Best SF&Fantasy of the Year (2013)
edited by Jonathan Strahan
I remember a time when, unless you were interested in "Sunday Review"-type books, the only information available to a prospective reader was the cover, the blurb, and maybe a few heavily excerpted praises slapped carelessly onto the covers. My solution was anthologies: short story collections gave me a low-risk, high-reward way of expanding my reading horizons, and I've found several favourite authors in "Year's Best" collections. Even with the availability of online reviews and sample chapters, anthologies still provide a unique and valuable glimpse into the author's concept of denouement, suspense, humour, imagination, and daring. Anthologies challenge me to read outside my narrow subgenres of choice, and looking back, I'm truly impressed by how many exceptional stories I encountered. After reading Volume 8, I now have a whole list of new authors to explore.
I plan to blurb and comment on each of the nearly 30 short-stories, and since the book is over 650 dense pages, this is going to be a horrifically lengthy review. To mitigate this, I'll start off with the spectacular ones and make my way down in rough order of preference.
Scifi has long been known as a way of exploring future pitfalls and present injustices, and several of the stories truly shone in this arena. "Water" by Ramez Naam was as spectacular as it was unexpected, a delightfully ironic look at a future in which personal advertising encroaches (even more) directly into our minds. In Naam's world, most people have neural implants to improve cognition, often because your only employment options are "wired or fired." The implants incredibly expensive, so most people are forced to use ad-sponsored versions, meaning that the circuitry can alter dopamine and norepenepherine, whisper subconscious thoughts, and more, all in an effort to get the beleaguered consumer to buy, buy, buy. As Simon, a rich entrepreneur who uses the neural advertising to sell his Pura Vita water, thinks,
"It was just the way the world worked. Want to be smarter? Want a photographic memory? Want to learn a new language or a new instrument or how to code overnight? Want all those immersive entertainment options? Want that direct connections with your loved ones? But don't have the cash?
Then accept the ads, boyo. And once you do, stop complaining. Not that Simon wanted the ads himself, mind you. No, it was worth the high price to keep the top-of-the-line, ad-free version running in his brain."
All is fair in love, war, and advertising, and in a game where every second counts, the competition will stop at nothing, including espionage, to get ahead. The story is gleefully critical and delightfully black-humoured, and the sheer irony of the ending end actually made me laugh. I will definitely seek out more of Mr. Naam's work.
"The Sleeper and the Spindle" by Neil Gaiman was another gem, a twisted fairy tale in which Snow White is pulled into a quest to aid Sleeping Beauty. I'm usually a bit mixed about Gaiman, but I think this story was lovely, and I think its brevity actually improved my appreciation for the story. Some of my favourite quotes:
"She wondered how she would feel to be a married woman. It seemed both unlikely and extremely final. It would be the end of her life, she decided, if life was a time of choices."
"Wake her how?" asked the middle dwarf, hand still clutching his rock [a ruby], for he thought in essentials.
"The usual method," said the pot girl, and she blushed. "Or so the tales have it."
"Right," said the tallest dwarf, who was also beardless. "So, bowl of cold water poured on the face and a cry of 'Wakey! Wakey!'?"
As usual, Gaiman perfectly captured the fairy-tale tone and managed to produce a delightful, heartwarming, and even somewhat thought-provoking little story.
"The Sun and I" by K. J. Parker was another absolutely terrific high-fantasy jaunt that managed to combine humour with a bit of social commentary. The narrator, Eps, is part of a group of upper-class layabout wastrels are out of cash and up for a scheme. Unfortunately, they'd make for improbable beggars, and in their war-torn world, penniless veterans are practically passe. Then Eps suggests,
"We could always invent God."
And so the ruse begins. The group decides to construct a religion whose keystone, naturally, is donating lots and lots of money to the church, but is also
"Tailored precisely to the needs and expectations of the customer. That's where all the old religions screwed up, you see; they weren't planned or custom-fitted, they just sort of grew."
All too soon, the scheme is taking on a life of its own. I found Eps to be an extremely entertaining character, and not just because I somehow gave him the voice of Bertie Wooster. It really seems to fit--for instance, here's a standard Eps-ism:
"Just because he doesn't say much, people think he's smart. Whereas I talk all the time, and you just have to listen to me for two seconds to realise how very clever I am."
The story pokes good-natured fun at several well-known religions, but never crosses into offensiveness. I found "The Sun and I" to be one of the highlights of the collection, and it definitely pushed Parker's Engineer Trilogy up my to-read list.
One of the most important factors for me in speculative fiction is imagination, and in that respect, I many of the stories definitely delivered. I think my favourite was In "Effigy Nights" by Yoon Ha Lee. When the scifi city of Imulai Mokarengen ("Inkblot of the gods") comes under attack, one of the city's wardens convinces an ex-surgeon-priest to release fabled beings from the city's stories into the streets to protect the city. I loved the creativity and imagination, the idea of the Saint of Guns and other beings trapped within the lines of text, waiting patiently to be released by sharp scissors. The elaborately fanciful concept is a perfect fit for the poetic language and haunting conclusion; while I'm not sure how I would handle an entire novel of such elaborate prose, I think it worked beautifully in the shorter setting. A quote:
"Worlds are made to be pressed for their wine, cities taste of fruit when I bite them open."
There were plenty of other fantastic (and some rather less impressive) stories, but I'll put them beneath the fold. Fair warning--there's about two dozen left to go!
"The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" by Ted Chiang was placed directly after "Water" and takes place in another near-future high-tech world. In Chiang's world, subvocal communication, full-life recording, and retinal projectors have become standard. A reporter is writing an investigative piece on a new technology, Remem, which gives the user the ability to effortlessly search through his recollections, to, as the journalist puts it, "take the place of your natural memory." (In case you can't catch the dig at a certain well-known search engine, the company's spiel is that "Making information more accessible is an intrinsic good.") This story is interwoven with another introduction of world-changing assistive technology: a European missionary brings writing to Tiv, utterly changing the fabric of society. Personally, I found the journalist a rather tiresome phobic--for example, he claims that people with eidetic memories have trouble focusing, something empirically untrue despite the neatness of the syllogism-- and was quite delighted by a twist later in the tale. I was intrigued by one of the story's questions: who are we without the unique filtering of our memories? I think my favourite aspect of the story were the reflections on writing and memory:
"We don't normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated. We became cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers, and the consequences of that were profound."
On oral history:
"The idea that accounts of the past shouldn't change is a product of literate cultures' reverence for the written word."
"With our memories we are all guilty of a Whig interpretation of our personal histories, seeing our former selves as steps toward our glorious present selves."
One of the aspects of the anthology that I really appreciated was the variation in everything from location to ethnicity to gender and sexuality, and I really applaud Strahan for find authors who broke that stereotype. One enjoyably non-western-centric story is "Zero for Conduct" by Greg Egan. Latifa is an Afghani-born girl who is studying in a present or near-future Iran with the eventual goal of becoming a chemical engineer. In her free time, she dreams of developing a superconductor, which could have earth-shattering ramifications for rural areas such as her hometown. When her dream seems to be coming true, she needs to figure out how to protect and utilize her inventions.
"In Metal, In Bone" by An Owomoyela is another one that takes place in a contemporary or near-contemporary world, and it gave me a whole new perspective on military dogtags. Benine, a citizen of the unceasingly turbulent and war-torn Morotova, has decided to put his talent to use in identifying the countless bodies of the soldiers. Benine has the ability to see into memories when he touches an object, and now puts it to use by handling the bones in an effort to match the pitiful remains with the lives that were lost. "In Metal, In Bone" gives a heartrending portrait of a war-torn world, and while it ended without a real sense of resolution, I think that fit perfectly with the nature of the story.
"Rag and Bone" by Priya Sharma was another interesting one. Tom, a rag-and-bone man in postwar Liverpool, is a literal collector of blood and bone for the aristocratic Peel family, but it's far from clear how these gruesome purchases are used. When Tom encounters a beautiful woman with a tragic story, he makes some choices that have drastic impact on the trajectory of his own life. The prose itself has an odd, jerky structure; it is almost entirely composed of simple declarative sentences. While it took a little getting used to, I think that the style was a good match for Tom's first-person voice, and the ending left me wishing for more.
"Sing" by Karin Tidbeck was a creepy bit of speculative fiction; told by the deformed tailor Aino, it starts when a strange man from another planet comes into her shop. He wants to understand more about her world; how the rise of the moon Saarakka somehow disables all speech while its companion moon Oksakka removes the sound of birds; how the people of the world sing in high-pitched trills during the rise of Saarakka; what happens on the nights that the great Maderakka rises, when the village-folk walk in a procession to one of the nearby fields. Unfortunately for him, some secrets are not meant to be discovered.(show spoiler)
"The Book Seller" by Lavie Tidhar takes place in an incredibly imaginative future world in which cultures have intermingled and intermixed and old relics such as pulp fiction have become priceless treasures. Achimwene Haile Selassi Jones, a collector of pulp fiction, finds himself rescuing a mysterious girl from an angry mob. In Achimwene's world, almost everyone is Noded, meaning that they are hooked into the vast data web around them. Only a rare few, such as Achimwene himself, are un-noded, and this leaves them isolated and lonely, but also means that they are immune to the bite of the Strigoi (data vampires), who bite into the nodes of their victims and suck out their memories and information. The story itself feels oddly--if intentionally--unstructured and incomplete. This is definitely intended; as the narrator says,
"There comes a time in a man's life when he realises stories are lies. Things do not end neatly. The enforced narratives a human imposes on the chaotic mess that is life become empty lavels, like the dried husks of corn such as are thrown down, in the summer months, from the adaptoplant neighborhoods high above Central Station, to litter the streets below.
While the story left me unsatisfied, I loved the world, from the Shambleau to the robotniks, relics of the old world in which injured soldiers were transformed into cyborg killing machines that were granted neither rights nor humanity.
I found many other stories interesting, if perhaps a little less compelling.
In "Mystic Falls" by Robert Reed, some sort of virus, masquerading as a beautiful girl, seems to have invaded the memories of the entire world under a whole host of names and guises. The narrator is chosen to meet her, to discover her purpose, and to stop her. I enjoyed the story, but I found it a little heavy-handed, and also had the nagging sense that I'd encountered a similar concept before. I was recently captivated by Reed's imagination and unusual use of language in his Memory of Sky, and while it is a little muted in this story, the vibrant imagery was still present; for example:
"The powerful, wondrous sense that I have blood and my own shadow, and nobody else needs to be real, if just one of us is."
I also enjoyed "The Promise of Space" by James Patrick Kelly, a heartbreakingly sweet little vignette in which a wife tries to retell the story of her marriage to her husband, who is suffering from an Azheimers'-like ailment.
"Entangled" by Ian R MacLeod takes place in a future in which the people of the world have become deeply connected and able to share thoughts and emotions effortlessly. Martha is one of the few un-entangled; she experiences an isolation even deeper than a deafblind person in our world. A chance encounter with a little girl causes her to revisit and unravel the tragedy of her own past. The story was interesting, even if the twist was rather obvious, but I suspect that similarities to a previous story in the collection, Tidhar's "The Book Seller," may have lessened my appreciation of the worldbuilding.
Others in the collection were enjoyable without being particularly groundbreaking or thought-provoking.
When I read "The Road of Needles" by Caitlin R. Kiernan, I ended up with the themesong of Firefly stuck in my head, and I think the worldbuilding will appeal to a similar audience.The protagonist, a freight runner in a far-distant future, has awakened to find that the ship's AI is not responding and that her cargo of isotainers have come to life and are growing at a spectacular and aggressive rate. As she stumbles through the newly-formed forests of the isotainers on her way to the helm, she starts thinking about her daughter back on earth, and her daughter's favourite bedtime story, Little Red Riding Hood.(show spoiler)
Several of the stories returned to the classics.
"The Ink Readers of Doi Saket" by Thomas Olde Heuvelt is a charming little story. It takes place in a Thai village in which an old legend causes an annual deluge of wishes by way of the river. A young boy named Tangmoo, desperately seeking some sort of enlightenment, ends up finding out about an underhanded plot instead. The tone and flavour of the story was something like a cross between Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds and Terry Pratchett , with all the light-hearted brutality and charming situational absurdity that one expects from a good fairy tale. For example, take the author's explanation of nicknames:
"The Thai custom of addressing one another by nickname is meant to remember oneself better and fool the spirits into forgetting peoples' real names. As do the Thai themselves, for that matter. [...] the unemployed mushroom picker Pakpao named her son Ham after David Beckham (Until his classmates discovered that in the mountain dialect "Ham" means 'sack full of testicles,' causing his well-meaning mother, unable to resist his ceaseless badgering, to rename him Porn.)
"Cherry Blossoms on the River Of Souls" by Richard Parks is a sweet little journey-story in which the young boy Hiroshi hears music coming from the bottom of a well and goes down to investigate. While I didn't find it spectacular, it was gentle and enjoyable and deftly captured the tone of a fairy tale.
"Kormak the Lucky" by Eleanor Arnason also felt very much like a standard fairy tale. Kormak, an Irish boy, finds himself sold into slavery to a Viking in Iceland. He ends up being used as a pawn by the Icelandic elves, darkelves, and even the Irish fae. My least favourite aspect of the story is the dark-elves "magic," which is simply modern technology such as electric carts. While I know they are intended to be amusing, such carelessly un-altered and therefore uncreative anachronisms tend to throw me out of the story. However, I enjoyed the tale, even if I've heard all the variants of the three gifts, enchanted people, and weaving princess tales before.
In the highly-mechanised and not-too-distant future of "Social Services" by Madeline Ashby, Lena gets ready for her day's work as an agent of social services. When she's sent out to do a home-check out in the abandoned haunts of suburbia, she isn't ready for what's in store. While the twist is far from unexpected, the story is enjoyable.(show spoiler)
Given the thematic and stylistic variety of the collection, there were necessarily a few stories that I found less appealing. Some failed to resonate with me, perhaps because I missed the underlying message.
"The Herons of Mer de L'ouest" by M. Bennardo takes place in America in the mid-1700s and tells the story of a trapper who discovers both unknown tribes and bizarre creatures in the remote reaches of Canada. I'm not quite sure what to make of it; for me, it didn't have the clear emotional or intellectual punch I look for in a short story.
"The Master Conjurer" by Charlie Jane Anders was entertaining enough, but didn't do much for me. It takes place in an alternate world in which magic is possible, but at a terrible cost and often arbitrary cost. An ordinary bloke named Peter becomes famous for doing a spell with, apparently, no negative side effects. (There's no in-text explanation for how on earth anyone determined this, given that his fame had plenty of negative consequences on its own.) The story explores how Peter's life is changed by this anomalous bit of magic. While I found parts of the story humorous, I think much of it passed me by.
"The Pilgrim and the Angel" by E Lily Yu is another one that didn't really resonate with me. It tells the story of Fareed Halawani, who is just minding his shop and wistfully thinking about visiting his son in America when the angel Gabriel appears and takes him on the hajj. Somehow, I think I missed the core message of this one.
"Fade to Gold" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew was another one that did nothing for me. Other than a little gender-bending and the introduction of a krasue, it struck me as a bog-standard fantasy story garnished with occasionally dreadfully purple prose, complete with mixed metaphors; for example:
"So I seal my lips and pronounce none of these wounds. Better they suppurate than my shame be cast into the day. She may have the secret of my gender, but this is mine alone to nurse."
"Between my waking delirium transmuting earth to a sanguine river and us stopping to drink from a pool, we hear the Phma."
One issue I had with several of the stories is that they simply lacked magic. I'm not sure if there's really a good definition of speculative fiction, but I felt that for some of these stories to fit into the definition, "fantasy" and "science fiction" would need to be redefined as "anything that is only slightly off from reality," thereby encompassing basically all of fiction. In general, I don't think that ill-imagined and even more poorly researched regurgitations of history should count as "fantasy."
"Some Desperado" by Joe Abercrombie takes place in an under-researched Old West--or something so close to it that I couldn't tell the difference--and opens with the thoughts of a hard-travelled girl with a price on her head fleeing from another band of desperados. The strong dialect of the third person narrator didn't endear me to the story, and since I found it to be devoid of denouement, message, or theme, I don't want to say any more in case I spoil whatever was actually there. I've never read one of Abercrombie's books; I suspect it may tie in to one of his series.
For example, "The Irish Astronaut" by Van Nolan tells the story of an American astronaut who goes to Ireland after several of his fellows are killed. As far as I can tell, it takes place in the past rather than the future and is simply an imagined character who is trying to reconstruct his life after a tragedy similar to that of the Challenger or the Columbia. While I do think it's a slow, sweet little story, I think it's more about Irish life than astronauts or science fiction.
I can't really summarise "Cave and Julia" by M John Harrison because I have no idea what the actual point of the story was intended to be. Basically, a cultural journalist and a novelist discover something strange in a remote area in the North Sea and are changed by the experience. I think it's attempting to be a more poetic Lovecraft or a realism with a touch of the supernatural, but it failed me on all counts.
"Selkie Stories are For Losers" by Sofia Samatar is another that felt unsatisfyingly incomplete to me. It's told in first person by a young girl who, as you might have guessed, doesn't like selkie stories, mainly because they strike a little too close to home. Most of the heart of the story is about her (entirely unmagical) relationship with another troubled girl and their desire to leave their hometown.
In "Rosary and Goldenstar" by Geoff Ryman, two fellows from Denmark--Frederik Rosenkrantz and Knnud Gyldenstierne--come to visit one Guillerme Shakespeare, who happens to be spending time with Squire Digges and John Dee. Some rather technical talk of telescopes and planets ensues, as well as much hilarity surrounding English customs and linguistic confusions:
"I told you they had to mime everything."
"No wonder they are good with numbers. They can't use words!""It's why there will never be a great poet in English."
While I thought it was fun, I don't think it's "fantasy" unless the term includes any historical fiction that slightly deviates from reality.
Despite its aggressively sci-fi trappings, "The Queen of Night's Aria" by Ian McDonald was definitely not one of my favourites. It tells the story of an obnoxious and impecunious opera singer and his assistant who take a gig near a battle front in Mars and quickly discover that there was a reason for all that hazard pay. The story and conception are so dated that I actually checked to see if it really could have been written in this half-century. The worldbuilding felt cheap and rickety to me: not only does it take place on a heavily-inhabited and essentially earthlike Mars; it's also supported mainly by the plethora of scrabble-babble alienspeak that is thrown to the reader without association or description. We have krug, onibashi, Uliri, proles, padvas, gestates, panjas, Twav, and Tharsian Warqueens, but apparently most of the nations, cultures, and folksongs have remained static since the 20th century. Cliche abounds; we have mole-machines and octopus people and hive-minds and flying batlike aliens and marsh aliens, plus a pompous discussion of blue-orange morality. The humour and characters felt as dated as the story; for example:
"That's what this bloody world needs. Really needs. Women, Faisal. Women. Leave men together and they soon agree to make a wasteland. Women are a civilizing force.
The final twist is as tired as the rest. I'm still incredulous that this was written recently, but maybe it's an homage to a previous scifi era. I can certainly picture it with a Baen-style cover.
Like any grab-bag, short story collections will necessarily have some stories that appeal and some that don't; they're usually guaranteed to have at least one story that suits each reader and one story that repels them. For me, this anthology was a remarkably good fit; there are a few real gems in the collection, and it left me with a host of new authors to explore. No matter your tastes, if you're a fan of fantasy or science fiction, I would bet that at least one of these stories will leave you enthralled.
~~I received this ebook through NetGalley from the publisher, Solaris Books, in exchange for my honest review.~~
Yes, it has Pratchett-style footnotes.
For my own recollections, I rated each story separately, mainly because I'm planning on chasing down the five-stars and probably the fours as well.
"Effigy Nights" by Yoon Ha Lee
"The Sleeper and the Spindle" by Neil Gaiman
"Water" by Ramez Naam
"The Sun and I" by K. J. Parker
"Rag and Bone" by Priya Sharma
"The Book Seller" by Lavie Tidhar
"The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" by Ted Chiang
"Zero for Conduct" by Greg Egan
"Sing" by Karin Tidbeck
"In Metal, In Bone" by An Owomoyela
"The Promise of Space" by James Patrick Kelly
"The Ink Readers of Doi Saket" by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
"Entangled" by Ian R MacLeod
"The Road of Needles" by Caitlin R. Kiernan
"Cherry Blossoms on the River Of Souls" by Richard Parks
"The Irish Astronaut" by Van Nolan
"Kormak the Lucky" by Eleanor Arnason
"Social Services" by Madeline Ashby
"The Pilgrim and the Angel" by E Lily Yu
"Selkie Stories are For Losers" by Sofia Samatar
"The Master Conjurer" by Charlie Jane Anders
"The Herons of Mer de L'ouest" by M. Bennardo
"Fade to Gold" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
"Cave and Julia" by M John Harrison
"Rosary and Goldenstar" by Geoff Ryman
"Some Desperado" by Joe Abercrombie
"The Queen of Night's Aria" by Ian McDonald