Year’s Best SF 5

This one mentions a work by Tom Purdom, one of this blog’s pet projects.

Raw Feed (2001): Best SF 5, ed. David G. Hartwell, 2000.Best SF 5

Everywhere“, Geoff Ryman — On first reading, this seems like a pleasant enough, poignant story about a young boy dealing with his grandfather’s death in a utopian future. (As Hartwell notes in the introduction, Ryman is not an author associated with utopias.) Through means never really explained (alternate time tracks in different dimensions of an 11 dimension universe? editing of a life in another dimension?) the sf equivalent of a soul is shunted off to “everywhere”, seemingly to live a past events again. I’m not sure how desirable that would be. I’m also not sure how utopian it is to live in a society of abullients who need a computer to suggest the next recreation activity. Nor will I grant Ryman the hypothesis that a great deal of the world’s problems stem from being not knowing what they next want to do with themselves. Granted, that is a major problem in some people’s lives. More frequently, I suspect, people know what they want to do but can’t, for a variety of reasons, do it. Even assuming a benevolent computer who could surveil you (and not abuse the gathered data), it’s still a creepy idea to be so completely and accurately modeled as to have a electronic nanny suggest the next playtime activity. Ryman recycles an old utopian notion of everybody taking their turn at certain undesirable jobs for “readies” unconvincingly depicted as an alternative to antique money.

Evolution Never Sleeps“, Elisabeth Malartre — This is essentially a hard science, rational, plausible version of all those fifties’ monster sf movies or the revenge of nature films popular in the seventies. In fact, there is an explicit allusion to Hitchcock’s The Birds (as the characters point out, it’s scary because the reason the birds become menacing is never explained, formerly benign creatures becoming threatening) and the suggested title for the movie version of events here is “The Attack of the Killer Chipmunks”. A researcher discovers that chipmunks have began to hunt in packs and become a formidable predator of creatures larger than them. As the title points out, there’s absolutely no reason that the process of evolution has stopped working on current lifeforms. Malartre also points out (and I assume it’s true given that she’s a biologist) that true herbivores are rare. Most animals will eat meat if given the opportunity and that meat is easier to digest than plant food. At the end, it’s clear this new breed of chipmunks is willing to attack man. [Incidentally, this version of the story accidentally omitted the author’s ending. Malartre sent me the ending, but I don’t know what I did with it. And, no, we’re not buddies. She put a notice in Locus that readers could request the ending from her.]

Sexual Dimorphism“, Kim Stanley Robinson — This is the second time I’ve read this story, and I didn’t get much more out of it this time around except wondering if Robinson is one of those people who are convinced all violence in the world comes from innate male aggression since he has (perhaps a dream, perhaps a revelation) an image of an ape raping a dolphin. Interestingly, Hartwell, in his introduction, says this is Robinson’s “reimagining” of Brian Aldiss’ “A Kind of Artistry”, a story I’m not familiar with.

Game of the Century“, Robert Reed — Hartwell, in his introduction, mentions H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau as an inspiration for this story. That’s partly true. It does deal with a few of the children conceived in a three minute, twenty-one second window of time when the law allowed mixing animal DNA with human. The children conceived under this loophole are called the 1-1-2041s after the date of their creation. But this story, unlike the Wells’ tale, really isn’t interested in metaphorically exploring how the bestial nature of man can or can’t be tamed with the conventions of religion and society. It reminded me more of Norman Spinrad’s “The National Past Time“. Both stories feature hyperviolent versions of football. Here, products of the mixing of animal and human DNA find their way into college football teams (and Reed touches on all the major ways in which college sports have been corrupted), specifically two football teams, Tech and State. Each team has prominent products of human-animal amalgamation. And the story touches on some of the problems that ambitious parents must confront when dealing with bestial children. Ultimately, the players at the big game finish it without spectators, the stadium emptied by them sabotaging some of the support systems at the sea dome where the game is being played.

Kinds of Strangers” Sarah Zettel — I believe this is the first Zettel I’ve read. As Hartwell notes, this is a reversal of the heroic-astronaut-faced-with-slow-doom-in-space plot. Here the astronauts get suicidal; the protagonist develops a psychotic alienation from her crewmates (the ones who haven’t killed themselves); a method of surviving, using the gravity of a comet as a tow and revealed by mysterious aliens is understandably, dismissed by some of the astronauts as a hoax by their commander to maintain morale. The ploy works though.

Visit the Sins“, Cory Doctorow — This is a clever, odd little story. The telling of it is straightforward enough. And the basic technique is classic sf: take a trend and extrapolate it. Here the trend is the treatment of so-called Attention Deficit Disorder (a phrase never actually used in the story). Chips are implanted in the brain to help the person concentrate. It ultimately fails, but its first users develop the ability to “switch off” their attention. Their chip puts their body into standby mode, conversations and body movements (including anti-bed sore routines) run by chips, the person remembering their time switched as if reading a book about their life. The protagonist’s grandfather, being interviewed by him out of fascination for a low threshold of boredom that runs through three generations, simply drops out of the boring parts of his life: family dinners as a child, court appearances at his divorce proceedings, time with his son. The grandfather, being baited by him, cunningly gets the protagonist to acknowledge that the grandson feels the attraction of such an ability (indeed, the grandson’s loss of a girlfriend was precipitated by watching tv over her shoulder while she was delivering a “Relationship Briefing”. Besides, argues the grandfather, switching off is a reflex when his attention flags. The grandson points out its a “learned reflex”. Essentially, this interesting story is one of the latest installment in the ongoing dialogue about whether we should adapt technology that seems to circumvent and corrode accepted social and cultural and ethical notions. At story’s end, the grandfather tells why he tunes out and ignores the banal, tiring, and sometimes tedious emotional needs of his family — because holding your nose to take medicine is bed, boredom is a wound on the mind, and “self-discipline is over-rated”. The grandson feels what it’s like to be his dad confronted with a father for whom he ranks below voluntary oblivion. At story’s end, the grandson seems to adopt the notion, somewhat, of Adele (a woman with a son who tunes out): love and be with a person because it makes you feel better, not because your attention is reciprocated.

Border Guards“, Greg Egan — This story takes place in the same universe as Egan’s “Learning to Be Me” and “Closer” since it also involves a society transformed by the Ndoli jewel which records human personality, thoughts, and memories, gradually replacing the organic brain with a crystal matrix which can be duplicated and backed up. I found this story, set further in the future (over 7,600 years from the present) than almost any story I’ve read by Egan, curiously uninvolving. I think the problem is that so much of it retreads ground covered in other sf stories. To be sure, there is the usual Egan astringency, the refusal to be sentimental about one’s current lot or religion or anything but that that can be empirically done and proven. Margit Osvat, co-inventor of the Ndoli Device, talks about the foolish opposition to it: the romantic notion that life only has meaning from misery and death. Death, she argues, does not give meaning to life. Death steals meaning, gaining its significance only by what it ends. It’s a valid point. She admires the society that protagonist Jamil inhabits, one that she was crucial in bringing into existence. Jamil feels sorry for himself when one of his friends, following the cultural tradition of cleanly severing the ever increasing social ties and connections that can spring up over lives thousands of years old, leaves him. (The only qualification to this “little death”, as Margit labels it, is that one doe not abandon a lover or young children.) She reminds Jamil that it is a small price to pay for immortality. However, so much of this story reminded me of other stories. Though Egan is answering them, he does spend a lot of time restating the arguments of those who argued against abolishing death. The plight of immortals abandoning families and friends reminds one (though the motivations were slightly different, mainly fear of being recognized as unnatural rather than as a convenience) of the immortals in Poul Anderson’s The Boat of a Million Years. The memories of Osvat about being captured (with her friend, who willingly dies like the “tragedian” she eventually becomes) by a serial killer seems very cliched. The sport of quantum soccer, physics metaphorized into sport, was mildly interesting but didn’t lend a lot of interest to the story over all.

Macs“, Terry Bisson — I finished reading this before the execution of Timothy McVeigh, the obvious inspiration for this story though his name is never explicitly mentioned. Hartwell, in his notes, says this story is in the tradition of William Tenn’s “Time in Advance”. Superficially, that’s true. Both are about punishments for murder (though, in Tenn’s case, it’s punishment in advance), but the Tenn story is far more memorable. Besides the various scientific improbabilities of speedily cloning, with identical memories, a mass murderer so each of the families of his victims can have one to punish as they will, the only satirical sting, and its a mild one however much leftie Bisson (an admirer of the Weathermen) would like it to be something more. Essentially, Bisson takes on the therapeutic buzzword “closure” (originally taken from literary criticism) and questions if executing a murderer (or one’s clones) could provide that. I’m not sure that it would, but, that being said, it’s not much of an argument against capital punishment. Stylistically, the story is pretty skilled. Like Norman Spinrad’s “The Big Flash“, it’s a series of unrepeating first person narrations.

Written in Blood“, Chris Lawson — A clever story by an author I haven’t read before. The story is narrated by a girl whose Islamic father, by creating a code where certain nucleotide sequences represent letters and punctuation and then is put into the blood (literally called “bloodwriting”) via virus, finds a way of writing the Koran into the body. It kills him (due to an earlier genetic mutation in his body) but the idea gains widespread acceptance, and the girl, following her father’s wishes, hopes to conduct research to foil racially targeted plagues.

Has Anybody Seen Junie Moon“, Gene Wolfe — This was a comprehensible and whimsical tale from Wolfe, but it was not that interesting. It’s about a circus strongman, an odd woman, and the quest for the White Cow Moon, which may be a large chunk of antimatter orbiting Earth.

The Blue Planet“, Robert J. Sawyer — This jokey story was not that interesting or original. (It was commissioned by a Canadian newspaper.) Martians keep sabotaging space probes sent to their planet because they want us to visit them in person, to return home since life on Earth was seeded from Mars.

Lifework“, Mary Soon Lee — This story was interesting because it’s another variation on the idea that the consequences of modern society, here, specifically, extended lifespans, render old notions of monogamy and marriage obsolete. Society and officialdom, to wit, a psychotherapist, tries to convince a woman she needs a divorce. It’s also another example of the idea that longevity would lead to an overgrowth of personal connections that would need to be pared back from time to time. (Though you could argue that, in a variety of ways, most of us do that now.)

Rosetta Stone“, Fred Lerner — This was an excellent story built around one of my personal observations (though not new to me): you can tell a lot about a person by their library. In this case, the library in question is a collection of human publications in an abandoned alien city on the Moon. Actually, as the protagonist librarian says, you can tell a lot about the culture of the library owners by how they classify knowledge. The hero gives several examples of library classification systems, ancient and modern, all to be found, no doubt, in the author’s (Lerner is a professional librarian) nonfiction book The Story of Libraries: From the Invention of Writing to the Computer Age. Hartwell is right on when saying this may be the only hard sf tale where the science is library science.

An Apollo Asteroid“, Brian Aldiss — This is an interesting amalgam of sex, infidelity, ancient “prebiotic” life, and the typical Aldiss theme of shifting perceptions (and, here, shifting locations and scales) as events over two centuries lead mankind to find a way to teleport to the Moon and then another dimension where the Moon is as a golf ball on a dusty plain (an image that figures in the mind of the narrator throughout the story).

100 Candles“, Curt Wohleber – An interesting story about a woman at the end of her life who refuses to upload her mind or become a transhuman like so many of her old friends have. Many of the arguments about how human or individual an uploaded mind would be is rehashed in her memories of a dead husband who was one of the first to have himself uploaded. She, refusing to believe that a personality contained in a computer, is a husband has the information wiped. She has an AI house which takes matters into its own hands (it explains that it would miss her if she dies). As the woman lies dying, the house revives a cloned copy of her, loads a copy of her mind into it, and, in effect, resurrects her. However, it won’t contravene the original Geneva’s orders to let her die in peace. However, the clone begins to reconsider her “parents'” philosophy and senses, in her new life, new music. (Her clone parent was a musician.)

Democritus’ Violin“, G. David Nordley — In some ways, this is one of those hackneyed stories that critics of Analog, site of this story’s original publication, point to when unfairly badmouthing that magazine. Its college politics of a music professor and a physics professor conducting a long running feud was improbable, and the conflict between the scientific reductionism of the narrator and the claims of spiritual ineffability by the music professor is an old story. The conflict, here, specifically centers around recreating, through nanotechnology replication, a perfect copy of a Stradivarius violin. Making matters worse is one of those smart alecky young geniuses in the role of narrator which I hate. For me, the main point of interest (and it’s a fairly idiosyncratic interest) is the many disguised references, in Nordley’s fictional Lloyd College, to our mutual alma mater Macalester College. Of course, the narrator succeeds in her efforts.

Fossil Games“, Tom Purdom — This is the sort of story that has caused me to keep a lookout for Purdom stories even though I only came across his work six months ago. This is another of those stories, like Greg Egan’s “Border Guards”, about what very long-lived people do with their time. It also features the common Purdom theme of people alienated from their own society as improvements in genetic engineering render them obsolete and uncompetitive. The fossil games of the title have a double meaning. Not only does it refer to a small war over the destruction of fossils possibly pointing to the evolution of alien intelligence but also the old fossil games of sex, dominance, and the need for affiliation that play out even in the closed society of an asteroid inhabited by those who have fled the solar system and its climate of constant genetic and physical enhancements of brain and body. They argue about the purpose of life: constant striving towards mental and physical perfection (and running up against the wall that humanity as always discovered — finding life’s meaning) or simple, elaborated pleasure. They spend hours in their hobbies. They argue about course collections and whether the universe strives to know itself via evolved intelligences. The protagonist is fascinated by politics though, with his relatively inferior intelligence (not being as enhanced as many of his crewmates) and personality, he’s not suited to it but, rather, influencing the politically active. At story’s end, he loses many friends though he may have averted a war which would have started a bad precedence even if it would have saved the scientific data of fossils. This is another story where it is plausibly speculated that human pairings have a natural lifespan that would be shorter than the enhanced lifespans of future man. It also is another story that looks at the consequences of extending systemic thought and data manipulation and analysis to new areas: here the personality traits modulated by drugs, cybernetic implants, and genetic engineering. There’s nothing new here, but Purdom creates a very interesting synthesis of some thems and thoughts that have been around.

Valour“, Chris Beckett — A not very interesting story about alien transmissions that are known but ignored by most of Earth’s people except by a few dilettante philosophers. The most interesting thing is that a future unified Europe (“Europa”) is depicted in terms of racism and safety-obsession. I would expect those cliches, especially the racism, to be applied to a future America.

Huddle“, Stephen Baxter — A depressing story about the seal-like “human” survivors living a miserable life on Earth 100,000 years after a cometary impact (which has given the sky a new moon).

Ashes and Tombstones“, Brian Stableford — Another interesting story from Stableford set in his future history that features a disastrous dieoff of man in the 21st century and then a rebirth with advanced biological engineering. This story partly recounts some details of that Crash in the memories of the narrator who, being one of the few Old Survivors who lived through the Crash and saw the first space age, is asked to give his symbolic blessing to a new space age. He is blackmailed into doing this by a threatened exposure of his part in a corrupt scheme during the Crash to divert government rockets to put the cremated remains of certain rich persons on the moon. He agrees to do it — but only to protect the real secret of what he did. The “ashes” were frozen embryos put on the moon with instructions on how to revive them. They can last for millennia, and the instructions can be understood by aliens. The Hardinist Cartel does not want to be revived by a breed of humans so altered as to not be their type of humans. They want to be revived by aliens, to symbolically be “a scratch on the infinite wall of the future”. Another nice, gripping story by Stableford who usually seems to incorporate a philosophical point in his fiction.

Ancient Engines“, Michael Swanwick — An interesting take on the notion of a humanoid robot living forever. The humanoid ‘bot of this story meets one of his designers who informs him that, due to the cycles of technological innovation and change, the robot, like many machines, may find it increasingly difficult to get compatible parts. The designer says the robot may not even live as long as the designer has. (A story is related about a man visiting a museum of steam locomotives and realizing that he was born before some of the antiques were built.) The designer than goes on to list the qualifications (nominally hypothetical until story’s end when it is conclusively hinted that they have been achieved) a long-lived robot would have. His “daughter” is such a robot who will take steps to outlive the collapses of human civilization, guide its rebirth, and push it in directions most advantageous for its survival, survival that the “daughter” says will extend to the life of the universe.

Freckled Figure“, Hiroe Suga — This story, translated from Japanese, is not that interesting on its own though it does show what Japanese sf is up to these days since it was an award winner in Japan.. Essentially, it’s a magic story about how a magically animated anime figurine helps a girl with a romantic problem in her life and then disappears. The sf rationale includes some high tech talk of polymers and neural nets. Winning first prize in an anime design contest, protagonist Yasuko Miyata undertakes the painting of a figurine based on her drawings. (The figurine’s character is from an anime saga.)

Shiva“, Barry Malzberg — An interesting story which kind of reminded me a bit of Malzberg’s “Understanding Entropy” in that this is also a story about people ignoring warnings of a dire future (and these are certain predictions) to pursue a course of action. Here, in a variation of the time patrol idea, Malzberg’s time traveling protagonist is part of a group of time travelers who interview historical figures and sometimes try to warn them against actions which lead to our history. Naturally, this being Malzberg, John F Kennedy shows up. He brushes off the protagonist and all the temporal Cassandras who warn him away from Dallas. More interestingly, protagonist Sperber tries to talk Charles de Gaulle and Saleth Sar (aka Pol Pot), in their collegiate days in Paris, out of their future actions. He fails as he also does with Einstein. At story’s end, he is going to talk to Robert Oppenheimer, and the story ironically casts Sperber as a would-be Shiva, destroyer of worlds.

The Queen of Erewhon“, Lucy Sussex — Despite the usual feminist trappings of lesbianism and polyandry, this story was moderately interesting. The political comment was kept to a minimum; the setting of post-catastrophe New Zealand and its society modeled, supposedly (according to the editor’s notes) on Tibetan polyandry was fairly novel.

 

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

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One thought on “Year’s Best SF 5

  1. I’ve been picking up these Hartwell YEAR’S BEST SF anthologies whenever I find them at Library Book Sales. Hartwell was an underrated editor. I enjoyed your story summaries!

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