Thursday, May 5, 2016

Review of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 10 ed. by Jonathan Strahan

It’s time once again to take a look back at the previous year in short science fiction and fantasy.  Offering his take (among an ever increasing number of takes) is Jonathan Strahan with The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 10 (Solaris).  Sticking with the formula that has brought the series to a decade in age, Strahan once presents his perspective of quality yet commercial short fiction from 2015.

Volume 10 opens on a conventional note.  Paolo Bacigalupi has become quite predictable in his writing: take a bleak setting, inject a pitiful character, then cut them off at the knees.  “City of Ash,” while of interest to people who enjoyed The Water Knife as the settings are the same, does not deviate.  How Elizabeth Bear’s “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” ended up in the Best of I’m uncertain.  (Perhaps it checked a retro-pulp box?) A standard quest story with little to set it apart, it’s as generic as the anthology in which it first appeared.  Unlike Bear’s, the story worth noting from Martin aand Dozois’ Old Venus is Ian McDonald’s “Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan.”  The delightfully edited tale of a woman searching for a past on the green planet, McDonald delivers a rich tale in atypical style that maximizes the potential of retro-pulp.

Effectively rendered minimalism, “The Game of Smash and Recovery” by Kelly Link describes the relationship between a brother and sister that would seem to have an entropic arc, and, interestingly, is dedicated to Iain Banks.  A solid story, “The Empress in Her Glory” by Robert Reed tells of a blogger’s prescience in the vanguard of social and technological change, and the effect it has on her future, as well as world politics. With echoes of David Gerrold, “Calved” by Sam J. Miller is the story of a father on leave from his job as a manual laborer after a long time away, the time he spends with his now-teenage son, and the things he learns about him and their relationship—another solid story.  While not actively bad, with so many hundreds of other stories published in 2015 it’s difficult to justify the inclusion of “Dancy vs. the Pterosaur” by Caitlin R. Kiernan.  A mis-matched pair of ideas, a young woman in a post-apocalyptic world runs into another young person heavily involved in herpetology, the two concepts butting heads thereafter.  (Kiernan trying to repeat the success of “Road of Needles?”)

Why stop the wheel when it’s rolling, “Water of Versailles” by Kelly Robson is yet another contemporary fairy tale subverting traditional values.  About a soldier seeking his fortune, he finds it at the court of Louis the Fifteenth and his opulent home of Versaille.  Installing not only pipes and toilets into the palace’s plumbing, the extra item he adds is what makes all the different—a nice piece to set on a bookshelf, and as such can be easily overlooked.  “Jamaica Ginger” by Nalo Hopkinson & Nisi Shawl is a straightforward steampunk tale with race-oriented theming.  A story that bounces around a bit and never overtly concretizes, Simon Ings’ “Drones” requires some parsing out by the reader to get at the core of its near-future scenario after major global change—the monotony of life seeming the underlying theme.

A very, disturbingly alien story, “Little Sisters” by Vonda McIntyre is perhaps better experienced than introduced.  Somehow darker, more visceral than the stories in McIntyre’s much earlier collection Fireflood and Other Stories, this is one that sticks in the brain as the skin crawls.  “Black Dog” by Neil Gaiman features Shadow from American Gods, and tells of a trip he takes to the Enlgish countryside.  Part ghost story and part Edgar Allen Poe, do yourself a favor and read “The Cask of Amontillado” first.  “The Winter Wraith” by Jeffrey Ford is a quasi-ghost story about loneliness during the holidays.  Ford having written better, I can’t help but wonder if the weight described in the story is not partly autobiographical.

A story capable of being written by any number of “hard sf” writers, “The Machine Starts” by Greg Bear would have once been mind-boggling, but given the fact the spectrum of sf, near-future to far-future, has been near thoroughly filled, it loses its luster.  Quantum computing and multiverses the centerpiece, Bear brings little to the table that isn’t there already.  On the flip side, “Kaiju Maximus®: “So Various, So Beautiful, So New” by the fast-rising Kai Ashante Wilson is deserving of being in any best-of for 2015.  Ostensibly a video game production, at heart it is a look at the family living in the game.  A lot of middle-of-the-road fantasy fans may bounce off this story due to the lack of a conventional story arc, but for the invested reader, there is substantial content.

Running through memories of the Alastair Reynolds’ fiction I’ve read, I think “A Murmuration” is the best yet.  There is a twist at about the three-quarters point that is a bit extreme, but the remaining elements—isolated research on bird flight patterns and the troubles of publishing papers from the field—are tightly, engagingly drawn, not something I’ve been able to say about Reynolds before.  “The Lily and the Horn” by Catherynne Valente is a filigreed take on women’s roles in a castles-and-knights setting.  Poisoning the name of the game, the delights of feasts and fairs are offset by the sharp mortality of surprise death in food and drink amongst the sexes.  “Ghost of Home” by Sam J. Miller is a straight-forward ghost story with a social consciousness about the economic crisis of the mid 2000s in the US.  Not the most unique story, but delivered with confidence and heart.

Perhaps the best of the year, “The Karen Joy Fowler Club” comes with a caveat: in order to fully appreciate, the reader must have a knowledge of Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” and Karen Joy Fowler’s oeuvre (or at least The Jane Austen Book Club and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves).  A knowledge of rhinocerous zoology doesn’t hurt, either.  This description perhaps enough to entice (or not), suffice to say Sulway commands a pinwheel of literary fantasy looking at human relationships and their animal selves within.  Brilliant stuff.  Bitter if not pointed commentary on the state of law and business, “Oral Argument” by Kim Stanley Robinson sees a scientific discovery dissembled by the courts.  As fresh as it is classic, “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” by Usman T. Mailk is a contemporary fairy tale whose double helix winds ever tighter to become a single, strong strand of story.  About a Pakistani immigrant and his grandson, Malik steadily escalates the mundane into something delightfully magical—one of the best stories in the anthology.  A touch overwritten (or at least the lexical agility only sometimes coheres into lexical flow), Tamsyn Muir’s “The Deepwater Bride” is more re-visioning of Lovecraft, blah, blah, blah.  If you like Lovecraft yet consider yourself progressive, this story may be for you.  Closing the anthology on a similarly mediocre note to that which it opened is Ann Leckie’s “Another Word for World.”  Despite playing off Le Guin’s title, there is little resemblance (save the triumvirate of characters).  A space opera setting intended to highlight the idea that automatized translating devices can’t always capture the details of human communication, Leckie uses the tried and true form of: put rivals in a difficult situation wherein they need to work together to survive as her base, language the hinge upon which said survival turns.  This premise could have had significantly more impact were it set on near-future Earth.

When compared to the variety of sf&f authors and publications on the market as a whole, Volume 10 contains stories from only a few sources.  In trying to incorporate relative concerns, Strahan chose from among the major anthologies and collections of the year (Stories for Chip, Meeting Infinity, Future Visions, Trigger Warnings, and Old Venus) and many big names in short fiction publication (, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Interzone).  With the exception of McIntyre and a couple others, outliers from these sources are few and far between.  This is a bit of a disappointment in terms of how much of a cross-section of genre the anthology is.  (For example, Link, Gaiman, Reed and others have appeared in almost every single Year’s Best volume.)  Regardless, what is selected remains representative of the sub-genres currently in play, and though there may be pet authors, they are at least good writers.  2015 not the greatest year for short fiction, the anthology as a whole is a bit weaker than some years past, but this does not stop several of the stories from being standout.  Wilson, Ings, Malik, and Sulway wrote stories that can be read several times. And it would be remiss not to take notice of Strahan’s excellent survey of the field in the introduction, particularly the stories he wanted to include but for various reasons could not.

The following are the twenty-seven stories selected for Volume 10 of the The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year:

Introduction (by Jonathan Strahan)
Black Dog, Neil Gaiman
City of Ash, Paolo Bacigalupi
Jamaica Ginger, Nalo Hopkinson & Nisi Shawl
A Murmuration, Alastair Reynolds
Kaiju Maximus®: “So Various, So Beautiful, So New”, Kai Ashante Wilson
Water of Versailles, Kelly Robson
Capitalism in the 22nd Century, or, A.I.R., Geoff Ryman
Emergence, Gwyneth Jones
The Deepwater Bride, Tamsyn Muir
Dancy vs. the Pterosaur, Caitlín R. Kiernan
Calved, Sam J. Miller
The Heart’s Filthy Lesson, Elizabeth Bear
The Machine Starts, Greg Bear
Blood, Ash, Braids, Genevieve Valentine
Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers, Alyssa Wong
The Lily and the Horn, Catherynne M. Valente
The Empress in her Glory, Robert Reed
The Winter Wraith, Jeffrey Ford
Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan, Ian McDonald
Little Sisters, Vonda N. McIntyre
Ghosts of Home, Sam J. Miller
The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club, Nike Sulway
Oral Argument, Kim Stanley Robinson
Drones, Simon Ings
The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn, Usman T. Malik
The Game of Smash and Recovery, Kelly Link
Another Word for World, Ann Leckie

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