REVIEW SUMMARY: A refreshing selection of science fiction stories.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 12 works of short fiction originally published in 2006.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Nine good stories, three of them outstanding.

CONS: Two stories hovering in the mediocre range; the book’s cover incorrectly cites story authors.

BOTTOM LINE: A worthwhile survey of 2006 fiction.

I’ve been reading a lot of short fiction lately, much of it compiled in various “Year’s Best” anthologies and award nomination reading lists. The latest anthology is Science Fiction: The Best of the Year, 2007 Edition edited by Rich Horton, which serves up twelve pieces of short fiction that were first seen in 2006.

Horton offers up a nice selection of stories. His introduction, which serves as both short fiction survey and explanation selection choices, explains that he was not directly aiming for any given theme, but does admit that the final selections do seem to have a recurring religious theme. It should be noted that Horton’s choices sit comfortably (and refreshingly) within any given definition of science fiction; which is to say that none of these selections would be considered fantasy or mainstream, as might occur in other anthologies. SF fans need not be bothered on that score.

Given the nice selection of stories, it would have been nice if the authors got more cover publicity out of it: there is a glaring error on the book’s cover which cites authors included in last year’s edition. Besides extra proofreading, I might also recommend that the page headers list the story titles and authors instead of the book’s title and editor. Doing so would make stories easier to find.

One of the side effects of multiple “Best of” anthologies is that reading them eventually gets quicker, provided that there is the usual overlap of selections between anthologies. This was the case in the Horton anthology; I had already read eight of the twelve stories earlier this year. That left a measly four stories for me to consume, an appealing task size since life seems to be getting busier lately. (It still took me a week to do it.)

The three standout stories in this anthology are “The Cartesian Theater” by Robert Charles Wilson, “Hesperia and Glory” by Ann Leckie and “Exit Before Saving” by Ruth Nestvold.

Individual story reviews appear after the jump…


(“Another Word for Map is Faith” by Christopher Rowe was originally reviewed in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 1 edited by Jonathan Strahan.)

“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.

(“Okanoggan Falls” by Carolyn Ives Gilman was originally reviewed in The Year’s Best Science Fiction #24 edited by Gardner Dozois.)

Synopsis: When alien occupation reaches small town America, the Mayor’s wife attempts to convince the alien captain to not destroy her beloved town.

Review: While the writing does a great job creating the small town atmosphere and values, the bigger picture of alien invasion causes the premise to fall under its own weight. It’s simply not believable that Susan would start to have feelings for Captain Groton, despite the physiological changes that cause him to appear more human and supposedly more endearing. It’s still an Earth-conquering alien who is demolishing the town that we are repeatedly shown is the place Susan adores. How can she see past all that to get emotionally close to him?

In Ian Watson’s “Saving for a Sunny Day, or The Benefits of Reincarnation”, an all-knowing artificial intelligence has the capability of barcoding souls. This has led to the advent of reincarnation which, in turn, has reshaped the world into a pseudo-utopia. There are exceptions – like poor Jimmy, a six year-old who is informed that he incurred a debt of $9 million which he now owes in his new life. He just might be clever enough to figure out a way to repay. Interesting concepts abound in this rant-like narrative, but the tone comes off sounding more flippant than humorous, much to the story’s discredit. On the bright side, some genuine thought was given as to how reincarnation might believably change the world, with impacts ranging from economic to religious.

(“The Cartesian Theater” by Robert Charles Wilson was originally reviewed in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 1 edited by Jonathan Strahan.)

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.

Ann Leckie’s “Hesperia and Glory”, unassumingly written in Victorian style at the start, quickly evokes the glory days of pulp sf adventure in the spirit of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Here, we are told a secondhand, heroic account of a man named John Atkins, a self-professed prince of Mars. The deftness with which the author handles the usually off-putting plot device of wish fulfillment (and the correspondingly eye-rolling trope of imagined realities) is not only commendable; it’s entirely in keeping with the science-fantasy days of old. Well done.

(“Incarnation Day” by Walter Jon Williams was originally reviewed in Escape From Earth edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois.)

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?

Ruth Nestvold entices science fiction readers with a slew interesting elements in “Exit Before Saving”, which posits a corporate-run future where morphing technology is secretly used for espionage. Mallory is a Morp Agent for Softec who is becoming addicted to the technology despite the dangers it exposes to her. Her latest mission reveals a new technology on the horizon that sends her into panic mode. Nestvold drops other dramatic elements along the way (like relationship issues and a troubled family history), provided a too-brief glimpse of an atmosphere rich enough to support a novel that I’d love to read.

(“Inclination” by William Shunn was originally reviewed as part of my 2006 Nebula Award Short Fiction reading project.)

Synopsis: On a space station there are two clashing social classes. Jude, a young member of the underprivileged Machinists, gets a job with the Sculpted and comes to learn the way of the world.

Review: There are some really interesting world building aspects here. The Machinsists have a religion and culture based on mechanics. For example, when something is wrong it is “out of true”. In the Machinists part of the station there are six wards, each representing the six fundamental machines set forth by The Builder, their god. Jude is from the “inclined plane” ward and, when money gets tight, his father, Thomas, gets him a job working as a stevedore with the “heathen” Sculpted. Surely this will be a test of his faith as he will be tempted by the unholy ways of the “Wrecker”. Unlike the Machinists, the Sculpted have embraced technology and their society has evolved in ways we would expect, at least in science fiction. The differences that evolved between the two cultures are almost unbelievable considering they all live in the same space station, but the contrast is effectively dramatic nonetheless. Religion was their dividing wedge – the wedge being another of the six fundamental machines (the others are wheel, lever, pulley and screw). Some additional dramatic elements – like Jude’s strict father, his dead mother and his confused feelings for another boy – round out a fine story. Shunn’s prose shows noteworthy skill and embodies the sense of wonder and extrapolation that make science fiction appealing.

(“Life on the Preservation” by Jack Skillingstead was originally reviewed in The Year’s Best Science Fiction #24 edited by Gardner Dozois.)

Synopsis: Young Kylie spends the day in a city preserved by aliens from the end of the world and stuck in a time loop.

Review: Great premise, but Kylie’s Carpe Diem attitude, while fun and perhaps a good lesson for us, is not enough to carry the story to greatness.

The initial scenes of “Me-Topia” by Adam Roberts are perplexing and intriguing. A small scientific space shuttle crash lands on a planet with some mysterious properties: the stars don’t move, the sun rises in the west, and the geography is an inversion of Earth’s (water is land and vice versa). The explanation of these dilemmas is a neat idea, but not quite enough to drive the reader along its full length. Besides this fun background mystery, some other cool notions (like uplifting) round out a nice plot twist, but the story overall fails to fully ignite.

(“The House Beyond Your Sky” by Benjamin Rosenbaum was originally reviewed as part of my 2007 Hugo Award Short Fiction reading project.)

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.

(“A Billion Eves” by Robert Reed was originally reviewed as part of my 2007 Hugo Award Short Fiction reading project.)

Synopsis: A parallel Earths colonization story in which Kala seeks to break the accepted practice of female abduction and start a world that will not eventually be doomed through ecological extinction.

Review: This wonderfully crafted story has an unassuming – and seemingly non-sf – start. It concerns a family vacation and the daughter’s (Kala’s) indifference towards it, an unassertive mother along for the ride and a brother, Sandor, who is determined to prove his manliness. While this seems normal on the surface, hints are dropped that something is not quite right; places have names like Mother Ocean and there are references to the First Father, for example. When the car breaks down, the family learns of abducted women missing from the area and they meet a secretive stranger driving a boarded-up bus. What is soon learned about this world is that this man – one of many – is setting out to be a new Adam to his multitude of Eves on a parallel world, thanks to a “ripper” device that transports them there. We learn through some back story that humanity has spread across a multitude of parallel Earths in this way, in hopes of creating a new, perfect world through quite unconventional means. Owen was the First Father who abducted his Eves by activating his stolen ripper device next to a sorority house. Generations later, the cycle is repeated, again and again, with one of these worlds being the world of Kala and Sandor. The entire story carries with it a dark mood as we learn that the culture, while it does not directly condone it, quietly accepts the abduction of women. Kala herself is abducted until Sandor steps in and takes steps that cause people to banish him. Eventually, Kala sets out to change the norm in her own way and, at the same time, address the ecological problems facing all existing Earths. The idea of parallel worlds and personal colonization initiatives is a cool one, but this story seemed to meander a bit, mostly in the middle parts. It was as if it couldn’t make up its mind whether it was a parallel Earth story, a colonization story, the story of Kala and Sandor, or a Save the Earth story. The effect is a somewhat muddled story that lacks some focus but is entertaining all the same.

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