The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Two. ed Jonathan Strahan, Night Shade Books, 2008.

Strahan’s second volume is the first of 2008’s year’s best anthologies to be Amazoned to my doorstep..

Ted Chiang. The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.

Originally in : F&SF September 2007

When this first appeared last year, following a Robert Reed story (Chiang’s being the final story in the volume, which was a big tease from editor Dordon van Gelder), I wrote

From one extreme to another : from Reed, one of the most (probably the) most prolific short SF writers, to one who publishes only rarely, albeit to invariably excellent effect. And Chiang comes up with the goods again.

This story scores on several fronts. He’s taken time travel and used it to such good effect it’s likely to put others off writing on this topic for a while. What he does, which other’s don’t, or can’t, or won’t, is to weave it into a story that is just so subtle and clever.

Set in Iraq in bygone days (when Baghdad was ‘City of Peace’), it is a tale as if from 1001 Arabian Nights. The traveller is entertaining the mighty Caliph with a tale, but it is a tale within a tale. He relates his experience upon finding an Alchemist who has a portal which enables travel back in time. There are constraints on the travel, for there must be a matching portal at the destination. The Merchant is a man whose heart has long been full of sorrow and remorse, having lost his young wife many years in the past.

Can he go back and change events? He understands from the Alchemist that whilst travel to the past is possible, whilst it can be observed, and interacted with, the past cannot be changed. However, in his journeys to the past, the Merchant finds out more about his wife’s death, and finds that whilst he cannot change the past, he himself can be changed by seeing the past, to good effect.

Chiang creates a believable setting, and addresses human emotions and motivations, and produces a story of the highest standard.

Peter S. Beagle. The Last and Only, or Mr. Moskowitz Becomes French.
Originally in : Eclipse One : New Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed Jonathan Strahan pub Night Shade, 2007

Mr. Moskowitz, a Californian, had been a Francophile for a number of years, prior to his becoming, suddenly, a Frenchman. There being no gizmos, portals, or technology in this transformation, the story isn’t really science fiction. There being no magic ring, potion, pact with the develop, the story isn’t really fantasy (the story wouldn’t sit well on the fat fantasy trilogy on the shelves of a bookstore). There is no explanation, but we simply follow Mr. Moskowitz, and his long suffering wife as he firstly determines that he needs to live in France amongst his fellow Frenchmen. However, having achieved that, and been welcomed by the French state, Mr. Moskowitz then determines that he in fact is the the only Frenchman, le plusier Francais.

But then again, the story is very much about what it is that make us us, and makes one one, and people’s perceptions of themselves and each other, which is what the best sf/fantasy does, so on l’autre main, the story is peut-etre more sf/fantasy than many stories purveying hackneyed tropes in deep space.

Charles Stross. Trunk and Disorderly.
Originally in : Asimovs January 2007

When reading it last year I wrote:

I do often take umbrage at the occasional SF story that pops in some cod-Britishness, what what, but this is somewhat different. It starts off a bit 1930s British movie : “I want you to know, darling, that I’m leaving you for another sex robot – and she’s twice the man you’ll ever be!”
As an opening attention-grabber, that’s pretty good. The recipient of this message is Ralph, who is more of a squishy than Laura, the robotic clankie, who is doing the door-slamming on him, and we’re straight into a P.G. Wodehouse story set in the future. Ralph is Bertie Wooster, his butler is Alison rather than Jeeves, and there are maiden aunts, eccentric uncles, and a very strange set of coves with whom Ralph spends his ample leisure time.

Stross keeps his humour on the right side of the line for me – not too broad too often (one wincing play on words), and with an entertaining set of characters, including his sister’s miniature mammoth, and keeps everything in Wodehouse mode throughout, with a bit of drama, fisticuffs, and Ralphie getting the gal back, although with Fiona/Jeeves rather fading into the background as the story progresses.

Greg Egan. Glory.
Originally in : The New Space Opera, ed Jonathan Strahan and Gardner Dozois, pub HarperCollins 2007

Strahan co-edited with Gardner Dozois one of the best collections of original SF I’d read for some time, and choosing just which ones to pick for this volume would be a tricky one. In terms of edited a Year’s Best volume, the editor has to balance simply choosing the best, regardless of origin, or perhaps limited stories from one particular source, to give a slightly broader overview of the year in question. This is one of three stories from the volume, and previously I commented:

The opening pages describes a mind-bogglingly hi-tech means of interstellar travel, which results in two humans being downloaded into freshly minted bodies the better to communicate with the indigineous inhabitants of a far distant planet. The two lands in the territory of opposing factions, and have to overcome suspicions about who they are before the can endeavour to explore the scientific conundrum on the planet.

Daryl Gregory. Dead Horse Point.
Originally in : Asimovs August 2008

On it’s magazine appearance I wrote:

Gregory manages to raise the stakes, in a story which has a feel of a Tiptree about it. It’s short, but effective, and well-handled to take the reader through an intriguing situation as all is revealed. A women is called out of the blue by an old-friend with whom she pretty much lost contact. It turns out that said friend is in the process of pretty much losing contact with he world, as she has continued to withdraw into her own autistic world where her brain processes complex mathematical concents, whilst she is virtually dead to the world. Having given up her role in supporting her ex-university flatmate (and lover), the woman visits to find the brother pretty much at the end of his tether.

Top quality.

Jeffrey Ford. The Dreaming Wing.
Originally in : The Coyote Road (Trickster Tales), ed Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, Viking’s Childrens, 2007.

Ford is a writer of subtle stories, ones that can be read quite easily, and can perhaps slip by unnoticed. But they have subtle tones and shades and little hooks that can snag the reader. Here an annual meteorological event brings strange transformations to a remote community – some very strange transformations in some cases. When, one year, the winds fail to come, there is a very palpable sense of loss and absence, which Ford portrays well. The cause of the wind, and its absence, is revealed.

Holly Black. The Coat of Stars.
Originally in : So Fey, Fairy Queen Fiction, ed Steve Berman, Haworth 2007

Rafael Santiago pays a dutiful visit to his family home, feeling somewhat estranged, an urban, urbane, aesthetic, bisexual who works in the theatre, now out of place with his family and the house he grew up in. However, when his sister turns up, showing the effect of a violent husband who doesn’t mind using his fists, and has her son kidnapped by said husband, Rafael draws on an inner strength he didn’t realise he had, and on the relationship with his best friend, lost to the fairies in an altogether different way to himself (sorry, terrible pun, bit it just had to be made), Rafael is able to come to terms with himself, his family, and to use his skills to attempt to get his long lost love back to the land of the living.

It’s a sensitive story, with the occasional touch being particularly effective – such as when Rafael finds himself complimenting his father and communicating with him on a level long unused.

Ted Kosmatka. The Prophet of Flores.
Originally in : Asimovs Sept 2007

On it’s magazine appearance I wrote:

Kosmatka posits an alternate Earth where those who believe that the Earth is but a few thousand years old have evidently (although possibly fraudently) evidenced the truth of their belief, and we follow a young boy through his childhood and his scientific experiments which a particularly unpleasant father objects to, and to adulthood when further scientific experimentation is objected to by the authorities. For me, I’d rather have seen the issues covered outside of the alternate history milieu, which for me puts a hazy veil over the issues, rather than throwing them into relief. In this world there are plenty of father’s with fundamentalist views, School Boards, and research institutes, and governments against whom it is possible to come into conflict on these issues, with plenty of mileage for fiction.

Alex Irvine. Wizard’s Six.
Originally in : F&SF June 2007.

Last year I wrote:

A very strong take on the fantasy genre, with a questing wizard central to the tale. As the story unfolds Irvine’s realistically grim take on life (and death) becomes clearer, leading to a powerful ending that definitely does not see the wizard riding off on his white stallion into the bronzing sunset

Daniel Abraham. The Cambist and Lord Iron : a fairy tale of economics.
Originally in : Logorrhea – Good Words Make Good Stories, ed John Klima, pub Bantam Spectra

A Cambist being an expert on (monetary) exchange rates, and Lord Iron being a debauched aristo – a very debauched aristo. When the two meet, the reader, and the cambist, fear that it will be a short relationship which will lead to the downfall of one (and, it won’t be Lord Iron!).

Having had the misfortune to come to the attention of Lord Iron, the cambist is set a near impossible task, to exchange some very very obscure currency that Lord Iron has.

However, the cambist is clever, and whilst he may not know the price of something, he very much can assess the value of something. Having turned the tables on Lord Iron, and having not been despatched in a fit of pique, the aristo twice returns to the cambist, requiring his assistance. In resolving the final request, the cambist is able to find a very mutually satisfactory exchange, resulting in a happier ending than one would have thought. I’m not entirely sure where the sf/fantasy element comes in, but then again, I enjoyed the read, so heigh ho.

Nancy Kress. By Fools Like Me.
Originally in : Asimovs Sept 2007

Last year I wrote:

A strong story from Kress – short and powerful. She provides a potent take on what the conditions on Earth might be like in a generation or two, after climate change has made a major impact. Those struggling in the conditions have taken a strong view against that which caused the problems, to the extent that even classic books such as Alice in Wonderland are destroyed as evidenced of sin – the cutting down of trees to make paper, thus changing the CO2 balance.
From the same issue of the Asimovs issue as the Kosmatka story, which was an exceptionally strong issue.

Bruce Sterling. Kiosk.
Originally in : F&SF January 2007

When it originally appeared, I wasn’t hugely struck:

Sterling suffers to some extent by having set himself such a high standard in his early fiction, which has two interrelated problems : continuing to write at that level; and trying to write at that level whilst being feted as a cyber-guru and having people pay you for reams of non-fiction and spending time garnering honorary doctorates and teaching at the European Graduate School in Switzerland (as we are told in the intro). Kidnap the bugger and lock him up in a garret with bread and water, I say, to get him concentrating on writing. And certainly don’t let him near Europe, else he gets subsumed in the slightly off-kilter sensibilities of that continent.
This is a sort of Eastern European KyberPunk, with the means of nanoproduction put in the hands of the proletariat, as Borislav’s basic life as a purveyor of various necessities and little luxurious through his street koisk is changed completely by the nano Fabrikator offered to him by a shady third-rate villain. However, rather than being approached by sunglass-wearing Japanese cyber-villains, as would have happened in capitalist cyberpunk, here an official from the European Union gets involved, as Sterling looks at how a different political and societal system would respond to nanotech.

Theodora Goss. Singing of Mount Abora.
Originally in : Logorrhea : Good Words Make Good Stories, ed John Klima, pub Bantam Spectra

A more traditional fantasy story, with a nod, we’re told to Coleridge’s poem ‘Kublai Khan’. There are magic dulcimers, empresses, dragons, a beautiful fair maid in love with the dragon (when he is in human form, I hasten to add), mountains to be climbed, and all that classic fantasy tropiary.

Neil Gaiman. The Witch’s Headstone.
Originally in : Wizards : Magical Tales from Masters of Modern Fantasy, ed Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, pub Berkeley

A more contemporary fantasy story, as you might expect from Gaimain. Set in a graveyard, haunted by young Bod, who has strong ties to the place. In coming across the ghost of a young woman consigned to an unmarked grave some centuries ago, on account of being suspected a witch, young Bod decides to right this ancient wrong. In doing so he braves an ancient crypt to steal a ring, with the intention of trading it for money to buy a headstone, by visiting a local pawn shop of some disrepute. His plans go slightly awry, but the young ghost witch is able to help, and in the end he is able to mark her passing.

Stephen Baxter. Last Contact.
Originally in : The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, ed George Mann, Solaris 2007

Last year I wrote:

..a very strong story, although it could be argued that it pulls the heart-strings a little too obviously. But the final scene is a memorable one in which a mother and daughter sit in a garden watching the end of the world, as newly found fellow races say hello and wave goodbye as the darkness rushes towards us all like a tsunami. Worryingly, Baxter’s scientific background makes it all too believable. But it has to be said, that Baxter, Arthur C Clarke’s heir apparent, has produced a short beauty of a story which is redolent of Clarke at his best.

Ken Macleod. Jesus Christ, Reanimator.
Originally in : Fast Forward 1 : Future Fiction from the Cutting Edge, ed Lou Anders, Pyr

A very dark, satirical look at what the world would make of Jesus Christ upon his somewhat belated return. Welcomed by some, shunned by others, claimed as the earthly presence of a visiting alien AI by others, a journalist tries to get to grips with the man behind the legend.

Susan Palwick. Sorrel’s Heart.
Originally in : The Fate of Mice, Susan Palwick, Tachyon

An equally dark look at human nature. A young girl is found shivering in the ditch – she is one of the many mutated people on Earth, and in her case her heart is outside her body. She is befriended by a man she calls Quartz, who himself, whilst externally normal, is racked by inner daemons that call upon him to hurt that which he sees – but if he is able to describe to her those things that he is minded to do, he is freed from having to carry out those deeds : but at her painful expense. Their relationship grows, and when the child she begets by him begins to make its appearance, there is a bloody denouement as non-mutated humans descend and put right the biological wrongs.

Michael Swanwick. Urdumheim.
Originally in : F&SF Oct/Nov 2007

When it appeared last year I wrote:

creation myth told by a character from Swanwick’s forthcoming novel ‘The Dragons of Babel’, I normally enjoy Swanwick’s fiction, but this left me a little fazed. Clearly something may be missing from not knowing the world which this creation myth is the basis to, so we’re left with a dramatic, and at times blood-curdling tale in which King Nimrod and his people battle a ravaging band of shape-shifting horrors, in which death is introduced to the world.

M. Rickert. Holiday
Originally in : Subterranean #7

Rickert I know primarily from retelling of classic fairy tales from the pages of F&SF, but this is an altogether darker, much darker, contemporary tale. There’s a stunning central image, that of the ghost of a child, a pre-teen beauty queen murdered, doing a melancholic tapdance on the apartment floor of a very damaged young man. It gets worse, as at the end there are many ghosts of murdered children in his flat, at a multi-purpose (Easter, Christmas, birthday party) which he organises and for which he dresses up as a clown. When his brother calls his ‘it’s not what it seems’ response is somewhat plaintive.

Tony Daniel. The Valley of the Gardens.
Originally in : The New Space Opera, ed Jonathan Strahan & Gardner Dozois, HarperCollins 2007

Last year I wrote:

A while back now, Daniel’s stories ‘Grist’, ‘ A Dry, Quiet War’, and ‘The robot’s Twilight Companion’ all impressed me greatly. I haven’t see much of his recent stories – in face, according to the editorial intro, he hasn’t been writing much short SF, although there is reference to his ongoing ‘extreme and inventive’ space opera trilogy, started with ‘Metaplanetary’ back in 2001, and that little piece of information is going to be whispered into my ear every so often by the little red devil on one shoulder that implores me to read sf novels.
Here he creates a particularly strange setting, with a young man tending the land one side of a fence, on the other side of which hi-tech nastiness ever threatens to encroach. An ill-starred romance takes place, with only the top of the fence being the neutral territory on which he and the girl from the other side of the fence can consummate their relationship. The story then takes off into a bigger picture, and impresses.

Elizabeth Hand. Winter’s Wife.
Originally in : Wizards : Magical Tales from Masters of Modern Fantasy, ed Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, Berkeley 2007

Winter being a solitary, slightly strange woodsman in remote Maine, who finds himself a wife all the way from Iceland. This man of the woods, and his wife, of the rocks of Iceland, are pair perfectly matched. Less perfectly matched are Winter and his new neighbour, a millionaire who thinks he can ride roughshod over the rules prohibiting the felling of ancient trees on his newly acquired land. Whilst he may be able to afford the fines for such breaches of the written law, he finds to his cost that he is up against much more powerful forces.

It’s a strong story, with compelling characters who come across as real people, rather than constructs to progress a story.

Chris Roberson. The Sky is Large, and the Earth is Small.
Originally in : Asimovs July 2007

Last year I wrote:

Part of the author’s ‘Celestial Empire’ sequence, an alternate history which has a globally dominant China. Cao Wen, a junior civil servant, has the difficult task of extricating from a very stubborn elderly political prisoner some details which it is believe will help the State.
The young man learns a lot from the elder, but whilst not that which he seeks for his job, it is a lot more than he had anticipated. Roberson handles the nuances of the relationship well, and paces the story well as it builds up to an ending, whilst not a climactic one, a subtly big one.

Elizabeth Bear. Orm the Beautiful.
Originally in : Clarkeswold Magazine 4, January 2007.

A tender fantasy in which the last dragon on Earth makes the ultimate sacrifice to ensure the riches of his kind are not plundered and lost. It’s not the previous stones they hoard, but the precious stones they become when they die, and the dragon song that lives on that must be saved, and their is a haunting lyricism in the story.

Kelly Link. The Constable of Abal.
Originally in : The Coyote Road : Trickster Tales, ed Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, Viking Children’s

A young girl and her mother travel towards home, surrounded, such is the mother’s power, by various ghosts. The mother appears to be willing to lead alife on the straight and narrow in a very out of the way village, and young girl, required to masquerade as boy, finds herself turning into one.

But very little is as it seems, and the house in which they are staying has secrets to reveal, as does the mother.

Conclusion.

Two dozen almost uniformly excellent stories, giving a fair coverage across a wide spectrum of science fiction and fantasy. Somewhat less hard SF than I would like to see, and similarly probably too little ‘traditional’ fantasy for some, although I’m way too unfamiliar with the intricacies of fantasy fiction to be a judge of that.

Half of the stories are from magazines, the bulk being from Asimovs and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, with a couple from the small presses. The other half are taken from nine print anthologies, put together by the big names in anthologising (Strahan himself, Dozois, Dann, Datlow, Windling, and new Britguy on the block Mann), so there’s not much in the way of surprises for those of you who read the mags and buy the anthologies. Fortunately for me, I only read two of the aforementioned anthologies, so there was still plenty of new stuff for me to get my teeth into and enjoy, although not many of the new to me stories grabbed me as much as I recall several of the ones I had previous had read as having had (Chiang, Egan, Gregory, Irvine, Kress, Baxter) – and the thing about those stories for me is that they do explore that bit more the outer reaches that science fiction explores at its best, whereas a lot of the other stories, whilst being top quality, in contrast explore the inner reaches, often to the exclusion of anything that makes them ‘proper’ science fiction.

But these are minor quibbles, as the volume is heartily recommended content wise if you prefer your science fiction to stress the fiction over the science.

The main quibble is reserved for the dufus designer of the cover, or the commissioning designer who forced the designer to make the wide spine of the book almost, but not quite the same design as last year, so that the two volumes sit next to each other on the shelves, but with last year’s having Volume One towards the bottom of the spine and this year’s having Volume Two at the top of the spine!!!

Every time I walk past my bookshelf that has the Donald A Wollheim Annual World’s Best SF collection, my eyes are drawn to the freaking 1981 volume, which broke with eight year’s tradition of having an orange spine, to being green. Am I alone in finding this kind of thing very, very irritating? Hmmm, time for one of my tablets….

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