Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 3, edited by Jonathan Strahan

Reviewed By Nader Elhefnawy
Originally published in STRANGE HORIZONS, November 18, 2009

The promise that a volume contains the "Best of the Year" of anything all but invites a skeptical reaction, and in his introduction to the third annual edition of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Jonathan Strahan is appropriately modest, claiming to have "only seen and considered a healthy sampling of the stories published during the year" (p. 2).

Strahan is similarly modest in his comments on the state of the field (without which an introduction of this type is never complete), shying away from the kind of big, debate-inducing pronouncements that keep forums lively, though he mentions a few trends he found particularly conspicuous, namely a greater "porousness" between the science fiction and fantasy genres; the flourishing of the original anthology as a forum for short fiction; the popularity of superheroes and zombies as subjects; and "the simple dominance of science fiction over fantasy" (p. 3) during the past year.

With this in mind, it is worth noting here that ten of the twenty-eight stories included in this volume come from such anthologies, but the tales gathered here belie two of the other trends he mentions. There is only one zombie story here, namely Paul McAuley's "The Thought War" (and none concerning superheroes), while science fiction cannot be said to dominate the set numerically, since perhaps half the tales gathered here can safely be labeled "fantasy." (Quality may be another matter.)

Two other traits of the stories included here also rate mention. One is the very different propensities of the science fiction and fantasy stories with regard to choice of setting.

The science fiction tales commonly turn away from the contemporary West (and also from metallic, space-set futures, only used to a significant extent in Robert Reed's "Five Thrillers" and Michael Swanwick's "From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled"). Several look instead to the past, in both a historical and literary sense, playing off of canonical speculative fiction--as in Elizabeth Bear's anti-Lovecraftian "Shoggoths in Bloom," John Kessel's clever Jane Austen-Mary Shelley crossover, "Pride and Prometheus," and Steampunk anthology editor Jeff Vandermeer's dark take on the Edisonade in "Fixing Hanover." (Margo Lanagan's steampunk piece "Machine Maid" also rates mention in this regard.)

Additionally three post-cyberpunk stories (comprising much of the near-future stuff) make substantial use of developing East and South Asia, namely Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Gambler," in which a Laotian-born journalist tries to make it in the crass media world of Los Angeles while holding on to his principles; River of Gods and Cyderabad Days author Ian McDonald's dazzling "Dust Assassin," centering on a young girl caught up in a bloody rivalry between aristocratic houses in a near-future India combining next-generation tech with ancient traditions; and China Mountain Zhang author Maureen F. McHugh's "Special Economics," set in an avian flu-ravaged Shenzen.

The fantasy stories go in the opposite direction, favoring contemporary, North American urban-suburban settings, like Holly Black's "Virgin," Holly Phillips's "The Small Door," Stephen King's "The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates," Meghan McCarron's "The Magician's House" and Kelly Link's "Pretty Monsters." Peter S. Beagle's "Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel," despite its slightly earlier period, and Joan Aiken's "Goblin Music," despite its English setting and the futuristic implication of the mention of underground coal gasification, are not very different in this regard. In fact, only one piece was set against a backdrop of flashing steel and wild wizardry (Garth Nix's "Beyond The Sea Gates of the Scholar-Pirates of Sarskoe," which despite some imperfect structuring, also offers the volume's biggest and most pleasing dose of whimsy), and only one other diverges very far from this pattern (Ken Scholes's entertaining allegorical romance, "The Doom of Love in Small Spaces"), so that I was left wondering if there wasn't a bit too much here about teenage suburban girls stumbling upon mysteries in their neighborhoods.

The other big tendency, this one spanning across both the science fiction and fantasy gathered here, is the stories' centering on upending, or otherwise self-consciously reworking, familiar tropes, as with the gender switch in Black's "Virgin," the witty epistemological/cosmological twist in the aforementioned zombie apocalypse in McAuley's "The Thought War," and the implications of the signal received from an extraterrestrial intelligence in "Turing's Apples." M. Rickert presents a variant on the Margaret Atwood-style feminist dystopia in "Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter's Personal Account." Ted Chiang's "Exhalation" is, at bottom, an elegantly conceived and executed variant on a tale as old as our knowledge of the laws of thermodynamics (the problem of learning about, and learning to live with, the existential challenge of an entropic, cooling universe), while Egan's "Crystal Nights" presents an update of the old human-presiding-as-a-god-over-a-microcosm trope (aided by the able integration of a Singularitarian element, and the skilled handling of its religious dimensions).

There is plenty of posthuman stuff, not only in the far futures of Reed and Swanwick-and Egan's "Crystal Nights"-but Hannu Rajaniemi's "His Master's Voice," in which the aspirations of digital life collide with the constraints imposed by Digital Rights Management technology. There's a bit of futuristic noir, particularly in Ted Kosmatka's post-cyberpunk "The Art of Alchemy" (though Reed's "Five Thrillers" also has something of this quality), and of the apocalypse too (with Swanwick, Reed and Baxter joining McAuley in this respect). However, alternate history is absent (at least, beyond the inclusion of the odd piece of high-tech in a Victorian context), and there is very little of periods before the nineteenth century in either the fantasy or the science fiction (the element of Classical myth in Rachel Swirsky's "Marrying the Sun," making it a partial exception). Despite Strahan's assertion about the blurring of the line between science fiction and fantasy, none of the stories presented here combine or hybridize them with the ingenuity or flair of, for instance, David D. Levine's best work (collected in his Space Magic collection last year), or Julie E. Czerneda and Rob St. Martin's Ages of Wonder anthology from earlier this year.

It also strikes me as noteworthy that while Strahan informs us in the introduction that in putting the volume together he
read, or started to read, more than three thousand short stories, novelettes and novellas . . . in or on magazines, anthologies, short story collections, chapbooks, and websites of almost every stripe (p. 2)
-implying his looking far beyond the most prominent and publicized outlets-the volume is dominated by big names with which most of those who read speculative fiction are likely to be familiar (especially in science fiction, relative newcomers accounting for rather more of the fantasy included). They also tended to appear in the most solidly established publications-the uppermost tier of magazines, or anthologies overseen by well-known editors (like Strahan's own Eclipse Two, from which the pieces by Chiang and Baxter came). The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy alone accounts for seven pieces (a full quarter of the book's content), while Asimov's accounted for three more, and Interzone another two. Only three of the stories-McCarron's "The Magician's House," Phillips's "The Small Door" and Swirsky's "Marrying the Sun"-made their first appearance in a purely online forums (Strange Horizons in McCarron's case, Fantasy in the case of the other two pieces), and those exceptions happen to pay at professional rates.

As might be expected given the predominance of big names and high-profile fora, the selection of the stories is strongly reflective of the general run of critical opinion, the pieces included claiming five Hugo and two Nebula nominations between them-with Chiang's short story "Exhalation" and Bear's novelette "Shoggoths in Bloom" winning the Hugo in their categories, and Kessel's "Pride and Prometheus" taking the Nebula for best novelette. Additionally, fully three-quarters of them made Locus's "Recommended Reading List" for 2008 (in total, comprising a fifth of the short stories and novelettes listed there).

What exactly this says about the place of sub-pro and electronic publication in the genre (whether it is merely "play-stuff," or is being unfairly overlooked by genre elite), the status of Analog-style "scientist fiction," and other such issues, I leave to others. What I will say is that the volume offers few surprises (certainly for those who read much current science fiction and fantasy), but does succeed in offering that healthy (if conventional) sampling promised in the introduction. This translates not just to a group of very good and often excellent stories (I particularly enjoyed the contributions by Bacigalupi, Beagle, Chiang, Egan, Kessel, McAuley, McDonald, McHugh, Nix, Rajaniemi and Scholes), with none striking me as really unqualified to be in a "Year's Best," but a good deal of variety as well-enough of it that most readers of speculative fiction should be able to find something they like, though perhaps not as much of it as they might hope for. Accordingly, like most books of the type, it is best recommended to readers with broad tastes, or particularly interested in an overview of speculative fiction in 2008 of the kind promised and delivered.

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