The year's best(?) SF 3.

What a novel idea - a book review in a rant section. Well, there's no guarantee that this sucker won't degenerate into a rant before I'm done.:) Be warned, there are many spoilers ahead.

The book in question is Year's Best SF 3, an anthology of science fiction stories. I own Year's Best SF 2 and merely looking at the contents page of that text brings back pleasant memories of over a third of the stories. A quick scan reveals that most of the others were decent, though unmemorable. So I had fairly high hopes for Year's Best SF 3. The book, I hate to say it, is a sore disappointment.

So I'm going to do a mini-review of each story. And here we go....

Introduction by David G. Hartwell. Okay, so it's not a story, but the introduction to the book written by the editor. This is where everything starts to go downhill - Mr. Hartwell makes a rather odd comment regarding the Decalog anthology series that makes me wonder if he ever bothers to look at the covers of the books he reads. The comment he makes is that Decalog 5 has suddenly become distinguished after the previous four attempts. He then goes on to say (with some surprise, it seems) that the first two were filled with unmemorable Doctor Who stories. Well, I'm sorry, but maybe he should have looked at the covers of Decalogs 1 and 2, which are emblazoned with the Doctor Who logo and are clearly part of Virgin Publishing's Doctor Who line of books. Decalog 3 was also a Doctor Who book - granted, one that couldn't overtly mention The Doctor due to a contract spat between Virgin and the BBC - but evidently Mr. Hartwell couldn't be bothered to check into it. This a rather poor showing for someone who is claiming to have some knowledge of anthologies and what constitutes the "best SF".

Petting Zoo by Gene Wolfe. I couldn't read this one. Tried twice, but gave up. I guess I'm not in the mood for a short story about a kid who goes on the rampage with a talking dinosaur. Maybe after I've finished the other stories.

The Wisdom of Old Earth by Michael Swanwick. An odd story about a hot jungle-covered future Earth where a tough Earth-born human is taking a weak, though rich, space-born human to find the Liberty Bell in the ruins of Philadelphia. The end of the story was rather cryptic and I'm not ashamed to say I didn't get it.

The Firefly Tree by Jack Williamson. A story I brand a "waste of time" story because you feel that nobody's learned anything by the end of it. I like stories where at least one character comes out of it better for the experience. A boy finds an odd alien tree growing in between his father's marijuana plants. The tree and the fireflies it sprouts begin teaching the child things - it seems that they're alien ambassadors that want to help usher in a new golden age of space flight and communication with aliens. The end of the story is rather obvious (what happens when you grow wacky tobaccy out in the open?) and very depressing.

Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City by William Gibson. Gibson ignores his cyberpunk and suspense successes and heads into the post-modernist realm he apparently always wanted to be famous in. Two pages in, after a gratuitous Microsoft reference, I gave up. Unlike Petting Zoo, I doubt I'll make another go at this one. The editor (Hartwell) calls it 'High Modernist' fiction, not that popular but highly admired by a knowledgeable few. Well, pardon me for being an idiot.

The Nostalginauts by S. N. Dyer. Finally, a great story! It's about the first application of time travel and its effect on two 'outcast' high school kids. Spectral images from twenty-five years in the future (the so-called Nostalginauts) appear at important junctions of people's lives. One of the outcast kids - the smart one - thinks he's going to invent the technology to do this. The other kid - the sardonic one - thinks that the whole idea of going back to see and be seen by your former self is dumb. The end of the story is extremely satisfying, and a good laugh. I highly recommend it to any kids who were outcasts or 'geeks' in high school, especially since the narrator - the sardonic one - sounds a lot like me at times.:)

Guest Law by John C. Wright. Either a 'pay the rent' story or something written by a beginning writer. I could rant on this one all day. It starts with a space-faring crew of people who are established 'bad guys' by page 3. This crew is intent on inviting the 'good guy' captain of another ship onto their own ship, then killing or enslaving him and plundering his ship. The bad guys are evil in every way. Slave-owning and slave-abusing. Their religion is a mixture of Catholicism and Paganism - though I get the feeling the author means that to be "mixture of Catholicism and corruption". They are obsessed with class - they have slaves specifically to push buttons, since they're too good for such tasks. The captain is the oddest hermaphrodite I've ever heard of - one set of genitals (the story is vague on which set) has been added so she/he/it can 'please itself' without needing to copulate with the lesser classes. He/she/it also wants the 'good' captain as his/her/its sex slave. In other words, they're a stereotype of everything that is evil and unholy, except for the token long-suffering slave who objects to their plans at the big climax, even though he knows it means death. The 'good' captain, on the other hand, is polite even when insulted, tolerant of any abuse, etc. etc.

However, this isn't the only problem with the story. Not only is it clear that the good guy is going to win simply because he's the good guy, he's also going to win because he looks so woefully underpowered. When you write a story where the bad guys outnumber the good guys fifty to one, you'd better make damn sure that the good guy wins, or the entire thing is going to seem foolish. Guess what? The good guy is really a super-powerful robot intent on cleaning up the cosmos. To that end, he kills everyone on board except the token 'good' slave who tried to warn him of the trap.

So we have a story here that is basically boilerplate. Powerful bad guys invite weakling good guy into their trap. Slave objects and forces their hand early, even though it means his death. Bad guys attack good guy. Good guy turns out to be super-powerful being intent on destroying the evil people. The end.

The Voice by Gregory Benford. A story that obviously stole part of its plot from Fahrenheit 451. It even contains a reference to that classic Bradbury book - does that make it homage? In a future where people are all illiterate and rely on a vocal connection to a supercomputer called 'The Voice', a young couple learn to read. They soon find that the owners of 'The Voice' are a 1984-ish megacorporation/government intent on keeping the human race stupid and illiterate. Remember those telescreen things in 1984? Turns out that 'The Voice' serves the same purpose of keeping a constant watch on the populace. The end is a semi-interesting plot twist meant to involve the reader more, but it doesn't work that well. If you've read 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, you've almost read 'The Voice'. Okay, but not great.

Yeyuka by Greg Egan. In the disease-free future, a woman heads into one of the last disease-ridden areas of the world to battle a new kind of cancer called 'Yeyuka'. As she fights it she's forced to confront some very nasty problems including an interesting twist - at one point she is told to lie to a family to cover up the fact that she botched an operation and can't afford legal problems, and later finds out that an evil megacorporation (again?) has had a cure for Yeyuka, but won't release it for fear of royalty and legal troubles. While her transgression is minor and the megacorp's is great, I still find the similarities interesting. The end of the story is a nice twist and almost physically painful, but in a good way; I felt empathy for the pain and sacrifice that the main character decides to go through in order to help cure the 'Yeyuka' without the megacorp's help. Again, her pain is minor compared to the horrible suffering of the people she wants to help, but that doesn't make it any easier for her to do.:) Depressing, but with a hint of hope at the end. A very good story.

An Office Romance by Terry Bisson. Not a bad story, though a bit heavy on the Microsoft humor (it's integral to the plot). A workaholic man and a non-workaholic woman start a virtual reality affair inside an 'easter egg' in the product Microserf Office 6.9. Not terribly memorable, but still a good read, as long as the repetitive nature of their trysts doesn't get on your nerves.

Itsy Bitsy Spider by James Patrick Kelly. Another good story, about a woman going to see her senile father for the first time in many years. When she arrives, she is confronted by an android who is a perfect copy of herself when she was a child. A very interesting story where the science fiction takes a back seat to the interaction between the father (who is very dull-witted but occasionally has some very nice flashes of inspiration), the daughter, and the android child-daughter (who shows her adult-level intelligence only when the old man is not around).

Beauty in the Night by Robert Silverberg. I hate the stories where humanity loses. I don't mind the ones where humanity loses because they deserve to lose, but this isn't one of those stories. The tie to SF is very tenuous; the story could have been relocated to Nazi Germany with little problem. Anyway, on to the plot: Evil aliens enslave the Earth. Pakistani girl dies giving birth to an illegitimate child of an English boy. Aliens dismantle Stonehenge for no reason, turn it into a base. English boy runs away. Boy turns traitor. Boy (now a man) comes back to reclaim his child. Yawn. Anyway, he reclaims his son, changes his son's name to a good English name and then proceeds to (over a period of years) get drunk, beat his son, and rape his mother-in-law. All that this pointless sex and violence (often together) serves to show is that the kid now hates his father and is an expert at hiding it. So the kid decides to kill an alien. Kid does, starts a rumor that his father did it, then the Nazis (sorry, the aliens) cart him off. They also send the entire town to a concentration camp. The kid survives. The end. Zzzzzz.... Nothing original here. Sex, violence, fascist aliens, stereotypical traitor pig of a father with a noble son who can't kill him - directly.

Mr. Pale by Ray Bradbury. Somewhat interesting. Death turns out to be a solid entity who, in a fit of greed, kills everyone on Earth. He escapes to a space ship heading for the Mars colonies, though he almost kills himself in the process. He confesses this to a doctor on board the ship and says that he needs the passengers and crew to, one by one, be killed so he can survive until they reach Mars, where he can live again. Without him, there is no death, and all are immortal. In the end, I didn't like this story for some reason. Too dark I guess. The human race is brought to the brink of extinction and then given an immortality option. Too much all at once.

The Pipes of Pan by Brian Stableford. Again, sort of interesting. In a future where all disease and death is wiped out and the population is stable, children are held at a constant age between eight and thirteen. Then a virus (apparently man-made) begins appearing in children - a disease that makes them start growing like normal children. The story follows one girl who is realizing the consequences of her approaching adulthood and tries to hide it from her parents. Fortunately, the story keeps strictly to the mental changes a teenager goes through and avoids speaking too much on the physical changes of puberty, except as far as using them as a plot point - the changes eventually give her away to the feds. An interesting story about a world where children are just an anachronism left over to satisfy a human genetic imperative.

Always True to Thee, in My Fashion by Nancy Kress. What if you could pop a pill and "put on" a new emotion? What if the fascist (sorry, fashion) industry took this idea and ran with it? That's what this story is about. A woman is trying to get her boyfriend to follow the fashion world as well as she does, but he's not having anything to do with it. He likes the somber summer emotions and not the carefree fall ones. Eventually he gives in and pops the pills. She seems to have got her way, until his 'carefree' ways start including ignoring her and sleeping with other women. Another good story, though nothing memorable beyond the parody of the fashion-conscious.

Canary Land by Tom Purdom. This one didn't 'grab' me. While it had a decent plot (immigrant from Earth to space is told to do some 'information collecting' or he loses his job, which is as good as a death sentence). Problem is, he gets caught. This is where I stopped really liking the story. Basically, he lies his way out of trouble. Which is exactly what I'd do in a similar situation, but it seems like a bit of a cheat when one needs to resort to such a mundane way of doing things. No finesse, just survival. The ideas presented (where an American is the poor immigrant in a Chinese-run space, and the idea of a sterile moon used as the ultimate safeguard against genetic engineering gone wrong) are better than the tale spun around them. Not a great story, though a decent one.

Universal Emulators by Tom Cool. A great story, with a good idea and an unexpected (but perfectly logical) ending. In a future where a person's identity is more a matter of having the right encryption key, the business of "emulation" appears. Take one rich person who needs to be in two places at once. Take one hungry college graduate in debt up to his neck with no job in sight. Take a bit of surgery and hormonal treatments to make the graduate an exact physical copy of the rich person. Teach him how to act and think like the rich person. Make him an indentured slave to the rich person, and you have an emulator. He also carries the rich person's encryption key (the Internet is mentioned only briefly, but the encryption is clearly a PGP derivative) and can almost perfectly emulate the rich person. Of course, this is all highly illegal, but who has that ever stopped? The story focuses on one such emulator who is slaved to an arrogant, abusive jerk. Of course, the emulator is very nice and is soon liked more than the real person, by his associates and his own wife. His wife soon realizes what's happening and intentionally tips her hand to force a duel between them. The real person is killed and the emulator takes his place completely, in order to avoid getting sent up for murder. Now a series of plot twists follow that really make the story stand out. I won't spoil it here, but there were - in hindsight - quite obvious and brought up questions about one's true identity and one's false face to the world, and how the one can become the other.
(Update, February 5, 2003 AD: Rez pointed out, long ago, that there's this little ol' story called The Prince and the Pauper. Well, uh, I never read it. Hey, I never said I was a great reviewer.)

Fair Verona by R. Garcia y Robertson. First off: I'm lousy with names. Faces I don't often forget. But names? Unless I see it every day or make a conscious effort at remembering it, I'm lost. So I didn't think much of the name R. Garcia y Robertson. However, upon reading the story, I realized that this person is responsible for Werewolves of Luna, one of my more favored novellas. This one clearly takes place in the same great universe, where nonhumans and spaceflight (at least, among the inner planets) are commonplace and one's perception of reality can take on a rather flexible quality. The story starts off in Shakespeare's Verona - until reality intrudes and the main character (and the reader) gets snapped 'back' to the SF here-and-now. Our Hero is a VR addict - though this VR is less virtual and more like reality. Anyway, the here-and-now consists of the main character living in a public washroom and using his VR to either goof off or do work. His work consists of controlling a robotic body and, with three others, taking rich people on 'wyvern hunts'. The wyverns are made more aggressive through the use of devices like shock-collars. Suddenly, the rich client is killed by a wyvern whose shock collar is turned up way too high. Then the main character learns it was no accident, and his three partners were in on the murder plot. Which makes him suddenly expendable. The story at this point gets a little too fast-paced for me, with the surreal VR Verona sequences replaced by a confusing chase scene. In the end it's a decent story, but the final act is a little too muddled for me.

But if you like this story, you might like Werewolves of Luna, which I find has much better pacing within the same kind of universe. Though the VR there is not Verona, but a casino-sponsored RPG that takes place in Romania - yeah, the place with the vampires. You can find Werewolves of Luna in either a back issue of Asimov's Science Fiction or in the softcover anthology Isaac Asimov's Moons, a compilation of decent-to-great lunar-themed science fiction.

Great Western by Kim Newman. The title of this story betrays the plot. I'm still trying to figure out why it's SF, since it reads exactly like a Western, except set in contemporary-ish England. It's a nice escapist story, though. You have the evil squire who wants the small parcel of land that the poor widow owns. Then the ex-army officer (in shining armor - a motorcycle) appears and saves the day. The ending is fairly suspenseful; even though the happy ending is apparent, you're not sure how it's going to occur. Good fun. Not deep, but far more entertaining than the 'experimental' stuff.

Turnover by Geoffrey A. Landis. A nice change. You'll think you've read this story before - the ending seems obvious enough, but you might be surprised. Takes the conventional super-short story and gives it a refreshing twist. It also has a great sense of humor about the rest of the SF genre - it starts with 'The scientist's guild had a requirement that each accredited scientist must have a beautiful assistant to ask questions.' Highly recommended.

The Mendelian Lamp Case by Paul Levinson. A great story that has the most unlikely SF characters you've ever seen - the Amish. Most people will start off with similar opinions as the main character - that the Amish are one big group that dislike any technology at all. Well, they aren't one big group and they aren't that picky about technology. Some rather plausible SF elements follow from there. You'll be kept guessing to the end of this one. The only problem is that the first person view hampers the reader at one point - things move too fast for the main character to easily get a hold on, which means that you need to try comprehend them through his limited outlook. Fortunately, this feeling passes quickly. This story is a real page-turner - also highly recommended.

Kiss Me by Katherine MacLean. Ummm. I don't know what's wrong with this super-short story, but I don't like it. Though two paragraphs near the end are very good, and how every woman should leave a boyfriend who's a jerk and also dumb enough to trust her with his important papers. Not recommended, except for two paragraphs....

London Bone by Michael Moorcock. First complaint: This is SF? Second: Skip the first four pages while the narrator (first person, of course) tells you how great he is and how stupid the tourists are. Pick up at the first time he mentions the 'London Bone'. All you'll really miss are a couple of potshots he makes at Andrew Lloyd Webber that don't matter until the end, after the London Bone is back where it should be. This story is sort of a commentary about the human race in general, and how we could slide from near-necrophilia to revering the dead in the blink of an eye (or a fad). Okay story, but could be better.

Conclusion: Almost half the stories are not my idea of entertainment. Some are populated with unmemorable or annoying characters, some are boilerplate or have okay-but-not-quite-good ideas for a plot, and some are both.

Still, it's about 200 pages of good to mediocre reading.... IMHO, it's almost worth the money, but not worth your time to dig the wheat out of the chaff.

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