Gardner Dozois has been editing The Year’s Best Science Fiction since it began in 1984. This new edition (July 2014 from St. Martin’s Griffin) claims to be the 31st anthology, which boggles my mind even from a non-mathematical standpoint… can you imagine how many stories, how much sheer wordage Gardner had to wade through to make thirty-one of these in a row? As Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) in Princess Bride says: “Inconceivable!” (I asked Gardner how many stories he had to read for this anthology, and his reply was succinct: “Hundreds.”)
My Advance Reading Copy (ARC, as it’s known in the trade) of this huge paperback has 693 pages of prose; that doesn’t even count the acknowledgements, summations, honourable mentions, etc. that always accompany this particular anthology. And it comes with a stunning Jim Burns cover—this illo doesn’t do it justice—but then, most Jim Burns illos are at least terrific! There are thirty-two stories in this book, with fiction from twenty-nine different authors, if my count is correct. I won’t be able to talk about every story individually here; that would make this column too long. But all the stories are exceptional, in my opinion, so I will pick out a few that shine a bit (or a lot) brighter than the rest and talk about them.
If Gardner’s methodology is anything like mine, what he had to do after selecting the stories for inclusion in this anthology was to decide how to order the stories. What I do/have done was to lead off with—not the strongest story, but one of the very strong stories just under the very strongest. As a matter of fact, I might save the very best story for last under the “leave ‘em laughing” or “leave your audience wanting more” rubric. My weakest story—which in this anthology’s case would mean “a story much, much better than the general run of SF”—would end up right around the middle of the book. And after checking out a few anthologies on my shelf, I have concluded that’s a pretty good way to build an anthology. But in this book’s case, I had to read quite a bit farther than the middle of the book (remember, this is 600 pages of prose!) to find one I thought might be a tad weaker than its fellows. And considering all the SF I’ve read over the last sixty or so years, that’s quite a compliment.
Please believe me when I say that if I don’t comment on a story here, that’s not because I thought it was a lesser or worse story than any other; it’s just that some of them were especially good and worthy of mention. So no insult is intended to any of these authors—in my opinion, if Gardner picked you for this anthology, you’re a damn fine writer! But I have to limit myself to only a few stories.
There’s been a saying for many years in the SF community that one should only introduce one new idea in a short story, reserving multiple changes for novellas and novels. Many of these stories qualify as novellas in length, but all of them—short or long—spin of ideas and memes like fireworks and pinwheels. There are enough ideas in these thirty-one stories to stock an entire bookshelf; each author has, for each story, generated—as the best SF does—an entirely different world or culture from what we experience every day. Many people still dismiss SF as “escapism,” claiming it’s a cheap way to get away from everyday, mundane cares, chores, fights and problems. If SF is done right it is escapism, but hardly quick or cheap. Every story here concerns human beings carefully constructed, together with their environments, with real, human interactions with other humans, with semi-humans and so on. This stuff is so far beyond the “escapism” of the ‘fifties as to be nearly incomprehensible to someone with an inflexible mind (as many of those dismissive personalities tend to have).
The anthology starts with one of two Ian McLeod stories; this one’s called “The Discovered Country,” a nod to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, of course—though Star Trek fans might think he’s talking about Kirk’s fight with Chang in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. In stories about the future, VR (virtual reality) is often taken for granted; we’ll have a lot more computing power and cloud space than we have today—probably enough to virtualize the whole world and everyone in it. In this story, VR is the province of the wealthy dead (though it’s unclear whether you can qualify while alive and then become dead). The VR world is called “Farside”; the one we all live in is called “Lifeside.” Jon Northover goes to Elsinore, the castle (another reference to Hamlet) of the most famous person in the world to pay a visit to the woman he used to be involved with before she became Thea Lorentz. And here we find that the lively dead share the same passions, loves and regrets that we feel here on Lifeside. A story about immortal people who have hidden agendas in a world that appears to offer only the best of what they left behind.
The next story I found particularly enjoyable is one of two concerning people who are unconnected in a world where everyone is part of a world-wide data net or something like it. “The Book Seller,” by Lavie Tidhar concerns a Tel Aviv of a far future, when humanity has is spreading throughout the Solar System, where everyone’s connected in “The Conversation,” and one seller of ancient books named Achimwene. As in C.L. Moore’s classic story, “Shambleau,” Achimwene meets a Shambleau (or strigoi, as they’re also called) and saves her from an angry mob. The difference here is that these strigoi steal not blood or life energy, but data, memories, connections—and give dopamine in return. Since Achimwene has no node, no data connection, he appears unreal to Carmel—she says he seems like a simulacrum; he’s not really there. The story explores the relationship between these two, but is so much more.
Next up, the redoubtable Nancy Kress (who also has two stories in this anthology) gives us “Pathways,” written in first-person dialect by a not well-educated (but very smart) “country girl” with a medical problem. Ludie (Ludmilla) is afflicted with something called FFI, or Fatal Familial Insomnia. Fewer than fifty families in the country have it; misfolded prions in the thalamus cause sufferers—and it is genetic; most of the members of an affected family will get it (if they’re not just carriers) and die from it—to get insomnia, dementia, suffer convulsions and worse, and finally die too soon. But there’s a “Chinese clinic” near her Kentucky town where, thanks to a liberal government—which is about to be de-elected—volunteers can take part in an experimental program which will chart and, with any luck, allow researchers to reverse the course of FFI. (The experimental program also has implications for sufferers of other diseases; Dr. Chung and his associates inject Ludie’s brain with some algae that release various chemicals when stimulated by various colours/frequencies of laser light through a port implanted in her skull.)
But a conservative government is about to be elected, and the clinic’s funding is already on shaky ground; besides, the other members of Ludie’s family are dead set against it, even though she’s also sending desperately needed money home—the program pays a fee to volunteers—and her kid brother Bobby is already showing symptoms at too young an age. A very touching story about what happens when people get caught between familial obligation, government cutbacks and a too-real terror of genetic horror-to-be.
Jay Lake’s story, “Rock of Ages,” just makes me regret all over again that we lost Jay a short time ago to his cancer. In this future, the world is mostly Green, although there is a lot of technology, much of it advanced over what we have today. In the 2070s, the world had suffered from a lot of “Island Plagues,” targeted, it appeared—though nobody could say whether the viruses were artificially generated—to specific populations, appearing first in Tonga, the Grand Caymans and Iceland; hence the name. One had even appeared in the US, in St. Louis and the midwest in 2092.
Bashar is well over a hundred years old, but thanks to implants and a bunch of other unnamed stuff is as hale and hearty as someone a third his age; he’s been deep undercover for ages, but now has to surface. Someone has targeted the Seattle area (where his daughter lives) with both a big rock sent from orbit as well as a tailored virus, one which might spell the doom of humanity. This one moves as fast as any James Bond book (or movie), yet is firmly grounded in the future.
Another one I feel I must mention, partially because the ending was so unexpected—and it’s a story that could only be told in a science-fictional setting, is Alastair Reynolds’s “A Map of Mercury.” It’s not a long story, but it’s as punchy as anything told by one of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone authors. However, if you’re looking for a traditional SFnal “twist” ending, you won’t find it here; this ending grows organically from the characters and setting (and yes, “organically” is here said somewhat ironically). Oleg is an artistic go-between; he works for unnamed masters who have sent him to Mercury to persuade Rhawn, one of the solar system’s most famous artists, to either come back to Earth, or to send more art.
Rhawn has recently joined the Cyborg Artistic Collective, a group of artists who have moved to Mercury to get away from the meat-only population of Earth; who despise not only Earth’s arts, but Earth’s non-cyborg population. Oleg has known Rhawn in the past, which is why he was sent to talk to her, but what his masters don’t know is that she has little regard for him. What Oleg doesn’t know is that Rhawn is joining the ranks of the Collective’s “Second Caravan” with the ultimate aim of getting rid of all that ugly meat making up her original body—and I mean all of it. The Caravan is building a massive sculpture called The Bone Cathedral, using the bones of their original bodies. They view organic life as stupid and inefficient at least… and Rhawn has nothing but contempt for Oleg and his masters. A chilling little tale of art taken maybe a bit too far.
There are entirely too many great stories here for me to really give more than a few superficial reviews of the book and the stories, so I’ll stop here. I really can’t recommend this anthology too highly; of course, as with all fiction, what you feel about it is entirely subjective. You might not like it on the whole as well as I; I will, however, pretty much guarantee that you will find stories you won’t dislike and won’t easily forget. If I have one complaint, it’s copyediting. I realize this is an ARC, so the final version is probably be better edited in that regard. But this particular edition is rife with errors, a few of which made me grind my teeth. (That, however, is just mechanics, and doesn’t affect the value of the stories Gardner selected for this volume.)
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