I didn’t get round to reading the first two volumes in this series, although a couple of stories in each were chosen for the Year’s Best anthologies. Having had two matching blue covers, #3 is a striking orange/yellow volume.
Karen Joy Fowler. The Pelican Bar.
A rebellious teenager finally pushes her parents beyond the point of no return. Awaking one morning still spaced out on magic mushrooms, she finds herself taken from the family home, her parents wanting her de-programmed from the foul-mouth unco-operative monster that she is. But instead of a boarding school, she ends up some little better than a concentration camp. There’s a touch of the Gene Wolfe’s about the story, as there’s a suspicion that having gone into a drug-induced dream, perhaps she hasn’t come out of it. The regime is so harsh, and the parents willingness not to see her for two years, are such that perhaps something else is happening, and the final scenes, in which the girl, now 18, is released to find herself in the beach bar that has helped her through her ordeal, and that perhaps her captors were not human, but that, indeed humans can be inhuman, brings to an end an unsettling story without a conclusion. One to sleep on perhaps. Perchance to dream….
Ellen Klages. A Practical Girl.
A young girl in the 1950s with a knack for maths is pleased to find out from a visiting professor that numbers can have practical uses, and that they can even be magical. It seems that there is a connection to the boy in the house next door, and an oath made by their respectives fathers in their youth gives her an idea about helping her neighbour. The large pet turtle offers a chance to save him from the local school for intellectually challenged, but whilst the magic of math works, it does so with dramatic affect. It’s a gentle story, capturing the hot summer days and restricted life of a young girl whose father was lost in the war, a nice complement to the contemorary setting and the more challenging young woman in the opening story in the volume.
Pat Cadigan. Don’t Mention Madagascar.
A young barista heads off with her friend on a very strange journey, to solve the riddle of a relative being in the audience of a Rolling Stones gig from some decades back – but not as she would have looked then, rather as she looks now. A strange tour guide sets them off on their journey, a horrendous sequence of flights in various planes, to various destinations.
It transpires that the journey they are heading on is going to give them a choice about their final destination, not just where they end up, but what they end up there as, as they have been travelling through routes of possibilities and options.
It’s a nice story, but suffers a tiny bit through being the third story in a row that opens the volume with a relatively contemporary setting and light touch in terms of the SF/F elements, leaving this reader still waiting to properly take off.
Nnedia Okorafor. On the Road.
The fourth story in the volume, and the fourth with limited sfnal credentials and with a near-contemporary setting. As with the previous stories, undoubtedly well written, but this story of a woman visiting relatives in Nigeria and coming across some powerful local magic/evil similarly doesn’t really go far enough in exploring new places or situations or characters to be a standout.
Elizabeth Bear. Swell.
After a concert at a local club, a young musician gives a lift home to a young blind woman. Waking up the next morning, she realises that something was ot quite right, and heading back to the house where she dropped off the blind woman, she finds herself heading out to the woods, and ends up in a subterranean sapphic clinch with the siren.
She’s left with a gift – a voice of her own, which she complements with a guitar made by the deaf craftsman who has for many years helped those who have followed the siren’s call.
According to Bear’s website the story is evidently set ‘in the same one-step-sideways universe of “Your Collar” and “Orm the Beautiful”‘, stories with which I’m not familiar with.
The fifth story in this volume, and the fifth story with a contemporary setting, more speculative than sfnal or fantasy, and with a female protagonist. Nothing wrong with any of those things, of course, but the volume is feeling somewhat samey so far.
Maureen McHugh. Useless Things.
A detailed look at the impact of near-future climate and economic downturn on the individual. New Mexico is suffering drought, the economy is weak, and for those who cannot afford to move to where the water and the employment is, ekeing out a living is increasingly a challenge. A woman is managing to get by in her small property, growing some food and selling the lifelike dolls she sculpts on eBay. There’s still the basic infrastructure – internet, mobile phones, law and order – so, rather than being a totally fucked-up Mad Max future, it’s a scarily real one, a death by a thousand cuts. Itinerant workers pass by, heading north.
There’s something strange going on with one of her customers, who has ordered for the third time in as many years the same lifelike doll based on a baby picture they have supplied. And when her house is burgled, it’s time for reviewing the situation – leading to buying a handgun, and (bizarrely) turning a hand to sculpting dildoes. There’s a subtle interplay of relationships, a contrast between the haves and havenots, and the choices people have to make in this new world order.
Jeffrey Ford. The Coral Heart.
The Coral Heart is the name given to a sword with magical properties, and its owner. The sword turns to coral those who it cuts, and its owner has no qualms about using it, and the subsequent fame/infamy accrued.
When smitten by a beautiful queen, who initially resists him, he finds that consummating their love will be problematic, as she has previously suffered at the keen edge of the blade of the Coral Heart. A warts and all take on the traditional sword and sorcery fantasy milieu, but with the heroicism removed.
Having been reviewing the opening stories in this anthology, and commenting on the contemporary setting of the stories, and the female protagonists, I have only now come across a reference to some degree of hullabaloo over the previous volume in this series, with regard to its focus on male white protagonists, and lack of profile to the female writers. I spend as much time as possible on reading SF, and not reading other reviews, or visiting other review sites, and was not aware of this being an issue.
Similarly, I have only just spotted that the new Best SF website design uses the same WordPress theme as the TTA Press review site The Fix, which is purely a co-incidence rather than my being influenced by their use of it.
Why does life have to be so complicated?
Nicola Griffith. It Takes Two.
A young salesperson trying to make the move from sales to VP in a dotnet media company grits their teeth when visiting a lapdancing club was part of entertaining to support the bidding for a huge software contract. However, suddenly being transfixed with lust, and perhaps the other l word, with one of the dancers, throws the salesperson into a spin. And just what help has an ex-colleague provided to help clinch the deal? It’s a different perspective (go on, guess) and the sudden impact of obsession and lust and love is well handled, as is the concluding consideration of what attraction is based on.
Peter S. Beagle. Sleight of Hand.
A woman, left hollow by the death of her husband and young daughter in a car crash, leaves everything behind and drives out of town, heading nowhere in particular. There’s a chance encounter – except that it isn’t chance, and whilst wrongs may not be put right, tricks can be done. It’s a story that is heart-rending and believable.
Daniel Abraham. The Pretenders’ Tourney.
Plague has sweep-ed across the land, the king is dead, and many of his subjects. With no clear claimants to the throne, young Dafyd, struggling to fill his recently departed father’s Ducal title, finds himself in a tournament to decide whether he will be King. Is it God’s will? And if Dafyd has no faith? And if he has not faith in God, what if God has faith in him.
Paul Di Filippo. Yes We Have No Bananas.
I’m a big fan of Di Filippo, largely on account of his slightly skew-whiff gonzo world-creation, typically just one step remove, sidewise and with eyes crossed, from ours. In this story we follow one Tug Gingerella how finds himself in reduced circumstances, in ‘A Very Queer Street’ in Ocarina City. He is saved from a life on the streets by a naked Nubian Princess (amazonian females being a recurrent them in PDFWorld). There’ science and technology, quite a bit like ours, but not. There’s the movie industry, quite a bit like ours, but not. And a cast of pleasantly grotesque supporting characters, that makes it an enjoyable read, the subtlety of the writing reaping dividends.
Jane Yolen and Adam Semple. Mesopotamian Fire.
A young college student is not pleased at the grading for his dragon project. It’s short, and they capture, like, the student’s tone?
Molly Gloss. The Visited Man.
A story in fact of two visited men. Set in France, Marie-Lucien is a widower who totally withdraws after the death of his wife and child. However, the painter in the apartment below, has other ideas, and gradually encourage him to once more take an interest in his life. It transpires however that the painter himself is visited – although his vistiros are altogether more ethereal, in a story avec beacuoup de humanite mais seulement un peut de fantastique. (I should point out that I only studied French at school for five years, and that was 35 years ago, and one school report had the french teacher referring me to a ‘dilettante’. My father, also a teacher, was not amused).
Caitlin R. Kiernan. Galapagos.
A simple plot summary would do this story no justice : out in Jovian orbit, a spaceship encounters a very alien cloud, and changes course, headed for Mars. There is no communication with the crew, but one earth-based scientist is summoned to a rendezvous. It sounds like a Hollywood SF film, and in fact it could make a story as good as Danny Boyle’s ‘Sunshine’. But the narrative is provided through the reflective notes of the scientist who made the rendezvous, recuperating in a psychiatric institution. Some of the things she saw on the spaceship, and the things she felt, she has hidden from the rest of humanity. The cloud’s composition is being kept quiet, it supporting the panspermists, and its impact on the crew, notably the lesbian partner of the scientist, is the climax of the story, one that works well in looking at the impacts on a psychological level of events that in SF are typically shown as part of a dramatic action story.
Ellen Kushner. Dulce Domum.
The title being a chapter from Wind in the Willows, meaning Home Sweet Home, and in Kushner’s contemporary story set on Christmas Eve we follow a young man who is struggling with a home life that has changed, but who finds solace in the arms of a young woman. It’s nicely written, with snippets from Kenneth Graham’s story.
An interesting anthology. The vast majority of readers will, like me, have missed the brouhaha and hullabaloo that evidently greeted the previous volume(s), where the criticism was that they were too dominated by male writers. This volume is balanced in favour of female writers, and whilst there are a couple of stories clearly identifiable as ‘fantasy’ of the type featuring kings, only Caitlin Kiernan get us out into space, and Paul Di Filippo lets into an altogether different version of reality (and these two stories being the pick of the volume for me). Strahan’s introduction only discusses the cover of the book, and not the content, so the person pickng up a copy of this over the years to come, and comparing with the first two volumes, with their complementary dark blue covers, and male-dominated fiction, is going to be intrigued at the change for the third volume.
The standard of writing is high throughout, but it was a book that it was always easy to pass over in favour of another of the anthologies or magazines sitting by my chair when it was SF-reading time, which offered more mind-boggling and far-reaching SF.