Year's Best Science Fiction: Twentieth Annual Collection by Gardner Dozois (ed)
St. Martin's Griffin HCVR/Trade ISBN 0312308590/0312308604 PubDate: 07/23/03
Review by Ernest Lilley
672 pgs. List price $ 20
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The arrival of The Years Best SF is always a much awaited event, and once again Gardner has put together an impressive collection of stories. Gardner's report on the state of the genre alone is worth the price of admission.
The industry report kicks off by saying it was a quiet year for SF, and after reading the twenty six stories selected I have to agree. Everything's good, really good, and it's definitely worth reading...but nothing grabbed me by the ears and banged my head against the table. Well, not hard anyway. Gardner notes the coming of "Barouque Space Opera" which speaks to the point made by Editor David Hartwell's essay on the renewal and reinvention of Space Opera elsewhere this issue (Space Opera: From Shit to Shinola).
This year's source breakdown also bears out the "quiet year", with Asimov's on top and F&SF following along. The web gained a bit of ground through individual sites, and chapbooks gained a bit as well, providing a bit more diversity in the ranks.
The collection's 25 stories and 672 pages takes me considerably longer to read than a novel of equal length, because I need an intermission between each act, as it were. Jumping from the Leguin-like prose and setting of either Ian R. MacLeod's "Breathmoss" or Eleanor Aranson's excellent "The Potter of Bones" to Nancy Kress's day after tomorrow in "The Most Famous Little Girl in the World", a story about a girl abducted by aliens by her sister, who wasn't close enough to the ship, takes as much mental adjustment as popping out of hyperspace. It takes a while to get your bearings. Charles Coleman Finlay's "The Political Officer" failed me on two fronts: it's pretty much a reworked Soviet submarine drama, and the message, that no matter where mankind goes, this sort of thing follows just brings me down. While Molly Gloss's "Lambing Season", about a sheep herder who follows a streaking trail across the sky to its destination doesn't call on much more science, its well written story about compassion is much more to my taste.
Aging creeps up on us in several stories. Maureen McHugh tells a chilling and plausible tale of the costs of treating the disease in "Presence" while "V.A.O." by Geoff Ryman takes a broader brush to aging as a geriatric crew of baby boomers hack away from their retirement home. Also with an aging protagonist it Ian McDonald's "The Old Cosmonaut and the Construction Worker Dream of Mars" reminds me of Andy Duncan's "The Chief Designer" from last year's collection (YBSF: 19th Annual Collection).
Bruce Sterling, who's won past Hugos for YBSF stories, contributes "In Paradise" a tale of true love in the face of homeland security. It's not long, but it's worthwhile. The next generation of space explorers is viewed by Michael Swanwick, whose also won Hugos for works in this collection. His "Slow Life", revisits the classic explorer in peril but nicely done, while another noteworthy tale comes from Charles Stross, with "Halo", an extension of his popular "Manfred Macx" about a young woman to be reckoned with. Greg Egan has a nice story about parenting AI's (and quantum mechanics) in "Singleton". Not to be missed is "Winter's are Hard" by Stephen Pokes, one of Sci-Fi.com's discoveries. That's not quite all, and you'll no doubt find others you like better, which is what makes a horse race.
Most of the time, and for the purposes of this collection, the S in SF stands for science. Occasionally it stands for speculative, which is fair enough, because while the science provides the settings, it's speculation that provides the story. Reading these stories leaves me with the feeling that SF has elected quantum entanglement as concept of the year, as it moves from science to technology and provides the crossroads of Science and Speculation.
That's appropriate from a scientific standpoint, with quantum computing coming into its own, and even more so for the genre, because the rationalization of alternate realities makes the relentless trampling of SF by progress unimportant. Thusly, SF becomes not the literature of the future, but of the alternate past and present as well, and as time passes and stories change state from future to unrealized past, they do not become failures of prediction, but descriptions of other branches.
We shamelessly wait to see what Gardner says about SFRevu from year to year. Good news: this year they got our URL right. We're listed as reviewing media and novels, which always makes me feel that the occasional movie or TV show we review undoes whatever credibility the dozen or so novel reviews or our book publishing columns might lend us, but never mind, we'll just try harder.
Though the year's SF may not have blazed a meteoric trail across the literary firmament, Gardner's collection still stands as a must read. If they had subscriptions, I'd sign up.