At its fourth volume, Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year (2010) appears to be in for the long haul. Featuring many stories by writers featured in previous volumes—Kelly Link, Ellen Klages, Peter Beagle, James Patrick Kelly, Andy Duncan and several others—Strahan has been consistent enough to give readers something they can generally depend on. Many newcomers to the series as well, however, Strahan likewise keeps the mix varied, and in the process so too the range of tales, to produce an anthology quietly as good as the previous volumes. Whether or not one agrees they are the best of the year is, of course, subjective, so best to simply enjoy as an anthology of good stories from 2009.
Volume 4 opens with “It Takes Two” by Nicola Griffith. Philip K. Dick in erotic mode, it is the story of a young business woman who is sent to Atlanta to secure a new contract. Ending up at a strip club for the wining and dining, she’s in for a major surprise. Effectively personal, the denouement remains a bit fluffy. Jo Walton’s “Three Twilight Tales” opens with: "Useless, that's what you are," the girl said. "Why, I could make a man every bit as good as you out of two rhymes and a handful of moonshine.” A spot of traditional fantasy fun in which the man calls the woman’s bluff, the story offers little more. Successfully setting aside his southern drawl for a more contemporary voice, “The Night Cache” by Andy Duncan tells of a clerk at Yarnes Ignoble bookstore (yuck yuck) and the most interesting encounters with a customer she has one day, and the geocaching adventures she has after. Duncan renders a poignant tale of romance in humorous style—not an easy feat to pull off. Describing a space ship’s encounter with a vast aura of stars, “The Island” by Peter Watts borrows from the playbook of J.G. Ballard for its investigation of the human mind under duress, but is the author’s own for the sf sensawunda. One of Watts’ more evocative pieces.
As might be predicted by the title, Margo Lanagan’s “Ferryman” is about Charon and the River Styx. What certainly cannot be predicted, however, is the larger setting. The vernacular a delight, it’s short but good stuff from Lanagan. Set in the same world as her novel Swordspoint, "A Wild and a Wicked Youth’" by Ellen Kushner requires knowledge of said novel to fully appreciate. Telling the story of one of its “heroes” and how he becomes such a fine swordsman, it is well enough written, just not sure if it’s ‘best of’ material. Controversial over a moot point upon its publication, “The Pelican Bar” by Karen Joy Fowler is the story of Norah, a rebellious fifteen year old sent to a harsh rehabilitation home to mend her ways. (For the record, you don’t have slit-eyed humanoids without the text being at least science fiction.) I never thought I’d write the words, but if you’re going to do alien sex, “Spar” by Kij Johnson is how to do it. A fully literary, relevant take on gender and sex, the alien analog is used symbolically to great effect to comment upon one woman’s relationship(s). Introducing Mariska Volochkova to the world, “Going Deep” by James Patrick Kelly is a very traditional science fiction story, not for the resonance of its sentiment, rather the setting (lunar colony), movement (straight-forward story), and tension derived from alternate reality (futuristic social norms very different than contemporary).
Holly Black’s “The Coldest Girl in Coldtown” can be summed up in two words: vampire melodrama. The text undoubtedly the spawn of Twilight, Black is a sharp scribe, but the story is mediocre, making the story seem more a commercial than literary selection for the anthology. In “Zeppelin City” by Eileen Gunn and Michael Swanwick, Radio Jones and Amanda Spindizzy team up to win an autogyro contest between the Reds and the Whites in this fantastically fun, 50s retro/steampunk tale. From “Shucks!” to wild aerial maneuvers, it adds color to Volume 4. “Dragon's Teeth” by Alexander C. Irvine is mini-epic fantasy done well. Not too big and not too small for the length, Irvine finds a familiar groove while keeping things dark and personal. Not the most original story ever told, but solid for what it is. Damien Broderick has always struck me for the density, and therefore focus, required to read his stories. But with “This Wind Blowing, and This Tide” the reader is treated to something a bit lighter. Lighter for Broderick, however, still means chewy, and in this short the reader is confronted with the discovery of a spaceship covered in flowers orbiting Titan. The “psychic” man who discovers it, however, is the center of the story. Certainly one of the best of the year, Peter Beagle’s “By Moonlight” tells of an encounter a highwayman has beside the road one night with a reverend. Faery permeating their fireside chat, Beagle touches upon a varietyof other topics in this well written tale. Vintage Bruce Sterling in short form, “Black Swan” traffics the lanes between politics and cutting edge tech, and the street where patents on either don’t matter. The parallel universe aspect hurts a little, but otherwise a good story.
A simple but potentially profound idea, “As Women Fight” by Sara Genge describes a pseudo-human society where once per year a husband and wife fight to decide who gets the female body—considered the better of the two. The story begging to be expanded, a little more subtlety in length would do it some good. It’s becoming a tradition for Strahan to include at least one Kelly Link story (fourth volume, fourth story). This time around it’s “The Cinderella Game.” A tale of innocent babysitting getting out of hand, it’s nothing special save the touch of light horror, the darker horror just one step further—seemingly the point of the short story. Another story requiring knowledge of an extant universe (literally), “Formidable Caress: A Tale of Old Earth” by Stephen Baxter is XeeLee material starring Michael Poole. I bounced off this story, as likely will readers unfamiliar with XeeLee, and so cannot comment further. Written in Geoff Ryman’s ‘mundane’ hand, “Blocked” is an eclectic mix of Cambodia, aliens, future tech, a casino, and family life. Pat Cadigan has produced some major work over the years, short and long fiction, but “Truth and Bone” is not one. Taken from an anthology in homage of Poe, she cooks up a family whose members achieve a magical talent at a certain age, of which our protagonist has the ability to know when a person will die. Little out of the ordinary extends this idea, making me believe science fiction is Cadigan’s natural medium.
As the title indicates, “Eros, Philia, Agape” by Rachel Swirsky is about love. The twist is that a robot is involved. Swirsky is never able to entirely escape the cheese of this idea, but comes damn close with excellent characterization, quality prose, and a favoring of human over overtly sf elements. A fable harkening back to yesteryear storytelling, “The Motorman's Coat” by John Kessel tells of an antique dealer who gets more than he bargained for pursuing one particularly attractive piece of merchandise. Kessel has written better. Apparently fulfilling the ‘squids in space’ requirement, “Mongoose” by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monetteis about a space station infected by aliens from another dimension. I suppose I don’t need to say more except that Bear and Monette don’t do much more with the idea than flesh it out. An aching, lonely piece, “Echoes of Aurora” by Ellen Klages tells of a woman’s return to her hometown after thirty-five years away to take care of her father’s amusement arcade upon his death. Strahan often includes Klages out of favoritism, but in this case the inclusion is warranted.
A classic trope given a little something more, “Before My Last Breath” by Robert Reed describes the finding of an alien artifact and the effect it has on the world. Kept local and human, Reed shows another side of his style pen (he has so many) in this effective tale of generation loss. A short, simple tale, “JoBoy” by Diana Wynne Jones describes a boy whose life takes a strange twist when his father dies. Learning things the hard way, he makes some drastic decisions with fantastical (not fantastic) results. With a flavor of Charles Stross but the humanist touch of Robert Charles Wilson himself, “Utriusque Cosmi” tells of the teenage Carlotta’s broken home and her post-human escape to “heaven.” Wonderfully non-linear, Wilson condenses the strengths of his novels into a story that is as conceptual as it is poignant. Literally the sweetest fairy tale ever penned, “A Delicate Architecture” by Catherynne M. Valente tells of a confectioner and his daughter, and the lengths one may go to, and the price one must pay, for the most exquisite beauty. As is always the case with Valente, the language is to die for, or in this case, to taste for. Kij Johnson has two faces (that I’ve encountered so far): the poetically dense literary side, and the straight-forward, charming traditional side. The former represented earlier in this very anthology with “Spar,” the latter gets treatment with “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles.” Animal fantasy, Johnson channels her knowledge of Japan into a charming story about a cat in the delightful tone of yesteryear storytelling.
In the end, Volume 4 of Strahan’s ongoing The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year is an anthology that does not immediately compare itself to the quality of the first and third volumes, but upon closer examination, may. Kij Johnson, Peter Beagle, Rachel Swirsky, and Robert Charles Wilson delivered quality stories, as did Peter Watts, Andy Duncan, Ellen Klages, and Margo Lanagan. But that, of course, is only this reviewer’s preference. Short stories being as subjective as they are, it’s perhaps best if the reader decides for themselves, as regardless of appreciation, all the stories are well written and most possess more than one layer.
The following are the twenty-nine stories selected for the fourth volume of Strahan’s Best of Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year:
Introduction by Jonathan Strahan
It Takes Two by Nicola Griffith
Three Twilight Tales by Jo Walton
Night Cache by Andy Duncan
The Island by Peter Watts
Ferryman by Margo Lanagan
"A Wild and a Wicked Youth" by Ellen Kushner
The Pelican Bar by Karen Joy Fowler
Spar by Kij Johnson
Going Deep by James Patrick Kelly
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black
Zeppelin City by Eileen Gunn and Michael Swanwick
Dragon's Teeth by Alexander C. Irvine
This Wind Blowing, and This Tide by Damien Broderick
By Moonlight by Peter S. Beagle
Black Swan by Bruce Sterling
As Women Fight by Sara Genge
The Cinderella Game by Kelly Link
Formidable Caress: A Tale of Old Earth by Stephen Baxter
Blocked by Geoff Ryman
Truth and Bone by Pat Cadigan
Eros, Philia, Agape by Rachel Swirsky
The Motorman's Coat by John Kessel
Mongoose by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette
Echoes of Aurora by Ellen Klages
Before My Last Breath by Robert Reed
JoBoy by Diana Wynne Jones
Utriusque Cosmi by Robert Charles Wilson
A Delicate Architecture by Catherynne M. Valente
The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles by Kij Johnson