Year’s Best SF 3

I’ve read and liked most of David Hartewell’s Year’s Best SF (which is no longer published) but reviewed few of them.

Here’s one.  A retro review from July 28, 2003 …

Review: Year’s Best SF, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1998.Year's Best SF 3

The one piece of dross comes from an unexpected source: William Gibson and his story “Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City”. It’s a minute, camera-eye examination of a cardboard structure in a Tokyo subway and obviously inspired by J.G. Ballard’s work. I detected no point to the series of descriptions, or, indeed, anything of a fantastical or science fictional nature.

Nancy Kress’ “Always True to Thee, in My Fashion” gives us a witty satire with a world where the seasonal variations of fashion cover not only clothes but also your pharmaceutically modulated attitudes.. The caged dinosaur of Gene Wolfe’s “Petting Zoo” represents not only the lost childhood of the story’s protagonist but a vitality lost from the race of man. Tom Cool gives us “Universal Emulators” with its future of economic hypercompetition that has created a black market for those who impersonate, in every way, the few employed professionals. In effect, the emulators grant them an extra set of hands. Its plot and characters would have done Roger Zelazny proud.

The voice of past science fiction writers echoes through many of the anthology’s best stories. Jack London’s The Sea Wolf provides the inspiration for Michael Swanwick’s “The Wisdom of Old Earth”. Its heroine realizes, despite whatever dangers she overcomes guiding posthumans through the Pennsylvania’s jungles, she will never bootstrap herself into being their equal. H.G. Wells looms over Robert Silverberg’s “Beauty in the Night”. Its child hero undertakes the first successful assassination of the brutal aliens that have occupied Earth, but his reasons have more to do with his oppressive father rather than the aliens’ behavior. John C. Wright’s “Guest Law” is a welcome return to the flashy decadence of Cordwainer Smith’s fiction. Its hero, a slave-engineer, watches in disgust as his aristocratic overlords corrupt the customary requirements of hospitality to justify piracy in deep space. Gregory Benford’s “The Voice” responds to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Here the convenience of implanted intelligent agents, hooked up to a computer network, led to literacy fading, and not a repressive regime of firemen. Benford agrees with Bradbury about literacy’s value but also undercuts him on the supremacy of writing as a means of communication.

James Patrick Kelly and Brian Stableford tackle similar themes in two excellent tales about children, the needs they fulfill for parents, and the possibility of replacing them with surrogates. The heroine of Kelly’s “Itsy Bitsy Spider”, estranged from her actor father for 23 ages, is horrified to discover that her enfeebled father’s legal guardian is also equipped to simulate her as a child. Stableford’s “The Pipes of Pan” has a future recovering from ecological catastrophe where real children are not allowed. However, parents can have children genetically altered to never age and reproduce. But those children suddenly start growing up.

Jack Williamson’s “The Firefly Tree” is a Bradbury-like tale of aliens who travel far but whose invitation to join an intergalactic republic goes no further than a farm boy. Though I usually hate stories narrated by smart-alecky teenagers, I didn’t mind S.N. Dyer’s “The Nostalginauts” with its problem of time travelers going back 25 years to reminisce about their younger selves. The technological speculations of Greg Egan’s “Yeyuka” are interesting. However, I didn’t find the political criticisms inherent in this story of First World companies exploiting the misery of a Third World cancer epidemic that convincing or plausible, and they seemed a bit of a repeat of those in his novel Distress. While Terry Bisson’s “An Office Romance” was fun and poked fun at, in passing, Microsoft and those who find the computer screen a satisfying substitute for the world outside, its romance, in the bowels of a computer system, reminded me of Tron in that both stories borrowed computer terminology to create a cyberverse that only superficially resembles the real thing.

Inspiring two works in this book, Ray Bradbury also puts in a direct appearance with “Mr. Pale”. As to be expected with Bradbury, its superficial science fiction trappings clothe a fantasy tale of a doctor encountering a desperate Death aboard a spaceship.

The abrupt ending of Tom Purdom’s “Canary Land” is at odds with what, at first, seems a tale of corporate espionage on the moon. However, Purdom’s real story centers around the bitter experiences of an American immigrant to an Asian dominated lunar society and how his life replays the themes of past immigrants. R. Garcia y Robertson’s “Fair Verona” features a virtual-reality obsessed hunting guide who discovers that the joys of his Renaissance Verona might not live up to rescuing a real damsel in danger of being murdered. Kim Newman’s “Great Western” has some problems. Rather than just examine the real effects of an alteration to past events, it seeks to gain some significance by throwing together a mishmash of non-contemporaneous events and cultural icons. Here we have mad cow disease, British political disputes about privatization, and the aftermath of a war fought to free England’s serfs. Newman makes the whole thing readable by using the plot of the movie and novel Shane, but it doesn’t say anything interesting about culture or history.

Paul Levinson’s “The Mendelian Lamp Case” has a great premise: a forensic scientist encountering a centuries-old battle between groups that practice genetic engineering via old practices of selective breeding. However, while the biological speculations are detailed and interesting, Levinson should have provided more details about the Amish genetic engineers and their foes. It would have been nice to know their exact motives for spreading allergies, disease, and general social unrest. Michael Moorcock’s “London Bone” has plenty of interesting details about London geography and history. However, I think a little too much of the cantankerous Moorcock showed through in its complaints about British and American culture.

The anthology also has a couple of humorous stories. “Turnover”, by Geoffrey A. Landis centers around a real scientific question about the seemingly uniform age of Venus’ craters. Katherine MacLean’s puzzling, but somewhat funny, “Kiss Me” involves several questions about frogs, including what happens when you kiss them.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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