Visions of Paradise

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Best Short Novels 2006

I enjoy reading Best-of-the-Year anthologies, and I love novellas, so Jonathan Strahan’s annual Best Short Novels 2006 is must reading for me. Reading the book is easy pleasure, but writing its review is a bit more difficult, since all the stories in the book must be considered in part on two criteria: are they worthwhile reading, and do they deserve inclusion in a “best of the year” volume? All of the stories in this book succeed on the former basis, but not necessarily so on the latter. Of course, some of that is due to the editor’s taste being somewhat different than the reviewer’s taste. Strahan obviously enjoys clever writing and near-future development rising out of current technological trends, both more so than I do myself.

Ian McDonald’s “The Little Goddess” excels at showing a future India, but the plot is disjointed: the main character becomes a goddess at age 5, draws blood at age 12 due to an unfortunate accident and loses her divinity, is put into a bride pool where she marries an immortal who at age 20 resembles a baby of half her age, flees and becomes a smuggler. While the novella is somewhat pointless as a story, it certainly succeeds in its glimpses of the future and its energy never weakens.

Harry Turtledove’s “Audubon in Atlantis” examines an alternate world in which Atlantis is a continent lying between Europe and America, which is called Terranova there. Apparently Columbus reached Atlantis and it serves the role of America in our universe. As befits the title, the story is concerned with Audubon’s search for near-legendary animal life, specifically the giant gooselike honkers. The story has some nice scenery, with an expected ending, but it is not really a story as much as a fanciful travelogue.

Cory Doctorow’s “Human Readable” is a political drama in the near future concerning human rights in the face of encroaching technology. The technology is a bit overwhelming, not so much part of the story’s foundation as its sole raison d’etre, but it is still readable overall.

“The Policeman’s Daughter,” by Wil McCarthy, is a legal story about the individual rights of uploaded copies of humans. The setup is nicely-done, as two complementary storylines weave together, but there is little attempt on the part of the author to have the main character actually struggle to solve his twin dilemmas. Things just kind of happen routinely without any conflict.

By far the best story in the book is Jeffrey Ford’s masterful “The Cosmology of the Wider World,” whose plot summary, like much of the best f&sf, sounds almost ludicrous: Belius is a farmboy who was born a minotaur because his mother had been terrified by a bull during her pregnancy. The story combines two simultaneous plotlines: one deals with Belius growing up, learning to deal with his difference and the reaction of other people to him; the other concerns Belius as an adult living in some alternate “wider world” inhabited exclusively by intelligent animals. Belius has problems coping in the wider world, some of them arising from his loneliness, and others from his determination to write a cosmology of the wider world.

The story combines parts pathos, philosophy, romance, Shakespearean tragedy, even slapstick humor, into a whole which is definitely more than the sum of its parts. This is one of the finest stories I have read in several years. I thought Ford could never surpass “The Empire of Ice Cream,” but I believe he has done it with this story.


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