Monday, December 7, 2015

Review of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Vol. 3 ed. by Jonathan Strahan

2008 was a great year for short speculative fiction, and Jonathan Strahan captures some of it in his The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 3.  By my count (which will certainly be disagreed with), we saw no less than four that will go down in history as some of the best the genre has produced, backed up by several more very, very solid stories.  Every best-of anthology has its share of stories the reader shakes their head in wonder How’d that get in here?, but with Volume 3, it happens less often than usual.

Strahan, as usual, does his share to cover a wide variety of sub-interests.  Volume 3 contains everything from hard sf to space opera, urban to secondary world fantasy, literary pieces to pulp.  Depending which version the reader purchases (there were two printings, each with a different story order), it’s possible their version will open with the brilliant “26 Monkeys, and the Abyss” by Kij Johnson.  It is the obtuse little tale of a woman who buys into a traveling monkey show, and the personal issues she must deal with in the aftermath.  Showcasing the fact genre authors can indeed produce quality, literary material, spec fic at short length doesn’t come much better.  Moving from literary to pulp, Garth Nix’s “Beyond the Sea Gates of the Scholar Pirates of Sarsköe” tells the story of a fantastical pirate adventure that doesn’t give Robert Louis Stevenson a run for his money, but does Tim Powers.  “Crystal Nights” by Greg Egan is a standard Frankenstein-esque science fiction idea: an advance in technology leads to creations beyond mankind’s control, told from Egan’s pro-science perspective.

“Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter's Personal Account” by M. Rickert is titled as such due to the court case it is, darkly and satirically commenting on regarding women and children in society.  Johnson’s earlier story is brilliant, but so too is Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation.”  One of the top stories of the new millennium let alone the year, Chiang perfectly interleaves genre and humanism in this story of a robot dissecting its own head.  “Five Thrillers” by Robert Reed is a very nice story that works at two levels.  One hand gives the reader some action telling of a sociopath performing “necessary” acts for society, while on the other questions and quandaries pop up from the situations he’s in, causing the reader to pause every now and then—particularly over the ending. Another great story is “Fixing Hanover” by Jeff VanderMeer.  At heart a familiar tale (the problems of technology in the hands of power-hungry ego-maniacs), on the surface, however, it is not. Using the most subtle of setups, VanderMeer deftly cuts to the core of the issue: a broken robot is discovered at some undetermined time in the future after an unknown catastrophe has destroyed most of the Earth, and a handyman is forced to repair it.

Though she passed nearly a decade prior, Joan Aiken’s posthumously published “Goblin Music” is a little jewel shining.  With the air of stories from bygone days, it’s charming playfulness of a girl, the goblin musicians she befriends, and the litte “kitten” who becomes her mate.  Impossible not to beguile.  Not a take on Stanislaw Lem’s novel, “His Master’s Voice” by Hannu Rajaniemi isthe story of a technologically souped up dog and his equally styling partner, a cat, who attempt to rescue their owner from behind a supposedly impenetrable firewall.  Margo Lanagan’s “Machine Maid” takes material very little covered in sf and converts it into a relatively successful story. A prim woman discovers her husband’s sex doll, and in the process of dealing with the thing, learns about herself and their relationship.  Another tale vying for the ages is Richard Bowes “If Angels Fight” about two childhood friends, one of whom has a guardian angel watching over him.  Later in life, after some changes in fortune, the second friend must find the first.  Gorgeously well written and structured, Bowes digs into the lives of his characters—adding just a drop of the fantastic—to produce a sublime knockout.

Finding the perfect intersection of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Shelley’s Frankenstein, “Pride and Prometheus” by John Kessell interleaves ideas from both authors’ works and biographies in perfect fashion—right down to the style of writing.  Highly recommended.  Moving from sophisticated to blunt, “Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear parallels a black scientist researching a little known ocean creature, called a shoggoth, off the coast of Maine just before WWII.  It proves hindsight is easy, but what the story lacks in subtlety it makes up for in its message.  Catch-22 set in a near-future China where companies are more than just a place you come and go from everyday to work, “Special Economics” examines a scenario wherein a young Chinese woman signs on for factory work and gets more than she bargained for.  Not only her place of employment, it’s also her dormitory, clothing shop, restaurant, and social hour rolled into one, and getting out of debt to the system may just be impossible.  Perhaps trying to do a little more than it should in a short story, “The Art of Alchemy” by Ted Kosmatka nevertheless tackles racism and the realities of corporate greed in a tale that ends on a The Dispossessed note. The corporate elements more convincingly portrayed than the racial side of the thematic coin, metallurgy is the name of the game.  (I would guess Cormac McCarthy never read the tale, but would later unwittingly borrow one of the killing devices for his The Advocate script.)

“The Dust Assassin” by Ian McDonald is the story of a young woman caught in a family feud among India’s wealthy water monopolies. McDonald’s style buoying things effortlessly, the fairy tale structure of the story has nevertheless been done before.  “The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi targets modern civilization/humanity’s penchant for ignoring important issues, e.g. global warming, financial crises, gun problems, etc. in favor of media far less concerned with the world as a whole, e.g. tabloid gossip, fashion, spiritualism, etc.  A magical zoo set in rural America, Holly Phillips’ “The Small Door”  tells of twins, one of whom is chronically ill, and what they discover in the sheds of their neighbor’s yard.  “Meghan McCarron’s “The Magician’s House” is a strange little story shifting between somewhat classic fantasy to something much more pagan, sexuality the thread seeming to bind it together.

The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates” by Stephen King is a rather straight-forward afterlife story of a woman contacted by her dead husband, but written in King’s polished hand.  “The Thought War” by Paul J. McAuley is an atypical zombie story, but nevertheless does not stand out.  Like a bit of trivia in a magazine, it interests precisely for the time it takes to read, no more.  “Turing's Apples” by Stephen Baxter is a story I’ve read somewhere before, I just can’t put my finger on it. Utilizing familiar elements of Silver Age sci-fi (radio signals from extra-terrestrials, super-computers, and lunar antennas), as well as the age-old motif of sparring brothers and rational vs. emotional intelligence, the story nevertheless is readable for the combination.  Unoriginal, it is hard sci-fi in short form ending on both a sappy and sense-of-wonder note that is very much in the vein of Gregory Benford, Stephen Baxter, Greg Egan, and Isaac Asimov.  A very Jewish story, “Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel” by Peter S. Beagle showcases the author’s subtly charming talents in a tale of a painter, his wife, and the blue angel which appears and demands to be his model.  Beagle’s adult work is so good.

In the end, The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 3 proves speculative fiction in 2008 was as alive as ever.  Les Claypool says “they all can’t be zingers,” and indeed Volume 3 is not front to back greatest-ever.  There are, however, an inordinate number of stories that will stand taller through time than other years.  Kij Johnson, Richard Bowes, and Ted Chiang have written stories that will be read for a long time.  Nipping at their heels are great stories from Jeff VanderMeer, Peter Beagle, and John Kessell, followed by some other really strong inclusions.  I am writing this review from the vantage point of 2015 and having read many of Strahan’s best-ofs since, and this one stands out as either the best, or top three.

The following are the twenty-eight stories selected for Volume 3:

26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss by Kij Johnson
Beyond the Sea Gates of the Scholar Pirates of Sarsköe by Garth Nix
Crystal Nights by Greg Egan
Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter's Personal Account by M. Rickert
Exhalation by Ted Chiang
Five Thrillers by Robert Reed
Fixing Hanover by Jeff VanderMeer
From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled... by Michael Swanwick
Goblin Music by Joan Aiken
His Master's Voice by Hannu Rajaniemi
If Angels Fight by Richard Bowes
Machine Maid by Margo Lanagan
Marry the Sun by Rachel Swirsky
Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link
Pride and Prometheus by John Kessel
Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear
Special Economics by Maureen F. McHugh
The Art of Alchemy by Ted Kosmatka
The Doom of Love in Small Spaces by Ken Scholes
The Dust Assassin by Ian McDonald
The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Magician's House by Meghan McCarron
The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates by Stephen King
The Small Door by Holly Phillips
The Thought War by Paul J. McAuley
Turing's Apples by Stephen Baxter
Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel by Peter S. Beagle
Virgin by Holly Black

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