The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 14 edited by Gardner Dozois
(Robinson Publishing, £9.99, 684 pages, trade paperback; published 2001; published in the US as The Year's Best Science Fiction, Eighteenth Annual Collection)
Exactly what it says on the cover: 23 diverse, high quality stories published during 2000, from a mixture of well-established and newer SF writers. Starting with an exhaustive introduction by Dozois documenting the SF year. Every SF fan will like many of the stories, but in such a spread most will find at least one that fails to appeal to them. Naturally, I liked some better than others and saw faults in a few. Overall, it is highly recommended.
I've been away from reading SF for about four years so it was interesting to see what the state of the art was in 2000. Well-known SF weaknesses still pop up. Great wedges of 'tell don't show' sometimes. Also, worlds with the homogeneity fallacy, where everyone in a society - even in a whole blinking galaxy - follows the same customs and has the same attitudes. I think characterisation and dialogue have generally improved over the years though. As many great ideas and intriguing ideas as ever. It is also notable how many stories feature outsiders or deviants of some sort as heroes, presumably to appeal to the stereotypical SF fan.
And what were the cooking SF ideas of 2000 (or at least the ones Gardner Dozois liked)? Genetic engineering and nanotechnology crop up a lot. This remains a rich mine of ideas because there are so many possible implications. AI entities and the redefinition of the nature of 'human' also appear in many places often mixed up with the previous ideas. Not surprisingly, no two authors agree about what an AI will be like. Most fantasise various degrees of omniscience, yet why should an AI be less fallible, or even overall smarter, than us? Time travel and alternative worlds were popular too, in a more playful and postmodern way than twenty years ago, accepting that there are multiple universes. To round off there were couple of space operas and some crime stories set in other worlds.
What about the individual stories? In a collection of this quality, there is no honest way to select one or two standouts, so instead I'll briefly review each without ruining any by giving too much away.
'The Juniper Tree' by John Kessel is a dramatically interesting depiction of parental/sexual jealousy and filial loyalty in a society where those feelings don't exist. The society and its lunaformed environment are depicted well. Unfortunately, the Earth society, where the main protagonists come from is a bit unconvincing. The stuff happening on the moon wouldn't turn many heads in some inner city communities today, but it is taken for granted that the Earth norm is the kind of nuclear family that is vanishing.
'Antibodies' by Charles Stross is about AI taking over, told in paranoid romping style. It is more fun to read than it is to finish. Like I knew there was going to be a surprise ending -- until the ending. The whole thing hangs upon the selective narrator who doesn't disclose key facts until he chooses, although he is happy to spin long paragraphs of exposition, most of which are jolly enough.
'The Birthday of the World' by Ursula K Le Guin describes change in a society led by a hereditary priestly monarchy, from their point of view, in the sort of traditional native Americanish world she has depicted before. Lovely writing and a convincing and intriguing narrator make this good.
'Saviour' by Nancy Kress I find difficult to review without giving the story away. It is a century-jumping novella that projects an interesting global future with some good details about how things might turn out. The central twist is smart too, but a bit misanthropic for my taste.
'Reef' by Paul J McAuley describes life as it could be in deep space -- both indigenous life and human life. The space opera action keeps the pages turning and the scientific detail is genuinely interesting, although the ending is too romantic for plausible biology. And why do all human societies that operate space ship 'habitats' have the same social structure? Isn't human life more complicated than rich and poor?
'Going after Bobo' by Susan Palwick is a near future story that is more about a traumatised and somewhat dysfunctional family than it is particularly SF. It gets inside the head of the young teenage narrator well and here the undisclosed facts that create dramatic tension in the story are justifiably undisclosed.
'Crux' by Albert E Cowdrey pulls off the slightly disorienting feat of combining the hard-boiled thriller, a dystopic distant future and time travel in a style that is both amusing and cynical. It is well-paced, has good dialogue, in fact it is thoroughly entertaining. So whatever else changes in the future human vices will be the same -- yep.
'The Cure For Everything' by Severna Park takes the idea of using human genetic material the way we currently use plant material (from the same forest even), combines it with an individualistic romance versus global capitalism and poses some interesting ethical questions. All in a snappy and convincing manner.
'The Suspect Genome' by Peter F Hamilton is a sort of detective story set in a reasonably near future England. The SF aspects of the story are quite clever, particularly the laconic depiction of how things have changed, but the detective aspects are weaker. The characters in this story all turn out unlikeable to greater or lesser extents so I didn't care whodunit, while the mystery is 'solved' by an unconvincing oversight about a bit of technology that would represent very unsystematic police thinking.
'The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O' by Michael Swanwick is a kind-of Michael Moorcock's Dance at the End of Time meets Carl Jung and biker plains Indians for mildly explicit extreme sex and violence in a time-travel caper story. Actually, it is wilfully and knowingly trashy. Michael Swanwick can do trashy much better than this.
'Radiant Green Star' by Lucius Shepard is an ambitious attempt to imagine the impact on human relationships of genetic/mental engineering and being able to upload personalities into a virtual environment. Apparently it will make some people harsh and calculating in interpersonal relationships (or is it mere wealth that does that?). The story has a beguiling and exotic setting in a Vietnamese local travelling circus and is trimmed with riches, glamorous poverty and suffering, intrigue, sex and violence. The result is a highly commercial and highly thought-provoking story.
'Great Wall of Mars' by Alastair Reynolds is exciting, original space opera set on Mars midst a conflict between standard humans and those who have through modification developed a form of group mind. The story includes lots of action and lots of exciting SF ideas, most of which have some believable grounding in possible science -- for example the monsters are actually nanoengineered weapons of war. It packs as many events and ideas as some SF novels.
'Milo and Sylvie' by Eliot Fintushel has, like some of the best SF writing, a somewhat unbeguiling premise -- the psychotherapy of a shape-shifter -- but it handles this remarkably well, with particularly good characterisation. It is a story where the reader knows more of what is going on than the main character, who is mystified by things we can guess. Given psychotherapy is on the agenda, the ending is a bit tired. Childhood trauma, really? But that too is pretty well handled. I came to suspend disbelief in the ridiculous idea of shapeshifting.
'Snowball in Hell' by Brian Stableford is about genetic engineering of intelligence in animals with critical homage to The Island of Dr Moreau and Animal Farm. It is a good story, with many interesting ideas but something about it did not quite ring true to me. In the end I think the main mcguffin lacks some credibility. The animals with human intelligence look exactly like humans. Although this is an original twist, why should it be?
'On the Orion Line' by Stephen Baxter is space opera at its most flamboyant -- son of Starship Troopers, with a dash of Star Trek. It is an exciting combat story that many readers will enjoy, but in a number of ways it pushes the genre further than I think it can be pushed. For example, the baddies can't be green, or bugs, or eat people, etc, etc, because that wouldn't be original, so they are sort of silvery spheres that don't do anything. The war is over entire galaxies, but fought ship to ship? I liked the baddies' technology though, so I won't spoil it for you by describing it.
'Oracle' by Greg Egan is an interesting mixture of an alternative universe story and nature of consciousness debate, convincingly set in a slightly alternative 1950s and drawing upon famous real lives for the main fictional characters. It starts off more like a thriller, then gets more philosophical. The thriller elements get a bit silly eventually and the tale's heart is really in the philosophy. This makes you think.
'Obsidian Harvest' by Rick Cook and Ernest Hogan takes the hard-boiled Chandleresque abused private dick story and places it in an alternative reality where central American native civilizations survived the arrival of the Spanish and, oh yes, aliens inhabit parts of South America. For the reader's delight, the more barbaric practices of those civilizations have survived, to be revealed here and there in the story, although technology has advanced. Enormous fun, in a cheerfully vile way.
'Patient Zero' by Tananarive Due reminds me of Flowers for Algernon in style. It depicts the young narrator's mind well, is successfully sad and captures the horror of a future plague off stage. But, I felt it was not original enough to be worth enduring its bleakness.
'A Colder War' by Charles Stross is notable because he is the only writer to appear twice and because it is a totally different story in style and topic from 'Antibodies'. The ideas are equally wild, this time in a HP Lovecraft meets Dr Strangelove on the set of The Gate way.
'The Real World' by Steven Utley is a kind of meditation of the nature of reality, with the SF events off stage. It is set mainly at a Hollywood party, which is amusingly depicted. Contrasting moods are well established and the story is satisfying without being overly dramatic.
'The Thing About Benny' by M Shayne Bell is a tragi-comic sketch of a world that has lost much of its biodiversity and is also a good portrait of someone with Asperger's syndrome. Nicely understated and with dry humour.
'The Great Goodbye' by Robert Charles Wilson is a short short story with snappy depiction of bioengineering and a twist.
'Tendeléo's Story' by Ian McDonald describes an Africa being transformed by alien nanotechnology through the eyes of a preacher's daughter, then those of her American lover. The personal, social and physical worlds are convincingly portrayed and there are analogies with the many disasters that have beset Africa, except this one ends upbeat. It manages to be both serious and entertaining.
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© Richard Hammersley 18 May 2002