Monday, April 10, 2006

Two Science Fiction Anthologies To Enjoy

Short stories are great. You can often get from beginning to end in that last half hour before you go to sleep, or on the bus, or even just while taking a mid-day break.

So i am pleased that this year i received two collections of science fiction short stories, Gardner Dozois’ The Years’s Best Science Fiction #22 and David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer’s Year’s Best SF 10. Each book has a number of contributions from writers in Canada, Australia, England and the United States (yeah i know, where the hell is the rest of the world?) ranging from short shorts to novella length pieces.


The Dozois volume, at twice the price, is several times larger and includes a number of novellas. The editor also writes a very detailed overview of the SF industry each year, most of which i admit i found singularly uninteresting. In terms of bang-for-your-buck i’d say that normally each of these annual collections is about equally matched.

Neither politics nor art benefit from being tied too tightly to on another, but by the same token almost every story ever written probably rests on certain political assumptions, and this is especially true for science fiction. Politics is sometimes right out front, sometimes it forms part of the backstory, but you can’t really imagine different worlds and cultures and conflicts without saying anything of political relevance. For better or for worst.

(As Paolo Bacigalupi put it in an interview on the Mumpsimus blog: “The trick, in my mind, is to tell a compelling story that maybe carries an idea, but doesn't leave anyone with that awful ‘I've just been preached at’ feeling. In large part, that means to me that I try hard to make things more complex, less clearcut, less explicitly confident of the conclusions, even if that means obscuring some of what I really wish people would take away from the story.”)

So no surprise that one can read a lot of contemporary politics into many of these stories. Some authors keep it right up front, their stories clearly grounded in the current imperialist conflicts – examples of this are David Abraham’s Leviathan Wept about an anti-terrorist assassination squad and Bradley Denton’s Sergeant Chip about the ugly and brutal occupation of an Arab country by American forces.

Other authors seem to have integrated this same conflict as part of the backstory, either implied or explicit. Indeed, Islam is mentioned more than any other religion in these volumes. (Worth noting that it only appears sociologically, while the two stories which have (Judeo)-Christian plot devices - The First Commandment by Gregory Benford and Act of God by Jack DeWitt - each accept religion on its own terms, i.e. yes there is a God and you don’t want to piss him off!)

While none of the “Muslim stories” (all of which i believe were written by non-Muslims) revolved around an actually existing Allah, i should also mention that many of them steered clear of Muslim-bashing.

The lack of Muslim writers is not surprising as both volumes seem completely dominated by white people from what used to be considered the white world, i.e. Britain, Canada, the US & Australia. (Anyone out there know of any good sci-fi writers from the Muslim world?)

I believe this whiteness is partly characteristic of the genre, and partly a matter of my having chosen two books edited by Americans, but the tunnel vision effect of this pre-selection was brought home to me by Vandana Singh’s Dehli. This story, set in Singh’s native India, uses the point-of-view of a young man who can see into both the past and future. Using this plot device Singh gives us a glimpse at what the sparkly shiny space-age future will mean for the human majority – you know the ones who ain’t gonna be taking their holidays in the Kuyper Belt or having their sexual fantasies fulfilled in virtual reality Holo-orgies.

If SF is going to fulfill its potential to show us the future, then this future, the future of the oppressed, is going to have to take center stage.


Of course, there is no airtight connection between who one is and what one writes, and certainly not between that product and how it can be interpreted. So i read many of the stories as having anti-colonial twists or subtexts, which may or may not be how the authors intended them. Also, it is worth pointing out that a sprinkling of stories did try to show how the future could look from the point of view of the struggling poor – there were not enough of these, but there were some.

Other trends worth mentioning?

Over four-fifths of the stories were written by men, which is pretty appalling. Even most of the stories with “strong female protagonists” were written by guys. I don’t know enough about the SF publishing industry to know where the problem lies – in the magazines which first decide whether or not to accept a story in their pages, with the book editors who decide which of those to select for their anthologies, or if it’s with the marketers, who may have decided that SF is to be male genre.

One thing i do know though is that this male predominance is unfortunate and certainly unnecessary. Many of the best SF writers – from Mary Shelley to Joanna Russ to Ursula K. LeGuin to Octavia Butler – have been women. The genre has not only featured strong female characters, but also different worlds and societies, and ways of exploring the philosophical and political questions that underpin patriarchal/anti-patriarchal politics themselves. (For more on this see the Feminist, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Utopia Website.)

Oh yeah and queers. Nice to see many of the stories included all manner of sexual combinations, though the traditional boy-girl thing still predominates. I thought one of the better stories in this vein was Glenn Grant’s Burning Day, and this despite (or because of?) the fact that it wasn’t actually a queer theme at all, but rather one about androids and the humans who hate and love them. But then again, i often prefer the implicit to the explicit, even at the risk of interpreting things in ways the authors may not have foreseen.

One thing i wish both books would do differently is the introductions they provide to each story. In Year’s Best SF 10 it’s actually best to skip this page, as the editors’ comments are often downright unhelpful, and sometimes even risk spoiling the plot. Dozois’ comments are generally less problematic, but still in each case we are left with only the barest sketch of who the author is, along with a list of their better-known titles and perhaps a website URL.

I’d really appreciate having more information about the authors, both in terms of who they are and also in terms of their concerns, worldview, etc. I mean, wouldn’t it be nice to know more about Gregory Benford’s politics (he seems like a right-wing xtian to me), and would it hurt to mention that Terry Bisson is a radical leftist, a personal friend of Mumia Abu-Jamal and a former grand jury resister?
Would it detract to know that an author is queer, or Black, or working class? Ex-military or ex-factory worker?

I do realize that the authors themselves might prefer to let their work speak for itself, not pigeon-holing what they’ve written. Some people don’t want to be known as “the Black author” or “the queer author” or “the feminist”, but seeing as this is my review i get to ask for whatever i’d like, and from my perspective such details would add a lot of depth to the stories!

Anyways, without further ado, on to what i actually thought about each story:

[click here to order]

The Year’s Best Science Fiction #22
edited by Gardner Dozois

ISBN 0-312-33660-8
St-Martin’s Griffin, New York 2005

Stories That Made Me Go WOW!
The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Clapping Hands of God by Michael F. Flynn
Scout’s Honor by Terry Bisson
Delhi by Vandana Singh
The Tribes of Bela by Albert E. Cowdrey
Mayflower II by Stephen Baxter
The Ocean of the Blind by James L. Cambias
The Garden: A Hwarhath Science Fictional Romance by Eleanor Arnason
Ten Sigmas by Paul Melko
Investments by Walter Jon Williams

Story-By-Story Reactions
Inappropriate Behavior by Pat Murphy (USA). A shipwrecked anthropologist is found by a robot remote controlled by an autistic girl – will she be able to pass along his message that he needs help, and will she be believed? Emotionally gratifying, kept me curious, kept me reading. While certainly critical of condescending adult pricks, i wouldn’t call this an anti-capitalist story, but then again that’s not necessary for it to be a good read. (Note: Back in 1991 Murphy was one of the people who set up the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy dealing with gender issues.)

Start the Clock by Benjamin Rosenbaum (USA). Creepy trans-ageist theme, i guess it has to do with questions of identity and assimilation…

The Third Party by David Moles. Anarcho-communists versus capitalist imperialists. A far-out far future that looks something like early 20th century Europe. Well comrade, what did you think we’d be doing after the revolution - resting on our laurels and developing Socialism On One Planet?!? It’s nice to see politics openly in play, though i gotta admit i found the ending to be a let-down.

The Voluntary State by Christopher Rowe (USA). I was a drunk when i read this, so the story may normally read different, but i took it as a pretty good – even if difficult to follow – story of alien colonialism and human resistance. Mind-stretching.

Shiva in Shadow by Nancy Kress (USA). A story about human relationships, scientific discovery, and time on a research expedition far away from home. Superb character development.

The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi (USA). One of the best short stories in either collection. A story about a man and his dog with S&M aethetics and an end-of-the-world backdrop, this is a beautiful tale.

The Clapping Hands of God by Michael F. Flynn (USA). Very good story about some far-future human anthropologists, first contact and aliens who just cannot be summed up in a short sketch. One of several stories which imply Islamic/Arabic predominance as simply being another step forward in our future human history.

Tourism by M. John Harrison (England). Spooky little story. Not bad not great. I found the Joe Leone and Irene characters to be the most interesting ones, too bad neither was a main character…

Scout’s Honor by Terry Bisson (USA). The only story to make its way into both collections, which i guess says something in itself. Not all of Bisson’s work appeals to me, but i certainly liked this story. I read Ian Tattersall’s non-fiction Monkey in the Mirror not so long ago, and i think that made this already good read even more enjoyable. (NOTE: Bisson has been involved in radical politics for some years now, you can visit his website here.)

Men Are Trouble by James Patrick Kelly (USA). Space aliens come to earth and with a flick of the wrist every single man on the planet disappears. What a premise – one could really go places with this – but Kelly really just uses it as a backdrop to a detective story. It is not a bad story, but aside from an underdeveloped look at how alien technology is displacing human economy (with implications reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s Autofac) and some cosmetic changes (oh well, guess lesbianism is the norm and women can become priests now) it’s not the lack of men that has really turned this world upside down.

Mother Aegypt by Kage Baker (USA). This is the one story in Dozois’ volume that i did not get through. Mainly because it just didn’t grip me, and felt too much like fantasy – and not the kind of fantasy i like, either. I must point out that several people have described this as the best story in the entire book, but with the proviso that if you haven’t read Baker’s other books you may not understand what’s going on (which i guess was the case with me).

Synthetic Serendipity by Vernor Vinge (USA). Perhaps it is cute, but it’s still not really the kind of story i enjoy. Smart kids, techno-twit adults, virtual reality playgrounds. Yawn.

Skin Deep by Mary Rosenblum (USA). A story of how people deal with loss and trauma and such, the only SF elements being some realistic medical and internet advances. Interesting that SF like this gets written, the actual SF elements being so muted.

Delhi by Vandana Singh (Canada). Very good story. If science fiction is one way people envision, imagine and discuss our real non-fiction future, then we need more stories like this one, told as it is from the perspective of “the poor and the desperate, and those who walk with death in their eyes.” Yeah!

The Tribes of Bela by Albert E. Cowdrey (USA). Somewhat fitting, as the author is a former military historian, this is the kind of story scared white guys used to write about the perils of the colonies – a theme that survives in SF, for better or for worse. Novella length, and kept me up til way past my bedtime waiting to see how it would turn out. Very good.

Sitka by William Sanders (USA). Time travel tourism is an interesting idea, and for such a short story the author did a good job of conveying the essentials without making it unbearably hokey. But really, Lenin and Jack London? Oh well… (Note: Sanders is a “former powwow dancer and sometime Cherokee gospel singer” and is known for trying to cultivate a “bad boy” image within the SF world, once having gone so far as to nominate a porn move for a Dramatic Nebula award… none of which really came through for me in this story.)

Leviathan Wept by Daniel Abraham (USA).The whole concept of “meta-consciousness” is interesting but extremely difficult to make a good story out of. Abraham does an ok job, though some bits are fairly predictable and the message is a bit clichéd. Nevertheless, good writing saves this from being merely mediocre. Another story that bears the imprint of September 11th.

The Defenders by Colin P. Davies (England). I find very short stories work at conveying an idea and can be humourous (i.e. Terry Bisson’s Meat) but work less well at making you feel sad or angry or any of the other “deeper” emotions. So while this was very nicely written, three pages just weren’t enough for me to get into the story before it ended.

Mayflower II by Stephen Baxter (England). I had never heard of Baxter before reading this, but i’m going to check out his stuff now. Not sure if i like his politics (or if i’m even reading them right) but this was definitely one of the best pieces in either volume. A space ship on a twenty thousand year flight… now how do you think that’s going to turn out?

Riding the White Bull by Caitlin R. Kiernan (USA). Creepy alien parasites, a health agency that seems modeled on the Phoenix Programme, cyborg killers and “genetic anarchists” (dontcha love how these words end up filling all manner of niches in our cultural ecosystem?)… all in all an ok story, but my mind wasn’t blown.

Falling Star by Brendan Dubois (USA). A pretty good post-collapse yarn, though with a fairly unrealistic right-wing backstory (computer hackers develop a virus which causes civilization to collapse… shhh! nobody tell Green Anarchy!). I still say, if you want technophobes you can’t do better than the first part of A Canticle for Leibowitz – nevertheless, this is an ok story.

The Dragons of Summer Gulch by Robert Reed (USA). I normally don’t like alternate histories, but i really do like the other short stories by Reed that i have read (esp. his 2002 Coelecanths), so i read this with an open mind. I’m glad i did, because it was good and had a nice anti-colonial twist too. Dragons indeed…

The Ocean of the Blind by James L. Cambias (USA). Wonderful story, one of the best in either volume. Interesting ideas? I dunno, but hell this was funny. (Didn’t hurt that i goddamn hated The Life Aquatic…) Worth adding, happily, that Cambias apparently intends to build on this story for an upcoming book to be called A Darkling Sea.

The Garden: A Hwarhath Science Fictional Romance by Eleanor Arnason (USA). This was one of the best stories in either volume - I don’t believe i have read any of the other Hwarhath stories, but it didn’t matter. Fundamentally queer, lots of interesting ideas, great look at this alien civilization. I liked… (Note: There is a wonderful interview with Arnason, described as a “Grand Dame of Feminist Science Fiction,” on the Strange Horizons site – i particularly liked the bit where she said her Hwarhath aliens would consider Bush to be a “tremendous, disgusting pervert”!)

Footnote by Peter F. Hamilton (England). Interesting idea, obvious effort at political relevance… but it just failed to do it for me. Methinks i like the mind-blowing assumptions to lead to some kind of mind-blowing conclusion, which i do realize is not at all required in SF…

Sisyphus and the Stranger by Paul Di Filippo (USA). Clever? Perhaps... failed to rock my world, but then i’m hard on alternate histories and never was gaga over the existentialists.

Ten Sigmas by Paul Melko (USA). Brilliant little short story, packed some real punch! Parallel universes, and what that might mean to one freakish individual.

Investments by Walter Jon Williams (USA). A very readable example of the kind of sci-fi i read as a teenager. Adventure, intrigue and hard SF are the key elements, and Williams pulls it off well.


[click here to order]

Year’s Best SF 10
edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

ISBN 0-06-057561-1
EOS, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2005

Stories That Made Me Go WOW!
Sergeant Chip by Bradley
Burning Day by Glenn Grant
Scout’s Honor by Terry Bisson
Pulp Cover by Gene Wolf
Act of God by Jack McDevitt

Story-By-Story Reactions
Sergeant Chip by Bradley Denton (USA). While i wonder at Hartwell and Cramer’s claim that this story is about “the military virtues,” i can understand them when they say it was the best story they read all year. It is certainly one of the two best stories in either their or Dozois’ volume. Novella-length, which does help an author make a good story great, though it can also make it easier for a bad story to slip into awful. Sergeant Chip is a first-person tale, told by an “enhanced” dog trained by the U.S. military to help occupy an unnamed Arab country (Iraq?). I’m not a dog kind of guy, but this was really well done. I read it as a clear anti-Bush/anti-war story.

First Commandment by Gregory Benford (USA). I have read elsewhere that this is not one of Mr Benford’s better stories – which is a relief. I like explorations of how religion and science relate to each other, but this was just a dud; at under twenty pages in length, i still had to force myself to finish it.

Burning Day by Glenn Grant (Canada). Oooh yeah… good story. Queer and nationalist (sub?)-texts abound, in this detective story which takes place in a world where androids have their own culture, much more lively and cutting edge than the old but still dominant human world. The androids don’t want to “take over”, they just want to do be able to be themselves and do their own thing…

Scout’s Honor by Terry Bisson (USA). The only story to make its way into both collections, which i guess says something in itself. Not all of Bisson’s work appeals to me, but i certainly liked this story. I read Ian Tattersall’s non-fiction Monkey in the Mirror not so long ago, and i think that made this already good read even more enjoyable. (NOTE: Bisson has been involved in radical politics for some years now, you can visit his website here.)

Venus Flowers at Night by Pamela Sargent (USA). In a sense this is two stories – one about terra-forming Venus, the other about a future world in which an Islam is the sole world power and a dilapidated ex-USA is now one of the “New Islamic States”. While these may seem to some to be ambitious themes, the story did not really do it for me.

Pulp Cover by Gene Wolf (USA). A very well done story about alien abductions, which (for me) resonates with what you might read about contemporary woman trafficking.

The Algorithms for Love by Ken Liu (USA). Not one of the worst, but certainly not one of the best. Could human emotions just be complex reactions, like a computer program? This is the question this story addresses, though unfortunately it does not address it in a particularly interesting way.

Glinky by Ray Vukcevich (USA). Very Philip K. Dickesque, no other way to put it. That said, not an incredibly great story.

Red City by Janeen Webb (Australia). I liked the ideas and some of the characters were well developed. Nice to see the snooty racist tourist get her comeuppance, but resorting to the misogynist “spoiled bitch cliché” was unfortunate. Also, the SF elements and setting could have been used to much greater effect. Not one of the best, but not one of the worst. (Worth mentioning: Webb has also co-authored a book about Australian racism, as displayed in its SF and fantastic tradition: Aliens & Savages: Fiction, Politics and Prejudice in Australia.)

Act of God by Jack McDevitt (USA). Neat little story about some off-the-radar scientists playing god, and getting punished for it. The story is used as an effective device to present some of the author’s (questionable) ideas about the emergence of civilization.

Wealth by Robert Reed (USA). The author is very good at creating atmosphere with his stories. That said, while this was good it was not one of his best.

Mastermindless by Matthew Hughes (Canada). A humourous mystery which felt much more like fantasy than SF, which is apparently part of Hughes’ style. Which does beg the question, though, of whether or not highly advanced technologies couldn’t mimic what in our culture ends up in Swords and Sorcery novels. I mean if Obi Wan and D.V. could battle it out with light sabers, why not?

Time, As It Evaporates by Jean-Claude Dunyach (France). Beautiful writing and a great concept, however the one-dimensional Muslim characters each played a part that was predictable from beginning to end.

The Battle of York by James Stoddard (USA). Really not my style. Meant to be funny? I dunno… couldn’t read more than a few pages then had to skip on to the next story. Sorry.

Loosestrife by Liz Williams (England). One of the better stories in either book. A bleak future post-global warming England seen through the eyes of the expendable poor.

The Dark Side of Town by James Patrick Kelly (USA). An excellent story, about sex, fidelity, virtual reality, class and the question of what kind of life is worth living.

Invisible Kingdoms by Steven Utley (USA). Apart from the brilliant SpokesMom™ this is a fairly unexceptional story.

The Cascade by Sean McMullen (Australia). A good story, interesting to me in that the heroine is engaging in what most folks today would have no hesitation in calling “terrorism”, not even for any particularly pressing or noble cause, and yet there she is, doin’ it all the same… a story of fighting for the world that you want, and to hell with the consequences.

Pervert by Charles Coleman Finlay (USA). It was telling that the editors said they found that “[t]he world Finlay posits is so alien that it is creepy to realize it is a human future.” I mean, an Islamic theocracy where homosexuality is practically mandatory and heterosexuals are the pervs is certainly not my idea of utopia, but… not the creepiest SF i have read by any stretch. A good story though.

The Risk-Taking Gene As Expressed by Some Asian Subjects by Steve Tomasula (USA). I’m not sure i got this story, but if it’s about what i think it’s about, then it doesn’t seem so futuristic or far-fetched as all that. Presented as a research project, what you see is what you get.

Strood by Neal Asher (England). Elements reminded me of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series. A nice story about a benevolent alien invasion.

The Eckener Alternative by James L. Cambias (USA). A time travel story that left me cold. The editors suggested it may be a parody, in which case i guess i’m not in on the joke…

Savant Songs by Brenda Cooper (USA). A parallel universe story. Didn’t knock my socks off like Paul Melko’s Ten Sigmas, but it was nice nevertheless.

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  1. I bought the Hartwell/Cramer one in an airport a few months ago and read it on the plane. Not expecting much, I was pleasantly surprised.

    I thought Sergent Chip was incredible. But I also really liked "The Risk-Taking Gene As Expressed by Some Asian Subjects." by Steve Tomasula. Come to think of it, now that you bring it up, I'm not sure what made it SF at all, it's not really an SF story, unless there's something we're both missing. I didn't even think of that reading it. But it was one of my favourites. A story about the difference between the (migrating) global poor and the global rich, and how the anthropologist type dude was virtually incapable of seeing what was going on cause he lived in literally a different world. No? I thought it was very well told, and I liked it's politics.

    As far as the SF/not-SF thing, that's an interesting topic too. My favourite SF, regardless of when it takes place or what fantastic element it has, is really about NOW. Draws your attention to things going on now by exagerating them in some hypothetical way, or putting them in an allegorical context, or whatever. Cyberpunk stuff takes this idea that SF is really about now seriously by being set "twenty minutes into the future." So if twenty minutes into the future is SF, how about ten? Five? Two minutes ago? Why not? Bruce Sterling's _Zeitgeist_ is about the _exact same thing_ as his _Islands in the Net_ (globalization), so why can't it be SF too? Only because, well, it's not. But it might as well be.