5 Stars – it might be impossible to love every story equally, in a collection this huge and diverse – but you’re not going to find a better best-of collection for the genre this year. Full of must-reads.
Introduction, Jonathan Strahan
In his introduction, Strahan states his editorial goal is to fall somewhere between well-known SF editors Judith Merrill and David Hartwell. He perceives the former as being known for pushing the boundaries of genre and blurring the lines between SF and mainstream fiction; and says that Hartwell’s selections reinforced the traditional ideas of what SF as a genre is. Strahan then states: “I have restricted this book to stories that I believe are definitely SF or fantasy in some way.” That’s all well and good… but somewhat ironic, considering that…
**** “Some Desperado”, Joe Abercrombie (Dangerous Women)
…this story, lacking a greater context is neither sci-fi nor fantasy. It is 100% Western. A bad-ass but desperate bank robber is forced into a showdown with her former compatriots in a dusty ghost town. It’s an excellent story, which does a great job of balancing extreme violence with sensitivity. [In that greater context; the main character here is the protagonist of Abercrombie’s ‘Red Country’; which I have yet to read, but it is definitely set in a fantasy world.] And I definitely plan on reading it.
**** “Zero for Conduct”, Greg Egan (Twelve Tomorrows)
My criticism here was that the story is a bit unrealistically upbeat (in reality, the protagonist would likely have been be arrested for terrorism for accidentally blowing something up), and that the tech portrayed is just barely futuristic. However, then I learned that the concept of the anthology this was written for (published by MIT) was to utilize current and near-future technology in an optimistic story. This certainly does that, and does it excellently. A teenage Afghan refugee in Iran goes through difficulties to do independent research, and makes a breakthrough that she plans on using to help her family financially.
***** “Effigy Nights”, Yoon Ha Lee (Clarkesworld)
This one is just lovely. A dreamlike city of magical words is under attack by a vicious general. To defend the city, the Warden uses stories of past heroes, brought to (temporary) life through magic to protect their home. On surface level, this is a beautifully realized SF story of conflict – but it’s also an ode to the abiding value of the written word; and how there are some things which should never be sacrificed.
** “Rosary and Goldenstar”, Geoff Ryman (F&SF)
Hmm. I loved Ryman’s ‘Air,’ and very much expected to love this. But – I didn’t. This is precisely the sort of use of historical and fictional characters that just rubs me the wrong way. Shakespeare, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Tycho Brahe, etc, get together to discuss the stars. There’s something about how poetry can be more accurate than math. It just didn’t do it for me.
***** “The Sleeper and the Spindle”, Neil Gaiman (Rags and Bones)
Yes, yes.. I’m sure you’ve read many, many retellings of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. If you’re like me, you may even have read retelling that mesh both stories into one, as in this tale. But you’ve never read quite this take on either story, I guarantee it. And it’s quite lovely and powerful.
***** “Cave and Julia”, M. John Harrison (Kindle Singles)
In Autotelia, a setting that reminded me, perhaps, of an alternate Turkey, a journalist forms an odd relationship with a fading celebrity who was suspected of killing her young brother, when she was a girl. I wanted just a tiny bit more conclusiveness to this piece, but the writing is just fantastic – conjuring a perfect mix of grounded reality and dreamlike occurrences. I believe that this is the first story I’ve read by Harrison, and clearly, I’ve been missing something. (I’ve just ordered two of his books…)
**** “The Herons of Mer de l’Ouest”, M Bennardo (Lightspeed)
I got a feeling here of ‘James Fenimore Cooper meets Lovecraft.’ A fur trapper, mourning the death of his Native wife, travels West alone, into unknown territory. He encounters monstrous, vicious wildlife – but also makes a human connection that may enable him to turn back toward life.
*** “Water”, Ramez Naam (An Aura of Familiarity)
A vision of a near future where advertising is beamed straight into our brains (unless, of course, you’re in the lucky 1% who can afford the ad-free software), and the stock market is controlled by AIs. A plot to take down the stock of one company allows a competitor to grab the opportunity. It was OK, but I didn’t really feel that the ideas were new, and the story felt a bit shoehorned-in, in service to the concept.
***** “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”, Ted Chiang (Subterranean)
Almost more an essay than a story; this is Chiang’s thoughtful response to those who bemoan the advent of new technologies, saying that the advent of the Internet and data storage means that we don’t rely on our memories the way we used to.
Chiang posits a near-future analog of our scenario: a new technology called Remem which ‘hyperlinks’ recordings from our ‘lifelogs’ whenever we query it, or whenever an appropriate moment arises. The tech may mean that, with constant access to the ‘truth’ of our past, we can no longer adjust our memory of that past to fit in with our self-created life narratives. This is contrasted with a situation in which a tribal society with a tradition of oral history encounters and must come to grips with the new-to-them technology of writing.
Beautiful, and thought-provoking – as I’ve come to expect from Chiang.
*** “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Tor.com)
An irreverent tale of a festival of wishes; and what may or may not happen to make those wishes come true. It had some good elements, but overall I didn’t find the Thai setting convincing, and the tone felt like a mainstream writer trying his hand at a fantastic tale. (From his bio, it doesn’t seem that he does write mainstream fiction; but that was my impression.) Mostly, I think his particular brand of satirical humor just isn’t for me – it probably will be more to others’ taste.
**** “Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls”, Richard Parks (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
A journey into the underworld, with a Buddhist flavor. A young boy cannot summon up any enthusiasm for the games of his peers. Instead, he finds his attention drawn by a dry well outside the borders of his village, and a mysterious song that no one else can perceive. A romantic and tragic tale.
***** “Rag and Bone”, Priya Sharma (Tor.com)
Oh, this one is creepy. Think: Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ meets Thompson’s ‘Divided Kingdom’ in a Dickensian alternate England. A bit of a steampunk feel to it (think George Mann’s ‘Affinity Bridge’) – minus the steam.
But it’s also a wonderful story in which humanity and compassion come to the fore, even in the face of complete and utter callousness. It illustrates both the best and the worst that people are capable of. I hope to read more from Sharma in the future.
**** “The Book Seller”, Lavie Tidhar (Interzone)
An update of C.L. Moore’s ‘Shambleau,’ which features an elderly book seller, obsessed with collecting Hebrew-language pulp novels, whose own life takes a turn into the territory covered by his favorite stories when he saves a young woman from the anger of a mob. She’s infected by a bio-tech virus which has made her a data vampire. This is good – very good, even – but the original ‘Shambleau’ is one of my favorite stories, and this isn’t quite *that* good.
**** “The Sun and I”, K J Parker (Subterranean)
I really enjoy KJ Parker’s style. This is a fun and irony-filled tale of a group of dissipated young men who decide to start a new religion as a way to jump-start their cash flow. However, when the scheme succeeds past their wildest dreams, the joke might end up being on them – or on the world at large.
*** “The Promise of Space”, James Patrick Kelly (Clarkesworld)
A woman deals with the collateral damage that’s been a side effect of her astronaut husband’s missions. A deftly handled exploration of grief and anger. I assume the title is an intentional reference to Arthur C. Clarke’s optimistic non-fiction work of the same name.
*** “The Master Conjurer”, Charlie Jane Anders (Lightspeed)
Here, Anders gives us an alternate reality where spells work – but always have unpredictable and negative side effects. When a rumor gets out that an ordinary guy has successfully completed a spell with no ill effects, he achieves local celebrity – to his consternation. A fun little story.
*** “The Pilgrim and the Angel”, E. Lily Yu (McSweeney’s 45)
An Egyptian shopkeeper is granted a magic carpet ride to visit his son in America. He reminds the kid to call home every so often. Not bad, but not one that’ll stick in my mind forever, either.
**** “Entangled”, Ian R Macleod (Asimov’s)
A nice exploration of guilt and responsibility, from the point of view of a disabled woman – a brain injury has made her immune to the virus that has rendered nearly all of humanity telepathic, and changed society in major ways.
*** “Fade to Gold”, Benjanun Sriduangkaew (End of the Road)
A story of trust and tragedy. Set in Thailand (and doing a far better job of it than the other ‘Thai’ story in this anthology, the tale brings folklore of the Penanggalan into a war-torn setting, where refugees journey toward homes that they hope are still there.
*** “Selkie Stories are for Losers”, Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons)
A YA story, which does a nice job of letting elements remain implied and ambiguous. Two teen girls, both growing up without their mothers, meet at their waitressing jobs, and bond. Selkie stories usually deal with the tragedy of the selkie herself, and her bondage. But here, Samatar asks, “What about those who are left behind?”
**** “In Metal, In Bone”, An Owomoyela (Eclipse Online)
In the midst of some African civil war, a man with the psychic ability to ‘read’ objects by touching them is recruited to help identify the war dead by handling their bones. He develops a friendship with the foreign worker, Alvarez, who is there to help with the task. Beautifully written – I’ve read one other story by Owomoyela, and am very favorably impressed by both.
*** “Kormak the Lucky”, Eleanor Arnason (F&SF)
A story that reads just like something out of the Mabinogion, or a Scandinavian edda… Indeed, it features Egil, of ‘Egil’s Saga,’ although the main character is an Irish slave who, among many other adventures, has to fetch someone from Faerie, Under the Hill. Arnason does an impressive job of writing a story that does not adhere to the conventions of modern storytelling; but is still entertaining to a modern reader.
***** “Sing”, Karin Tidbeck (Tor.com)
Tidbeck is definitely an author to watch out for – she deserves recognition. I loved her collection, ‘Jagannath,’ and this is another deftly told tale. A tailor, disabled and shunned by her community, meets an off-world man who looks at her without the condemnation she is used to from her own people. She is attracted to the vision he offers her of a wider world. And he, in turn, appreciates her. But there is a secret that the people of her world do not speak of. The story captures real complexity of emotion.
**** “Social Services”, Madeline Ashby (An Aura of Familiarity)
Absolutely a horror story. A future social worker, among her many house calls to check up on abused and at-risk children, is sent out to a creepy house in an abandoned luxury development. What she encounters there may be far beyond what her training has prepared her for. Don’t read this if you’re planning on going into social work!
**** “The Road of Needles”, Caitlín R Kiernan (Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales)
Based on French folklorist Paul Delarue’s version of the ‘Red Riding Hood’ story (The Grandmother’s Tale.) This gives the fable a science fiction setting, with a protagonist whose dangerous job often keeps her away from her wife and daughter. She’s the sole human staff member on cargo trains through space, assigned to be the troubleshooter if anything goes wrong. And, on this mission, something does go wrong… At times, this feels slightly scattered, but the setting is vivid and the character memorable.
*** “Mystic Falls”, Robert Reed (Clarkesworld)
An interesting take on AI, with shades of The Matrix or Dark City. Suddenly, there’s a woman whom everyone on the planet feels like they know, or at least know of… maybe she’s a minor celebrity, maybe someone they met in passing…? But clearly, she cannot be a real person. Is her existence a threat? And if so, what kind?
*** “The Queen of Night’s Aria”, Ian McDonald (Old Mars)
An aging tenor accepts a military tour (entertain the troops!) in order to pay off his debts – and finds himself caught in the crossfire of an alien war. It’s clearly supposed to have a twist ending, but I saw it coming a mile away. Kind of fun, but not my favorite in the collection.
**** “The Irish Astronaut”, Val Nolan (Electric Velocipede)
Not a science-fiction story at all, but one that all science fiction fans should be able to appreciate. A NASA astronaut who missed his chance to command a mission goes to Ireland to fulfill the last wish of a colleague and friend who died in the line of duty. Sad and sweet; full of both large tragedies and smaller ironies. Highly recommended.