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The Best New SF 10 Edited by Gardner Dozois (Raven Books, £7.99, paperback, 676 pages; published in the US by St Martin's Griffin as The Year's Best Science Fiction, Fourteenth Annual Collection, $17.95). 30 October 1997.

Short sf matters -- it's the very heart of the genre. Short sf is where new writers find their voice, it's where established writers flex their extrapolative muscles, it's where the limits are pushed, where ideas fizz and crackle with raw, barely restrained energy. That belief is why I spend what little spare time I have running infinity plus.

Gardner Dozois' annual gathering of his favourite short sf has become something of a benchmark for the genre. In a field that is so large it's one of the easiest ways for a reader to make at least some effort to keep up with what's happening.

As always, there are some surprising selections and some equally surprising absences, but then tastes vary. As Dozois says in his comprehensive summation of the year in sf, "...the field is wide and various enough for there to be a number of best volumes..." But as he modestly omits to say, if you like literate, character-driven, hard-edged science fiction then you cannot find many better guides than Gardner Dozois.

The pedigree of this series is, then, beyond question. Before we move on to consider the content, there is one thing about the series that has irritated me with every volume. In the US this is the 14th annual Dozois Best of...; in the UK, Robinson Publishing picked up on it a few years late, and so it is only the 10th. According to the cover, that is. The text is taken straight from the American edition, so whenever Dozois refers to the 4th, 8th, 12th or whatever-th Annual Collection (as he does in almost every one of his story introductions), what he actually means in the UK is the 0th, 4th, 8th or whatever(-4)th. I think. It gets very confusing. And irritating.

Back to the stories.

Judging by Dozois' offering, 1996 was a very ordinary year for short sf. That's no criticism of this book, though: it's crammed with powerful, moving and above all solid pieces of writing. But the peaks were missing, or at least not so high in 1996. No Lucius Shepard or Kim Stanley Robinson, no Ursula Le Guin, James Patrick Kelly, William Gibson or Michael Bishop.

Yet still, The Best New SF 10 contains a number of stories worth the cover price alone.

In 'The Flowers of Aulit Prison', Nancy Kress looks at the workings of memory and the perception of reality in a story that carries us relentlessly from the certain and the safe to the disturbingly uncertain, leaving readers with more questions than they began with. It's testament to Kress's skill as a writer that she had no need to tie everything tidily up and give us all the answers.

Paul Park's 'The Last Homosexual' leads us through a Christian moral majority future that is utterly chilling in its sheer normality. In a society that its citizens regard as everyday and proper, any deviation from the New Baptist norm is believed to have viral origins and 'sufferers' must be isolated in 'hospitals'. We see a group of people in a glassed-in room, diagnosed as 'obese'; none seems particularly overweight but then, as the doctor explains, these are the carriers...

Ian McDonald's 'Recording Angel', an off-shoot from his magnificent novel of the alien, Chaga (published in the US as Evolution's Shore) takes us to front-line Africa, where the spreading mass of a coral-like alien ecosystem forces his characters to make hard choices between fleeing and embracing the unknown.

Bruce Sterling pops up with another of his zany underlife romps through a nearish future that is all too believable, where the 'Bicycle Repairman' of the title is drawn in to a conflict between street gangs, the private security force of a Senator who is somewhat past his best and a ... well ... a social worker.

And Jonathan Lethem's 'How We Got in Town and out Again' follows the adventures of two young wanderers in a loopy, degenerated future. They get hooked up with a travelling game show where contestants suit up and explore the poorly understood remains of cyberspace -- a kind of dystopian future archaeological Gladiators on amphetamines.

Following Dozois' classification system, there are also several Honourable Mentions:

  • Michael Swanwick's 'The Dead', a grim snapshot from a nightmare of emasculation.
  • John Kessel's 'The Miracle of Ivar Avenue', a moving piece of bittersweet nostalgia -- a very human tale of '40s Hollywood.
  • Robert Silverberg's 'Death Do Us Part' -- as slick and stylish as ever; later period Silverberg can often seem too smooth, too efficient, but this is a fine example of just how good his work can still be.
  • Jim Cowan's quirky 'The Spade of Reason', a story with an unreliable narrator in an unreliable universe.
  • And 'In the MSOB', where Stephen Baxter is at his humanistic best.

In a year when the peaks weren't quite as high as we have come to expect, there was one writer who stood out from the crowd of very solid sf. Indeed, in A Dry, Quiet War Tony Daniel is up there with the best of the year's crop: providing us with a gritty cocktail of high sf concepts -- time travel, bodily transformation, metaphysics.

But with 'The Robot's Twilight Companion', Daniel's second story in the book, he rises up from the crowd. In a story that maybe doesn't entirely work, the author leads us into the near future by way of the near past, in a story that starts with the build up to the eruption of Mount St Helens and ends in the aftermath of a mystical Green takeover of Washington state. It's a story of geology and love, and its depiction of the coming to consciousness of a mining robot is as fine an example of characterisation as you will find in the genre. Tony Daniel's is a unique voice, standing out from the year's merely good and competent.

Review by Keith Brooke.

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© Keith Brooke 29 November 1997