Science Fiction Book Club Best Short Novels 2005, ed Jonathan Strahan, SFBC 2005

There have been three Year’s Best SF collections vying for our attention for some years now, with the Dozois Annual Collection halfway through its third decade, and two smaller volumes, Hartwell/Kramer’s Years Best SF starting its second decade, with the newcomer, Haber/Strahan’s ‘Science Fiction : The Best of’ are mere toddler at only five years of age.

The volume in hand is the second in a further series, from the Science Fiction Book Club (SFBC website), and available only to members of the club (membership being limited to those in the States). This new series, covers, as you might expect from the title, novellas, and is an interesing echo for those with long memories, of a previous attempt to address this niche by Terry Carr, who had two attempts at a novella collection alongside his own successful annual collection of short stories.

The almost 600 pages contains ten lengthy stories, and may well attract some of the large number of readers of SF novels who appear unwilling/unable/uninterested in reading the shorter form.

As is my well established wont, I shall run through the stories in the order in which they appear

James Patrick Kelly. Men Are Trouble.
Originally in : Asimovs, June 2004

When I reviewed this in its original magazine appearance I was quite fulsome :

    My reading of this story started with a double hindrance. Firstly, I made the mistake of deciding that sitting in the only vacant seat on the train carriage was a better option than standing for the 45 minute journey. Normally a no-brainer, but in this instance I hadn’t realised that all the other seats in that half of the carriage were taken by 16-year old schoolgirls coming back from a school trip to London. Had they been in uniform I would have spotted it straight away and avoided the empty seat, avoided the carriage (and possibly even avoided the train). However, they weren’t in uniform, and so as I sat down I began 45 minutes of inane conversation about boys, singing, clapping, shrieking, yawning, giggling, more conversation about boys… The second hindrance was finding that the last story in the issue was evidently in the hard-boiled detective milieu. Somewhat dispirited I kept my eyes on the book, studiously avoiding as best as I could the lame conversational gambits from the young ‘lady’ sitting opposite me.

    In the end I gave up tried to make sense of the story, and waiting until today to read it properly.

    The reason why finding the story was of the hard-boiled PI ilk is that as a rule such stories in SF magazines tend towards fairly banal humour and do very little for me. Fortunately, Kelly avoids such a convention, and actually goes to the other extreme, furnishing us with a story with a memorably setting and all-female cast (including the POV character).

    Kelly’s background is a near-future Earth in which aliens have arrived and got rid of virtually 50% of the human population – the male 50%. A couple of generations on and society is just about the same as it is now, the economy not as good as it was, but with robots supplied by the aliens providing a wide range of support, things could be worse.

    PI Fay Hardaway is (with the exception of her gender) straight out of central casting, nursing a Johnnie Walker habit, unlucky in love, and bemoaning the lack of business. However, when one of the aliens, through the services of one of the robots, puts her on a very good retainer to do a bit of missings person detective work, things start to look up.

    However, as is obviously going to be the case, Fay finds that things start to get complicated – very complicated. Girlfriends, mothers, priests, cops, pre-alien and post-alien generations, alien ‘seeding’ pregnancies, suicide cults – Kelly puts in a heap of ‘soft’ SF in a story that to me feels more like a James Tiptree Jr story than one written by a man (and if your knowledge of SF isn’t sufficient to work out the sense of that last sentence then it is you who will have to do some detective work hehehe).

Stephen Baxter. Mayflower II.
Originally in : chapbook of the same name, PS Publishing.

When it first appeared I wrote:

    Prolific British SF writer Stephen Baxter has an increasingly impressive body of work to his name, including a variety of singleton novels, and several novel sequences, and a lot of short stories. It is pleasant to see a writer being able to keep such a breadth in their content and format of writing – it seems the trend is to suck successful writers into producing a single interminable series (perhaps more so in fantasy than SF). In his Xeelee sequence Baxter has produced a substantial clutch of excellent short stories and novels over several years – and long may it continue. I would offer as a counterpoint the fact that a lot of the Xeelee stories are in short story format, which has allowed him to explore vignettes and incidents in a epoch-spanning future history in a way that may not have worked as well if it had been in a number of fat novels.

    Baxter’s Xeelee stories go back many years, and some early ones were collected in his ‘Vacuum Diagrams’ collection.

    The story sequence features humans set against several very alien races intent on our destruction, humans moving away from their roots (children brought up by the community at large, not knowing parents or parental love), gobsmacking hi-tech deep space warfare, Big Canvas, and in a more recent development, complex characters.

    The Xeelee stories have appeared in many locations, including Asimovs and Interzone, and previously as other chapbooks from PS Publishing : ‘Riding the Rock’ and ‘Reality Dust’.

    This chapbook keeps up the standard – and how.

    It is a slim volume, bit in a bizarre freak of quantum publishing physics the content ‘feels’ much bigger. The plot is a relatively simply one, set in the early days of the story sequence. Earth has overthrown the Qax, and, free from the alien oppression, those on Earth are systematically cleansing the solar system of those who have collaborated with the Qax. The inhabitants of a planetoid on out on the fringes of the solar system, are waiting in dread as Coalition forces head their way : for they have been deemed to be collaborators.

    For some of them, there is a chance of escape – five spaceships have been rapidly deployed, and they are to flee : generation starships taking a long, long voyage in the hope of evading annhilation.

    We learn this through Rusel, a young man who had not made the final cut for those to get a place on the ark. He is woken in the night to find that the person who had taken the only place on the ship for their specialism has been ruled out due to a genetic defect – there is no place for something like that on a generation starship! Baxter quickly establishes the story and Rusel, who has to leave behind his love to save himself and to keep the colony going.

    The tension is hiked up a notch when the time for the starships to depart is suddenly brought forward as the threat from Earth is closer than expected. Rusel has thirty minutes to get on the ship. His determination to survive, and what he has to do to get to the ship are a personal reflection of the bigger picture.

    The rest of the story continues apace, as we follow Rusel’s life on the generation starship. In a particularly melancholy sequence, the five starships plunge into Jupiter’s orbit, the better to slingshot them on their way. Rusel is on board the Mayflower, named for historical reasons which few on board recognise. But the Mayflower II has also been picked out of the five for a much, much longer journey – 24,000 light years – outside our galaxy.

    We are able to see how the generations, the many generations, cope, as Rusel is one of a chosen few to receive Qax longevity treatment. We see him gradually losing touch with his brother, his nephews and neices, their children, and their children’s children. The millennia pass and humanity evolves (not necessarily in a way which we would want).

    Having finished the story, 85 pages of it, you feel as if you have been reading a very long novel. An excellent piece of writing, and tip for Dozois 22nd.

Well, it did appear in Dozois 22nd, as well as this volume.

Bradley Denton. Sergeant Chip.
Originally in : F&SF, September 2004

Another story I read first time round in its magazine appearance

    The view from the front-line – but with a difference. The correspondent is Chip, a dog in the K-9 corps, who tells how he and his master, Captain Dial, found themselves being used as pawns in a political game, deep in the jungle. Betrayed, and fired on by their own side, Chip has to drawn on his substantial resources. The story is told through his dictating his story to a refugee girl who he is helping. Denton handles the dog’s viewpoint probably as well as it can be done and the story has impact.

Eleanor Arnason. The Garden : a Hwarhath Science Fictional Romance.
Originally in : Synergy SF: New Science Fiction (ed Zebrowski)

I’m obviously in a minority with this story, as it was also collected in Dozois’ 22nd Annual Collection. Having read it, I wrote, somewhat abruptly(!)

    I’ve had a dig at Arnason – and as she has retread the aforelinked story I’m going to retread my criticisms. The previous story had protagonists who were humans in every nuance, other than not being human and being furry. The previous story had furry sappho couplings, and here we have furry man on man lurve. Oh really, I can’t be bothered to go any further with this review, life’s way too short.

Ian McDowell. Under the Flag of Night.
Originally in : Asimovs, March 2004.

When it originally appeared I wrote :

    Har, har, a pirate tale, sez I. A pirate tale, sez you? Aye, a pirate tale, sez I. With Piratess Anne Bonny, the long-dead, but still talking head of old Blackbeard himself. Blackbeard, sez you? Aye, sez I, and said head said he is mortally afeared on account of his having pissed in Jesu’s favourite pot. There’s shootins and fightin and quim and a rum-drinkin’, and that which make it be SFnal be the magicke which be used. Think Raiders of the Lost Ark crossed with Pirates of the Caribbean

I have to own up to my idea of SF not being sufficiently broad church to cover ghostly piratical stories!

Gardner Dozois, George RR Martin, Daniel Abraham. Shadow Twin.
Originally in SCI FICTION, 2004

I didn’t review the story after reading it online in SCI FICTION, but did so when it turned up again in Asimovs the following year

    A very strong story which I enjoyed when I read it last year on SCI FICTION. Two questions immediately arise. Firstly, why is Asimovs running stories which have appeared in SCI FICTION? That is a very slippery slope – its one thing bringing to the attention of the SF reader stories which may have appeared in a small specialist journal or very small press magazine, but SCI FICTION is a) online and freely available b) actually in competition for the best stories with Asimovs. Secondly, its a big no-no for Asimovs not to mention that this is a reprint.

    Anyhow, the story features one tough hombre on a planet recently settled, the kind of Man’s Man that Lucius Shepard portrays so well. Hard drinking, hard living, womanising and fists at the ready. Whlist prospecting out in the wilderness, very much alone, he comes into contact with aliens who have been keeping a very low profile, for a very long time. He is attacked by them, and comes around in a very strange location – in a tank, evidently not breathing. He is eventually freed by the very strange aliens – the real alieness of the aliens being very well portrayed.

    Not only does Ramon witness these very nonhuman creatures, throwing his own self into relief, but he also, to his horror, finds out that he is in effect a clone of the ‘real’ Ramon, who has fled the scene. The aliens can not allow Ramon to escape, as his bringing news of their existence will, in their mindset, end their existence. And so they have created a doppelganger Ramon, a clone with memories up to the point at which he was attached, to chase down the fleeing original.

    Accompanied by one of the aliens, Ramon has to pit his cunning against the aliens, and against his alter ego. The two Ramons do best the alien, and there is a very chilling sequence as the new Ramon gets to see the old Ramon, warts and all, whilst the old Ramon does not immediately recognise the new Ramon.

    There can of course only be one Ramon, and the new one wins out, and he is able to use his experience with the aliens, of seeing himself as part of a bigger picture, of going with the flow rather than against it, to shed his erstwhile sociopathic tendencies, and to in effect become truly human.

Worthy of note, although I don’t have the source to hand, is the history of this story, which was started by Dozois in the 70s, picked up by Martin a decade later, and finally finished by Abraham more recently.

It’s still online on the SCI FICTION site – or at least will be until those bastids at the SCI FI Channel take down the no longer updated SCI FICTION (that excellent, nay world-class, site mothballed so that they can invest the money is the almost uniformly dire multimedia SF pap they do : I’d moth their balls if I got my hands on them)

Charles Stross. The Concrete Jungle.
Originally in : The Atrocity Archives, 2004

The short novel The Atrocity Archives appeared in Spectrum SF issues 8-10, introducing to the work of the very lowkey British secret service setup ‘The Laundry’, who specialise in subduing the eldritch horrors, and their very un-Bond-like Bob Howard. ‘The Concrete Journal’ followup doesn’t quite hit the peaks of that first story, but memorably starts with exploding concrete cows in Milton Keynes, and finishes with the gibbering horrors back at HQ.

A further Laundry story appears in the recently launched Jim Baen’s Universe.

Patricia A. McKillip. The Gorgon in the Cupboard.
Originally in : To Weave a Web of Magic. >

A fantasy of the type which features quite regularly in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and for my money, there must have been a number of more inventive fantasies that this one, which for me is just too cod-fantasy for my liking. That is to say, fantasy settings that aren’t particularly fantastical, but rather set in a vaguely medieval type background. The story revolves around an artist, his muse, a painting which talks, but didn’t grab me at all.

Judith Berman. The Fear Gun.
Originally in : Asimovs, July 2004.

When it originally appeared I wrote :

    I got increasingly frustrated as this story progressed and the number of unread pages left to the end of the book began to diminish – I wanted the story to go on longer! It is a full 33-page novelette, but this feeling is partly engendered by the fact that it is structured like a 600+ page novel, with the story progressing via a series of short sections from the perspective of a number of characters, rather than a single PoV. It was also engendered by the story getting its hooks into me. The story itself is an intriguing one – the Earth is fighting against alien invasion, and we see this through a rural township in the USA, which has a downed alien spaceship on its outskirts. This has enabled them to salvage a lot of alien hi-tech, but the remaining aliens regularly threaten them with incursions which are made worse by one bit of alien hi-tech, the Fear Guns of the title, which put mortal fear into those in their way.

    The story edges closes the the X-Filesy, but what also marks it out is the characterisation, with Berman going beyond the generally stereotypical two dimensional characters in many an action SF story to get into the minds of several complicated people, all of them with their own fears, which the alien invasion have highlighted, rather than being the cause of the fears. The conclusion is a doozy, with the exact nature of the Fear Gun highlighting what Bearman has been demonstrating throughout, that human interactions and relationships are frequently driver by power and fear and hate.

Gregory Feeley. Arabian Wine.
Originally in : Asimovs April/May 2004

When it appears I was somewhat underwhelmed and wrote:

    A very dense, and very lengthy novella, sprinked rather too liberally with dialogue, italicisation of Italian words, Venetian names and name places. I think there’s something sfnal in there as I don’t believe steam power was developed at the time the story was set, but certainly not enough for me to invest the amount of time necessary to get to grips with what was going on.

Conclusion.

An impressive collection in terms of meeting my idea of what is best in SF, although it is worth noting that those that least grabbed me were clearly the least sfnal in the collection. For my money I’d replace those non-Science Fiction stories with some ‘proper’ SF, such as Christopher Rowe’s ‘The Voluntary State’, or Nancy Kress’ ‘Shiva in Shadow’, but that would leave such a collection suiting die-hard hardish-SF bods like me rather than the wider SF audience, so I’ll bow to Strahan’s editorial judgement and give him (like he gives a damn) a big thumbs up.

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