Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Best of the Best Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels – ed. by Gardner Dozois

Gardner Dozois Mammoth Book of Science Fiction series, sometimes falling under different guises, is perhaps the most staid of the ‘best of’ anthologies.  Thirty-one anthologies published as of 2014, each containing in excess of thirty stories, a significant backlog of superlative material has accumulated since 1984.  Thinking to create an all-star cast of stories from that backlog, in 2005 Dozois edited The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction.  With no room for the novellas, a companion volume The Best of the Best Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels (aka The Mammoth Book of Best Short SF Novels) was published in 2007, and is the subject of this review.

And the anthology is something resembling the best of the best.  Most of the authors well known (and those that are not are deserving of more attention), the anthology does capture some of the most interesting stories of the past few decades.  Without the pressure of only a year to make a selection, rather decades, the degree to which each story has held a place in Dozois’ mind, and by extension the field’s, allows for cherrypicking.  While I would have compiled a different list than Dozois, I cannot deny that each of the stories picked (save one) are at least worthy of being in such a volume, and represent the field well.  If there is any downside to the anthology, it would be that longtime readers of science fiction in novella form will probably already have read many, if not most of the stories.  But enough gibble gabble, here is the brief breakdown of each.  (FYI—all of the stories, at one time or another, have been reviewed independently on this blog. Therefore it’s possible to click on the link within each synopsis to get more in-depth information.)

The Best of the Best Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels opens with “Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress.  Gene therapy available, children can now be bred not to need sleep, and in the early going the Camden family decide to have one such child.  Leisha born nine months later, her life begins normally, but the older she gets, the more differences separate her from children her age. The extra time conscious put to good use, she excels at school, becoming far more intelligent than her classmates.  But Leisha is just one ‘sleepless’ child.  There are others.  The number of super-intelligent children continually growing, problems arise, and eventually societal backlash, which puts Leisha and her friends at risk.  While ‘sleepless’ is a neat idea, it is barely unpacked in the novella, and the manner in which it is unpacked is not entirely convincing.  (Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John is a more credible exploration of the same topic.)  The social reaction, as well as commentary on American culture is, however. 

“Forgiveness Day” by Ursula Le Guin is a story set in Le Guin’s Hainish universe, and also included in her collection Four Ways to Forgiveness.  Sticking with the motif of the Hainish books, the novella is the story of a young woman from the Ekumen, named Solly, sent to a feudal country as an envoy.  Assigned a cultural attaché and bodyguard by the locals, it isn’t long before she is drawn into the ongoing civil war between the aristocracy and their slaves.  Though well written, the story remains a fairy tale of social revolutionary proportions.  Le Guin’s feminist themes are obviously situated, which gives the story notice, but that the ending descends into mainstream sentiments detracts from potential impact.

“Griffin’s Egg” by Michael Swanwick is the story of the moon dog Gunther Weil, a man working on Earth’s biggest satellite to escape the political turmoil below.  But when the trouble moves lunar side, there is no escape, and Weil is drawn into the affair.  Not with guns or lasers, the trouble is rooted in an act of sabotage.  A bizarre, zombie-like effect descending on the moon stations and their inhabitants, he and his friends are forced to bring normalcy to the scene while staying alive.  While not themost profound or Swanwick’s best work, it remains fully readable on a line by line basis, the plot escalating nicely.

With “Mr.Boy” by James Patrick Kelly, the anthology starts to get meaty. The story of a twenty-five year old man stunting his growth to maintain the body of a twelve year old boy, Mr. Boy and his rich friends romp through the city careless to the realities of life their money allows for.  But when an assistant steals a bit of murder porn on his behalf, Mr. Boy’s gaudy life begins to unravel.  Filled with vivid description and scenes directly and indirectly commenting on the here and now, choosing one half of his name over the other proves easy for Mr. Boy by the end of the story.

Perhaps the best story in the anthology—indeed one of the best novellas the past several decades—is Ian R. Macleod’s “New Light on the Drake Equation.”  The plot is simple: an entrepreneurial astronomer drinks his life away in the French Alps beside his massive antennae array awaiting alien contact.  It’s thus at the human level that the flower of story blooms.  Macleod, as seems so easy for him, captures the astronomer’s personality perfectly as he reflects back on his life and faces the challenges of age and disappointment.  Simply a beautifully written story with fully human themes.

“Oceanic” by Greg Egan is religious commentary/coming-of-age story, as told through the eyes of a young man living on an ocean world.  The orthodox belief of the planet’s inhabitants drummed into his brain throughout life, it’s only as Martin gets older that he begins questioning its principles, particularly as the results of his scientific work in the oceans become more relative to theology.  As is typical with Egan, the prose—and agenda—are direct.  That being said, the coming-of-age portion of the story, including the details of setting, are some of the more ‘standard’ science fiction Egan has produced (no entrance exam required), providing color for an author known for his monochrome.

“Outnumbering the Dead” by Frederik Pohl is the story of Rafiel, a popular song-and-dance actor in futuristic America.  Exiting one of his rejuvenation treatments at the outset of the story, he knows the effort is only a temporary solution.  Unlike his fellow actors, groupies, and the overwhelming majority of people, by some physical fault the immortality treatments have failed, and he is doomed to die while others live on.  The fate affecting his relationships, his heart still hurts from the breakup of the doctor who diagnosed his situation, took pity and became his girlfriend, and then dumped him when she was unable to handle the idea she would outlive him.  A character study, Pohl’s prose shines as the reader lives with a doomed actor’s last days and months.

Sticking with the immortality theme, “Sailing to Byzantium” by Robert Silverberg is the story of another man surrounded by immortality. Charles Phillips, however, is among the ‘lucky’ ones, and it is his partner who is slowly dying.  Set in the far, far future, Earth has only five cities at a time, one torn down as another is built as a playground for post-humanity.  Along with being an exploration of Earth’s former urban greats, the story is also an individual exploration of dealing with death and mortality, all with an eye to the future.  Written in Silverberg’s forever smooth prose, the story is compelling.

“Surfacing” by Walter Jon Williams is a dark, personal story of a man, named Anthony, dealing with a troubled youth through isolation and drink.  A researcher on an ocean world, he spends his days communing with humpbacks, hoping to learn the language of a mysterious species living at the ocean’s bottom.  His solitude interrupted by a female scientist one day, the surprises she has in tow—including to herself—shift Anthony’s perspective in ways he’d never imagined.  Ragged prose for an emotionally stormy story, Williams’ tells a strong tale of personal redemption that uses symbolism nicely.

An alien meteorite landing near her village and spreading a strange crystalline substance across the land meters per day, “Tendeleo’s Story” by Ian McDonald is the story of a teenage African girl dealing with not only the personal trauma of having her home engulfed by the mysterious entity, but also the social chaos which erupts as she, her family, and her neighbors are brought to a refugee camp on the outskirts of Nairobi.  Having to take matters into her own hands, Tendeleo must sacrifice things she holds dear to come to an understanding of her situation.  But it pays off.  The result a new perspective on the world, the alien growth comes into a new light, and so too does Africa.  Though part of McDonald’s ongoing Chaga series, it’s not necessary to have read the novels before reading the novella.

“The Cost to be Wise” by Maureen McHugh is a very Le Guin-esque story of a small Arctic community dealing with a band of raiders who come storming into their village one day demanding food and drink.  Cultural tensions running high, Janna and her family are caught in a situation they can’t avoid, seeking not only a way out, but just simpy to stay alive.  They find peace, but not without heartache.  A simple but affective (and effective) story, lovers of Le Guin will love this story as well.

“The Hemingway Hoax” by Joe Haldeman starts on a realist note, but slowly accelerates into the abstract.  The story of a man who plots to pass off a fake of the infamous lost Hemingway manuscript, he soon finds time travel, alternate worlds, and other strangeness have an effect on his ruse in ways he’d never thought.  Seeming personally relevant for Haldeman, the story twists and turns, at times confusingly, but where it arrives, will have the reader in surprise.

“Turquoise Days” by Alastair Reynolds is the story of two sisters doing research on the ocean planet Turquoise.  When a patch of life on the surface starts following their research vessel one day, the sisters decide to take a swim to investigate.  Only one returning alive, she goes on to head a massive research project, and in the process becomes subsumed in a larger conspiracy.  The story pushing all of the ‘correct’ planetary drama buttons, the buttons it does not push (for example, plot coherency, credible escalation, story structure, etc.) make me question how it came to be in the anthology, let alone be the exclamation point.  Unlike the other stories, it clings much closer to a pulp ideology, and given the overall cheesiness, undermines any humanism it might have possessed. Those with less exacting critieria may think otherwise, however…

In the end, The Best of the Best Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels is an overview of Gardner Dozois’ choice for best novellas published in his thirty years as editor of ‘best of’ science fiction anthologies.  Many of the stories are from authors’ established universes, but none require a familiarity to enjoy.  There are some common threads to the stories, for example, the haves vs. the have nots, water worlds, immortality, inter-alien cultural relations, character explorations, and so forth, and for that the selection is very varied, from style to gender, mode to sub-genre perspectives.  With more than twenty years of stories to sift through, time proves an effective milieu from which to select the best of the best. 

All novellas published between 1985 and 2002, the following is the collection’s table of contents. (According to isfdb, a reprinting changed the order of the stories.  That below is based on the original.):

Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress
Forgiveness Day by Ursula K. Le Guin
Griffin's Egg by Michael Swanwick
Mr. Boy by James Patrick Kelly
Oceanic by Greg Egan
Outnumbering the Dead by Frederik Pohl
Sailing to Byzantium by Robert Silverberg
Surfacing by Walter Jon Williams
Tendeléo's Story by Ian McDonald
The Cost to Be Wise by Maureen F. McHugh
The Hemingway Hoax by Joe Haldeman
Turquoise Days by Alastair Reynolds

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