2011 was a very solid year in short speculative fiction, and Volume 6 of Jonathan Strahan’s ongoing The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year series proves it. Ken Liu’ story dominated awards, while K.J. Parker, Paul McAuley, and Kij Johnson’s were also winners. Several others nominated and/or added in more than one collection or anthology, Strahan captures a very readable snapshot of what 2011 was in short speculative fiction.
The fourth time to be included in Strahan’s ‘best of’ and the second time to open the anthology, Neil Gaiman again makes an appearance, this time with “The Case of Death and Honey”. A Sherlock Holmes story (surprisingly), Gaiman portrays the fictional detective as he always dreamed but was never portrayed: in retirement as a beekeeper. Unsatisfied with his honey making efforts in Britain, Holmes’ pursuit of the perfect honey takes him to China, where, another life feels the affects of his search. As advertized, it is a bittersweet note on which to open the anthology. Another story of bees and China, this time from the point of view of the insects themselves, “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu is a story that makes an impression at first read, but upon deeper thought threatens to crumble like the fragile nests described. Weird (capitol ‘W’) and seemingly political, Yu’s story at least makes for a nice piece of eye-candy. “Tidal Forces” by Caitlín R. Kiernan is a superb story about a writer and her lover attempting to come to terms with the unquantifiable aspects of life. Written in non-linear yet flowing prose that moves like the titular tide, it is a story that can be read multiple times given the layering. High quality science fiction, the usage of scientific theory (a riff on an Einstein quote) is so intelligently subsumed into a story of modern human interest that I find myself rambling… “Young Women” by Karen Joy Fowler is decidedly more conventional—in the realistic sense. Written in sharp, intelligent sentences that snap off the page, one evening’s encounter between a snoopy mom and her fifteen-year old’s boyfriend has all the drama one would expect, but thankfully more poignancy. More an art piece than fiction, “White Lines on a Green Field” by Catherynne M. Valente is 50s’ nostalgia after having undergone a Coyote myth transformation. Salaciously written, but still looking for the substance…
Something unique, An Owomoyela’s “All That Touches the Air” is the story of a paranoid scientist living on a planet inhabited by a swarm species imbuing the air. Any human exposed to the air becoming inhabited by them, the scientist spends its days fully clothed, every inch covered when exposed to the planet’s atmosphere. The inevitable confrontation is strange, strange. “What We Found” by Geoff Ryman is a superb tale of a Nigerian man raised in a broken family. His father crazy and grandmother a kleptomaniac, he overcomes his situation to become a respected gene researcher. The only problem is, the results of his research keep changing. Full of vivid imagery (or at least vivid words), Hannu Rajaniemi’s “The Server and the Dragon” is a far-far-far future story of abstract dimension (worthy of Iain Banks’ Excession) about a world seeding by an AI computer. “The Choice” by Paul McAuley is John Steinbeck’s The Pearl in sci-fi form. One of McAuley’s Jackaroo stories, two boys get in a world more trouble than they bargained for after examining a piece of wrecked alien technology. “Malak” by Peter Watts is a freighted story. Examining the morals of drone technology in warfare, Watts shifts the Middle East conflict a few years into the future wherein flying machines possess semi-AI minds and are able to make some decisions. The rest, well, they are unfortunately still left to humans. “Old Habits” by Nalo Hopkinson is a ghost story—no bones about it. A simple piece that depends on a social rather than a horror ideology, it tells of a ghost living inside the mall where he died. Sensory perception lacking, every day he is granted a few moment’s time in the real world, including the re-living of his death, and focuses on modern society and commercialism. Competently enough written, it is (thankfully) not a cheesy afterlife story. “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” by K. J. Parker is a quality novella about two men caught in a cycle of revenge and morality/immorality written in Parker’s black hand. (A longer review is here.)
Taking a turn for the Weird, Kelly Link’s “Valley of the Girls” is a story about the modern life of teens, and the temptations and realities they face on a regular basis (and for this is similar to Valente’s earlier story). The symbolism may be too much for YA, but the message is strong, relevant. Cory Doctorow’s “The Brave Little Toaster” is a one-off that flits easily in one eye and out the other. In dialogue with Disch’s novella of the same name, it makes the obvious point our appliances are inching closer to sentience, then adds a gimmicky energy drink device. “The Dala Horse” by Michael Swanwick is a fairy tale of science fiction/Norse mythology proportion. The words delight, but little impact is felt after the last sentence is read. Possessing a challenging final scene, “The Corpse Painter's Masterpiece” by M. Rickert is a powerful piece regarding the treatment of the dead. Commentary on the manner in which modern society prepares the dead to appear as lifelike as possible—as if unable to let go, the two intertwined stories of a family dealing with the loss of their son and a corpse painter (i.e. man who does not embalm, rather prepares corpses in his own, more natural way) is as thought-provoking as it is well-written. “Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu plays the pity card, but plays it with dignity and real emotion. The story of a boy born to an American man and Chinese woman, the resulting culture conflict plays itself out in poignant, and at least initially, playful terms. The conclusion really pulls the heart strings.
“Steam Girl” by Dylan Horrocks is surprise and a delight. Fictional and meta steampunk, it is a touching YA story about a high school boy and the new girl in his class who wears a helmet and flying goggles. Possessing a whole lot of real world relevancy, Horrocks’ name may not be familiar, but based on the quality of this story, it may someday become. Just a great, touching story. “After the Apocalypse” by Maureen McHugh is the tale of a mother and daughter making their way north to Toronto from Texas after a resource shortage has crippled America to the point of bare survival. All in all, an understated, sad story that focuses on the people rather than the apocalypse, but McHugh has written better. Written in Peter Beagle’s classic hand, “Underbridge” is a horror story about a professor who pushes himself to inhuman lengths in academia after an encounter with a stone troll. “Relic” by Jeffrey Ford is the story of the head priest at the Church of Saint Ifritia, a weather beaten place of worship at the end of the world, and the one-of-a-kind sacrament he guards. Ford normally a strong, focused writer, the story premise is certainly original, but lacks full coherency as it plays out, and the prose wavers. “The Invasion of Venus” by Stephen Baxter the third story in the anthology from Strahan’s other anthology Engineering Infinity may be one story too many. Not that it’s a bad, but it seems rather blasé given the variety of alien invasion stories that have come before.
Simple but strong, “Woman Leaves Room” is proof Robert Reed is only getting better with age. The story of a computer program left unfinished for a virtually infinite time, it remains human to the core—singularity or no singularity. “Restoration” by Robert Shearman is a Borgesian concept (a museum with slices of history from throughout the universe) without the erudition, but more humanity. Bruce Sterling is not known for his subtlety, and his “The Onset of a Paranormal Romance” is anything but. Discussing people’s desire for technology, two vignettes are used to present humanity’s love affair with gadgets—among other loves. (The version of the story with photos is better, here.) “Catastrophic Disruption of the Head” by Margo Lanagan is a modern re-telling of a lesser-known Andersen fairy tale “The Tinderbox”. A macabre story, the horror crowd will be sure to enjoy it. “The Last Ride of the Glory Girls” by Libba Bray is a bit of wild west steampunk that hearkens back to Burrough’s conception of Mars. It is a lot of flash and frills, but little beyond. The introduction to “The Book of Phoenix: Excerpted from the Great Book” by Nnedi Okorafor states the author is “known for her complex characters”. Reading the novelette, however, one would be surprised. Two-dimensional at best, the story of an inmate trapped in an Orwellian prison tries to do something original to limited success—a fact not helped by the sloppy writing. (Along with the curious line: Someone shot me in the leg. It felt like someone had kicked my leg with a metal foot,” it also features several backwards chunks of text, such as: “I felt the radiance burst from me, warm, yellow, light, plucked from the sun and placed inside me like a seed until it was ready to bloom. It bloomed now and the entire lobby was washed.”)
Evoking pathos, Ian McDonald’s “Digging” is the tragic story of a girl working on the solar system’s largest excavation project on Mars. Working on the massive machine currently on its 27 th of 30km into Martian regolith, young Tash receives the surprise of her life one day: to accompany her field supervisor to the rim of the massive crater and perform diagnostic work. Trouble is, it’s not the only surprise waiting. “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” by Kij Johnson is a fantasy/engineering romance written in quality prose. Though occasionally maudlin (the bridge is used metaphorically in less than subtle fashion), Johnson’s skills as a stylist and storyteller combine to tell the story of Kit Meinem, competent engineer in his heyday, in classic fashion. Short and simple, the story closing out the collection is “Goodnight Moons” by Ellen Klages. A forced, one-in-a-million idea, there remains a drop of poignancy.
In the end, The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 6 showcases a large number of quality stories in a variety of genres. Why they keep plastering science fiction covers on Strahan’s ‘best of’ anthologies when fantasy always has the majority, I’ll never know. Regardless, the stories behind the façade are the best batch in several years. I personally have to go back to 2007 to see such collective quality. The anthology thus comes recommended.
The following is the anthology’s table of contents:
“The Case of Death and Honey” by Neil Gaiman
“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” E. Lily Yu
“Tidal Forces” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“Younger Women” by Karen Joy Fowler
“White Lines on a Green Field” by Catherynne M. Valente
“All That Touches the Air” by An Owomoyela
“What We Found” by Geoff Ryman
“The Server and the Dragon” by Hannu Rajaniemi
“The Choice” by Paul J. McAuley
“Malak” by Peter Watts
“Old Habits” by Nalo Hopkinson
“A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” by K. J. Parker
“Valley of the Girls“ by Kelly Link
“The Brave Little Toaster” by Cory Doctorow
“The Dala Horse” by Michael Swanwick
“The Corpse Painter's Masterpiece” by M. Rickert
“The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu
“Steam Girl” by Dylan Horrocks
“After the Apocalypse” by Maureen F. McHugh
“Underbridge” by Peter S. Beagle
“Relic” by Jeffrey Ford
“The Invasion of Venus” by Stephen Baxter
“Woman Leaves Room” by Robert Reed
“Restoration” by Robert Shearman
“The Onset of a Paranormal Romance” by Bruce Sterling
“Catastrophic Disruption of the Head” by Margo Lanagan
“The Last Ride of the Glory Girls” by Libba Bray
“The Book of Phoenix: Excerpted from the Great Book” by Nnedi Okorafor
“Digging” by Ian McDonald
“The Man Who Bridged the Mist” by Kij Johnson
“Goodnight Moons” by Ellen Klages