The Year's Best Science
Fiction: Nineteenth Annual Collection
edited by Gardner Dozois
St. Martin's Press; ISBN: 0312288786; (July 2002)
Review by Ernest Lilley
Gardner Dozois' culling of the best short stories in SF is essential reading for anyone following the field, and highly recommended for everyone who just plain likes to read.
Not only is this collection a lot of fun to read, but you get Gardner's insights and annual reminiscences. The short form of SF is often the stellar nursery where our later luminaries are born. All too soon the best are abducted by publishers to do novels and return subtly changed, if at all. There are any number of authors who excel in the short form who only manage to survive in the longer, and have the good sense to keep writing for magazines after moving into the novel form. Here you get not just the best short stories of the year, but, as the title claims, the best of the genre.
Gardner Dozois has won the Best Editor Hugo more times than I can keep track of, so it's handy that they put it on the back of the latest edition of the Year's Best SF. It's twelve times at this count. Of course, that's today. By the end of August is may well be thirteen. Not that there aren't other editors who are deserving, but as Carly Simon crooned of our favorite secret agent, "nobody does it better....though sometimes I wish someone would."
Where does he get these wonderful stories? Glad you asked, as I just got through counting the sources up. There are 26 in all: 9 Asimov's Science Fiction - 5 The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction - 4 SCIFI.COM - 2 Interzone -1 Analog Science Fiction and Fact -1 The Human Front (PS Publishing) - 1 Spectrum SF 5 - 1 Redshift -1 Starlight 3 (Tor)
That Asimov's blows everyone else out of the water might not be a surprise, considering that Gardner is it's editor, but that SCIFI.COM is up to number 3 in the ranking, really legitimizes the web as a source for original SF in my mind. Of course, since their revenue stream comes primarily from non-print media, that is cable TV programming, perhaps they have deeper pockets to dig into when buying stories. I should go back and see how they fared in last year's edition (The Best of Science Fiction: Eighteenth Annual Collection, SFRevu Ocotober 2001)
The quality of these stories is outstanding. Why you'd almost not realize you were reading Science Fiction, except for the time and place of the locals. For many in the literary world outside SF, it might seem that I'm saying SF is a good as anything else, but that's not where I'm going. I primarily read SF, but reading these stories what comes through time and time again isn't the exoticness of the technology or the alien-ness of the surroundings but the humanity of the conflict and the familiarity of the settings. Partly that's because we've been exposed to alien landscapes, government institutions and starship corridors through books and media for the better part of a century at this point, but partly because these superb authors tell stories so well that they transcend genre.
But if they transcend genre, what are they? My friend Sawicki claims that any "what if" story can be considered SF. He lives too close to Canada, where the movement to rename "Science Fiction" "Speculative Fiction" started. While the former may be outmoded, the later is redundant.
Ian MacLeod starts things off with a thoughtful and richly envisioned story about an aging SETI astronomer on his once a week foray down from the mountain, to sit in the French village sipping Pastis, watching couples go by and wondering "as lonely men gazing at young couples from cafe tables have wondered since time immemorial, what the hell she saw in him." And wondering about the past, some of which comes into the present, and about the choices in his life. It's an interesting take on the future, one in which we look backwards through the haze of the past. It's a lot about love and how we get on a life's path, and where it takes us. It's poignant...and even more so if you've lived awhile yourself.
Allen Steele's story "The Dark Between" has the hard edge of all his writing, with humans going forth into a universe that doesn't really care about them, finding their meaning not so much in the stars without as the cosmos within. What do you do if you wake up at the wrong time on a several hundred year journey to the stars? Who does a communications officer talk to when he's alone in the the dark between the stars. Like many of Steel's stories the answer isn't all that simple, the universe neither kind, nor cruel except in what we make of it.
Nancy Kress turns the tables on the previous centuries technology in "Computer Virus" in an interesting reversal of the dynamic Neal Stephenson created in his cyberpunk novel Snowcrash. Her story melds the movies Demon Seed and Panic Room together, and turns them around as only this master of the bioscience millennium can.
Dan Simmons splits his output between SF (The Fall of Hyperion) and Horror (Song of Kali) and signs in with something from a different high frontier in, "ON K2 With Kanakaredes" where a human climbing team is saddled with an alien who wants to experience the climb, for his own reasons, and Terran security thinks it's a good idea for it's own reasons.
Michael Swanwick, one of my favorite authors, though honestly, I love most everything in this collection, joins the book with a bowser of a story: "The Dog Said Bow-Wow", in which a most cultured canine goes to merry new England. Note: that's England, new and merry, not New England, which the dog comes from. The Demesne of Western Vermont, to be precise. The dos is of the bioengineered talking, walking and well tailored variety, which makes the title ironic, and he lives in a world beyond silicon and steel, populated with modified genetics in everything from his erect and dapper self to chairs that have legs that do more than hold things up. This is a not so shaggy dog tale of royals, espionage and intrigue that indeed made me wag my tale in appreciation.
Andy Duncan's "The Chief Designer" takes a look backwards into a period that many of us lived though with keen interest - the Soviet space race - but from the other side, through the life of Soviet Chief Designer Sergi Korolev and the space program he built, dreaming the same dreams that so many of us had dreamed as you'll see in this bit of dialogue between the "Chief" and a young protégé: "I do not think that that is a fair assessment, Comrade Aksynov. I think it would be amore accurate to call Old Number Seven a shitty design for a ballistic missile....but it will make a marvelous booster rocket to send men into space." I don't know how much truth there is in the story, but it's a fine piece of writing and puts a time into perspective.
Paul Di Filippo's wild ride of a tale comes from the web, where it was one of the Scifi.com stories. It reminds me a bit of Terry Bisson's stories, as he loves fast old cars and alien interlopers too, and this high octane trip manages to mix the California drag scene of the 50s, UFOs, and a blonde with improbable, perhaps even inhuman attractiveness. According to Di Filippo, it is automotive emissions that are causing global warming...though not the ones you might have thought.
I'm glad too that Alistair Reynolds has a story in here. The talented author of Chasm City and Revelation Space, whom our UK Associate Editor John Berlyne did an interview with last year (SFRevu, May 2001), contributes one of the several stories about the discovery of neural networks in far off places, and it's a fine piece of work. The Eleanor Arnason adds another fine story which hits on the same theme, from a different angle, in "Moby Quilt".
What could be better timing than Paul McAuley's "The Two Dicks" about the life of Philip K. Dick (see our Minority Report Review this issue) in which McAuley shares an alternate universe Philip K. Dick with us, and shows how the world might have been changed if dissidents like Dick could be controlled. Or the folly of thinking you can control a man like Dick. You should really read this piece if you're going to see Minority Report, just so you won't mistake Spielberg's fan boy vision, wonderful though it is, for Dick's darker one.
Brenda Clough's story "May Be Some Time" about Titus Oates, who disappeared on Scott's ill fated expedition across the Antarctic in 1912. Though Titus may have walked off into the cold in the "act of a brave man and an English gentleman" he turns up in a Time Travel Project in the not so distant future in the US. I had the pleasure of hearing the author read this story of the forthright subject of the British Empire among latter day humanity. He is a breath of fresh, unrepentant air in politically correct times. I mean, he's totally wrong about most everything, but there's something really charming about it. Introduced to the British Ambassador, he upbraids him for the slipping status of the Empire in these modern times and offers his services to help get the colonies back. Pity about Indja...what. What indeed.
I've gone on enough for one year. It's a great collection, and indispensable for anyone with a taste for SF, or the short story form at all.