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The Year's Best Science Fiction cover

I. Amor Anthologatis

I love anthologies.

In high school, my summer jobs couldn't quite pay for the shiny new science fiction books that were coming out. So I'd forego the latest in the Dragonlance saga, and slip into the local used-book store. It was called "Tales Retold," and it became my refuge after a long day at school. The room smelled marvelously musty, and I'd spend hours poring over the shelves.

I'd often come home with a short story collection. I'd start some choice story in the used-book store, and finish it on the bus ride home. A really good story would mean that I would miss my stop, and I managed that on a regular basis. Another story would be my break in the middle of my homework that evening, and I'd probably read some more on the bus ride in the morning.

All these books were bought used, and many had worn covers before I was born. It was wonderful for my economic sense, but terrible for my notion of contemporary fiction. In the science fiction I grew up on, man might someday reach the moon, Korea was a recent American overseas entanglement, and the next war would be fought with animatronic robots against with Soviet enemies.

Science fiction has changed since then, as has the rest of the world. Old SF (even from a few decades ago) always looks simultaneously retro and super-futuristic. The computers talk to humans, but not to each other. The cars fly and are piloted by computers, but the humans can't talk until they're on the ground. In the real 21st century, we've got computer networks with processors on every desk and in every phone. On the other hand, we've become less willing to predict radical changes in how people do things. The science-fiction writer of the 1950s would be perfectly comfortable making his way through the contemporary world -- cars, stoplights, money, and telephones all act just like he'd expect -- although he might be bitterly disappointed at the lack of commercial moon shuttles and talking refrigerators. When modern SF wants to predict massive change, we place our new worlds and new civilizations millennia in the future.

There was something important in common about those stories. As I've traveled through the history of the genre, Gardner Dozois seems to have been my reliable guide. He has stamped his name on every issue of Asimov's since 1985, and the Year's Best Science Fiction anthologies for the same period. This year, I've been lucky enough to read a current anthology, one based on the works of 2000.

II. Quantitative Studies

Gardner Dozois kicks of this hefty volume with an extensive view of how the world looks in 2000 from his perspective, and from the perspective of published science fiction. His feelings are mixed: a few magazines are struggling, but the selection of web publications is growing. He loves the vibrancy in science fiction today -- apparently, more has been published in the last few years than ever before, and readers are reading with growing appetites. He's enthused about the wide variety of speculative fiction publishing venues now available. He lists off a number of web 'zines -- Strange Horizons makes the list. The introduction is worth leafing through for his painstaking work. He knows circulation figures for magazines that the rest of us can't even find the subscription desk for.

But just as he looks at the world from the editor's desk, where a defunct Australian science fiction 'zine gets more lines than the X-Men movie, so he gives us a look at the world of the future. He speaks for all of us -- after all, this is The Year's Best Science Fiction.

A science fiction anthology, writ large, is a collection of the communal hopes and fears of the world today. (Read small, it's what popped into an editor's head.) What interests us today?

I worried, at first, that the collection would seem dated. The stories of 2000 were written in 1999, and now we're two years later. The Internet boom has busted; the worldwide growth of the last decade is receding, and the geopolitical situation is a mess. But the stories are vivid, and good fiction transcends its era.

To write this review, I carefully read the stories in the collection. Then, being a quantitative researcher, I coded and counted them. I looked for genre and for important themes: does the story focus on space travel? Computers? Artificial intelligence? Biotechnology? It all went into a spreadsheet, sorted by genre, and then by whether the world ends.

The end of the world was, apparently, big in 2000. Nine of the 23 stories have a world end, at least once. Nancy Kress' "Savior" has the world end -- in any conventional sense of the apocalypse -- at least a half dozen times, as future history is laid out from the perspective of a shielded alien craft in North Dakota.

Biotech is big. At least two-thirds of the book deals with advanced biotechnology of some form or another. Some stories are set a few years from now, others in the remote future; and both offer revolutions in technology. We'll search the Amazon for useful chemicals -- but we'll also dig through office buildings, as M. Shayne Bell's bizarre "The Thing About Benny" explains. In that story, biotech companies send teams of horticulturalists off to search through office plants and home cuttings for unusual variants, hoping to find something new. Hope will even be found on alien moons5. Over the course of our fictional future, biotech will replace humans (as in Robert Charles Wilson's "the Great Goodbye"), cure diseases, and merge us with computers and each other. The merges will lead to inevitable strife19, of course, and both biological machines12 and biological systems14 will be used as weapons. We might be spared that war, though, if antibiotic-resistant bacteria wipe out civilizations, as in Tamarind Due's "Patient Zero". Meanwhile, we can hope that the cure for cancer is somewhere in a petunia, a displaced South American tribesman, or a live-sampled trilobite brought back from the Paleozoic.20

And we will be in the Paleozoic, because time travel is big. The paradox-stories of a few decades ago (Heinlein's "All You Zombies," for example, in which the narrator is his own father, mother, and lover) have faded away: everyone who travels in time does so backward, and to a subtly different parallel world2, or in such a way as to prevent contradiction. In Greg Egan's "Oracle," for example, an alternate Alan Turing is guided by a time-traveller from a parallel timeline. She feeds him insights and guides his research to help ensure that his timeline is more successful than her own. There are no more time cops, wandering up and down the millennia.

Aliens are another area where the field seems to have come to consensus. Aliens no longer learn to cook (for?) humans, as the Twilight Zone's "To Serve Man" had it. Nor are they tall, slim, and gray-headed. Rather, they come as mysterious floating spheres15, and as balls of impenetrable matter4. Twice, they seem to be diseases5,23.

Computers, however, are safely open for debate. No writer particularly questions the future of this technology. True artificial intelligence -- the kind that talks to people -- takes the stage four times, but everywhere are high-speed connections to a world of information. A tale of painful adolescence in a near-future Nevada (Susan Palwick's "Going After Bobo"), has GPS on everything. In the farther future, the computers get implanted and join up with brains12. Fascinatingly, in that story, the technology is used mainly as a way to join people together with each other -- it draws a slow continuum between direct brain transfer and the more ancient email message. That same email is the way that secret agents from an alternate universe communicate while disguised as mild-mannered geeks, reading about computer innovations on comp.risks in Charles Stross' "Antibodies."

Not that everything is unconventional. The book has several classic Space Opera Adventures. Like any good science fiction anthology, the book is bursting with passages about laser guns burning through space and humans with exotic names:

"The Interdiction's sensor web can't spot us," Galiana said. "You placed your best spy-sats over the nest." -- Alister Reynods, "The Great Wall of Mars"

"Turn back right now," Sho said. "We can take you out with the spectrographic laser if we have to." -- Paul J. McAuley, "Reef"

Pael said, "Not perfectly. They are based on the Planck-zero effect: about one part in a billion of incident energy is absorbed." -- Stephen Baxter, "On the Orion Line"

III. Case Summaries

The low-tech end of the spectrum is just as spellbinding. Eliot Fintushel, for example, has a charming story of shady life in the big city, and some rather unusual people who live there. In "Milo and Sylvie," a young man comes out of years of fevered dreams and intensive therapy to learn that the world is a more complex place -- with a far simpler explanation -- than he had ever imagined. For Fintushel's always-manic writing, it's gentle.

Compare the sample chapter on his Web site:

Listen to me! The Space Vikings are looking at us, at our time, at our galaxy. I have astrographic evidence of their penetrating the Milky Way in this century, perhaps this very year! And we must stop them, Leona Taddington, because I love you! I love you, Leona Taddington, and I don't care if they hear me. Why don't you tell me your own true feeling about me, Leona Taddington? Leona . . . ? Leona . . . ?

with his writing in this story:

The little machine! The box sheathed in perforated black leather hiding inside Dr. Devore's rolltop with all of Milo's secrets! Like the totemic soul of a primitive: a pouch, a feather, or a whittled doll secreted in a hollow log, proof against the soul-snatching demons and enemies.

The love of exclamation points is the same. But the relentless beat has been calmed, and the writing is smooth, caring. I found myself sliding into his unnamed city, wandering with this young boy and his mysterious friends -- the psychiatrist who keeps disappearing into back rooms; the puppeteer whose fingers truly seem to be magical; and the strange secrets that connect them all.

There's another, even taller tale in the collection. Michael Swanwick's "Raggle, Taggle Gypsy-O" is a marvelous adventure through time and space. A wanderer slides between dimensions and through time in a way much like Zelazny's Amber princes. He sells dinosaurs to the Roman Colliseum out of the back of an eighteen-wheeler, ducking evil lords of the universe and kidnapping a busty, beautiful -- and altogether willing -- partner. It's a love story, the love of a trickster for his lass, and his search for her once she's gone. This story is written as canon: he's not just any trickster but the trickster; he doesn't fight a lustful evil overlord, but the lustful, evil overlord. His search for his love asks challenging questions: how do new legends get created? What purpose might they serve?*

John Kessel's "The Juniper Tree" is a mystery, locked in a culture clash. The moon colony, founded by feminists trying to rethink society, is socially liberal, ruled by women, and polyamorous; the earth below them continues to be strongly conservative. In what may be a response to libertarian sex roles in science fiction, the characters -- a father and daughter immigrant couple -- neither fornicate their way off into the horizon, nor are attacked by rabid hordes of fundamentalists. In this world of Heinlein characters, they don't sink in and discover the truer beauty of everyone. Rather, they struggle to get by through culture clashes, and their perspective is a dark one in a world swung too far in the other direction. The authors don't, in the end, condemn that world -- but neither to they hold it up as a paradise.

"Patient Zero," by Tamarind Due, is set in a near-enough future to be truly disturbing, and, in the wake of anthrax scares, is the one story that kept me awake at night. It's a story of a disease slowly progressing as seen from the perspective of a boy in a bubble. He's the one carrier who hasn't died from the otherwise completely-fatal condition. The story is compelling, touching -- in its few pages, we get to know a number of characters for just long enough to miss them when they go, and through those characters we see the rest of the world.

IV. In Conclusion

In total, then, the collection is exactly what it should be: a triumph of great stories. None of them is disappointing, and many are excellent. After reading this collection, I subscribed to Analog and started looking for stories by some of my favorites. I've been introduced to three or four new authors, and I've been convinced to pick up a few novels by writers in the book.

And so Dozois succeeds again. I like the image that Dozois is, even now, flipping through magazines, surfing the web, flagging favorite pages. We'll find out, of course, next June with Best of 2001.

Table of Contents
1 John Kessel The Juniper Tree
2 Charles Stross Antibodies
3 Ursula K. Le Guin The Birthday of the World
4 Nancy Kress Savior
5 Paul J. McAuley Reef
6 Susan Palwick Going After Bobo
7 Albert E. Cowdrey Crux
8 Severna Park The Cure For Everything
9 Peter F. Hamilton The Suspect Genome
10 Michael Swanwick The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O
11 Lucius Shepard Radiant Green Star
12 Alastair Reynolds Great Wall of Mars
13 Eliot Fintushel Milo and Sylvie
14 Brian Stableford Snowball in Hell
15 Stephen Baxter On the Orion Line
16 Greg Egan Oracle
17 Rick Cook and Ernest Hogan Obsidian Harvest
18 Tananarive Due Patient Zero
19 Charles Stross A Colder War
20 Steven Utley The Real World
21 M. Shayne Bell The Thing About Benny
22 Robert Charles Wilson The Great Goodbye
23 Ian McDonald Tendeleo's Story

* Jane Yolen does something rather similar, in her meta-folktale "The Traveller and the Tale," from 1995.

 

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Danyel Fisher, a graduate student in Southern California, continues to be stunned at how much easier it is to write reviews than his thesis.



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