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

[Cover of YBSF32]

The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Second Annual Collection
edited by Gardner Dozois
St. Martin's Griffin, 663 pages, $22.99 (trade paper)
978-1-250-06442-4

Overview

Before getting into the stories themselves, I have to point out some aspects of the reading experience with this anthology.

If you want American authors from this American anthology selected by an American editor, you have to wait until the fifth story for one by an American resident and the sixth for someone also born in the U.S. Only about five of the first sixteen stories are by American authors. This doesn't necessarily matter but sometimes you can "hear" a nationality in certain stories (or fail to hear one) and it can make a difference in tone and variety. Ultimately, half the authors were born in or reside in America and this can be seen as wildly disproportionate in favor of Americans (we aren't half the world's population) or wildly unfair to Americans (they could be virtually all Americans while other countries can (and do) make their own national anthologies which exclude Americans).

If you want to have a science fiction story take you off earth in our timeline, you pay for thirty-six opportunities which actually get you there five times. That's right: thirty-one of these stories are set on earth or off this timeline and, in addition, almost all of those are confined to the near future. After the very first (dour, depressing) story takes you to the moon, you'll be waiting until the twenty-first story (again, not exactly an upbeat story) for another trip. The other three occur in the last fifteen stories but, in at least two, if not all three, there may be aliens and/or bizarre social structures but there's not much of a feeling of unearthliness, or an interest in planets, stars, or space as such (or physics). There are stories among the earth-based ones in which aliens come to us or we are taking steps in which we may go off earth outside the limits of the story but this is almost adding insult to injury.

Most importantly, to convey the tone but not spoil anything, I will scramble up the order and say that we have multiple deaths in a couple of terrorist attacks, two serial killer stories, two stories of suicide, one of virtual suicide, one of a fight to survive which fails, two stories of children dying, one of a lover or friend dying, one full of horrific murders and death, an apocalypse, a couple of dystopias, a vampire slayer, a couple of deaths or severe damage by augmentation, an attempted murder by a lunatic, an actual murder by a lunatic, the earth being utterly conquered by aliens at least twice, etc. Even when one story doesn't have much death to speak of, the author cheaply misleads us into believing people will die, like rigor mortis is de rigeur.

I'm likely erring in presenting this anthology as sunnier than it is, as I've surely missed some relevant examples. I mean, after all, just the titles give us "The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile," "The Burial of Sir John Mawe at Cassini," "Shooting the Apocalypse," "Vladimir Chong Chooses to Die," "Sadness," "God Decay," "Blood Wedding," and "Thing and Sick," (oh, that is so clever). The only counter-example is "Jubilee" and that just refers to a temporal conjunction and is not a bloodless story, itself. As the international and earth-based stuff is frontloaded, so is the suicide, murder, and death. Not that it ever goes away completely.

So, in terms of balance and diversity of a literary kind, there is virtually none and, in terms of being properly blended for an aesthetic arrangement, it isn't. But the second half of the anthology (particularly the approximate third quarter) is somewhat better blended and just generally better.

Last year, I had similar complaints regarding tone. While I've always allowed for the possibility that there might not be much to choose from, this year I've been reading a lot of webzines and have confirmed that there is, in fact little hard, action-oriented, optimistic SF in at least that subset of available SF. Being willing to assume that subset was representative of the field as a whole, I was prepared to cut this volume a lot of slack if it were not especially upbeat and extroverted. But, as much slack as I was prepared to give, this volume is more extreme than previous volumes, taking all that and much more, going well beyond any reasonable measure of misery, compounded by the failure to mix it up as well as possible. Unless 2014 was radically different from 2015, it would have been possible to construct an anthology of excellent stories with a slightly sunnier cast.

Selected Stories

I have fallen behind in my Analog reading but I have read quite a bit of the early issues edited by new editor Trevor Quachri and it seems that he may be bent on making that magazine just like every other magazine. Timons Esaias' "Sadness" is a downbeat story and quite atypical for Analog so Dozois chooses it to represent that magazine, along with the equally atypical but much inferior "Vladimir Chong Chooses to Die." However unrepresentative and gloomy, it is at least a good story, as I said in my original review.

There's scarcely any call for one serial killer story, much less two but, if this annual has to have one, I much preferred Elizabeth Bear's "Covenant," even though it underscores how bad things have become. This is drawn from Hieroglyph, which is explicitly supposed to be composed of "works of 'techno-optimism' that challenge us to dream and do Big Stuff." So this is Big Optimism about mind-controlling/rehabilitating serial killers. But, in literary terms, I thought it was an excellently constructed quandary in which, for a variety of reasons and in some sense, one may be rooting for the serial killer.

It is only reasonable for some SF to deal with death and other negative matters and Jay Lake certainly had cause to do so. His "West to East" is a sort of frustrating story because it is largely a great rendition of neo-classical SF but, of course, can't be completely so. This tale, which wants to be a problem-solving tale of two crashed interstellar explorers who improvise with what's at hand to do the best they can on their mission, is excellent interstellar lemonade, though.

Other notable stories include Jerome Cigut's interesting "The Rider," a tale of AI and crime that brought to mind aspects of the television show Person of Interest. Michael Swanwick's "Passage of Earth" is quite a horror story and simultaneously evokes and ignores tremendous vistas but is certainly powerful. I was disappointed in Greg Egan's "Shadow Flock" as its paranoia about techno-surveillance was well-executed but could have been written by most anyone and, indeed, frequently has been. But it's still Egan. And I have to wonder how readers who have not already read Lockstep would react to Karl Schroeder's "Jubilee", set in the same universe as that novel. Perhaps they would be more awed by the lockstep concept portrayed in the story or perhaps they would just be confused. The story itself is fine, but fairly minor, dealing with "realtime" people conveying messages between those in locksteps and creating myths and art about them.

Saving the best couple for last (which just happen to be optimistic and extroverted), I don't know how many times Allen Steele can give us a story about a protagonist who shares the author's background in journalism being involved in a story that mixes the grit and ugliness of spaceflight with its romance and wonder but he certainly could this time. "The Prodigal Son" is a tale of an aimless scion of the Arkwright Foundation (which is to interstellar seedship colonization as the Longs were to longevity, I guess) finding the lady fair whose favor helps him figure out what he should be doing. It works on both literal and socially symbolic levels and is one of his best examples of this class of tale.

Finally, my favorite story in this anthology was Cory Doctorow's "The Man Who Sold the Moon", not because it title-checks Heinlein but because the bulk of the tale of a couple of hacker geeks getting together to explore autonomous construction methods (initially in the sand of Burning Man craziness and, obviously, eventually trying to apply it to the moon) creates a couple/three/four great characters, got me emotionally invested in them so that what happens to them is effective, and evokes a certain time and age and "sense of being" through what is just really brilliant writing. It is not a flawless tale as there is virtually no difference in its plot and its story and it is very long yet not entirely balanced, feeling thinner and rushed at the end (though that may be thematically apt). Still, this is the kind of can't-miss tale that excuses a lot of death and destruction and depression (which this tale, itself, is not free of by any means).

But note that, in neither of these stories, even, does a human actually take one giant leap.

Summary Fiction Ratings:

Notes:

"Beside the Dammed River" is listed as "Beside the Damned River" but I feel pretty sure that's a typo.

Category info is from ISFDB.

Print magazine and book sources are italicized with print zines also being bold. Webzines are plain. To avoid any confusion, "Yesterday's Kin" was not the title story of an anthology or collection but was published as a single novella.

I'm less happy with these ratings and the sequencing than usual. It is always true that, in extreme cases, a story may be a gradation off and certainly that some could be shuffled around within gradations but it feels more true than usual. Still, this is a reasonable approximation of my impressions.

Ratings: 4: loved it; 3: liked it; 2: if I were an editor, I'd probably buy it; 1: if I were an editor, I probably wouldn't buy it (at least not without revisions); 0: didn't read (all of) it. The ".5"s usually represent something with a little extra but can also represent something that would have attained the next whole number but for a significant flaw or other problem.

Rating"Title", AuthorCategorySource
3.5"The Man Who Sold the Moon", Cory DoctorownovellaHieroglyph
3"The Prodigal Son", Allen M. SteelenovellaAsimov's
3"Sadness", Timons Esaiasshort storyAnalog
3"Covenant", Elizabeth Bearshort storyHieroglyph
3"West to East", Jay Lakeshort storySubterranean
2.5"The Rider", Jerome CigutnoveletteF&SF
2.5"Passage of Earth", Michael Swanwickshort storyClarkesworld
2.5"Communion", Mary Anne Mohanrajshort storyClarkesworld
2.5"Someday", James Patrick Kellyshort storyAsimov's
2.5"Shadow Flock", Greg EgannoveletteComing Soon Enough
2.5"Coma Kings", Jessica Barbershort storyLightspeed
2.5"Jubilee", Karl SchroedernoveletteTor.com
2.5"Amicae Aeternum", Ellen Klagesshort storyReach for Infinity
2.5"White Curtain", Pavel Amnuelshort storyF&SF
2.5"Grand Jete (The Great Leap)", Rachel SwirskynovellaSubterranean
2"The Colonel", Peter WattsnoveletteTor.com
2"The Hand is Quicker", Elizabeth BearnoveletteThe Book of Silverberg
2"Beside the Dammed River", D. J. Cockburnshort storyInterzone
2"Los Piratas del Mar de Plastico (Pirates of the Plastic Ocean)", Paul Graham RavennoveletteTwelve Tomorrows
2"Entanglement", Vandana SinghnovellaHieroglyph
2"Yesterday's Kin", Nancy KressnovellaYesterday's Kin
2"God Decay", Rich Larsonshort storyUpgraded
2"In Babelsberg", Alastair Reynoldsshort storyReach for Infinity
2"Weather", Susan Palwickshort storyClarkesworld
1.5"The Regular", Ken LiunovellaUpgraded
1.5"Shooting the Apocalypse", Paolo BacigalupinoveletteThe End Is Nigh
1.5"The Fifth Dragon", Ian McDonaldnoveletteReach for Infinity
1.5"Blood Wedding", Robert ReednoveletteAsimov's
1.5"Slipping", Lauren Beukesshort storyTwelve Tomorrows
1.5"Vladimir Chong Chooses to Die", Lavie Tidharshort storyAnalog
1"Thing and Sick", Adam RobertsnoveletteSolaris Rising 3
1"The Woman from the Ocean", Karl Bunkershort storyAsimov's
1"The Long Haul from the Annals of Transportation, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009", Ken Liushort storyClarkesworld
1"Red Lights, and Rain", Gareth L. Powellshort storySolaris Rising 3
0"The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile", Aliette de Bodardshort storySubterranean
0"The Burial of Sir John Mawe at Cassini", Chaz Brenchleyshort storySubterranean

Conclusion

If I look at this anthology as something that's supposed to be full of stories I love, then there's very little bang for the $22.99 sticker price (though a certain obscure online dealer sells - or sold - it for much less). I especially liked five stories and I wouldn't necessarily know about some of them without the Annual presenting them to me and there is certainly value in that. However, I could read the Jay Lake story online. I could buy Hieroglyph to get two of the others (and I suspect the other Hieroglyph stories might be more entertaining than the rest of the Year's Best and have, in fact, ordered that volume to find out). That doesn't leave much beyond a Steele story from Asimov's and an Esaias story from Analog (and, as a subscriber to Analog, even the Esaias is moot for me). That leaves one very expensive story. But if I take a different angle and look at this anthology as something that's supposed to be full of stories I don't mind reading, then two-thirds of the volume meets that criterion, or would have if the anthology had included more positive stories to counterbalance the death, decay, destruction, and dreariness. If I had a far higher tolerance for such things, then I might have actually liked this edition. But, as is, I personally didn't care for the experience overall. How many other readers will share my sentiments or not, I don't know, but those are my impressions.

If you've read this, you may also be interested in my companion review of The Year's Best Military SF and Space Opera.