Book Review: Year’s Best Science Fiction
Thirtieth Annual Collection
Edited by Gardner Dozois
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013
With typical sangfroid, legendary editor Gardner Dozois makes no fuss in his latest “Year’s Best Science Fiction” volume about the fact that this series has reached its third decade. Instead, he simply presents his usual omnivorously encyclopedic summation of the year that was (he exults that printed books didn’t die in 2012, and he has the embattled good sense to have liked the Taylor Kitsch Hollywood blockbuster John Carter even though it flopped in American theaters) and then steps aside so his devoted legion of readers can get straight to the main course, the twenty-nine short stories he’s culled from the furthest bolt-holes of Mos Eisley. No other editor in the world has his reach or his discrimination when it comes to sifting and judging this stuff, and these fat annual anthologies are the glorious result of all that culling.
As is the way with random chance, some volumes are more glorious than others. This year’s starts off with a flatly negative impression, a sour taste of déjà vu that springs up as soon as the prospective buyer has glimpsed the front cover: it’s a retread, a illustration the great Michael Whelan did for Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Earth back in 1987 and that has been reprinted many dozens of times since then. This baffling choice distracts from the enterprise before it’s even begun, since any reader will wonder why a new book – let alone something as prestigious as Dozois’ annual collection – has an easily-recognizable old cover.
There are other distractions in this latest volume, and at least one of them is unexpected: the thing is poorly copyedited. Some of this is the fault of the original editors of these pieces, as when Indrapramit Das’“Weep for Day”starts off with a grammatical error:“I was eight years old the first time I saw a real, living Nightmare. My parents took my brother and I …” But some of it must lie at Dozois’ feet, since there are egregious typos in virtually every story. And there are more troubling editorial slips here and there, as reflected in some of the stories chosen for inclusion in what should be the most exclusive club in the genre. Adam Roberts’ “What Did Tessimond Tell You?” is here, despite starting with, “The Nobel was in the bag (not that I would ever want to hide it away in a bag -) …”And Brit Mandelo’s “The Finite Canvas” is here as well, despite having a first paragraph as sweaty and top-heavy as anything you’d find in YA fan fiction:
Molly tapped the screen of her finicky tablet with one sweat-damp fingertip, leaving a shimmering smudge. The next page loaded with a slight delay. Rainwater pattered through the one-room clinic’s open windows onto the tile floor, but the baking summer heat remained untouched. Even with all the windows thrown open it was still at least forty-two degrees C inside, though once the temperatures climbed above forty it was hard to judge.
The inclusion of junk like this has the same effect on well-intentioned but wary genre outsiders as does that retread cover: it reinforces so many stereotypes about science fiction that Dozois himself has been at the forefront of correcting for thirty years. It reassures the small-minded that the entire genre is full of derivative pap and can be safely ignored.
Fortunately, this collection has enough strong highlights to counteract such an impression, provided the reader gets past the sweat-damp fingertips to get to them. Paul McAuley’s disastrously titled “Macy Minnot’s Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler’s Green, The Potter’s Garden,” for instance, is a vivid meditation on alien-ness – it’s one of the best evocations of the artificial-v.s.-natural-world theme that runs through so many of the volume’s choices:
Everything that seemed natural here – the ring forest, the lawns, the dense patches of vegetables and herbs – was artificial. Fragile. Vulnerable. Mai tried and failed to imagine living in a little bubble so far from the sun that it was no more than the brightest star in the sky.
Likewise Michael Bishop’s “Twenty Lights to ‘The Land of Snow,” in which the next Dalai Lama is reborn on an interstellar spaceship as a young girl. True, the story is full of the kinds of clunky attempts at futuristic slang that can only be made by an author nearing the age of 100, but the signature Bishop energy is still abundant:
Our ship has a loco largeness, like a tunnel turning through star-smeared space, like a line of railroad tank cars, humming through the Empty Vast without any hum. I saw such trains in my hypoloading sleeps. Now I peep them as spectals and mini-holos and even palm pix.
Larry likes for me to do that. He says anything “fusty and fun”is OK by him, if it tutors me well. And I don’t need him to help me twig when I snoop Kalachakra. I learn by drifting, floating, swimming, counting, and just by asking ghosts what I want to know.
Vandana Singh’s “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue” is another proud moment in this volume, as is Elizabeth Bear’s “In the House of Aryaman, A Lonely Signal Burns,” by many measures the strongest piece in the book.
Stumbles in execution are disturbing, and stumbles in selection more so, but it would require a lot more of both to make these “Year’s Best” volumes any less the essential reading they’ve been for three decades. If such a long series lifespan teaches anything, after all, it’s that there’ll be good years and bad years. Here’s to another thirty.