Kathryn Cramer

Year’s Best SF 12, Ed. David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer

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.

Year’s Best SF 11, Ed. David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

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…)]

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.