Review: The Year’s Best Science Fiction – Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection

I’m a little late with this review: this is the Year’s Best Science Fiction for 2007. It’s the twenty-fifth in a series of “year’s best” anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois, which seems to be pretty well-regarded in the genre community. (I’ve never heard of it, but then I am not a particularly big reader of short stories.)

It contains 32 short stories from that long-ago year, plus a very thorough summation of practically everything that happened in genre in 2007 (which magazines were in operation, who died, etc.) and a list of “honourable mentions”. I have no way of evaluating whether any of this is a good or accurate representation of what was going on in SF in 2007 (although the summation is kind of fascinating as a historical document – it refers to the internet, and to the tentative rise of ebooks, with a sort of faint uneasiness that’s hilariously quaint now) – and that’s not what I’m particularly interested in anyway.

What is interesting, and a little dispiriting, is how Dozois defines those two key terms in the title: “best” and “science fiction”. “Science fiction” has always been a hotly contested phrase; from comments in the summation Dozois seems to define it by the inclusion of scientific or pseudoscientific elements. If it’s got Science, or something that looks like Science, it’s SF.

Which…fine. I don’t have a Working Theory of SF and I’m not particularly interested in making a counter-argument. But prioritising the science content of SF invariably means you get a lot of stories that expound some gosh-wow premise but are not actually terribly good. Greg Egan’s “Glory”, in which a woman – improbably called Ann – from a far-future interplanetary society visits a planet that’s not yet figured out space travel to research ancient mathematicians, is one of these: packed full of potentially interesting concepts but incredibly clunkily written. Similar is Stephen Baxter’s “Last Contact”, a story about the Big Rip which has a curiously muted emotional impact considering that it describes the end of the observable universe.

There are a couple of stories that don’t feel like SF at all: Ted Chiang’s Hugo-award winning “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, which gets into the anthology on the strength of its time travel premise and some hand-wavy exposition about space-time, but is set several centuries ago, has no modern characters, and feels more Arabian Nights in structure and backdrop than any kind of SF. (I also didn’t like it that much.) Then there’s Michael Swanwick’s “The Skysailor’s Tale”, one of the more formally adventurous stories here, which, although it features a version of the many-worlds hypothesis, is obviously steampunk and thus not SF but fantasy. (In my own personal taxonomy, anyway – your mileage may vary. I guess SF says “futuristic technology” to me more than it says “Science at all costs”.)

I’m not particularly complaining about these inclusions; some of the more fantastic ones were my favourites. I guess what really disappoints me about this collection is how conventional these stories feel in aggregate. There’s a scattering of queer characters, but in a 600-page book (in a speculative genre) a scattering is not really enough. There are only two stories by people of colour (the Ted Chiang story, and Vandana Singh’s “Love and Other Monsters” – one of the standouts for me, it’s about a telepath figuring out where his powers come from). Generally, there are very few stories here that push the boundaries of what humans are and what society is – that do the re-imaginative work that is the real work of SF, the stretching of boundaries, the exploration of experience. Too many of the stories fall back on traditional, hackneyed sentiment, or project contemporary social mores thousands of years into the future.

There are exceptions. I really enjoyed Ian McDonald’s “Verthandi’s Ring”, set in a baroque post-singularity world heading for bloody intercultural war on an unimaginable scale, in which a trio of lovers inhabit a range of physical bodies, from trees to alien fish. Bruce Sterling’s “Kiosk”, set in a vaguely Eastern European milieu, traces the massive social and economic upheaval that’s brought on by the advent of 3D printing on a mass scale. “The Skysailor’s Tale” reflects its protagonist’s disordered memories in its non-linear narrative.

I mean, all this really tells me is that my idea of good SF is not the same as Gardner Dozois’. If I squint a bit, I can see a case for most of these stories being in a “year’s best” anthology: none of them are actively terrible, and they’re all doing something a little unusual, with the science or with the fiction.

But not unusual enough, dammit. I don’t want “quite interesting” in a “year’s best” anthology. I want “radical”. I want “shock of the new”. I want “imagines alternatives to the neoliberal kyriarchy”.

At the very least.

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Top Ten Queer Characters

  1. Innon – The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin. A bi, poly pirate who’s also really hot. *mic drop*
  2. Sissix – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers. Sissix and Rosemary’s relationship is one of my favourite things about this book. They actually TALK about things instead of trying to guess at what the other person’s feeling. And visibly support each other. Also! I think this was the first queer SF book I read, and I read it when I was just starting to come out (to myself as much as anyone), and I was so grateful that Sissix/Rosemary could exist.
  3. Nyx – God’s War, Kameron Hurley. “Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.” Boom! Nyx is bi – as are most of the characters in the novel, actually – and defiantly, violently female, and lord knows she’d be a terrible person to have dinner with but she’s a great character to read about.
  4. Lila – A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab. Lila is a cross-dressing, genderfluid steampunk pirate who (at least in the first book) shows no interest in romance, and it’s great.
  5. November – Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente. I mean. Everyone in Palimpsest is queer. I like November most, though: I’m drawn to lonely, unassuming characters trying to fill the spaces left by their hopes.
  6. Alma – The Real-Town Murders, Adam Roberts. So Alma is here because she’s incredibly unusual in fiction: she’s in a long-term relationship with another woman, who she cares for 24/7. And they’ve been together so long (and Marguerite is so ill) that it’s not even particularly romantic any more. It’s a couple dynamic we see very rarely in fiction – although Roberts presents it so matter-of-factly it’s easy to miss how radical it is.
  7. Pencil Khan – The Glass Republic, Tom Pollock. Pen’s another really unusual character: a teenage girl, practising Muslim and trauma survivor who gets a queer romance that’s believable and adorable without getting in the way of the very real dangers she faces. All this is brilliant in a YA novel.
  8. Ingray Aughskold – Provenance, Ann Leckie. This is another novel where Everyone is Queer (the best kind of novel), and Ingray’s developing crush on a female police captain is just adorable. And one of those romances that make you want to shout “JUST KISS ALREADY!”
  9. Avice Benner Cho – Embassytown, China Mieville. I just remembered this one! Avice is in an asexual relationship with her husband Scile, because they don’t enjoy sex together but still want to be partners. Which is another unusual, and welcome, dynamic.
  10. Fevvers – Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter. OK, so it’s never confirmed that Fevvers is in a relationship with her chaperone? agent? friend? Lizzie, but my word this book is definitely queer. And Fevvers is brilliant: larger than life, subversively feminine, altogether wonderful.

(The prompt for this post comes from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Subnautica

Yesterday I called a fish a four-letter word.

To be fair, it had come out of nowhere and was apparently trying to bite my leg off.

Nope, I haven’t suddenly gotten into extreme swimming: this happened in the world of Subnautica, a PC game of survival, exploration and crafting in a lush and terrifying underwater world.

The story goes something like this: you crash-land on an alien planet. As far as you know, all your crewmates on the enormous starship you flew here in are dead. You have to find water and food and a way to survive in this hostile environment where everything wants to eat you.

There’s a story, but you can ignore it if you want to and just build stuff in the ocean. Or just swim around looking at cool stuff, if you so wish: the world of the game is huge, and I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of all the monsters and biomes and seascapes there are to find.

I’ve played seven hours of Subnautica so far. I’m pretty new at gaming, so it may be there’s a whole bunch of stuff out there that looks just as lovely as this, but I doubt it: I’m constantly amazed by the quality of the water effects, and, more, the quality of the light in this game. Sunbeams lancing into murky blue-green depths; the red light of sunset glowing in the shallows; the wobbly circle of white light on the sea-surface seen from underneath.

The Aurora at sunset. The interface details have changed (this is an early build graphic), but this scene? Is actually in the game. It’s phenomenal.

On my first dawn on the planet, I trod water in the shallows to watch the alien sun rise. It’s the kind of game that makes you want to do that.

That’s not to mention the things that live in the sea: the herbivorous leviathans with entire reefs on their backs; the tiny fish that glow with phosphorescence at night; the giant tube corals you can swim through.

It’s because of that lushness that everything is fucking terrifying in this game. There’s a fish called a Stalker that’s longer than your body and approximately fifty per cent teeth. Half the time you don’t know it’s chasing you till you turn around and see this sinuous body right next to you. There are underwater caves and bits of shipwreck that you know probably contain valuable resources but are also potential death traps (it’s amazing how claustrophobic a game can make you feel). The sound design is very, very detailed: every creature has its own noise, and when you’re in the depths of the ocean in the dark you can hear…things, and you have no idea what they are.

Let’s talk Themes, for I am an English student first and foremost and literally cannot resist an opportunity for cultural criticism. One of the really interesting things about Subnautica is that there are no weapons. (Well, there’s a survival knife, but I’ve not yet managed to gut a Stalker with it.) Instead, one of the items you can craft early in the game is a scanner, which you use to analyse plants, fish, bits of wreckage and other items for information that might help you survive.

This seemingly-innocuous piece of game furniture has some structurally fascinating effects, which I want to root in science fiction’s colonialist beginnings. Subnautica, for all its ultra-modern VR technology, belongs with early SF classics like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: it draws on typical late-Victorian SF themes of exploration and encounters with monstrous and semi-mythical nature – themes which are themselves based in racist and imperialist ideologies which cast non-Western countries and their inhabitants as Others to be subdued through force and categorisation. Subnautica just locates those themes on another planet, because all the exploring here on Earth has already been done. It gives us as players a blank slate, pristine nature, to explore and, by exploring, conquer.

(It’s telling that, in Subnautica, you’re automatically coded as male: there’s no option to pick a differently-coded body. It’s one of the few things that really irritates me about the game. But think about all those metaphors of male explorers penetrating mother nature’s secrets.)

The shift from attacking nature to collecting data about it updates the colonialist dynamic. Not having a weapon puts you on a superficially more level footing with the denizens of the planet’s ocean: you don’t have overwhelming firepower to blast them into submission, only your speed and your strength and your wits – and your knowledge. It’s a subtler, and in some ways purer form of SFnal colonialism: more than once I’ve found myself swimming directly at a predator, scanner held high, knowing that I’ll probably die but that it’s worth it – because when I respawn I’ll know a little more about the planet; I’ll be a little closer to understanding it, conquering it, living in it. The effort you make in this game is explicitly all about making this world habitable. You’re not trying to survive just long enough for a rescue team to come; you’re building a permanent complex for you to live in. You’re doing it with science instead of guns (although, the characters in the novels of Jules Verne and his contemporaries were scientists too), but in the end the drive and the result is the same.

I’m not sure the game is entirely unaware of this dynamic, to its credit: there’s a couple of slightly creepy mechanisms by which you seem to become aware of your short presence on the planet. The crashed starship is leaking radiation, and the radiation zone seems to be spreading – which, given that the life pod that serves as your first base is not that far from the starship, is a bit of a worry. Secondly, one of the readiest sources of food, certainly in the early game, is a seaweed called creepvine, which grows in long, waving columns in kelp forests. I’m trying to be careful – never cutting down a whole plant for food, and spreading my harvesting out over several different kelp forests. Still – I’m not entirely sure, but the forests near my base seem to be a little sparser than they used to be…

I guess my point is that Subnautica does occupy a similar cultural space to colonial SF; but it does so queasily, uneasily, the balance of power constantly swinging between you and nature and back again. I don’t know how this will change as I play through the game and learn more about the world – as mystery turns to knowledge. Will I still find it terrifying when I know what’s out there? Will I still find it beautiful?

I don’t know.

The City & the City Review: Beszel

Look! The BBC put a China Mieville thing on television!

I mean, I don’t like The City & the City very much; to me it falls into the group of Mieville’s work that I find dour and affectless (also in this category are Kraken and The Last Days of New Paris).

But! The BBC put a China Mieville thing on television!

It makes sense that it would be The City & the City. Its brand of noir detective story, a cynical investigator struggling against an indifferent and grey-hued world, is common to practically every new TV show that the BBC makes these days. So the familiarity of protagonist Inspector Tyador Borlu is doing, investigating the death of a young woman in possibly tawdry circumstances, offers viewers a way into the strangeness of Mieville’s premise.

Said premise is this: there are two cities, shiny, neoliberal, rich Ul Qoma; and shabby, poor, vaguely Central European Beszel. They occupy the same geographical space – some streets are in Ul Qoma, others in Beszel, and there are some dangerous “crosshatched” areas that are both. Their separateness as cities is maintained by the culturally specific practice of unseeing: there is a powerful taboo against the inhabitants of either city seeing or acknowledging the physical presence of the other city. To break this taboo is to bring down the fearsome and unaccountable organisation that is Breach on the heads of everyone in the vicinity.

One of the things this first episode does very well (I thought so, anyway) is establishing the force of this taboo, the centrality of it to the cultures and the lives of the cities, and how unthinkable it is to most inhabitants of the cities to break it. There’s a great scene near the beginning where an Ul Qoman car swerves into the path of the car of our protagonists, who are in Beszel:

“Did you see that?!”

“That Ul Qoman red car? No, I didn’t!”

Let me qualify that “very well”, actually: I think the dialogue is more effective than the camera work, which signifies the practice of unseeing by blurring out whichever city our inhabitants happen not to be in. This is fine. It does the job. But, and this I think is generally my problem with the whole episode, it flattens the conceptual complexity of Mieville’s unseeing. It does all the work for us, which is very much the opposite of what Mieville’s fiction is generally aiming for. It has all the content and none of the style.

Perhaps necessarily. This is television, after all, and exciting as it is in theory to contemplate Mieville on screen, I’m not sure it’s the right place for him to be: so much of his work is specifically about challenging our reading strategies, about wordplay, about genre conventions. There’s no way for a visual medium to recreate the conceptual richness of novels like Perdido Street Station, or even Railsea.

Perhaps, also, it’s unfair to compare the TV show with the novel, given the differences between the two media. I can’t escape that comparison, though, when the only reason I’m watching The City & the City is because I happen to think the novel’s author is one of the best SFF writers (and writers of the radical left) around today.

So maybe my response is predictable. It’s the same response I have to every first episode of every gritty crime drama I’ve ever watched.

I didn’t mind it. I’m not sure I can be bothered with the rest.

50-Word Review: Sisyphean

Sisyphean, Dempow Torishima, trans. Daniel Huddleston

A series of decidedly organic short stories, all set in the same far-future transhumanist world, told in prose riddled with neologisms and portmanteaux; like The Quantum Thief except ultimately more schematic and less playful. It’s all founded on grim ideas about capitalist and institutional exploitation of natural (including human) resources.

50-Word Review: N-W

N-W, Zadie Smith

This is a novel about four people who all grew up on the same council estate in north-west London. Each of them experiences the city differently. So it’s a novel of atomisation: it says that everyone is unknowable to everyone else. Which I find, frankly, depressing.

Top Ten Characters I’d Like to Check In With

  1. Lirael – Lirael, Garth Nix. I don’t think Goldenhand really works as a novel, but it was so lovely seeing Lirael again (and her adorable awkward romance with Nick). She’s just one of those characters who I really, really want to see happy. She deserves it, after all.
  2. Meg Carpenter – Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas. I have so many questions. Does she finish her novel? Does she get together with Rowan? Does she ever have the big screaming relationship-ending argument with Christopher? (I don’t want a sequel, though. The novel is perfect as it is.)
  3. Blue Van Meer – Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl. I love Blue. She knows so much and is so lost at the same time. What happens to her when she goes to university? Does she ever find out the truth about her father? (Answer: probably not.)
  4. Frodo Baggins – The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien. Well, OK, I just want to know what Valinor is like. And what a hobbit even does all day in paradise. Yes, I know these questions entirely miss the point. Oh, also, I would love to see Sam and Frodo’s reunion in Valinor, which I am sure would be lovely beyond words.
  5. Frank Vanderwal – Green Earth, Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson never really says anything about the results of Frank’s brain surgery, I think for thematic reasons – but I’d like to know if his decision-making improves, and how things go with Caroline. (Still shipping him with Diane, though.)
  6. Sei – Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente. I’d like to hear about all her adventures on the trains. Palimpsest is always a wonderful world to visit, in any case.
  7. The Marquess – The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente. It’s possible the Marquess resurfaces in The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, the last of Valente’s Fairyland books. I haven’t read it yet. She has such a fascinating backstory that I hope we do see more of her.
  8. Breq – Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie. We left Breq just as she was beginning to feel at home among her crew, just as she was starting to develop relationships. It would be lovely to check in with her a few years down the line, and see where those relationships have gone.
  9. Rosemary and Sissix – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers. I’m shipping these two so hard. That is all.
  10. Nutt – Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett. I have a huge soft spot for Nutt, who is kind, clever and very dangerous. Watching him making friends and proving his worth is one of the highlights of the novel – plus, I want to know what becomes of him and Glenda.

(The prompt for this post comes from the Broke and the Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday.)