[11 March 2014]
Editor David G. Hartwell opens the introduction to Year’s Best SF 18 with the line “This is a book about what’s going on now in science fiction.” And if the stories in this book are any indication, some pretty great things are going on in the world of sci-fi.
Each story touches on different issues, ponders different concerns, and asks different questions: If you knew your future, would you change it? What happens when immortality has been achieved but space is limited? What will an ice-free Antarctica be like? Is science a right or a privilege? Each story has a distinct message and voice. Which is why each of the 28 short stories is worthy of mention, analysis, and discussion—but that would also make for a painfully long review. So keeping in mind that each story deserves close examination, here are a few things that Year’s Best SF 18 can teach us about what’s going on in sci-fi today.
First, great sci-fi can be found almost everywhere. Hartwell places stories from established writers, like Bruce Sterling and Gene Wolfe, next to stories from some relative newcomers (including Joe Pitkin and Deborah Walker). He pulled from traditional sci-fi publications; S & SF and Asimov’s are well represented, but so are publications like Nature and the now defunct Eclipse Online. The authors themselves hail from Australia, the UK, the United States, India, and France.
Another thing—sci-fi writers know how to craft a first sentence. Consider a couple of my favorites: “In spite of her name (an elegant, whimsical female name which meant Perfumed Winter, and a reference to a long-dead poet), Nguygen Dong Huong was a warrior, first and foremost,” or “When Stanley Betterman awoke Monday morning he didn’t know that everyone else in the world was naked.” And then there are the opening lines that don’t sound like sci-fi at all but set the stage for some wonderful world building: “Long ago, just after Heaven was separated from Earth, Nü Wa wandered along the bank of the Yellow River, savoring the feel of the rich loess against the bottom of her feet”.
Today’s sci-fi writers also often have a sense of humor. Readers should expect to chuckle when reading “The North Revena Ladies Literary Society”, where book club meetings can be lethal, or “Application”—a short story where a computer sends his former owner to jail.
World building is alive and well in modern sci-fi, and these sci-fi writers don’t need novel-length spaces to create a world. “Liberty’s Daughter” by Naomi Kritzer is just over 20 pages but presents a fully developed futuristic world of man-made islands some 200 miles off the coast of California. In roughly the same number of pages, Indrapramit Das’ “Weep for Day” takes us back to a world with knights, where train travel is new and exciting, and where Nightmares are captured and killed.
“Weep for Day” reminds us that, as Hartman notes in the introduction, “We are moving through decades of change, and as SF—often called the literature of change—represents that, we have to change in our daily lives as well, and that is not always comfortable”. And there is something decidedly “uncomfortable” about “Weep for Day”, both for the audience and the narrator when she realizes the Nightmare she sees “knew terror”.
But sometimes the most uncomfortable or thought-provoking moments aren’t found in the military stories or the ones with worlds that are only vaguely familiar. “A Love Supreme” tells the story of a physician and her dying father and includes lots of details about medical systems that might, for some, hit too close to home: “Care is rationed. HMOS have made medicine a corporate algorithm, doing the greatest good for the most people”.
Another example of change? Communication styles. Are tweets and texts replacing more thoughtful forms of oral communication? Nikki J. North’s exquisitely told “Branches on My Back, Sparrows in My Ear” lets readers ponder what a nonverbal society might be like.
Once again Hartwell proves to be a savvy editor and not just because of his story selection skills—he also provides interesting biographical notes for each author and background for all the stories. While each story appears to be selected on its own merit (as opposed to thinking about what would create a cohesive or thematic anthology), Hartwell shows the connections. For example, three stories were part of the Palencar Project and were based on a painting by John Jude Palencar.
Perhaps more importantly, Hartwell lets us know where each of these short stories was first published. After all, one of the joys of the any “Best of” book is that it leads us to so many other potentially wonderful stories.