Saturday, August 30, 2014

Review of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 2 ed. by Jonathan Strahan

His first foray into aggregating the year’s best in short fiction a success, Jonathan Strahan was given the reins to produce Volume 2 (2008) of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year.  The umbrella anthology of speculative fiction, once again Strahan combed through the hundreds (if not thousands) of stories published in the year, checked contractual possibilities, and collated another solid anthology.  Each a hit for some and a miss for others, let’s cut to the anthology.

Opening on a bright note, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang is a mini-collection of stories nested within a time traveling device a la 1,001 Arabian Nights.  Opening and closing on Fuwaad ibn Abbas, a merchant of yesteryear Baghdad, it tells a highly engaging tale of people living with and without regret, perennial wisdom the underlying message.  “The Last and Only or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French” by Peter S. Beagle is a classically styled story of an American who immerses in himself in French-ness—culture, language, food, etc.—in an attempt to make himself French, and succeeds.  Subtly examining cultural heritage, the meaning of culture, and globalization in a few scant pages, the story is not only well-written but relevant.  Trunk and Disorderly” by Charles Stross, an acknowledged experiment in style for Saturn’s Children, is the story of Ralph McDonald and his no holds barred tour of our post-singularity universe.  More for laughs and imagination than any meaningful storyline, Stross’ creativity is truly let off the leash (as if it wasn’t in the other stories) to take in the luxuries of the future with a wise-cracking butler at hand.  Glory” by Greg Egan is a story set in the author’s Amalgam universe of Incandescence and Riding the Crocodile.  Opening on a sweet mix of pseudo-science pyrotechnics, it quickly escalates to post-human proportions as an anthropologist arrives on a distant planet to do research.  Encountering local tensions, compounded by intergalactic hostilities, her job only becomes more difficult.  A rather blunted story, this is not the most subtle of Egan’s work, but engaging nevertheless.  “Dead Horse Point” by Daryl Gregory is the (heavy) story about a person with uber-concentration.  Freighted with emotion, the story is of a woman who is unnaturally able to delve into the recesses of her brain for periods on end, which affects her siblings and friends in ways she could never imagine.  A trip to Dead Horse Canyon brings their relationship to a head. 

Weird rooted in Native American-esque myth, “The Dreaming Wind” by Jeffrey Ford is not the author’s most creative piece, but does display the imagination which sets him apart from the crowd—the story of a small community visited by a magical wind once per year that turns everything into a visit by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  L. Timmel Duchamp on Strange Horizon argues that Holly Black’s “The Coat of Stars” is not an iteration of the familiar (in this case fairy tale), but I would argue that largely it is.  The modern setting mixes things up a bit, but the structure and premise all depend on knowledge strained from classic fairy tales.  Butbest to let the reader decide.  Ted Kosmatka’s “The Prophet of Flores”, while having a fantasy-esque title, is an alternate history wherein Darwinism is proven wrong, the Earth only 5,800 years old.  Personalized via Paul, a bright young boy, his experiments with mice lead him to a career that finds him on the other side of the Wallace Line doing the most cutting edge archeological research possible.  The problem is the blades might be aimed at him, too.  An interesting story that highlights the opposite directions the eyes of Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and evolutionists are looking.  Though this probably should have been worked into a novella or short novel, it’s a strong story nonetheless.  Standard epic fantasy fare, “Wizard's Six” by Alexander C. Irvine is the story of the man Paulus and his trailing of the wizard Myro, killing the children Myro has infected for the good of the kingdom.  Not much else need be said.  Oh, and there is a dragon. (Like Kosmatka’s, this story really should have been pushed to longer length for the important events to have comfortable resting places.)  “The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics” by Daniel Abraham another Medieval-esque fantasy, this time, however, things are far more unconventional.  The story of a money exchanger called upon to make judgment in increasingly tense situations, it seems there is always no correct side to choose.  One of the stronger stories in the collection.

I am one of the few who apparently don’t get the hype around Nancy Kress.  Certainly not a bad writer, her ideas nevertheless always strike me as not having been thought fully through, or are just throw-away.  Her “By Fools Like Me” is no exception.  A post-apocalyptic rehash of Fahrenheit 451, this time around religious extremists are the oppressors banning the written word: reading = sin.  Written well enough but developed simplistically, the ending is as tragically trite as one would expect with such a contrived premise and title.  Jumping back to economics again, particularly market economy, “Kiosk” by Bruce Sterling is a satirical look at new production techniques and the resulting products on the market, as seen by the owner of a street kiosk in a fictional Eastern European city.  Delicately humorous, Sterling invests all the wit he has into the story of Boris and his new fabrikator.  Capitalism, socialism, liberalism—doesn’t matter; Sterling keeps the story focused on the root and meaning of goods production.  (Dr. Grootjans and her shopping wand is just superb.)  From the first beautiful paragraph onwards, Theodora Goss’s “Singing of Mount Abora” is a 1,001 Arabian Nights/Arthurian legend/Tao Yuanming story embedded in a contemporary narrative is breathtaking.  The poetry of Coleridge imbuing the life of an Ethiopian educator now living in the US, it intertwines history, poetry, myth (equal parts Western, Chinese, and Arabic), and a modern storyline to be the best in the anthology, and a story that certainly transcends the year.  The manner in which the story’s sentiment complements subject material and presentation is magically graceful.  But I stop gushing…  “The Witch's Headstone” is the requisite Neil Gaiman tale in this year’s ‘best of.’  In fact an excerpt from The Graveyard Book (or if one looks at it differently, the first published glimpse into the Bod Owens story), those who have read the novel will have already read the story, while those who are interested in reading it may check the story out as it is representative of the novel as a whole.  In “Last Contact” by Stephen Baxter the end is coming.  But an astrophysicist, who should be working with the teams as the end approaches, chooses to spend the time with her mother instead.  A hard science fiction catastrophe grafted onto a mother-daughter love story.  Well done, but lacking the prose to drive the emotional bus all the way to school.

Switching gears to something lighter, something more satirical, and yet, something more profound, Ken Macleod’s “Jesus Christ, Reanimator”, on top of being a great title, is the story of a journalist’s exclusive interview with the Holy Son after the second coming.  Macleod not missing an opportunities, it is filled with great lines—“There are recorded instances [of levitation]. Some of them quite well attested, I understand. Even the Catholic Church admits them." being one of them.  Unabashedly blasphemous, it’s an intelligent romp through Religion Land with 21 st century cultural shoes in a way Macleod’s religiously minded The Night Sessions never did.  “Sorrel's Heart” by Susan Palwick is the strange, dark tale of a killer who finds himself protecting a girl born with her heart outside her body.  Undecided whether the conceit wants to be mimetic or symbolic, the narrative is likewise by turns melodramatic and moving.  Master of the abstract, Michael Swanwick’s “Urdumheim” is at root a Tower of Babel story, but one so steeped in myth and legend as to be unrecognizable to the Bible.  Salacious, well-paced, and a mini-feast of language, its cosmology of language is intriguing.  “The Valley of Gardens” is an interesting mix of tech-infested “fantasy” and outright space opera.  Two stories converging into one, I was not personally convinced of the realism of the relationships described, but others were.  Apparently a poignant story.  “Winter’s Wife”, on the other hand, is written in the mature style of prose which relates the feeling of character presence in empathetic terms.  Though one of the author’s less subtle pieces of short fiction, the characters remain fully fleshed in a tale of a jack-of-all-trades, his Icelandic bride, and the corporate guy who buys a nearby piece of property.  A love affair with China, “The Sky Is Large and the Earth Is Small” by Chris Roberson is an alternate history story set in his Celestial Empire universe.  The story of a bureaucrat sent to pump a political prisoner for information regarding an upcoming invasion, the young scholar learns much more than his patience would allow for from the aged man he encounters behind bars.  A simple enough (if the title is not any indication), but quality story. “Orm the Beautiful” by Elizabeth Bear is the story of Smaug had he lived into the modern age and grown a little wiser.  Written in vivid language, it is a story that appears in dialogue with the genre, but lacks substance beyond.  Closing out the anthology is “The Constable of Abal” by KellyLink.  A fair enough story, it remains highly predictable.  Written in Link’s effortless prose, it tells the story of a girl coming to terms with her mother’s reality and closes in borderline nursery rhyme fashion.

In the end, The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Vol. 2 is an anthology that, as expected, covers quality short fiction from 2007 in the sub-genres speculative fiction is comprised of.  While not appearing to warrant the sci-fi cover (like Vol. 1, Vol. 2 is dominated by fantasy), all else is as must be in such anthologies.  Certainly each reader will have their own opinion about what should and should not have been aggregated here, but from an overview it is a very solid collection that every genre fan will find something to like.  For me, Theodora Goss’s story topped the anthology, followed by Michael Swanwick, Elizabeth Hand, Ken Macleod, Ted Chiang’s—in no particular order, but certainly other readers will disagree. 

The following is the table of contents of the anthology:

“The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate” by Ted Chiang
“The Last and Only, or Mr. Moskowitz Becomes French” by Peter S. Beagle
“Trunk and Disorderly” by Charles Stross
“Glory” by Greg Egan
“Dead Horse Point” by Daryl Gregory
“The Dreaming Wind” by Jeffrey Ford
“The Coat of Stars” by Holly Black
“The Prophet of Flores” by Ted Kosmatka
“Wizard's Six” by Alexander C. Irvine
“The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics” by Daniel Abraham
“By Fools Like Me” by Nancy Kress
“Kiosk” by Bruce Sterling
“Singing of Mount Abora” by Theodora Goss
“The Witch's Headstone” by Neil Gaiman
“Last Contact” by Stephen Baxter
“Jesus Christ, Reanimator” by Ken MacLeod
“Sorrel's Heart” by Susan Palwick
“Urdumheim” by Michael Swanwick
“Holiday” by M. Rickert
“The Valley of the Gardens” by Tony Daniel
“Winter's Wife” by Elizabeth Hand
“The Sky Is Large and the Earth Is Small” by Chris Roberson
“Orm the Beautiful” by Elizabeth Bear
“The Constable of Abal” by Kelly Link

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