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JULY 2004

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Gary K. Wolfe Reviews the Year's Best SF Anthologies July 2004

  • The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-First Annual Collection, Gardner Dozois, ed. (St. Martin’s Griffin 0-312-32478-2, $35.00, 704pp, hc; -32479, $19.95, tp) July 2004. Cover by Jean Pierre Normand.

  • Year’s Best SF 9, David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer, eds. (Eos 0-06-057559, $7.99, 500pp, pb) June 2004. Cover by Jeff Bridges.

  • Science Fiction: The Best of 2003, Karen Haber & Jonathan Strahan, eds. (ibooks 0-7434-7919-X, $7.99, 436pp, pb) March 2004. Cover by Ciaran Devine.

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It may be something of a sign of the times, or of times to come, that of the 56 unduplicated stories collected in this year’s three "year’s best" SF annuals (out of a total of 63), nearly half come from sources other than the traditional SF print magazines: 19, or just over a third, are from books (original anthologies, collections, and chapbooks), while another half dozen are from online sources and one even from The New Yorker. Asimov’s is represented with a respectable 17, while F&SF clocks in with seven (one of which appears in two anthologies), and the entire rest of the field (which is pretty much down to Analog and the shaky Interzone) yields a grand total of five (two of which are included in two anthologies). These figures change only slightly when we include Jonathan Strahan’s Best Short Novels: 2004, a collection of nine novellas published by the Science Fiction Book Club - the total unduplicated number goes up to 62, with 29 from sources other than print magazines and Asimov’s increasing its count to 19 - but the point remains the same, and it’s not altogether a sanguine one. While it might be pretty to see all this as a sign that SF has continued to spread beyond the ghetto walls - with all the talk we’ve heard lately about genre-bending in periodical anthologies such as McSweeney’s and Polyphony - a more likely assessment is that the commercial magazine ghetto itself is slowly vanishing, even though those reduced sales figures, in the 20 to 40 thousand range for the Big Three, would still be enough to make many first novelists (and most authors of story collections) green with envy. In the February year-in-review issue of this magazine, along with the ski-slope charts of circulation figures that look like George Bush’s approval ratings, we noted that the four major magazines (Analog, Asimov’s, F&SF, and Interzone) struggled to produce a grand total of 41 issues between them, and that 2003 was the first year since 1923 that the field had gone without a monthly fiction magazine (not counting those "double issues" meant to cover two months at once). Lest we think that mainstream or small-press periodicals might take up the slack, forget it - of 56 stories, the five esteemed editors of these three annuals could collectively come up with a grand total of two from such sources, that New Yorker story (in Haber and Strahan) and one from Salon (in Dozois).

This leaves the original anthology as the most likely new source of short fiction, and indeed it seems to be a resurgent form in the past few years, capable of finding new market hooks where the magazines seem all but helpless. In fact, if one were to name an anthology of the year based on these annuals, it would likely be Janis Ian & Mike Resnick’s Stars: Stories Based on the Songs of Janis Ian, which shows up five times in the three anthologies, suggesting a marketing strategy entirely new to the field, even though Ian herself now belongs in the ranks of middle-aged SF fans: maybe if we could get Avril Lavigne or Mary Kate & Ashley to ’fess up as SF nuts, we could reclaim some of those younger readers people are constantly grieving over the loss of. Mike?

The good news, as it seems to be every year, is that the quality of short fiction in the field is about as good as it’s ever been, and each of the annuals demonstrates this in ways both similar and dissimilar from one another. In its third year, the Haber/Strahan volume (with Strahan replacing Robert Silverberg) is the strongest yet in this series; although including only 14 stories, it may provide the highest quotient of entertainment value of all three. With 20 stories, the Hartwell/Cramer volume demonstrates little of the Whiggishness that has occasionally marked this series, mixing ambitiously literary tales with a few almost whimsical exercises that seem more designed to represent the state of SF technique than any particular standard of excellence. Dozois, as he has for decades now, approaches his task with an admirable zeal that sometimes borders on the missionary; he wants to show us what SF is capable of (whether we want to know that or not), and if Asimov’s serves as his in-house organ for the field, The Year’s Best is more like a public annual report, intended for a somewhat broader audience (but still read mostly by insiders). Finally, a new entry this year (although not seen for this review) is Jonathan Strahan’s Best Short Novels: 2004, edited for and published by the Science Fiction Book Club, and including nine novellas (three of which are also in Dozois).

Dozois’s lead story, William Barton’s "Off on a Starship" (also included in Strahan’s SFBC anthology) is a frankly old-fashioned ode to the romance of SF, a tale of a nerdy SF fan in 1966 (when Dozois was still in his teens; the story may tell us as much about that aging readership as about the inherent appeal of the genre) who finds himself thrust into a world of interstellar adventures; and his closing selection, Terry Bisson’s "Dear Abbey", features a Wellsian time-travel tour of increasingly remote futures, its protagonist a once-radical environmentalist who gets a glimpse of what really cosmic environmental perspectives might look like. (Interestingly, Jonathan Strahan selected a different Bisson tale, "Greetings", for his year’s best novellas). In between are a number of other stories that allude to particular SF traditions, including John C. Wright’s "Awake in the Night" (also included in Strahan), set in the world of William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (and written in an only moderately more restrained version of Hodgson’s ersatz 17th-century style) and Dominic Green’s "Send Me a Mentagram", in which a flesh-eating infection attacks an Antarctic base, inevitably recalling John W. Campbell, Jr.’s "Who Goes There?" and any number of other tales of isolated research facilities facing doom. A plague of a different sort threatens a planetary colony in this year’s entry from Nancy Kress, who may well be Dozois’s favorite writer judging from appearances in these annuals; here she revisits the familiar "lost colony" trope in "Ej-Es" (also in Hartwell/Cramer). Even though such self-reflexive tales are distinguished more by their execution than their conception - Dozois has a great ear for style - they nevertheless can yield up the kind of dialogue that those who are impatient with SF love to point to as examples of what’s wrong with the genre. "‘You mean this skin-eating thing comes from Mars?"’ asks a character in Green’s tale, while another in James Van Pelt’s "The Long Way Home" muses, "So much history happening around her; the first colonial expedition to another star system, and the long-feared global nuclear conflict," which pretty well sums up the premise of that tale.

It’s interesting, in Van Pelt’s tale, to see 1950s nuclear anxiety resurrected in a post-9/11 context, and it isn’t the only disaster tale in the book: the Bisson story includes everything from plague to war to global warming, and William Shunn’s "Strong Medicine" (from concerns a physician rendered obsolete by nanomedicine who sees a chance to rebuild self-respect following a nuclear attack by terrorists. In Judith Moffett’s "The Bear’s Babe", alien invaders sterilize nearly the entire human population but set about re-growing wildlife populations for reasons that turn out to be not entirely Green. The world’s gay population is almost rendered extinct by prenatal screening in Geoff Ryman’s "Birth Days" (also in Hartwell/Cramer), until a remarkable medical discovery offers a new kind of hope. The old revolt-of-the-machines trope is given a surreal but almost credible updating in Paul Di Filippo’s "And the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon", in which increasingly ubiquitous smart appliances and fabric begin to form synergistic alliances, or "blebs." A neural-implant addiction called "Dragonhead" threatens a generation of kids in Nick DiChario’s short but pointed fable of that title, and a potential nano-plague, reminiscent of Greg Bear’s "Blood Music" but treated as a medical mystery, is at the heart of M. Shayne Bell’s "Anomalous Structures of My Dreams". A bizarre but deadly alien invasion is countered by the "Flashmen" of Terry Dowling’s story, who are forced to make disturbing moral tradeoffs in the process. Despite these uses of familiar SF materials, there is precious little of the unambiguous heroic competence of SF’s classic adolescence - as though the problems and threats of classic SF remain, but the heroes have gone away.

Historical, or alternate-world, or just celebrity walk-on, SF remains a popular theme in Dozois, with a disillusioned Orson Welles being recruited by a time traveler to produce his films in the future in John Kessel’s "It’s All True"; keeping with the oddball Citizen Kane subtheme, other time travelers try to plant a secret document for the future to discover in William Randolph Hearst’s castle in Kage Baker’s "Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst", a setting which, perhaps because of the archness of some of the Hollywood celebrities portrayed (like Gable), I found less compelling than her other "Company" story, "A Night on the Barbary Coast", in Hartwell/Cramer. (Yet a third Baker story, "The Empress of Mars", shows up in Strahan’s novella collection, giving her the sole distinction of having three different stories appear in three different year’s bests.) A clone of hockey star Gordy Howe tries to define his own life in Steven Popkes’s "The Ice"; a J. Edgar Hoover-style fascist gains the presidency when FDR is assassinated prior to his first election in Harry Turtledove’s "Joe Steel" - essentially an updated rethinking of Sinclair Lewis; and another presidential election pits Thomas Edison against William Jennings Bryan in Geoffrey Landis’s manic and funny "The Eyes of America" (in which Nikola Tesla and Mark Twain are supporting players, and in which political exigency leads to the premature development not only of TV, but of modern media culture). Not too surprisingly, anxiety about presidential elections emerges as another subtheme. The most skillfully written and moving of all the alternate-world tales is also conceptually the least ambitious: in Howard Waldrop’s "Calling Your Name" (one of the "Janis Ian" stories, and perhaps the one which best captures her cynically bittersweet tone) the narrator wakes up after suffering an electrical shock in an alternate present (no Vietnam War, no Nixon presidency, no Beatles, no 9/11); by keeping his focus clearly on the narrator and his family relationships rather than historical games, he achieves a tale of delicacy and power (also included in the Haber/Strahan volume). A similarly poignant tone is achieved by Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s "June 16th at Anna’s", in which holo recordings made by time travelers of a fairly ordinary conversation among friends in 2001 becomes a treasured cultural artifact in the future; it covers some of the same territory as John Crowley’s "Snow", but without quite achieving that classic’s haunting grace.

Apart from the historical themes, a number of quite strong stories also test the boundaries between SF and other genres. One of the two strongest novellas in Dozois is Walter Jon Williams’s "The Green-Leopard Plague" (also included in Strahan), which works equally well as a complex espionage tale, a political thriller, and a hard-SF tale set in a future at once recognizable and alienated (there’s a planetwide disaster here, too). John Varley, who has not been highly visible in Dozois for some time, returns with "The Bellman", a gripping serial-killer story set on the moon which nevertheless seems vintage Varley compared with the more adventurous and apocalyptic "In Fading Suns and Dying Moons", which appears in Hartwell/Cramer. Michael Swanwick successfully mines the industrial-fantasy world of his The Iron Dragon’s Daughter with "King Dragon", in which the title character, a wounded mechanical dragon, terrorizes a village. There’s also a disturbing blend of fantasy and SF elements in Paolo Bacigalupi’s "The Fluted Girl" (also in Haber/Strahan), in which young girls are surgically and genetically altered to become human flutes in a decadent feudalistic society. Robert Reed returns to his multipurpose world of Marrow with "Night of Time" (also in Hartwell/Cramer), while there are distinct elements of tragic romance in both Paul Melko’s "Singletons in Love" and new writer Jack Skillingstead’s "Dead Worlds", whose protagonist rents out part of his brain for interstellar communication, isolating him from the rest of humanity until he meets a reclusive woman. Charles Stross, not surprisingly, produces an almost unclassifiable story of automated agriculture in "Rogue Farm", whose title exactly describes what the tale is about. But perhaps the strongest single novella in the book, and one of its author’s most accomplished works, is Vernor Vinge’s "The Cookie Monster" (also in Haber/Strahan), which seamlessly combines an almost Kafkaesque setting of corporate alienation with a hard-SF notion solidly based in the kind of plausible information theory that Vinge knows as well as anyone (the title includes a clever Internet pun). As Vinge’s dead-end characters working as tech-support operators for a shadowy megacorporation begin to realize the true nature of their jobs and their lives, the tale unfolds with a kind of comic horror that is both solid SF and that might even appeal (and be accessible to) conspiracy minded thriller readers.

There are, as already noted, four overlaps between Dozois and Hartwell/Cramer (the stories by Ryman, Kress, Stross, and Reed) and three with Haber/Strahan (the stories by Waldrop, Vinge, and Bacigalupi) - interestingly, there are no overlaps at all between Hartwell/Cramer and Haber/Strahan - but it’s interesting to note how these stories take on different tonalities in the different anthologies, like the same piece of music played in different auditoriums. The sheer oddness of Bacigalupi’s "The Fluted Girl" seems much more striking when it’s placed as the lead story in Haber/Strahan and the Vinge story stands out as well by virtue of being by far the longest story in Haber/Strahan, as opposed to nestling among eight or nine other long novellas in Dozois. Similarly, the gay-genocide theme of Ryman’s "Birth Days" seems more overtly political in Hartwell/Cramer when placed as the second story following Octavia E. Butler’s "Amnesty", which, like her famously disturbing "Bloodchild", uses the theme of alien domination to explore the moral problems of oppression and personal compromise. On the other hand, the stories by Kress and Reed somehow seem less rather than more distinctive when encountered in two different anthologies; to return to our auditorium metaphor, they begin to look like the sort of mid-level Bruckner symphonies that are used to fill out concert programs when you know you can’t give the audience a steady diet of Beethoven and Brahms.

By opening with the Butler and Ryman stories, Hartwell/Cramer’s Year’s Best SF initially gives the impression of the most politically committed of the three anthologies (remember, Dozois opened with Barton’s softball "Off on a Starship"), and this impression is carried forward by Tony Ballantyne’s Clockwork Orange-ish "The Waters of Meribah", in which a convicted rapist is transformed piecemeal into an alien monster as part of a bizarre scientific experiment, and later by such selections as Nigel Brown’s touching and ironic "The Annuity Clinic", in which the aged are forced to sell off various body parts and enhancements to continue paying for their care; M. Rickert’s "Bread and Bombs", a rather pointed tale of ethnic and cultural intolerance following a transformative catastrophe; and Allen M. Steele’s moving "The Madwoman of Shuttlefield", which uses an SF setting to explore the plight of despised refugees. A similar post-catastrophe environment dominates "The Albertine Notes", by respected mainstream writer Rick Moody (the selection comes from Michael Chabon’s McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, in which Moody was notably one of the contributors most astute about SF technique), in which a drug permitting one to relive detailed memories of a more innocent earlier life threatens the surviving fabric of social intercourse. I’m not sure I’d agree with Hartwell & Cramer’s claim that it might be the best SF story of the year, but it may well be the strongest story from that collection.

In general, Hartwell & Cramer have done the most original job of finding good SF stories from unexpected sources; two of their selections come from the important Cosmos Latinos anthology from Wesleyan University Press, edited by Andrea Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilán (curiously, despite praising the anthology, they fail to acknowledge its editors anywhere). One is Angélica Gorodischer’s "The Violet’s Embryos", another mission-to-find-out-what-went-wrong-with-the-colony tale (like Kress’s), but with vaguely Lem-flavored philosophical overtones, and Ricard de la Casa & Pedro Jorge Romero’s "The Day We Went Through the Transition", in which time police set out to prevent an historical event highly significant in Spain, but of the sort that few American SF writers would identify as a change marker: the assassination of a Spanish Marxist leader in 1977. In addition to its political implications, the tale includes an interesting variation on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Hartwell & Cramer also display a larger proportion of traditional SF than Dozois, and in place of Dozois’s predilection for historical SF (the only history-based SF tale in Hartwell/Cramer is Kage Baker’s "A Night on the Barbary Coast", one of her time-traveling "Company" stories, set in San Francisco in 1850) is a pointed appreciation for hard SF, with such tales as Gregory Benford’s "The Hydrogen Wall" and Stephen Baxter’s "The Great Game". The former deals with a young woman librarian trying to seek help from a complex alien intelligence when the solar system is threatened by the interstellar plasma of the title; although Benford is as skilled as anyone at imagining alien intelligences and the problems of communication, there’s an unpleasant undertone of leering sex fantasy at the heart of the tale. The Baxter is a "Xeelee" tale written on a large canvas of planetary catastrophe which gains most of its power from the fact that it is a "Xeelee" tale; Baxter has an unusual talent for revealing significant bits and pieces about his alien Xeelee in each short story, while always suggesting there is far more to learn. He’s also one of a handful of writers ( including Varley, Baker, and Stross & Doctorow, if you count collaborations) to have different stories in different "Year’s Bests"; another "Xeelee" story, "The Chop Line", appears in Haber/Strahan. Two of the selections, Joe Haldeman’s "Four Short Novels" and Michael Swanwick’s "Coyote at the End of History", each consist of series of vignettes which seem designed to represent technique more than conceptual substance: the Haldeman considers various approaches to immortality, while the Swanwick places the legen-dary trickster figure in a future dominated by alien overlords. There’s even a well-realized alien-invasion/end of the world story, John Varley’s "In Fading Suns and Dying Moons", in which ubiquitous but apparently harmless alien butterfly collectors turn out to have a darker plan in mind, and a comical take on power-ranger-style invaders from other dimensions in Cory Doctorow’s "Nimby and the Dimension Hoppers". It’s always a bit treacherous to include the elusive Gene Wolfe in the context of familiar SF tropes, but his short and elegant "Castaway" indeed begins with a lone castaway being rescued from a dying planet where he’s lived alone for years, if in fact he was alone. It’s perhaps the most concise example in the entire book of how a skilled writer can unpack old SF ideas in new ways.

As I mentioned earlier, the Haber/Strahan Science Fiction: The Best of 2003 continues to be the most modest (some might say least pretentious) of these volumes, both in terms of overall length and number of stories, but Haber’s introduction to this year’s volume promises that with the advent of Strahan as co-editor "we’ll be casting our editorial net ever wider," and indeed that promise seems to have already begun to bear fruit. Whereas last year’s selection of 11 stories depending heavily on the first half-year of Asimov’s and F&SF, this year’s selection of 14 tales draws more from books than any single magazine source and seems quite a bit more up-to-date, despite the early deadlines necessitated by a March publication date. What is notably sacrificed (apparently for space) are any kind of story or contributor notes, so when we encounter Bacigalupi’s striking "The Fluted Girl" as the lead selection, we have no idea who this intriguing new writer is. The second story also may send us for something of a loop: Neil Gaiman’s "A Study in Emerald" is a glad romp, with Sherlock Holmes, Henry Jekyll, and even Dracula in a Cthulhu-dominated Victorian London, but why it would belong in an SF rather than a fantasy anthology may well be accounted for simply because there’s no companion fantasy volume from ibooks this year. Much the same might be said of Lucius Shepard’s brilliantly written post-9/11 ghost story "Only Partly Here" and Jeffrey Ford’s equally stunning "The Empire of Ice Cream", which begins as though it might be an SF tale based in the odd neurological disorder of synaesthesia, but which comes to question the stability of reality in a way far more characteristic of fantasy. No doubt these are three of the best stories of the year, and the fact that none of them are understandably in either of the other SF volumes alone makes this one worth reading.

Does this mean that Haber & Strahan are playing faster and looser with generic protocols than the other editors? And if so, so what? Haber & Strahan’s first priority seems to have been to assemble highly readable and entertaining tales without much concern for proportional representation of the SF landscape. In this way, it may be the most old-fashioned of all the annuals, harking back to the days when editors like Groff Conklin would preface their anthologies with toe-shuffling introductions claiming no more than here are some stories I thought you might like. They’re also the only editors to include a story from Ursula K. Le Guin’s remarkable collection Changing Planes - perhaps because some readers might view the dimension-hopping mechanism of that book as ersatz SF at best - and the story they’ve included, "Confessions of Uni", deals with a shape-shifting world that stretches SF credibility even further, even though it constitutes a remarkable and often quite funny dreamscape. By the same token, the reality-shifts in Howard Waldrop’s "Calling Your Name" (also in Dozois) are hardly rationalized by any visible appeal to SF ideas.

There are, nevertheless, a number of tales that allude to earlier SF traditions, as there are in Dozois and Hartwell/Cramer, and a few that approach hard SF. The Gaiman, of course, is packed with in-jokes for genre readers, and David D. Levine’s "The Tale of the Golden Eagle" is an exotic SF romance that seems designed in every detail, including the title and the faux-legendary narrative voice, to serve as an homage to Cordwainer Smith. Michael Swanwick’s "Legions in Time" is an homage of a different sort, with its title alluding to Jack Williamson and its plot and initial setting borrowed almost wholesale from A.E. van Vogt’s loony 1942 novella "Recruiting Station". The abandoned "smart house" of the title in James Patrick Kelly’s "Bernardo’s House" calls to mind elements of Bradbury’s "There Will Come Soft Rains" and even Disch’s "The Brave Little Toaster", but with far more solid SF content than either. In all these cases, one gets a sense of the authors simply enjoying being in the genre, of celebrating even the most unlikely traditions.

Moving closer to contemporary notions of hard SF are another "Xeelee" story from Stephen Baxter, "The Chop Line", in which a young ensign meets a version of herself returning, through time dilation, from a battle decades in the future; Susan Mosser’s "Bumpship", about efforts to rescue refugees from failing planetary colonies (interestingly, the story is the only one in any of the annuals from Kelly Link’s remarkable Trampoline, and is probably the closest thing to hard SF to be found in that volume); and Cory Doctorow & Charles Stross’s "Flowers from Alice", a quirky and funny posthuman screwball comedy in which a transformed ex-lover ruins the narrator’s impending wedding. Both the Mosser and Doctorow/Stross stories are distinguished by their manipulation of narrative voice, and narrative voice also is the main attraction in the New Yorker story, George Saunders’s "Jon", which successfully captures the sound of semi-articulate media generation kids but overplays its hand a bit in its dystopian advertising-lab setting. It’s an interesting contrast with Vinge’s "The Cookie Monster" (which follows it immediately), a very different portrayal of the clueless generation in a setting far more convincing, ominous, and credible. It’s a slightly disappointing story in a collection that contains remarkably few disappointments.

-Gary K. Wolfe

This review first appeared in the July 2004 issue of Locus Magazine.

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