Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Review: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Eight

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Eight
The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Eight by Jonathan Strahan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I should start by explaining that my three-star rating is a reflection of the fact that I mostly didn't enjoy these stories. It's not an objective measure of their quality, any more than their inclusion in a "Best Of" anthology can be, because tastes (and what people look for in a story) differ. Really, "Best Of" always carries an unspoken rider: "According to the taste and inclinations of the editor".

I'm somewhat outside the zeitgeist in my taste in fiction, I know. I don't care for stories that are dark, depressing, dystopian, pessimistic, tragic or about the horrors of war, and most of the stories in this collection are. I realise that I'm in a minority, and if you're not in that minority with me, you may well enjoy these stories more than I did.

Another reason I didn't enjoy some of them, though, was a specific writing style that many of them shared. It's a style I associate particularly with the magazine Clarkesworld, which I subscribed to briefly until I found that most of the stories were in this style, and in fact several of the stories here were originally published in Clarkesworld. Because I particularly dislike this style, I'm going to be unfair to it, and characterise it as would-be literary fiction, in which an alienated character drifts through an incomprehensible (but beautifully described) setting without taking effective action or making any real decisions, until the story stops with no resolution.

There are two other trends which I'm quite happy about (as long as they're not just participated in to be trendy) which this collection represents. One is setting stories in various non-Western cultures. I find that interesting and enriching. The other is the inclusion of diverse characters. In this collection, that's almost entirely done by the inclusion of lesbian characters (although there are a couple of disabled ones and one gay male), but it's a start.

Another common thread in several of the stories is the idea of mind-augmentation technology, and the different angles on it produce some interesting contrasts. It's obviously a hot topic for SF at the moment.

The editing of the book overall is fairly average, which is to say that there are a number of typos, some homonym or near-homonym errors, and a couple of instances of "alright" instead of the more correct "all right".

Unfortunately, the advance copy that I got from Netgalley for purposes of review was not a properly formatted Kindle file, but (I think) a PDF that got converted, and not only did this mean that there were extra or missing paragraph breaks, and strange formatting in the first lines of scenes and in titles, but there was no break between the stories, no table of contents and no way to navigate between stories without multiple page turns. Fortunately, one of my fellow reviewers here has listed out the stories in the order they appear, so I can comment on them individually, which would otherwise be hard to do.

“Some Desperado”, by Joe Abercrombie, confirmed for me what everything I'd heard already suggested: that Abercrombie writes really well, and that I would hate his books. The protagonist is desperate, broken, faced with impossible odds over which she doesn't really triumph all that much, and the overall vibe is very much "life sucks and then you die, without the possibility of change or improvement". It's not very SFinal; apart from the lack of guns, it could be a straight Western, and apart from the stage setting it could be a straight medieval. There's no magic, and no technology more complex than a bow, and no sociological speculation either.

“Zero for Conduct”, by Greg Egan, worked better than most for me. The protagonist is a protagonist, a young, female Afghan refugee in Iran who overcomes problems and dangers to achieve something wonderful. I got a powerful sense of the restrictions and threats that surrounded her, which added to her triumph.

“Effigy Nights”, by Yoon Ha Lee, is a Clarkesworld story. I didn't like it, but it was well done for what it was. I seem to remember reading it before; maybe it was in Clarkesworld at the time I subscribed. It's tragic and hopeless.

“Rosary and Goldenstar”, by Geoff Ryman, pulls together historical figures from the time of Shakespeare, including a young Shakespeare, and then doesn't do much with them. There's some philosophical reflecting, but not much in the way of a plot.

“The Sleeper and the Spindle”, by Neil Gaiman, is the first of several "retold fairytale" stories in the volume, which I generally liked better than the others. It's a wonderful twist on both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, with a protagonist and a plot and a resolution (which points on to further adventures).

“Cave and Julia”, by M. John Harrison, is one of those pseudo-literary stories where the main characters just dither helplessly in a magical-realist setting. One of the least successful in the volume for me.

“The Herons of Mer de l’Ouest”, by M Bennardo, struck me as almost a horror story. Darker than I enjoy, and more about atmosphere and mood than events.

“Water”, by Ramez Naam, is dystopian, but in an "if this goes on" way that I didn't mind so much. It took the ideas of accepting ads in exchange for free technology, and targeted ads for individuals, to their ultimate conclusion, and built a dramatic story around them. A bit of a tendency to tell what the technology was doing rather than show the characters doing things was, perhaps, an inevitable result of the setup.

“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”, by Ted Chiang, was a bit too much of a lecture for my taste. It's structured as if it was a non-fiction piece, and I felt it could have been tightened and shortened, though the point it makes is good and the two stories (the supposed essayist's own story, and the story he tells as a sidelight) mesh well. It's up for a Hugo.

“The Ink Readers of Doi Saket”, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, had a Thai setting that I enjoyed. It could, again, have been tighter, but overall I think it worked.

“Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls”, by Richard Parks, had a Japanese setting, again (as far as I, a non-expert on the culture, could tell) well done, and it also had a clear narrative line and plot structure, something some of the other stories are missing. I liked the idea that encountering a monster is not the same as fighting it.

“Rag and Bone”, by Priya Sharma, is set in a dystopian Liverpool in which the moguls at the top literally exploit the flesh of the workers in a way that was never completely made clear. Cross-dressing and lesbian sex appear here for the first time in the collection. The tragic end wasn't to my taste.

“The Book Seller”, by Lavie Tidhar, in a far-future Israel, brings out a love of books and a compassion for the victims of war. It's a vampire story with a technological twist. Well done, I felt, though the ending is not that strong.

“The Sun and I”, by K J Parker, seems to be set in an alternate or analogue ancient Mediterranean, and is about a group of con artists who create a monotheistic solar religion and find that there may be more to it than their scam. The style is amusing, and the idea that what matters is the outcome, not the motivation, is an interesting one to think about.

“The Promise of Space”, by James Patrick Kelly, is a tragedy that, as one would expect from this well-known writing instructor, is well executed and moving. It's another brain-augmentation story.

“The Master Conjurer”, by Charlie Jane Anders, is, surprisingly, from Lightspeed magazine, which (from a brief subscription to it) I associate with dark and disturbing stories. This one is amusing, if you find hopeless losers amusing, and as a general thing I don't. It could do with a stronger ending, as well.

“The Pilgrim and the Angel”, by E. Lily Yu, features an Egyptian Muslim father who, when the Angel Gabriel takes him to Mecca, prefers to go and visit his uncommunicative son in America instead. The son is not communicating, one suspects, in part because explaining his girlfriend Rosa to his parents isn't going to go well. A good depiction of the contradictions and strains of family, but it could have got to that point a bit more quickly.

“Entangled”, by Ian R Macleod, is post-apocalyptic, a genre I dislike considerably. It's deeply tragic, too. Another case of "well done, but very far from my taste" (and another brain-augmentation story, incidentally).

“Fade to Gold”, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew, is another cross-dressing lesbian story, another kind-of-a-vampire-but-more-a-victim-than-a-monster story, another war story, another story set in Thailand and another tragedy. I don't have much more to say about it than that.

“Selkie Stories are for Losers”, by Sofia Samatar, is up for a Hugo this year. I thought there were plenty of better stories even in this volume. Not that this is bad, though it is depressing. The selkie idea is used both literally and metaphorically, and it's cleverly done, I just didn't enjoy it that much or think that it took the concepts to much of a conclusion.

“In Metal, In Bone”, by An Owomoyela, was the only story I actually skipped through. Another war story, and very graphic and dark. I don't remember the ending being strong.

“Kormak the Lucky”, by Eleanor Arnason, draws on Icelandic and Irish myth and does so, I think, very effectively. It has the feel of another retold folktale without actually being one, and at the same time is told with more depth of description and a more modern awareness than the tales it's based on. There's a homonym error in this one: "broach" for "brooch".

“Sing”, by Karin Tidbeck, features a disabled protagonist (like a couple of the other stories here). What looks like a love story takes a nasty, unexpected turn at the end which, for me, sounded an emotionally false note.

“Social Services”, by Madeline Ashby, is a horror story in the Twilight Zone mould. The logic of it doesn't bear close examination. It's set in a crumbling dystopia that only misses being post-apocalyptic because there hasn't been a single decisive event. Not at all to my taste, though again well done for what it is.

“The Road of Needles”, by CaitlĂ­n R Kiernan, is another retold fairy tale, this time Red Riding Hood in space. Well, OK. It could have been tighter and clearer. The protagonist happens to be half of a lesbian couple, but that doesn't drive the story in any way, which is how it often should be with diverse characters, in my opinion. Contains the error "negligent" for "negligible".

“Mystic Falls”, by Robert Reed, is another mental-augmentation story. I didn't find the concept made total sense or worked all that well.

“The Queen of Night’s Aria”, by Ian McDonald, surprised me. I've read a couple of McDonald's novels, years ago, and I remember him being a better writer than this. There are missing commas leading to breathless dialogue, "retraced" for "retracted", and several other typos, and the story could have stood to be tightened up considerably. It's set in some kind of planetary-romance Victorian Mars, and features (by my count) the only gay male character in the collection. It ends, or at least stops, in a tragic situation.

“The Irish Astronaut”, by Val Nolan, is another story that is longer than it really needs to be. It's not really SFinal, either, and is another story that's more mood than plot.

The best of these stories are good, but not, to my mind, amazing. The worst of them are pretentious faffing about without much point. In the middle are some that are longer than they should be, some that would be stronger if they only had endings, and some things that are well done but very much not the kind of thing I enjoy.

I read this collection in the hope of learning something about short story writing and the current market (since I'm writing more shorts these days). Unfortunately, what I mainly learned is that this editor's taste doesn't mesh with mine, and so I shouldn't seek out past or future volumes in this series.

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