REVIEW: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 1 edited by Jonathan Strahan

REVIEW SUMMARY: A fine collection of stories that showcase a variety of writing styles and genre leanings.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 24 loosely categorized science fiction and fantasy stories originally published in 2006.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Eighteen stories good or better, with four excellent standouts.

CONS: Six stories mediocre or worse.

BOTTOM LINE: This is about what you’d expect from a “best of” anthology: a selection of mostly good stories of varying style.

Jonathan Strahan serves up a good mix of genre offerings with The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Of The Year Volume 1. If it’s any barometer of quality, there is a relatively high concentration of Hugo and Nebula Award nominees in this volume; seven out of the twenty-four selections. Finalists for the Hugo Award include “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman, “Yellow Card Man” by Paolo Bacigalupi, “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter” by Geoff Ryman, “Eight Episodes” by Robert Reed, “The House Beyond the Sky” by Benjamin Rosenbaum and “The Djinn’s Wife” by Ian McDonald. M. Rickert’s “Journey into the Kingdom” was a finalist for the Nebula Award.

My own tastes usually seem to differ from awards committees, but I had already read several of these stories and it seemed like a good mix. But was it?


It could be argued that “best of” anthologies should represent the genre by offering stories with a variety of narrative styles. It seems that here, the Editor has not only complied, but also played with genre definitions as well. Strahan has included stories all over the genre map (including stories that read like mainstream and horror). There’s bound to be some stuff readers will enjoy. The flip side of that coin, though, is that there might be some stories that are not to taste. Of course, personal taste is as varied as the definitions of the genre, so your mileage may vary.

Although my own personal preferences lean towards sf and away from fantasy, I always keep hoping that some stories – especially those in a “best of” anthology – will help point me in the direction of the more enjoyable fantasy stories. To the book’s credit, there were actually a fairly high degree of fantasy stories that I liked. By my count, there were four standout sf/f stories overall in this collection: “El Regalo” by Peter S. Beagle, “The Night Whiskey” by Jeffrey Ford, “The Cartesian Theater” by Robert Charles Wilson and “D.A.” by Connie Willis.

Individual story reviews follow…

(I read How to Talk to Girls at Parties by Neil Gaiman as part of a 2007 Hugo Award Short Fiction reading project. What follows is what I said then.)

Synopsis: Two teenagers attend a different party than intended, thrown by girls who are nowhere near what they seem.

Review: An interesting premise, but it wasn’t quite clear what the intentions of “tourists” were, at least insofar as to shed light into what happened upstairs between Vic and Stella in the final scene. And I’m not sure that Enn, the narrator, would be so horny that he’d be so oblivious to what the girls were telling him about their origins. Even so, Gaiman’s conversational writing and realistic protagonists made this quick read on the right side of fun.

In “El Regalo” by Peter S. Beagle, a twelve year-old girl named Angie discovers that her pain-in-the-neck little brother can do magic. Marvyn’s spells start out innocent enough, but eventually he gets in over his head and Angie must come to his rescue. Big points are awarded to this story for overcoming my indifference to fantasy. Perhaps it was the author’s attention to the details involved in the well-drawn brother/sister relationship, or that the focus of the story is on Angie and her refreshing maturity, but this was one engaging read.

(I read I, Row-Boat by Cory Doctorow earlier this year. What follows is what I said then.)

Synopsis: A sentient rowboat, tasked with carrying human shells used by the uplifted who wish to scuba dive, encounters a sentient coral reef with different theological beliefs.

Review: As is evident by title and anyone familiar with Isaac Asimov’s writings, this story refers, at length, to Asimov’s robot stories. More specifically, it intelligently exercises Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics in light of the rowboat’s belief in Asimovism, the belief that “intelligence is its own reason.” The rowboat is actually a likable character as anyone who has thought about the meaning of life can attest. This story has been nominated for (and won) awards and now here it is in a Best of the Year anthology. I know I’m supposed to like it – and to be sure, it does have redeeming qualities – but I’ve personally had my fill of posthumanism stories. The idea of uploaded consciousness is now officially old and tired. Let’s move on.

A baby girl is raised in a magical, abandoned library by feral librarians in the Ellen Klages story “In the House of the Seven Librarians”. The library provides tremendous amounts of knowledge but, as the “mother” librarians come to realize in an allegory for life, it is nonetheless limited. Despite the fact that there is not much that actually happens plotwise, Klages has created an endearing, contemplative story.

“Another Word for Map Is Faith” by Christopher Rowe delivers a slightly off-kilter version of reality where faith is akin to cartography. When an academic leads a group of students on a mission to chart (and correct) the biblical representation of the land, they discover the blasphemy of an uncharted lake. Their religious beliefs lead to map-changing action. This is an interesting premise, if a little bizarre to grasp, but Rowe’s idea tantalizes the reader through some ethical questions regarding the town situated near the lake.

(I read “Under Hell, Over Heaven” by Margo Lanagan earlier this year. What follows is what I said then.)

“Under Hell, Over Heaven” follows a band of travelers in Limbo wanting to get into Heaven, while avoiding the call of Hell. While Lanagan evokes suitable imagery for the surroundings, I was not able to get immersed in this story at all. So much time was spent on descriptive surroundings that it seamed our sullen band of protagonists didn’t actually do anything. Or perhaps that’s the point.

(I read “Incarnation Day” by Walter Jon Williams earlier this year. What follows is what I said then.)

Synopsis: A posthuman coming-of-age story in which virtual human children are downloaded into physical forms when they mature. Here, Alison narrates the story of her own approaching “incarnation” and freedom from the threat of termination imposed by parents who might see their children as defective.

Review: The virtual/posthuman aspect of the story puts a nice spin on the coming-of-age story. The children are not considered legally human until incarnation and are therefore have no rights. Nice touch. Children who don’t measure up are snuffed out by the “blue lady”, a digital version of the boogeyman. There’s a nice sense-of-winder-filled scene where the kids are granted temporary physical form to attend the incarnation of one of their cadre. Ultimately, the story focuses on Alison’s friend Janice and her very strained relationship with her mother. Alison comes up with a creative way to salvage the escalating situation, but will she be successful before the blue lady strikes?

Jeffrey Ford creates a beautifully detailed coming-of-age story with “The Night Whiskey”, a story about a small town ritual involving a mysterious plant that grows even stranger berries. Fermenting and ingesting the berries leads to lucid dreams and encounters with the dead. One young man, Ernest, is recruited to the Drunk Harvest, where those affected are brought back to our world. His first experience turns out to be a unique one in the small town’s history. This experience is shocking and doesn’t happen until near the end of the story, but Ford’s straightforward prose and detailed characterizations make this captivating reading right from the start. This is one of those stories that make you feel like you were there and the strangeness and fantastical events seem totally believable. Well done.

Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “A Siege of Cranes” is an imaginative quest fantasy in which the hero seeks his wife and child after returning to his burned, lifeless village. Along the way, he solicits the help a duty-bound Jackal-headed creature and a djinn to help defeat the White Witch. The creative elements found here – a huge chariot built from body parts of the defeated, armored killer infants, and even some old tropes like a flying carpet – were pretty cool. The only thing that took away from the story is based on a personal nit: the usage of magic whose rules and boundaries go unexplained and are seemingly created at whim to suit the plot and not the world created.

I’ll chalk up the bad reading experience of Frances Hardinge’s ethereal “Halfway House” to being the kind of fantasy that doesn’t suit my restrictive and elusive preferences. The plot involves a man named Paul who finds a hidden land on his daily commute. There he meets and makes sacrifices for a woman named Ticket who was abandoned as an infant. Anthologies sometimes offer a wide range of stories to suit a variety of tastes. That means some stories misalign with the reader. For this reader, this is that story.

“The Bible Repairman” by Tim Powers is a supernatural story that, on the outside, deals with ghosts and souls. Deeper down, this is a story about sin and redemption. The Bible repairman uses pieces of his own soul to do odd jobs for folks like editing Bibles, exorcising ghosts and the like. Torrez does not have much to offer anymore, but has to think twice when a kidnapping case offers him a chance to make up for not using his abilities to save his own daughter. Powers maintains a world that, even as you pick up more clues, always seems to be just beyond complete understanding, but the intriguing premise and his detailed characterization of Torrez make this a very good read.

(I read Yellow Card Man by Paolo Bacigalupi as part of a 2007 Hugo Award Short Fiction reading project. What follows is what I said then.)

Synopsis: In an overcrowded Thailand, a Chinese refugee struggles to survive. Review: Bacigalupi’s story is set in the same future of last year’s Hugo-nominee, “The Calorie Man” (see SF Signal review) where genetic engineering has wiped out all the crops save for those owned by the corporations that hold the few patents on resistant crop strains. The refuges that come to Bangkok were looking for a better future but found instead a life of extreme poverty. The country houses them in high rises without air conditioning, cramped together in unacceptable living conditions. The focus of the story is on Tranh, a Chinese refugee who was once a successful businessman until his people (and his family) were massacred. Now Tranh is left with nothing, struggling to find scraps of precious food. A not-too-promising job lead – which takes the first thirty percent of the story to get to while the narrative loiters with much world building – gives Tranh some slim hope of working his way up from poverty. In this, Tranh is a sympathetic character, a victim of unfortunate circumstance. Tranh also has a table-turning encounter with a former employee, fired in disgrace by Tranh himself but who is now much better off than his former boss. The employee (Ma Ping) shows compassion for Tranh in his time of need and Tranh’s circumstances elicit humility at first, then anger. This is a sign of things to come. Tranh’s situation gets the best of him and the hope of finding a job is overcome by a chance to get ahead at the expense of others. In short, his misfortune turns to desperation and a sympathetic character becomes much less so.

(I read Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter by Geoff Ryman as part of a 2007 Hugo Award Short Fiction reading project. What follows is what I said then.)

Synopsis: The daughter of the infamous Cambodian leader of the Khmer Rouge (the man behind the “Killing Fields”) falls in love with a young cell phone salesman and is haunted by the ghosts of her father’s past.

Review: This is really a story about redemption. Sith, a shallow rich girl who has always has everything done for her, falls for Dara and hides from him her true identity. She has little memory of her father and refuses to learn about his past actions. But she is forced to face that past when the ghosts of those murdered in the Killing Fields begin contacting her. This is done through copy machines that print their faces even when they are unplugged, or through cell phones and iPods. Eventually, she must come to terms with the atrocities of the past and finally attempts to atone for the sins of her father. Ryman’s haunting story is powerful for its fact-based background alone, although the repeated reminders that the story is entirely fictional took away from its immersive quality. The prose is clean and to the point. However, Sith’s transition from spoiled brat to redeemer probably took longer than was needed. To Ryman’s credit, he managed to get this fantasy-indifferent reader totally bought in to the idea of ghosts.

“The American Dead” by Jay Lake is a memorably dark tale about one young man’s hope to escape the oppressive society in which he lives. The land is ruled by a city of priests who abduct women for sex. Outside the city walls, people scrounge for food in the disease-ridden streets and oppressive heat. Pobrecito’s ill-fated hope of leading a life of decadence is derived from looking at porn magazines, secreted away in an American cemetery, which he takes to selling on the streets in exchange for food. Lake’s rich prose beautifully describes this dark setting and calls up some striking imagery, but big questions are left unanswered. What is the unnamed apocalypse that killed all the Americans and, by symbolic extension, Pobrecito’s hopes and dreams?

Robert Charles Wilson serves up a quite enjoyable science fiction story with “The Cartesian Theater”. It takes place in a “Rationalized” society where all work is performed by “aibots” and the government provides all the basic necessities of life, free of charge. Most people choose to work, but those that don’t live in Doletown. People can also live on after death, albeit in a slowly deteriorating mental state. This last bit of magic occurs by imprinting neurological patterns which, unfortunately, decay over time. The main thrust of the story is a man who is hired by an unknown client to finance a performance artist who deals in death…sort of. It’s this “sort of” part that is great fuel for thought-provoking issues concerning life and souls. Wilson’s story reads like a Chandler-esque mystery, but it’s got all the great elements of science fiction: meaty content, a well-imagined future, and fantastic atmosphere. Well done.

(I read “Journey into the Kingdom” by M Rickert as part of a 2006 Nebula Award Short Fiction reading project. What follows is what I said then.)

Synopsis: A girl named Agatha meets a widower named Alex who is convinced Agatha is a breath-stealing ghost.

Review: My indifference towards fantasy left little hope for this story, which is interesting since, at one point, it seemed as if this were not a fantasy story at all. The reason is due to some creative story construction. Alex, hanging out in a coffee shop, reads a story written by the artist of the pictures hanging on the wall. We read Alex’s story right along with him and learn about the girl named Agatha, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter whose father becomes a ghost and brings other ghosts home to meet the family. Agatha falls for one of them, becomes a ghost herself and ultimately suffers heartache. Alex then learns that the author of the story, Agatha, works at the coffee shop in which he sits. He proceeds to woo her, fully believing her fiction is a memoir. This is where Rickert’s story seems to be a fantasy bait-and-switch. The fantasy was self-contained within Agatha’s written word. It seemed as if Alex’s desire to be with Agatha negated the fantasy setup of the first part, thus precluding the need for a story at all. By this point, I was becoming a bit frustrated. Then the story somewhat redeemed itself in the last twenty percent when Alex’s intentions reveal themselves to be on the wrong side of normal.

(I read Eight Episodes by Robert Reed as part of a 2007 Hugo Award Short Fiction reading project. What follows is what I said then.)

Synopsis: An episode-by-episode description of Invasion of a Small World, an unsuccessful television series about how an alien spacecraft landed on Earth millions of years ago, may actually be a factual message sent to Earth by those aliens.

Review: Reed’s synopsis-story is intentionally as dry as the television series it describes, no doubt aimed at television programming in general. And while it’s fun to try to figure out whether the alien creators who made the show are sending humans an “explore space” or “stay at home” message, nothing else really stood out.

The best thing I can say about Kelly Link’s “The Wizards of Perfil” is that the prose is engaging and gives off a rich fairy tale flavor. Two cousins – a boy named Onion and a girl named Halsa – each have the magical ability to read thoughts and are somehow linked together. The boy travels on a doomed train and the girl is taken away to be a slave-attendant/apprentice of one of the legendary wizards of Perfil. The wizards, who live at the tops of tall towers, go largely unseen and it’s not too hard to guess why. Although the story delivers an admirable “everyone is a hero” message (as seen through Onion’s and Halsa’s bravery and perseverance through difficult trials), the otherwise engaging writing style is eventually stifled by the unexplained abilities of the cousins.

“The Saffron Gatherers” by Elizabeth Hand is billed by Jonathan Strahan as a blending of sf, fantasy and mainstream, but the emphasis is clearly on the mainstream. (Minor throwaway references to bioethics and hybrid cars notwithstanding…) Classification aside, this was one very good story. The somber tone of the story somehow fit my mood at the time of reading it. This is a (mostly) quiet character study of Suzanne, a writer who is visiting her occasional lover, Randall, in California. Just as she finally commits to the relationship, the fates decide to intervene. Maybe it’s because this story takes place in the present, or because the parallels drawn with an ancient civilization destroyed by disaster call attention to our ultimate defenselessness, but the final scene is effectively horrific.

(I read “D.A.” by Connie Willis earlier this year. What follows is what I said then.)

In Connie Willis’ novella, D.A., Theodora Baumgarten is enrolled as an IASA space cadet and is quickly whisked away to the Academy space station, named the RAH after Robert A. Heinlein. (No coincidence – this story is overtly Heinleinian, which is good because it gives me two chances to say “Heinleinian”.) While Theodora’s appointment is considered a great honor by her friends, family and fellow students, all of whom would love to be in Theodora’s space shoes, there is a problem: Theodora never actually enrolled in the IASA. With the help of her Earthside hacker friend, Kimkim, Theodora sets out to find out how she could possibly come to be signed up in the IASA. Reading D.A. is like a getting a shot of Heinlein injected directly into the bloodstream. Actually, it’s like Heinlein on speed because the story mimics themes in his juvenile novels – a young person overcoming obstacles by using ingenuity and intellect – and moves incredibly fast. Willis’ engaging plot and her highly entertaining prose make the Lucy Ricardo circumstances surrounding Theodora’s enlistment sing with in the tune of classic science fiction parody. Even though there are no real surprises for the Heinlein fan, watching her as she tries to figure out what the heck is going on is just plain fun.

“Femaville 29″ by Paul Di Filippo follows the plight of a cop named Parrish. Parrish has an unfortunate incident that occurs while he is trying to maintain order after a tsunami hits an East coast U.S. city. He is relocated to the titular refugee camp set up by FEMA and meets a woman and her daughter. The girl, Izzy, spends her time with the other kids building a non-existent city whose layout is as vivid to her as all the other children – but not the adults. The city is eventually poised to somehow become the salvation of these dislocated people as they try to reclaim their lives. “Femaville 29″ reads like mainstream fiction (or “slipstream”, if you prefer) and Di Filippo paints a stark picture of refugee life. At the same time, we get to know the small handful of realistic characters through his straightforward prose. Despite an unclear ending, he has created an thoroughly enjoyable story.

I’m not entirely sure how Gene Wolfe’s horror story, “Sob in the Silence”, landed in an anthology of science fiction and fantasy; that seems to be stretching the definition of fantasy a bit too much. At any rate, the story concerns a horror writer who is introducing a family to his definitely-not-haunted house. But their seemingly innocent stay is interrupted by the author’s plans to kidnap the daughter…plans that do not quite unfold as expected. In fact, one might think that this guy was a buffoon the way he let himself into his ultimate predicament. Still, the story is entertaining enough as a straightforward horror story.

(I read The House Beyond Your Sky by Benjamin Rosenbaum as part of a 2007 Hugo Award Short Fiction reading project. What follows is what I said then.)

Synopsis: A virtual construct named Mathias must answer to his maker when he begins playing God to creations of his own making.

Review: Rosenbaum’s worlds-within-worlds story is simultaneously touching, dramatic and symbolic. Mathias creates worlds, like his own, where the beings eventually evolve beyond their artificial boundaries; they become aware that they are artificial. Mathias elevates them to his own world in the form of birds. Mathias wishes to save one of his constructs, a young girl named Sophie who has abusive parents. But the saved may instead turn out to be savior when Mathias own creator – a pilgrim to Mathias’ priest persona – comes knocking on Mathias door. Heady and mind-bending stuff.

(I read The Djinn’s Wife by Ian McDonald as part of a 2007 Hugo Award Short Fiction reading project. What follows is what I said then.)

Synopsis: A famous dancer falls in love with an artificial intelligence.

Review: Set as a prequel to McDonald’s fantastic River of Gods, this piece has many of the ingredients that made that novel such a success: an “aeai” who is as much a character as any human one, threatened by the Hamilton Acts that prohibit his growth; a sympathetic enforcer from the Department of Artificial Intelligence (Thacker, a “Krishna Cop”); the political background of a water war between neighboring nations; and a hefty injection of Indian culture. Sad, then, that this story was nowhere near as engaging. The fault lies in the execution. The aeai named A.J. Rao, who is also a major figure in the negotiations for precious water, reveals himself to be a fan of the dancer named Esha. Esha immediately notes how handsome the AI has made himself in his mental manifestation – Esha “sees” him thanks to hardwired brain hardware. A desire for social status prompts Esha to proclaim Rao as her fiancée, a charade to which he readily agrees. Their relationship – and here is where it gets silly – eventually leads to sex in which Rao brings Esha to e-orgasm. Life is apparently perfect for Esha…until the realization hits her that Rao, being the computer simulation that he is, can manifest himself anywhere simultaneously – an ability that is the digital equivalent of unfaithfulness. At around the same time, Esha is confronted by Thacker who is concerned of Rao’s advanced intelligence since impending legislation would make Rao eligible for “excommunication”. Thacker eventually wins the affections of Esha while she plays the part of spy. Of course, Rao finds out, and all hell (briefly) breaks loose in an ending that lifts the enjoyment level of this story to the realm of mediocrity. Another thing that hurt the story was the occasional use of run-on sentences meant, I suppose, to convey the hurriedness of the speaker but instead were long winded interruptions to the flow of the story.