SEPTEMBER 3, 2012
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
THE OVERWHELMING SENSE ONE GETS, working through so many stories that are presented as the very best that science fiction and fantasy have to offer, is exhaustion. Not so much physical exhaustion (though it is more tiring than reading a bunch of short stories really has any right to be); it is more as though the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion.
In the main, there is no sense that the writers have any real conviction about what they are doing. Rather, the genre has become a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them. For example, “Dolly” by Elizabeth Bear (in the Gardner Dozois collection), is a story of police investigating a murder that may have been committed by a robot. It is not a bad story, in the sense that it is efficiently told, with enough detail of character and setting to reward the reader, but the story itself deliberately harks back to the robot stories that Isaac Asimov was writing in the 1940s. Bear has brought the trope up to date, but she has not extended the idea or found anything radically new in it. Asimov’s stories can still entertain, and Bear’s story is much the same, but to find that one of what we are told are the best stories of 2011 is ploughing a furrow that is more than seventy years old is somehow dispiriting.
Bear is far from alone in this, and I’ll come back to other examples later in the review. This retrograde aspect of science fiction has been a commonplace in the genre since the emergence in the 1990s of what became known as the “new hard SF” and the “new space opera.” What is even more evident throughout these collections, however, is a more recent trend of writing SF as though it were something else, usually high fantasy. Many years ago, Arthur C. Clarke proclaimed that “any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.” It is a notion that has clearly taken root with today’s writers since they consistently appropriate the attire of fantasy for what is ostensibly far-future sf, even to the extent of referring unironically to wizards and spells and the like.
An example of how this can be done well is “Silently and Very Fast” by Catherynne M. Valente (in Dozois). Again, this is an old story, about an artificial intelligence becoming human (think back, for instance, to another of Asimov’s robot stories, “The Bicentennial Man”), and the only really novel thing that Valente brings to it is the manner of its telling. For Valente dresses the story up as a fairy tale, complete with magicians and evil crones and impossible quests and sleeping princesses. This works on two levels: fairy tales are what the human characters have told the A.I., Elefsis, in order to teach it narrative understanding; and Elefsis partly emerged out of the virtual-reality adventure scenarios a group of children used to play. Valente captures the diction of a fairy tale very nicely, and though this can, in truth, be wearying, on the occasions when it really takes flight, it can be wonderful. There is one brief section where the life of Alan Turing is recast as a variant on “Sleeping Beauty,” complete with poisoned apple, and it works extraordinarily well both as a fairy story and as a life story. Yet in the end, while admiring a beautifully crafted work of fiction, one can’t help wondering if it doesn’t work better as fantasy than it does as science fiction.
The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it has lost confidence that the future can be comprehended. At its historical best, science fiction presented alien worlds and distant futures that, however weird they might seem, were always fundamentally understandable. The basic plot structure often involved the achievement of understanding. But somewhere amidst the ruins of cyberpunk in the 1980s, we began to feel that the present was changing too rapidly for us to keep up with. And if we didn’t understand the present, what hope did we have for the future? The accelerating rate of change has inevitably affected the futures that appear in our fictions. Things happen as if by magic (one thinks, for example, of Matter by Iain M. Banks, in which a character has casually assumed the appearance of a bush), or else things are so different that there is no connection with the experiences and perceptions of our present.
An example of this latter reality is “Widows in the World” by Gavin J. Grant (in Horton’s anthology), set in the aftermath of climate change, economic collapse, global wars, new and devastating diseases, and all sorts of other things that mark a decisive disconnect from our present-day world. It is a world in which houses fly from place to place, babies hack into sophisticated defense systems while still in the womb, dead people continue their malevolent behavior as if nothing has happened, and silkies come calling. In the main, the story is an exhilarating ride through accumulating strangeness, but in the end one wonders: if anything can happen, then what is the consequence of any action? Any time the plot might put our central characters in jeopardy, the author is free to invent some new weirdness—and with one bound, they are all free. In another story that presents the future as essentially incomprehensible, “Walking Stick Fires” by Alan DeNiro (in Horton), which presents aliens plundering and warring upon the ruins of Earth, there is an exchange that seems to sum this whole approach up: one character exclaims, “‘there has to be some underlying goddamn plan to this endeavor.’ Sharon didn’t turn as he said, ‘Not really. No.’”
No longer sure of the future, therefore, an SF writer’s options seem to be to present a future that is magical or incomprehensible (like Valente or Grant), or to revert to older, more familiar futures (as Bear did). Perhaps “Laika’s Ghost” by Karl Schroeder (in Dozois) is what science fiction has become in such circumstances. It is set in the near future in Kazakhstan, in a world in which all the science-fictional dreams of the future have come to naught. The economy is wrecked, global warming is transforming the landscape, nuclear weapons are becoming readily available for everyone. Our central character is an arms inspector, drawn to a former rocket site, who discovers that the only people ready to take up the dream of flight to other worlds are aged remnants of the former Soviet Union. It is one of the best stories in these three collections, but it is almost anti-SF in its affect: the future has run its course and come to an end; what was one of the most exciting aspirations of science fiction—the promise of life on another world—is here made available only to those looking backward to a former time. It is a story that makes manifest the exhaustion that is immanent throughout these three collections.
It may be counter-intuitive, but this exhaustion seems to be marked not by a reduction in the amount of science fiction being published, but by an increase. The Dozois and Horton collections between them contain 57 stories first published in 2011 (six stories appear in both volumes); both also contain Recommended Reading lists that include several hundred other titles (over 350 in the Dozois alone). The Nebula Awards anthology, in the nature of things, runs a year behind the others, so it includes ten stories from 2010 (plus a couple of novel extracts, a handful of poems, and one older story, which I will return to shortly). Assuming that all of these are only a sample of what was published during the year, and discounting the traditional threnody of woe that always runs through Dozois’s introductory list of markets closing, circulations falling, and so forth, this would seem to suggest a certain rude health in the genre—that is, if more people getting more stories published in more places equates with health.
Of course, one might quibble with the word “best” as applied to these particular selections. I certainly do, repeatedly. Many of the stories strike me as unadventurous, attempting nothing particularly original or challenging; and there are some that are just downright bad (“Choose Your Own Adventure” by Kat Howard (in Horton) is a knowing play on the old build-you-own-adventure books but does nothing with its cleverness, while Neil Gaiman’s “And Weep Like Alexander” (also in Horton) is an over-extended and weak joke). Indeed, two of the pieces chosen by the Nebula voters as award winners are not what I would consider the best of anything. The best novel, Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis (there’s an extract included in the Nebula volume), is a decent midlist 300-page novel trapped within 1,400 pages of bloat. Worse is the best novelette, “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone, a poorly-written apologia for Mormonism cast as the sort of clunky science-fiction adventure that feels as though the genre has remained unchanged for more than half a century. Of course, there is another way of looking at things: if these truly are the best that the genre can offer, then mayhap the health of the genre is not so rude after all.
While considering the titles of these volumes, we might also wonder about the terms “science fiction” and “fantasy” that appear there. There are, for instance, some stories included here that don’t seem, or don’t need, to appear in either camp. “Rampion” by Alexandra Duncan (in Horton) is a good and in places quite beautiful story set in Moslem Spain, but there is nothing about it that identifies it as fantastic other than its place of original publication (it appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction). When the son of the caliph falls in love with the Christian girl trapped in a high tower, there is perhaps a suggestion of the Rapunzel story, but not enough to make this a fairy tale. The girl’s evil mother studies herbs for their use as poisons and has a reputation as a witch, but no witchcraft is really involved. What this is, in other words, is a fairly straightforward historical romance; I can only assume that any aura of the fantastic is wished upon it by the reader.
“The Adakian Eagle” by Bradley Denton (in Horton) employs more overtly fantastic tropes, but they are subsidiary to the story’s main interest, and I can’t help thinking it would have been a better, or at least more logical, tale without them. The setting is a US army camp on the Aleutian Islands during the latter part of the Second World War. A young soldier meets a much older non-com known as “Pop” who edits the camp newspaper and who, we soon work out, is Dashiell Hammett. There is a murder for which the young soldier is apparently being set up to take the fall, there is some hand-waving with shamanism and visions of the future, then Hammett identifies the guilty party (there aren’t that many suspects, so this comes as no great surprise to the attentive reader). It is clear that what interests Denton is the character of Hammett in these circumstances, and the shamanism has been added in simply to make the story a fantasy—or perhaps because Denton was uncomfortable with the structures of a crime story since most of the actual detection takes place off stage.
If this suggests some sort of crisis of identity— Rich Horton, in his introduction, admits to not knowing whether several of the stories in his selection are fantasy or SF, and doesn’t think it matters— this is nothing new. Several years ago, the Science Fiction Writers of America became the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and their annual award, the Nebulas, became open to both forms of literature. This is presumably because no one wants to police a border that has been so porous for so long.
One consequence is that that more and more of the stories shortlisted for the Nebula Awards are either overtly fantasy or else indistinguishable from fantasy for all practical purposes. What is possibly of greater concern is that the SFFWA so often seems to reward stories that do little or nothing to push either genre into new territory. “The Sultan of the Clouds” by Geoffrey A. Landis, shortlisted in the novella category, is another of the stories that marks a retreat to older versions of the future. It is full of color, it has an appealingly exotic setting in cities floating in the skies above Venus, it has a traditionally competent hero, and it has a plot that would have been solved in five seconds flat if any of the characters had happened to carry a mobile phone. There is something similarly old-fashioned about “Arvies” by Adam Troy-Castro (shortlisted in the short story category), in that it takes a familiar situation and then reverses it, the rather tired structure by which science fiction has traditionally essayed satire. In this case, unborn babies are aware, intelligent, in communication with each other, and rule the world, while the women who carry them are little more than dull and unconsidered beasts of burden. In detail, it is original; in manner and approach, it feels painfully as though we have been there before.
Rather better are the stories that blur genre boundaries. “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window” by Rachel Swirsky (winner of the award for best-novella Nebula, and perhaps the worthiest winner of the bunch) starts as straightforward fantasy. A sorceress is betrayed and killed by the queen she serves, but then finds that she can be periodically brought back from the dead to provide wisdom. At first this gives her snapshot views of what happens in the realm after her death, but slowly the intervals between resurrections become longer, the world she is recalled to becomes more modern, and the story starts to feel more science-fictional without ever really becoming sf. There’s betrayal within a female-dominated society also in “The Jaguar House, in Shadow” by Aliette de Bodard, which may not be the most brilliant story in this collection but is immeasurably better than “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made,” which beat it out in the novelette category. As an alternate history, set in a world in which the Aztecs still rule Mexico (am I alone in recalling Aztec Century by Christopher Evans, which used this same scenario nearly twenty years ago?), it probably counts as science fiction, but there is something about the tone that makes it read far more like fantasy.
This blurring of genre boundaries led to the one question that I found myself asking repeatedly as I worked through these three collections: why was this story written as science fiction or, particularly, fantasy? We encounter all sorts of odd devices or strange other lands in these stories, but unless the device or setting is integral to the story being told, there seems little point in them being there. A rocketship glimpsed in the background doesn’t necessarily make a story science fiction. Two of the longer and better stories in these volumes illustrate the issue.
“A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” by K.J. Parker (In Horton) and “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” by Kij Johnson (in Dozois and Horton) are both set in an unspecified place and time that is clearly not any place on Earth at any point in our history. It is upon this setting that their claim to be read as fantasy depends (there is enough that is genuinely alien in Johnson’s context to argue that it can be read as SF, though for the moment let us simply say that both tales are examples of the fantastic). Both are atmospheric and involve character studies in which events unfold across an extended period of time. Both are very well written.
And yet I cannot help but wonder whether they need to be fantastic at all. “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” is narrated by a rather stuffy and conventional music professor in a world that feels close to the Europe of, say, Mozart or Beethoven. His star pupil, who may indeed be a musical genius, is on murder row; the professor aids his pupil’s escape and in return receives a composition written in his style but immeasurably better than anything he might have achieved. This composition earns him fame and fortune, and the release from fear that comes with it means that his own future compositions become better. The pupil, meanwhile, gives up on music and has a happier life as a result, until the professor engineers his recapture. It is an interesting and engaging story, yet it has nothing of the fantastic about it beyond the Ruritanian neverland of the setting. In fact, other than a need for historical accuracy, there is no reason why this exact same story could not have been set within a genuine historical and geographical context, possibly even using real characters such as Mozart and Salieri, as in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.
At first glance, “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” seems to be more firmly bedded into its fantastic setting, if only because Johnson’s creation is rather more baroque. The world is roughly cognate with the late-nineteenth century, and the story is summed up in the title: an engineer is sent from the capital to a remote rural area to build a bridge across a river of mist. The mist is a thing of strange moods and terrible monsters, but it is mostly there to provide a background to the story. In the foreground, the engineer builds a fairly conventional suspension bridge while interacting with the local population, especially with the woman who operates the ferry that his bridge will displace. It is an excellent story (it is worth noting that both Dozois and Horton have picked this as the closing tale for their respective volumes), but would it have been significantly different if the river had been water and the setting had been a remote part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire? Of these two examples, “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” is the better work because Johnson is more adept at using the mist metaphorically, but in both cases they seem to be works of the fantastic not because of anything inherent in the stories themselves but purely because the author has chosen to set them in an indefinite rather than a precise past.
Other than Johnson’s text, there are five pieces that appear in both the Dozois and Horton collections. Though I would hesitate to include any of the five among the best in these two anthologies, they are, perhaps, indicative of what the editors are looking for.
“The Choice” by Paul McAuley, “Martian Heart” by John Barnes, and “Canterbury Hollow” by Chris Lawson are all traditionally structured stories recounted more or less in chronological sequence, and centered upon an almost archetypal science-fictional device. The stories by Barnes and Lawson are oddly similar: both are variants on the traditional frontier warning that life out there is hard and dangerous and people die. “Martian Heart” first appeared in an anthology aimed at young adults (you wouldn’t know it from either of these collections) and has a fairly simple moral about hard work and loyalty. I thought it was far from being the best thing in the anthology where it originally appeared, so I’m a little surprised to find it picked up by both editors. “Canterbury Hollow” is set on an even harsher world than Mars, where the two young lovers have been chosen by lottery to die, and so set out to enjoy each other and the beauties of their world before the end. There’s not much more to it than that; in places it reads more like travelogue than story, and I was left wondering why we were supposed to be interested in either the people or their world. In both cases, the stories use science-fictional settings, but they don’t actually explore much beyond this.
McAuley’s tale is much better, if only because he is simply a better writer than either Barnes or Lawson. It is set on a near-future earth where two young boys acquire a mysterious something from an equally mysterious alien washed up on a misty riverbank, but as a consequence they find bad guys after them with murder in mind. It feels like an extract from something longer, or perhaps it should be seen as another iteration (with the Grant and DeNiro) of the trope in which neither author nor reader is expected to fully comprehend the future being presented. The result is a sense of something perpetually just beyond our reach and therefore doesn’t quite satisfy as a story.
“Ghostweight” by Yoon Ha Lee is more orthodox in insuring that everything is understood by the reader, and though the story is not quite so rigorously chronological (the impact of the past upon the narrative present is more urgent and more fully developed than in any of the other three stories I have discussed here), there is a sense of orthodoxy in what she is doing. Again we have a familiar science-fictional future being re-used but not thoroughly reimagined. A cadet accompanied by a ghost steals a mercenary warship in order to exact revenge upon an intergalactic empire. Events move quickly, the necessary revelations come in their place, and yet having set up the situation, the author doesn’t really seem to know what to do with it, and the whole piece rather fizzles out.
Of the six stories shared between Dozois and Horton, the only one that doesn’tfeel as if it would have fitted comfortably into any such volume in the past twenty or thirty years is “The Smell of Orange Groves” by Lavie Tidhar. It is also the only one that is not conventionally structured. The focus moves fluidly from past to present in a near-future Israel where modern technology means that the survival of memory has unfortunate effects for future generations. I’m not sure, in the end, that the story really works, but it is told with energy and freshness, and above all an engagement with its world, that is lacking in too many of the stories appearing in these volumes. It is, perhaps, not entirely coincidental that Lee and Tidhar, along with Aliette de Bodard, are among an emerging generation of writers of the fantastic (their work tends more towards fantasy than science fiction) who mostly are or have been resident in America or brought up in Britain, but whose background is not straightforwardly Anglo-American. Other examples include Shweta Narayan (“Pishaach” in the Nebula collection) and Amal El-Mohtar (“The Green Book,” also in the Nebula collection). Without wishing to exoticize what they do, it is notable that their somewhat tangential approach to the traditions of Anglophone SF and fantasy can, at its best, produce some of the livelier examples of the genre today.
And that still leaves 25 stories from the Dozois collection and sixteen from the Horton that I haven’t so far mentioned. Even in a review of this length, it would surely be redundant to try and list everything. The plain fact is that most of the stories gathered here are unremarkable, the only surprising thing about them being that someone should think them worthy of inclusion in a Best of the Year anthology. Stories such as “A Soldier of the City” by David Moles, “Digging” by Ian McDonald, and “A Response from EST17” by Tom Purdom (all in the Dozois) or “The Sandal-Bride” by Genevieve Valentine, “The Sighted Watchmaker” by Vylar Kaftan, and “The Silver Wind” by Nina Allan (all in the Horton) are perfectly well-written stories and entertaining in their own right, but there is nothing exceptional in them, nothing that really takes us away from a well-rutted path, that seeks to make something fresh or surprising out of the common material of science fiction or fantasy. I don’t exactly object to them being in a Best of the Year anthology, but I wouldn’t find their absence surprising either.
Of course, I am not always a reliable judge of these things. “The Copenhagen Interpretation” by Paul Cornell (in Dozois) received enough popular support to win the British Science Fiction Association short fiction award, yet it seems to me one of the weakest stories in any of these collections. It is another of those tales where anything might happen by authorial fiat, which means that there is no genuine substance to the story, no real depth below the rather gaudy surface.
There are other stories that don’t earn their place in such purportedly canonical collections. “My Chivalric Fiasco” by George Saunders and “The Last Sophia” by C.S.E. Cooney (both in Horton), “The Dala Horse” by Michael Swanwick and “The Vicar of Mars” by Gwyneth Jones (both in Dozois) all seem to plod along predictable lines without doing enough to make you sit up and take notice. “Fields of Gold” by Rachel Swirsky (in Horton) is the fantasy equivalent of Elizabeth Bear’s “Dolly,” a deliberate turning back to old, safe, familiar formulae. In this instance, a character finds that the afterlife is a party in a limitless space where he meets everyone he knew in life. As with the Bear, the problem is not so much that it is a bad story as that it is an old story, one we’ve read countless times before.
Yet these failures are balanced by stories that do seem to take off in new directions. “After the Apocalypse” by Maureen F. McHugh does feel a little like a British catastrophe story of the 1950s transposed to contemporary America, but that in itself is surprising. This sort of slow economic and social collapse has been largely absent from American SF (which has tended to prefer the short sharp shock of nuclear catastrophe), so to find it here, especially in such a beautifully written piece, does feel somehow startling.
There’s a 1950s influence behind Dave Hutchinson’s “The Incredible Exploding Man”—in this case, it is a British writer picking up on American comics. Where it was once inevitable that a nuclear accident would suddenly imbue a character with super powers, here such an accident has cut the protagonist loose from time. Despite looking backward, this is a story told with a vigor that is a world away from the rather weary feel of so many of the other texts here, and it is this that makes it feel fresh and engaging.
“Pug” by Theodora Goss (in Horton) reaches even further back in time for its model. This is a time-travel story as it might have been written around the time of Jane Austen. Now Jane Austen has become a favourite source for fantasists to draw upon of late, from Susannah Clarke’s stories to the interminable Northanger-Abbey-with-Daleks type mash-ups, so this isn’t gloriously original, and it seems to run out of steam part way through. Nevertheless, this is one of the better stories here.
And, of course, there’s Kelly Link who has by now firmly established herself as one of the finest exponents of the American short story. “The Summer People” (in Horton) is perhaps not Link in full flight (the story does not get lost within its own convolutions, though there are loose ends all over the place), and there is an unexpected sense of being in familiar territory with its tale of something peculiar in a backwoods house. Yet she absorbs you into the tale, as if something is being told directly to you and it matters. And that gives a sense of urgency and importance to the writing that is almost totally absent from the rest of these collections.
Were I to go through the Dozois and Horton anthologies and filter them down to just those stories that seem to be truly worthy of being classed as the best the genre has produced in the last year (Valente, Schroeder, McHugh, Hutchinson, Johnson, Goss, Link, Parker, perhaps Tidhar), I wouldn’t come close to the size of even one of these books. And yet the stories would all have a feel of the past about them, the sense of a genre treading water, picking up shiny relics from its own long history as though they were bright new ideas.
But in the Nebula anthology there is a reprint of a 1972 story, “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” by James Tiptree, Jr. (in recognition of her being awarded a posthumous Solstice Award for significant impact on the SF field). As in so many of Tiptree’s stories, this one involves a sexual engagement with the other, and as the title suggests, its structure echoes “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by Keats. Yet the story has a life and a vitality way beyond anything else in these three anthologies. It is full of loss and sadness and failure, it concerns people humiliated and demeaned by their sexual need, at a loss in the future where they live. And yet still it engages with that future as if it matters to us here and now. It is a story written at a time when science fiction might look forward and see a world that is dangerous and disturbing, but a world that fascinates nonetheless. That fascination makes this story feel newer and more relevant than any of the stories written forty years later.
This one story illuminates the exhaustion that seems to have overtaken SF and fantasy, the sense that the future is something to be approached wearily because we have already imagined it and rubbed away anything that was bright and new. Judging by these three books, the genre is now afraid to engage with what once made it novel, instead turning back to what was there before. We might tinker with the details, but it seems that no-one has much interest in making it (a)new.