Paul Di Filippo reviews The Year’s Best Military SF & Space Opera

The Year’s Best Military SF & Space Opera, edited by David Afsharirad (Baen 978-1-4767-8058-0, $16, 384pp, trade paperback) June 2015

Of the making of “Best of the Year” volumes, there is no end. At least since 1949, the year which saw the appearance of The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1949, edited by E. F. Bleiler and T. E Dikty, our field has reveled in any number of such compilations of the season’s successes (as determined by idiosyncratic editorial tastes and perceptions, as well as by measured popular acclaim). Through the decades, these laurels-bestowing anthologies have sought to capture the zeitgeist and define the legacy of the field. Editors such as Judith Merril, Donald Wollheim, Ellen Datlow, Terry Carr, Brian Aldiss, David Hartwell, Harry Harrison and Gardner Dozois have distilled and decanted the superlative stories of each year like canonical bottles of vintage wine.

These anthologies have always served a twofold purpose. Beside the goal mentioned above—to capture and define the historical legacy of excellence in the genre—such collections serve as wonderful introductions for readers to new authors writing at the top of their games, authors whom the audience might not have otherwise encountered in the chaotic landscape of so many venues, prominent and obscure, where stories nowadays appear, and which the discerning editor must heroically trawl for our benefit.

Once upon a time, when the field was smaller in output, more unified and compact, a single yearly volume—in rival iterations, sometimes, to be sure—served to collect substantially everything of worth. Then came the great sundering of fantasy from science fiction, and so multiple books became necessary. Finally, in this age of boutique publications and niche markets, every subgenre seems to demand its own tribute, feeling underserved by the more heterogeneous volumes.

And so we come to the book under discussion, edited by a relatively new figure, David Afsharirad, for whom this is his debut production. Afsharirad’s sparse track record allows us to approach the volume with no preconceptions, and just judge his acumen by the contents. So let’s have a look.

My first instinct on opening such a collection is to immediately check the copyright page for story sources, and here we find a nice eclectic mix of magazines—hardcopy and digital—and original anthologies. Afsharirad seems to have cast his nets admirably wide. Next, the bylines reflect a mix of familiar, top-drawer names and less-well-known authors, for a total of fifteen entries. A good marker of open-mindedness and fairness. Then comes the editor’s introduction, deploying a light touch and lots of enthusiasm, followed by David Drake’s succinct encapsulation of the two subgenres contained herein. So far, so good!

Linda Nagata’s “Codename: Delphi” opens the assortment and sets the tone well. It covers one shift in the life of a troop handler, a figure akin to today’s drone pilots, who sits physically safe and sound five thousand miles away from the front lines, and yet who suffers many of the horrors of combat nonetheless. The story is swift and suspenseful and empathetic.

Next up is “Persephone Descending” by Derek Künsken, which has a great hook: the French-Canadian colonization of Venus. Künsken puts his heroine in great peril from that toxic planet and mines the scenario for maximum impact. But although the story is fine, it strikes me as more of a Hal Clement-style physic problem. Yes, there is some geopolitical trickery behind the events, but it’s not really military. Nor is planetary exploration necessarily equivalent to full-blown space opera.

The next story, David Levine’s “The End of the Silk Road,” is likewise an enjoyably retro private-eye-on-Old-School-Venus romp, but seems to me not quite to fit the stated remit of the volume.

The next two stories bring our vessel back on the proper heading. Brad Torgersen’s dramatic and satisfying “Picket Ship” finds a handful of human soldiers crashed onto a swampy world and fighting dreaded Mantis warriors for sheer survival and to complete their mission. Robert Chase’s “Decaying Orbit” offers the most complexified space opera future, with mankind splintered into three factions. A strange and dangerous derelict spaceship claims the attention of some representatives of the only fully human polity.

“Morrigan in the Sunglare” by Seth Dickinson exhibits the most stylistic brio of these generally straight-ahead-prose tales. On a crippled spaceship, the Indus, two women struggle both for self-knowledge and continued existence.

Linda Nagata returns with a tale of future grunts whose psyches are modulated by smart skullcaps, not always effectively. This story features the most on-screen combat of them all, I’d say. Eric Leif Davin’s “Icarus at Noon” recounts a kind of dangerous, “John Henry vs the Piledriver” contest as a rogue human tries to best machines at solar exploration. Michael Williamson’s “Soft Casualty” offers the most implicit topicality as an occupying force of troops meets the grim resistance tactics of the natives.

“Palm Strike’s Last Case” by Charlie Jane Anders is pure cyberpunk with a dash of superhero tropes, and concerns a vigilante antihero on a reluctant crusade. Stephen Gaskell’s “Brood” summons up some creepy biopunk scenarios concerning mining by genetically engineered insects. “Stealing Arturo” by William Ledbetter conjures up some claustrophobic thrills as our hero seeks to escape from a space station full of indentured, drug-addicted workers.

Matthew Johnson’s “Rules of Engagement” spends as much time off the battlefield as on, as the narrative follows in Hemingwayesque fashion the travails of three soldiers suffering from the “buzz” of their military implants. As you might guess from the title of the Holly Black story, “Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (the Successful Kind),” there is a fair quota of humor in the story, which is the most formalistically innovative of the batch, and which manages to couch a satisfying tale within a rulebook structure. And finally, “War Dog” by Michael Baretta caps the book with a bravura performance that might be my favorite, as an old soldier and a refugee chimera become best friends amidst societal hostility.

The variety of styles and topics and themes, and the high level of craft in this assemblage, prove that this subgenre is flourishing and has much to contribute to the field at large, despite any preconceptions from those who know it only by hearsay. This book would provide an excellent antidote to such prejudices, and should be welcome by raw recruits and veterans alike.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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