen:

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.

Those two paragraphs immediately above, with their sudden irruption into wit and color, "social pith" and vinegar, are the opening lines to "A Special Kind of Morning," in whch Gardner squanders enough ideas to fuel a standard trilogy of SF novels on one fast story-within-a-story that's ostensibly about a rebellion against a tyranny so absolute that no price is too great for liberty and a war so terrible that by its end those fighting it no longer care for victory. But really it's about life and love, valor and compassion and freedom and all those things that really matter. The two central events of the story, in fact - the lordling's first experience of physical love, and the death of the ancient storyteller - take place just before and after the story itself. And it's explicit that these events are forever recurrent, always happening, that it's always (somewhere, for somebody) a special kind of morning. Even on the day that you die.

So can you picture it now? Not a tenth of it.

Nor can you appreciate the high regard in which Gardner is held by his fellow writers unless you've actually read "Machines of Loving Grace" and "Chains of the Sea" and "Morning Child" and the scant few dozen other stories he's produced over the decades, most of which can be found in his two solo collections, The Visible Man and Geodesic Dreams, and his collaborative collection, Slow Dancing Through Time. He's picked up two Nebulas for his stories (they gleam demurely from amid the thicket of vulgar "best editor" Hugos on his trophy table), but so what? Awards are only important when you don't have any. What truely matters is the work itself, and to appreciate that you'll simply have to dig through used book stores to find his collections and his sad, beautiful novel, Strangers. It won't be easy. It'll be worth the effort.

So if this guy's so good, then what (I rhetorically posit that you might reasonably ask) is he doing working as an editor? I might claim simple economics. Everybody knows that nobody can make a living writing short fiction in this field, but even if you could make a living writing short fiction, you couldn't make a living writing it at the pace Gardner does. He's a craftman and an artist. The craftsman will will write no story before its time. The artist takes his orders from the hindbrain. If his hindbrain doesn't care to give him any material to work with this month, then tough. The unconscious knows nothing about the price of groceries.

When you write like that, you'd better have a day job.

But the connections are not so simple as that. Because Gardner's day job happens to be editing Asimov's, a position which he inherited from Shawna McCartha who in turn inherited it from George Scithers. Quite frankly Shawna and George were tough acts to follow. Both are capable and popular editors who published a lot of top-flight stories in Asimov's and established it as the single most important magazine in the field. Yet I believe that it is Gardner Dozois who will be forever associated with the magazine, much as Campbell is with Analog and Ross with the New Yorker, regardless how able those who follow him may be.

Again, why?

Bear with me, while I engage in a touch of circumlocution. I first met Gardner twenty-umpty-some years ago at a Philcon. He was sitting in a hallway, surrounded by fans, giving a dramatic reading of Robert Heinlein's Time Enough for Love, in order to demonstrate that sections of it had the same cadence as Longfellow's "Hiawatha." (Go ahead, try it for yourself. Chapter XI: "Stand with me on man's old planet,/gazing north when sky has darkened . . . Here is life or here is dying;/only sin is lack of trying./Grab your picks and grab your shovels;/dig latrines and build your hovels - " And so on.) He was a one-man carnival. Later that night, as one by one the parties closed down around our merry band, he led the survivors up and down the halls for hours looking for the mythical Last Party that must be surely out there somewhere.

Since then, I've hung out with Gardner a lot. I've seen him in extreme poverty and relative affluence. I was around when, almost totally blind, he checked into the hospital, expecting never to leave. I've co-written stories with him, one of which, a three-way with Jack Dann called "The Gods of Mars," made it onto the Nebula ballot, and another, "The City of God," which contains some of the finest prose (his) I've ever had the pleasure to muck about with. For the past several years I've been working on an interview in which I ask him detailed questions about every story he's ever had published. (It's currently up to 45,000 words and counting). So I know a lot about the man. I even know, as not many can claim to, about the time when he was five years old and his mother took him to the seashore at the height of a hurricane to watch the moon crash into the Earth.

But that's not what you want to hear about. You want a simple, lucid explanation of Gardner Dozois. For which, let's go back to the early 1970's.

Back then he used to visit Manhattan regularly to make the round of editors. While he was pitching and selling the occasional anthology to help keep body and soul together, he dropped praise in unreceptive editorial ears for new and talented writers like Gene Wolfe and Howard Waldrop, people whose work was considered too weird, too literary, just plain too good for science fiction. He was a one-man unpaid publicity service for stories now considered classics but back then so far out on the edge that they were in serious danger of going unpublished.

I saw Gardner only a day or two after he got the Asimov's gig, and I am here to testify that what he was ecstatic about was not the money or the influence or the status of the thing, but the chance to place some of those stories in print.

Sometimes I drop by when Gardner's working on his annual juggernaut of contemporary literature, The Year's Best Science Fiction (can we really be coming up on its fifteenth year?), agonizingly searching for a sufficient number of top-grade stories from other people's publications to make it clear that the volume is more than just this year's Best of Asimov's. And I am here to testify that every such story he finds in F&SF or Omni Online or Mike Resnick's Alternate Dental Hygienists is a spiritual pain to him. It grinches Gardner that somebody else got to publish them first.

It is this desire to find and publish "the good stuff" that drives and defines Gardner Dozois. He loves science fiction with an intensity that that very few can match.

Odin gave an eye for wisdom. Gardner paid for his editorship with his own fiction. Serious editing takes the same kind of creative energy as does serious writing. John W. Campbell was a highly-regarded writer before he took over Astounding. He lived to see that contribution almost forgotten. So too with Gardner Dozois. These days he writes maybe one story a year. Sometimes it's a light one. Sometimes not.

I had a dream the other night. I fell asleep reading Dumas, and it seemed to me that I was a Musketeer. In defense of the Queen's honor, I had quite handily killed several of Richelieu's men. At last, however, I was captured and brought before the vengeful Cardinal himself. Things were not looking good for me. But fortunately I had upon my person a most valuable parchment, which I presented to Richelieu with a flourish.

What has been done, it read, was done in my name and for the good of science fiction.

It was signed (of course) by Gardner Dozois.

© 1997 by Michael Swanwick; first appeared in the Philcon 97 Program Book. Reprinted in Moon Dogs, (2000, NESFA) under the title of "The Hagiography of St. Dozois".

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