The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 11 edited by Gardner Dozois (Robinson Publishing, £8.99, 668 pages, paperback, 29 October 1998; published in the US as The Year's Best Science Fiction, Fifteenth Annual Collection)
Any selection of the year's best is a highly personal thing. This is Dozois' fifteenth annual selection of the best short sf (the eleventh to be published in the UK) and, as ever, we can all spend a long time arguing point by point over the contents list.
To take one example, from the most recent volume of New Worlds Dozois has picked out Howard Waldrop's "Hear of Whitenesse" as the sole representative. It's a solid story, but as you can see from my review elsewhere in infinity plus, I didn't rate it as either one of Waldrop's better stories or as one of the highlights from New Worlds. I would have chosen Michael Moorcock's London Bone, or maybe Noel Hannan's "Night on the Town".
But although we can argue with Dozois' selection, few of us can match the breadth of his reading. In the end, it comes down to trust, and that's why Dozois' annual anthology has kept going for so long. He may not pick my year's best, he may not pick your year's best, but over the years he has repeatedly demonstrated that his year's best will be a satisfying selection of stylish and intelligent sf, a comprehensive cross-section of the field as it stands in any one year.
Over the years, Gardner Dozois has earned our trust: he does the job more reliably than any of the others who have tried over the last two decades. And in a field as broad as ours, it is an important job. If you buy no other short fiction this year you really should buy this anthology. (Although, as Dozois points out in his summation, if people don't buy the magazines and novels then we won't have a field...)
So where does the field stand this year? Or rather, in 1997, which is when these stories first appeared.
In this volume, Dozois presents a mixture of old hands (Silverberg, Kress, Benford); the current crop (Baxter, Egan, McDonald); and some rising stars (which include both newcomers like Carolyn Ives Gilman and Bill Johnson, and established names who haven't figured in the year's best stakes until recently, such as Gwyneth Jones and Peter Hamilton). The stories include near future thrillers, high sf space adventure, thoughtful character pieces and a perhaps significant crop of retro-sf, recycling old tropes to new ends. 1997 was a good year, then.
(An infinity plus aside: I was rather startled to see that of the 28 stories, eleven are by contributors to this site -- I still find myself surprised at how fast this place has grown.)
1997 was a year of considerably higher peaks than 1996. I found last year's volume strangely depressing: a selection of solid, unremittingly professional stories. They were well-crafted, with carefully constructed plots, persuasive characterisation, smooth writing. It was hard to find anything to criticise, but equally hard to find much to get excited about.
Why was it depressing then?
Perhaps it was just my frame of mind at the time. Or maybe there was something missing. Significantly, the story that stood out for me last year, Tony Daniel's "The Robot's Twilight Companion" didn't entirely work. In conclusion, I said, "Tony Daniel's is a unique voice, standing out from the year's merely good and competent." He had the spark of difference.
This year, I finished the book feeling inspired. Yes, there were the occasional turkeys (too strong a word, I know: in any magazine, stories such as David Marusek's "Getting to Know You" would stand out, but not in a Year's Best). But when you read stories like Ian McDonald's "After Kerry" or Carolyn Ives Gilman's "Frost Painting" you remember why you got hooked on the genre in the first place.
Some of the stronger stories in this year's volume fall rather neatly into two rough clusters.
James Patrick Kelly and Brian Stableford, for example, both use a nostalgia for the golden age of childhood to explore the frailties of family relationships.
Kelly's "Itsy Bitsy Spider" tells the story of Jen Fancy's visit to her estranged and aging father, who has retired to a 1960s-style retroburb, complete with Beatles-esque names like Strawberry Fields and Bluejay Way. Jen doesn't find quite what she had expected: she's greeted at the door by a synthetic version of herself as a young child. Jen's forced reassessment of decisions taken in the past turns into a brilliant vignette. The story is little more than talking heads dumping backfill, but it's packed solid with emotional resonance and wisdom and is one of the highlights of the anthology.
Stableford's "The Pipes of Pan" is a darker take on the nostalgic, golden age view of childhood. Wendy is a good girl, haunted by nightmares and the growing understanding of what has been done to her. And all in the name of love. It's another of the shorter stories in the book, and it packs a real punch.
A Golden Age of another kind links the other group of top stories:1997 was the year of retro-sf -- tropes lifted from the genre's history and reworked with a 1990s sensibility.
Robert Silverberg and Bill Johnson both reworked pulp-style aliens, for example.
In "Beauty in the Night", Silverberg plucks aliens from the genre's pulp past and slips them into an incisive, unflinching portrayal of brutality. This is Khalid's story, a novelette that forms part of Silverberg's superb 1998 novel The Alien Years (reviewed elsewhere). It's a striking piece of writing, despite its main flaw (the novel was flawed in the same way): some of the crucial action takes place off-stage. Despite being extracted from the novel, it works well as a novelette in its own right.
Bill Johnson's "We Will Drink a Fish Together" is another aliens on Earth story that, apart from its wash of 90s detail, could easily have appeared at any time in the last 50 years. It's the story of conflicts between professional and private life, but when your professional life involves the ambassador of an alien race which is considering whether to fight or trade with humankind and that alien ambassador is tied to you by favours owed, things get complicated... In other hands, this kind of story could easily have come across as cute or false, but Johnson strikes a fine balance between an easy, laid back, never-quite-folksy narrative voice and a taut suspenseful thriller.
Another story that could be seen as retro-sf -- in tone, at least -- is Walter Jon Williams' "Lethe", a story that is in some ways reminiscent of the thoughtful and stylish sf Robert Silverberg started writing in the 1960s (albeit with that very 90s magic/technology, nanotechnology). Davout is the sole survivor of a starship catastrophe: disassembled by nanomachines, his body and mind "turned into long strings of numbers", he was transmitted back to Earth when the disaster became inevitable. Reconstructed, he must face the consequences of what has happened. In this future, death is obsolete: "so many alternate systems: backing up the mind by downloading, or downloading into a virtual reality system or into a durable machine. Nanosystems duplicated the body or improved it..." But Davout's partner Katrin has died in the tragedy and he must come to terms with that loss ... along with his and Katrin's cloned sibs, of course. This is a moving and surprising story, relentless in its logic, and thoroughly convincing in its characterisation of the divergent personalities of near-immortal clones.
Carolyn Ives Gilman's "Frost Painting" returns us to the aliens on Earth theme, but these are no blob-like monsters from the pulps. We're at least in the 1960s, here, with mystical, spiritual aliens that might not even exist after all. And who cares if they don't? "Frost Painting" is a breathtaking story, possibly the best of the year. Galena Pittman arrives in North Dakota to visit a friend. Immediately, the locals put her down as one of those "arty types" heading for the hills to join the hive-mind. But Galena insists that she's just visiting a friend. She's not here to stay. Really. "Frost Painting" is a wry and entertaining story, it's beautiful and sad and funny and very, very perceptive. This is most definitely an author to watch.
Not so much retro-sf as retro space age, Stephen Baxter's Moon Six is up there with the best of them: a scientific mystery, picked to pieces and examined in gripping and compelling manner. Bado and Slade are exploring the surface of the moon, when suddenly Bado finds himself on his own: no Slade, not even any sign of his footprints in the regolith. And worse: not only has Slade vanished, their landing craft has disappeared too... Baxter chooses to narrate the sequences on the moon in a sparse, descriptive, present tense voice. The cool precision of this running commentary picks out the panic and isolation of the stranded astronaut beautifully: it itemises it, making it strike home with far greater impact than an easier, more emotive approach.
The last two stories I've picked out as highlights are less easy to categorise: neither retro-reworkings nor quiet plays on nostalgia.
Greg Egan's Yeyuka takes us 20 years into the new millennium and disease is a thing of the past: viruses and bacteria are instantly detected and destroyed and cancer cells are wiped out before they can grow and spread. In the developed world, at least. In Uganda, it is a different story, and it is to countries like this that surgeons have to go in order to practise the dying art of major cancer surgery... The story has a familiar theme (the evils of big business interests -- retro-1980s, perhaps), but told in Egan's typically reflective, cool voice it is a thoroughly satisfying piece of work.
Finally, Ian McDonald is at his lyrical, impassioned best with "After Kerry". It opens with a family funeral: the mother who has dominated her husband and children, finally dead and gone, and now it's time for the family to try to heal the wounds she has inflicted. But to do that they must find Kerry, the family's black sheep: after she left, three years earlier, they were forbidden even to talk about her -- she was "an exorcised ghost ... an unconceived child". The quest to track her down leads us through an Ireland that is multi-tribal, socially splintered and one which offers some drastic ways to escape the past.
And apart from these very fine stories, the book is crammed with those relentlessly professional stories that so depressed me last year. This year, their professionalism was more reassuring, more satisfying. Perhaps it's the very fine company they're keeping.
In his summation of the year's sf, Gardner Dozois refers to "another interesting site" -- infinity plus. For some reason, he says we "promise to begin running a good deal of original on-line only fiction in the near future". I'm not sure where he got that information, but it's a promise we've never made. In 1997 infinity plus set out to republish short fiction in order to give some stories a longer life than they have in the transient world of magazine publishing, and to publish extracts from novels. We're very pleased to have been able to publish original fiction by the likes of Patrick O'Leary, Garry Kilworth, David Wingrove and others, but we've never made any grand claims about our plans in that respect.
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© Keith Brooke 6 February 1999