In February, I reviewed The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year (V. 5) edited by Jonathan Strahan and published by Night Shade—and now, in July, Prime Books has released Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2011. There are some points of overlap, but it’s fascinating to see where they don’t agree, and what stories Horton includes that weren’t in the Strahan and vice versa. Each of these series is a yearly favorite of mine, and I look forward to them.
There are six overlapping stories, almost equally SF and fantasy: “Amor Vincit Omnia” by K.J. Parker, “The Sultan of the Clouds” by Geoffrey Landis, “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window” by Rachel Swirsky, “The Things” by Peter Watts, “Under the Moons of Venus” by Damian Broderick, and “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon” by Elizabeth Hand.
The interesting thing about those overlapping stories is that nearly all of them have found their way onto Nebula and Hugo nominee ballots this year, as well as other awards like the Shirley Jackson. I’ll revisit the best ones in this review, though this makes the third or fourth time I’ve read some of these particular tales. I can see why, even though certain of them weren’t to my taste, they appear in Horton’s Year’s Best.
There are simply too many stories in this volume to review them one-by-one; instead, I’ll hit the highlights and the low points. (But, too many stories is a good thing!)
The novellas in this book tended to be my favorites; that’s either a function of how well speculative fiction is suited to the novella, or just a sign that 2010 was a good year for them. There is, of course, Rachel Swirsky’s (now Nebula-winning) “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window,” one of my absolute favorite pieces of last year—the story is gripping, its scope is astounding, the prose is phenomenal, and the examinations of gender and morality are excellent. I’ve read it several times, and would happily do so again.
Paul Park’s “Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance” was another great novella; the play with narrative, storytelling, and slow, careful worldbuilding in it are all extremely well-done. The slow revelation of the actual world the narrator lives in—a damaged one teetering on collapse—in contrast to the stories he tells about it, real and imagined (or perhaps all imagined), creates a push-and-pull with the reader regarding what we can believe. The fantastical or perhaps science-fictional ending, the people in the field fighting off the armies of ghosts, is a nice cap to the whole thing.
“The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon” by Elizabeth Hand is yet another fabulous novella, totally different in focus and tone than the previous two, which are in turn totally different from each other. Its focus is close, personal, and exploratory—the speculative element is delicate though very much present in the lives of the characters, who are realistic and damaged. If I had to pick a word to describe this novella, it would be “understated,” but I mean it as a compliment. Hand’s precise prose makes for a subtle but intense story, built a little piece of description at a time into something great.
Yet another novella, again of a different sort than the others, is Robert Reed’s “Dead Man’s Run.” On the surface, it’s about runners, but it’s also about technology, social engineering, and human interaction—the combination makes for a fascinating story that made me genuinely interested in, well, competitive running. The edge of danger and violence in the story, not by anything fantastical but just people towards other people, keeps the tension high. The ending is a nice strong slap that leaves the reader contemplating the implications and possibilities for some long while after finishing the story. Reed’s prose is without flaw, also, perfectly capturing his large cast of characters.
As for the shorter fiction, the story that stuck with me the most was An Omowoyela’s “Abandonware.” It’s a contemporary SF story about programming, family and loss. The carefully constructed small world of the protagonist is emotionally wrenching as the reader experiences the loss of his sister alongside the discovery of the strange program she created and his decision to follow her instructions and destroy it after her death. It’s just a perfect little story; I loved it. It has everything I look for—emotion, the hint of the unreal, and realistic human interaction. (Plus, it’s referential in a very fun way.)
I also enjoyed “The Other Graces” by Alice Sola Kim. The exploration of race, class and emotional need through the eyes of one of the older, “other” Grace(s) while she tries to guide and watch the younger Grace is gripping. The speculative element drives the realistic story, narrating the young Grace’s life and memories through the eyes of an alternate-universe Grace, and we never quite get to see what happens with her quest to go to an Ivy League school.
“The Word of Azrael” by Matthew David Surridge is a told-tale, which is a hard form to do well, but he manages just fine. There is a rhythm to the story as it is read, the beat of names and places flowing into a poetic declamation. It’s high fantasy, with angels of death and swordfighting and massacres, but the core of the tale remains that it is simply a story, and we can make of it what we will.
C. S. E. Cooney’s “Braiding the Ghosts” has a touch of romance, a touch of horror, and all-together gorgeous prose. The relationships between the women of this family and the reality of Stix Haunt is hair-raising, but it’s also a story about identity and growing up, though the end result is the murder of the matriarch of the Stix family. It’s intense and the magic-system is remarkably cool. The implications about the death of the Stix family line—or maybe not—are also fascinating. I deeply enjoyed this story.
As for those I was less than fond of, they are strangely the same stories I disliked in the Strahan “year’s best.” Peter Watt’s “The Things” remains the extremely popular tale that I cannot stand, and can’t fathom what anyone else sees in it—it’s dull, repetitive, and seems to stand solely on the fact that it’s a derivative of a popular old story. That’s not enough for me. “Amor Vincit Omnia” by K. J. Parker is deeply problematic in its gender constructions to the point that it detracts from my enjoyment of the reading; the plot is perfectly serviceable, but the story is not to my taste. An all male leading cast minus a whore who dies at the end is just—not my thing. One further nitpick is that in the Gene Wolfe story, “Bloodsport,” there are two major typesetting flubs: repeated paragraphs.
As a whole, this is a balanced volume that explores the speculative field with a wide-ranging eye; it includes dark fantasy, high fantasy, science fiction of all sorts from the near-contemporary to the far-flung future, and even the lightest touch of horror. The larger size of this volume—larger even than Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction this year—allows for Horton to include a several novellas, all of which were fabulous, and it wouldn’t be the same book without them. I love that Prime has put the effort into publishing such a big book, as it allows for a variety of stories that a smaller or more closely themed anthology cannot manage.
Horton’s “year’s best” provides an excellent long look at last year’s accomplishments in short fiction, read with perfect enjoyment alongside the earlier Strahan. The distribution and arrangement of stories is done with a deft hand so that nothing feels repetitive or even too particularly similar. Also, it has a high volume of women writers, which is always nice. I highly recommend this collection, and I hope that this still-young series continues far into the foreseeable future.