Visions of Paradise

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Year's Best Science Fiction (26th volume), part one

Like most anthologies, I expected to find stories which fell into my comfort zone along with those which fell outside it in Gardner Dozois' 26th Year's Best Science Fiction (which contains stories originally published in 2008). But unless Dozois is stacking his strengths in the beginning, this collection was really outstanding from the outset.

Stephen Baxter’s “Turing’s Apples” is a SETI story set around two brothers’ sibling rivalry. One brother Wilson is part of a project set on the far side of the moon which has received a one-second message six thousand light years away near the core of the galaxy. The message is repeated once a year, as if it were being sent by a rotating lighthouse-type signal. In the second message more data is compressed than in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The storyline about the signal illustrates Baxter’s strength as a writer, scientific extrapolation which blends into philosophical extrapolation. The climax of the story takes place in the passage

We don’t know anything about what they look like, how they live–or even if they’re corporeal of not. But they are old, vastly old compared to us. Their cultural records go back a million years, maybe ten times as long as we’ve been human...But they regard themselves as a young species. They live in awe of older ones whose presence they have glimpsed deep in the turbulent core of the galaxy.

If that paragraph excites your sense of wonder, then Baxter is the writer for you. While personal interactions are his weakness, the brothers’ sibling rivalry does not interfere with the thought processes at the heart of the story.

Soon thereafter came Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Gambler.” My dislike for near-future dismal sf is fairly well-known, but I still enjoy Bacigalupi’s version (along with Cory Doctorow’s stories) while I rarely finish other writers’ stories of that type. His characters are generally not the amoral low-lives which dominate much of this sub-genre, but people with positive values and an optimistic view who are surviving as well as possible under the worst circumstances. Plus he is a good story-teller, which overcomes a lot of other negatives in his worldview.

“The Gambler” is about our current media age, in which people are obsessively fascinated by celebrities and their lives, while having virtually no interest in “real” news stories which impact their standard of living as well as the future of our world. The story’s narrator is a refugee from a dicatatorial takeover in Laos who works for a news agency. But while his co-workers’ stories are earning multiple thousands of hits per hour, his “important” stories are garnering virtually no public interest. His boss gives him an ultimatum: either increase his hits or he will be fired and, as a result, deported back to Laos.

This is a story about selling out: shouldn’t anybody stand up for principles? The story’s highlight is a scene in which the narrator meets a fabulously popular pop singer who is also a refugee from Laos, and how she tries to help him in spite of himself. Strong, thought-provoking stuff which is very enthralling reading.

Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s “Boojum” is a space opera about a pirate ship which is actually a living entity (known as a boojum) which eats merchant ships which are seized by the pirates. What starts out as an exciting adventure soon grows into a human interest story as the protagonist, a junior engineer named Black Alice who worships the ship, discovers how the crew actually convinces the boojum to follow their orders. On the heels of Bacigalupi’s story, this is another story about following one’s principles which I enjoyed very much.

Next came Alastair Reynolds’ “The Six Directions of Space,” which begins as a tale of espionage as a secret agent from a huge galactic empire visits one of its outer worlds where the government’s control is not as tight as it would like it to be, so the agent falls into the clutches of a mostly-independent warlord who treats her more like an enemy than an ally.

The tale of espionage becomes a story of first contact from the point of view of a repressive totalitarian state and ultimately veers into a tale of parallel universes in which different groups have built galactic empires: Mongols in one, Moslems in another, Nestorian Christians in a third; but other universes have non-human empires whose brutality make the human ones almost acceptable. This is a fascinating look into the many-worlds which cries out for sequels.

And then came Ted Kosmatka’s outstanding “N-Words,” a story about racism, but not the type its title might lead you to believe. The “N” referred to are neanderthals who have returned in the same manner that dinosaurs returned in Jurassic Park, but the neanderthals turn out to be considerably different than anthropologists have surmised. The reaction they stir in some people is unsurprising, but totally reprehensible. The story’s last line is a classic and worth the entire story.

After this outstanding start, I expected a let-down, but there are many other good stories in this volume. Ian McDonald’s “An Eligible Boy” is set in his vision of near-future India. I read different authors for slightly-different reasons: some are storytellers, some excel at characterization or world-building, others create great scenes but are not so good at stringing them together into a full-fledged novel. I read McDonald primarily for his background world. His milieu is always full and breathing, so you cannot help but feel a part of it. The plot of this story is a bit more developed than usual, making it one of the better stories in the collection.

I generally read Robert Reed because of a combination of his background world (especially, but not exclusively, in his Great Ship stories) and the strength of his individual scenes. As if he realizes the latter is his strength, “Five Thrillers” describes the future of the human race in five separate scenes, each containing the same main character, a near-superhuman named Joseph Carroway who is not only present at some of the crucial moments in history, but shapes most of them. As expected, this story has great scenes, although it does not quite hang together as a fully-developed story.

Charles Coleman Finlay’s “The Political Prisoner” begins like a straightforward political thriller about a sudden coup d’etat on the world Jerusalem by one department of the former government which inadvertently sweeps up an undercover agent of that very department and sends him to a prison farm along with hundreds of other men who either worked for the overthrown department or else were totally innocent. When the protagonist arrives at the prison camp, he is forced to work and live with a group of aliens who are despised by most humans and have been imprisoned purely for reasons of prejudice. Basically the story is about the trials and tribulations of political prisoners, and it works effectively on that level.

Maureen McHugh’s “Special Economics” reads like a contemporary political dark satire since I found very little in it that really makes in science fiction, but it was still an effective warning on how Chinese companies might be (are?) using the new capitalistic economy to trap their employees in virtual slavery, and how ineffective the government has become to prevent it.

To be continued...


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