Monday, July 26, 2010

Year's Best SF 15 edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Kramer

I've picked up a few of these collections by Hartwell over the years, but as with a lot of books I own, I hadn't really sat down to read them. They went in the mental "someday" list and kinda got forgotten.

If the prior 14 volumes are as good as this one, I'm going to have to move them up the to-read list pretty quickly.

Year's Best SF had everything I'd want from a collection in this genre--a few alternative histories, a few space stories, a few tales that might happen someday soon, a few literary pieces, and a few that blend between sci fi and other genres. More often than not, these stories featured a combination of those elements, which was even better.

The fact that I liked almost all 24 stories spread across nearly 500 pages is no small feat. I'm usually happy when an anthology gives me about a 2:1 ratio of like to dislike, so this was a pleasant surprise. There were really only a few tales that just didn't do anything for me, mostly the hard SF material that gets so bogged down in showing off the author's technical knowledge that they forget to hook me on the characters.

Hartwell and Kramer give a short introduction to each author, which is quite helpful to see what they've done before and what they're working on. They also talk about why they selected a particular story, allowing the reader to either agree or disagree after finishing the tale. I liked this feature, as it gave me some insight into the editor's minds, even if I didn't always agree.

My disagreements were few and far between, however. The editors felt that Charles Oberndorf's "Another Life" might have been the best SF story of the year, and it's hard to argue with them.

A man who lives in a world where bodies can be changed as they age (for the right price, of course) talks about his past selves to a woman who's opted out of the world of changing people. It's his confession to a person who loves him but never got to know him, and all the pain of telling the most intimate details of your life--and waiting too long to do so--come through in every page. If that's not enough, the body switching also means gender-swapping as well, adding a layer of complications that soon become clear as the story goes on. "Another Life" shows that you can include sexual themes in your fiction without them feeling forced or used to get a reader's attention.

The pain and unintended consequences of the future technology shine here, as Oberndorf quietly lays out the problems inherent in losing yourself over and over again. The ending is as perfect as it is heartbreaking. To me, this is the perfect science fiction story, because there is no way this could be told using the reality of today, and yet it also features the same emotions and complications that can happen in our world.

It's a shame this didn't get a Hugo Nomination, but I am really glad to have had a chance to read it. Sadly, Oberndorf does not write very often anymore, which is a shame because I'd love to have more of this to read.

From a comics geek perspective, it was nice to see Paul Cornell make it in for his story that did get nominated for the Hugo, "One of Our Bastards is Missing," a tale of intrigue in a world where the royalty of Europe still rules the day and an independent-minded royal princess is the subject of a plot to redraw the political map. His main character is your typical hardened black ops person, able to deal with any situation, even one in a world where guns can be hidden in "pockets" of the world. The concepts are not all that new, but the ways in which Cornell uses them made this another of my favorites.

I'm afraid the other Hugo-nominated story in this collection, "The Island" by Peter Watts, just didn't do anything for me. It was just too focused on the situation and not enough on characters that I wanted to read more about, and that's my main hook for any story. Those who prefer more technical stories than I do will probably have reverse feelings about these two tales.

Other former Hugo winners are in this collection, such as Nancy Kress, who pens a story that's a bit overly clever about how objects aren't the only thing that can have different interpretations over time. I found the idea to be cute, but I'm not sure I'd think of it as something to label the best for a given year.

Robert Charles Wilson, who did not impress me when I read Spin a few years ago, is also a Hugo veteran for that same book. I liked him a lot better here in the short story, "This Peaceable Land; or The Unbearable Vision of Harriott Beecher Stowe." An alternative history where the Civil War never happens and slavery is fazed out in a way that leads to a horrible, racial purity solution, Wilson makes sure that the reader is uncomfortable with this peace that came at a similar price to the Civil War, albeit in a different way. When the two main characters are forced to think about the cost of peace, the words unsaid are larger than those that are. It's a great use of historical what-if to address a philosophical question. If this is more typical of Wilson's prose, I'll have to give him another chance.

"Edison's Frankenstein" is another alternative history that references the Civil War, though in a far more casual way. Chris Roberson pens a world in which a technology from the sea powers the world, instead of electricity. Tesla is a famous sci fi novelist (great touch) and Edison is trying to find a way to keep his life going. What lengths has he gone to prove his point? It's a bit of a gotcha story, but the clues are there when you stop to think about them. I don't think the author quite hit this one as strongly as he might have in a longer form, but it was entertaining.

A Frankenstein of a different kind figures prominently in "The Consciousness Problem," where Mary Robinette Kowal provides an ethical dilemma in cloning I'd never considered. Her solution may not be one you agree with, but it's definitely food for thought. Ethics also frame Marissa K. Lingen's "The Calculus Plague," where a scientist tries to infect people with smarts and sees it all go wrong.

Science fiction often allows a writer to explore themes in a way we can't in non-fiction, and I could probably add "The Fixation" and "Erosion" to the list of stories in this collection that ask us to look at what we're wishing for. The former is science without considering the consequences and the latter reminds us that asking to live on beyond our time may not be the best plan, even as we try ever-harder to live longer and in places we were not meant to go. All of these stories remind us that in our rush to do things not even imagined 100 years ago that sometimes we may need to take a few minutes to think, "should we do this?", a lesson the nuclear bomb should have taught us but we never stopped to pay attention to.

Not every story is so serious, however. "The Highway Code" by Brian Stableford reminded me of a children's story, and not in a bad way. A self-aware engine breaks the rules, at great cost. Is he a hero or a villain? There are a few underlying concepts if you look hard enough, but it's also fine as just a fun surface read. Its placement at roughly the halfway point makes for a nice breather. I have a feeling it's also the story most likely to be one readers either love or hate. Some readers may find it too childish for their taste.

I can't talk about every story in the collection, but I do want to mention, "The Last Apostle" by Michael Cassutt, the best near future sci fi story in the collection. Written when there is only one person left in a rather familiar moon landing party, we follow a man who made choices that compromised his life but allowed him to lead a long, famous existence. As he reflects on what happened to him, we get bits and pieces of the past and why his last act is so important to him. Ultimately, it's a story of hope and the possible, without being unrealistic about humanity's actions. This was another of my favorites and makes me think I need to investigate reading more near-future texts when I'm looking for new genre fiction to read.

I'd soured a bit on reading science fiction in the past few years, despite really liking it in college and shortly afterwards. I'm glad I picked this book up, as it showed me that there's a lot of people writing excellent genre fiction and that I need to get out there and try more of it. My taste may have changed over time, but there's so many different kinds of science fiction that I (and anyone reading this review) am sure to find something I'll like, provided I allow myself to look.

Year's Best SF 15 is not a perfect book, but the overall quality is very high, and shows you the possibilities that are out there. And after all, isn't that what science fiction is all about? Those who like reading about the future should definitely check this book out. You'll be glad you did.

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