Year’s Best SF 17

Anyone who’s ever picked up a “year’s best” anthology, be it edited by Gardner Dozois, Ellen Datlow, Rich Horton or otherwise, knows that the word “best” is oftentimes highly subjective. You can’t please everyone all the time, as the truism goes.

However, David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer do their best to achieve the impossible in YEAR’S BEST SF 17, in which they’ve compiled their favorite stories of 2011 from the likes of Robert Reed, Neil Gaiman, Genevieve Valentine, Bruce Sterling, Ken Liu, Nnedi Okorafor, Charlie Jane Anders … seeing a pattern yet? It just so happens that the year’s best short science fiction tends to come from some of the best writers working in the genre.

This fine volume opens with “The Best Science Fiction of the Year Three,” a quirky metafictional study of the SF field, from the culture of fandom to the hard-working editors who serve to keep it alive. Ken MacLeod at once shows great promise with his command of the craft while delivering an underwhelming story, overall. I’ll be on the lookout for more of his work, certainly, but I wouldn’t have placed this story first in the book, if at all; perhaps those who have been a part of the convention circuit for some time will feel differently about it.

The second, Elizabeth Bear’s “Dolly,” is one of three tremendous stories exploring the dynamic between humankind and androids in the near future. (The others are “The Education of Junior Number 12” by Madeline Ashby, and “The Nearest Thing” by Genevieve Valentine. All three are incredibly moving and just as well-written.) The eponymous “Dolly” is a companion bot built to serve her master’s needs — but when his body is discovered in a bloody, gutted heap, detectives come to question the meaning of “human rights” in a feminist, as well as a science-fictional context. This piece stands as one of the most memorable in the collection.

Another brilliant example of last year’s best SF short fiction is Ken Liu’s imagination-stoking “Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer,” which explores an almost indescribable post-singularity world where some posthuman beings still remember their lives among the realm of the flesh — among the “Ancients” — back before they uploaded to the digital universe. At the heart of the piece lies a mother-daughter relationship that is about to be changed forever in the name of science, out of a longing for the remembered sensations of the physical world.

Other notable works include Gregory Benford’s “Mercies,” which calls out the hypocrisies of the tired time-traveling assassin cliché, and manages to weave in an enviable dose of allegory on the existing justice system without resorting to an out-and-out sermon; “Laika’s Ghost,” Karl Schroeder’s clever post-cyberpunk examination of the Cold War’s aftermath in the context of a civilization that still longs to reach Mars, but hasn’t, to our knowledge; and Judith Moffett’s “The Middle of Somewhere,” which takes the subjects of survivalism and climate change into the realm of mundane SF with outstanding, tenderhearted results, and is perhaps the strongest piece in the entire anthology.

Readers familiar with the masterful stories of the profilic Robert Reed may be a tad disappointed with his inclusion, “Our Candidate,” which is a good story in its own right, but far from his best work.

The story that strikes me as the most impressive, despite its somewhat fantastic premise, is Charlie Jane Anders’ “Six Months, Three Days,” a love story that documents the romance of two precognitives with similar but different gifts: One sees a number of possible futures from which she can choose, and the other sees the future as a single imperfect memory, fixed but yet to come. Of all the stories collected in this phenomenal volume, this one resonates the most — in the heart as well as in the mind. —Alex J. Kane

Buy it at Amazon.

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