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

[Cover of YBSF30]

At one point, when making my way through a particularly dense thicket of prose, it occurred to me that reading the Annual can be like eating my vegetables, but there is some dessert in here, too, and some people like vegetables.

Introduction: By the Numbers

Dozois' Thirtieth Annual brings us twenty-nine stories from twenty-seven authors. I would have been compelled to pick a thirtieth story at that point and perhaps that was the original intent as there is a glitch indicating a last-minute change of contents where Reed is introduced in his second story while his first story and Wilson's are duplicated in the "Honorable Mentions". Authors include (segregated for those who like to reduce people to genders and keep score - and assuming none are pulling a Tiptree) seventeen men (Christopher Barzak, Michael Bishop, Indrapramit Das, Andy Duncan, Jay Lake, Richard A. Lovett and William Gleason, Paul McAuley (2), Sean McMullen, David Moles, Steven Popkes, Hannu Rajaniemi, Robert Reed (2), Alastair Reynolds, Adam Roberts, Lavie Tidhar (2), and Robert Charles Wilson) and ten women (Eleanor Arnason, Pat Cadigan, Aliette de Bodard, Megan Lindholm, Brit Mandelo, Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear (1.5), Linda Nagata, Vandana Singh, and Carrie Vaughn). Though fewer people seem interested in keeping geographical score, sixteen US authors are represented and there's coverage of the Anglosphere and beyond, with three UK authors, an Australian, a Canadian, and even a French author, along with five hybrids: Finn/Scot, Indian/Canadian, Indian/US, Israeli/UK, and US/UK.

Dozois somewhat bucks the trend of "all things digital" but less than two-thirds of the stories come from print media - and only half of those from the traditional magazines. Asimov's unsurprisingly leads the pack, but with only five tales, followed by the original anthology Edge of Infinity and the ezine Eclipse Online with three each, and only the print Interzone and the Lightspeed ezine have more than one contribution among the rest. The ISFDB and I have a disagreement on the categories of the stories - I get eight novellas (though one may be a novelette), thirteen novelettes (though two may be short stories), and eight short stories. I don't see how, for instance, the ISFDB has the fourteen page "Weep for Day" as a novelette and the eighteen page "What Did Tessimond Tell You?" as a short story. Either way, I like the inclusion of more novelettes and novellas versus the shorts in theory and here it works even better in practice.

Almost a third or more of the stories were in series (unfortunately, mostly lesser ones, despite my affection for story series) with additions to McAuley's "Jackaroo" and "Quiet War", Arnason's "Hwarhath", Vaughn's unnamed "ecological distress" series, Reed's "Great Ship" (twice), Tidhar's "Central Station", Monette/Bear's "Boojum", and de Bodard's "Xuya Universe" and likely more. But all these seem reasonably stand-alone.

Lastly, though first noticed, the two year experiment with thin gray paper has ended, so the anthology is back to its usual thickness. This presumed expense may explain why Dozois didn't get special treatment for the big 3-O from the art department, as his book is red for the third time in six years and has recycled cover art from an '80s Isaac Asimov novel.

Progression

My favorite story in this Annual is Steven Popkes' "Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected", which is a fairly unusual story for this volume, being about AI and music in a non-dystopian near future. Dozois says in his introduction (which, as with each of the stories, I read at the end, as a postscript), "I often don't like rock'n'roll stories which frequently demonstrate little knowledge of music or the music business". And I often don't like them because they frequently fail to translate basically incompatible media (a story is not a song) and can be embarrassingly juvenile. For me, this story works well because it creates a "gray" protagonist who is interesting and real, and manages to avoid the pitfalls of music-in-story while also being a good exploration of AI and, not incidentally, of humanity. This isn't a particularly original story conceptually, but it's one of the best examples of it - such that it basically becomes original by the mix of ingredients and the execution. However, if someone didn't like a really long story filled with dialog about AI like "an anomalous non-deterministic emergent event deriving from conflicting algorithms" or about music like "that triple beat arpeggio driven square into a four by four rhythm...a long glissando across three octaves back to hold the new key into the final chorus", I could certainly understand.

One of the group of my next favorite stories is Pat Cadigan's "The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi". The title derives from the slang of the characters which means that a biologically standard human being who is working out in space suffers an accident and decides to have herself modified like most of her co-workers have been - most people take space-octopus forms but there are several, each with their own talents and sociological features. This is a high-tech futuristic story in which things are far from perfect but it's a reasonably non-dystopian future and the prose style is Cadigan at her caustic breezy best. Opening line: "Nine decs into her second hitch, Fry hit a berg in the Main ring and broke her leg. And she didn't just splinter the bone--compound fracture! Yow! What a mess!" Something odd is going on and a crew debates three alternative explanations: "Number three is the stupidest idea--even if some of the sensors actually survive until Okeke-Hightower hits, they're in the wrong place, and the storms will scramble whatever data they pick up--so we all agree that's probably it." Later: "Anyway, [OuterComm's] technology is crazy-great. It still takes something over forty minutes for Hello to get from the Big J to Saturn and another forty till you hear Who the hell is this? but you get less noise than a local call on JovOp."

Unfortunately, the other futuristic high tech stories aren't quite as successful. "Nightfall on the Peak of Eternal Light" by Richard A. Lovett and William Gleason (this year's token Analog story) is quite good at depicting a Moon-based society most of us would like to live in and paints some nice characters, including the witness protection guy, the woman he's interested in, and the cop who's looking out for him. But the "grab plates" seem excessively FM to me and, while this isn't an actual "SF mystery" in the Asimovian sense which requires fairness to the reader, the twist on them still made me want to cry "foul". And the assassin trying to kill the protagonist makes too many mistakes to be believable (even he wonders "How could he make so many mistakes?" (144)), including one the authors seem to be unaware of, where he should not possibly confuse his targets if he's tapped in to their private comms. Still, this was an exciting and entertaining tale of hunter and hunted and an appealing one of a Moon culture.

I have a personal difficulty with Michael Bishop's "Twenty Lights to 'The Land of Snow'" because I read it too recently prior to this anthology to want to read it again, but too long ago to recall it clearly. It's a bildungsroman of a Western girl who becomes the Dalai Lama on board a mostly Tibetan starship voyaging away from Chinese hegemony. It seems it was good but, obviously, not so great that I couldn't wait to read it again. Megan Lindholm's "Old Paint" has a dystopian feel because it deals with self-driven cars run amok due to a computer virus but isn't a particularly dystopian future - just hard. It's actually about youth, age, family relations, and heirlooms and does a good job with that, even if it's very sentimental and the SF device is sort of clunky and old-fashioned. Paul McAuley's entirely-too-preciously titled "Macy Minnot [etc.]" is not too far removed from "Old Paint" in thematic focus, though perhaps more focused on the freedom and transformations of the frontiers of space than of time, but is very far removed in space, mostly taking place around the rings and moons of our gas giants.

Other reasonably futuristic and not overly negative tales include (barely) Alastair Reynolds' disappointing "The Water Thief" which insufficiently dramatizes the protagonist's change of heart between the thief she's willing to see beaten to death and the one she's not. (I only make a point of the "disappointing" because I often enjoy Reynolds' short work a great deal and am always excited to see him in the Table of Contents and I say "barely" because the protagonist is a telepresence operator working out of a UN refugee camp but it's vaguely optimistic even so.) Lavie Tidhar's "The Memcordist" is simultaneously about and seems almost disinterested in the fundamentals of having every moment of one's life filmed and is an example of that tiresome species of "we've got Facebook now so imagine Facebook in the future because linear extrapolations of fads is what SF is all about!" I recommend Bruce Sterling's The Artificial Kid (1980) instead. Hannu Rajaniemi seems almost incapable of writing anything that doesn't feel like fantasy and, moon or not, his "Tyche and the Ants" is no exception. Linda Nagata's "Nightside on Callisto" involves old "expendable" women on a moon fighting off robots who have been subverted by a rogue entity from earth. It reads like a fine action-oriented middle of a story whose beginning, which would make us actually care about the characters, and end, which would result in a larger, transformed perspective on the milieu, have been deleted. McAuley is featured twice in this volume and "The Man" has a practically preposterous (even if thematically significant) end and is much less interesting and successful than his other.

To be fair to Vandana Singh's "Ruminations In an Alien Tongue", it does start with some cognitive estrangement (albeit seen through the eyes of an old woman looking back on the past) but the overall tone is captured in the following:

After Thirru, she had her share of companions, long and short term, but nobody had inspired her to love. And when the man came along who came closest, she was unprepared for him. His name was Rudrak and he was young.

What she loved about him was his earnestness, his delight in beautiful things, like the poeticas she had set up on the long table. He was an engineer, and his passion was experimental craft designed to explore stars. She loved his beautiful, androgynous face, how it was animated by thought and emotion, how quick his eyes were to smile, the way his brow furrowed in concentration....

(The paragraph goes on in that cloying way for two to three times the length quoted.) What was that? Something about "experimental craft designed to explore stars"? Something science fictional? Prose (and sensibility) like that is the burying of anything truly sharp, clean, and modern in the usual tons of crinoline and velvet of the 19th century. It's the obeisance before the tin gods of literary respectability. And this from a physics teacher! It does turn out to be about a "probability machine" bouncing people through alternate universes but its dullness sucks out all the energy, fun, and wonder. In this case, it's not supposed to be fun, so it's a "good story" if the bad tone matching the bad feeling is good.

I don't know quite how to look at Tidhar's second (and worse) tale of the volume, "Under the Eaves", which is a prose poem of Roboteo and Juliet, set in his enervated "Central Station" milieu. It's not anywhere I'd want to live but doesn't seem to see itself as intentionally dystopian. And, bluntly and perhaps indefensibly (even more than usually), I was just completely bored by what seemed to be the cluttered mess of "In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns" (another precious title) by the normally much, much more appealing Elizabeth Bear.

Regression

Returning to the positive, another from my group of favorites is the regressive yet sort of brilliant "Close Encounters" by Andy Duncan. This is set in 1977 and deals with a fascinatingly conceived and rendered old man who claims to have been contacted by aliens and his interactions with a professor and some students who are trying to investigate UFOs in a respectable manner. It's like Ted Sturgeon is giving Clifford D. Simak a hug - very emotionally engaged but with enough piss'n'vinegar (literally) to avoid a simple sentimentality and very much engaged in a sense of place. In fact, the dialect is my one complaint - I don't know how they really talk in Mizurah but I don't think this is quite it. Duncan's from South Carolina and has lived a few places south of the Mason-Dixon line and it sounds like a bit of that mixed in with the Missouri. But, if it is a flaw, it's about the only significant flaw in a very good tale.

Another regressive tale is Jay Lake's "The Stars Do Not Lie" which has a world that has somehow managed to replicate the Roman Catholic Church in a meaningful, dynamic sense, though its been smeerped for SF. Yet, somehow, this tale of the sort of naive yet stalwart Galaxileo and the wily Inquisitor and the merchant princes is very deftly done and exciting and interesting.

It's hard to say whether Robert Charles Wilson's "Fireborn" is regressive or not. It is a high tech far future for the noble gods but not for the peasant mortals and is your basic posthuman story which seems to necessitate a fantasy vibe. I'm very tired of such things but this one is at least cleverly plotted with a satisfying ending and is more pleasantly imagined than most.

Christopher Barzak's "The Invisible Men" is more a tour de force of narrative voice than anything else. It retells a piece of The Invisible Man from a maid's point of view. Being no more a working class 19th century English girl than I am an old Missourian, I can't say how well that's done but, thematically, I'm not sure it advances the original story or does anything that a host of other fictions, including, say, the "Out of Mind, Out of Sight" episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, don't do.

Sean McMullen's "Steamgothic" is proficient and, if you like sheer fantasies of adulatory Victoriana, then you may well love this but I did not. For an alternate history tale of "first flight", it doesn't hold a single tallow candle to Stephen Baxter's "Brigantia's Angels" and it's nowhere near as good as McMullen's own "Eight Miles" which Dozois neglected to include in the last Annual. Even if this were great and thematically admirable, it shouldn't have been included due to its completely fantastic nature which no amount of aerodynamics will turn into SF.

While it's futuristic and has high tech, I'd call David Moles' "Chitai Heiki Koronbin" regressive in the sense that its a dystopian tale of humanity getting its butt handed to it by weird aliens. It's possible the title would make the story make more sense but I can't find a translation of it. The story's only positive(?) effect on me was to ignite distant memories, inspiring me to go watch clips of The Space Giants on youtube (and, of course, Ultraman) but that's as up-to-date as my knowledge of Japanese SF-like stuff goes, which is what this story seemed to primarily be - a verbal rendering of a cartoon, yet in a serious, gritty way.

I can't see Aliette de Bodard's "Ship's Brother" as anything but regressive. This is yet another "Xuya universe" alternate history story where a Chinese/Native American culture has become dominant and has a moral ethos in which the titular character, however inarticulate and emotional, is essentially correct, in my estimation, about the subjugation of his mother and the grotesquerie of his "sister", but is punished in the story. So it's not only alternate history, but dystopian alternate history to me, and morally wrong about it besides.

Adam Roberts' "What Did Tessimond Tell You?" may be hard SF relying on more abstruse physics than I've ever encountered and I may be an idiot but, if not, it strikes me as an almost-clever silly idea which relies on time having mass which makes no sense. In addition to the science fantasy, the Big Reveal magnifies the regression. Regardless of the merits of the idea, it's structurally like an overly long joke that has an unsatisfactory punchline. This should have been a Probability Zero short-short at most.

Carrie Vaughn's "Astrophilia" seems to be set in the same "ecologically distressed" future history of "Amaryllis" which, akin to de Bodard's "happy nightmare", has Communist-like boards which tell people, for instance, whether they're allowed to reproduce or not and seems to not have much of a problem with it. This particular story fails because the dramatic climax is an unbelievable "well, you know what I mean, this is the part where the antagonist's heart is turned" moment where, yes, we do know what you mean but it needs to be emotionally justified. It's akin to having Darth Vader say, "Okay, Luke, let's go join your rebel friends" when Luke makes the "there's still good in you speech" if Luke's speech was very short and unconvincing. Instead, it took a long and eloquent speech and still failed and Luke had to get electrocuted for an hour. Earn it, dammit! (And I've just compared a Year's Best story unfavorably to Star Wars on a plot point that turns on dialog!)

Another story which fails for me is "Holmes Sherlock" by Eleanor Arnason. This is yet another Hwarhath story about the artificially inseminated all-gay aliens who have encountered and are studying up on humans. A translator becomes fascinated by Sherlock Holmes and, lo, she has a mystery to solve and a sidekick and everything. This sets up expectations of a Holmesian mystery but it's not. (Even if it were, the deduction is a little too elementary, Watson.)

Horror

The last of my group of favorites is Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette's "The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward" This is an outright horror story as the title makes abundantly clear, about zombies in space (they're everywhere!) and is an action-packed tale filled with a joie de morte that makes the story simultaneously funny and fun while it's being violent and awful.

I'm fine, in the abstract, with any one story of most any kind being in a gigantic anthology like this, but it really does bother me that there's a group of stories related to this. Robert Reed comes across as a disturbed individual in this anthology. He's a hit-or-miss author for me but has written six billion stories, which leaves three billion great ones. Even his misses usually have something to them. "Katabasis" put me in mind of Cordwainer Smith's "A Planet Named Shayol" as his almost immortal people undergo a horrific endurance test in a weird section of the Great Ship. The protagonist who was almost destroyed in a terrible fire and wasn't entirely put back together was compelling, as was his relationship to the viewpoint character. That character and her species was exceptionally imaginatively conceived and what they went through to get to the Great Ship is yet another horror of an endurance test. I can't at all say I loved this but it was reasonably well done and powerful. However, his second story, "Eater-of-Bone", makes the other look like a walk in the park. I think I probably have an unfortunately high tolerance for literary violence but I can't imagine many people besides splatterpunk fans making it through this opener as Reed wallows in graphically describing a woman who is shot, stabbed, amputated, starved, eaten, vomited out into the ocean, and washed up on the shore of an island as a bloody stump. And then, because that wasn't disturbing enough, being "immortals", the guy who finds her heals her and is shortly sleeping with her! I sincerely hope it wasn't "love at first sight". What follows is a tale that's apparently pointlessly connected by a passing reference to the Great Ship series, but is really about human monster gods fighting both themselves and the fascinating natives of an alien world. It's a gigantic story of what must be well over 30,000 words and details some amazing stuff but ends with about as much gore as it starts with and isn't entirely worth it. And, in both stories, Reed works in his trademark fascination with urine, flatulence, and feces.

Somewhere betwixt the two Reeds, is the bothersome "Finite Canvas" by Brit Mandelo. I say bothersome because, while not remotely a fantasy and not really horror, either, this is only superficially SF. Perhaps being an exile from somewhere in orbit and forced to eke out an existence on a dystopian earth adds resonance and having corporate assassins makes the killer easier to explain but those elements could be removed with little loss. What this really is is a tale of killer lesbian lovers carving scars into their bodies. And that could have been told in a tropical third world country with not much loss of atmosphere. But I do give this story points for being gripping, psychologically acute, and for having a gritty and plausible emotional intensity.

Finally, Indrapramit Das' "Weep for Day" is not exactly a horror story, either, but has some spooked characters going in to face the "Nightmares" of their world and has a graphic scene of torture. Downsides of this story include grammatical errors and infelicities that four editors (including the author (as he also has an editor's hat), Sheila Williams, Gardner Dozois, and whoever edited Dozois at St. Martin's) haven't corrected. They begin with the second sentence of the whole book, though I'll only mention a few: "My parents took my brother and I on a trip..." (1) which is a hypercorrection of "My parents took (my brother and) me on a trip..." - "My parents took I on a trip" is grammatically incorrect according to both rule and usage. And, while adverbs are disappearing generally, and "the wind howls so loud" (12) avoids the weak ending syllable, "loudly" is preferable. There are also "differently good" clusters of an almost Thoggish nature: "he had been too big by then to fit into a suit of plate armor or heft a heavy sword around" (2). It sounds ridiculous to be too "big" to lift a sword, though I suspect the author means "unmuscular but fat". Besides which, you generally "carry" stuff "around" but simply "heft" a sword. I also hope the light/dark symbolism isn't as overworked as I think it is. But I did think it had interestingly depicted civilizations on a tidally locked planet (even if Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky seems to have spawned a whole subsubgenre of semi-steampunkishness of which this is an example - and the similarities don't stop there). But the story is artfully plotted in a "revelatory" sense so that it seemed to deepen and widen as it progressed, though it may be too coy and allow some readers to lose interest along the way.

Odd note: there's a late mention of the narrator's lesbianism which seems to have no importance to the story but has somehow become almost obligatory as at least five of the first seventeen stories include a lesbian character or characters ("Weep for Day", "Holmes Sherlock", "The Finite Canvas", "Astrophilia", "Chitai Heiki Koronbin").

Summary Fiction Ratings:

4 NA*"Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected", Steven Popkes
3.5NE*"Close Encounters", Andy Duncan
3.5NE "The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi", Pat Cadigan
3.5NA?"The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward", Elizabeth Bear/Sarah Monette
3 NA "The Stars Do Not Lie", Jay Lake
3 NA "Nightfall on the Peak of Eternal Light", Richard A. Lovett/William Gleason
3 NA "Katabasis", Robert Reed
3 NE "The Finite Canvas", Brit Mandelo
2.5NE "Fireborn", Robert Charles Wilson
2.5NA "Twenty Lights to 'The Land of Snow'", Michael Bishop
2.5NA "Eater-of-Bone", Robert Reed
2.5NE "Old Paint", Megan Lindholm
2.5NE?"Macy Minnot's Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler's Green, the Potter's Garden", Paul McAuley
2 NE "Weep for Day", Indrapramit Das
2 NE "Invisible Men", Christopher Barzak
2 SS*"The Water Thief", Alastair Reynolds
2 SS "The Memcordist", Lavie Tidhar
2 SS "Tyche and the Ants", Hannu Rajaniemi
2 SS "Nightside on Callisto", Linda Nagata
2 SS "The Man", Paul McAuley
1.5NE "Steamgothic", Sean McMullen
1.5SS "Chitai Heiki Koronbin", David Moles
1 NE?"Ruminations in an Alien Tongue", Vandana Singh
1 SS "Ship's Brother", Aliette de Bodard
1 NE "What Did Tessimond Tell You?", Adam Roberts
1 NE "Astrophilia", Carrie Vaughn
1 NE "Holmes Sherlock", Eleanor Arnason
1 SS "Under the Eaves", Lavie Tidhar
1 NA "In the House of Aryaman", Elizabeth Bear

* Category "winners" of novella (NA), novelette (NE), and short story (SS).

Final Word: I suspect this is better than most issues of most magazines (and has enough material for at least a half dozen of them) but, by rights, it should be light-years better than any issue of any magazine and it's not. So either this was not a great year for short SF or it doesn't reflect that great year. Despite the relatively few stories that I truly enjoyed, they tended to be the longer ones so I enjoyed more of the actual reading time than it might seem and, overall, this did have some good stuff and not too much bad stuff. I suspect most people would enjoy it more than I did. On those two grounds, I recommend it but I really think it would benefit from more progressive, optimistic stories written in lean, muscular prose. Regardless, it should be more impressive than it is. It's better than last year's but worse than the one prior to that.