10 August 2010

Year's Best SF 15


I just finished reading through Year's Best SF 15, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (EOS, 2010) and wanted to record my thoughts on the volume, particularly regarding what nuggets about SF short story writing I can glean from it. I'll offer some general comments on the volume overall, and then I'll highlight a few individual stories and discuss what I think makes them especially successful.

        (For my brief post on Year's Best SF 14, see here. I gave that volume as a whole 3 out of 4 stars.)

        First, some details about the volume. Year's Best SF 15 contains twenty-four stories, with nine of those stories written by women (around 38%). Authors included range from veterans such as Bruce Sterling and Nancy Kress, to more recent but established names such as Alastair Reynolds and Peter Watts, to newer/up-and-coming writers such as Mary Robinette Kowal. Stories were published in 2009, and Hartwell and Cramer selected works from a variety of venues/markets: a collection published in India; magazines such as Asimov's Science Fiction, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, and Interzone; anthologies of original stories such as Other Earths (Nick Gevers, ed.), The New Space Opera 2 (Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, eds.), and When It Changed (Geoff Ryman, ed.); online markets such as Strange Horizons. Asimov's wins the race with five stories, while a few venues are tied at three stories (e.g., Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction 3). Only one online market was used for the volume, Strange Horizons, though the editors selected two stories from it. Nearly all subgenres of SF are represented: alternate history, space opera, alien encounters, hard SF, near future SF, parallel/enfolded timelines, artificial intelligence, multicultural/postcolonial, time travel, and so forth. Thus, a good range of authors and subgenres, with perhaps too few women writers and with a decidedly heavy emphasis on print markets.

        Here are the stories and my ratings of them (out of four stars), with the five best stories in bold:
1. Vandana Singh, "Infinities"  ***
2. Robert Charles Wilson, "This Peaceable Land; or, The Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beacher Stowe" *** 1/2
3. Yoon Ha Lee, "The Unstrung Zither"  *** 1/2
4. Bruce Sterling, "Black Swan"  *** 1/2
5. Nancy Kress, "Exegesis"  *** 1/2
6. Ian Creasey, "Erosion"  ** 1/2
7. Gwyneth Jones, "Collision"  ***
8. Gene Wolfe, "Donovan Sent Us"  ***
9. Marissa K. Lingen, "The Calculus Plague"  * 1/2
10. Peter Watts, "The Island"  ****
11. Paul Cornell, "One of Our Bastards Is Missing"  ** 1/2
12. Sarah L. Edwards, "Lady of the White-Spired City"  ***
13. Brian Stableford, "The Highway Code"  ***
14. Peter M. Ball, "On the Destruction of Copenhagen by the War-Machines of the Merfolk"  **
15. Alastair Reynolds, "The Fixation"  ***
16. Brenda Cooper, "In Their Garden"  ***
17. Geoff Ryman, "Blocked"  ****
18. Michael Cassutt, "The Last Apostle"  ***
19. Charles Oberndorf, "Another Life"  ****
20. Mary Robinette Kowal, "The Consciousness Problem"  *** 1/2
21. Stephen Baxter, "Tempest 43"  ***
22. Genevieve Valentine, "Bespoke"  ** 1/2
23. Eric James Stone, "Attitude Adjustment"  ***
24. Chris Roberson, "Edison's Frankenstein"  ***

General Comments
As they state in the introduction, Hartwell and Cramer like their SF to be SF: "This book is full of science fiction -- every story is fairly clearly that and not something else. It is our opinion that it is a good thing to have genre boundaries" (xv). The intention, then, is to provide an anthology of new, original SF that defines, reinforces, and (perhaps) delimits what constitute the "boundaries" of SF today -- "The stories that follow show . . . the strengths of the evolving genre in the year 2009" (xv) -- but also in a universal/traditional sense.

        I agree with promoting clear genre distinctions, actually, and one factor of the overall success of Year's Best SF 15 involves how it demonstrates the flexibility and variety available within SF strictly considered, exemplified by the volume's best stories (those I rate at 3.5 and 4 stars). Moreover, the range of authors from veterans to relative newcomers imparts a kind of historical breadth and continuity to Hartwell and Cramer's representation of "the evolving genre": older writers are producing new and intriguing SF; newer writers are producing SF that upholds as well as reinvigorates the genre's core aims.

        In these respects, Year's Best SF 15 certainly does "show . . . the strengths" of the genre, or, more specifically, the vitality and insight with which SF responds to "the changing realities" (xv) of our world. By "strengths," then, I take Hartwell and Cramer to mean primarily the ideas at stake in the stories they selected, such as cloning or alien encounters or climate change and so forth: in other words, their SF is fundamentally idea fiction, which is, admittedly, a traditional(ist) view of the genre. A consequence of this view of SF for the volume, however, is that only a handful of stories reach beyond the idea to real literary artistry as well.

        I rate the volume as a whole at 3 out of 4 stars (the same rating for Year's Best SF 14) because the bulk of the stories are competent, engaging, and intelligent, with a few that are of dubious merit and a few that are truly excellent. "Best" for me proves problematic, as I have reservations about Hartwell and Cramer's judgement of and criteria for literary quality. By literary quality, I am thinking of attention to craft (pacing, plotting, dialogue, characterisation, etc.), of a poetic sensibility, and of layered meanings.

        For instance, I cannot be sure why Lingen's "The Calculus Plague" was selected. It is the poorest story of the collection and not what I would think illustrates the best of SF today. When set beside the stories of Oberndorf, Kowal, Ryman, Sterling, Watts, and Wilson, "The Calculus Plague" proves almost amateurish aesthetically and rather thin intellectually. (The same can be said for Ball's entry.) I wonder if Hartwell and Cramer missed Benjamin Crowell's "A Large Bucket, and Accidental Godlike Mastery of Spacetime" from the December 2009 issue of Asimov's, or Deborah Coates' "Cowgirls in Space" and Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "The Spires of Denon" from the April/May 2009 issue of Asimov's; I wonder how not a single story in twelve months of Clarkesworld Magazine caught their attention.

        When an anthology proclaims that it offers the "best" in SF, I expect it to give me the most accomplished and relevant stories throughout its entire range of selections. Intriguingly, though, what I find with the Hartwell and Cramer volumes, as well as with Dozois' The Year's Best Science Fiction series, is that the differences in accomplishment and relevance between stories deemed the "best" are made starker and more immediate. The best of the best stand out even more brightly, while otherwise very good stories appear pale by comparison.

        I understand that some politics probably affect putting together a collection such as Year's Best SF 15 (i.e., distribution of subject matter, gender balance among the authors, permissions from authors and/or publishers, and the like); I also appreciate how difficult it must be to keep up with all the short fiction published in a calendar year and then mine it for the choice diamonds that comprise the finest works of that year. However, I think it fair to pose questions about notions of "best" based on the stories editors include in their volumes. Posing such questions is fair, for, positively, those volumes ultimately serve to present readers with a record of what can be and is being achieved by the very "best" SF, thereby encouraging conversation about and assessment of the genre's current and potential direction(s).

        This questioning of what constitutes "best" in Year's Best SF 15 thus made me surprised at the basically decent but not overly exceptional stories by the somewhat large contingent of veteran, established writers in the volume: Baxter, Jones, Reynolds, Roberson, Stableford, Wolfe. Of this group, only Kress and Sterling's stories were striking and challenging, aesthetically and intellectually. I have several 2.5-star and 3-star stories in my ratings (14 out of 24 stories), which suggests that the volume is essentially a strong one, as these are by no means bad stories, but also that, maybe, the volume could be stronger with different selections. Or, does Year's Best SF 15 give us an accurate snapshot of the short fiction produced in 2009?

        Finally, based on Year's Best SF 15, there are some writers I have either not read before or read little of whose work I want to explore further, short stories and/or novels: Edwards, Kowal, Lee, Oberndorf, Ryman, Singh, Sterling, and Wilson. One of the truly valuable functions of this sort of collection, of course, is introducing readers to new and unsampled writers.

What Makes a Short Story "Best"?
• To me, the best stories of Year's Best SF 15, in order, are (1A) Watts, (1B) Oberndorf, (2) Ryman, (3) Sterling, (4) Kowal, (5) Wilson, (6) Lee, (7) Kress, and (8) Reynolds. The primary factor that separates these stories from the others, especially (1A) to (4), is literary artistry; the next factor is what I'll call a sophistication of meaning (i.e., intellectually challenging, insightful, and inventive). Regarding literary artistry, the best stories not only furnish beautiful and/or surprising turns of phrase, but generate a distinct tone and a tangible atmosphere through their attention to language. Regarding a sophistication of meaning, the best stories put a clear idea at the centre of the narrative and search out that idea's metaphorical possibilities to say something perceptive about human nature.

• In Watts, there's the fierceness of Sunday's voice and the unrelenting logic with which she confronts events. In Oberndorf, there's the lyricism of the prose that communicates the narrator's nostalgia spread across multiple lifetimes. With Ryman, it's the dreamlike atmosphere of a near-future Cambodia and the empathetic, tender perspective of the narrator. With Sterling, it's the sharpness of the similes and the edginess of the mood. For Kowal, there's the poetry of intimacy wrapped up in the attention to the memory's unreliability. Together, these five stories demonstrate the importance of paying attention to the consistency of voice and/or perspective, for the specific way in which a character sees and reacts to his or her world is crucial to the tone and mood of the telling. Here are some short, representative passages:
And yet, look at you go. The fingers, the eyes -- like a cat, dreaming of mice and apple pies. Like me, replaying the long-lost oceans and mountaintops of Earth before I learned that living in the past was just another way of dying in the present. (Watts, 213) 
I was a fool: I let myself believe in life without conflict, in sentience without sin. For a little while, I dwelt in a dream world where life was unselfish and unmanipulative, where every living thing did not struggle to exist at the expense of other life. (Watts, 220)
Our lives were so fraught with our time together: nouns weighed with multiple meanings, verbs sharpened by the years; we were best off, when the mood was right, with incomplete sentences that the other would finish with an automatic goodwill that was also born of all our time together. (Oberndorf, 376)
[. . .] my only company being therapy machines and the nurses who brought my food, the physical contact of the professional hand that never lingered, the touch that was never too light, that never grazed a nerve that mattered. (Oberndorf, 384)
The stars themselves seem to have come back like the fish, so distant and high, cold and pure. No wonder we are greedy for them, just as we are greedy for diamonds. If we could, we would strip-mine the universe, but instead we strip-mine ourselves. (Ryman, 335)
He handled the best wine in Europe like a scorpion poised to sting its liver. . . . She had a cordial yet guarded tone, like a woman who has escaped a man's bed and needs compelling reasons to return. (Sterling, 93 and 102)
He'd always had a sweet tooth and tended to graze on dark chocolate when she wasn't around, but Elise was learning to find the tiny pot belly cute. She wrapped her arms around him and let him pull her close. In his embrace, all the pieces fit together the way they should; he defined her universe. (Kowal, 409)

• The passages quoted above also, I think, provide a sense of the meanings at work in each story. In Watts, Sunday's distaste for her son Dix entwines with their discovery of an alien lifeform and intelligence, set against an apparent timeline of over a million years; the hopes Sunday invests in the alien's possible nonconformity to Darwinian evolution might be disappointed, but the compensation is discovering a willingness to nurture Dix toward a more proper humanness. Oberndorf uses a final conversation between two old lovers, about the past, as a meditation upon the economics of war and the economics of sex and gender and relationships in a future where multiple lives are literally possible, as bodies can be regrown and tailored to one's wishes -- if you're in the military, or if you have enough money. With Ryman, a looming alien invasion becomes an opportunity for the narrator to reassess his priorities in life, taking on a new wife and her three children, even though she doesn't love him, and developing a special bond with Gerda, the youngest child; she brings him to realise their mutual attachment to place and resistance to something for which they lack proof of its actuality, and only she is the reason he goes down anyway into the new underground civilization.
        Each of these stories leaves the reader to contemplate fundamental elements of human nature: the struggle to survive and understand, to differentiate humanity from the alien; how memory might finally lead to an appreciation for the life one has lived and is living; coming to terms with change, death, the old passing for the new. They do so within the "boundaries" of SF strictly considered, indicating that the genre's conventions and aims, that its perspective, can achieve the sophistication of meaning of the very best literary works. Other stories in the volume, such as by Lingen and Ball, are thin and insubstantial by comparison.

• For someone writing or hoping to write SF, Year's Best SF 15 affords a great gauge of the sort of work currently getting published in various markets. It lets a writer see what makes for an exceptional story and what makes for an average, mediocre, or unsuccessful story, especially because the volume facilitates placing all the stories in relation to each other. The high standards of the stories of Watts, Oberndorf, Ryman, Sterling, and Kowal are like a horizon a writer can strive to reach, a mountain summit a writer can seek to climb to and one day crest.


David J. Williams said...

Watts' THE ISLAND is among the best stories I've ever read, period. It's that oh-so-rare combination of great (if demented/posthuman) character conflict combined with stunning idea fiction.

Mike Johnstone said...

Yes, definitely a great, great story. Like Blindsight, it follows its idea to the end ruthlessly -- and then also gives us a deeply human resolution, for Sunday. I wonder if there's anyone else today combining character, hard SF ideas, and literary artistry in quite the way that Watts is ....

I'm fascinated by the ways lately in which he is probing at and troubling Darwinian evolution and its notions of "fittest" and "progress" when they're set against the context of the wider universe and so possibilities that don't conform to -- or that fundamentally revise -- Darwinian assumptions and models. He does this in Blindsight and "The Island," and then turns the tables in "The Things" to come at the issue from the alien's perspective. Gets the head spinning, for sure.