Out for some months, but finally read by myself (including some restful evenings in a cottage by the Cornish coast), is Jonathan Strahan’s latest take on the year’s best in short SF and (for this volume) fantasy. Last year he had ‘Science Fiction : the Very Best of 2005’, which filled a gap left by the demise of the ibooks series, of which he had co-edited ‘Science Fiction : The Best of 2004’ and ‘2003’. He’s also had a couple of anthologies published by the Science Fiction Book Club, which are only available to members in the USA, but the good news is that after the ‘Best Short Novels 2005’ and ‘Best Short Novels 2006’, the 2007 volume is likely to see the light of day to a broader audience, through Prime Books on 1st Sept 2007.
So, having read two of the four annual anthologies so far this year (the Hartwell/Cramer and Horton volumes), what of this handsome, substantial book that looks more like a Dozois annual collection?
Neil Gaiman. How To Talk To Girls At Parties. Originally in : Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders. ed Morrow.
This neat little story was reprinted in F&SF Jan 2007, whence I wrote:
As a teenage boy, most girls seem almost alien creatures. Here, two boys on the pull in North London think that they might have struck lucky in finding a party with some very attentive girls. However, there is a bigger gap between them than is normally the case.
Peter S. Beagle. El Regalo. Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, Oct/Nov 2006
When it appeared last year I summarised thus :
Marvyn (8) and Angie (12) are typically siblings in many ways, constantly teasing and at each other’s throats. However, you Marvyn has some hidden depths, for it transpires that he has magical powers, and has been informed by their latino housekeeper that he is a male witch. He explores the extent of his powers, and tries to help his sister our with regards to a young fellow student on whom she has a crush. However, things go very badly wrong, and Angie has to explore her inner strengths to help resolve the situation.
In the summary of the issue of F&SF in which it appeared I noted that ‘Emshwiller, Bacigalupi and Ryman’, and thus, by ommission, Beagle did not excel. As a contemporary magic/juju/fantasy it failed to grab.
Cory Doctorow. I Row-Boat. Originally in : Flurb : a Webzine of Astonishing Tales.
Don’t let the wincing pun put you off – this is a clever little tale of a boat who has, like many previously inanimate objects, achieved sentience in a world suddenly much emptier since large numbers of humans achieved a personal virtual rapture. For the record, it’s the second consecutive year a story by Doctor(ow), riffing on The Good Doctor’s I Robot has been chosen by Strahan.
Ellen Klages. In The House Of The Seven Librarians. Originally in : Firebirds Rising. ed November.
I’m a little biased, being a librarian myself, but this is a charming fantasy involving a young baby dropped off at the library in a wicker basket in lieue of a fine. The librarians and the Carnegie library in which they have worked for some time, withdraw into their own peculiar existence, the townspeople having headed off the the shiny new computer-equipped knowledge centre. As in such fantasies, the young girl grows up and as she reaches maturity has to decide whether the big wide world, and a university, will lead her to leave behind her foster mothers.
Christopher Rowe. Another Word For Map Is Faith. Originally in : F&SF August 2008
When it appeared last year I wrote :
Rowe’s ‘The voluntary State’ on SCI FICTION was a memorable short story, and he hits the mark again, the only problem being the rising disappointment as the story progresses as you realise that the story is coming to an end. Editor GvG should really have returned this with a Twistian ‘more please…’
The setting is a near-future US, strangely affected by both geographic and religious upheaval. An academic group are visting part of the countryside where the geography no longer matches the maps. A splintered christianity is a further backdrop, and the fervour with which the group attend to the righting of the wrongs that their eyes see is a chilling foreboding.
For me, similar to last year’s ‘The Calorie Man’ by Bacigalupi, Rowe has put together a believable, three dimensional, near future projection that is quite unique. OK it is short, but better that than ekeing out something thinly over a lot more pages (did someone say ‘Frank Herbert’?). A lot of SF simply relies on standard settings and tropes, and doesn’t really provide anything truly original, and stories which do have that bit of inventiveness do stand out. (Paging Messrs Dozois, Hartwell, Strahan, Horton).
Well, so far Strahan and Horton picked it, but not Hartwell. Will Dozois pick it and have me 3/4?
Margo Lanagan. Under Hell, Over Heaven. Originally in : Red Spikes
A dreadful (as in full of dread rather than poor) tale of a workcrew in the Christian purgatory, who are tasked to ferry one unfortunate soul to the lower place. Langan quite convincingly captures the evanescent joy of a glimpse of heaven, and the truly horrific broiling sulphuric place that is hell.
Walter Jon Williams. Incarnation Day. Originally in : Escape from Earth
This was collected by Horton as well, and when reading it there I wrote:
A strong story from Williams, as tends to be the case. He posits an intriguing background – a society in which many parents choose to raise their children as virtual ones – a sort of tamagochi – until such time as they, in their mid-teens, are ready to be encoded into a living, vat-grown, teen body. As virtual constructs, the children are able to develop virtually 24/7, and have their coded selves squirted across space.
We follow a group of virtual sibs, a cadre, who are approaching their Incarnation Day, and what appears initially to be an adventure story surrounding them, becomes much darker as the strains between one young woman and her mother develop into a life-threatening situation, as the parents have the right to return their virtual children to a zero state, and start again.
Jeffrey Ford. The Night Whiskey. Originally in : Salon Fantastique ed Datlow/Windling.
Another strong story from Ford, describing vividly a remote rural community who have an annual get together which involves the drinking a fermented concoction from a very strange plant. Those few who get the chance to partake of the drink, through a lottery, end up being found the following morning sitting in the lower branches of trees. A young boy is chosen to assist the old man whose job it is to retrieve the tree-dwellers, but this time round one of them comes back with a memento of his nocturnal trip….
It’s a story to stick in the mind for some time – in some dark recess, liable to pop up, unannounced and unwanted, at the most inopportune time. It has the feel of a folk tale, of a night time campfire around which campers regale each other with horror stories in the dark oh the dark, and one person comes out with a story which has just that ring of truth about it.
Benjamin Rosenbaum. A Siege Of Cranes. Originally in : Twenty Epics (All Star Stories) ed Moles & Groppi.
Rosenbaum is putting together a strong series of stories at the beginning of what promises to be a substantial career. This is the first of two stories by him in this year’s Strahan volume, in which a trail of devastation is being left across the countryside, small villages and villagers consumed and subsumed in a nightmarish monstrous chariot of flailing body parts.
One villager is set on avenging the murder of his family, and in this he is aided by a jackal-like creature, whose views on the nature of death are at odds with his own.
It’s a memorable story, with a touch of the Gene Wolfe’s, in that not all in the narrative is explained, and you get a feeling of a glimpse of a much bigger story.
Frances Hardinge. Halfway House. Originally in : Alchemy 3
A young man on a train finds a world adjacent to his own, accessible by a rural train platform. A young girl has been handed to the boy Kaiser, and we follow the strange grouping as the man gives up a lot of that which was weighing him down, to prevent Wolf getting the the girl, now named Ticket.
Tim Powers. The Bible Repairman. Originally in : The Bible Repairman
Powers’ only other appearance on BestSF was in Dozois’ 4th Annual Collection, way back from 1987. Other than that he’s been off my radar. This is a short, slightly off-kilter story, in which there is a trade in kidnapped souls, and their restoration. The titular character, in addition to exorcising unwanted phrases from bibles, has a track record in rescuing such souls, although he was unable to do so for his own child. A form of redemption is duly offered.
Paolo Bacigalupi. The Yellow Card Man. Originally in : Asimovs, December 2006
When it appeared last year I wrote:
Bacigalupi’s ‘The Calorie Man’ appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction’s Oct/Nov 2005 volume, and was widely, and rightly applauded. It was one of the strongest stories of the year for my money, from a new author whose initial output has been notable.
This story is set in the milieu of ‘The Calorie Man’, and if not quite up to the heights of the original story, that’s more a reflection of just how good ‘The Calorie Man’ was. The future Bacigalupi posits is a relatively near future Earth which has suffered a lot of societal changes wreaked by multinational agribusinesses and bio-engineered plagues ravaging food crops.
This story opens claustrophobically and intensely, with a nightmare of machetes and blood waking Tranh, who has been sleeping with hundreds of other Chinese, refugees from Malay, in a rundown high-rise in Bangkok. Previously a wealthy businessman in Malay, he had not been quick enough to see the politics and the nationalism that would lead to the rivers of blood which have washed him and his fellow Chinese to such a state of depredation as refugees in yet another country. With only a thin suit, the only reminder of his past he has held onto, to mark him from the thousands like him who are looking for a step on the ladder, he has only his skills and knowledge to help him avoid starvation.
He has to face not only his compatriots in the same situation he is in, but an ex-employee who has managed to do well for himself, and who has obtained the beyond-price Yellow Card which marks him out as not a refugee, but a bona fide citizen of Thailand.
The story follows Tranh through a failed attempt to gain employment to a chance further encounter with his ex-employee, via a scarily dark clockwork prostitute. Bacigalupi gets under Tranh’s skin throughout, and you can feel his hunger, and desperation and follow his mental turmoil as he struggles to avoid drowning in the sea of starving humanity.
Following hard on the heels of ‘Pop Squad’ (F&SF Oct/Nov 2006), a brace of stories of top quality.
Geoff Ryman. Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy). Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction,
Last year I wrote:
An intriguing story – not only does Ryman give what feels like an accurate portrayal of modern Cambodia, but presents a story which has a feel of an Eastern one. A rich young girl finds love in a department store, but the ghosts of the many whose blood is on the hands of her father, stand in the way of that love finding a true course, and it is only by responding to the needs of these dead, and their living relatives, that she will throw of the shackles of her parenthood.
A lyrical ghost story and well worth the admission price.
Jay Lake. The American Dead. Originally in : Interzone 203, March/April 2006
When it appeared last year I wrote:
A very unsettling piece, in which the riches of the Americans, both as a state and as invidivuals, live on after their death. A young latino is scavenging out a living from the detritus found in a crypt, and he dreams of being a wealthy yank, although it is the lifestlye of those portrayed in the heap of porno mags to which he aspires, for the now-shattered American Dream is little more than photographs of suntanned strumpets and woodsmen strugging their stuff by swimming pools and bent over bonnets of cadillacs. The American Dream becomes the American Wankmare.
An excellent story, one which a couple of years ago would doubtless have appeared in ‘The 3rd Alternative’
Robert Charles Wilson. The Cartesian Theater. Originally in : Futureshocks ed Anders
I read this in this year’s Horton collection and said:
A very clever piece from a collection which I didn’t quite get around to getting a hold of (Anders’ previous anthology, Live Without a Net, was excellent).
Wilson uses technology to make virtual the Cartesian soul. A couple of centuries hence a somewhat unpleasant performance artiste demonstrate how he can use hi-tech to substantiate a copy of a living creature, out of nano-gel. Having created a canine doppelganger, it lives for a few minutes before it starts to decohere.
The next step is to copy himself, and to set up a chillingly bizarre piece of theatre in which both he and his temporary twin will wait to see which of the two is the version which will not live long.
There is a neat twist in the tail as to who exactly is pulling the strings, the better to explore the nature of intelligence, humanity, and the soul, in creatures not of flesh and blood.
M. Rickert. Journey Into The Kingdom. Originally in : F&SF May 2006
I briefly wrote last year:
A watery ghost story, with a barista in a coffee shop with a tale to tell, and a widower who falls for that tale, but he too has a secret.
Robert Reed. Eight Episodes. Originally in : Asimovs, June 2006
When reading it last year :
A very clever look at the Fermi Paradox, in which a TV series, which could be a drama, but could also be reality TV, appears to show evidence of alien visitation. But there are questions about the TV show. Is it perhaps an alien message?
Kelly Link. The Wizards of Perfil. Originally in : Firebirds Rising ed November
A young girl, fleeing with many others from the approaching war, is taken on as a wizard’s apprentice. The wizards of Perfil live monastic, unseen lives atop ivory towers. We follow the young girl’s attempts to fulfil the role required of her, which may in fact be somewhat different.
Elizabeth Hand. The Saffron Gatherers. Originally in : Strange Stories
Editor Strahan points out in the intro that it is hand at her best, with a story which is on the brink of science fiction, fantasy and mainstream. For my money it’s some way off science fiction and fantasy, and whilst it is vividly written in terms of bringing the characters to life, just lacks that little something special for me.
Connie Willis. D.A. Originally in : Space Cadets ed Resnick
A story, as the intro explains, very much in the vein of the young adult novels of Heinlein. I’ve fond memories of several of those, which I read 30+ years ago, and had I read this story then I doubtless would have got full value for it. As it was I’m obviously too distant from that youthful self to have been willing to overlook the juvenile stylistic/plot issues. No surprise, I suppose, as I didn’t get more than a page into the Harry Potter books before giving up.
Paul Di Filippo. Femaville 29. Originally in : Salon Fantastique ed Datlow/Windling
Following the devastation wreaked (wrocked/wroken/wreaken?) by a tsunami on an East Coast city, a young man coming to terms with the situation finds a relationship with a young woman and her daughter helps matters. The daughter is a leading light in an increasingly complex game in which the children in the refugee camp in which they are based begin to map out an alternative city.
It transpires that the youthful hopes of these innocents may lead them to…
Gene Wolfe. Sob In The Silence. Originally in : Strange Birds
A more straightforward horror story than you might expect from Wolfe. A horror writer has guests at his mansion, and we follow his devious and deviant, and successful, plan to kidnap on of the young women, and hide her, Silence of the Lambs-like, in a nearby well. You would think, though, that a horror story writer would know not to follow his victim down the well……
Benjamin Rosenbaum. The House Beyond Your Sky.
Originally in : Strange Horizons
Also included by Horton this year, and upon reading this in that collection :
Horton does in his intro make clear that he has an intention to showcase new writers, and Rosenbaum is one such who has made a strong start to his writing career. This is a clever story, which shows a willingness to open up a story to some big concepts, but not to go too far. You can read it online (follow the link above) – it’s a short story, and well worth it, although it’s a thoughtful piece rather than offering a dramatic narrative.
And there’s a mini discussion on Strange Horizons in which the story is discussed, with a contribution by Rosenbaum. And for those who like your written science fiction squirted into your brain via the earhole, it is also available as a podcast. Having been made available in written and spoken form on a digital basis, it’s good to see it on slices of dead-tree and put into Bio Optic Organised Knowledge Source and thus brought to a larger audience.
Ian McDonald. The Djinn’s Wife. Originally in : Asimovs, July 2006
When it appeared last year I wrote:
Set in the same near-future AI-heavy Indian milieu of ‘The Little Goddess’ (Asimovs June 2005), and the novel ‘River of Gods’, and equally outstanding. McDonald explores the unlikely relationship between an AI, A.J. Rao (who appeared in the novel), and a dancing girl. The AI has fallen for her, and she is flattered to receive the attentions of one such as he. But can true love really happen between woman and AI?
It appears that it can, with the pair relating both emotionally and, surprisingly, physically. But he is an AI who can incorporate many instances of himself, the better to multi-task, and of course a woman can not share a man with others in this way. For her it is all or nothing, and as the rules are changed to make such powerful AI’s as he illegal, she has to choose between him and the Krishna cop who wishes to turn him off.
Last year’s anthology from Strahan covered purely science fiction, and as regular readers will know, the SF in Best SF does stand for science fiction, so the inclusion of a number of fantasy stories is bound to weaken a collection as far as I’m concerned. Without getting into too much of an argument over which stories are sf/fantasy/speculative/near-mainstream, it’s safe to say that there isn’t a whole lot of trad SF in the volume, certainly less than in the Horton volume, and considerably less than in the Hartwell/Cramer volume. (Mind you, I’ve got the Strahan/Dozois ‘The New Space Opera’ to hand for a healthy dose of that kind of SF!)
Those writers most readily identified as SF writers provide the goods for the most part, although I’d have skipped the Willis juvenile for any of a number of other stories (possibly R. Garcia y Robertson’s ‘Kansas, She Says, Is the Name of the Star’), and I would probably have swopped a couple out for other stories (notable omission being William Shunn’s ‘Inclination’).
On the fantasy side, not that I’m an expert on this, but I’d guess that in the same way that Analog readers might not engage with the SF content, those with a preference for the ‘traditional’ fantasy of the fat fantasy trilogy milieu (with quests, elves, wizards etc) might similarly be disappointed by the primarily contemporary, speculative fiction/horror nature of the ‘fantasy’ stories in this collection.
For my money, I’d rather separate collections than a combo volume, which leaves this volume satisfying me just a little less than Strahan’s previous pure SF anthologies. Now for the fourth and final year’s best collection…..