Visions of Paradise

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Science Fiction: Best of 2004

Science fiction is frequently called a “genre,” but that is not really a fitting designation for it. It might better be called an “umbrella” since it contains many diverse genres under its spokes, several of them differing in everything except their warping of reality as we know it.

Thus, whenever I read a best-of-the-year volume, whether science fiction or fantasy, I realize I will probably not like every story in the book. Certain stories will invariably fall into my personal “blind spot” that I do not particularly enjoy. Thus it was with Science Fiction: Best of 2004, the latest in the series edited by Karen Haber and Jonathan Strahan. I do not enjoy those hard science stories which are totally dependent on the wonders of scientific extrapolation and high-tech, especially when the storyline itself is little more than a framework for either examining those wonders or, as in the case of two stories in this book, primarily concerned with bombarding the reader with extrapolations.

A prime example of this is Charles Stross’ “Elector,” a stories from his Accelerando series. This series is primarily concerned with portraying life after a Vingean sequence, a topic which has always bored me. Stross’ prior stories in the series have been showing up in best-of-the-year volumes regularly, and I have been unable to finish reading a single one of them. “Elector” was no exception, and I stopped reading about halfway through. If you enjoy Stross’ fiction, or endless bombardments of technological wonders, my inability to finish this story should not be considered a criticism of it, merely a result of the story falling into my personal blind spot.

I do not like action thrillers, and the first scene of Paolo Bagiagalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag” gave every indication of it being a mindless thriller. The only reason I read farther was recalling Bagiagalupi’s wonderful “The Fluted Girl”, perhaps the best story of 2003. I was pleased that I did read further though, because this story was neither thriller nor adventure, but a sensitive story reminding us that no matter how advanced our race might become technologically, the human element is still our most basic motivation. In this case, the cyborg-like post-human soldiers discover the last surviving dog in a war zone and, despite their instincts not to waste time nor money on it, they are inevitably attracted to the dog.

I hated the ending of the story considerably, even though I understand the author’s cynicism in writing it that way. It was almost like he decided at the last moment to discard all the hopefulness which he had portrayed in the rest of the story.

Easily the most frustrating story in the book was Christopher Rowe’s “The Voluntary State.” The first time I tried to read it, I abandoned it halfway. It seemed like all flash and color, similar to Stross’ “Elector”, a display of future change and technological wonders. I only returned to it because it was perhaps the most acclaimed story of 2004, making it onto virtually every recommended reading list, as well as being a Nebula nominee one full year sooner than most stories make that list. Surely it deserved a fuller try.

“The Voluntary State” sparkles with pizzazz and superb writing, as well as a brilliant concept of how inanimate objects in our world, such as cars, telephones, and virtually everything else, become a form of animal life in Rowe’s future vision.

But the story itself did not rise to the level of its writing and concept. It tells of a painter from Tennessee who is kidnapped by terrorists from Kentucky for some nefarious reason involving breaking into the capital of Tennessee...and it goes really nowhere important from there. So while I enjoyed reading the story, and the animal cars were delightful, ultimately it was shallow beneath the surface luster. I am not sure why it has won over so many critics as an instant masterpiece.

Gene Wolfe’s “The Lost Pilgrim” was a time-travel tale from The First Heroes, an anthology of original stories set during the Bronze Age. The story’s title character was sent awry on his trip through time, ending up onboard the Argo along with Jason and the Argonauts. It was an offbeat look at the time traveler’s striving to fit in with the sea culture of that era, serious yet entertaining, as Wolfe stories tend to be.

Stephen Baxter’s “Periandry’s Quest” is a Romeo and Juliet variation in a sfnal setting: a long-lived race of nobility are served by a short-lived race of servants. There are some interesting concepts in the story, particularly in the temporal differences between the two races, but ultimately the plot is a simplistic one as a long-lived youth becomes infatuated with a short-lived servant girl, only to learn the true relationship between them. Nothing particularly original here beyond the basic scientific concept, which is really not vital to the story’s conclusion. This could almost have been an Upstairs Downstairs episode.

The most readable story in the book was Walter Jon Williams’ closing novella “The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid,” an entertaining combination of con game and murder mystery, involving an entertainment troupe–containing a water ballet team and a band of Mexican folksingers–on a cruise ship modeled after Tang Dynasty China. I enjoyed this story a lot more than either Rowe’s story or Stross’ story although, in some ways the stories had more similarities than differences.

1. All three stories had glib plots which were mostly excuses to hang the wonders on;

2. All three stories featured thin characterization, mostly intended to portray points of view rather than being developed as people

3. All three stories were well-written, so that the joys of the individual sentences were as important as the plots themselves

So why did I enjoy “Dynasty” while tolerating “State” and abandoning “Elector”? I guess it goes back to my personal blind spot again. I reject stories based primarily on technological wonders (Rowe and Stross) while I enjoy stories based on more non-scientific wonders (the cruise ship, the con which involved deep-sea diving). I enjoy stories whose foundation is not technological wonders but rather society-building (of the serious C.J. Cherryh or Ursula K Le Guin type or the lighter Jack Vance type) or future-history (Silverberg is probably the master of this type).

In any case, I think I have gone far off-track here. I do not read best-of-the-year volumes expecting them to actually be the “best” stories of the year, since each editor’s opinion of what is best differs from every reader’s opinion. I buy them expecting to read a good anthology, knowing some stories will fall into my acceptable zone (such as the Wolfe, Baxter and Williams stories), while others might not. But overall, I enjoyed reading this book and will definitely buy next year’s volume again.


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