Sunday, 8 June 2014

Review: Twenty-First Century Science Fiction

Twenty-First Century Science Fiction
Twenty-First Century Science Fiction by David G. Hartwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Charlie Jane Anders recommended this, along with a number of other anthologies, on i09, and I can see why. It's packed full of excellent science fiction stories. I've been reading anthologies lately, partly to improve my own short story writing, and this is the best I've found so far.

With two exceptions, which I'll talk about in a moment, the 34 stories in this volume reminded me of how I first encountered SF while growing up: mind-expanding, excellently written, absorbing, thought-provoking, putting the "speculative" in "speculative fiction". They mostly take current science as a starting point and ask an intriguing "what if", at the same time telling an engaging human story - even if the main characters often aren't, by our current definitions, human. We have androids, AIs, an enhanced ape, posthumans and aliens here, and they're delightful.

Although I wouldn't call most of the stories optimistic, they're not the SF equivalent of grimdark fantasy either. SF can all too easily go down the dystopian and alienated route to nihilism, which isn't a kind of story I enjoy. Even when things go terribly wrong - and they do - these stories retain, if not hope exactly, at least a commitment to the idea that life is somehow meaningful, that connection to other beings exists and is worthwhile.

SF has become deeper and wider since the old days, and there's now a strong "literary" wing, represented by magazines like Lightspeed and Clarkesworld. For my taste, those magazines often go too far towards lit-fic, at the cost of story, character and meaning (and speculativeness, frequently). The stories in this collection seem to be mainly up at the other end of the spectrum. The editors don't tell us where most of them were originally published, which I feel is an unfortunate omission that makes it harder for readers to find other, similar stories, but I would bet that a lot of them came to us first via Asimov's, F&SF, Analog and

Although the approach to story is, in most cases, the more classical one in which characters with agency face conflict and there's some sort of resolution at the end, these are not, by any means, throwback stories which could have been written 50 years ago (a type of story which Asimov's, for one, tends to publish). For one thing, contemporary science is often key to the story problem. Contemporary issues, too, are visible in many of the stories, though few of them deal with issues of race, sexuality or gender identity, something which is more common on the Lightspeed/Clarkesworld end of the SF spectrum. We do get terrorism, advertising, privacy, increasing integration of human life with technology, and other such themes.

I mentioned that there were two stories that didn't work so well for me. The first was John Scalzi's "The Tale of the Wicked". I read Scalzi's blog sometimes, and I generally agree with what he says, though sometimes how he says it could do with some extra thought. I'm no fan of his fiction, though, and this story epitomises why. Although some of his characters have women's names, and some of them have non-Western names, they are the opposite of "diverse": they're indistinguishable. Every character of Scalzi's, in anything I've read of his (one novel, one novella, and this short story), sounds completely identical, sounds, in fact, exactly like Scalzi does on his blog. Since he never describes anyone even with a single word, they might as well look identical as well. Far from having cultural differences, they don't even have individual differences; they're not just cardboard cutouts, they're multiple copies of the same cardboard cutout. Their environment is equally undescribed and generic. And this story, along with most of his others, employs a trope that was old and tired before Scalzi was born: interstellar war against the aliens.

It's also the only story in the volume in which I noticed more than one copy editing error. Some of the other stories have errors that are worse (one has "breaking" instead of "braking", while the errors here are more sloppy typos and the occasional tense issue), but this one story contains more than half of the errors I noticed in the whole volume, despite making up about 4% of the page count.

The other story that didn't work for me is "How to Become a Mars Overlord" by Catherynne M. Valente. It's possible to write a short piece that doesn't have an actual story and make it work; Yoon Ha Lee does it in this volume, in "A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel". But "Mars Overlord" doesn't pull it off. It has references to multiple stories, which sound interesting, but they're not told, just alluded to, and the whole thing is so weighted down with self-consciously evocative language that I ended up skipping to the end, or, more accurately, to the point at which it stopped. No other piece in this volume even tempted me to skim, but this one I wish I'd skipped altogether.

If we ignore those two, there are 32 excellent stories in this collection, more than the average number for an anthology, and certainly far better than the average story. It made me enthusiastic about SF again, and confident that the field is in vigorous health and excellent hands.

I got it from my local library, because the Kindle edition is $14.44 on Amazon. That's an absurd price for an ebook, but this collection is almost worth it.

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