The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 13 edited by Gardner Dozois (Robinson Publishing, £9.99, 678 pages, paperback, 19 October 2000; published in the US as The Year's Best Science Fiction, Seventeenth Annual Collection)
Another year, another selection from Gardner Dozois, another hefty must-read.
As ever, you can question the details - the story choices, the authors - but we're way beyond the stage of questioning Dozois' right to make the selection. This anthology proves itself year after year as the one essential volume for readers of short sf, and as the main pointer towards the best sources of such stories in book and magazine form. For the year covered by this volume, 1999, these secondary sources include Moon Shots (edited by Peter Crowther) and Not of Woman Born (edited by Constance Ash), alongside the regular leaders, Asimov's Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Interzone.
The editor's sensibly upbeat overview of genre trends presents a genre where change is happening, and more change is on its way so that publishing may be radically different in ten years' time. Inevitably, there will be losers, but the genre as a whole is likely to benefit as the Internet, print-on-demand and e-books make niche marketing viable. Suddenly there might be scope for the different and quirky, as the grip of the big trade publishers is loosened.
In an industry that is traditionally - and ironically, in our genre's case - conservative, it's refreshing to see such a genuine engagement with the present and near-future. Let's hope he's right!
This volume of Best New SF, includes stories by Paul McAuley, Stephen Baxter, Robert Silverberg, Greg Egan, Michael Swanwick, Kim Stanley Robinson, Tanith Lee, James Patrick Kelly and Walter Jon Williams, to name but a few. And of course, it's a strong selection.
That's the big guys dealt with (and it is mostly guys in that first list - rather than a reflection of editorial preference, this appears to be simply an indication of which big name authors were active in 1999). You probably know already if you're likely to enjoy their work or not.
For me, one of the great things about this anthology series is that it draws my attention to the lesser and newer lights: both the bright new stars and those authors who have been working away in the field for years but are only now, for whatever reasons, reaching their full potential.
Alastair Reynolds is in the latter category. He's been publishing short sf for the past decade but has only recently come to prominence, with Year's Best selections and his first novel Revelation Space receiving justifiable acclaim. In "Galactic North" he presents a disabled ramliner repairing itself in an obscure star system with pirates (or are they?) approaching; Irravel and Markarian would kill the intruders rather than give up their cargo. They'd kill each other... This isn't, perhaps, Reynolds at his peak: you have to accept plot conveniences like brutal killers who will leave one victim alive to pursue revenge; and the intentionally fragmented narrative can make it hard work at times. But it is a good demonstration of his strengths: another young writer with a Big Grasp.
Eleanor Arnason has been around even longer, but has, perhaps, never quite attained the kind of standing she deserves (see Pete Tillman's review of A Woman of the Iron People to see the kind of enthusiasm her work can generate). "Dapple: A Hwarhath Historical Romance", at face value an other planet/other species feminist tract, will lead lazy reviewers to draw inevitable comparisons with the work of Ursula K LeGuin (oops!). In truth, this story is far more than the pastiche such comparison might imply: it's a heartfelt analysis of the gulf between fiction and reality - a necessary division, but one that is easy to overlook. Morality and nobility in fiction are all very well, but a heroic death in a play is just a wasted life in reality.
Richard Wadholm's "Green Tea" is hard sf about mysterious cargoes and alchemical nuclear physics. The story is stylistically bold, its second person, present tense narrative drawing the reader in with its intimate, seductive tone. All the physics left me cold, but what a voice!
In Karl Schroeder's "The Dragon of Pripyat" we find Gennady visiting the overgrown wilderness of Chernobyl, thirty years after the disaster - perhaps the first visitor in years. Someone is blackmailing the world, threatening to release the contaminants trapped in the power station's concrete sarcophagus, and Gennady has been hired to investigate. This is a taut yet elegiac thiller about the power of nature and the nature of man, and Karl Schroeder is clearly a writer to follow.
Another highlight among the newer writers is Chris Lawson, with "Written in Blood". On a Ramadan pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, eleven year-old Zada and her father encounter the bloodwriters who claim to be able to use an engineered virus to write the Qur'an into pilgrims' blood. This is a wonderfully insightful tale of faith and technology in the modern world.
The real highlight, however, comes from one of the old guard: in James Patrick Kelly's "1016 to 1" we see that the arms race wasn't the blip in history that it might now appear - the post-Cold War tranquility was. Brilliantly poised storytelling from one of the best short story writers in science fiction today.
So... more of the usual. The cracking stories from established names, the interesting newer writers breaking through, and a handful of questionable selections. Essential, of course.
Elsewhere in infinity
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© Keith Brooke 24 February 2001