For those of you who just peeked in the book to check: No, science fiction isn't dead yet. --From Gardner Dozois's introduction
No, definitely not.
Once again Dozois has compiled over a quarter of a million words of what he considers the best short science fiction published last year, and with twelve Hugos for Best Editor under his belt, there's obvious reason to trust his judgment. The 26 stories represented in this nineteenth collection provide a representative cross-section of the current work in the field, including veterans and newcomers alike.
Most of the stories are reprinted from Asimov's and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, though the diverse representation includes five stories reprinted from SCIFI.COM. And interestingly, Ken MacLeod's "The Human Front" was originally published as a chapbook.
As always, Dozois includes an exhaustive retrospective of the genre, in which he laments the continuing slide in the print magazine market (though Asimov's actually posted a slight overall increase in circulation last year) and notes the increasing influence of electronic publications. Also as always, a worthy reading list of Honorable Mentions is included in the back.
In between are the stories, 26 tales that range from somber to goofy, from traditional to experimental, and from historical to far-future.
The full gamut of tastes and temperaments are covered, and as with any collection of this size and breadth, individual readers will have their own particular favorites. Mine were "On K2 With Kanakaredes" by Dan Simmons, "Neutrino Drag" by Paul Di Filippo, and "Know How, Can Do" by Michael Blumlein.
Simmons's story is essentially a mountain-climbing adventure, teaming three seasoned climbers and a mantid alien. Though the story didn't necessarily break any new ground, once the climbers started up K2, I became thoroughly engrossed in the climb.
Paul Di Filippo's somewhat silly romp, "Neutrino Drag," won me over with its goofy affability and humorous characters, including a green-skinned drag-racing wannabe from the future and his "crypto-speciated quasi-conjugal adjunct," Stella Star Eyes.
And Michael Blumlein's "Know How, Can Do" is written from the perspective of an increasingly super-intelligent worm who begins to fall in love with the female scientist who endowed him with his newfound intellect. There's the resonance of intelligence-enhancement sci-fi stories of the past, but the story's voice and trajectory came across as wholly original and highly entertaining.
There are a number of stories in this collection intended to have more gravity, to delve into the dark side of relationships or serve as cautionary tales to disturbing sociological trends. And though such commentary is an important hallmark of science fiction, those particular stories didn't resonate sufficiently with this reviewer. Thus, my favorites tended toward the more inventive and affable.
That's not to say there aren't a number of other rich, inventive stories this time around. The volume also includes Michael Swanwick's frenetic, bizarrely-textured "The Dog Said Bow-Wow," which won the Hugo for Best Short Story. Swanwick mixes neo-Victorian sensibilities, genetically-engineered courtesans, and a bipedal talking dog named Sir Plus into a truly strange, lighthearted caper.
The collection also contains these other Hugo award nominees:
"May Be Some Time" by Brenda W. Clough, one of several stories involving characters awakening from hibernation to find themselves in another time
Andy Duncan's "The Chief Designer," an inside retrospective of the Soviet space program
"The Days Between" by Allen M. Steele, another story of a revived character, this one noticeably bleak
"Lobsters" by Charlie Stross, a story about the rights of sentient lobster neural uploads that has gotten a lot of buzz, but which seemed both in syntax, tone, and subject matter very much like an addendum to the cyberpunk movement
"Undone" by James Patrick Kelly, an absorbing, textually experimental piece that plays with the concept of multiple timelines.
Despite their distinctions as Hugo nominees, these particular stories don't necessarily stand out from the rest of the collection, perhaps because of the generally high quality of the rest. Rather than a criticism, this feature is a virtue, indicating the depth and breadth of the quality of short fiction being published today.
If there are patterns to be divined, they're not at first transparent. As mentioned, several of the stories employ the trope of the character in some state of suspended animation, revived into either a crisis or a "fish out of water" scenario. But while familiar science fictional elements are employed, they're done so for the most part in relatively fresh and interesting ways.
For example, "Undone" deals with the tropes of time travel and multiple universes, but the adds the wrinkle of textual experimentation. AIs are now a common fixture of science fiction, but this collection finds them portrayed in wildly divergent ways, from simulated lobster neuron collectives to rogue entities to interstellar overseers. The pairing of alien and humans to fulfill some common goal is also evident here, but again, the dynamics of these relationships are vastly different. So while no two stories here are very much alike, there are some common threads in the patchwork.
"Computer Virus" by Nancy Kress is a hybrid of computer and biotech, involving a runaway AI that takes a family hostage. The initial stages of the story seem too neat and contrived, and central to the plot is the well-worn notion of the rights of AIs (also central to the Stross story). But it plays out as an intriguingly tense showdown between a mother and a computer sentience, both of whom are desperate in their own respective ways.
Also of note is Eleanor Arnason's "Moby Quilt," teaming disparate species (squid-like aliens and humans) together to investigate the possible sentience of another, and at its core the story is essentially an exploration of different kinds of intelligence. As opposed to the Kress story, in Arnason's universe AIs have matured into the role of benevolent mentors.
But the dark side of the mentoring relationship is explored by Jim Grimsley in "Into Greenwood," as what at first appears to be an idyllic symbiosis between sentient tree-like beings and humanoids turns out not to be very benevolent after all.
Simon Ings offers a poignant look at the power of literacy (or lack thereof) in "Russian Vine," which deals with the relationship between an alien and a human woman in the aftermath of an alien invasion.
Fans of Philip K. Dick should appreciate Paul McAuley's "The Two Dicks," a weird alternate history involving the writer Dick and the tricky Dick who was president from 1968-73. "One-Horse Town" by Howard Waldrop and Leigh Kennedy also offers a different perspective on history, in this case the Trojan War.
Maureen McHugh is best known for strong sociological science fiction, and her entry here, "Interview: On Any Given Day" powerfully exploits the interview format to show life through the eyes of a girl from the next generation of teens.
Ian R. Macleod is the only writer with two stories in the collection, including "Isabel of the Fall" and the lead story "New Light on the Drake Equation." The latter story doesn't really shed any new light on the Drake Equation, but is still the more satisfying story of the two, despite a somewhat ambiguous ending. While "Isabel" has a diffuse fairy-tale tone, the lead-off story explores the limits of scientific dedication and the cost of sacrifices inherent in the pursuit of discovery.
Other authors featured include: Michael Cassutt, William Sanders, Geoff Ryman, Alastair Reynolds, Robert Reed, Carolyn Ives Gilman, Brenda W. Clough, and Chris Beckett.
Not all of the stories work for me. But overall the quality of the fiction is high, and the vast majority are entertaining and rewarding, mostly by virtue of level of craft brought to bear by both veterans and newcomers. Dozois has an eye for picking stories, whether light-hearted or thought-provokingly deep, that draw you in as you read and stay with you long after. And as with the previous Year's Best Science Fiction collections, the stories represent a microcosm of the field, a rich sampling of the kind of science fiction being written today, and the depth and diversity of voices old and new.