Monday, August 25, 2014

Review of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume One ed. by Jonathan Strahan

It’s become quite apparent that short length speculative fiction is bursting at the seams for quantity.  The number of magazines and ezines printing its short stories, novelettes and novellas outstrips any other genre by a mile, dozens and dozens of new anthologies and collections published each year.  Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction series running since 1984, Rich Horton’s Science Fiction: The Best of the Year and Fantasy: The Best of the Year series starting in 2006, and David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer’s Year’s Best SF (1996) and Year’s Best Fantasy (2001) all on the scene, it’s amazing there was room for one more.  Rearranging the words, Jonathan Strahan started The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year in 2006.  Significantly more fantasy than science fiction (despite the cover), and overlapping the other year’s best anthologies all around, Volume One is a solid start for readers interested in the umbrella view of (short) speculative fiction.

The anthology opens on a comfortable note: Neil Gaiman.  “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is, technically, a science fiction story, though Gaiman uses it for symbolic purposes.  The story of two boys who go to a party looking for girls, they find relating to them is more than they bargained for.  Possessing an age-old moral, it is written in the author’s signature feathery-light prose. A smooth stylist in his own right, Peter Beagle presents a refined version of his talents in the YA offering “El Regalo”.  The story of a Korean-American brother-sister tandem, their rivalry (capital ‘R’) is everything childhood is made of—one sibling going back in time to save the other, resulting in a touching, nostalgic story with a target younger audience.  “I, Rowboat” by Cory Doctorow is a story for those interested in science fiction for science fiction’s sake.  Taking one yet-possible idea and stacking it up against an even further-in-the-future-possible idea, it is Asimov’s laws of robot sentience set against the uplifting of ‘animal’ sentience of singularity proportions.  At times overtly ideological and poorly written, at all others it is pure genre. (For my money, Alfred Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit” and John Sladek’s Tik-tok are better commentary on Asimov’s robots.)  The second YA piece in the anthology, Ellen Klages’ “In the House of the Seven Librarians” is the story of a baby girl found by a group of librarians who decided to lock the doors when a new, bigger library is announced on the other side of town.  A love affair with silent book halls everywhere, it is a charming, nostalgic paean about a girl who grows up in a library (like Bod grows up in a graveyard), but lacks re-readability and fluidity.

Switching gears, Christopher Rowe’s “Another Word for Map is Faith” is an allegorical tale of a group of fundamental Christians following maps in a dis-United States of America. The symbolism abstract, it is one of the better stories in the collection.  Another story involving faith and belief, Margo Lanagan’s dark satire “Under Heaven, Over Hell” tells of a group stuck in a purgatory-esque locale (see the title) and their DMV experiences getting to their eternal destination.  Taking the piss out of any religion which posits the black and white of heaven and hell, it is a well-written tale.  Incarnation Day by Walter Jon Williams is the bizarre yet relatable story of children raised in cyberspace in preparation for inhabiting real bodies.  Interestingly insightful into personal development, it has a well-rounded approach to both coming of age, technology, and the universality of the human spirit.  A good addition to the anthology.  “The Night Whiskey” by Jeffrey Ford is a weird—perhaps Weird—tale of a town wherein a deathberry grows, and every year the inhabitants celebrate by drinking a little of the liquor distilled from it.  Strange things happening while drunk on the strong spirit, even stranger things happen one particular year when a new Harvester is needed.  Not Ford’s best work, but a solid story. Another fantasy novelette is Benjamin Rosenblaum’s “A Siege of Cranes”.  Bordering on surreal, Rosenblaum invests enough realism in the narrative of a man tracking the evil which destroyed his village to maintain a cohesive plot. Though a bit inconsistent stylistically, it soars with obtuse imagery.  “The American Dead” by Jay Lake is a politicized tale about a Mexican boy with the American dream.  An unsubtle story using unsubtle symbolism, its message nevertheless strikes numerous chords of truth.

An abstract, exceedingly well written work that requires some parsing out, Frances Hardinge’s “Halfway House” is about many things, including a train station, a boy abandoned by his mother, and a relaxing house in the countryside.  The use of language continually keeping the reader en guarde (or perhaps off guard), it is one of the strongest shorts in the anthology linguistically.  Tim Power’s “The Bible Repairman” is a touch of necromancy that threatens to backfire.  Ostensibly set in the greater Los Angeles area, it is the story of a man who gives a little bit of soul every time he expurges the unwanted bits of a client’s bible.  "The Calorie Man" by Paolo Bacigalupi is the first look at the ideas that would go on to underpin The Windup Girl.  On the surface the rescue story of a geneticist, a little deeper it becomes an examination of genetically modified crops and the big business backing.  Featuring kink springs, gene rippers, megadonts, spring guns, SoyPro, genehack weevil, AgriGen, and so many other ideas from Bacigalupi’s first novel, this story (and “Yellow Card Man”) would be a great curiosity-satisfier for those seeking more in the novel’s world.  “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)” by Geoff Ryman is a divisive story to say the least.  Using as a basis the real life daughter of the notorious dictator, he tells a story of a young woman haunted by ghosts, all the while reminding the reader it’s fantasy (hence the tagline to the title).  Personally I thought it a fulfilling, sanguine endeavor with nothing but the best intentions.  There are others who feel, otherwise, of course.  (See here for an in-depth look at the novelette and the surrounding controversy.)

A simple yet profound story, Robert Charles Wilson’s novelette “The Cartesian Theater” is the story of a man tasked with bringing together two ideologically disposed individuals to oversee an experiment of the most existential type.  Playing with Descartes’ homunculus in pure science fiction fashion, Wilson’s story fascinates while making the reader think.  Fiction within fiction, velvety descriptions, and a subtly twisting climax, “Journey to the Kingdom” is a dark fantasy that may be the millionth ghost story ever written, but is nevertheless is presented and structured wonderfully.  For the active science fiction reader, “Eight Episodes” by Robert Reed is a story in dialogue with the genre as much as it is science and cosmology themselves, and eventually even the fiction/reality divide.  Feeling like something Brian Aldiss could have written, the story of a sci-fi television series dropped, picked up, and dropped again is intelligent and reveals more upon a re-read.  Switching to traditional fantasy, The Wizards of Perfil by Kelly Link is a YA story about a land at war and the wizards in stone towers who stand aloof above.  The wizards served by children, a new one arrives at the beginning, Halsa, who has a mind connection with her cousin, Onion.  The war and the mystery of the wizards resolved in rather blasé fashion, the story is simple and simply written.  Far more memorable, “The Saffron Gatherers” by Elizabeth Hand is the story of an archeologist visiting a lover in San Francisco before heading off to Greece for an extended period of research.  Hand deftly paralleling the fear of terrorism with a very mature love story and the gift it produces, this is one of, if not the best story in the anthology. 

Seemingly an homage to the Heinlein’s YA work, “D.A.” by Connie Willis is an uncomplicated tale about a girl going to space.  Mildly humorous, it is vanilla genre that slips in one eye and out the other, little of substance.  The ultimate woodwork sci-fi writer, Paul Di Filippo has yet another piece selected for a year’s best of.  “Femaville 29” is a story of an ex-cop living in a refuge camp after a tsunami sweeps through the Canary Islands.  A novel length work (or at least novella) squeezed into a short story, it leaves me wondering what kind of year was it for this to be one of the year’s best?  A significant chunk of Gene Wolfe’s oeuvre occupied by horror, “Sob in the Silence” is a fiction within fiction, and the tale of a murderer who finds justice.  Conventional (for Wolfe), the story is suitably dark but written in a style atypical for the author, which leads me to believe it is a tribute of sorts.  But to whom I do not know.  Apparently a good year for Benjamin Rosenbaum, his second piece in the anthology is “The House Beyond Your Sky”.  More abstract than his previous entry, Rosenbaum juggles a lot of big ideas, cosmology, parallel universes, externalized sentience, digitized personalities—and none are concrete.  This is the modern, artistic side of the genre in full stretch.  Closing out the anthology in classic style is Ian McDonald’s thriller “The Djinn's Wife”, which despite borrowing a page (or two) from William Gibson’s Idoru, is simply begging to be made into a film.  The imagery lush, character setup unique, and the tension building, the author really captures magic—err, AI—in a bottle in this story of love, politics, and the scary potential of technology from his River of Gods setting. 

In the end, The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume One, despite possessing a cover of glorious science fiction possibilities, is predominantly fantasy.  A solid anthology, it caters to the reader who do not pigeonhole their interests in one niche of speculative fiction.  Horror, traditional fantasy, cyberpunk, social science fiction, hard science fiction, mundane fantasy—many, many sub-genres of the genre are represented, even young adult.  As always with anthologies of such size, some stories will appeal while others will not.  Naturally, whether the reader concurs the majority are ‘best of the year’ depends on whether their interests are in line with Strahan’s. 

The following is a list of the stories included in the anthology:

“How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman
“El Regalo” by Peter S. Beagle
“I, Row-Boat” by Cory Doctorow
“In the House of the Seven Librarians” by Ellen Klages
“Another Word for Map is Faith” by Christopher Rowe
“Under Hell, Over Heaven” by Margo Lanagan
Incarnation Day by Walter Jon Williams
“The Night Whiskey” by Jeffrey Ford
“A Siege of Cranes” by Benjamin Rosenbaum
“Halfway House” by Frances Hardinge
“The Bible Repairman” by Tim Powers
“Yellow Card Man” by Paolo Bacigalupi
“Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)” by Geoff Ryman
“The American Dead” by Jay Lake
“The Cartesian Theater” by Robert Charles Wilson
“Journey into the Kingdom” by M. Rickert
“Eight Episodes” by Robert Reed
The Wizards of Perfil by Kelly Link
“The Saffron Gatherers” by Elizabeth Hand
“D. A.” by Connie Willis
“Femaville 29” by Paul Di Filippo
”Sob in the Silence” by Gene Wolfe
“The House Beyond Your Sky” by Benjamin Rosenbaum
“The Djinn's Wife” by Ian McDonald

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