Year’s Best SF 8, Ed. David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer

EOS, 2003, 496 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-106453-X

One of the few things that annoy me about David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer’s Year’s Best SF anthology series is how it’s impossible to guess, from the cover, which year’s “Best SF” we’re talking about. It’s undoubtedly a flaw that came straight from EOS’ marketing department. For one thing, a “1999 best SF” collection dates itself on the bookshelves far more quickly than an equivalent “Year’s Best SF 5”. For another, Hartwell and Cramer may have been trying to distinguish themselves from other year’s-best anthologies in SF’s long history, quite a few of them with the actual year in their title. (But then again, the Gardner Dozois anthologies also don’t put the year in their title, preferring cumbersome titles such as “The Year’s Best SF: Twenty-First Annual Collection”. Sigh…)

But as annoyances go, it’s minor. It may be best to focus on what Hartwell and Cramer do well. If you compare it to the Dozois annual collection, Year’s Best SF is usually shorter (the editors have to deal with more stringent space restriction, hence few -if any- novellas), ensuring a better time/variety ratio for the reader. (It also makes it possible to publish the book as a mass-market paperback, to the financial joy of everybody) Then —and this is the big advantage as far as I’m concerned— there’s the fact that the Hartwell/Cramer books tend to be more firmly science-fictional than their fantasy-contaminated Dozois counterpart. Part of the reason for this purist approach is that Hartwell/Cramer also edit a “Year’s Best Fantasy” series… so they don’t have to cram everything they like in one single volume.

I’m not saying that one should avoid the Dozois collections: For a complete overview of the field, it’s probably essential to read both, plus the recently-introduced Silverberg/Haber “Best of” series too. But if you can only read or buy just one…

In any case, Year’s Best SF 8 is about year 2002, and the choices are eclectic. Not everything in here pleased me or interested me; I started skimming some stories a few pages in, others held my interest throughout. Some of them made it on the Hugo ballot; some were unjustly forgotten in the selection process. But I thought maybe half of the material was worth a read, and that’s not a bad average when it comes to recent fiction.

The book opens on a strong note with Bruce Sterling’s whimsical “In Paradise”, my choice for short story of the year. It deals with a Texan plumber who falls in love with an Iranian girl thanks to the automatic translator in their cell phones. The diplomatic repercussions are so severe that Homeland Security gets involved, threatening to destroy the couple on behalf of national interest. As a reflection of 2002’s zeitgeist, it’s pitch-perfect. It also helps that it’s both hilarious and touching.

Other strong stories include Charles Stross’ “Halo”, a fresh and new look at what may be our complicated future by a relatively new writer who is quickly climbing to the top of the SF field. Nancy Kress’s “Patent Infringement” is a cynical and very darkly funny take on the current intellectual property insanity. Meanwhile, Ken Wharton’s “Flight Correction” is a down-to-Earth (har-har; read the story) take on the idea of a space elevator and the possible ecological ramifications of the idea, mixed with some good character drama.

Other stories I rather enjoyed included Michael Swanwick’s “Slow Life” (Hard-SF in the Arthur C. Clarke mold), Robert Sheckley’s “Shoes” (a mean but funny little tale about high-tech running shoes that attempt to take control of the narrator’s life), A.M. Dellamonica’s “A Slow Day at the Gallery” (interstellar war and intrigue… in an art gallery) and Greg Egan’s “Singleton” (Egan continues his apprenticeship of how to write better characters). Meanwhile, stories like “Geropods” (Robert Onopa), “Snow in the Desert” (Neal Asher), “Grandma” (Carol Emshwiller), “I Saw the Light” (Terry Bisson) and “The Diamond Drill” (Charles Sheffield) left me interested but unsatisfied, as if something was missing.

But taken together, there’s something for everyone in this latest Year’s Best SF 8, a vigorous anthology that shows clearly that SF isn’t even on the threshold of irrelevance yet. As the millennium recedes in the back mirror, maybe there’s a place for more newer futures in our fiction. And those stories show the way it just may be.

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