The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Eighth Annual CollectionEdited by Gardner DozoisSt. Martin's Griffin, 2011The thirty-three stories that comprise the latest volume in Gardner Dozois' epic "Year's Best Science Fiction" series range a gamut that pretty accurately reflects Dozois' prodigious yearly reading: there are vignettes of only a few pages and near-novellas of almost sixty pages, there are entries from (relatively) small presses (and e-zines) ranged right alongside entries from the biggest sci-fi venues currently in existence in the English-speaking world (true to form, the great Asimov's Science Fiction is the best represented), and there's a wide spectrum of names here, from some genre veterans who never miss a 'year's best' anthology to comparative newcomers previously known only to their cadre of loyal fans (there are no 'household names' only because science fiction currently has no working household names, unless you include Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins). The whole assembly is here offered with a typically hideous cover by the inexplicably employed Slawek Wojtowicz and a typically impressive and detailed "Summation" essay by Dozois himself.Those essays have given me fits in the past with their frowzy glowering at whole genres or media about which Dozois hadn't taken sufficient time to inform himself. There are no such asides this time around - just a nuts-and-bolts assessment of the state of the industry: which sci-fi publishers are doing well, which are struggling, where the money is, where it seems to be going, and a clear-eyed view of how his own speciality, anthology series, are faring. It's an utterly fascinating performance-piece, and Dozois is probably the only person in the field who could write it.It can sometimes threaten to overshadow his real accomplishment in these volumes, which is of course the uncanny selecting he does every year. Anthologies like this one stand or fall by such a process: an editor who gets lost in his own fads or agendas will produce a collection as specific and tedious as a mirror image - what's needed for an outstanding volume is a view broad enough to let the genre's own fads and agendas speak for themselves. One of the most rewarding things about Dozois' series over the years is charting those preoccupations as they run through the stories. Dozois is so sensitive to the zeitgeist that you can almost pinpoint the exact year of each volume by its subvocalized obsessions.You can certainly see it in this twenty-eighth volume: a world out of kilter, a world in decline - it runs underneath the surface of virtually all these stories, even the ones that are decidedly not dystopian in outward tone. The imaginative backdrop is one of seedy disappointment, a jaded wariness very different from the tempo of optimism that characterized, say, stories from the early 1990s. A large number of these stories feature a wasted, desiccated, or abandoned Earth, and there's a greater number of disillusioned young people than usual, and thoroughly evil plutocrats abound. Readers will frequently encounter passages like this one from Geoffrey Landis' "The Sultan of Clouds":
I discovered from them that not everybody in the floating cities thought of Venus as a paradise. Some of the independent cities considered the clan of Nordwald-Gruenbaum to be well on its way to becoming a dictatorship. "They own half of Venus outright, but that's not good enough for them, no, oh no," Jaramillo told me. "They're stinking rich, but not stinking rich enough, and the very idea that there are free cities floating in the sky, cities that don't swear fealty to them and pay their goddamned taxes, that pisses them off. They'll do anything that they can to crush us. Us? We're just fighting back."
That'll have a familiar ring to anybody who lived through 2011, with no passport to Venus required. Likewise the squalid multi-culturalism on display in Lavie Tidhar's sloppy but effective story "The Night Train":
An assassin could be anyone. A Yankee rich-kid on a retro-trip across Asia, reading Air America and Neuromancer in a genuine reproduction 1984 POD-paperback; it could be the courteous policeman helping a pretty young Lao girl with her luggage; it could be the girl herself - an Issan farmers-daughter exported to Bangkok in a century-long tradition, body augmented with vibratory vaginal inserts, perfect audio/visual-to-export, always-on record, a carefully tended Louis Wu habit and an as-carefully tended retirement plan - make enough money, get back home to Issan wan bigfala mama, open up a bar/hotel/bookshop an spend your days on the Mekong, waxing lyrical about the good old days, listening to Thai pop and K-pop and Nuevo Kwasa-Kwasa, growing misty-eyed nostalgic ...
The proliferation of advanced hi-tech gadgetry such as 'smart' phones, 'soft' engineering and 'targeted' medicine that readers can learn about from the pages of any issue of Time magazine has had its impact as well - one of the more tawdry jobs science fiction has always taken upon itself is to extrapolate present-day trends into future shapes (indeed, most non-sci fi readers lazily characterize the entire genre by this dippy prognosticating tendency, without ever bothering to read the sci-fi that doesn't do it and wouldn't be caught dead doing it), and this has led more than a few of Dozois' honorees to see a watchmaker behind every natural-seeming phenomenon. This can form the punch-line at dramatic moments like this one from veteran entertainer Alastair Reynolds' "Sleepover":
He could see it plainly, visible through the rig's open middle as it hauled its way out of the sea, using one of the legs to assist its progress. There was nothing translucent or tentative about it now. And it was indeed a dragon, or rather a chimera of a dragon and snake and squid and every scaled, barbed, tentacled, clawed horror ever committed to a bestiary. It was a lustrous slate-green in colour and the waters ran off it in thunderous curtains. Its head, or what he chose to think of as its head, had reached the level of the operations deck. And still the sea-dragon produced more of itself, uncoiling out of the dark waters like some conjuror's trick. Tentacles whipped out and found purchase, and it snapped and wrenched away parts of the rig's superstructure as if they were made of biscuit or brittle toffee. It was making a noise while it attacked, an awful, slowly rising and falling foghorn proclamation. It's a weapon, Gaunt reminded himself. It has been engineered to be terrible.
And it can also complicate the climax of Stephen Baxter's engrossing long story "Return to Titan," although Baxter characteristically sublimates it in favor of sharp characterization and his signature tossed-off moments of sheer wonder, as when Jovik Emry aboard the Hermit Crab makes a very reluctant return to the planet Saturn and its family of joyless moons:
There was nothing romantic in the view, nothing beautiful about it, not to me. The light was flat and pale. Saturn is about ten times as far from the sun as Earth is, and the sun is reduced to an eerie pinpoint, its radiance only a hundredth of that at Earth. Saturn is misty and murky, an autumnal place. And you never forgot that you were so far from home that a human hand, held out at arm's length toward the sun, could have covered all of the orbit of Earth.
Thankfully, other authors here join Baxter in remembering some of sci-fi's wider innate strengths - this volume is full of heart-swelling entertainments, stories you'll remember not for their messages or themes but for their dramatic accomplishments on a human level. "Return to Titan" is one such story, as is Allen Steele's touching "The Emperor of Mars" and Michael Swanwick's tense, thought-provoking "Libertarian Russia."Three other such stories, "Over Water" by Matthew Hughes, "Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory" by Paul Berger, and "Mindband" by Pamela Sargent, as consigned by Dozois to the "Honorable Mentions" list at the end of the book - which is frustrating, but then, the fun of anthologies like this one is that you're never going to agree completely with the proprietor. My aesthetic differences with Dozois have over the years led me to many, many stories and authors I would otherwise have missed or dismissed - that's the biggest boon to a magnificent series like this one: just like the stories it showcases, it exposes readers to countless strange new worlds.