Review: The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois

[Cover of YBSF29]

Introduction

Gardner Dozois continues to extend his record of longest running annual series with the twenty-ninth volume of "Gardner Dozois Picks the Stories He Liked Best This Year", better known as The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection (St. Martin's Griffin, $21.99) or The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 25 (Robinson, £9.99).

I pilfered the above alternate title from the introduction to Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Sixth Annual Collection (1977), the first annual volume Dozois edited, taking that series over from Lester del Rey. In it he promises "to select only those stories that honestly and forcibly struck [him] as being the best published that year, with no consideration for log-rolling, friendship, fashion, politics, or any other kind of outside influence". I would assume much or all of that still applies but, as he makes the case that any Year's "Best" is going to be subjective, I'd also say that any Year's Best can't help but reflect current fashion, or the editor's idea of it, at least. And, really, it should. An annual of great short fiction is going to often include timeless classics but also will include temporal snapshots of what seemed timeless at the, well, time. Old annuals can serve as yearbook pictures of SF with its braces and goofy haircuts and serve as valuable historical records. A current annual can serve as a fresh snapshot of what's going on now. But this is through Dozois' filter in terms of selection and then through the reader's filter in terms of interpretation.

While I used to read the Asimov's and Analog magazines with the occasional rare issue of others, I stopped for non-literary reasons and, of 2011 short fiction, I've basically read only the award nominees available online and this anthology. So how do I interpret what this selection of thirty-five stories says about the field?

Alas, it says the field is in trouble. If I were "tagging" these stories, there would be three major tag clusters: dystopias/apocalypses, anti-SF/SF-as-fantasy, posthuman/AI. And, indeed, apocalypses and posthumanity could be joined under "eschatology" but there are elements in each that don't always make that fitting. And posthuman/AI tends to blend with anti-SF/SF-as-fantasy but also need not overlap.

Before I go any further, to prevent confusion I'll say that, while I certainly have pre-existing ideological biases, I didn't set out with a theme and find examples to "prove" them, but "felt" examples aggregate into themes as I read, though, once a theme manifested, I made sure all the stories that fell under it were included. It's also very important to note that I'm not arguing that all SF must be the one thing I declare it should be but only lamenting the extreme rarity of what I'm particularly looking for amidst what is actually present. There are a great many fantasies and literary SF pieces and so on that I like a great deal. It's just that the "truest" SF to me is or is akin to Asimov/Clarke/Heinlein and that seems a vanishing breed and, indeed, many people don't seem to care - worse, some actually argue for and exult in its disappearance.

Dystopian Apocalypse

Eleven of the thirty-five stories depict dystopias or apocalypses. I suppose one whose cup was half full could say it was nice that SF in 2011 felt we only had a 1/3 chance of misery or destruction but my cup runneth over with eschatological stories. Climate change and/or general resource exhaustion is getting us in Paul McAuley's "The Choice" and Ken MacLeod's "Earth Hour", with additional police state politics or other social dislocations in the earth part of John Barnes' "Martian Heart" and Maureen F. McHugh's "After the Apocalypse". Aliens get us in very different ways in Robert Reed's "The Ants of Flanders" and Michael Swanwick's "For I Have Lain...". An alternate timeline Orwellian ruling cabal is depicted in Paul Cornell's "The Copenhagen Interpretation". We have to go to other worlds to get two sociopolitical dystopias - the theocratic xenophobes and the outright genocidal race supremacists in Carolyn Ives Gilman's "The Ice Owl" (where their activities are called the "Holocide") and outright destroy a couple of them in Jay Lake's "A Long Way Home" and Chris Lawson's "Canterbury Hollow". I don't recall exactly what was going on where in Peter M. Ball's "Dying Young", but it wasn't pleasant.

There's something worse than mere dystopianism in several of these stories, which I think of as "dyscopianism" or stories in which we "cope" with disaster. Perhaps we are irretreivably doomed and stories of cold comfort might be useful but I prefer to hope we have a moment or two left. In the meantime, I would prefer dystopias that were cataclysmic warnings of futures to avoid and, better, hopeful futures to strive to attain. I feel that dyscopian stories are like Dr. Strangelove talking to the generals about the numerous women they would need in their caves and actually make such futures seem attractive to some and more likely to occur. Given that the heyday of "surviving after WWIII" fantasies passed in the 80s without a nuclear war so far, perhaps these concerns are unfounded but I still like "muddling through" stories even less than pure dystopias. "The Choice" is probably the prime example of this muddling. And the resigned coping is not limited to dystopias and apocalypses. Karl Schroeder's "Laika's Ghost" is about a fallen and depressing former Soviet Union which, though unpleasant, is not genuinely dystopian but it, too, is primarily about the everyman character coping with the mess of earth.

Rather than coping, it would be nice to see solutions. Not all problems can be solved but one of the things SF is, is a problem-solving literature. But there is almost none of that in this anthology. Rather, there are twenty-three stories that run the gamut of pure fantasy to SF-as-fantasy to anti-SF. I hope to make what I mean by those terms clear by the examples more than the brief explanations.

The Varieties of SF Experience

1: Fantasy

Dozois' anthology is one of only two current annuals that does not mix fantasy and SF in the title and generally has very little outright fantasy in the content. This is a major selling point for me, but I'll give any one story a pass if it's good enough. The one purely fantasy story in this annual is Peter S. Beagle's "The Way It Works Out and All". While delightful and excellent, it is perhaps not excellent enough to get a pass but I don't really object, especially as Dozois has an acknowledged weakness for Avram Davidson. In this story, the characters are Beagle and a not-so-deceased Davidson who can dance widdershins through dimensions both fair and foul. The theme (which I can't reveal because it would be kind of spoiling the whole point) is good. But I can't squeeze it into SF no matter how I try.

2: SF-as-Fantasy

SF-as-fantasy is SF that seems ashamed of itself and pretends it isn't SF. What sense would it make to tell a Western writer not to include so many dusty tumbleweeds and horses and six-shooters? That's part of what makes them Westerns. What sense would it make to tell a detective writer to not have his protagonist talk so tough? And what sense does it make to tell an SF writer, as many "critics" pushing "literature" do, to sweep his science and tech under the carpet of dream-style narratives and mentions of dragons?

The verbal trick of calling things what they aren't can usefully produce cognitive estrangement but it can also be used pointlessly or for cognitive deception. In Ball's "Dying Young", we are introduced to "dragons" who we find are anything but. There are also dragons in McAuley's "The Choice" - sharing nothing with Ball's dragons beyond the fact that neither are remotely "a huge winged reptile with a large crested head" (Random House). In Cornell's "The Copenhagen Interpretation", things are called "carriages" that manifestly are not and spaceships are called "void carriages". David Moles' "A Soldier of the City" describes its sparsely populated habitat containing fifty billion people as a "city" (and not in homage to Trantor) and, moving deeper into "as-fantasy", it's run by Babylonian gods who are, of course, actually AIs/posthumans, albeit strangely insecure ones. (I take no issue with the occasional Zelazny writing the occasional story any way he wishes, but I'm talking about trends here.) Lavie Tidhar's "The Smell of Orange Groves" has a visit to a posthuman/AI "oracle/saint" and the methods the saint employs are indeed miraculous insofar as they are unexplained. Much of Catherynne M. Valente's "Silently and Very Fast" is written in mythic terms and/or in a virtual reality of a particularly liquid and dreamlike kind. Similarly, Gwyneth Jones' "The Vicar of Mars" has sections of ghost story/weak horror. Damien Broderick's "The Beancounter's Cat" and Michael Swanwick's "The Dala Horse" are almost carbon copies of each other and, for example, last year's "Elegy for an Elk" by Rajaniemi: a posthuman fantasyland where the technology is indistinguishable from magic (a much abused phrase). Which, for fictional purposes, makes SF indistinguishable from fantasy. Ian R. MacLeod's "The Cold Step Beyond" is right next to those stories.

Perhaps the most extreme example is Yoon Ha Lee's "Ghostweight" because, under it all, it is a hard-edged space battle but manages to feel like a fairy tale. If not Lee, then perhaps Kij Johnson's "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" in a different way. I originally read it online as SF but noted elsewhere online that pieces of the milieu (timeline, ethnicity, technological level) made no sense. Another person online read it as a fantasy - which hadn't even occurred to me - and that would indeed fix some of the milieu problems from a scientific standpoint, if not from a literary standpoint, but then results in a strangely rational, technical, unfantastic fantasy. Dozois' introduction says that it takes place on "a strange alien planet" and put it in this annual so it seems he read it as SF. I feel like it's SF with technical problems caused by being written by someone who is primarily a fantasy writer but, either way, this clearly merits a mention in this section. All these stories could be "science fiction for people who hate science fiction".

3: Anti-SF

By "anti-SF", I mean something that is antithetical to some core principle of a narrow definition of SF or something from which, maybe with some juggling, the SF could be completely removed and the story basically still stand. Not all SF provides solutions but, as mentioned in the dystopia section, SF can be a solution-providing literature. SF generally requires that you end up in a different place from where you started, preferably rising, where much fantasy is about getting back there or slowing the fall. And SF is generally about true science as we understand it at the time of writing.

In McAuley's "The Choice", there's not much of a solution or change though I can't get into details. Gilman's "The Ice Owl" and Swanwick's "For I Have Lain..." are transparent metaphors for non-science-fictional things and the Gilman is an ultimately static story. Cornell's "The Copenhagen Interpretation" is a "Null-E" story much like Kerr's "The Old Equations" (not in this anthology) where Einstein never existed or had the effect he did on our timeline but "Copenhagen" goes further with bizarre theology being taken as fact. Lake's "A Long Way Home" has no answer to its question. Dave Hutchinson's "The Incredible Exploding Man" relies on an unfounded fear of supercolliders and carries on as a nightmare fantasy. Geoff Ryman's "What We Found" and MacLeod's "The Vorkuta Event" both deal with Lamarckism/Lysenkoism and Ryman additionally posits the idea that scientific truths "wear out" while MacLeod has no solution to the problem he raises at the end. Michael F. Flynn's "The Iron Shirts" has another timeline entirely. Ball's "Dying Young" has psychic phenomena that, while perhaps not antithetical to Campbell's 60s, aren't really explained beyond the fact that they can be "taught". Jim Hawkins' "Digital Rites" is not really science fiction but more of a technothriller but, even so, turns its back on its tech. Alec Nevala-Lee's "The Boneless Ones" only has a science capable of diagnosing disaster and minimizing its effects and is otherwise a kind of horror story. (It's the sole representative of Analog and is a remarkably atypical Analog story - which, indeed, seems to be the only way an Analog story can appear.) Reed's apocalypse in "The Ants of Flanders" show science and technology working pretty well for the aliens but not so much for us. And I didn't list Gwyneth Jones' "The Vicar of Mars" as a fantasy because it nominally has "aliens" on "Mars" but it brings in unexplained ghosts and psychic phenomena and, by the nature of things, the fantasy in it should really trump the SF.

4: SF

While a rigorous argument might exclude still more, the stories that I feel are conceived as SF, written as SF, and proud of it (three of which are my favorites, three of which are among my least favorite, and six of which fall between - twelve of thirty-five), are Elizabeth Bear's "Dolly" (if I make allowance for her robot being Pinocchio), Barnes' "Martian Heart", MacLeod's "Earth Hour", Schroeder's "Laika's Ghost" (even with its secret history), Stephen Baxter's "The Invasion of Venus", Ian McDonald's "Digging", Alastair Reynolds' "Ascension Day", McHugh's "After the Apocalypse", Tom Purdom's "A Response from EST17", David Klecha and Tobias S. Buckell's "A Militant Peace", Pat Cadigan's "Cody", and Lawson's "Canterbury Hollow".

Even amongst these, Baxter manages the remarkable feat of making an invasion of Venus with gravity pulse weapons boring, as it's written as yet another in his pseudo-series of cozy catastrophes from the POV of terrestrial non-combatants. (It also is the second story I've read in two years (Landis' excellent "A Sultan of the Clouds") about a habitable zone in Venus after not having read any in quite this way for a long time, if ever.) Reynolds' and Schroeder's aren't a lot of fun, though they're pretty good. Bear's includes a horrific murder. MacLeod has lots of pseudo-death and real gore, McDonald's is one of my least favorite in the book, being deeply (heh) flawed. And I've mentioned the MacLeod and McHugh under dystopian apocalypse already. Even Barnes' (one of my top three) is bittersweet at best and the core could arguably have been done in non-SF terms though the specifics are deeply science fictional. Cadigan's is her usual solid, gritty story. The only two stories in this book which, while falling short of the ultimate charge of youthful sensawunda, are indubitably SF and an SF of creative ideas and of solutions (which still have all the other virtues people look for) are Klecha/Buckell's "A Militant Peace", a very interesting story about Viet Nam spearheading a UN pacifist invasion (so to speak) of North Korea using a superior defense and so almost achieving the goal of avoiding bloodshed, and Tom Purdom's enjoyably complex tale of two competing human probes interacting with two semi-allied alien factions told from the aliens' point of view. Some of the parts of Purdom's story are familiar but they are flavored and mixed in a fresh way.

Posthuman AI

The last main nexus to discuss is the posthuman/AI one. Posthumanity could be purely biological or otherwise apart from AI and AI doesn't necessarily entail posthumanity but many stories feature both or have these SF-as-fantasy magic creatures that may be posthumanity, AIs, or both (or perhaps neither). Such fusions or doublings include Moles and Tidhar (though humans still exist), Broderick, Swanwick, Lake and I.R. MacLeod. Depending on how you look at it, MacLeod's "Vorkuta" may also feature posthumanity/AI via a sort of temporal projection and is at least partly about AI. The most interesting treatment of posthumanity/AI in this anthology is the Valente. Given the stylization of half of this story and the extreme stylization of the other half, it's funny and ironic that one of Valente's points is an almost Asimovian one: her AI is not like other SF AIs - she's taking issue with the simplistic, pervasive "AI wants to be human or god" theme just as Asimov did with the "out-of-control killer robot" or the robot-as-metaphor.

About the only story to feature AI and plain humanity (perhaps because the AI is just beginning) is the Bear.

Others

For lesser motifs, I found it interesting that, of the nine or so stories containing aliens (McAuley, Broderick, Cornell, Baxter, Purdom, Reed, Jones, Swanwick's "Lain", and possibly MacLeod's "Vorkuta") all but the Purdom and Jones had aliens who were either completely offstage or otherwise cryptic. I don't mean that they were inscrutably alien, but that they were basically not depicted in any sensible manner at all, almost as though they were just supposed to be genies or sprites or the authors felt that mentioning them would be enough to make the story SF or, on the other hand, were embarrassed or lacking confidence about having them in there at all. But maybe there is a deeper significance to the handling of aliens in the zeitgeist that I'm missing.

I'm pleased that the alternate history mania seems to be abating. The Schroeder and (depending on how you interpret it) MacLeod's "Vorkuta" are both secret histories, but not alternate histories. The only actual alternate histories seem to be Cornell and Flynn. And even with the Cornell, its alternate historicity is sort of the least remarkable element of an overstuffed story. The Flynn is the usual mucking about in the middle ages, though.

A bizarre micro-motif is that a certain search engine is namechecked no less than three times (probably more) by at least Reed, Ryman, and Schroeder.

As it's become apparently obligatory, I'll note that only eight of the thirty-five stories were written by women, though ten are narrated by or have female protagonists or co-protagonists and almost all have important female characters. Three of the female authors have male and/or alien protagonists with five male authors boosting the numbers.

The British Invasion continues apace. Thirty-four authors are represented (Swanwick and MacLeod having two stories each while one story has two authors) and, of them, eighteen are American (if we continue to claim the expatriate Cadigan; if we lump Buckell in; if Moles is an American) while sixteen are not. Granted, Ball, Broderick, and Lawson are Australian; Tidhar is Israeli/English; Schroeder is Canadian; and even Reynolds is Welsh and Ken MacLeod is a Scot, so only nine are outright English (assuming Hawkins is and he must be) but, given relative sizes, it seems a very favorable representation from a US editor for, primarily, a US market.

The number of stories featuring young protagonists is remarkable. Only two come directly from a YA anthology (Barnes, McDonald) but there are nine in total (including McAuley, Gilman, Ryman, I.R. MacLeod, Reed, Swanwick's "Dala", and Ball). Equally remarkable is how many of these are dystopian, apocalyptic, fatal for someone involved, or otherwise unpleasant. (Not that I think YA fiction shouldn't include these things but, again, I'm thinking of proportions and getting young people excited about science and science fiction.)

Last note: fantasy often takes place in a "nowhere land" and SF usually has a strong sense of place, yet many of these stories are very vague about their settings. About 23 of the stories are earth-based (though three have interstellar-capable aliens, two have interstellar-capable humans, and three are a bit more complicated), while only three are set on Mars and only one anywhere else in the solar system (a fantasy Iapetus). Of the eleven extra-solar stories, only one is not particularly planet-, ex-planet-, or habitat-based and it's the Lee space fantasy. Not one seriously addresses spaceflight.

Conclusion

Last year's annual had many excellent items such as Baxter's "Return to Titan", Landis' "A Sultan of the Clouds", Watts' "The Things", Steele's "The Emperor of Mars", Doctorow's "Chicken Little", Reynolds' "Sleepover", Cadigan's "The Taste of Night", and a few more of note, though it otherwise had many of the same problems (as I see them) as this one. But, from this one, I found only the Purdom, Klecha/Buckell, and Barnes to be particularly rewarding, with the Valente, Moles, Reynolds, Baxter, Cornell, Schroeder, and Cadigan also being noteworthy. But if the categories described above make it sound like your kind of thing you might love it as there's really only one botched story and maybe half a dozen with significant flaws - for instance, while I didn't like the milieu and didn't like the characters (and wasn't supposed to) and didn't like the story (which I was) there's really nothing wrong with McHugh's "After the Apocalypse", for instance. It's clear, concise, neatly characterized, moves confidently - it's a fine execution.

Really, an anthologist has to pick from what's available. As I say, I haven't read much 2011 short fiction but I have read all but three of the twenty-four stories nominated for Hugos and/or Nebulas. Dozois only selects five of these. They aren't entirely comparable, since Dozois has eleven more stories and the SF/fantasy distinction is completely absent from the awards. But I will say that, as dissatisfied with this annual as I was, I enjoyed it more than the virtual Hugo/Nebula anthology I read online. There are a couple/three stories that, while not essential, I would have substituted for a couple/three Dozois selections but he generally picked some of the better stuff and skipped most of the lesser stuff and a few of his selections are much better than anything in the award nominations. So it may well be that this just wasn't a particularly good year for my sort of short SF.