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good or accurate representation of what was going on in SF in 2007 (although the summation is kind of fascinating as a historical document – it refers to the internet, and to the tentative rise of ebooks, with a sort of faint uneasiness that’s hilariously quaint now) – and that’s not what I’m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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