Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Review of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 9 ed. by Jonathan Strahan

Numbers sometimes speak louder than words, so rather than open my review of editor Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 9 (2015, Solaris) with some trite intro, here is the statistical breakdown:

Percentage of stories by authors making at least their second appearance in Strahan’s ‘best of’ series: 75% (highest of all volumes to date)
Percentage of stories by authors making at least their third appearance: 64%
Percentage of stories by authors making at least their fourth appearance: 39%
Percentage of stories by authors making at least their fifth appearance: 18%
Percentage of stories by authors making their seventh appearance: 4% (one story, in fact: Kelly Link has appeared in seven of the nine volumes)*

I don’t mind repeat inclusions.  It’s perfectly plausible that a given writer has written several high quality stories over the past decade.  The question in my mind, however, is: does such a list truly represent the current state of short speculative fiction?  Has the editor really gone out to pound the pavement, gotten to know the back genre corners and haunts of underground authors who are writing quality fiction but not yet in the spotlight, and compiled a list of the best of 2014 regardless of author?  Or has he just gone with old faithful?  I know Strahan is working within limitations most readers may not be aware of—legal clauses, reprint restrictions, author rights, sales expectations, etc.  Nevertheless, given such a high volume of repeat inclusions, I lean toward the idea these are favorite authors, and therefore not wholly representative of 2014 in short speculative fiction.

But favoritism is one thing.  Flying in the face of the current genre ideal—diversity, diversity, diversity—is another.  As a simple example, two of the twenty-eight stories are from Ellen Klages, yet there is not one from the several Chinese authors translated into English in the course of 2014a couple of which were notable or at least as good as Klages’ (more below). Another way of putting this is: why introduce the anthology with “I believe that a small part of the process of moving to a broader more inclusive conversation of SF and fantasy is the regular inclusion of new voices.”and follow up by including the same old faces—75% the same old faces when dozens upon dozens of new voices were published in 2014?

To Volume 9’s credit, however, there is diversity present in actual story content.  2014 may not have been a stand out year in genre short fiction, but there remain several high quality selections that do go some way toward representing diversity of culture and society.  Rather than continuing to harp on my disappointment in the favoritism, I will let the stories speak for themselves, which is, after all, the reason for the anthology. 

Volume 9 opens with “Slipping” by Lauren Beukes.  The story of a handicapped young woman who has the majority of her body replaced with bio-mechanical parts and becomes an athlete competing in the +Games, it is a very familiar genre note on which start.  His most mature story to date, “Moriabe’s Children” by Paolo Bacigalupi tells of the girl Alanie and the voices of the great sea kraken echoing in her head.  Nice to see Bacigalupi starting to shift away from over-dramatization and move toward more sophisticated forms of writing; it is an engaging tale.  One of the best in the anthology, Usman T. Malik’s “The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family” tells of a young woman, her widowing, and the life choices she makes in a Pakistan upturned by terrorism.  Its prose burns, accenting a highly purposeful, relevant story thatis diverse in all fronts, new author to content.  The fourth selection, “The Lady and the Fox,” is classic Kelly Link.  About a young woman’s growing up, the story’s progression is anything but typical.  I don’t know many other writers who could walk the prose tightrope Link does without falling, but she pulls it off, with flourish.

The sun rises and the sun sets, such is the predictability of Joe Abercrombie’s work. “Tough Times All Over” is no exception.  I went in anticipating loads of empty nihilism, Medieval-esque setting, an assortment of vice-ridden characters, and some reader games/manipulation.  Save a little less of the latter than normal, I would have cashed in were I in Vegas.  I keep reading grand praise for Ken Liu, and I keep reading his work being underwhelmed—due to the expectation, so my fault, not Liu’s.  “THE LONG HAUL”, however, may be his best yet.  About a cross-Pacific zeppelin flight, it subtly digs into culture and sacrifice without resorting to the manipulative literary devices I’ve seen Liu use in the past.  A semi-forced idea, “Insects of Love” mixes entomology and the relationship of two sisters in telling a nicely convoluted tale.  The writing of Nicola Griffith normally a cut above, “Cold Wind” finds her falling back to Earth to tell a rather conventional story.  The details of setting are relayed in fine, tactile fashion, but the plot itself feels done before, save with a heterosexual protagonist.

Caitlin Kiernan is one of the best writers in the field today, and “Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No.8)” is a reason why.  Dynamic prose the reader can really sink their teeth into, it transcends itself by converting a standard serial killer story into true art.  “Shadow Flock” by Greg Egan is an SF thriller heavy on drones.  Fulfilling the “fun” of genre, it remains a reversion for Egan: something more entertainment than concept.  Like Abercrombie, K.J. Parker is another predictable writer—at least her recent short fiction. Take a Medieval-esque setting, introduce some “ethically dynamic” characters, make stabs at dark humor, and deconstruct fantasy.  I’m not offended by this formula as a fantasy reader, rather I think it lacks true substance.  “I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There" is no exception.

The middle-of-the-roadness continuing, “Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)” by Rachel Swirsky is not a bad story.  Rather, Swirsky has written better, and with more original premises.  About a father who builds a doll to transfer the personality of his dying daughter into, matters play out in rather standard fashion but are freshened a little by the interweaving of Jewish culture.  “Kheldyu” by Carl Schroeder is classic science fiction for its poorness of presentation but quality of idea.  “Four Days of Christmas” by Tim Maughan is the briefest in the anthology at only four pages, and follows the route of a Christmas toy made in China, sold in the US.  Oscillating between enjoyably dynamic prose and being just plain overwritten, “Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They are Terrifying” by Alice Sola is about a family with four daughters and their travails.   James Patrick Kelly’s addition, “Someday,” is a bizarre story of human reproduction in the far future that does more than turn the gender tables on which sex should take lead.

Precursor to a planned 2015 novel, “The Fifth Dragon” by Ian McDonald is a feeling out of future commerce on the moon, and is about two lovers who must make a difficult choice.  “The Truth About Owls” by Amal El-Mohtar is a rather simplistic but charming story of a rebellious young girl learning her stance on life.  The anti-A Clockwork Orange, “Covenant” by Elizabeth Bear is the story of a ‘reprogrammed’ serial killer.  (I also thought to describe Bear’s story as ‘Crime and Punishment after popping a sci-fi tab’).  Rushed out too fast and in too great a quantity, Peter Watts’ recent short fiction does not bear the polished appeal of his early career, and his story “Collateral” is no exception.  Moving nicely, even relevantly, until the ending, Watts pulls the rug out from underneath plausibility.  Likewise warranting the description ‘charming,’ Klages second story in the anthology “Amicae Aeternum” closes things.  About a girl leaving Earth for a for a generation starship, she must say goodbye to things she loves, but has a new life waiting for her.

Status check: my review not an empty critique, the following are some examples of stories that could have been included in Volume 9.  Meeting the diversity theme, they maintain a quality at least equal to if not better than those actually selected.  Benjanun Sriduangkaew wrote a couple high quality shorts in 2014, including “Synecdoche Oracles,” “When We Harvested the Nacre- Rice”, and the novella “Scale Bright,” any of which could have been selected.  “Tongtong’s Last Summer” by Xia Jia, if Hugo readers would get a hold of it, is sure to charm, and “Storytelling for the Night Clerk”, by another Chinese writer JY Yang, is also engaging. “Help Me Follow my Sister into the Land of the Dead” by Carmen Maria Machado is a worthwhile story, as is “The Hymn of Ordeal, No 23” by Rhiannon Rasmussen. Pat Cadigan’s “Report Concerning the Presence of Seahorses on Mars” and Aliya Whiteley’s “The Beauty” are both fine, imaginative novellas.  And on and on go the list of writers who rarely see the light of day in ‘best of’ volumes if they ever have, but who were overlooked this year.

In the end, if you are a regular reader of the The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year and enjoy Strahan’s favorite authors, then you also may enjoy Volume 9.  If, however, you are looking for a selection of stories truly representative of short fiction in 2014, then the anthology may only partially satisfy.  Certainly there are some stand out stories—the Kiernan, Malik, and Wilson selections are superb.  But as a whole, it seems the opportunities to branch out and represent how truly varied the field has become were not fully taken. The Abercrombie, Beukes, Parker, Schroeder, Bear, Swanwick and one of the Klages selections could easily have been replaced by stories from further afield, everything gained rather than lost.  Diversity does exist within the stories themselves, it’s only that the 75% of the writers have appeared in Strahan’s series before…

All published 2014, the following are the twenty-eight stories contained in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 9:

Slipping, Lauren Beukes
Moriabe’s Children, Paolo Bacigalupi
The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family, Usman T. Malik
The Lady and the Fox, Kelly Link
Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind), Holly Black
THE LONG HAUL from the Annals of Transportation, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009, Ken Liu
Tough Times All Over, Joe Abercrombie
The Insects of Love, Genevieve Valentine
Cold Wind, Nicola Griffith
Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No.8), Caitlín R. Kiernan
Shadow Flock, Greg Egan
I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There, K. J. Parker
Grand Jeté (The Great Leap), Rachel Swirsky
Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They are Terrifying, Alice Sola Kim
Shay Corsham Worsted, Garth Nix
Kheldyu, Karl Schroeder
Caligo Lane, Ellen Klages
The Devil in America, Kai Ashante Wilson
Tawny Petticoats, Michael Swanwick – Another Darger and Surplus story
The Fifth Dragon, Ian McDonald
The Truth About Owls, Amal El-Mohtar
Four Days of Christmas, Tim Maughan
Covenant, Elizabeth Bear
Cimmeria: From The Journal of Imaginary Anthropology, Theodora Goss
Collateral, Peter Watts
The Scrivener, Eleanor Arnason
Someday, James Patrick Kelly
Amicae Aeternum, Ellen Klages

*Some additional stats:
Total number of stories in Volume 9: 28 (average for whole series: 28)
Total number of unique authors appearing in series to date: 119
Total number of stories appearing in series to date: 251

No comments:

Post a Comment