Year’s Best SF 4

The alternate history series continues though there are only two stories in this book that fits that description.

Hartwell’s series is the only one I followed fairly consistently apart from Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison’s Best SF series which was started me reading science fiction regularly.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 4, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1999.years-best-sf-4

Market Report”, Alexander Jablokov — I like Jablokov, but I didn’t think this story was good enough to be included in this anthology (of course, I didn’t read all the sf short fiction published in 1998). Still, on skimming the story again after reading it, I appreciated it more. It has a wry humor about it with its portrayal of retired suburbanites hanging out in a planned community which they’re planning to restock with Pleistocene flora and fauna and the women have primitive rites in its jungles, and the narrator’s parents, members of that community, try to comprehend his job as a spotter of self-defined groups that need to be marketed to. At first glance, the story doesn’t seem to be about much apart from its near-future extrapolation of sociological-based marketing and Pleistocene hobbyists. But, with its plot of a man finding a home amongst parents he’s spent a lifetime trying to understand, to “catch” the meaning of their conversation and the same narrator getting over a failed marriage, I suspect Jablokov was trying to do a sf imitation of John Cheever or John Irving, writers, I believe, Jablokov has expressed an admiration for. However, not being sf writers, my exposure to them has been minimum.

A Dance to Strange Musics”, Gregory Benford — This is a brilliant, austere, unsentimental, humbling, Stapledonian, classic sf tale. Its classicism is that it’s pure hard sf, a detailed working out of a surprising ecosystem in our galactic backyard — the Alpha Centauri star system — and little emphasis on individual characters (though Benford does put in some wry bits about how scientists relate to one another). The plot progresses from one hard sf wonder to another. A vast, elevated lake is found on a planet in the star system. It seems to be formed in the remnants of a crater and literally floats kilometers above the surface, the power to do so coming from the piezoelectric forces generated by tidal stresses from the three suns in the system. The planetary system is covered by tile-like creatures who constantly move about, dancing to “strange music”. Eventually, it’s speculated that their movements (they, and the whole ecology of the planet, feed off electrical energy rather than chemical energy) represent some giant, planetary computer at work. A manned probe into the atmosphere finds, before the pilot dies, surprising levels of electrical power and a sort of memory in the system. The giant, floating lake turns out to be a giant laser system which periodically sends messages to other star systems. More die exploring the planet, learning that the tiles feed on electricity and exchange, in sophisticated protocols, data with each other, and that planet fires off messages into space not intended for man. The first expedition descends to the planet but not before they realize that the lifeforms on the planet are engineered, that the intelligent life there has either left for space or engineered themselves into the tiles. Another expedition is sent from an Earth where people live in the “disposable realities” of computer created environments. They meet odd, disconcerting facsimiles of the first expedition. The facsimiles are a disturbing group mind with facial expressions that flicker at precise intervals and who each speak separate words in their sentences while inviting man to join their Being Suite, their bodies precisely spaced in a hexagon. The humans are appalled by what they see and, out of fear, do not go to the surface. They don’t know if the first expedition was seduced or raped into becoming part of the Being Suite. The second to last paragraph has a classic passage about the unknowability of the universe, its forever closed community of sentience: “It is one thing to speak of embracing the new, the fresh, the strange. It is another to feel that one is an insect, crawling across a page of the Encyclopedia Britannica, knowing only that something vast is passing by beneath, all without your sensing more than a yawning vacancy. Worse, the lack was clearly in oneself, and was irredeemable.” A classic sf statement, a classic sf tale.

The Year of the Mouse”, Norman Spinrad — This was a curious, fun story. For starters, it was commissioned for and published in a French language newspaper. (Spinrad, for many years, was an American expatriate in France). The introductory notes don’t say whether it was written in French though Spinrad speaks French like a native. This story is interesting from several viewpoints. In one sense, its plot of the Disney corporation forcing China to open its markets to its plethora of products was reminiscent of the Opium Wars. Disney floods the China market with balloons that double as satellite antennas, fast food franchises and an animated version of Mao’s Long March (with animal characters). Now this is a fun plot proving, as the story opening motto has it, “Mess not with the Mouse.” But there are other things going on. Spinrad alludes, obliquely, to Marxist’s Ariel Dorfmann complaint about Disney’s Donald Duck being an agent for cultural and capitalistic imperialism in the introduction to Spinrad’s collection Other Americas. And Disney, especially amongst the French, is a symbol of American gaucheness (though they flock to EuroDisney) so Spinrad’s playing off that. But, I couldn’t shake the sense that, while mocking the business tactics and cultural products of Disney a la a model of notorious imperialism in the mode of the Opium Wars and in a forum guaranteed to be sympathetic to that view, that a part of Spinrad secretly applauds Disney’s vital, potent product capable of conquering the world. At one point, Disney threatens to beam the first 20 minutes of their movie, Mao the Panda’s Little Red Book, into China and make its people buy decoders to watch the rest. It may be glossy, superficial, formulaic art, but he may respect its craft’s universal appeal that makes worldwide marketing successful.

The Day Before They Came”, Mary Soon Lee — This story’s gimmick is all centered in the title which sets up an expectation, specifically an expectation of alien invasion. But the aliens never come during the story. It’s all about the anxiety’s of living in a “normal” future (pollution, school violence, finding money for your child’s education and faddish pursuits) even without the earthshaking event of alien contact. I didn’t find the story compelling.

This Side of Independence”, Rob Chilson — A moody but rather unexceptional tale about a far future where humanity’s offworld colonists are dismantling a colder and almost abandoned Earth for its raw materials. But one family still lives outside of old Missouri. A woman tries to convince them to leave, even tries to seduce the youngest member of the family to leave, but he refuses, opting to stay with his elders and die with Earth.

The Twelfth Album”, Stephen Baxter — It would help if I were more of a Beatles fan to appreciate this alternate history. (For instance, I don’t know the relation of one Allen Klein to the Beatles.) But you don’t really have to know much about them to get the gist of this story. Rummaging around the shipboard quarters of their recently deceased friend, they come across a Beatles album they’ve never heard, a polished studio album. It may come from an alternate history. Their friend mentioned a peculiar experience he had when the ship seemed to be in the harbor of a devastated Liverpool. They deduce he temporarily crossed into an alternate timeline where he picked up the album (and a lot of 60s and 70s antiques). The story leaves a couple of strands of plot unresolved, deliberately. First, we don’t know if this alternate timeline was devastated by a nuclear war (thus contributing to the Beatles’ inspiration to put aside their differences and create a twelfth album featuring some material they were, in our timeline, to do as solo artists) or a comet strike. Second, the ship the story takes place on may be the Titanic or the Olympic (I think that was the Titanic’s sister ship). There are plot hints supporting both views. It was an enjoyable story but nothing special in the way of alternate histories. This isn’t the first sf story to feature the Beatles. Gregory Benford tackled the subject in his “Doing Lennon”, and there have probably been others.

Story of Your Life”, Ted Chiang — I wasn’t aware of it before reading Hartwell’s introductory notes, but Chiang seems to be that rare author who publishes very little (four stories in eight years) but almost every one is an nominated for an award. This is a brilliant story that reminded me of Greg Egan’s work in that it’s built on a philosophical question buried in the laws of physics. The story is narrated by a linguist who is hired by the government to unravel an alien language, assisted by a physicist. The story opens with the narrator-linguist seemingly addressing her daughter. At first, her story simply seems to be memory couched in terms of stating what will happen in the future, sort of memoir told in the present tense with jumps ahead in the story. However, as her work with the aliens and their language progresses, it turns out this isn’t just a stylistic quirk of Chiang or his narrator. It stems from the philosophical speculation central to the story. The aliens perceive the world very differently; their mathematics is elaborate for concepts we regard as simple and vice versa. The aliens, it turns out, perceive the world simultaneously and not, as we do, sequentially. Their spoken and written languages reflect this. (Chiang’s descriptions of linguistic analysis seem realistic.) This isn’t just some amusing philosophical conceit, but rather an idea implied in several well-known laws of physics called variable principles, a mathematical field started with Fermat’s Principle of Least Time. Chiang uses the example of refracted light picking, under various circumstances, the extremes of possible paths. To explain this, one has to use casual language that implies the photon knows its destination before it begins travelling since that is the only way it can choose the appropriate extreme. (The physicist Planck, according to Chiang, wrote extensively about this notion.) After being exposed to the aliens’ language, the narrator gains this ability, and we realize that she’s not telling her memories to her daughter. She hasn’t had her daughter yet, hasn’t married her physicist partner yet or divorced nor has her daughter died yet. (Some parts of the story, notably the opening, are flashback since the narrator takes a while to adopt this alien viewpoint but opens the story with it.) Poignantly, the story ends where it opens: with the couple deciding to “make a baby”. The “Your” in the title is, of course, the dead daughter.

Whiptail”, Robert Reed — This was an ok story, but, though I liked the last, rather stinging line, I’m not real fond of sf stories that speculate on gender issues. This story first seems to be set on a future Earth devastated by diseases spawned by pesticide and antibiotic overuse. A chatty, rather vapid woman accompanies her girlfriend (every person on this planet is a woman so, of course, all relationships are “lesbian” in nature) home. Her lover, Chrome, is a member of the famous Chromatella line (the genetic similarities of certain families makes them known as harboring characteristic genetic weaknesses — important in a world where screening for infectious disease is a prerequisite for permission to travel). At stories end, we finally arrive at the revelation that this isn’t Earth. We at last get a description, for instance, of their usual “nice orange” necks. We also get the more important revelation that bisexual reproduction was unknown (not even a myth) until a Chromatella ancestor scientifically revealed to the world. In fact, at story’s end, the Chromatellas, in connection with other scientists, introduce a male gender into the world in order to get sexual reproduction and the resultant shuffling of genes which will strengthen the race. With the last line of the story, Reed seems to make the pointed observation that, even in a world with one gender, the stereotypical male and female habits and responses of our world would be there in the relationships between people. Chrome’s lover, listening to her chatter all story long and her indignation at their genetically engineering males into existence tells her: “Will you please, for once, you idiot-bitch, think and shut up!”

The Eye of God”, Mary Rosenblum — An ok story about secret alien technologies and secret alien sexual politics. A lesbian empath, retired from Search and Rescue duties and negotiating with the hermaphroditic aliens, the Rethe, for access to their teleportation technologies (the Rethe only allow humans access to a few minor worlds), is hired to rescue Duran, the male leg of an old sexual triangle which also included the empath and a female lover, Vilya, who had a child by Duran. But, unknown to her, she is also there to help the alien Zynth atone for her sins in leading Duran to a forbidden world and endangering him there. The protagonist, Etienne, goes to the closed world with the moon called the Eye of God, sacred to the Rethe, to make sure no harm comes to Zynth. It turns out Zynth is special to the Rethe since he (it turns out, despite his appearance, he is a male) is one of the few Rethe that can breed. During this minor intrigue, Etienne manages to discover that the Rethe open their Gates via implanted technology and not innate, superior biology.

Rules of Engagement”, Michael F. Flynn — There are echoes of Robert A. Heinlein’s work all over this story. First the structure — a bunch of lieutenants sharing war stories — and the style (casual political and technological exposition via dialogue and slang) is very reminiscent of Heinlein (a similarity I would have picked up on even without Hartwell’s introductory notes). Second, several plot elements remind me of Heinlein. The setting of a civil war in a future America was very reminiscent of Heinlein’s “Revolt in 2100” right down to discussion on how much freedom should be allowed to the populace. Here, one of the narrator’s (a first person narration is another Heinlein similarity) comrades suggests that freedom of the press be restricted. The narrator responds that it he’d rather shoot someone dead then treat them like a child and restrict their access to certain books and web sites. He also disputes the notion that private encryption technology fostered the “militias'” revolt. He says you can’t have conspiracies without conspirators and that encryption made little difference.) The powered suits, operated by telepresence, that the lieutenants use (Heinlein’s military characters were often officers of the lower grades) reminded me of the powered suits in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. This was an ok story, it’s end — where a cornered “bandit” insists that his brother, the local sheriff, shoot him — was interesting, but I’ve read better from Flynn, and I don’t have a lot of interest in reading the future history of which this is, according to Hartwell, a part of.

Radiant Doors“, Michael Swanwick — Hartwell’s introductory notes calls this story a dark twist on C.M. Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons”. I suppose that’s true — Swanwick may even have listed it as an inspiration. Both stories deal with hellish futures where an elite rule over a lumpenproletariat produced (in Kornbluth’s story) by overpopulation or (in Swanwick’s tale) automation. In both stories, the elite have to decide what to do with the horde of unproductive people. Here, the elite of the future decide to use them in various experiments of a medical and social control nature. Kornbluth’s influence also shows up the masochistic sexual pleasures of the narrator which echo a bit the sadomasochism theme of Kornbluth’s “Shark Ship”. This story is set in a refugee camp where travelers from the future, bursting through “radiant doors”, are held. The narrator tries to ignore there horrible tales of experimentation to try and extract clues about the future’s technology and whether the future is immutable. One such refugee gives her a device that promises the ability to control others. The narrator wonders if turning over such a device, possibly a mind control device, to the government will bring about the very future that the refugees are fleeing. The narrator thinks she has uncovered a plot by one of her supervisors that confirms that very fear, that the device has been planted. At story’s end, though, she discovers that there are two cabals from the future at work in the camp, and the one that seems to win at the end is the one determined to bring the horrendous future about.

Unraveling the Thread“, Jean-Claude Dunyach — I really liked this story. Like some of my favorite sf stories, it combines history and sf, but here the flavor also reminds me strongly of one of those drawing room detective stories where the sleuth solves a mystery without leaving his room. I don’t think that flavor derives from its French origins though, if you wanted to be stereotypical (I haven’t read enough French literature to make this claim from personal experience), you could say its emphasis on detection via art is very Gallic. The narrator works in the antique carpet section of the Museum of Civilization (I have no idea if such a place exists in France). He is introduced, by his boss, to a thousand year old carpet of Kurdistan which, she says, tells a curious story it has taken her a lifetime to piece together. (Hartwell, in his introductory notes, says the original French title of the story was “Dechiffrer la trame”. “Trame” means both “weft” and “plot”, an appropriate pun for this story. “Dechiffrer” means to “decipher”.) By feeling the knots, touching the weave, she is able to tell a story about a young women, possibly too independent for her culture, who is married off. Her child dies. At twenty-five, widowed and sterile, she goes to live alone. At forty, blind, living by herself, she encounters an alien friend or lover who weaves exotic knots and patterns into the rug before both meet abrupt deaths. The whole set of artistic deductions is done by paying attention to the characteristics of the knots, the patterns of the weave. At story’s end, we find out that both the narrator and his boss, like the Kurdistan woman a thousand years ago when she met the alien, are blind. (I really only realized this fact on skimming the story after reading it once already. I originally took the statement that the curators were blind as a metaphorical one having to do with their inability to see clearly into the past.). I’d like to see some more stuff by Dunyach.

That Thing Over There”, Dominic Green — I loved this unique story, a resurrection of the old lost race subgenre. It also reminded me of some of Charles Sheffield’s stories with archaeological mysteries tucked away in obscure corners of the globe. This story is narrated by an archaeologist in the last years of the 21st century talking about an expedition he went on in the beginning of the century. An expedition to Tibet discovers the remains of a mutant human race (later determined to share 90 percent of their DNA with humans) that existed around 4,000 BC. Without religion and superstition, the potent beginnings of science, and an utter disregard for human suffering, this lost race, the Niige, so terrified and repulsed their neighbors, a vast coalition ascended the high Tibetan plateau and besieged the Niige city and wrote “Death to Demons” in its ruins. The Niige, though, seem to have anticipated the possibility that future science may resurrect them like dormant wasps after a winter. This hope proves true. The narrator, at the end of the story, talks about the trendy use of Niige sperm, taken from the frozen bodies of this white-haired, 12-fingered people, in conceiving children and how the resultant children, with their superior cognitive abilities, are forming a social elite, an elite that has suppressed the details of what the narrator and his colleagues found in that dead, cold city at the Top of the World.

The Allies”, Mark S. Geston — This is a sf rumination on dogs and their long relationship with humans. An invading alien race forces man off the Earth, and he leaves his dogs behind. The aliens find a ready ally in most of the animals who resent man’s long domination of Earth and his displacement of them. In effect, they throw their lot in with the aliens who boost their intelligence and begin erasing the traces off man from the planet. However, the dogs, long tied to man in a symbiotic relationship, fights them, eventually defeats them. When humanity returns, he finds the rest of the animals hostile though intelligent, and dogs and foxes all but wiped out by a rabies-like plague unleashed by the aliens. Dogs, the narrator and the artificial intelligently Minds, speculate that they fulfilled a deep need in humans who are lonely at the core, who reach out to others out of need. Dogs, the story says, provided man some sense of worth. A race of animals who did not need man but still judged them worthy of friendship. It’s an interesting notion about the man-dog relationship. (Though now there are plenty who like to be needed and worshipped by their dogs, hardly an equal relationship.) At story’s end, humans discover a group of wolves in the Arctic, and the long relationship of human and canine is about to be renewed with the newly intelligent wolves. My one complaint with this story is that it could have been a bit shorter, but it still was worth reading.

My Pal Clunky”, Ron Goulart — It’s been awhile since I’ve read any Goulart, and I enjoyed reading this typical Goulart story about showbiz machinations, cranky robot dogs, alimony payments, surly custodians, and desperate robot repairmen. The plot concerns the former writer and star of the hit show My Pal Clunky (and builder of its robot dog star) trying to get back into showbiz after he gets an unexpected offer, with the promise of removing him from his life of debt and drudgery, to revive the show. The trouble is he needs to find his former robot star. He eventually does, after a brief series of Goulart-style adventures, but the dog has had a lot of modifications done to itself, and, in the future, will be the senior member of the show business couple. While enjoyable, I’m not sure this belonged in a best-of-the-year anthology, but, then, I didn’t read every single 1998 sf story.

Life in the Extreme”, David Brin — There’s nothing special about this story other than that it stands, according to my peripheral knowledge of the series, at the beginning of Brin’s Uplift series. In a time of risk aversion, the “Century of Aficionados”, a rich, purposeless young man crashes his rocket and ends up discovering the intelligent dolphins produced by the now defunct Project Uplift (killed by legal costs). He decides to put his fortune behind reviving it. The Century of Aficionados is described as a time where personal expertise outstrips that of governments and professional societies. Government employees, with whom Brin seems to have some sympathy for — I would expect that from the author of The Postman — have the thankless job of mediating between the various vociferous interest groups that interfere in events like private rocket launches. The good government employees try to be neutral.

Near Enough to Home”, Michael Skeet — This is that rarity among alternate history stories: an alternate history involving Canada. Written by a Canadian, it confirms the suspicions of many Americans when Skeet says, in the introductory notes, that this story is an “ironic commentary” on Canada’s constant defining of itself in terms of America. The hinge for this story is Napoleon’s death in 1802 and the selling of the Louisiana purchase to Britain. It’s never adequately explained why the French decide to make the sale to Britain and not the U.S. or how Thomas Jefferson botches the deal. 1810 sees Jefferson’s War or, as the British know it, the War of 1810. In 1848, Canada becomes independent and gets possession of the former Louisiana Territory. A block is put on further U.S. expansion, especially when Civil War breaks out. The story, about a Mountie looking for his brother who enlisted in the Confederate Army and how he runs afoul of some deserters and meets Lincoln (who, interestingly enough — especially for a story written by a Canadian and published in Canada, is never actually named), takes place in 1852 when the war is going badly for the U.S. But even if they win, the CSA (and Texas and California, both seemingly independent though not involved in the war), will fall into the orbit of Canada. Skeet opens the story with an epigram from J. Bartlet Brebner: “Perhaps the most striking thing about Canada is that it is not part of the United States”. The Lincoln character also says, “I can’t think of any other modern state that was founded the way yours was, on the negation of a principle.” These two remarks are in a story in which Canada is on its way to becoming the dominant power in North America but is still, at least in 1852 with an America on its way to becoming permanently divided, defining itself in terms of America, where the main character defines himself as repelled by CSA slavery, America, and British imperialism yet looking for a brother pulled in to the war by the family ties to Virginia.

A Game of Consequences”, David Langford — This is one of those stories about the dangers of playing around with the universe. Here that classic sf Frankenstein theme is told in an interesting manner. A physicist probes the quantum level of reality with a computer and finds out she can alter the output of the sun. Throughout the story, the physicist has flashbacks of some games she used to play with her science-minded schoolmates, pranks and mischief which escalated in seriousness till one accidentally killed himself. The physicist, at story’s end, contemplates a world where such games can be played for even bigger stakes.

State of Nature”, Nancy Kress — Nancy Kress is a fine writer, and this story deals with the issue of how you build communities, what communities are, what obligations you owe to your fellow man just like her classic “Beggars in Spain” did. There, though, the moral questions sprung from a plausible extrapolation of biological engineering and the social consequences of a moneyed elite ensuring their status by engineering superior children. Here, Kress also turns her hand to social criticism. But, unlike her “Always True to Thee, in My Fashion”, it isn’t a comment on human foibles finding new ways of expressing themselves via technology or any of her superb stories about the consequences of medical and genetic engineering advancements. Kress’ target here is, basically, gated communities or, as they’re referred to here “corporate-owned closed communities”. In a future of rampant crime, many of the victims are the stereotypical ones you would expect of a (I suspect) politically liberal author like Kress: racial minorities and homosexuals. The protagonist is a lesbian who visits a former lover in a closed community. The two split up after the death of “their” child. The protagonist chides her favorite lover for, like a lot of other rich, successful people, abandoning the outside world to the scourges of violent prejudice and vigilante action in which communities of the traditional sort purge “undesirables” with vigilante action. This is a typically liberal nightmare vision of America’s future and not very believable. Certainly, no real evidence exists for the extrapolation. The protagonist, at story’s end, returns to the violent world of the outside where she is in several groups trying to turn things around and protect people. In Kress’ defense, she doesn’t pound you over the head with where she comes down in the debate over whether to retreat from a violent, sick world. She usually presents both sides quite well in these debates over philosophical matters. (For that matter, some conservatives favor the same retreat from the world, a strategy favored by some groups in Western Civilization since before the birth of Christ.) But, in a subtle way, through the character she chooses and carefully crafted tone, you know her sympathies lie in involvement with the world. Emphasizing a sense of community, a connection with all other humans was, after all, the rather unconvincing solution she came up with for the central political debate in “Beggars in Spain”.

Maneki Neko”, Bruce Sterling — This was the second time I’ve read this story, and nothing new struck me on the second reading.

 

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

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