Visions of Paradise

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Best Short Novels 2005

There is a right way and a wrong way to read a best-of-the-year volume. The wrong way is to assume the title is actually correct, that the contents are indeed the best stories of the year indicated. The right way is to realize that the editor’s taste is likely very different, if overlapping, from your own, so what he or she considers the “best” stories might differ from how you would feel had you read as many stories as he or she did in making the selection.

So rather than assume a best-of-the-year volume is indeed a distillation of the finest stories a given year has to offer, I tend to approach it as a better- than-average issue of a prozine. Some stories will probably fall into my personal blind spot, but hopefully others will be good enough to make the volume an overall worthwhile reading experience.

But when the volume in question is devoted to novellas, which are my favorite length for science fiction (and undoubtedly a lot of other readers too, or else why the oft-repeated statement that novellas are the best length of f&sf), I cannot help but have a bit extra anticipation of an outstanding reading experience. And since last year’s Best Short Novels 2004, edited by Jonathan Strahan, lived up to those expectations, why shouldn’t Best Short Novels 2005 do so as well?

Fortunately, this volume was a worthwhile reading experience. It began with James Patrick Kelly’s “Men Are Trouble,” a noir detective story set in a future Earth entirely without men. In my opinion, Kelly is somewhat overrated as a writer of short fiction. He’s generally good, but not particularly innovative or groundbreaking at any particular aspect of writing. Rather than a top-rank master, he one of many decent journeymen who have always been the backbone of the genre. There is nothing wrong with that, but I wonder why some journeymen are accepted as such while others automatically creep into the upper ranks through frequent exposure.

In “Men Are Trouble,” all men mysteriously disappeared from Earth when it was invaded by “devils” who now dominate the planet as a cross between alien invaders and unwanted but dominant visitors. Procreation occurs when women are mysteriously “seeded” by the devils, which causes a riff between youngsters who were born as a result of such seeding and old-timers who recall men and old-fashioned sex. One of the “villains” of this story is the Catholic Church which is a bastion of old-timers determined to fight the influence of the devils (and if that is not a set-up of a name, I don’t know what else it could possibly be).

The mystery is a bit confusing: why did a woman abruptly suicide the day she was married, and the same day she joined the Church? And why was the protagonist hired to solve the mystery at all? It was a bit confusing at times, although it all seemed mostly an excuse for Kelly to reveal some of the complications in his man-less world. This was not the finest story in the book.

Stephen Baxter reminds me of Poul Anderson. They both take some hard-science foundation for their stories, but then weave a strong plot around it, never forgetting that people are the center of any good story. Of course, Baxter is not as good overall as Anderson, but nobody else has been as good consistently in the hard-science storytelling corner of the field either, so that is not necessary a put-down of Baxter’s talent. Just being compared to Poul Anderson means he is a damned good writer in my book.

Anyway, “Mayflower II” is the story of a generation ship, but it takes a different approach than most stories of that particular sub-genre usually do. It is the story of the movers and shakers of the ship and how they try to protect the ultimate goal of the ship against the inevitable degeneration of the ship’s populace over the millennia. So we watch the society alter, and the very intellectual level of the people erode, as the near-immortal protagonist himself watches it, knowing he is helpless to do anything about it, yet still make whatever small nudges he can to keep the ship on goal. A good, interesting, thoughtful story, which probably would have benefitted from being longer and somewhat more in-depth.

Other stories in this volume which I have already reviewed here include “The Garden: A Hwarhath Science Fictional Romance” (10/15/05), “The Gorgon in the Cupboard” (10/20/05) and “Sergeant Chip” (10/9/05). I recommend this volume highly.


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