EOS, 2006, 496 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-06-087341-8
While I’m a pretty faithful purchaser of the Hartwell/Cramer “Year’s Best SF” series, I seldom review them: For one thing, I’m never too fond of reviewing anthologies: my satisfaction for them, even Year’s Bests, usually takes the shape of a nice bell curve. Why review only half a book of good stories when I can’t find anything nice to say about the other half?
But Year’s Best SF 11 is an exception. Maybe it was just me, unusually “clicking” with story after story. Then again, it is possible that the selection for 2005 was better than for other years. One thing is for sure: I had a lot more fun reading through those stories than making my way through the Hugo nominated material.
The collection starts on a high note with David Langford’s New Hope For the Dead, a short (800-words) piece originally published in the “Nature” scientific journal as part of their recurring “Fiction” column. “Nature”, ironically enough, ends up being the source of nearly a dozen stories in this Year’s Best volume –more than any other source. The short-short story ends up being an ideal length for punchy explorations of a big idea. Langford takes on a net.joke and makes a delicious treat out of it, a broad description that also applies to Greg Bear’s “Ram Shift Phase 2”. Amusement also comes with Larissa Lai’s “I Love Liver: A Romance”. Meanwhile, Ted Chiang tackles predestination in “What’s Expected of Us”, another creepy/fun story that fits right into Chiang’s exceptional track record. Big ideas in short texts mean big fun, as demonstrated in Oliver Morton’s “The Albian Message”. Elsewhere, Vonda McIntyre has “A Modest Proposal for the Perfection of Nature” that muses on the uniformity of utopia, even as Tobias Buckell crams an entire geopolitically-aware space program in “Toy Planes”. Not to be outdone, Bruce Sterling imagines the hair-raising results of a 10Kilo-scientist commune. The “Nature” shorts are so much fun that I’m hoping that someone, somewhere, will put together an anthology of those “Futures”. I can understand why Hartwell and Cramer would choose so many of them –twelve story for the space of two!
But as good as those quick-and-snappy short-short stories are, a few of the longer pieces are nothing short of remarkable. A good number of them are slow burns: stories that initially don’t seem to make sense, but eventually reach escape velocity. Hannu Rajaniemi’s “Deus Ex Homine” is the first of them –a story that works even when it looks that it shouldn’t. But nothing quite summarizes the impact of Daryl Gregory’s “Second Person, Present Tense”, which quite unexpectedly hits you on the head midway through and never lets up until the end: It goes from “this is not going to work” to “best story of the year” in a few pages, and that’s nothing short of remarkable. Sometimes, the stories grow on you after they’re over: I didn’t think much of Bud Sparhawk’s “Bright Red Star” while reading it, but the last few lines and a few days’ worth of hindsight make all the difference.
There are also a slew of stranger stories that show how wide an umbrella the term “science-fiction” now encompasses: “When The Great Days Came” by Gardner Dozois shows the apocalypse from the perspective of those who will inherit it all: rats. Small mammals make a further appearance later on with “Mason’s Rats” a not-so-funny tale of farming trouble and tool-using rodents. If you think that’s weird, just wait until Rudy Rucker’s “Guadalupe and Hieronymus Bosch”, a romance whose title tells you nearly everything you need to know. Then there’s the irreverent madness of Adam Robert’s “And Future King…”
There are also more conventional tales of good old-fashioned SF in stories like Matthew Jarpe’s “City of Reason” (Kuiper belt pirates! Arrr!), Lauren McLaughlin’s “Sheila” (AI in-fighting!), Joe Haldeman’s “Angel of Light” (Christmas, Muslims, pulp SF and aliens, oh my!) and R. Garcia Y Robertson’s “Oxygen Rising” (“Hey, human, time to earn your pay!”) Combining straightforward SF story telling with Dickian mind-twists is Alastair Reynold’s “Beyond the Aquila Rift”, another contender for best-story-of-the-year status.
In fact, I ended up reading Year’s Best SF 11 concurrently with this year’s crop of Hugo-nominated short stories and was struck time and time again at how much better the stories in this volume were compared to the works up for the Hugo. For SF fans, this is the one book of short stories you have to grab to get a lot of good SF in one handy package. Year’s Best, and one of the best Year’s Best for Cramer and Hartwell.
[June 2006: A final note: Mark your calendars! This June 2006 release is the first book I’ve bought that feature the ISBN-13 number of the book. Get ready for the future… (And this happened, in an odd coincidence, on the same weekend the Ottawa area switched to ten-digit phone dialling…)]