Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Review of The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction ed. by Gardner Dozois

Gardner Dozois is well known for his The Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies.  Roughly five-hundred stories having accumulated in the series as of 2005, at that time St. Martin’s Griffin asked Dozois to up the ante: to choose the best of the best.  Producing two volumes, the first being The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction, the second The Best of the Best Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels.  (For the record, like the yearly anthologies, the best-of-the-best anthologies were also ice aged: The Mammoth Book of The Best of The Best New SF and The Mammoth Book of Best Short SF Novels, respectively.)

Dozois consciously trying to avoid stories that had been re-printed innumerable times in other anthologies while maintaining a consistently high level of quality, the anthology he compiled covers all the names of the field one would expect, while not always the stories. What Dozois continues to do is spread interest within the sub-genres and micro-genres science fiction has to offer, resulting in a solid collection of short stories, from the genre’s mainstream to a handful somewhat beyond (but not too far).  (See the bottom of this review for a complete list of the thirty-nine stories Dozois selected.)  The following review covers some but not all of the stories, thirty-nine indeed mammoth.

What would later be revised into the eponymous novel, “Blood Music” by Greg Bear opens the anthology.  First person instead of third and possessing fingers that creep further than the novel’s opening section, the novelette to me is better than the novel.  What, indeed, if the next apocalypse lies in the laboratories of a pharmaceutical company?  Like much of Gene Wolfe’s horror/suspense short fiction, “A Cabin on the Coast” is a story that appears mundane on the surface but below is dark horror of the most sublime.  Featuring the same setting as “R&R”, “Salvador” is the story of John Dantzler, an American soldier fighting in El Salvador.  Led by a maniacal captain named DT, Dantzler pops pills to take the existential edge off combat, distract himself from the exigencies of war, and focus on the killing.  A short but affective piece with strong echoes of the Vietnam War, Shepard slowly spins hallucination and reality into an ever tightening spiral of quality story.  “Trinity” by Nancy Kress is a contrived novella of melodramatic proportion.  Characters that just don’t feel real, scientific experimentation that is fantasy dressed up as science with the tie-lines and support beams still visible, and a scenario as unlikely as any to be seen in genre. Next.

“Flying Saucer Rock and Roll” by Howard Waldrop is a delightfully nostalgic story about the 50s acapella pop music crush.  Capturing the magic of the era, two bands duke it out on an improviso stage late on enight in NYC to the universe’s delight.  “Dinner in Audoghast” by Bruce Sterling is about a group of Muslim aristocrats discussing life over a meal of gaudy proportions.  A leprous fortune-teller appearing on their doorstep, history takes a new perspective.  Not Pat Cadigan’s best work (a one-off, in fact), “Roadside Rescue” is nevertheless the story of a man stranded on the side of the road, his vehicle needing repair.  An alien assistance vehicle arriving quickly, soon enough his motor isn’t the only thing being manipulated.  “Snow” by John Crowley is the atmospheric story of a man whose wife left him the key to her memories.  As is the case with Crowley, something intangible that weighs tangibly on the heart is captured in the story.   A Sprawl story that lays the groundwork for Slick, Gentry, Cherry, and Little Bird in Mona Lisa Overdrive, “A Winter Market” by William Gibson asks the question: what if you could escape physical pain without committing suicide by casting aside your mortal body for a digital life inside cyberspace?  While never stated it’s a time travel story, “The Pure Product” by John Kessel nevertheless is.  The device used in Gyges Ring fashion, Kessell explores the morality of not being beholden to any particular moment in the continuum.  A cultural clash of post-modern concern, “Kirinyaga” by Mike Resnick pits a traditional African culture against the modern, politically correct view (in the novelette’s case, an African witch doctor’s right to infanticide on the ground’s of tribal belief).  Viewing the scenario through polarized glass, there is a noticeable gap in maturity in style and outlay when placing the story alongside post-colonial literary fiction tackling the same issue.

A Roma Eterna story, “Tales from the Venia Woods” by Robert Silverberg – a twelve year old boy and his sister find for a supposedly haunted house in the woods lived in by an old man.  Perhaps who he says he is, perhaps not, the key remains his fate.  “Bears Discover Fire” by Terry Bisson is the elegaic story about an uncle, his nephew, and his old-fashioned mother.  Portraying the end of America’s Golden Age in anything but obvious terms, it’s intriguing to discover the title is direct.  “Even the Queen” by Connie Willis is situational humor in the sharpest of dialogue.  Who knew women sitting around and chatting about their periods could be so insightfully funny?  “None So Blind” by Joe Haldeman is a spin off on Flowers for Algernon and wondering how it made itself into the best-of-the-best.  Mortimer Gray's History of Death by Brian Stableford is the story of a man who, after having a brush with death as a child, grows to become a historian of death.  Not a morbid tale, Gray lives in post-human times wherein humanity has achieved emortality, which places a new spin on the idea of mortality.  A beautifully sociological work regarding humanity’s perception of life and death, this is one of the most comprehensive, in-depth stories in the collection.  “The Lincoln Train” by Maureen McHugh is a Civil War story about a girl forced to move west with her mother after the North has won the war.  Not McHugh’s best story, nor anything new thematically, it nevertheless is written in the author’s confident, minimalist hand.

Later developed into the novel Diaspora, “Wang's Carpets” by Greg Egan is a VERY hard sf look at life on another planet.  “Coming of Age in Karhide” by Ursula K. Le Guin is a return to the planet Gethen from The Left Hand of Darkness, and is precisely what the title says: not an easy task for an asexual species that places such importance on the rites of puberty and sexuality.  A zombie tale with a killer final paragrah “The Dead” by Michael Swanwick is as sharp in writing as it is commenting on politicsA sampler sketch of his Chaga series, “Recording Angel” Ian McDonald is a piece featuring the Irish reporter Gaby McAslan and her assignment to cover the last days of the Treetop Hotel.  A strange virus chewing slowly across Africa, the story captures the eerie strangeness and various attitudes of the locals dealing with the phenomenon.

Another sampler, “Second Skin” by Paul J. McAuley is classic/retro space opera, spy in a space colony that leads into the Quiet War.  Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life” is the story of Dr. Louise Banks.  One of the world’s leading philologists, she is contacted by the military one day and asked to help communicate with aliens who have arrived in Earth’s orbit and sent communicator pods to the surface.  Chiang drawing in Banks’ tragic backstory alongside linguistic theory and physics as she slowly develops a channel of communication with the seven-legged creatures, the story ends up on a higher plane, particularly regarding the idea of free will.  Combining hard and soft science fiction effortlessly, this is a superb novella worthy of the annals of the genre.  The Wedding Album” by David Marusek is a brilliant story of a marriage fractured—literally and figuratively—by technology.  For all the clean takes on virtual personality copies, this one is down and dirty.

A reflective story, “10 to 16 to 1” by James Patrick Kelly is the remembrance of a man whose rural New York upbringing led him to an encounter with a bizarre time traveler.  Reminiscent of Harlan Ellison’s “Jeffty Is Five” for its nostalgic view of childhood in the American pulp era, Kelly takes his story in a Cold War direction to positive effect.  “Daddy's World” by Walter Jon Williams is the story of a young boy growing up in a strange, strange world.  “Have Not Have” by Geoff Ryman, later expanded into the novel Air, is a sensitive yet imaginative story of a fictional Eurasian country where a new technology is introduced.  Ryman’s prose of subtle import, he tells a cyberpunk tale but in sheep’s clothes.  Abuzz with all of the ideas fizzing in Stross’s head “Lobsters” by Charles Stross is the opening to the novel Accelerando. “Breathmoss” by Ian R. MacLeod is a young girl’s subtle coming of age on an alien planet that never descends to melodrama.  Reminiscent of an Ursula Le Guin story, Macleod uses a Middle Eastern motif to transition a young lady through the urban fringes of a strange alien planet. “The Fluted Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi is about a girl named Lydia who attempts to remain hidden in the castle of her patron, Baleri, who has biologically modified her and her twin sister.  A creepy story of the potential for bioengineering with a macabre, Gothic twist (reminiscent of Jeff Vandermeer’s Veniss Underground), it gets a bit sensationalist toward the end, but is overall a well-developed story.  Tim Burton would love it.

In the end, The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction is a nice retrospective, perhaps most beneficial to those who missed out on many of the early years of Dozois’ annual anthology.  Dozois having more than one finger on the pulse of mainstream science fiction, it will also be a treat for anyone looking to read some of the genre’s most identifiable stories in the genre, and some of its most liked by its fandom.  Bringing together numerous award winning and nominated stories, it likewise would be a nice catch up for anyone who would like to own said stories without having to track down the original publication.  Challenging, complex, and multi-layered most of the stories are not; but colorful, representative, and interesting in some way most are.

The following is the listing of the thirty-nine stories in the anthology (UK version, the US version having only thirty-six, the last three not included):

“Blood Music” by Greg Bear
“A Cabin on the Coast” by Gene Wolfe
“Salvador” by Lucius Shepard
“Trinity” by Nancy Kress
“Flying Saucer Rock and Roll” by Howard Waldrop
“Dinner in Audoghast” by Bruce Sterling
“Roadside Rescue” by Pat Cadigan
“Snow” by John Crowley
“The Winter Market” by William Gibson
“The Pure Product” by John Kessel
“Stable Strategies for Middle Management” by Eileen Gunn
“Kirinyaga”  by Mike Resnick
“Tales from the Venia Woods” by Robert Silverberg
“Bears Discover Fire” by Terry Bisson
“Even the Queen” by Connie Willis
“Guest of Honor” by Robert Reed
“None So Blind” by Joe Haldeman
“Mortimer Gray's History of Death” by Brian Stableford
“The Lincoln Train” by Maureen F. McHugh
“Wang's Carpets” by Greg Egan
“Coming of Age in Karhide” by Ursula K. Le Guin
“The Dead” by Michael Swanwick
“Recording Angel” by Ian McDonald
“A Dry, Quiet War” by Tony Daniel
“The Undiscovered” by William Sanders
“Second Skin” by Paul J. McAuley
“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
“People Came from Earth” by Stephen Baxter
“The Wedding Album” by David Marusek
“10 to 16 to 1” by James Patrick Kelly
“Daddy's World” by Walter Jon Williams
“The Real World” by Steven Utley
“Have Not Have” by Geoff Ryman
“Lobsters” by Charles Stross
“Breathmoss” by Ian R. MacLeod
“Lambing Season” by Molly Gloss
“The Fluted Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi
“The Footvote” by Peter Hamilton
“Zima Blue” by Alastair Reynolds

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