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The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 17

edited by Gardner Dozois

(Robinson, £9.99, 717 pages, paperback, published 25 November 2004.)

Review by Keith Brooke

cover scanSome years I'm more heavily involved in the adult SF field than others. This might seem odd to say for someone who runs a site on the scale of infinity plus, but it's true. In the last couple of years in particular, I've been drawn away from the field -- I've been writing in other genres, I haven't been able to keep up with the magazines, I have a teetering stack of novels I really do intend to read when I get the time. One thing remains true, though: Gardner Dozois always puts my finger right back on the pulse, both with his unbeatable annual selection of the best sub-novel length fiction and in his excellent round-up of the year in SF which serves as the introduction to this anthology.

It's been said many times before, but what the hell: even in its 17th (UK)/21st (US) volume, if you can only manage one dose of short SF in a year you should, without doubt, get it from Dozois' Year's Best.

So: time to catch up...

One thing that really puzzled me this time round is this: I started on this anthology way back in the spring, and it's taken me until July to finish it. Why so long? This is a fine anthology, easily matching the high standard set by earlier volumes in the series. It's not as if it wasn't a pleasure to read the stories Dozois has selected.

Perhaps a part of my problem has been exactly that: the uniformly high standard. Even the weaker stories are beautifully written, carefully crafted, hard-to-fault pieces of work. When you pick up a magazine or an anthology of originals, you can be pretty sure the lows will be lower than in a Year's Best, while the best will still be, well, the best. So reading Dozois' selection, maybe some of the thrill of anticipation is gone: you know you're going to at least get a decent read. Which is, of course, hardly a flaw -- perhaps more an indication that my reading tastes over the first part of this year have been just a bit jaded.

Another part of the problem -- for me, at least -- was a definite sense of having been here before with a lot of the stories this time round. SF might not be what it used to be, but judging by this anthology it tried pretty damned hard in 2003...

William Barton opens up with "Off on a Starship", a wry and entertaining flying saucer tale loaded with cosy Golden Age genre nostalgia. John Kessel follows up with "It's all True", a relatively straight time travel story redeemed by Kessel's sophisticated layering of meaning and his refusal to take the easy route; quietly, this is one of the most powerful stories in the anthology. Breaking the sequence of stories which could have been written at almost any time in the last 30 or more years, Charles Stross contributes "Rogue Farm", an admirably different story which really could only have been written recently; when he's good Stross can be very very good, but this one didn't do it for me.

Back to the timeless stories, Steven Popkes' "The Ice" is hardly striking in concept -- the story of the first human clones -- but this really is a wonderfully touching and passionate tale: a budding young hockey player's life is suddenly transformed by a press claim about his true nature, a story where the crafting of every sentence helps shape the reader's response. As with John Kessel's story, this is one of the true highlights.

Nancy Kress's "Ej-es" is a plantetary romance about a failed colony, an investigative team, a beautifully-portrayed aging investigator... This is a typically fine story, and it wouldn't have been at all out of place way back in the first of these anthologies. John Varley's "The Bellman" is a serial killer story with a terrific build-up, but not so satisfying conclusion. Judith Moffett keeps us on the nostalgia track: the aliens are here and they're in charge and trying to tackle the ecological health of our planet, which is good news for field biologists but bad for humankind; this is another classic trope, reading very like Silverberg at his best, which is high praise indeed.

Moving on, Howard Waldrop contributes a sweet and simple tale (which again, would have slotted into any volume in this series), Kristine Kathryn Rusch offers an undeniably poignant vignette, Walter Jon Williams gives us a missing person case...

A new writer to me, Paolo Bacigalupi, raises the standard again with "The Fluted Girl", a wonderfully high-tech Gormenghastian tale. Rich and gothic, this one's a cracker. Jack Skillingstead, another new name to remember, provides a sparse yet potent tale of the price we pay for progress and the nobility of clinging on to what we can. Michael Swanwick's "King Dragon" is a typically inventive tale of a crash-landed dragon in need of a new pilot -- full of wonderful touches.

Paul Melko's "Singletons in Love" is striking for its vision of children living in a group which functions as a single unit, a clever representation of humans who have moved on to a next stage. M Shayne Bell's "Anomolous Structures of my Dreams" is a medical mystery about what exactly a fellow patient is suffering from and what it might mean for your own precarious health. This must surely be the first time satellite technology and AIDS have been linked in this way...

More reliably solid tales follow: Vernor Vinge's call centre tale struck me as merely good on first reading, but has stuck with me for weeks after; Harry Turtledove's alternate history is as good as you would expect, but so much alt-hist just seems like an exercise these days -- few people do it as well as Turtledove, so if it's your thing, well, this is your kind of thing; Geoff Ryman is as clever and touching as usual (which is very) even in a story that isn't up there with his finest; John C Wright and James van Pelt keep the standards up, but didn't engage me as much as I'd hope; Geoffrey Landis gives us some more alt-hist fun; Kage Baker's "Welcome to Olympus, Mr Hearst" is another timeless time travel tale with some brilliant touches.

Robert Reed's tale of memory mechanics and William Shunn's tale of medical redundancy are merely good, while Dominic Green's "Send me a Mentagram" didn't grab me as much. On the other hand, Paul di Filippo provides another highlight to the anthology, just as he does most years, this time with "And the Dish ran away with the Spoon", the kind of witty and wacky nearish-future satire that blends humour with some seriously disturbing extrapolation -- di Filippo's a one-off, which is probably just as well, for the sake of all our sanity.

The anthology rounds off with Terry Dowling's dense and challenging "Flashmen", which reads like part of a bigger project; Nick DiChario's "Dragonhead", which is particularly poignant, but really not much more than a brief snapshot; and, finally, Terry Bisson's novella "Dear Abbey" (a full-length review of this is available elsewhere on this site), which illustrates just how true it is that you don't know what you're in for when you agree to an office-share. This novella raises an intriguing question that has puzzled me in recent years: why is it that so much SF shies away from global warming and all the other environmental shifts and shafts looming on the horizon? A few authors, like Kim Stanley Robinson and Bisson in this novella, take it on, but for most it's little more than a backdrop. Bisson's novella illustrates one of the dilemmas well: to tackle these issues, you have to tackle the politics too, and there's a real risk of any such fiction becoming a political tract. But we're writing about the future -- how can we extrapolate a few decades ahead and not project the consequences of the head in the sand approach of Bush and his oil baron buddies and the sad state of affairs where some of us think that what was achieved at G8 was a solution and not just a sticking plaster, or at best a launch pad? That must be the challenge for writers of near-future SF: global warming is more than just growing lemons in the north of England and the flooding of a few distant islands. Do we stick with our established and relatively cosy views of how things might be, or step back and re-assess and come up with something convincing?

Sorry: I went off on one there, didn't I? But, neatly completing my argument, I think my problem with this latest instalment of this reliably wonderful anthology series is that it illustrates just how willing we are to allow our extrapolative fiction to become escapist sci fi (albeit written to an extremely high standard), rather than the challenging, threatening literature of ideas it is at its best. Vive la révolution!

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