Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Review of The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year: Volume 7 ed. by Jonathan Strahan

Reading only about ten collections and anthologies (old and new) per year, I’m not the most immersed reader in science fiction and fantasy short stories, and neither am I the most naïve. But when it comes to the current year’s crop, I confess I usually let others do the hard work for me. In this day and age when literally thousands of new stories are published each year, it’s better to let someone whose living is short speculative fiction weed out the fluff. Given this ubiquity, it’s increasingly difficult to pull together a truly comprehensive best-of volume for any given year. So the least I can say about the seventh volume of editor Jonathan Strahan’s ongoing series The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year is: it’s done a good job of weeding out the fluff, and the most I can say is: 2012 seems like a pretty good year for short spec fic.

Containing thirty-two stories that cover a wide gamut of genre, science fiction to fantasy, horror to slipstream, fairy tale to steampunk, alien encounters to dark satire, space opera to dystopian fiction, and others, Volume 7 attempts to encapsulate just how good 2012 was. Every reader’s own selection would be different, but what Strahan does capture is, overall, worthwhile material that represents the zeitgeist of mainstream speculative fiction. Strahan has his pet authors, for certain, but that they are writing at a relatively high level serves to balance their inclusion.

Volume 7 opens with an atypical dystopia. Christopher Rowe’s “The Contrary Gardener” pits an independent-minded daughter against a strong-willed father in a war setting. The fighting far-off, however, the father-daugher’s contribution to the war effort is where the tension lies. The father wanting his daughter to grow crops the army needs, and the daughter desiring to grow what she wants, it takes a bit of contrived drama to settle matters—subtly written, but overt to the point of irrelevance thematically. Another dystopia, and perhaps more a vignette than story, “Goggles (c. 1910)” by Caitlín R. Kiernan is about a trio of youth sent out from the tunnels they inhabit in Colorado to scavenge for food. Dangerous gasses filling the air and rabid dogs lurking in the shadows, their leader’s mettle is challenged—the challenge ending in a moment intended more for the reader than the main character. “Let Maps to Others” by K.J. Parker is the story of an unnamed scholar and his quest to discover the lost coordinates of the city of Essecuvio. Morally ambiguous/contrived, the novella seeks to examine ethics while telling an engaging tale. I daresay the latter is more successful than the former.

Capturing an amazing character voice, “Close Encounters” by Andy Duncan takes a look at UFO sightings through the eyes of a poor elederly man who once purported to have been abducted by aliens. Twilight Zone with human integrity, Duncan takes his time crafting wonderfully unique stories, and this is no exception. Though based on a true story, not all is smoke and mirrors; the tale concludes at equipoise. A rare piece of satire from Jeffrey Ford, “Blood Drive” posits a high school where all seniors are required to bring guns to school, and the “hilarity” that ensues. A political piece, for certain, the story nevertheless brings to light some of the absurdity of arming versus disarming Americans. Included perhaps more for the author’s reputation than the quality of the story itself, “Adventure Story” by Neil Gaiman is a very brief look at legend, from a purely domestic perspective. While not a terrible piece, just not sure it’s top thirty-two of the thousands of shorts published in 2012.

A languid, ethereal story that touches upon something utterly human in an intangible way, Theodora Goss’s “Beautiful Boys” is an alien story by juxtaposition alone that looks (indirectly) at why James Dean smoking a cigarette and riding a motorcycle is so damn appealing. Ostensibly about a scientist who sleeps with one of her research subjects, at the story’s heart is a much stronger meditation on sexual attraction that sits astride that fragile fence between excavation and unearthing (for to do the latter would be to ruin all the fun). Overall, a gorgeous story that highlights the year and beyond. “Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard is the story of two girls living on Longevity Station. One essentially living inside a device called an immerser, i.e. a mechanical implement that displays an attractive, politically correct avatar to the world, and another who foregoes the technology in favor of en vivo living. Heavily imbued with Vietnamese/Chinese culture, one perspective is related in 2nd person, while the other 3rd person, allowing de Bodard to effectively contrast perspective. Culture, cultural heritage, and identity at stake, the effect of the technology plays out in a colonist/colonizer context. While there is a lot of room to cast doubt on the positioning of the immerser, as well as simplicity and familiarity of the morals, the story remains a good example of what sci-fi can accomplish, but not great example.

A single concept stretched thin—almost to the point of snapping, “What Did Tessimond Tell You?” by Adam Roberts is science fiction as it once was: a grand idea populated by space-filler characters. Roberts builds suspense admirably, and the ultimate payoff will cause every reader to pause and think. But it is not enough to prevent proceedings from being an idea indelicately injected into the lives of standbys. An introspective piece, “A Bead of Jasper, Four Small Stones” by Genevieve Valentine tells the tale of Henry, his outpost on Europa, and the dialogue that results from on off-hand comment about a ship name. Scaled to both personal solar system size, Valentine tells a solid tale, part romance, and part drama.

Channeling his inner John Steinbeck (albeit ever so slightly fantastical), Ted Kosmatka, in “The Color Least Used by Nature,” produces a tale tangible for its details, heart wrenching for its result, and fully human for its journey. About a doomed boat builder on a Pacific island, his fate is known, but the reason is not. Backstory where the intrigue is peeled back, Kosmatka has written perhaps the best story of his career. While I believe James Smythe’s The Explorer may be the better examination of identity in interstellar flight, Kelly Link’s story “Two Houses” runs deeper than the majority of space ghost stories (see, for example, the cheese of George R.R. Martin’s “Nightflyers.”) About a generation ship transporting what ostensibly seems a murder scene, the sf elements eventually come round to balance the story.

“Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls” by Rachel Pollack is a bit of fun and is generally well-written (despite an interesting structural choice upon the conclusion), but ultimately comes up as an example of how empty a lot of contemporary genre mash-ups can be: flashy on the surface for the combination of tropes and motifs, but little beneath to really dig into (save, perhaps, by modern cultural studies, but I digress). “The Woman Who Fooled Death Five Times” by Eleanor Arnason, as the title hints, is an old fashioned fairy tale. Having an alien twist, it’s the story of a woman who learns the consequences of escaping mortality. “The Grinnell Method” by Molly Gloss uses the beautifully executed imagery of nature to create the wonderful dark world of an ornithologist on assignment in the wilds of Canada, and her encounters with phenomena not readily explainable by the scientific method. While I will continue waiting for stories advocating ‘we need more female construction workers’ and ‘we need more women in the military,’ I can fully respect Gloss’ amazing evocation of place and time, and the subtle mystery inherent to it. “Reindeer Mountain” by Karin Tidbeck is the delicately horrific story of a mother and her two daughters after returning to the old family home in the mountains of Sweden. The two daughters bickering and fighting the whole way, the fate of one feeds back into the larger family tree, the hauntings of rural Sweden taking their toll.

A meta-riff on Peanuts that works far better in reality than any elevator pitch might have it, “Joke in Four Panels” by Robert Shearman excels where it shouldn’t. Both love letter and re-visioning of Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and the gang, Shearman ends the highly literary piece on a note that will inject something into the heart of any fan of Shultz's strip. One of his better Great Ship stories, “Katabasis” by Robert Reed tells of the most extreme tourism: climbing in super gravity. Lesser species crushed by the wheel set up somewhere within the space of the massive space ship, one heavily-built Sherpa learns about the trajectories of life. Another story set in a larger universe (which may, unfortunately, require knowledge of for full enjoyment) is the goofily titled “Macy Minnot's Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler's Green, the Potter's Garden” by Paul McAuley. Part of the author’s ongoing Quiet War series, it tells of a woman who satisfies her estranged father’s last request to have his ashes scattered on the moons of Saturn, and the life lessons she learns in the frontier environment. Not ground-breaking material, but nevertheless relatively engaging reading.

Similar in style to her 2009 story “Spar,” Kij Johnson’s “Mantis Wives” looks into the violence and mortality of the act of human procreation through an insect glass. Written in poetic style, like “Spar” it is powerful for its beautifully horrific undertones and seeming commentary. More transparent, but still far from overt, is Gwyneth Jones’ “Bricks, Sticks, Straw.” About scientists who are remotely researching the solar system via avatars, trouble finds them when a storm knocks out electricity on Earth. Jones uses abstract/neologistic language to ease the reader into her universe, but remains focused on the inherent humanity. “Significant Dust” may be the subtlest UFO sighting story ever told. Margo Lanagan bringing to life the Australian desert and a group of friends on the lam from civilization, not all is at seems—or is it? A murder mysery arising from a strangely oppressive government, “Nahiku West” by Linda Nagata is a nicely crafted bit of mainstream science fiction that, given the care and attention to character, plot, and prose, is readable as a one-off, but possesses few layers beneath. And closing the anthology is “Mono no aware” by Ken Liu. A story that presents an interesting view to American culture (“Then we’ll improvise,” Mindy says. “We’re Americans, damn it. We never just give up.”) as well as Japanese culture, it hinges its climax on a heroic act by telling of a space mission gone wrong. The cultural heritage of the main character, and how it plays into said heroic act are the focus. While it is nice to see Liu painting Japan in colors brighter than his typical black, the overall sentiment of the story seems more Hollywood than literary (hence the genre awards it later won?).

In the end, Volume 7 of Jonathan Strahan’s ongoing Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year series is another winner. The final selection dependent on a lot of variables (quality of fiction produced in the year, page count, available copyrights, editor preference, etc.), the name of the anthology, of course, will not meet every reader’s expectations. Nevertheless, those with any interest in the field will find a set of stories covering the range of speculative fiction’s sub-genres that, if you’re like me, raise awareness of fiction produced in 2012 that otherwise may have gone overlooked due to sheer quantity of titles released in the year. For me, the stories by Theodora Goss, Andy Duncan, Molly Gloss, Ted Kosmatka, Kij Johnson, and (interestingly enough for content) Robert Shearman were stand-out, but naturally everyone will have their own opinion.

The following are the thirty-two stories anthologized in Volume 7 of Strahan’s best-of series:

Introduction by Jonathan Strahan
The Contrary Gardener by Christopher Rowe
The Woman Who Fooled Death Five Times by Eleanor Arnason
Close Encounters by Andy Duncan
Great-Grandmother in the Cellar by Peter S. Beagle
The Easthound by Nalo Hopkinson
Goggles (c. 1910) by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Bricks, Sticks, Straw by Gwyneth Jones
A Bead of Jasper, Four Small Stones by Genevieve Valentine
The Grinnell Method by Molly Gloss
Beautiful Boys by Theodora Goss
The Education of a Witch by Ellen Klages
Macy Minnot’s Last Christmas on Dione... by Paul McAuley
What Did Tessimond Tell You? By Adam Roberts
Adventure Story by Neil Gaiman
Katabasis by Robert Reed
Troll Blood by Peter Dickinson
The Color Least Used by Nature by Ted Kosmatka
Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls by Rachel Pollack
Two Houses by Kelly Link
Blood Drive by Jeffrey Ford
Mantis Wives by Kij Johnson
Immersion by Aliette de Bodard
About Fairies by Pat Murphy
Let Maps to Others by K. J. Parker
Joke in Four Panels by Robert Shearman
Reindeer Mountain by Karin Tidbeck
Domestic Magic by Steve Rasnic Tem & Melanie Tem
Swift, Brutal Retaliation by Meghan McCarron
Nahiku West by Linda Nagata
Fade to White by Catherynne M. Valente
Significant Dust by Margo Lanagan
Mono No Aaware by Ken Liu

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