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January/February 2021
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
David J. Skal
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

You Make the Best of What's Still Around

Things always get crazy in my line of work come August. That's when texts and emails and phone calls start to flood my office, all from desperate editors and publishers looking for me to provide the stories they need. By this time of the year, my clients know what's already been published to suit their needs, and they also have a pretty good idea of some items that are slated to appear in the magazines from August to December. And if those two categories of stories aren't enough to fill their own tables of contents, then it's up to me to make sure they have enough candidates to fully flesh out their anthologies when the year ends.

Bulking out the approximately one hundred and fifty ongoing annual Best of the Year volumes is a dirty business, but someone's got to do it.

So that morning, when I got a frantic phone call from Ed Huckshorn, editor of The Year's Best Science Fiction Stories Featuring Big Guns, Large-Bosomed Female Spies, Ethnic Bad Guys and Speculative Realpolitik Adventures, I was raring and ready to help him—and to line my own wallet as well.

Ed's voice was shaky, as if he had indulged his woes with a little too much booze last night. "Danny, listen, I'm dying here. I've only curated ten stories from all the print and online publications so far, and I need at least fifteen to puff out this year's selection. From what I can see, there's hardly anything in the magazine pipeline. I don't know what it is, but my kind of stories are in a slump."

"Maybe it's the fact that the world's been more or less totally at peace, and with a newly vibrant and equitable economy, ever since we ended the pandemic."

"Jeez, I know it! Just my luck to get a bunch of smart, cooperative, neo-Keynesian pacifist world leaders in office! But whatever it is, there's still an audience for these kinda stories, and I gotta have 'em. What can you do for me?"

I consulted my spreadsheet of writers to see who was free, and who could produce the type of tale that Huckshorn needed.

"Well, I can assign two to Jim Frystock—he bangs out that kinda stuff like the sun spits out neutrinos—and one apiece to Beth Inyard, Buddy Malmstrom, and Hargus McGhee. That should do you up right."

"Could you make one of them a novella?"

"With this short notice? It's gonna cost you double, aside from the usual higher word-count rates."

"I don't care, my publisher is breathing down my neck. Whatever it takes. Now, how about placement? Still guaranteed?"

"Of course. All five stories will appear in various magazines between now and the end of the year, and no fans or readers will ever know they didn't just come in through the slushpile. They will appear to have been selected strictly on their own merits by neutral and objective magazine editors. But I do have to announce an upcoming editorial fee increase. Greasing the palms of these periodical gatekeepers is getting more and more expensive."

Huckshorn sighed dramatically. "I'm over a barrel, what can I do? Some days I wish things were different, that maybe there were fewer bottees. But that'll never happen. There's no going backward."

"I guess not. Well, you'll get my invoice once all the stories are written and scheduled. Good luck with your honorable mentions list."

"Oh, hell, did you have to remind me?"

After I hung up with Huckshorn, I emailed the assignments to the four writers, reminding them that my commission from their share of the magazine payments had gone up to twenty percent. They grumbled, but consented.

And then the calls from frantic BOTY editors really started flooding in.

I heard from Elinor Safiro, editor of The Year's Best Humorous But Heart-Tugging Urban Fantasy Stories Featuring Skinny Teenage Witches, Their Cute Animal Familiars, and Sexy but Nonthreatening Male Supernatural Monsters.

I heard from Kitzi Brackenbury, editor of The Year's Best Mundane SF Stories of Paradigm-Shifting Inversions of Ancient Power Structures by Loner Rebels, Resulting in Questionable Utopias.

I heard from Freddie Smokehouse, editor of The Year's Best Stories of Splatterpunk Horror Functioning Both as Social Commentary and Manifestation of Universal Archetypes, Without Any Elder Cosmic Deities.

I heard from Staria Slakelime, editor of The Year's Best Stories of Elves, Magic, Plot Coupons, Quests, Dragons, Talismanic Tokens and Scenes of Hearty Eating, All Set in a Compact Proto-European Landscape.

I heard from Ross Buzzinny, editor of The Year's Best Stories of Emo Androids Seeking a Place Amongst Humans Biased Against Them, Except for a Few Sensitive Souls Who Also Happen to Be Android-Engineering Geniuses.

And from a handful of others, all of them needing me to supply them with their particular type of story that could later be ostensibly selected as an outstanding instance of its type.

By the time I had dealt with all of their requests, my spreadsheet of writers had very few empty cells left on it, and so I decided it was time to interview some fresh help. I found the top name on the list of applicants for a job with me, and within minutes I had the person on Zoom.

She was a young writer named Lorelei Ford, who had published about a dozen stories so far, with several of them getting good reviews on social media, but none of which had made it into any of the bottees. I had taken a quick look at her prose, and I thought I understood why her stuff kept getting overlooked.

On screen Lorelei was eager, ingenuous and smart-looking, with longish brown hair and a pioneer face like one of Grant Wood's women.

"Lorelei, you'll pardon my canned speech, but I just need to make sure you have the background to what we do here."

She nodded enthusiastically. "Please, go right ahead."

"In 1949, the first of the genre 'best of the year collections'—or 'bottees,' as we refer to them these days—was launched by E. F. Bleiler and Ted Dikty. For decades afterward the field hosted just a competitive handful of such anthologies, from names like Merril, Wollheim, Carr, and of course, the gold standard guy, Dozois. In addition, there were several series which reprinted the award winners for each year. But all in all, these few volumes could represent only a fraction of the stories that appeared in the past twelve months—the real crème de la crème—and yet they managed to represent excellence, and a broad, inclusive picture of the field.

"But in our century, things began to change. Genre writing split up into myriad sub-niches, and the bottees had to proliferate to match the candidates. Blinkered readers seemed to like getting just the limited selection of story-types that matched their special interests. You no longer had to skip over items in a more wide-ranging collection that didn't appeal to you. If you liked only robots, you got only robots. If you liked only werewolves, you got only werewolves. And so on, to the point we've reached today, of ultra-specialization, where practically every story that appears ends up in one or another best-of collection."

Lorelei's face conveyed that she was plainly mulling all this over. "I see. As a newcomer, I was actually kinda vague on how we got to this point. But where does your service come in, and what exactly do you do?"

"Well, it's like this. Wait a minute, did you sign the non-disclosure agreement I sent? Okay, sure, I see I've got it here on my desktop. I need your secrecy, because what I'm about to reveal is sensitive material.

"Writers, as I need not tell you, are quirky beings, and, left to their own devices, they don't reliably produce the exact number or kinds of stories that our one hundred and fifty bottees need in order to fill their pages. So we commission stories that will supplement any gaps in the tables of contents."

Lorelei gave me that shocked look I had seen a hundred times before. "But—but you mean then that these stories are pre-chosen to be labeled the best, even though they might not objectively be the best?"

"Yeah, that's pretty much our grift in a nutshell."

"But that's sad and horrible and unfair! If a story is included in a best of the year collection, it should be there on its own real merits. And what about such a story taking the place of a different story that should be there instead?"

"Listen, kid, our made-to-order stories aren't blocking any other candidates. Remember, there are no other candidates for the empty berths. That's why we got called in. And as for questions of merit—well, all my writers are top-notch pros and produce very readable stuff. Who's to say what 'best' means anyhow?"

I could see that Lorelei was wavering, so I hit her with the perks. "This is a swell job for any writer. Guaranteed magazine sales, and then you're sanctified as a best of the year pick. That's gonna look great on any book covers of yours, and will help you get a book deal in the first place. All you have to do is write specifically to my orders. And I think you can do it, kid, despite your own stories being too broad and universal. That's why none of your tales have been selected for any bottee so far. You don't drill into the sub-sub-sub-genres deep enough. Why, your kind of fiction could be enjoyed by almost anyone! And these days, that means enjoyed by no one!"

I thought the kid might burst into tears at hearing the harsh reality of this biz. Others had, when I laid it out for them. But she proved to be made of sterner stuff.

"Why don't you just package and sell theme anthologies?"

"Huh? Whadda ya mean?"

"You know, like Martin Greenberg used to do. Alternate Kennedys. Hollywood Unreel. Election Day 2084. Books with all new stories responding to the same topic or prompt. Maybe Greenberg's themes were too broad for the current marketplace. But you could narrow them down as precise as you wanted. And it'd be an honest presentation. Everybody would still get paid, but without lies."

I chewed over the idea. "Yeah, I see it could maybe move a few units. But you're throwing away the most important selling point. The best. These are the best stories, the winners, the champs. They've beaten out all the competitors. They sit at the top of the heap. The bee-e-ess-tee best! It's the American way. Nobody wants anything less than the best, even if we have to fake it. You get my point? Now, are you in or out?"

Lorelei sighed, and said, "I'm in. But I insist on a pen name. I'm saving my real name for my own personal best."


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