EOS, 2007, 484 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-06-125208-2
“The theme of the year is catastrophe and how to recover from it” warn editors Hartwell and Cramer in the introduction to their latest Year’s Best SF volume, and they’re not kidding. Of the twenty-six stories assembled here, a good chunk deal with The End… regardless of whether it’s followed by a new beginning or not.
Apocalyptic fiction isn’t a new subgenre of SF, of course, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that the chosen few of this anthology are writing about fresh horrors a privileged knowledge of what it feels to go through a catastrophe. Unlike the writers who wished the Cold War away by describing nuclear Armageddon, every writer represented here has seen the World Trade Centre fall; has waited for SARS to bloom into something bigger; has seen the United States invade another country on thin pretexts; has seen a tsunami wipe out hundred of thousands of people; has mentally scratched New Orleans from their holiday destinations. The first few years of the twenty-first century have been rough on everyone, and this Year’s Best SF is showing the accumulating damage. The goal is no longer to triumph against adversity, but to cope with it.
In many ways, the opening story of the volume tells you everything you need to know about the anthology: Nancy Kress’ “Nano comes to Clifford Falls” describes the economic dislocation that comes with the arrival of SF’s archetypal nano-technology economy. It’s both a fresh and fascinating shorty story, and a small wonder insofar as it has taken up to 2006 for someone to tackle an issue that’s been obvious to everyone since the first glimmers of nanotech. The writing is crisp, and the story deals with real issues. The end state is unlikely to please everyone, which makes the story that much stronger.
But it’s far from being the last good story of the volume, and even farther from being the last catastrophe story. I have discussed Cory Doctorow’s “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” in my review of his Overclocked collection, but the story remains the same: As catastrophic events mysteriously (some will say “arbitrarily”) isolate a community of hackers from an outside world that stops responding, it’s up to them to hold everything together… even if they’re not too sure if that’s the right thing to do. I still get a chill out of the last paragraph.
Other stories in the post-apocalyptic vein include Claude Lalumière similarly improbable “This is the Ice Age”, in which quantum ice ravages Montréal. Michael Flynn’s Hugo-nominated “Dawn, and Sunset, and the Colours of the Earth” hits a distinctly post-9/11 nerve despite being being about something very different: It’s perhaps the clearest example of how, in the wake of September 2001, everyone has become far more adapted at seeing the ramifications of catastrophe. Daryl Gregory makes a welcome returns appearance with “Damascus”, which goes all the way through coping with catastrophe to study those who embrace it. “Expedition, with Recipes” by Joe Haldeman isn’t much of a story, but the conceit fits perfectly with the anthologists’ thesis. On a smaller scale, Ian R. McLeod’s “Taking Good Care of Myself” is about being confronted to one’s death in a very literal way. The more we read into this Year’s Best SF, the more we seem stuck in disaster. Even Robert Reed gets into the spirit of things with “Rwanda”, which looks at the wreckage left in a curious post-invasion future.
Even the stories that don’t directly feature some kind of apocalypse aren’t a cheery basket of kittens. Heather Linsdley’s “Just do it!” (which gets my vote as one of the volume’s top stories) is pitch-dark social satire with a twist that’s almost too mean to stomach. Superb. Meanwhile, Alastair Reynolds’ detective story “Tiger, Burning” manages to temper a victory of sort with a strong sense of melancholy.
At some point, one starts to wonder if the apocalypses that lurk through the book aren’t contaminating the rest of the stories. Even the usually jubilant Rudy Rucker seems down this year with a funny story that also happens to deal with ultimate catastrophe. It’s amusing, uplifting and indescribably weird… but it still deals with the end of the world. Again.
But don’t reach for that straight razor just yet: The last word belongs to Charlie Rosenkrantz’s “Preemption”, a darkly amusing catastrophe tale that seems even funnier give the grimness of the preceding stories. Hartwell and Cramer are seasoned pros at the anthology business, and the placement of that story alone earns em extra points for style.
But all you truly need to know is that for those who can take the depressing nature of the year’s story, Year’s Best SF 12 is once again a superior best-of anthology. The thematic component seems unusually strident, but that’s almost a bonus feature. What’s no catastrophe, though, is the selection of the stories. Once again, Year’s Best SF trumps the official Hugo-nominated selection, with only a few overlaps.