Thursday, March 27, 2014

Review of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Vol. 8 ed. by Jonathan Strahan

Ahh yes, the time has become to review another review: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year edited by Jonathan Strahan.  This year’s volume eight from Solaris Books, the genre aficionado once again places their trust in Strahan to filter through the literally thousands of stories published in the year to present a ‘best of’.  As always whenever those two words are bandied about, some contention is sure to arise, and this year’s volume is no exception.  It is thus much simpler to describe what the anthology is, rather than what it should have been, could have been, or isn’t, because in the end it is a rich collection of stories which every reader can find something enjoyable within.  One of the better in Strahan's ongoing series, it would seem to indicate 2013 was a strong year in short fiction.

TBSFaFotYv8 opens on an empty note: a wild west one-off from Joe Abercrombie marginally in the same setting as Red Country called “Some Desperado”.  The prose poor and story dry, it will, nevertheless, appeal to that niche of genre fandom which believes Abercrombie can do no wrong.  (See the following quote.  “Neary’s arrow had snagged it in the shoulder, not deep enough to kill or even slow it right off, but deep enough to make it bleed at a good pace. With her hard riding that had killed it just as dead as a shaft in the heart.” The last sentence not even a coherent thought, such jarring, if not blasé, lines are spread throughout the story.)  “Zero Conduct” by Greg Egan shifts to the near-future and tells the story of an Afghani teen living in Iran with her exiled grandfather.  Despite making an exciting discovery in superconducting, getting it into public and into production does not prove easy for a foreigner, however.  Humanitarian in scope, it is a solid story featuring a clash of cultures and advances in knowledge.  One of the most bejeweled stories in the anthology is Yoon Ha Lee’s “Effigy Nights”.  A poetically expressed Jack Vance concept, the story never finds a precise balance between science fiction and fantasy as legends are brought back to life voodoo-style to defend a city under attack from galactic invaders.  A moody, very well written piece of distant galaxy mysteriousness.  “Rosary and Goldenstar” by Geoff Ryman is a fun story in dialogue with Shakespeare and science, and is cleverly structured, but possesses little to ruminate upon given the “profundity” of the subject matter.  Another fun entry is Neil Gaiman’s “The Sleeper and the Spindle”.  As is the wont of Gaiman, the story is a fairy tale involving queens, dwarves, and a strange spell sweeping a land, but with its own contemporary spin on things.  Charming but forgettable. 

With M. John Harrison’s “Cave and Julia”, the anthology takes a turn for the sober.  Set on Autotelia, the relationship of the titular couple, exacerbated by mysterious happenings on the island, takes center stage, an eerily wandering piece in Harrison’s precise prose the result.  M. Bennardo’s “The Herons of Mer de l’Ouest” is a fantasy of Native American proportion.  The story of a lone wanderer in the untamed regions of the US mid 18 th century, his experiences with a local tribe and the defense of their people has visual impact, and, a transcendent ending.  Switching gears to the near-future, Ramez Naam’s “Water” is a love-affair with the technical possibilities surrounding the human interface with sensual—or at least sensualized—advertizing.  Short on prose, the story nevertheless exposes some Orwellian possibilities for ads, neurotech, and the human will—or lack thereof.  The story a modern upgrade of Frederik Pohl (e.g. “The Tunnel under the World”), it also froths ideas a la Charlie Stross.  As always with a Ted Chiang story, “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is a well-thought out idea in smooth style that examines the manner in which technology affects humanity and vice versa.  The subject life-logging, Chiang postulates prosthetic memory is inevitable as society marches forward, and, like most other technical advances, has its dark and light sides. (See here for a longer review of the novelette on this blog.)

Set in northern Thailand, “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt is a bittersweet tale of a small village come holiday time.  Prosaic in a fashion somewhat similar (emphasis on ‘somewhat’) to Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds but possessing a spirit like Amitav Ghosh’s The Circle of Reason, young Tangmoo’s ultimate fate touches not only the eclectic villagers around him, but also the reader.  Also set in the Orient, “Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls” by Richard Parks is the story of young Hiroshi and the bottomless well outside his home emanating music every night.  Hiroshi’s ensuing trip into the underworld is a magical piece of storytelling that begs to be read and re-read.  Steampunk-grotesque I guess would be the best short description of Priya Sharman’s “Rag and Bone.”  Victorian Liverpool lorded over by an oligarch of organ hungry aristocrats, each is willing to pay good money for healthy skin and bone, muscle and sinew, and Tom is the sampler.  Though a bit simplistic, it’s well written and drags the reader, willing or unwilling, into its sense of the macabre. “The Book Seller” by Lavie Tidhar is a story that thinks it knows what it wants to be, but in reality tosses and turns fitfully in varying directions.  Whether a kowtow to early genre, outright science fiction, Hebrewpunk, humanism, or something else, it’s a story that attempts to bounce back and forth between pulp and literary realism the same as Osama, but to limited effect.  The fact it is also a story part of a larger set of stories limits its impact in the anthology. Though still embellished, the quality of K.J. Parker’s writing improves in short fiction. The novella The Sun and I focused stylistically, it tells of a down-on-their-luck group of young men who pawn off a religion of their own creation on a Medieval-esque land torn by war.  The same story mechanism as another Parker novella Let Maps to Others (i.e. concatenating extreme coincidences and paranormal events toward an ambiguously moral point), the religion of the Invincible Sun goes through a cut-scene evolution which parallels Catholicism.  Desperate for relevancy, the novella nevertheless finds itself at a distance for its failure to conflate the historical and cultural elements of religion with immediacy and need. 

“The Promise of Space” by James Patrick Kelly is a subtly brilliant (and unintentional) counter-point to Chiang’s earlier novelette.  A conversation between a dying space ship captain and his science fiction writer ex-wife, life-logging and the rigors of space travel influence their recollections of days past in ways neither want.  A brief but touching story.  “The Master Conjurer” is a story about a unique spell accidentally cast by a rather indifferent young man and the media sensation it becomes after.  Though having something in common with Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell on the surface, it lacks depth beyond character.  Though briskly prosaic, E. Lily Yu’s “The Pilgrim and the Angel” is a simplistic piece about culture clashes.  An Egyptian barber swept up by the archangel Gabriel, the ensuing magic carpet ride covers a cultural divide, but is resolved in too-easy, fairy tale fashion.  A work of humanist science fiction, Ian R.Macleod’s dark novelette “Entangled” is the story of an Indian woman looking for answers to personal questions in a Britain turned upside down by a disease that links people’s minds in More Than Human-style.  Moody and bleak, Martha’s plight for knowledge is subtly revealed to be something she perhaps would rather not have known.  Alternating between third- and first person perspectives of Martha, it is, as always seems the case with Macloed, an immaculately scripted story with impact.  Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s “Fade to Gold” is the story of an AWOL soldier wandering an ancient Thailand shredded by war.  Meeting a mysterious woman one day, however, changes her life. 

Nominated for a bevy of awards, it will be interesting to see how many year’s ‘best ofs’ Sofi Samatar’s short and beautiful “Selkie Stories are for Losers” will appear in.  Existing at the margin of genre, it is the story about one woman and the other women in her life, and is told in a voice that reveals itself wonderfully, giving evidence the many award nominations.  Fuzzily parallel to Tidhar’s story, Samatar espouses real life can indeed be like the cherished stories old, just not always in a way one desires.  “Metal and Bone” by An Owomoyela is, unfortunately, one of the least original stories in the collection.  A well worn trope from both the realist and fantastic sides, the futility of war is expressed through the corporal remains of the dead, including dogtags.  But to be fair, language usage is able to buoy the story.  An Irish boy enslaved in Viking-era Iceland is a more unique story, however.  Such is the premise of Eleanor Arnason’s “Kormak the Lucky”, as rounding out his story are elves, legends within legends, iron wolves, spells, and the fey of Ireland. Karen Tidbeck’s “Sing” is a soft, luxurious story of a deformed woman living on a backwater planet.  Receiving a visit from a offworld biologist one day, an unconventional friendship arises.  The only trouble is, communication on the planet is regulated by not only the suns, but a mysterious transformation known only to the locals.  A wonderful story of open-ended love.  It’s the future in Madeline Ashby’s “Social Services”, and amongst the other facets of life, technology has likewise been applied to the social work, as well. 

Caitlin Kiernan is one of the top writers of short fiction working today, and though Strahan was not able to get the rights to her “Black Helicopters”, he did find space for “The Road of Needles”.  Needing to be re-read to glean meaning, it is a dense story whose purpose is not superficial, Little Red Riding Hood playing in modular space only a hint.  Robert Reed’s “Mystic Falls” is the story of a beautiful AI virus who haunts society.  The prose a step up from much of what Reed produces, the delicate and abstract investigation needed to get at the virus’s creator has definite impact.  An homage to H.G. Wells, “The Queen of Night’s Aria” by Ian McDonald is the larger-than-life story of the singer Jack Fitzgerald and his brief tour of Mars.  Accompanied by his pianist, the duo’s best laid plans go awry as an alien war rages around their performances.  Though The Magic Flute is better, McDonald’s concluding scene is subtly superb. The final story in the collection is by the relatively unknown writer Val Nolan’s called “The Irish Astronaut”.  Affective, it tells of the stand-in astronaut Dale and his grieving the loss of a close friend when the module he was returning to Earth in disintegrated in the upper atmosphere.  Filled with Irish wit and charm, the story is a subtly strong and optimistic note on which to close out the anthology.

As editor, Strahan has done his job in TBSFaFotYv8.  Like the previous volumes (at least the couple I’ve read), there is good pace and rhythm; the reader is constantly kept slightly off-balance as to ‘what will be next’, which keeps curiosity piqued.   Featuring writers from around the globe, there is a strong international flavor to the anthology, a fact which does indeed reflect the state of speculative fiction.  (From male to female, it to transsexual, it goes without saying gender is represented.)  From a selection point of view, there are some stories that will not appear in other year’s best anthologies, and some that probably will/do—which is to be expected.  In turn, there are likewise some selections which seemingly insure the anthology’s commercial success—Gaiman, Abercrombie, Tidhar, and Parker, for example, produced mediocre works in the year, but are included nonetheless.

In the end, The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Vol. 8, in some form represents what the year of shorts was in speculative.  Those who have followed or dipped into the series (or other editors’ year’s ‘best-ofs’) will know what they are getting: an extremely varied selection of stories that, due to the variety, almost guarantees more than a few will be enjoyed.  Given that thousands of stories are published each year, it’s also inevitable a few of the stories will be eye openers to a writer they’d never experienced before, and, that some stories have been elided--intentionally or unintentionally.  And that is all you can really expect of an editor in today’s publishing market, so bravo.

The following are the table of contents of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Vol. 8:

Introduction, Jonathan Strahan
“Some Desperado” Joe Abercrombie
“Zero for Conduct” Greg Egan
“Effigy Nights” Yoon Ha Lee
“Rosary and Goldenstar” Geoff Ryman
“The Sleeper and the Spindle” Neil Gaiman
“Cave and Julia” M. John Harrison
“The Herons of Mer de l’Ouest” M. Bennardo
“Water” Ramez Naam
“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” Ted Chiang
“The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” Thomas Olde Heuvelt
“Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls” Richard Parks
“Rag and Bone” Priya Sharma
“The Book Seller” Lavie Tidhar
The Sun and I K J Parker
“The Promise of Space” James Patrick Kelly
“The Master Conjurer” Charlie Jane Anders
“The Pilgrim and the Angel” E. Lily Yu
“Entangled” Ian R Macleod
“Fade to Gold” Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“Selkie Stories Are for Losers" Sofia Samatar
“In Metal, In Bone” An Owomoyela
“Kormak the Lucky" Eleanor Arnason
“Sing" Karin Tidbeck
“Social Services” Madeline Ashby
“The Road of Needles” Caitlin R Kiernan
“Mystic Falls” Robert Reed
“The Queen of Night’s Aria” Ian McDonald
“The Irish Astronaut” Val Nolan

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