I always look forward to Strahan’s “Year’s Best” anthologies because he tends to gather a lot of very unique stories that stretch the traditional boundaries of fantasy and scifi. Several of the authors have appeared in every Strahan anthology I’ve ever read, while others are new voices. Overall, it makes for a unique, riveting collection, and one of the best yet.
As always, K.J. Parker’s contribution was amongst my favourites. In “I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There” takes place in a world where magic is illegal, supposedly nonexistent, and basically gives you “the power to do anything, anything at all, so long as you don’t want to do it.” The dialogue is sharp, witty, and hilarious:
“In order to learn from me,” he said, “there’s something you need to do. Most people won’t do it. A great many people simply can’t. Unfortunate, but there it is.”
“I see,” I said. “Do what, exactly?”
His face was blank, open and totally sincere. “You need to pay me one hundred and seventy-five thalers,” he said.
And while the whole story is comedic, it still manages moments of insight:
"Because that’s what people do, whenever some powerful new thing comes along. If we’d all been born in darkness and someone invented the Sun, the first we’d know about it was when someone used it to burn his way into the First Consolidated Bank."
“Collateral” by Peter Watts was for me, the most memorable story in the collection. A near-future bombshell, it tells the story of a cyborg whose battle software goes haywire. Since the software works off human instincts before they can even reach conscious thought, where is the guilt or blame in actions taken with “preconscious intent”? The story explores how our emotions play into our definition of morality, and how in some ways our humanity dictates our definition of morality. I still can’t get the ending out of my mind.
"Do you know what morality is, really?” Becker looked coolly into the other woman’s eyes. “It’s letting two stranger’s kids die so you can save one of your own. It’s thinking it makes some kind of difference if you look into someone’s eyes when you kill them."
Alice Sola Kim’s “Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying” was another absolute favourite, a laugh-out-loud, no-holds-barred portrayal of growing up as a Korean adopted teenage girl. But these teenage girls decide to do a little magic to see if they can contact their mothers. It’s hilarious and creepy and bittersweet and incisive all at once:
“This is one problem with having another set of parents. A dotted outline of parents. For every time your parents forget to pick you up from soccer practice, there is the other set that would have picked you up."
The author is definitely now on my to-read list.
“Tawny Petticoats” by Michael Swanwick was another favourite from an author new to me. It’s just pure, straightforward fun, a heist with a twist that takes place in an imaginative alternate New Orleans where manual labour is done by the zombies. It’s both comedic and suspenseful, with a delightfully tongue-in-cheek irony that was almost Oscar Wildean (Wildesque? Wildeish?) in flavour:
“Corruption is a necessary and time-honored concomitant of any functioning government, and one we support wholeheartedly.”
The tone of the stories alternates wildly. “The Long Haul” by Ken Liu takes place in an alternate reality where the Hindenberg never exploded and zepplins sail the sea air. Weaving together themes of culture clash and loneliness, marriage and language, it is as soothing and thoughtful and airy loneliness and space and marriage, culture clash, building language, as soothing and remote as a zepplin ride in the sky. “Shadow Flock” by Greg Egan is equally acute, yet with a tense, dark mood: it’s a heist story in a near-future world where monitoring is ubiquitous and inescapable.
“If they can see everywhere, and reach anywhere, how are you going to protect us?”
I always say that anthologies have something for everyone, and this also means that not every story will work perfectly for each person. Even so--and most unusually for me-- there were no stories in the collection that I actively disliked. Every story in the collection is unique, and the sheer variety of the collection kept me engaged. Although perhaps rather too many of the writers were familiar to me, I found several new authors for whom I'll definitely be on the lookout.
~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Rebellion: Solaris, in exchange for my honest review. Thank you!~~
This book is six hundred or so pages, so my full review is even longer than usual. If you want to see my comments on all of the other stories in the collection, you can find out about the rest below the pagebreak.
In my anthology reviews, I generally try to mention every story, typically in order of descending preference. However, in this case, I enjoyed the stories in such different ways that I found it impossible to compile such a ranking.
If I have a bone to pick with the collection, it’s the familiarity of the authors. I’ve read a lot of Strahan’s collections, and I’d say a good 80% of these authors pop up in the other collections. Many of the repeats are, of course, incredibly gifted, created, meaningful, or just plain enjoyable stories. To my mind, K.J. Parker and Ken Liu have earned a place in any “Year’s Best” anthology. “Tough Times All Over” by Joe Abercrombie wins the award of being the first Abercrombie story that I actually liked. It’s an exuberant comedy, basically an enormous game of pass-the-parcel, that just keeps escalating and becoming more and more outrageous. “Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad #8)” by Caitlin R Kiernan is utterly spooky, fairy tale twisted into a murder spree, a story of “red-capped girls and wolfish hearts.” I found the dense stream-of-consciousness mixed with jibbering dialogue very difficult to read, but there’s something about the story that stuck with me. “Moriabe’s Children” by Paolo Bacigalupi is another odd, vaguely disturbing story where the monsters are both metaphorical and real. “Covenant” by Elizabeth Bear is a shivery horror story, told by a “rightminded” woman who remembers life as an inhuman man.
However, several, such as “Shay Chorsham Worsted” by Garth Nix, are thoroughly enjoyable and readable, but are less unique or creative than I would have wished. “Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind)” by Holly Black is a cute, fluffy little space romp with at least one memorable quote:
“Monsters aren’t supposed to be able to make tea. If monsters can make tea, then nothing’s safe.”
But although the story has a lovely childish simplicity, I suspect that it might not have made it into the collection without a famous name attached. Ellen Klages shows up twice in the collection. “Calico Lane” plays with “ori-chizu” and the magic of mists and maps, while “Amicae Aeternum” is a poignant story about a little girl who must say goodbye to earth forever. While I enjoyed her stories, I would have enjoyed seeing more new talent.
Some of the authors were either new or newly memorable for me. “The Insects of Love” by Genevieve Valentine is haunting and strange, a disjointed story told by a woman who is trying to comprehend her sister’s disappearance even as she simultaneously experiences many pasts and futures. “Grand Jete” by Rachel Swirsky is a horror story blended with Jewish tradition about a father who replaces her daughter with a golem of herself, granting her “sideways immortality...a quantum mechanical soul.” “Kheldyu” by Karl Schoeder was memorable for its technology alone; I loved his vision of a “solar updraft plant” and his analysis of the way ethics can be lost in “industrial logic.” “Four Days of Christmas” by Tim Maughan is a telling accusation of our consumer society. It traces the life of gimmicky animatronic Santas from birth in a factory in Yiwu, China, to their eventual life after death. “The Fifth Dragon” by Ian McDonald is a vivid, ambiguous portrayal of a mining colony on the moon where even air is not free:
“Nothing tells you that you are not on Earth any more than exhaling at one price and inhaling at another.”
A few stories were simple and poignant. “The Lady and The Fox” by Kelly Link is a sweet little romance story about a girl whose romance is out of time, but also an exploration of what it means to be “real.” “The Truth about Owls” by Amal el-Mohtar is a girl’s experience growing up within a divided culture. “The Scrivener” by Eleanor Arnason is a cute, sweet, but entirely unsubtle tale of three daughters-- Imagination, Ornamentation, and Plot-- who set out on a quest into the deep dark woods to learn to tell a story.
Other stories were so peculiar or unexpected that reading them was more of a struggle. “The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family” by Usman T Malik uses chemistry as an analogy for more fundamental questions about humanity. In “Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology” by Theodora Goss, a bunch of anthropologists dream a city into being, but not even they can predict some of the society’s cultural twists.
“We dream countries, and then those countries dream us.”
“The Devil in America” by Kai Ashante WIlson is an uneasy clash of racism and witchcraft, intermittently split by commentary on the writing of the story from contemporary times. The changing tenses and times, the sheer ambiguity, and the painful exploration of racism made it difficult to read on many levels. “Someday” by James Patrick Kelly was probably my least favourite story in the collection. It portrays a woman’s night finding three sperm donors for her baby, and while it is supposed to be an enlightened futuristic alien culture, it comes across all too prurient for me.
Overall, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable collection, and a great antidote for anyone suffering from Hugo woes. If you’re looking for a way to find some new authors to read, this may be the collection for you.