Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Micro review PART 1 [book]: The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of The Year, Vol 8 , edited by Jonathan Strahan

The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of The Year, Volume Eight , Strahan, Jonathan (ed), (Solaris, 2014)
Published 8th May (UK), 13th May (USA)

This not only is the longest title we've reviewed in a long while, it's also one of the longest reads, and so rather than do what, frankly, often is necessary with anthologies - namely, to skim through a lot of the less-compelling stories - I'm going to review this in a few parts over the coming weeks, around its release. Why such reverance? Well, for one thing Jonathan Strahan, a Perth native who has very successfully been editing these collections since volume one, has won praise for revitalising the idea of the annual anthology, which to my eyes at least was often a backyard for less interesting tales. For another, just look at that cover! Also, I have always loved short stories. As a child, they introduced me to new genres and helped me write my own. As a student, they helped me do essays (papers), because they were much quicker to read the night before a deadline. And as an adult-in-training, they allow me to read between work and travel without getting stuck on a longer work for months at a time. More seriously, short fiction can have a power that a novel rarely attains - it can sweep you away to a new world in a few paragraphs, understand a character in a few sentences, and blow your mind in a few pages.

Jonathan Strahan's introduction is fascinating in itself, charting the 65-year history of the science fiction and fantasy anthology, and how they came after decades of such stories only seeing life in brilliantly-named pulp magazines like Amazing Stories, Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories. As the latest editor of these compendiums (what he calls 'annual reports from one reader to the SF world'), he talks about how he has always aimed to balance the forces of his predecessors' battle between genre-loyalty and wandering originality. He says, 'I have restricted this book to stories that I believe are definitely SF or fantasy in some way'.

Despite this intention, and the space image on the cover, my sci-fi yearnings were initially confused. Strahan begins with Joe Abercrombie's Some Desperado, which was, unless I'm missing something, a straight-up Western genre-piece. No fantasy, no sci-fi. Containing some wonderful phrasing ("she sprinkled silver as if she was tossing seed on her mother's farm, miles and years and a dozen violent deaths away") and engrossing action, as a young female outlaw attempts to evade her pursuers in a ghost town, it nevertheless left me a little back-footed in terms of my narrow expectations, and wasn't original or complex enough to transcend those. I'll admit I kept waiting for her to turn out to be a robot; my brain is a little broken like that. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it and would love to read more from fellow-Brit Abercrombie.

The second tale continued this trend of confusion, albeit in a very different style. Zero For Conduct by Greg Egan takes us to modern Iran and Afghanistan as we follow teenage genius Latifa, who has created a new chemical compound in her Mashad school lab that she hopes will save her family from poverty and the dangers of life back in her home town of Kandahar. The complex science is the only element of 'sci-fi' in this story, although, as her mysterious substance takes form, I was expecting more fantastical consequences. Yet, shorn of the sight of the cover by the nature of an ebook, I was taken away by Egan's deceptively simple-seeming prose into Latifa's life and found myself entirely absorbed as she and her sceptical grandfather worked to carry out their plan. Whlst I have been to Iran and so perhaps am more affectionate to stories set there, this is undoubtably a beautiful short story, with a quiet heart and determination, and a confidentally-gentle ending .

Louisiana native Yoon Ha Lee's story, Effigy Nights, slammed the issue of genre back down on the table immediately, however, with her second sentence : 'The city lies at the galaxy's dust-stranded edge..' Excellent! And on she goes : 'fire-winged starships... statues of shape-shifting tigers... crystals extracted from the nervous systems of philosopher-beasts'. Whoopee! This is the promise of the cover, finally delivered! I felt, though, a nervousness; after two wrong-footing pieces that turned out to be, bluntly, great stories regardless of genre, would this space fiction be a deflatingly familiar tred through old ideas? Thankfully, no. Lee has woven a beautiful, macabre world here - a city state invaded by grand military forces, defending itself by cutting trapped creatures from their extensive library of stories.  Cursed surgeon Seran shows the library warden how to release these monsters from the tales in the books and soon the city is filled with inventively destructive fighting. In a story concerned with the power of writing, Lee plays with words like a cat with a mouse, flipping them around and forcing them together in her terse sentences - ' you could see people hung up as corpse-lanterns, burning with plague-colored light'. The tale, with elements of both Eco and Banks, ends sadly but horrifically and leaves a strong impression.

A modern master of writing is next, and if Lee's wordplay beguiled, his strains and perplexes, but charms nonetheless. Geoff Ryman offers up Rosary and Goldenstar, a wandering tale that skitters from character to character over the course of an Elizabethan evening by the Thames, before punching home with a superb final line. Three Danes arrive at the home of Squire Diggs who already is hosting Dr John Dee and a young Guillermus Shakespeare. Given that two of the guests turn out to be Rosencrantz and Gyldenstiern (the title is the English translation they are given), we are clearly in a world of alternative history. Shakespeare talks of meeting Galileo in Rome, and ends up being conscripted into an anti-Papist spy ring by Dee. For the most part this is a comedy of errors (ref intended) as the English and Danish attempt to communicate and deal with the inept servant, before it goes physically up to the roof and mentally up to the heavens. The sci in this fi is the 'exploding world' of astromonomy and the dawning comprehension of the stars, and the most, for me, wonderful moment comes as Shakey and the servant girl share daydreams of sailing into the stars and colonising Mars. As a writing lecturer at my old university (thankfully for him, not when I was there), Ryman clealry delights in playing with ideas of who these figures were, and the awkward bi-sexual actor-poet is a delightful creation of his. The hint of fantasy and detail of the science of the time ground this literary fancy in the realms of the collection's criteria, but like all the tales here, is its own beast. I think Strahan is being cheeky with his own rules... More evidence in Part Two nest week, as we grapple with Gaiman and parry with Parks....

Scores to come in the final part, but so far a resounding 9.
Written by English Scribbler, a short short story reader (sic) and Nerds contributor since 2013