Book Review: The Year’s Best Science Fiction
Thirty-Third Annual Collection
edited by Gardner Dozois
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016
Only an editor with the confidence of the legendary Gardner Dozois would open an anthology of 2015 science fiction short stories by blandly asserting, “2015 was overall another fairly unimpressive year for short fiction” and still expect the anthology to be taken seriously by editors and readers, but that’s just how he begins his latest doorstop collection (with its cover illustration by the great James Burns), somewhat grudgingly adding that there were a few first-rate novellas sprinkled amidst all the disappointing shorter fiction. And only an editor with the sheer blunderbuss genius of Dozois, after having made such a statement, could then proceed to pull together an anthology as fantastic as the 33rd Year’s Best Science Fiction volume. Despite warnings of “fairly unimpressive” building materials, Dozois has here nearly 700 pages of mostly first-rate stuff.
The 36 stories assembled here have been drawn from the whole range of the science fiction publishing world, in print and online. They’re the work of relative newcomers to the genre and also old hands who’ve been publishing for decades. And they cover the whole spectrum of sci-fi standards, from strange alien worlds to hidden biological terrors – and, in the case of stories like Paul McAuley’s terrific “Planet of Fear,” about a Venusian colony suddenly plagued by a mysterious illness, both at the same time:
For a week after the last of the men came down with what he called twenty-four hour flu, he’d made only routine notes in his log. Then there was a terse entry about a suicide – a man had hanged himself. Another man walked in front of a truck. More entries: fist fights, a non-fatal stabbing, broken bones due to drunkenness. Two men disappeared one night; three the next. One was found clinging to the top of a tall tree and brought down. The next day he was found dead, his wrists slashed open. A man hanged himself; four others disappeared. The last note, in Georgi Zhzhyonov’s neat, slanting script, read I suffer from the most vivid and peculiar dreams.
There are stories here of genetic manipulation, hopelessly open-ended flights to the stars, alien life that baffles expectations with frightening ease, and of course that old staple of the genre, time travel: in James Sarafin’s “Trapping the Pleistocene,” a rough-hewn seasoned hunter is sent back in time in search of a scientist who went missing while studying the giant man-sized beavers of the epoch – and as is always the case with beavers of all sizes, he sees their handiwork before he sees them:
The dam contained its own ecosystem, the holes of muskrat dens and swallows’ nests, the twig and grass nests of other birds, an egg-shaped hive of yellowjackets hanging from a dead tree. Weedsd, brush, and willow bushes grew in every gap between the dead logs and limbs. Live spruce and birch trees sprouted there too, some with trunks as big around as his torso, indicating that the dam had probably been maintained by generations of beaver. The tree roots probably helped anchor the structure.
The volume opens begins as usual with a masterful, maddening “summation” of the previous year in the science fiction and fantasy genre. The note Dozois strike this time around is curiously subdued, although he can’t resist conveying a kind of grim satisfaction while reporting that sff-genre movies, TV shows, and adaptations ran rampant over all non-genre contenders in 2015, just as they have for well over a decade with scarcely an interruption. If anybody has a right to crow a little about this cultural domination, it’s Dozois, who did so much work to keep the flame of quality science fiction stories burning even in the fallow early years of his “year’s best” series, long before Hollywood special effects at last began catching up with the imaginative constructs of the genre. Nowadays, outlandish creatures like the one on the cover of this anthology are trivially commonplace on the moving screen large and small, where they’ve mostly lost their ability to wow an audience. It’s a curious little irony that they’ve lost none of that ability on the written page; in that sense and many others, Dozois has once again created the kind of feast no other medium can rival.