Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Two, edited by Jonathan Strahan

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Two
Jonathan Strahan (editor)
Night Shade Books: 2008

Does the world really need another Year's Best anthology of SFF short stories? There may not necessarily be nearly as many such anthologies as it feels, but how many different people do we need to tell us what the best stories of the year are? Isn't that what Gardner Dozois is for?


Perhaps not. While flooding the market with umpteen (an actual number) "best of" anthologies could be considered overkill, the cream would still rise to the top. Talented, discerning editors with an eye for good stories will always and should always have a place at the table. While most editors will agree on something like Ted Chiang's "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" (Strahan and Dozois do), there may be disagreement on exactly which story written by Elizabeth Bear merits inclusion. Dozois likes "Tideline" and Strahan prefers "Orm the Beautiful". Strahan is right, of course, but it is the difference in opinion that makes a variety of "Best Of" anthologies valuable. Out of the twenty five stories in this anthology, only 6 overlap with Dozois's yearly science fiction anthology (which contains 32 stories). The SFF short fiction market is strong and heavy laden with good stories. Since, in most cases, there will not be a consensus on which stories are the "best" of a given year (Ted Chiang not withstanding), there is definitely room for multiple anthologies reprinting the "Best" stories of the year.

With that said, I had the chance to read and review Jonathan Strahan's "Best of" anthology for 2007 fiction: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Two. Strahan opens the anthology with the quite excellent and already award-laden "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", a well put together story seemingly set in a historic Middle East, but which features time travel. It is a clever tale and rightfully has received its share of praise.

Most of the stories in this anthology are quite excellent, from Peter S. Beagle's "The Last and Only, or Mr. Moskowitz Bocomes French" to Elizabeth Bear's sad and haunting "Orm the Beautiful", a story which gets better with each reading. There are outstanding stories here, from Daniel Abraham's "The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics" to M. Rickert's "Holiday". In most cases, Jonathan Strahan has a great eye for picking a good story.

In some cases, though, Strahan's eye fails him. This is not necessarily his fault, because other people have found some of these next stories I mention to be a cut above the rest. They're wrong, of course, but some of those disappointing stories have found their way into this anthology. Bruce Sterling's "Kiosk" is one such story. Sure, Cory Doctorow loved it, but this story of fabrikators and social upheavals is a turgid bit of story, overlong and overdone. Yes, I'm saying the story is swollen. "Kiosk" compares very unfavorably to Nancy Kress's similar and far superior "Nano Comes to Clifford Falls" (not in this anthology). Another story which is just as unsuccessful is Charles Stross's "Trunk and Disorderly" (audio here). The story is intended to be funny, working as a comedy of social settings in the mold of P.G. Wodehouse, and maaaaaybe it works on that level, but honestly, the story isn't funny. Perhaps it comes across better in audio format, but it doesn't read well. Better is Greg Egan's "Glory", but this story of math and space opera won't appeal to all readers.

I've pointed out five stories which are simply outstanding and three which were true disappointments. What else is in the anthology?

More good stuff. Ken MacLeod's "Jesus Christ, Reanimator" is a quiet and sad tale of the second coming of Jesus which may honestly end the only way it could, but it still ends as a bit of a surprise, as if I expected MacLeod to do something other than what he did, but what he did was tell a good story. "Last Contact" from Stephen Baxter is a beautiful story about the end of the world.

Attention should be paid to Daryl Gregory's "Dead Horse Point", a story really about love and responsibility, but with a character who can essentially disappear into herself and work out complex theories of mathematics. The story is about the brother and friend left behind when Julia "disappears" and is one that deserves to be read slowly (not because it requires extra work to figure out, but just because it's a beautiful story that should be savored). "The Prophet of Flores" by Ted Kosmaktka features a world which has disproved Darwin and believes in a very narrow view of creation. In such a world the discovery of the little "hobbit" like humans on the island of Flores has the potential to completely upset the status quo and question the underlying and intertwined scientific and religious beliefs of an alternate Earth.

The last story I want to mention is "Wizard's Six" by Alex Irvine. This is an action / adventure fantasy story with an assassin following a rogue wizard who is intent on collecting the six apprentices required to become truly dangerous (the wizard, not the assassin). For the majority of the story Irvine keeps the focus tight on Paulus, only broadening it at the end when we get the confrontation the story requires. Irvine has quite a different take on the concept of wizards and a fantasy world and while I'd like to see more in this particular setting, "Wizard's Six" is a reasonably tight story that is worth checking out to see what else fantasists are doing.

Tastes differ greatly between readers and what I found to be the exceptional stories of this anthology, another reader may find to be the disappointment and will likewise be thrilled by what I couldn't abide. Such is the strength of the genre, to encompass a variety of viewpoints and preferences.

While I have not read many other "Best of" anthologies, I have to believe that The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Two is among the "best" of the best. Jonathan Strahan has put together a more than solid anthology here and it is a damn fine one. Readers of just about any stripe will be able to find something they want to read and should very well be delighted by stories and writers they had not otherwise experienced.

This is an anthology to pick up and add to the collection.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Night Shade Books.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Sounds good, and the promise of a story by Peter Beagle....I should get this one.