Friday, August 8, 2014

Review of The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014 Edition ed. by Rich Horton

Rich Horton’s take on the year in speculative fiction is, historically, the one more willing to seek out the overlooked niches and corners of genre in concatenating its sequence of ‘best of’.  The 2014 Edition of The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy (Diamond Book Distributors) proves no different. Of the thirty-five stories featured, only four can be found in Jonathan Strahan’s year’s best anthology and two in Dozois’—of which one is common amongst all three.  Potential buyers can thus be assured they are not treading old ground while having the possibility of enjoying stories located somewhere in the fuzzier interstices of genre.  

In a rather perfunctory introduction (I suppose after writing roughly a dozen, the task could be daunting), Horton acknowledges the field is branching out internationally, or at least the English language field is doing a better job of recognizing efforts beyond the former British empire.  And indeed the anthology reflects this.  The second story is a translation of “Trafalgar and Josefina” by the Argentinean Angélica Gorodischer, which is one crotchety old lady’s recollection of the rise and fall of a fantasy land.  “Call Girl” by Tang Fei is the story of a high school who sells not herself but virtual stories, in the form of dogs, told from the backseat of a beat up car.  (Yes, it’s Weird.)  “Town’s End” by Yukimi Ogawa is equally strange, telling of a marriage agency and the bizarre clients and requests which come its way.  “The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly” by the up and coming Thai writer Benjanun Sriduangkaew is the story of a virtual woman seeking her sister in the esoteria of a virtual world.  Sriduangkaew’s story a stand out, it still lacks the sheer dynamism and re-readability of “On the Origin of Song” by Naim Kabir.  Puzzle pieces that click together on the second go round, this is a rich story filled with imagery and culture that shifts and moves to rhythms and patterns of its own (and for this reader is the best in the anthology).

Despite that few crossover titles exist among this year’s ‘best of’ anthologies, the comaprison is at story level only.  At the author level, there are many more repeats.  Between Strahan and Horton, for example, there are twelve by the same author.  Thus, where Strahan’s Robert Reed choice “Mystic Falls” is stylistically superior to “Grizzled Veterans of Many and Much,” the latter better explores the relationship between humanity and technology.  (A quick side note: Reed just keeps getting better and better.  His short stories maturing superbly, the reader can’t go wrong with either Strahan and Horton’s selection, and indeed, either could have chosen one or two of his other stories in 2013 and been as successful.)  In keeping, “The Promise of Space” by James Patrick Kelly in Strahan’s is a more humanist piece, whereas “Soulcatcher” in Horton’s is a splash of imaginative revenge used to open the anthology.  Ian Macleod’s “The Discovered Country” is a touch of the real intruding upon the virtual in Horton’s, whereas “Entangled” in Strahan’s is a touch of the virtual intruding in the real—both stories of troubled love.  Common to all three ‘best of’ anthologies released thus far in 2014 (we await David Hartwell’s) is Geoff Ryman’s “Rosary and Goldenstar”. Worth the praise, Ryman’s typically flat prose tells a clever story of Shakespeare and science.  Where Strahan chose K.J. Parker’s novella The Sun and I, Horton went with “The Dragonslayer of Merebarton” (interestingly published in Strahan’s anthology Fearsome Journeys).  A standard knight vs. dragon story, it focuses on the mechanics and logistics of killing the fire-breathing lizard with the ‘proper’ tools and techniques.  Where Horton easily could have followed suit with Strahan and included “Sing”, he goes for another Karin Tidbeck offering “A Fine Show on the Abyssal Plain”, which tells the story, meta and otherwise, of a troupe of actors acting on life’s stage.  Both stories in Lavie Tidhar’s ongoing Central Station sequence, Strahan chose “The Book Seller” whereas Horton chose “The Oracle”.  Both rather blasé offerings, Charles Stross has, unfortunately for the rest of the field, spoiled singularity stories for a lot of other writers by sheer power of imagination. Tidhar just can’t keep up.

Unlike Strahan, however, Horton balances the sci-fi and fantasy.  Without breaking down the specifics, there is a 50/50 mix—significantly better than Strahan’s fantasy top-heavy anthology.  Among the sci-fi is “They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass” by Alaya Dawn Johnson.  A story that initially comes across as misperceived victimhood, it slowy develops into a more complex relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor.  Possibly an allegory for modern day Africa, two women, Libby and Tris, are free to live but within the confines of their alien overseer’s—the glassmen’s—rules and laws.  While I still have my doubts about the mindsets present, the story is in the least thought provoking—something which many sci-fi stories in 2013 failed to achieve.  “Loss, with Chalk Diagrams” by E. Lily Yu is a story that feels like its been done before: a grieving woman elects to have unwanted memories removed surgically.  “A Stranger from a Foreign Ship” by Tom Purdom is a Fallen meets PKD story about a man whose mind can occupy others’ bodies temporarily, and who does a good deed.  Back after three years of silence, “The Dead Sea Bottom Scrolls” by Howard Waldrop is a pleasant little memoir about a human retracing the steps of a long-dead Martian across the barren planet in his wind glider.  Salacious yet nostalgic, Waldrop’s tale is a genre delight.   Ken Liu had great success playing the pity card in “The Paper Menagerie” in 2012, and in 2013 his “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” sees the same tactic being milked.  For as lucidly as the story is written, it reopens old wounds in Chinese-Japanese relations but does little to heal them, the final handful of pages an all too obvious ploy for sympathy.

Only the fantasy titles remaining, there is an elfin/animal fantasy from Theodora Goss called “Blanchefleur” that is light fun.  Yoon Ha Lee’s “Effigy Nights” is a very nice vignette of super heroes literally cut out of paper with strong poetic overtones.  “A Window or a Small Box” by Jedediah Berry is an excellent specimen of prose, even if it is ultimately just a spot of fun.  “Ilse, Who Saw Clearly”, the second E. Lily Yu offering in the anthology, is a wonderful, mature story of a girl who goes on a quest to retrieve the eyes of her villagers after they were stolen by a traveling magician.  So crisply written, the reader fairly bounces in step with Ilse on her journey.

In the end, Rich Horton’s take on the best of speculative fiction first published in 2013 is equally as good as the other 2014 year’s best anthologies, though for different reasons.  Horton often tapping different sources than Strahan and Dozois, as well as seeing greater potential in different stories, his collection features less ‘big names’ and more stories that sit at a greater distance from the core of what most would perceive science fiction and fantasy to be.  Better balancing the two genres, for those who complain of Strahan tilting the field, Horton attempts to right it, offering an even mix of sf&f.  And where Dozois near faithfully adheres to stories that do not stray far from the core of science fiction, Horton casts his net to wider seas, capturing less typical sf tales.  Overall, 2013 was neither a strong or weak year, and Horton’s take on ‘best of’ represents this well, which makes it as good a place as any to make up one’s own mind about the quality of the year.

The following is the table of contents for the anthology:

“Soulcatcher” - James Patrick Kelly
“Trafalgar and Josefina” - Angélica Gorodischer
“A Stranger from a Foreign Ship” - Tom Purdom
“Blanchefleur” - Theodora Goss
“Effigy Nights” - Yoon Ha Lee
“Such & Such Said to So & So” - Maria Dahvana Headley
“Grizzled Veterans of Many and Much” - Robert Reed
“Rosary and Goldenstar” - Geoff Ryman
 “The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly” - Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“The Dragonslayer of Merebarton” - K.J. Parker
“The Oracle” - Lavie Tidhar
“Loss, with Chalk Diagrams” - E. Lily Yu
Martyr’s Gem -  C.S.E. Cooney
“They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass” - Alaya Dawn Johnson
“A Window or a Small Box” - Jedediah Berry
“Game of Chance” - Carrie Vaughn
“Live Arcade” - Erik Amundsen
“Social Services” - Madeline Ashby
“Found” - Alex Dally MacFarlane
“A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” - Ken Liu
“Ilse, Who Saw Clearly” - E. Lily Yu
“The End of the World as We know It, and We Feel Fine” - Harry Turtledove
“Killing Curses: A Caught-Heart Quest” - Krista Hoeppner Leahy
“Firebrand” - Peter Watts
“The Memory Book” - Maureen McHugh
“The Dead Sea-Bottom Scrolls” - Howard Waldrop
“A Fine Show on the Abyssal Plain” - Karin Tidbeck
“Out in the Dark” - Linda Nagata
“On the Origin of Song” - Naim Kabir
“Call Girl” - Tang Fei
“Paranormal Romance” - Christopher Barzak
“Town’s End” - Yukimi Ogawa
The Discovered Country - Ian R. MacLeod
“The Wildfires of Antarctica” - Alan DeNiro
Kormak the Lucky - Eleanor Arnason

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