Review: The Year's Best Military SF and Space Opera, edited by David Afsharirad

[Cover of YBMSFSO]

The Year's Best Military SF and Space Opera
edited by David Afsharirad
Baen, 349 pages, $16.00 (trade paper)
978-1-4767-8058-0

Overview

I suspect many people, on seeing a book from Baen called "The Year's Best Military SF and Space Opera," with a cover depicting futuristic soldiers in the vanguard of a futuristic tank, would run screaming, either away from it in revulsion or toward it with anticipatory joy. I would submit that each reaction could be inappropriate for the person having it and the book should be judged on its merits.

The caricatures of military SF and space opera are of, respectively, gung ho soldiers glorying in the application of force and of intrepid folks zipping throughout the galaxy. There is next to nothing of either in this book. But, with the caveat that, amplifying the title, the book is also billed as "presenting the year's best adventure fiction," all but a couple of the stories can be fitted under each banner.

The two best stories are by the only author featured twice[1]. Linda Nagata gives soldiers personal drones in their counter-insurgency battles in the Middle East and Africa and "handlers" who coordinate information and direct the combat from their god's-eye-view at home. "Codename: Delphi" gives us the story from the handler's point-of-view, as we follow Delphi on her tense, draining shift where, despite not being in personal physical danger, she is responsible for many lives. It is apparently set in the milieu of her "The Red" books. I'm not sure if "Light and Shadow" is set in the same milieu or not as some terminology and details vary and one key element is not present or not made explicit in "Delphi" but the basic setup seems comparable. In this, we get the soldiers' view and learn about their "skullcaps" which implement a biofeedback mechanism to make sure their brains respond appropriately to circumstances, ramping up in danger situations and throttling down in safety. This is a much more subtle and elegant approach to what is usually handled in SF by mind control drugs and/or brute stimulants that quickly burn out soldiers. However, this still raises the issue of mind control and of dealing with experience.

The two worst stories, oddly, are mashups from the same magazine[2]. F&SF gives us "The End of the Silk Road," a fantasy in which people have been traveling to Mars in balloons but the new metal planes of 1936 have caused the bottom to drop out of the Martian silk market. (If you must fly to Mars, I recommend Jack Williamson's "Nonstop to Mars" (1939), instead.) A private eye eager to meet up with a dame who was an old flame takes on a case from an enemy. We also get "Palm Strike's Last Case" which is a tale of a superhero fighting drug lords who, in a mismatched second half bolted onto the first, joins an interstellar colonization effort and, after having his cryo-module sabotaged and being awakened years after the rest, must try to save the colony from failure. This is not remotely funny enough to be a joke and too silly to take seriously. Neither story belongs here, neither story seems good to me and certainly didn't work for me, and the magazine and Levine are capable of so much more (and Anders of at least more), so I don't know what happened here. It is possible these merely struck the editor as being goofy fun as an antidote to "serious" SF and he might be commended for that, but this explanation isn't very convincing when both, especially "Palm Strike," have angry, bitter, dark elements overwhelming the goofiness.

In between these extremes, the book is almost completely solid and enjoyable, though unspectacular.

There are several stories that are indubitably off-earth adventures, even if they wouldn't ordinarily be called "space operas." Derek Kunsken's "Persephone Descending" (original review) is about a woman's fight for survival in the clouds of Venus amidst a fanciful ecology and an even more fanciful political milieu and rivals Nagata's stories for quality and interest. On the other hand, Eric Leif Davin's "Icarus at Noon," involves a human on an asteroid inside Mercury's orbit trying to prove that humans are good for something and that not everything should be done by machines, but defeats its point by having the human screw up. Stephen Gaskell's "Brood" takes us into the asteroid belt where an asteroid is being mined by engineered insect-like critters. As there is a murderous mercenary involved, this could almost fall under "military SF" but is really another adventure. William Ledbetter's "Stealing Arturo," is about trying to save enslaved workers on the eponymous space station and is the next best tale in the volume.

Two stories which combine military and space elements are Robert R. Chase's "Decaying Orbit", which involves soldiers investigating an enemy faction's space station, and Seth Dickinson's "Morrigan in the Sunglare" which, while confined to this star system, involves fleet combat. "Decaying Orbit" is more about cool toys than combat, as such, and "Morrigan" is about personal connections as well as martial vs. pacifist ideals.

Among the more strictly military pieces, Brad R. Torgersen's oddly named "Picket Ship" avoids being space opera by having said ship shot down in the opening scene and spends the rest of the time in ground combat, in which a near-civilian somewhat schematically must win respect from the soldiers under her command. (This story is okay but Torgersen also is capable of so much more.) Michael Z. Williamson's "Soft Casualty" is a very interesting take on how even non-combatants can suffer grievous "wounds" in war as a large political unit attempts to bring an unwilling planet under its rule. Matthew Johnson's "Rules of Engagement" covers similar mind-control territory as Nagata but gives us the added angle, in one of the two strands of the story, of how the war can follow you home. Michael Baretta's "War Dog" is perhaps the weirdest story in the book and is not so much military SF as "post-military SF." We have a Christian States of America, bioweapons turning people into exploding fungus, Cordwainer Smith-ish dog women (except engineered as such, rather than uplifted), and some exceedingly un-Christian methods of behavioral modification.

About the closest thing to a pure space opera is also the story that fell out of a Dozois anthology (there are actually no overlaps between the two anthologies) in which Holly Black gives us a rather conventional "the monster and the girl" story of space pirates and smugglers and xenocide under the attempted disguise of a second-person present-tense narration structured in a segmented style which goes along with the "Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (the Successful Kind)" and I was unsurprised to find eleven chapters. Despite all that, it was actually enjoyable.

(Sidenote: I thought at the time that, given its nature, "Ten Rules" should have ended the collection unless "War Dog" had a good reason for being last and it turned out to be the opposite: while "War Dog" is an interesting story, it makes a terrible ending to the book. I find it interesting that the copyrights are listed in the same order as the contents except for the last two stories being reversed, implying someone may have had second thoughts when they shouldn't have or the intended order just got messed up somehow.)

Summary Fiction Ratings:

Notes: Category info is from ISFDB. Print magazine and book sources are italicized with print zines also being bold. Webzines are plain.

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, Date
3"Codename: Delphi", Linda Nagatashort storyLightspeed, 4/14
3"Light and Shadow", Linda Nagatashort storyWar Stories, 2014
3"Persephone Descending", Derek KunskennoveletteAnalog, 11/14
2.5"Stealing Arturo", William LedbetternoveletteBaen.com, 2/14
2.5"Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (the Successful Kind)", Holly BlacknoveletteMonstrous Affections, 2014
2.5"War Dog", Michael Barrettashort storyWar Stories, 2014
2.5"Rules of Engagement", Matthew JohnsonnoveletteAsimov's, 4-5/14
2.5"Morrigan in the Sunglare", Seth Dickinsonshort storyClarkesworld, 3/14
2"Soft Casualty", Michael Z. Williamsonshort storyBaen.com, 4/14
2"Picket Ship", Brad R. Torgersenshort storyBaen.com, 9/14
2"Brood", Stephen GaskellnoveletteExtreme Planets, 2013
2"Decaying Orbit", Robert R. Chaseshort storyAsimov's, 10-11/14
1.5"Icarus at Noon", Eric Leif Davinshort storyGalaxy's Edge, 5-6/14
1"The End of the Silk Road", David D. LevinenoveletteF&SF, 5-6/14
1"Palm Strike's Last Case", Charlie Jane AndersnoveletteF&SF, 7-8/14

Conclusion

I think it's possible some folks looking for military SF and, especially, space opera, might be a bit disappointed with this book, not qualitatively or overall, but because it doesn't specifically deliver the purest, most extreme examples of the subgenres. On the other hand, many people who aren't fans of either subgenre might be surprised at how diverse and appealing they can be. Artsy people might find little of interest aside from the Black (and, conceivably, the out-of-place mashups). Aside from the most resistant groups, I think most readers would find this to be a solid reading value and worth their time and money (though this would be much more certain if this had been published as a mass-market paperback as Baens were intended to be).

Postscript on the two Annuals I've read this year: the stories in this volume are more expensive per story than the Dozois whether calculating all stories, all "not bad" ones, or all "good" ones. Further, this book's best stories don't equal the best in the Dozois. However, the average is slightly higher and the overall experience of reading the book is much more enjoyable. Not every story in this volume ends with triumph or a problem solved and stories that do are not completely absent from the Dozois (thanks largely to the Hieroglyph anthology) but, ironically for a book partly about military matters, there is much less death and destruction and despair in this anthology than in the Dozois and that is a welcome change of pace. This volume does not supersede the Dozois (given that it's an avowed subset of the genre, is less than half the size, and lacks a Summation, it would be impossible that it would) but I welcome its addition to the ranks of the Annuals and look forward to next year's edition. (I also look forward to The Year's Best Lucidly-Written, Upbeat, and Extroverted Hard SF which I hope shows up soon.)

For more details on the Dozois Annual, see my companion review of The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Second Annual Collection,

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[1] Baen is having a contest in which readers of this book may vote on the best story and the winner receives a $500 prize and a plaque. Nagata is in the ironic position of benefiting by being the only author to have two stories in this book, thus getting twice the royalties, but being treated unfairly in contest terms since, if enough others agree with me in placing her two stories at the top but disagree on which is #1, she would win but for having her vote split.

[2] Speaking of magazines, I'm mildly surprised that Dozois actually includes two stories from Analog in his Annual this year (though Analog's newish editor, Trevor Quachri, has obviously begun catering to the tastemakers) but I'm stunned that this anthology has only one story from there (and, like both Dozois' choices, from someone more regularly in Asimov's). Granted, Dozois has 36 stories and this has only 15 but I would still expect more.