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Year's Best SF and Fantasy cover

The new Year's Best from Night Shade Books is Jonathan Strahan's overview of the best speculative short stories and novelettes published during 2006. It is a microscopic reversal of a recent trend towards the proliferation of such anthologies: since 1995, when—together with the annual Nebula award volume—there were only the Dozois science fiction annual and the Datlow/Grant/Link fantasy and horror equivalent, the number of different claimants to the title of "Year's Best" has mushroomed. Last year there were nine different volumes by five different editors, at least three of those editors splitting their choices by subgenre and/or length.

Strahan himself was the worst offender, publishing three different volumes: one covering SF, another fantasy, and a third—mixed SF and fantasy—book devoted solely to novellas. Now at least he's combined his SF and fantasy short story choices into one volume containing almost 500 pages in trade paperback format, albeit still with a separate volume covering novellas.

It's interesting that although it's billed as "SF and Fantasy"—presumably so that readers don't mistake this for a book/collection of reprints from the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction—fantasy dominates; the first half of the book is two-thirds fantasy to one-third SF, and although the story count almost evens up by the end (or does even up, depending on whether the reader classifies Paul Di Fillipo's "Femaville 29" and Neil Gaiman's anthology-opening "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" as SF or fantasy), in terms of number and memorability of stories, it's still a somewhat fantasy-dominated anthology.

Even the stories that are SF often don't feel like it. Several, such as Christopher Rowe's "Another Word for Map Is Faith," about religious zealots hiking across a Balkanized future America using maps both for navigation and as sacred texts, and Elizabeth Hand's "The Saffron Gatherers," about an SF writer house-hunting in a near-future California, are so minimally SF as to be effectively mainstream stories. There is none of the Campbellian fascination for gadgetry so beloved of Analog readers, but for all that they are both fine works, Rowe's elliptical subtlety making his story amongst the very best in the book.

There are more clearly defined SF pieces. "I Row-boat," is Cory Doctorow's witty and stylish reexamination of Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics; Robert Charles Wilson's grim "The Cartesian Theater" is about an artist obsessed with staging death as an art form; and "Incarnation Day," by Walter Jon Williams, is about a very unusual coming-of-age party in a future when children live in cyberspace to prevent wasting resources in the outer solar system. Ian McDonald rounds off the collection with one of his "cyberabad" stories set in mid-twenty-first-century India, "The Djinn's Wife." This is very much in McDonald heartland, taking social commentary (in this case, on our celebrity-obsessed society), mixing it with SF tropes (artificial intelligence), and setting it against a colourful, exotic locale.

Individually, each of the above stories is worthy of mention. However, collectively they are too similar in theme and, accounting as they do for a quarter of the page count, leave too little room for other SF stories, without either a much bigger book and/or then unbalancing the anthology in the other direction, in favour of SF. It's as if Strahan has signed up to the Mundane Manifesto for the SF part of the book, though I suspect that what has happened is that his choices have overlapped with it—in the same way that McDonald sometimes writes Mundane SF, but doesn't necessarily subscribe to its champions' manifesto. It could be argued that even Benjamin Rosenbaum's wonderful "The House Beyond Your Sky," which will be familiar to most readers of Strange Horizons, skirts, for all its exoticism, the edges of what the Mundane Movement considers acceptable, while Paolo Bacigalupi's "Yellow Card Man," a near-future Far East noiresque story of the lengths to which people need to go to survive, occupies its heartland.

On reflection, the reality is that in appropriating part of the SF canon, the Mundane movement overlaps with these stories, which take as their background some shared concerns, rather than vice versa. These stories are less concerned with the detail of our immediate future, and instead assume that the world will adapt to the consequences of climate change and that today's terrorist threat will become yet another historical footnote, in time. These four stories are much more concerned with the possibilities inherent in artificial intelligence.

And with so much of the SF half of the book predominantly concerned with Human/AI societies and their implications, it feels—overall—narrow in focus. There's little room here for aliens, space opera or time travel stories, with the exception of Robert Reed's story of alien invasion as TV series, "Eight Episodes."

By contrast, the fantasy stories are the stronger half of the selection and cover a greater scope, of style, of setting, and of theme. They range from the almost-bucolic pastoral setting of Frances Hardinge's "Halfway House," with its examination of identity, to the bureaucratic afterlife of "Under Heaven, Over Hell," by Margo Lanagan, one of the bleakest stories in the book.

Benjamin Rosenbaum's "A Siege of Cranes," which is reminiscent of early 1970s Michael Moorcock with a logical underpinning—rather than Moorcock's evil-for-the-sake-of-being-evil Chaos Lords—of sword and sorcery, somehow manages an epic feel despite being barely twenty pages long, while Peter S. Beagle's "El Regalo," which is about a teenage girl and her younger brother who can work magic to her great disgust, is traditional modern urban fantasy; there's nothing hugely original here, but the sheer wit and verve of Beagle's storytelling carry it through.

Amongst the fantasy stories, the pick are "The House of the Seven Librarians," by Ellen Klages, a charming reworking of a Grimms' story of feral librarians who raise a young girl abandoned in a basket, and "The Wizards of Perfil" by Kelly Link, another retelling of a traditional fantasy plot (the apprentice wizard) which reminded me of T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone, but from Link's usual off-centre view of the world. Unlike White, Link has no room for sentimentality, and the fact that people who matter to the protagonists die, sometimes senselessly, gives the humour of the apprentice's situation greater depth. The result is one of today's most acclaimed writers at the very top of her form.

"Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)" [pdf link] is another of Geoff Ryman's Southeast Asian stories, a sort-of pendant to The King's Last Song that illustrates the usual clash between the East of the war-ravaged villages and the West as typified by the malls of modern Phnom Pehn, but gains an added dimension from the interaction of Cambodian ghosts and mobile phones and copiers. Like Jeffrey Ford's excellent "The Night Whiskey," which deals with the eponymous mystical drink and its aftereffects, it is a gradually darkening story about how the living come to terms with the dead in different ways.

In fact, although the breadth and depth of the fantasy selection make it harder to find common themes than in the SF selections, death, funerary rites, and possible afterlives recur, cropping up in Rosenbaum's "A Siege of Cranes," and Tim Powers's "Bible Repairman," in addition to the examples discussed above.

And if one considers AI stories to be another vicarious attempt at immortality (the downloading of the self as another way of ensuring our personal continuity) perhaps the overarching theme is that we in the West, with most of the basic steps of Maslow's hierarchy of needs—food, shelter, family—met, have become preoccupied with our own mortality. But perhaps next year's choices will give the lie to that idea. I suspect that the trend isn't going to disappear, since as David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer point out in the introduction to their Year's Best SF 12, these concerns only reflect the world around us.

In his introduction, Strahan pays homage to the selection of the late Terry Carr, and gives a nod to the Dozois Year's Best. This, his first volume in what will hopefully be a series, is not up to the standards of vintage Carr, nor even the best of the Dozois volumes, but it's better than late Dozois, which at times has brought with it a distinct sense of sensawunda déjà vu, and unsurprisingly, given Strahan's broader remit, has a greater sense of scope.

Strahan's selections seem to be in tune with the tastes of the wider SF readership: three of the stories made the final Hugo ballot in the short story category, and three more appeared in the novelette category, while M. Rickert's eerie story within a story, "Journey into the Kingdom," was a deserved finalist for the novelette Nebula Award.

For all my reservations about imbalance between the SF and fantasy halves of the selection, it's a pretty good anthology; there are only two or three stories that really didn't work for me among the two dozen that Strahan selected, which is a high ratio, and four or five of the stories are outstanding. If Strahan can improve the SF half to the level of the Fantasy, next year's volume will be amongst the best books of the year, be they novels, collections or anthologies.

Colin Harvey is the author of the novels Vengeance, Lightning Days, and The Silk Palace (due out in September). He is currently working on Blind Faith, a thriller with the slightest speculative twist, set in Brighton in July 2005. He also has a day job, but it’s not very interesting.

Colin Harvey’s latest book is Winter Song.
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