Anthology Review: The Year's Best Science Fiction 29

The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Ninth Annual CollectionEdited by Gardner DozoisSt. Martin's Griffin, 2012Far too many works of science fiction lure readers in with a flashing and multi-colored accretion disk of aliens and techno-speak and promptly deposit them in a void untouched by starlight. This is the besetting temptation of science fiction and its too-often accurate tag: gimmicks over everything, gimmicks as everything - an approach which, alas, satisfies some readers at the expense of warning off many more, one suspects. And it's an approach that's far more of a temptation in a short work than a long one, since the window the writer has to introduce his gimmick is commensurately smaller. Hence the kind of "Robot Juror!" and "Starship Chimp!" fare that kept the old pulp magazines going and branded science fiction in the minds of many 'mainstream' readers as a more or less permanently adolescent genre.That's a shame, because science fiction done well can crucible many elements of the human experience hugely better than any other genre - its whole purpose is the scrape the limits of human experience right up against the limits of human technology, an intersection spectrum that will mean more to the 21st Century even than it did to the 20th. And it's a genre that attracts some first-rate writers, people any intelligent reader would want to know about, ray guns and FTL drives notwithstanding. The problem is one it shares with every other genre: the superabundance of crap.Luckily for science fiction fans, editor Gardner Dozois is still out there reading everything he can get his hands on, patrolling the pages of every periodical of any size (or bandwidth) in order to assemble his great annual anthologies. He's been doing this for very nearly an astonishing thirty years, and from the beginning, his 'Year's Best Science Fiction' volumes have been the genre's only truly required reading. His secret is disarmingly simple: once he gets past the accretion disk, he looks for worlds that can support recognizably human (and otherwise) life. The gimmicks are just the passport.It can't always be the case, of course. The "Year's Best" volumes are hefty in size - the latest, the 29th (the 28th was reviewed here), features 35 stories, a couple of moderate length - so it's almost inevitable that some crap creep in at the crevices. There's some lazy writing on display here - a recurrence of tentacles, too many separate entities referred to as "the Other," a curiously encouraging prominence given to the planet Mars - but on balance Dozois has once again excelled at finding the great stories buried in a year's worth of science fiction. There are many highlights in these 650 pages, many stories that will do what good stories should, presenting harried readers with the slow detour to a moment, the invitation to pause and contemplate.Veteran sci fi writer John Barnes (author of the great novel A Million Open Doors) provides the anthology's first such moment in a touching story called "Martian Heart" in which a man recalls his early days prospecting on the freezing, bleak red planet in the company of a remarkable woman named Sam. The two are in their rover far from any encampments when the sickness that's wasting Sam (the malady of the story's title) finally catches up with her:

"Whatever I've got [she said] it's killing me ... Make me two promises.""I'll love you forever.""I know. I don't need you to promise that. First promise, no matter where you end up, or doing what, you learn. Study whatever you can study, acquire whatever you can acquire, feed your mind, babe. That's the most important."I nodded. I was crying pretty hard."The other one is kind of weird ... well, it's silly.""If it's for you, I'll do it. I promise."She gasped, trying to pull in more oxygen than her lungs could hold. Her eyes were flowing too. "I'm scared to be buried out in the cold and the dark, and I can't stand the idea of freezing solid. So ... don't bury me. Cremate me. I want to be warm.""But you can't cremate a person on Mars," I protested. "There's not enough air to support a fire, and -""You promised," she said, and died.

There's plenty of fun on hand as well, as in "The Invasion of Venus" by Stephen Baxter, in which the invaders slowly approaching Earth's solar system initially seem to have another port of call in mind:

"With retrospect, given the results from the old space probes, we might have guessed that there was something on Venus - life, if not intelligent life. There were always unexplained deficiencies and surpluses of various compounds. We think the Venusians live in the clouds, far enough above the red-hot ground that the temperature is low enough for liquid water to exist. They ingest carbon monoxide and excrete sulphur compounds, living off the sun's ultraviolet.""And they're smart.""Oh, yes."

We get all manner of foreign and alien environments as our story-settings, from an entirely recognizable Earth to the tightly-packed vertical world of Chris Lawson's subtle, gentle story "Canterbury Hollow" (in which our young heroine proudly proclaims, Jane Austen-style, "I should let you know that I'm not much in favor of balloted romances"):

They took the Long Elevator back to Moko's unit because it was closer. It was also much smaller and after skinning of elbows and barking of knees, they decided that Arlyana's apartment would have been more suitable after all. But that was three hours down the Grand Central Line and they were already together, if not entirely comfortable, so they lay wedged between Moko's bunk and the bulkhead above it and negotiated their future plans.

Intentionally or otherwise, Dozois saves the best of all these stories for last: Kij Johnson's fantastic mini-novella "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" set on a world that has a unique and disturbing natural feature: rivers (and a small sea) of a weird kind of 'mist' (inhabited by its own kind of creatures, including the terrifying Big Ones), a thick white flowing substance that divides a nation:

The mist stretched to the south as well, a deepening, thickening band that poured out at last from the river's mouth two thousand miles south, and formed the mist ocean, which lay on the face of the salt-water ocean. Water had to follow the river's bed to run somewhere beneath, or through, the mist, but there was no way to prove this.There was mist nowhere but this river and its streams and sea; but the mist split Empire in half.

The Empire sends an architect named Kit Meinem to the unpretentious little town of Nearside with the mission of surveying, preparing, and then building a chain-girded bridge far above the river of mist, connecting Nearside with the town of Farside which can at present only be reached by sculled ferries that make the dangerous passage. One such ferryman is an attractive young woman named Rasali, and even as she and Kit fall in love, the changes he represents become more and more obvious - and problematic:

They were over the deep mist now. He could not say how he knew this. He had a sudden vision of the bridge overhead, a black span bisecting the star-spun sky, the parabolic arch of the chains perhaps visible, perhaps not. People would stride across the river, and arrow's flight overhead, unaware of this place beneath. Perhaps they would stop and look over the bridge's railings, but they would be too high to see the fish as any but small shadows, supposing they saw them at all, supposing they stopped at all. The Big Ones would be novelties, weird creatures that caused a safe little shiver, like hearing a frightening story late at night.Perhaps Rasali saw the same thing, for she said suddenly, "Your bridge. It will change all this.""It must. I am sorry," he said again. "We are not meant to be here, on mist.""We are not meant to cross this without passing through it."

The story stretches over years and does an incredible job at just what science fiction should do: taking the strange, the alien, and showing readers their human connection to it. Dozois always manages to find at least a handful of such stories for his annual banquet, and this 29th volume has more than most. There's almost an infinitude of wonder for science fiction fans in these pages - not only stories to re-read and treasure but new authors to follow. And to the extent that these Dozois volumes still remain the best things for fans to hand to non-fans in the hope of converting them, these volumes to a very good job of building bridges themselves.Highly recommended, as always.