With Karen Haber, Jonathan Strahan co-edits one of the three anthologies that claim to present the Year’s Best SF. One of the weaknesses of that volume is its relatively small size, which limits their ability to include longer works, so Strahan has resurrected an idea first tried by Terry Carr in the late 1970s, and now gives us Best Short Novels: 2005, a solo-edited volume that collects the best novellas of the year.
It’s an interesting collection. Strahan has selected the contents from a variety of sources: four from Asimov’s, the rest from an eclectic mix of competitor magazines, anthologies, and single author collections. Most of the stories are SF, hard or soft, but there are two outright fantasies, including the slight but nonetheless charming “The Gorgon in the Cupboard,” by Patricia A. McKillip. Several stories cross genres, such as Charles Stross’s “The Concrete Jungle,” which is a strange hybrid of HP Lovecraft and spy-thriller. While many of the works build on earlier generations of SF—sometimes, as in the case of Stephen Baxter’s “Mayflower II,” a generation-starship story spanning twenty thousand years, actually offering a little nod toward those pioneers—there’s nothing derivative about them.
The collection opens with James Patrick Kelly’s ironically titled “Men Are Trouble.” Aliens known as devils have ‘disappeared’ all men, leaving a broken, barely-functional future in which most menial work is done by bots, and the women who have survived are ‘seeded’ by devils. It is a dense, multi-layered and poignant work. Subsequent stories cover most of space and time, from the 18th century pirates-and-voodoo Caribbean of Ian McDowell’s “Under the Flag of Night”, and the unnamed city setting, via Judith Berman’s “The Fear Gun,” a taut, grim story set in a near-future USA occupied by aliens, to the interstellar war of “The Garden: A Hwarhath Science Fictional Romance” by Eleanor Arnason. This is the one story in the book that really didn’t work for me. Almost buried beneath footnotes, it manages to limp toward an ending that Arnason then ruins, by grafting on an unnecessary last six pages that seem to be there only as a bridge to the other Hwarhath stories.
The collection ends with Gregory Feeley’s marvellous “Arabian Wine”, the longest story in the book, and one of the three best. Feeley superbly captures the complexity, venality, and colour of an alternate Venice, when a young man’s efforts to import coffee, and build a steam-pump for the government, lead him into mortal peril. It is highly recommended. "Shadow Twin," by Gardner Dozois, George R. R. Martin, and Daniel Abraham, set on a detailed and richly-evoked colony, is also outstanding. It’s difficult to praise too highly this story without spoiling the plot, but the man who awakes a captive of aliens in a cave transcends his own limitations in an unpredictable twister of a story. The pick of the year is “Sergeant Chip” by Bradley Denton. There is sentiment without sentimentality in this tale of an enhanced dog sent to serve in a near-future conflict. Chip displays courage under fire, but grows still further, in a story driven by a fierce moral purpose too often absent from traditional SF of the last few years. It is a fine and powerful piece of polemic, but also an outstandingly moving story about sacrifice, heroism, and responsibility.
Judging by this edition, Strahan is fully justified in his decision to collect the year's best novellas. There is real breadth and diversity in his selections. Even the weaker stories are worth a read, and the whole is one of the very best Year’s Best of recent years.