BEST SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY OF THE YEAR, THE ; Strahan, Jonathan (ed)
Here we are again. I know there has been a large gap since the last part of the review of this anthology, but that is, well, it's because... that is to say... look, anthologies take ages to read, okay?!
The variety of style, subject and entertainment continued as I progressed through the last ten of Strahan's choices. First off, Benjanun Sriduangkaew's story Fade To Gold returns after its earlier appearence in the superb End of the Road anthology, also from Solaris, a few months back (also reviewed here on Nerds). Its melodic, paced and deceptively simple prose follows soldier-with-a-secret Thidakesorn through the countryside of ancient Thailand as they encounter a strange, seductive and deadly woman. The mixture of love and distrust that grows between them as each reveals their secret is fascinatingly-told and Sriduangkaew's denouement is a beguiling mix of the horrific and romantic. Tainted love in the jungle, with wonderful phrasing.
Selkie Stories Are For Losers didn't compare in power, sadly coming after such succesful writing. But that is not to dismiss Sofia Samatar's story purely by comparision; on its own (and I waited to reread it to be sure of this) it is very confusing, yet I read both times from start to finish with full engrossment. It was impossible for me to understand what was going on aside from the narrator's love for their friend Mona, and a little of their family history. The story is fragmented and largely in the head of the protagonist, and the references to either mutants or other species, or something else, are as vague as they would be if you knew the backstory. So no awkward exposition to slow the breathless emotion of the narrator, yet a little backstory might have given the tale a bit more power. I would love to know what others think however, as I felt like I was missing something, or perhaps not allowing mystery and atmosphere to be enough themselves.
The young American writer An Owomoyela, however, provides both these elements and a plot and landscape that all work in harmony to deliver In Metal, In Bone. Benine is a man with the power to experience visions of people's memories by touching objects. He is summoned to an army camp in the midst of his civil war-ravaged African nation to 'read' bones collected from mass graves and battlefields, in order to indentify the dead. I said plot but really the narrative is sparse, concentrating on a few moments over the course of the time Benine spends at the camp, before a wonderfully bleak and profound final page. The interaction between the four characters and the descriptions of the magical visions are nicely realised, and I would love to read a full novel from this writer.
Similarly impressive but thousands of miles away in every sense, Eleanor Arnason delivers with Kormak The Lucky what I found to be the most singularly-enjoyable of all the stories.. I think... So much of these reviews are down to my mood and what story came before, that clear subjectivity is hard to achieve. Yet her tale of an Irish slave dragged into a world of magic, iron beasts and vicious Elf feuds is, regardless of perspective, enormously entertaining. As I've stated in earlier parts of these reviews, a lack of what I see as traditional genre story-telling was disappointing my expectations, so I was glad to be in a place of hidden tunnels, enchanted metals, ancient curses, ice-cold queens and so on. Kormak is an interesting mix of pragmatism and defiance, and his journey from young slave to canny rebel against his various owners is full of incident and great world-building, and manages what I think I was yearning for - an ability to harnish the comforting familiarity of genre tradition with original ideas and characters.
Sing by Sweden's Karin Tidbeck is amazing. Set on a distant moon where birdsong replaces the local's speech when the moon is up (obviously; why wouldn't it?), Aino is a shy and separate shopkeeper in a small settlement who attracts the curiosity and then love of a visiting scientist. Tidbeck gently paints a distant universe of fragmented sub-species of human and space colonies, without resorting to any 'in year xxxx mankind has conquered the stars' style of exposition, but unlike other authors in this collection she gives enough information to support the fictional soil she puts her characters on. Aino is the sort of quiet, fragile person you come to root for, and her hidden determination to escape her crippled form and lonely situation drives us to a satisfying, fantastical conclusion. Loved it.
I didn't love but did rather like Madeline Ashby's Social Services. It unfairly suffered in the shadow of early works in the book, as it adopts similar ideas of inhanced AI and brain-interfering. Lena is a sad yet committed social worker in a future U.S. where the economy has collapsed, leaving abandoned housing and drugged teens that Lena visits in her automated vehicle, whilst her 'Social Service' in her brain gives her virtual displays of information. As her memory slips, we notice her relying on this artificial guide, and I sensed all was not right. The ending is dark and convincing, and left me wanting more, yet the sense of having been here already never quite left, and Lena doesn't get enough time or space to make her fate as moving as it perhaps could have been. Nevertheless, I found a lot to admire and would be keen to read Ashby's other fiction, free of the comparisions forced by me on it here.
The Road of Needles has a dark finale too, but Caitlin R. Kiernan keeps us guessing as to whether it is actually happening or in the disorientated, hallucinating mind of space pilot Nix, as she struggles with an onboard emergency whilst recalling her life back home. Her mind slowly warps past and present, and the ship's computer reveals a virus that stretches her sanity to the brink. A brilliant yet oblique final cliffhanger frames a great space thriller. I really cared for Nix and her work-life worries, and was fascinated by the world in which they and her battle for survival existed. And a spaceship! Yay!
Nebraska's Robert Reed's Mystic Falls is a masterpiece of intelligent sci-fi, I think. Hector Borland is sent back into his own past via his memory to wipe out a sentinent virus that has hacked everyone's brain (again with these themes of brain-adaptation and collective AI - it's clearly in fashion). His walk up to the titular waterfall with the aparition (a beautiful woman designed to capture human interest and compassion) is full of detailed narration that gives us the background to this scheme, and the results of Hector's actions are interesting and complex. I loved the final line as much as anything in this anthology.
Back to space, well, Mars, for Belfast native Ian McDonald's The Queen of Night's Aria, a welcome wave of humour and retro sci-fi fantasy. We learn that the Martian's of Well's War of the Worlds faced a counter-attack from humanity in the years since (time is confusing - the characters seem very mid-20th century yet are in a future-feeling world of space battles), and we follow arrogant and gluttonish Count Jack, a blustering Irish singer who is caught with his manager, and our narrator, Faisal in an epic battle whilst performing for human troops near the front. A mad and wildly-entertaining story follows and the Count finds himself doing the show of his life. Superb, with great action scenes and witty dialogue, this is definitely in my top five or so of the collection.
More of Ireland follows, from Galway resident Van Nolan, who is undoubtably a fine wordsmith. I tried hard to forget this was the very last story, and lose myself in former astronaut Dale's interaction with the locals of the Irish town he has come to spread his comrade's ashes. They go fishing and go drinking, and Dale tells them of the disaster in orbit that killed his friend. Gentle and compassionate, yes. Atmospheric and realistic, yes. Sci-fi or fantasy? No. To finish the collection with yet another story which, despite its merits, puts the nail in the coffin of what dissatisfied me with Strahan's choices was a shame for me.
Am I being too strict? Am I missing subtle elements hinting that the 'normal' I saw was more 'fantastical', the horror more monsterous or the technology more sci-fi? Surely, yet I am left still with a confusion as to what science fiction, fantasy and other genres mean to others. I found other people on Goodreads and elsewhere with the same complaints, so I'm not alone, but are we all being too traditional?
Please respond in the comments below with your definitions of 'sci-fi' and 'fantasty', as I would love to hear what you think about these genres and where their borders lie, and whether they matter. Strahan was searching for the best writing in the genres, the areas, that these writers all work within. He found some incredible writing, some superb tales. Was he however going to far from his intention, stated in his intro, to at least partially honour genre-tradition? And should I care? For now, based on my own prejudices, here is the math...
Baseline Assessment : 8/10
Bonuses : +1 for giving me within its vast collection some of the finest readin moments of the past year and introducing me to a raft of new writers
Penalites : -1 for failing to stick to sci-fi; -1 for failing to stick to fantasy when it wasn't aslo sticking to sci-fi... just basically a general not sticking attitude
Nerd Coefficient: 7/10
"a mostly enjoyable experience"
Read about our scoring system, in which a sufficiently random sample of books would normally distribute around 5, here
Written by English Scribbler, NOAF contributor since 2013 and genre-novice