Monday, July 14, 2014

Review of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 5 ed. by Jonathan Strahan

And yet another The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year anthology to pore over, 2010’s being Jonathan Strahan’s fifth.  For those familiar with Strahan’s author preferences, the selections will not come as a surprise.  It is a rich mix, from the popular—ahem, well-known—to the far lesser known, male to female, native English speakers to the international writer, a wide spread of viewpoints is represented, but certainly some personal favorites once again make an appearance.  From the genre perspective, it covers science fiction, fantasy, and everything between (but as always, do ignore the cover, as fantasy once again holds the lion’s share).  Enough lip service; it’s about the stories.

The anthology opens on a colorful splash with “Elegy for a Young Elk” by Hannu Rajaniemi.  Somewhere between hard (quantum mechanic) science and fantasy (of a mythological bent), it is the story of man living in a computer generated environment and the quest he is sent on to the city by an ex-girlfriend.  Continually escalating plot exponentially in terms of reality, the ending does close a circle, but seeming one of far too great imaginative circumference for the length of the story.  Dark like a day threatening to rain, Neil Gaiman’s “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is the story of a dwarf looking for treasure but with much more on his mind.  Possessing a beautiful storytelling voice, it should be read aloud.  The inclusion of a Gaiman story in a ‘year’s best’ almost requisite for Strahan, this selection, however, does not disappoint as much as others have.  Whether the moral is original, well, that is another story (ha!).  “Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots” by Sandra McDonald is a tale that appears absurd at the outset (cowboy robot sex slaves on ice skates??), but once the reader enters they find interesting layers of gender discussion in the story of a woman who got revenge on her husband by requesting seven said robots as part of the divorce deal—intriguing in a bizarre way. “The Spy Who Never Grew Up” by Sarah Rees Brennan is a modern take on Peter Pan where, the boy who never grows old, has become a secret agent working for MI-6.  Neither superbly well-written or sophisticated, it’s a light read that will appeal to the fairy-minded crowd, but doesn’t have much lasting appeal.  Like Brennan’s story, Holly Black’s “The Aarne-Thompson Classification Revue” is another less-than-serious affair that plays with a major trope of fantasy: werewolves, in urban, tongue-in-cheek fashion. Written unnecessarily in the present tense, it is sprightly, but in due course less-than-inspiring, as well.

Taking a turn for the mildly-abstract, Damien Broderick’s “Under the Moons of Venus” is an eerie story of a seemingly post-apocalyptic Earth and a new moon that has appeared in orbit around Venus.  A somber tone pervading, one man comes to terms with life and science.  Jumping from our solar system to a medieval alternate world, Joe Abercrombie’s “The Fool’s Job” is a story nominally set in his First Law books.  Nihilistic humor, blood and gore, and poor prose (see this mouthful of dialogue: “Self-defeating would be if she was the one who’d end up way out past the Crinna with her throat cut, on account of some blurry details on the minor point of the actual job we’re bloody here to do.”), it is the story of a small band of mercenaries sent to retrieve a numinous object in a remote village that proves (of course) more difficult to infiltrate than they’d originally thought.  Alone one of Robert Reed’s Great Ship stories, there is no need to have read any of the others to appreciate its surreal strangeness.  The story of an alien who long remains isolated on the hull and interior of the ship—millennium, in fact, strange events conspire to draw it into the open and to society.  A foreboding, evocative piece, it’s possible to ponder after the last word has been read—if not for mood alone. The usage of present tense this time propelling the story into its conclusion, Kij Johnson’s  “Names for Water” is a nice enough piece and a mild bit of feminism, but, unfortunately, easily forgettable.  The spirit is there in a metaphor of technology, etc., but the substance a bit stretched.  “Fair Ladies” by Theodora Goss is an inverted fairy story.  The supernatural entering our world rather than us going to it, it is the story of Rudi, a young man who falls in love with a woman his parents do not approve of.  Ending on a bleak note, Goss captures the imagination for the time it takes to read the story.

For as good as James Patrick Kelly can be, “Plus or Minus” is an average effort. The second Mariska Volochkova story he’s written, this time the young woman is riding with a load of asteroid ice back to Earth aboard the creaky Shining Legend.  The crew around her as eccentric as one would expect on a space freighter, things start to go bad when their fuel supply is accidentally dumped and the crew must figure out a way to make it back alive.  Told you it was average.  “The Man with the Knives” by Ellen Kushner is the alternating narrative of a local healer and the sick foreign man who collapses on her doorstep one day.  Though delirious with love lost and unable to speak properly, the two form a strange relationship around a handful of surgical knives and books of anatomy found on his person, coming round to form a well written, interesting story.  Wholly a product of the times, Cory Doctorow’s “The Jammie Dodgers and the Adventure of the Leicester Square Screening” is a one-off about a young thief who steals an old model cell phone that has an built-in projector.  Putting it to nefarious use, the story possesses Doctorow’s typical anti-establishment act, but more cohesively than usual.   One of the best of the anthology and not just the year, The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon by Elizabeth Hand is the story of three men who organize an act of kindness for a woman who meant a lot to their early careers at the Smithsonian.  A touching piece that involves the history of the U.S flight program in North Carolina, Hand’s velvet prose tells an affective story with real substance. (See here for a longer review.)  “The Miracle Aquilina” by Margo Lanagan is a dragon story, and while it possesses the author’s keen sense of style, remains just an average dragon story.

A first contact story (or not), “The Taste of Night” by Pat Cadigan takes a different look at the Fermi paradox: what if they’ve been communicating with us all along, but we just didn’t have the sensory apparati to be aware?  Bruce Sterling’s “The Exterminator’s Want-Ad” is not so much a story rather the brief recollection of a right-wing hack artist sent to prison when the lefties took power.  A major resource shortage having brought the civilized world to its knees, the man’s existence in a hippy-fied prison is much to his disliking but capitalizes itself in techno-political humor.  “Map of Seventeen” by Christopher Barzak is the story of a young girl living in a small town which has difficulty accepting her older brother’s boyfriend.  That he’s a merman also doesn’t help the discrimination.  The symbolism nicely structured along the lines of place, identity, and open/narrow mindedness, Barzac’s story is progressive, soft fantasy for the times.  Maureen McHugh’s “The Naturalist” is a classic zombie story balanced with McHugh’s sense of humanism.  A semi-cynical piece, it is the story of a prisoner turned loose in the wastelands of post-apocalyptic Cleveland populated by the living dead.  Taking a sharp twist about halfway through, the theme is fully developed but the setting begs for expansion.  “Sins of the Father” by Sara Genge is a forced concept on an idea that never seems to grow old.  Another mer- story, the narrator is a man who has had legs attached where once he had a fish tail.  Disowned by his mother, a mermaid, everything changes when he meets Rosita.  Acknowledgment of the Other has been captured better in fiction… 

Retro space opera, Geoffrey Landis’ The Sultan of the Clouds is Arthur C. Clarke meets The Empire Strikes Back.  The story fun and adventure, Landis tells of a man who visits the cloud cities of Venus with an attractive woman, and the trouble he gets into investigating the child ruler’s strange motivations.  Entertaining but ultimately empty, the story sparkles for a moment but quickly fades.  (See here for a longer review.)  “Iteration” by John Kessel is a quick, humanist view of a sim-city experiment in real life—emphasis on quick.  “The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn” by Diana Peterfreund, though having a plotline impossible to predict given the title, remains as over-the-top story as one expects given the title.  Yes, angry unicorns, a girl with special powers that she’s just learning to use, and many other common tropes of modern YA fill out the story, rendering a story that will appeal to those who like splash and sizzle, glitter and glam, coherency on the distant horizon.  (It’s also another example for which the present tense adds nothing.) “The Night Train” by Lavie Tidhar gives the appearance of being something new and fresh, but is in fact microwaved genre with a splash of packet green salsa.  The story of a cyberpunk girl waiting for an assassin in the Bangkok train station where giant slugs act as engines, well, it only goes action-adventure from there.  Ultimately going nowhere of significance, Tidhar flexes his pulp wings but flies nowhere.  The hoing and humming ongoing, Ian Tregillis’ “Still Life (A Sexagesimal Fairy Tale)” is an alternate universe story about a clockmaker named Tink who makes a sacrifice to free her people.  Again, readable but forgettable.

The title meaning “Love Conquers All”, “Amor Vincit Omnia” by K. J.Parker is not the romance one might expect, rather an Unseen University—I mean story of students at a medieval-esque university.  The author for once utilizing magic rather than alternate world as the reason behind the fantasy designation, the supernatural is, however, as regulated as technology in her Engineer trilogy, and not utilized in a manner ‘magic system’ aficionados would hope.  A typical Parker story of moral impasse, it is one of the better stories in the anthology, but given the company, this is not a grand statement.  “The Things” by Peter Watts is an alternate perspective based on the film The Thing.  Told from the alien’s point of view, readers get the opposing view of events from the movie—a surprise resulting.  Given Watts’ proclivity for hardline interpretations of evolutionary theory, the result is not another Hollywood styled thriller.  “The Zeppelin Conductors' Society Annual Gentlemen's Ball” by Genevieve Valentine feels more like a testing out of a setting, any plot incidental.  The recollections of a mate aboard a blimp, adventure comes and goes in the skies.  Saving perhaps the best for last, Rachel Swirsky’s The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window is a capital way to close out the anthology.  What seems yet another epic fantasy is quickly and economically shuttled into the tense, dark narrative of a woman’s trapped spirit and the evolving land it is sporadically resurrected into.  Edged literary prose, relevant substance, and a transcendent ending, it vies with Hand’s story for best of the anthology.  (See here for a longer review.)

In the end, The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Vol. 5 is of suburban quality; most of the stories are unable to distinguish themselves beyond the time it takes to read them.  Feeling slightly tired, the anthology is not of the same caliber as other years’ anthologies.  The low to standard quality stories are offset by several which shine brightly, however; Elizabeth Hand, Rachel Swirsky, Peter Watts, Robert Reed have all written pieces that have a chance of transcending the year.  The anthology is thus difficult to quantify in one word.  ‘Fair to poor’ covering the majority of content, there remain enough quality stories, however, to pay more attention.

The following is the table of contents:

“Elegy for a Young Elk” by Hannu Rajaniemi
“The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains” by Neil Gaiman
“Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots” by Sandra McDonald
“The Spy Who Never Grew Up” by Sarah Rees Brennan
“The Aarne-Thompson Classification Revue” by Holly Black
“Under the Moons of Venus” by Damien Broderick
“The Fool Jobs” by Joe Abercrombie
Alone by Robert Reed
“Names for Water” by Kij Johnson
“Fair Ladies” by Theodora Goss
“Plus or Minus” by James Patrick Kelly
“The Man with the Knives” by Ellen Kushner
“The Jammie Dodgers and the Adventure of the Leicester Square Screening” by Cory Doctorow
“The Miracle Aquilina” by Margo Lanagan
“The Taste of Night” by Pat Cadigan
“The Exterminator's Want-Ad” by Bruce Sterling
“Map of Seventeen” by Christopher Barzak
“The Naturalist” by Maureen F. McHugh
“Sins of the Father” by Sara Genge
The Sultan of the Clouds by Geoffrey A. Landis
“Iteration” by John Kessel
“The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn” by Diana Peterfreund
“The Night Train” by Lavie Tidhar
“Still Life (A Sexagesimal Fairy Tale)” by Ian Tregillis
“Amor Vincit Omnia” by K. J. Parker
“The Things” by Peter Watts
“The Zeppelin Conductors' Society Annual Gentlemen's Ball” by Genevieve Valentine

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