The fifth and newest volume of Jonathan Strahan’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy anthology is now out from Night Shade Books. It has a well-balanced table of contents, split nearly half and half between works of science fiction and works of fantasy with a few comfortably occupying in-between spaces. There are quite a few TOC differences between the popular “Best of” books this year, which makes reading them all especially fun. Strahan’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year is the first of the bunch to be released and it’s a great collection of tales.
The stories come from both anthologies and magazines, with showings from Asimov’s, Subterranean, Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld, among others. There are three tales from YA anthologies in addition to the usual themed SFF collections.
Strahan’s anthology is well put together. The arrangement of the stories in particular deserves some attention: Strahan is careful to arrange the tales in such an way that each is different from what came before it, whether subtly or completely. (An unfortunate tactic some editors choose is to arrange stories in chunks: all the SF, all the fantasy, then the inter-genre stuff. I’ve found that instead of creating a balanced whole, it makes the stories run together.) Instead, this book alternates easily between its science fictional tales and its fantastical ones, while juxtaposing different sorts of SF and fantasy together. There were no points where I had to put the book down because the stories had begun to feel “all the same.” It was an all-the-way-through read.
As for the stories themselves, I found most of them to be great and a few breathtaking. There were also some that did not do as much for me as I would have liked, but they were few, and there was only one in particular that I flatly disliked. Four of the stories in this volume appear on the Nebula nominee list this year. (Also, the presence of several feminist and feminist-sensitive stories was great and heartening.)
“Elegy for a Young Elk” by Hannu Rajaniemi is the opener, a strange tale with talking bears, firewalled cities and posthuman nanotechnology. It’s good, but it wasn’t one of my favorites from the anthology. The writing is well done; it’s sparse but paints interesting imagery, and it flows fantastically well. The story itself, however, did not quite connect—good, but not breathtaking.
“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains,” by Neil Gaiman, was another functional and well-written tale that didn’t win me over, for different reasons. The revenge tale is twisty and emotional, but compared to other Gaiman stories, it doesn’t pack quite the mind-blowing punch I expected. (A case of, “versus most stories, it’s very good, but versus this particular writer’s other work….”)
However, while the first two stories were simply good, the next (Sandra McDonald’s “Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots”) is great. It begins as a rather bawdy, silly story but evolves rapidly into a commentary on love, humanity and science. The sexy robot cowboys in question are fascinating characters, and McDonald makes every effort to develop them as unique, thoughtful individuals with their own preferences. The narrator, too, is a complex character.
Sarah Reese Brennan’s “The Spy Who Never Grew Up” is an odd mashup of the classic children’s story Peter Pan and James Bond. The writing never quite caught me, but the story is engaging and appropriately creepy, which I suppose makes up for some roughness. On the other hand, Holly Black’s “The Aarne-Thompson Classification Revue” is a favorite of mine. It seems like a light, small story at first—I originally read it in its anthology, Full Moon City—but it sticks with the reader. Upon multiple readings, it seems to reveal more of itself: subtle humor tucked away in spots, a story of becoming and embracing the self, and a commentary on relationships. Excellent, understated bit of work.
Damien Broderick’s “Under the Moons of Venus” is either science fiction or the imaginings of someone who’s lost his mind; either way, it works. The mystery of how to get to Venus and where everyone else is, combined with the absurdist characters and setting, creates a surreal and engaging atmosphere.
“The Fool Jobs” by Joe Abercrombie is a humorous high-fantasy tale with swords and sorcery—it’s not full of heavy thematics, but it’s a dashingly fun romp that portrays the characters and tropes of high fantasy as a bit silly. Juxtaposed with “Under the Moons of Venus,” it works like a weird palate cleanser, in a good way. It’s about as different a setting as you can get from the story that came before it, excepting that they’re both dealing in absurdities.
“Alone” by Robert Reed is a story that builds slow and sweet to a fantastic, devastating conclusion. I won’t spoil it by explaining, but Reed is in full control of his story, and each sentence is carefully chosen to build toward the climax. Gorgeous.
The next story also took my breath but in a different way: Kij Johnson’s “Names for Water.” It’s brief, but contains all of the punch it needs within its few pages; a perfect counterpoint to “Alone.” The story is a snapshot but one that is so very well done.
Theodora Goss’s fairy-story, “Fair Ladies,” is exceptionally beautiful, as I’ve come to expect from her work. The pre-war world it’s set in is also a great touch. James P. Kelly’s “Plus or Minus” takes a more personal look at the “Cold Equations” type of story and does it well, building on a history of such stories in the genre but developing them to be more concerned with the characters themselves.
“The Man with the Knives” by Ellen Kushner is a heartbreaker for readers of her Swordspoint books. I can’t quite read it as someone who’s never encountered the books, because the characters are very clear in my mind already—so I can’t judge it by those standards—but, as a story in that world, it’s perfect.
“The Jammie Dodgers and the Adventure of the Leicester Square Screening” by Cory Doctorow is the usual fun, sharp-witted Doctorow tale focused on a near future and issues of technology and social development. Despite his love of tech, there tends to be a cautious or nasty undertone regarding some aspects of it in his stories to balance that love out, and for that reason I tend to enjoy them. This one is no exception.
The next story is Elizabeth Hand’s astounding novella about cryptoaviation, “The Maiden Flight of McAuley’s Bellerophon.” It’s deeply driven by its characters, yet still thrives around a center of strangeness and potential “otherworldiness,” be it alien or natural. It, too, has a slow and sweet build to its climax—it’s also one of my favorites of the year from 2010, and one of my favorites from this anthology. Hand is a master, and that’s easy to see with this story.
Margo Lanagan’s “The Miracle Aquilina” stuck with me, also, as a commentary on gender relations and patriarchy illustrated deftly with a saint, a dragon, a young woman and her father. Following it is a vivid tale of synaesthesia, “The Taste of Night” by Pat Cadigan—another story that occupies interstices between potential madness and science fiction, wrought delicately by Cadigan’s swift and visual prose.
Bruce Sterling’s “The Exterminator’s Want-Ad” was my least favorite of this anthology. I found it to be a rather trite rehash of things he’s talked about before without much in the way of engaging story or even particularly sparkling writing. Stories that describe a particular apocalypse but don’t do anything with it bore me. Cool end of the world is not enough. Sterling has laurels to rest on, but this story wasn’t one of his better works.
Thankfully, Christopher Barzak’s “Map of Seventeen” drove me right back into a stage of wonderment. The interaction between the sister, her brother, and her brother’s lover are pitch-perfect, as are the relationships they have with their parents and the town.
“The Naturalist” by Maureen F. McHugh was a zombie story, which I was hesitant about at first, but she came through. I shouldn’t be surprised that McHugh could do something I’d enjoy with a worn-out trope. It’s dark, it’s nasty, and its unapologetic about its lead character. The next story has merpeople, too, as did Barzak’s: “Sins of the Father” by Sara Genge. It started clumsy, but quickly righted itself and told a sharp, science fictional story about the merfolk while making social commentary.
Geoffrey A. Landis’s “The Sultan of the Clouds” explores the tensions between women, men and power through a young oligarch on Venus. The world-building was great; vivid detail and cool science abounded.
“Iteration” by John Kessel is another short-but-strong story that deals with changes we could make in the world, and what we would do with them if we could, and how that might work.
“The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn” by Diana Peterfreund, a YA story about unicorns (on the surface), blew me away. It deals with issues of religion, womanhood, sexuality, media, fear—you name it. While I understand from the introductory paragraph that it’s set in a pre-existing universe, the reader will have no problem with this story is they’re unfamiliar with Peterfreund’s books, as I was. (Though, I might go find them now. It was that good.)
Lavie Tidhar’s “The Night Train” starts with a line that shocked me into a laugh: “Her name wasn’t Molly and she didn’t wear shades, reflective or otherwise.” One line doesn’t make a story, but Tidhar keeps it up from there. The issue of gender and performance in the story is well-handled, I thought, within the context of Southeast-Asian society.
“Still Life (A Sexagesimal Fairy Tale)” by Ian Tregillis follows with a story of time and shifting time, set in a beautiful, frozen city. The writing is light and swift, as a fairy tale should be, and the story follows an equally light, quick pattern.
“Amor Vincit Omnia” by K.J. Parker wasn’t as good as the stories preceding it; while entertaining, it had a slow start and some problematic gender constructions. That might be owed to the society it’s set in, but the problems aren’t examined very thoroughly.
“The Things” by Peter Watts was, strangely, the biggest disappointment for me: I’d heard so many good things about the story, but when I finally read it, I was a bit confused at the hype. (I have read the text it was based on; recently, in fact.) Watts is a competent writer who has penned tales I’ve adored in the past, but this didn’t do a thing for me. If shorter, it might have worked better. The idea of a snapshot from the point of view of the creature in “Who Goes There?” is neat, but neat cannot keep a reader entertained for that many pages, and nothing else really happens. It begins to feel repetitive quickly and never saves itself from that problem. It left a bad taste in my mouth.
Following this is the only “steampunk” story of sorts in the volume, “The Zeppelin Conductor’s Society Annual Gentleman’s Ball” by Genevieve Valentine. It works for me (despite the fact that I am leery of steampunk lately) because it is a sad, bitter look at the world she has created, told by a person who doesn’t quite see it that way.
The last story is the best, though: Rachel Swirsky’s “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window.” I can hardly put into words what this story does that makes it so damned great, but it’s also on the Nebula nominee list and Locus’s Recommended Reading, so obviously I’m not the only one who loved it. It begins as a sorcery story in a matriarchal culture and then slips through time and evolution of society to an egalitarian, magical future, then to the end of the world and the beginning of the next. It’s many things at once—feminist commentary, relationship story, fantasy epic, betrayal story—and it weaves them all together so well. Swirsky has done it again with this tale. Aside from all that “doing,” it’s also beautiful.
As a whole, I heartily recommend Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Five. The stories are a mix of genres, tastes and visions—there is something for every reader, and nearly all of them are great works of short fiction. A few might even be masterpieces. Check it out; you won’t regret it.