Exclusive Interview: The Final Frontier Editor Neil Clarke
For the last couple years,Clarkesworld Magazine editor Neil Clarke has assembled what he feels are the best science fiction stories into aptly titled anthologies dubbed The Best Science Fiction Of The Year: Volume One, Volume Two, and Volume Three, with next year’s Volume Four already in the works. But he’s also, during that time, put together some collections that were more thematic but less time-sensitive. In the following email interview, Clarke discusses his latest of those, the space-centric collection The Final Frontier: Stories Of Exploring Space, Colonizing The Universe, And First Contact (paperback, Kindle).
To start, what is the theme of The Final Frontier?
Space exploration and all the wonderful things that go along with that.
And why did you think this was a good theme to build The Final Frontier around?
I had a lot of fun working on Galactic Empires the year before, and in the process of assembling that anthology, I came across a lot of great stories I had to pass-over because they didn’t feature galactic civilizations. Those stories helped shape the theme for The Final Frontier and made it a logical companion to that anthology.
Beyond having to fit the theme, how else did you decide what would and wouldn’t go in The Final Frontier? For instance, did they have to be written recently or are there some stories that were written a few years ago?
In this case, I wanted to focus on stories from the last twenty years. I think the stories from that window play rather nicely with one another, and it allowed me to focus on the current state of the theme. I have nothing against the older works, but I didn’t want to make this an historical retrospective.
When assembling a collection like this, with a theme, how strict are you with it? Like if there was a really good story, but it was somewhat off-topic, would you still consider it?
Fairly strict. Sometimes you just put those off-topic stories in a spreadsheet and hope you can find another use for them someday. As I mentioned, the concept for this anthology was seeded by stories I couldn’t take for Galactic Empires. I’m open to the theme being expanded by something I hadn’t originally considered, but those stories still have to fit in with the others and the theme you’ve sold the publisher on.
And how often when considering a story for The Final Frontier did you reject it for being too much of a rip-off of Star Trek?
Yes, there was certainly some of that, but probably not as much as you’d think. It might have been a bigger problem if this had been an original anthology, but with a reprint anthology, I’m looking at stories that have been previously published in magazines or anthologies. The more blatant rip-offs would have been filtered out at that level.
Gotcha. Now, a few months ago we did a similar interview about The Best Science Fiction Of The Year: Volume 3 [which you can read here]. How did you decide what you’d put in that book instead of The Final Frontier, and vice versa? Or, as the case may be, what you’ll be saving for The Best Science Fiction Of The Year: Volume 4.
The Best Science Fiction Of The Year series has a far broader theme but much narrower range of publication dates for the stories I’ll consider. It’s certainly possible that a story from 2017 could have been in top consideration for both, but it didn’t work out that way. I did, however, include some stories that appeared in earlier volumes of Best Science Fiction. I’m less likely to repeat something from one theme anthology to another.
Traditional publishing is also fairly slow-moving. I turned in The Final Frontier back in January, so there never a chance that a 2018 story being considered for The Best Science Fiction Of The Year: Volume Four could have been included.
As you mentioned, The Final Frontier is not the first thematic sci-fi anthology you’ve done. Along with the Galactic Empires you mentioned earlier, you also did one last year called More Human Than Human, which was a collection of stories about artificial life. How do you decide what themes will make for good anthologies? Do you just notice when a bunch of people have written good stories along similar lines or do you come up with a theme and then go looking for stories that fit it?
Sometimes it’s those spreadsheets I mentioned, a random comment from a friend or colleague, a movie or TV show, or reading a story and thinking “I want more like this.” Those themes end up in the idea file and when it comes time to pitch new projects, I’ll use a wish list of stories I’m familiar with to help refine it even further. The strongest concepts go out to the publishers and if I’m lucky, they’ll pick one up. After the contracts are signed, I put out a general call for submissions and recommendations to supplement the research and rereading I typically do.
I never actually planned to be in publishing or editing. I’m a lifelong fan of science fiction, particularly short fiction. Late in life, I launched a magazine and discovered I loved the work. Twelve years later, I can’t imagine not doing it.
The Final Frontier, like The Best Science Fiction Of The Year: Volume 3, is around 600 pages long. Is that something you consider when deciding on a theme for an anthology, how long the book will be?
The projects I’ve done for Night Shade have all been around 250K words each. That’s more their preference. It definitely impacts the themes I can work with and the approaches I can take with them. I’ve done shorter projects and would be happy doing more of those as well. The big bonus to these longer anthologies is the flexibility to include more novellas. I might only be able to get away with one or two in a shorter anthology. The inverse holds true too, though. I don’t put a lot of very short pieces in the big anthologies because I’d end up with too many stories. Finding the right balance — number of stories, length of stories — is an important aspect of editing an anthology.
Speaking of other anthologies, you have another one being published by Night Shade this year called Not One Of Us. What can you tell us about that collection in terms of its theme, included authors, and release date?
I’ll be revealing the cover and announcing the table of contents for this one later this month, but this one is an exploration of stories about aliens on Earth. It’s scheduled for publication on November 6th.
Were there any stories that you considered for both The Final Frontier and Not One Of Us?
No. The Earth-bound focus for Not One of Us eliminated any stories that I might have considered for The Final Frontier.
Now, in the time between our previous interview and this one, your fellow sci-fi editor Gardner Dozios [Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection] passed away. What did you learn from reading the sci-fi anthologies he edited and in what ways did they influence what you did in The Final Frontier?
Gardner was a friend and had been the reprint editor at Clarkesworld Magazine, my magazine, for the last five years. His anthologies and time as editor at Asimov’s certainly impacted the way I work, but I’m hard-pressed to give a specific example. The fingerprint is there though, I’m sure.
Finally, as you said, you’re a fan of short fiction. So I’m going to be a jerk and put you on the spot by asking you what sci-fi novel should someone check out if they enjoy The Final Frontier?
With all the reading I do for Clarkesworld and Best Science Fiction Of The Year, I don’t get much time for novels. I will, however, recommend The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts. I always make time for anything new by Peter and this was outstanding, as usual. Peter is also the author of the closing story in The Final Frontier.
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