I used to follow the year’s best anthology series edited by Gardner Dozois — arguably the annual standard-bearer for quality short fiction in the genre — pretty steadily, but I got out of the habit a while ago. I used to read much more heavily at shorter lengths, and there was easily enough crossover between the magazines and Dozois’ anthology to make buying the latter redundant. Things have changed, though — most of my short fiction reading these days is at the submission level for Futurismic — so reading my first year’s best in a while, The Year’s Best Science Fiction, 26th Annual Collection (2009), felt like a brand-new experience. And by and large I found it a highly rewarding one.
One thing I learned right off the bat was that, this year at least, there isn’t nearly as much cross-over from the magazines. The overwhelming majority of the selections are from print sources — indeed, only one story appeared originally online — but considerably more of the stories came from anthologies rather than magazines, and only two of the usual suspects, namely Asimov’s and F&SF, are extensively represented. Another thing I learned was that, uh, copy-editing ain’t what it used to be. But those things are neither here nor there; let’s consider the fiction.
This probably says more about my sensibilities than the actual makeup of the book, but as I worked my way through it — particularly in the early-going — I found myself separating the stories into two broad categories: near-future SF and space-based SF. Excellent stories fall on either side of this (perhaps artificial, Chris East-created) divide, but for me the more exciting ones landed on the side where I’m usually camped out, the near-future one. Ultimately a number of stories defied this simple categorization scheme, particularly late in the volume.
I’ll discuss the near-future/Mundane SF first, since that’s where the most exciting highlights were for me. My very favorite story of the book certainly falls into that category: Maureen F. McHugh’s “Special Economics” is a frighteningly good story of realistic near-future speculation, a complex and vivid scenario involving young girls in China who unwittingly sell themselves into exploitative corporate debt slavery at a biotech factory in the wake of a population-draining bird flu epidemic. If that sounds like a grim, dystopian nightmare, think again — to its delightfully lively characters, this dark existence is the world they know, and their bravery and hopefulness in the face of strenuous circumstances is a joy to behold. If this isn’t McHugh’s best story ever, it must be pretty close.
But there are other standouts on the futurismic front. Take Paolo Bacigalupi’s ass-kicking “The Gambler,” in which an expatriate Laotian journalist, struggling to generate traffic in the cut-throat L.A. media scene, receives an opportunity to really boost his hits. This is a hard-hitting, meaningful story about small, important messages in a society too often warped by sensationalism, and it had me literally cheering its protagonist as it came to a close. A similarly detailed and vibrant future is depicted in Ian McDonald’s “An Eligible Boy,” which returns to the impressive milieu of his novel River of Gods. A drastic gender imbalance in future India leads the eponymous protagonist to try out an A.I. aid in his pursuit of a suitable mate. It’s a rich and wholly engaging story that tackles an important idea even as it tells a darkly hopeful story. Wrapping up my wheelhouse standouts are two selections from Interzone, Greg Egan’s “Crystal Nights” and Hannu Rajaniemi’s “His Master’s Voice.” The Egan story is a characteristically information-dense tale of a wealthy man whose new, massively powerful supercomputers give him the perfect venue to play God with an artificial life form, in a virtually created world. It’s a riveting thought experiment far more fascinating than my thumbnail description could ever be. Rajaniemi’s story is similarly thick with neat new data and ideas; taking place on a decommissioned oil rig in international waters, it’s the story of sentient pets who attempt to rescue their master, a wealthy rogue who’s seeking to outwit anti-cloning laws. Rajaniemi has an exciting, distinctive voice, and I can’t wait to see more of his work. These five stories were, by far, the cream of the crop in my book.
Less effective for me, but still good, was Ted Kosmatka’s “N-Words,” where the societal infusion of a race of cloned Neanderthals transforms the racial debate. It’s grim and effective, if a bit on-the-nose. The same might be said of Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Evil Robot Monkey,” a vignette depicting the plight of a modified chimpanzee that exists in an uncomfortable limbo between full human sentience and true animal behavior. As a condemnation of poorly thought out experimentation, it hits hard, but doesn’t really stick around to go anywhere. A step up from these two is “The Egg Man” by Mary Rosenblum, an engaging and detailed glimpse of the author’s ongoing Drylands universe (correct me if I’m mistaken on that — I’m a newcomer to the world). In this one, a Mexican relief volunteer journeys into the ungoverned wilds of a devastated U.S. racked by water shortages, ostensibly to help its abandoned citizens, but secretly also on a personal mission. It’s a darkly realized environmental dystopia, powerfully writen.
What strikes me most about the Mundane and near-future work above is that it really appears to be about something — not just engaging story-telling, but imminent scientific, political, and sociological issues confronting us. Bleakness is often an issue with this type of story, and certainly these aren’t the cheeriest of worlds on display — which is why the McHugh and Bacigalupi stories truly stand out, for embedding hope into their dark messages. But the fact that all these stories confront and extrapolate from contemporary issues just makes them seem all the more artistically relevant and satisfying to me.
I can’t say I felt the same way about the majority of the otherworldly, deep-future space fiction on display here. In these stories, the focus seems to me to be more on large canvas universes, adventure, and invention. In many ways, their worlds are no less dark and grim, even though the focus seems to be more on fun and excitement. By far the story I enjoyed the most in this vein was Paul McAuley’s “Incomers,” which takes place in his Quiet War universe and involves ignorant kids who undertake the investigation of a mysterious man on Saturn’s moon Rhea. In what is essentially a story of disaffected youth learning, the hard way, the sacrifices of their predecessors, McAuley’s history-rich future succeeds largely on the strength of its engagingly visualized setting, which really pushes the sense of wonder buttons. Also impressive is Alastair Reynolds’ sprawling far future novella “The Six Directions of Space,” which follows an intelligence operative from an alternate universe in which the Mongolian Empire still reigns. Deftly combining espionage, space opera, and alternate world tropes, Reynolds tell an engaging, rousing adventure story, painting on an impressively enormous canvas.
Perhaps the most interesting of these stories, to me anyway, was “The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay. On a harsh world ruled by warring factions, a spy gets caught in the midst of a civil war and finds himself incarcerated in a brutal concentration camp. Although given some SFnal street cred by a subplot involving oppressed aliens in this society, “The Political Prisoner” is interesting mainly as an examination of human brutality in the name of political positioning…and also, I suspect, as a homage to Alan Furst, whose complex WWII Europe is rebuilt here on a space opera stage and features a similar tale of stubborn human survival against steep odds. I’m not entirely sure it needed to be science fiction, but it’s definitely a powerful piece.
A number of the stories in this category, however, just didn’t connect with me. While by and large I’m certain it’s mostly just a matter of my tastes not being catered to, in some instances it did feel like the stories truly didn’t warrant “best-of” status on some objective level. That’s certainly my feeling about Dominic Green’s “Shining Armour,” anyway; it’s a Manga come to life about a distant farming colony’s defense of its territory thanks to a powerful robotic exoskeleton. This one struck me as fairly predictable SF adventure, set on a distant world that didn’t really seem all that otherworldly. “Balancing Accounts” by James L. Cambias, which is about a robot that accepts a dodgy job transporting cargo between the moons of Saturn, struck me as a well written but run-of-the-mill space mystery. Disappointing to a lesser degree is “Boojum” by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, which aside from its creative depiction of a sentient, biological pirate spaceship, just didn’t strike me as all that exceptional — well done space opera, but that’s about it. Then there’s Michael Swanwick, an author whose bandwagon doesn’t always seem to roll down my street — although, at times, his writing can be startlingly good. Not so, in my opinion, with “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled,” in which a survivor of a space colony disaster is rescued by an artificially intelligent, high-tech spacesuit. Its inventive setting and experimental typography didn’t win me over; I mostly found it off-putting and hard to access. Karl Schroeder’s “The Hero,” meanwhile, didn’t quite transcend its intricate world-building in what’s essentially and old school SF actioner about a young adventurer on a suicide mission to solve an ancient mystery. Most of these stories are well written, but I just found them all uninspiring — I suspect on some level my sense-of-wonder gland has just been desensitized to this kind of stuff.
The parade of space fiction semi-misfires continues with Paul McAuley’s second selection for the volume, “City of the Dead,” a deceivingly titled, mild mannered space western about frontier colonists investigating alien artifacts. It’s deftly plotted and contains some interesting sfnal concepts, but the setting isn’t all that different from 21st century Wyoming, and I found myself setting it aside with a shrug. More enjoyable to me was Gwyneth Jones’ “The Voyage Out,” an eery and atmospheric science fantasy involving a prison barge full of criminals being sent to a faraway colony. Originally printed in an anthology of lesbian genre fiction, the title reads two ways, in a generally effective story that made a good impression, if not a terribly deep one. The second Ian McDonald story on offer, “The Tear,” closes out the entire anthology, and I think it may have suffered for its placement at the far end of a very long book full of mostly quite long stories. Inventive, yes, well written, yes, but to me it was difficult to get into, and lacked the vivid immediacy of his near-future work. Finally, there’s Gord Sellar’s unfortunate “Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moons’ Blues,” a colorful but rambling romp through an alternate 1940s wherein jazz musicians tour the solar system on an alien spaceship. Aside from a few intriguing descriptions of the aliens’ inaccessible music, this one just seemed overwrought and not terribly interesting.
I’ve focused considerable energy on the Near Future vs. Space Fiction dichotomy so far, but lest you be polluted too thoroughly by the lens through which I tend to view the genre, I’ll move on now to the stories that defied my simple categorization scheme, stories that fell into the hazy zone between Mundane near futures and flight-of-fantasy far ones — or off that whole scale entirely. In order to build to a happier ending, I’ll start with my least favorite of these and work my way up, which means starting with James Alan Gardner’s “The Ray Gun: A Love Story,” a nostalgic piece of allegorical SF that may be the one true head-scratcher for inclusion in a best-of anthology. This one is about a boy who finds a truly skiffy ray gun in the woods one day, and how this powerful tool drastically changes the course of his life. I found the YA-ish narrative approach stylistically annoying, and it felt way too long for its message; I’ve read work by Gardner I’ve liked, but not here. Noted with something of a shrug is Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “G-Men,” which falls into that decidedly skiffy subgenre of “celebrity alternate world” fiction. This one plots a divergent historical trajectory around the timelines of RFK, LBJ, and J. Edgar Hoover. Eh. As for Jay Lake’s “The Sky That Wraps the World Round, Past the Blue and Into the Black,” I’m afraid I found this tale of a spacer, whose quiet life of exile on Earth is interrupted when his history catches up with him, a bit too stylistically convoluted.
Moving on to stories I found more enjoyable…the anthology’s opener, “Turing’s Apples” by Stephen Baxter, manages to straddle the near future/far future divide by putting its characters at the center of a scientific effort to decrypt alien signals that could lead to an earth-shattering transformation of our world. Baxter pulls of a classic “two guys talking about ideas” story fairly well, thanks to a deft combination of big concepts and intimate character interactions. Robert Reed’s “Five Thrillers” ricochets deftly from space to Earth and back again in an ultimately grim and disturbing tale about a thoroughly amoral man who figures prominently in a number of important events. Both of these stories are diverting and effective, but didn’t really linger that long in the memory for me. Next to consider is Garth Nix’s “Old Friends,” a nuanced and well written environmental metaphor about a literally “green” hero dualing toxic creatures from the ocean — an able-handed science fantasy with an appealing monster movie feel: not overwhelming, but nice work.
Two of the more impressive, and less classifiable, stories are by newer writers. Daryl Gregory’s “The Illustrated History of Lord Grimm,” perhaps one of the most strikingly unique stories in the anthology, takes us to an offbeat, fictional Baltic nation that keeps getting run over by enemy invasions. It puts its characters through some interesting, and brutal, paces, without ever clearly defining its surreal backdrop. This one reminded me of the Finlay in its message about humankind’s stubborn persistence when it comes to perpetuating unnecessary tragedy, and like the Finlay, I kind of wondered if it might not have made its point a bit more concisely. Still, intriguing and disquieting stuff. Aliette de Bodard’s “Butterfly, Falling at Dawn,” takes us to an exquisitely rendered alternate history/near future. The twist in this particular timeline is that Mexico was colonized by Chinese explorers, dramatically shifting the track of American history. That de Bodard uses this colorful world to tell what is essentially a nicely clocked, vividly drawn police procedural is only mildly disappointing, in light of how the intricate and surprising world-building elevates the proceedings.
I’ll wrap up the “harder-to-classify” crowd with the stories I felt were the best. First is Nancy Kress’ recent Hugo winner “The Erdmann Nexus,” a novella that feels shorter (always a good sign) about a physicist who finds himself wrangling with an inexplicable phenomenon when he and his fellow retirement home residents start experiencing spontaneous group consciousness. The premise is really far-fetched, but Kress pulls it all off with, quite simply, superior story-telling — indeed, it may well be the best told story in the entire anthology. Granted, there is a bit of a wish fulfillment feel to the empowerment-of-the-elderly concept, but it’s easy to see why the story was popular for other reasons — chiefly, it’s just a rousing good read. And finally there’s Geoff Ryman’s novella “Days of Wonder,” which — for me, anyway — delivered more sheer sense of wonder than all the deep space fiction in the volume combined. In the far future, humanity has survived by hybridizing with the animals and living off the land…but the order may be disrupted for a group of migrating horses when one of their own’s more human instincts come to the fore. Overall I found this one pretty damn awe-inspiring: a great, brisk read with some impressive far-future world-building and built-in lore, that also examines interesting questions of memory, environmental stewardship, the instinct for survival, and the perpetuation of human culture and ideas.
To sum up, this latest year’s best edition tries to deliver a little something for everybody, and for the most part it succeeds admirably, its best works more than redeeming its lesser ones. At its worst, and only occasionally, its selections left me scratching my head. But at its best, and much more frequently, I found it filling me with renewed excitement for short genre fiction, and that in itself was worth the price of admission.