Visions of Paradise

Friday, March 04, 2011

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

Geoff Ryman’s “Days of Wonder” hypothesizes a distant future in which humans no longer exist on Earth, but have been replaced by semi-intelligent animals. The story’s main focus is on horselike beings whose main threat is predatory cats. On an annual equine migration, the cats capture and kill the young foal of a horse who had been one of the herd leaders. Soon after, she captures an injured cat following an unsuccessful ambush, and she cares for it as a replacement for her foal. Needless to say, this causes considerable consternation among the other horses.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has established herself as a major mystery writer under several pseudonyms, and that success has carried over into her science fiction. Her series of Retrieval Artist novels are successful sf mysteries, as is her story “G-Men,” which originally appeared in an original anthology Sideways in Crime, devoted to that sub-genre. It tells two different but related stories, one a 1960s alternate history mystery involving the assassination of another important political figure between the murders of JFK and RFK. The other is a political power struggle between attorney general RFK and new president LBJ. Both stories were fascinating, and successfully done.

My choice for the best story in the volume is “The Erdmann Nexus,” by Nancy Kress. She is one of the finest writers of short fiction in the sf field, and has been so for thirty years. I recall such great stories as “Out of All them Bright Stars,” “The Price of Oranges,” “The Flowers of Aulit Prison” and “Beggars in Spain.” This Hugo Award-winner belongs among that group. It is set in a senior citizen complex where strange things are happening to several elderly residents, mysterious brain spasms which have no medical cause. The story has a well-developed cast worthy of an entire novel: Dr. Henry Erdmann, one of the residents and a theoretical physicist; Carrie, an aide who has developed a close relationship to him; Jake DeBella, a research scientist. And twice as many minor characters, all better-developed than major characters are in many novels. The strangeness grows, the mystery becomes deeper, as do the relationships, all merging in a satisfying conclusion which reminded me of–THIS IS A SPOILER!–Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel Childhood’s End. If Kress ever expands this story into a novel (it’s already a novella of nearly 40,000 words), I will buy it as soon as it is available.

James Alan Gardner’s “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” is a most unlikely premise to be any good. A somewhat geeky teenager discovers a truly alien weapon deep in the woods, and it basically takes over his life. He decides he can become a super-hero with it, so spends as much time as possible training both his physical body and his mind, being totally obsessed with what he calls the “ray gun.” That obsession breaks up two romances, and inadvertently causes the death of one girl. But the story works, mostly as a metaphor for how geeky kids often fixate on one particular aspect of their life (Star Wars, comic books, video games) to the exclusion of all others.

There were many other good stories in the collection, 30 stories in all, but those were my favorite baker’s dozen, in what was one of the better volumes in an overall recommended annual series.


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