Year’s Best SF

Yes, I am well aware that the countdown is going backwards on all these Hartwell anthologies I’ve been posting reviews of. Like the previous ones, this has alternate history material.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1996.years-best-sf

Think Like a Dinosaur“, James Patrick Kelly — Hartwell, in his introductory notes, says this story is part of a dialogue about Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”. That’s true. It does involve the killing of an innocent to balance some equations, here the obscure equations involved in quantum teleportation of humans to an alien world. However, the story, in its plot of birth and death via teleportation, has echoes of Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon. This story is more emotional than Godwin’s tale. The narrator, a person counseling skittish people on how to handle the teleportation process, kills, rather gleefully, one of his charges. He learns to “think like a dinosaur”, like the alien Gendians who are the ones who insist on the equations being balanced in their teleportation process.

Wonders of the Invisible World“, Patricia A. McKillip — I’m not really sure what the point of this story was. Most of it concerns the narrator’s interaction, as a time traveling researcher, with Cotton Mather (the story’s title is an allusion to a work of Mather’s) as part of a project to investigate the imagery of primitive, “Pre-Real” (presumably as in “virtual reality”) peoples’ mind. At first, the narrator seems appalled by both the poisonous uses that Mather puts his rather impoverished imagination to yet sad by the lack of imagination by most adults in her world. Yet, she’s appalled by the atavistic imagination of her boss. The narrator seems to reach the conclusion, at story’s end, that the powerful computer tools of her age enable a much healthier imagination for her son — though that imagination may be lost when he gets older. Why a library of pre-conceived icons and notions should necessarily mean greater imagination among the youth is not really explored — though it probably would. And McKillip definitely doesn’t explain why this imagination should suddenly be lost in the narrator’s society when people reach adulthood. It seemed like more of an excuse to comment and criticize Mather than anything else.

Hot Times in Magma City“, Robert Silverberg — Once again Silverberg proves why he’s a master. He takes a rather hackneyed idea, Los Angeles threatened by volcanic eruptions, and breaths new life into by sheer technical skill and a little technological extrapolation. (To show what a hackneyed idea this is, about two years after this story was published, the movie Volcano came about — about Los Angeles threatened by an eruption.) Silverberg has the great metropolis threatened by a whole series of magma eruptions. The technical skill of the story comes in telling it in a chatty, present-tense style and, perhaps even more importantly, who he selects as the heroes: a bunch of drug addicts sentenced to mandatory community service. They fight the magma upwellings in special suits. Silverberg handles those action details well. But it’s the addition of their interactions, the flaws and quirks that made them addicts, and their attempts at self-rehabilitation through their work fighting magma, that make the story special.

Gossamer“, Stephen Baxter — While this story is ingenious and conforms to the aesthetics of hard sf, I only found it somewhat interesting (though, of course, I haven’t read all the hard sf published in 1995 so I don’t know if Hartwell omitted better examples to include it). I’m usually not all that interested in the description of planetscapes — here Pluto and Charon — or the creation of exotic life — here a rather spider-like lifeform that uses the resources of both those worlds.

A Worm in the Well“, Gregory Benford — Hartwell mentions Poul Anderson in his introductory notes about the tradition Benford is working in. The description is accurate here as a hard-bitten owner/operator of a spaceship not only confronts the dangers and technical challenges of grabbing a near invisible wormhole near the sun (with the aid of her onboard artificial Intelligence, Erma) but also engages in some hard negotiations in selling it in order to clear her debts. I found the story entertaining but nothing special.

Downloading Midnight“, William Browning Spencer — A story that combines the fantasy-like adventures of AI avatars in the cyberverse with the manipulation and analysis of images taken from human mind as in Roger Zelazny’s “The Dream Master” or Greg Bear’s Queen of Angels. It wasn’t particularly interesting except for the background which cryptically makes reference to the Decadence and the details of the Big R as the citizens of this world called reality. I like the details of its sexual repression with the sexual age of consent as 25 with sexual unions proceeding through a legally defined series of injunctions and waivers and contracts and monitored meetings and mathematical measurements of personality traits like evasiveness. The story ends with the virtual entertainment world starting to see the dawn of something to replace the ubiquitous sex shows: true innocence.

For White Hill” Joe Haldeman — Having read some of Joe Haldeman’s diary entries (obviously the ones he chooses to publish) on his website, I sense a lot of Haldeman in the sculptor-narrator of this tale. Both are well-traveled artists with an interest in sex, food, and the tools and techniques of their art. This was a pleasantly mournful tale of the narrator going to a devastated Earth of the far future (all life has been sterilized off it due to nanophages planted by an alien race humans are at war with). The narrator, like Haldeman, is also a war veteran. He is there for a contest to produce a work of art honoring man’s past on his homeworld. A new alien attack, which causes Earth’s sun to age at an accelerated rate, traps the artists gathered for the competition on a threatened planet. The narrator falls in love with White Hill, another artist who also works as an empathetic therapist (she comes from a culture which has the interesting notion that all parts of life, work and art, are necessary). She leaves to help, at the price of her life, a group of artists in coldsleep on a ship. The narrator does not go with her, unable to immerse himself in the unquiet groupmind network of the sleepers, and writes the story to commemorate White Hill before he dies. The story will be engraved on platinum plates and put on a ship to be discovered thousands of years in the future, an attempt to give White Hill some sort of immortality.

In Saturn Time”, William Barton — Something different from Barton, an alternate history. This is an alternate history of the US space program from 1974 to 2001 when a US ship goes to Jupiter (and tv commentator Arthur C. Clarke — clearly present if not explicitly named — plays “Thus Sprach Zarathustra”). The turning point seems to have been the nomination, in the 1972 Democratic presidential primary, of Morris Udall who took the party away from the more leftist George McGovern wing which didn’t support the space program. (Even Jesse Jackson is onboard in his support.) I support the space program but am not all that interested in stories about it so, even if this was from Barton, I was not all that thrilled with it.

Coming of Age in Karhide: Sov Thade Tage Em Ereb, of Rer in Karhide, on Gethen“, Ursula K. Le Guin — Having never read more than an excerpt of her famous The Left Hand of Darkness, I can’t say how much Le Guin expands the background and depiction of its planet Winter inhabited by human-like aliens who are genderless most of the time except when they are in “kemmer” and not only have sex but can choose their gender. The story is, as the title indicates, a coming of age tale about a young alien coming to terms with the new presence of sex, desire, and love in her life — mostly involving a cousin of hers (not scandalous in this culture). It was a moderately engaging tale, and Le Guin does often write, as many have noted, as an anthropologist and historian of alien worlds.

The Three Descents of Jeremy Baker“, Roger Zelazny — This story was chatty, occasionally funny, and bubbly — as you would expect from Zelazny though that’s only one of his styles, but its plot of a human meeting aliens around a black hole who enable him to inhabit the core of information at its center (where he has to stay until the passing of another cycle of the universe) didn’t do much for me.

Evolution“, Nancy Kress — Second time I’ve read this tale about a mother’s trials during a plague caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria, and I liked it just as much.

The Day the Aliens Came“, Robert Sheckley — As to be expected from Sheckley, this is a humorous tale. The plot involves how the presence of various aliens on Earth change things like apartment living, childbirth, eating, money, and even individuality. Sheckley isn’t making some grand point here, no satirical point about humanity by juxtaposing it with the alien race or races, just a good, funny story taking off on an old sf idea.

Microbe“, Joan Slonczewski — An ok puzzle story about trying to survive on a planet filled with lifeforms that threaten advanced nanotech spacesuits and that are prokaryotes in the shape of a torus and with triple-helix DNA. Slonczewski (and this is the first thing I’ve read by her) is, I believe, a biologist so I assume the scientific details are reasonably accurate.

The Ziggurat“, Gene Wolfe — I’m not a big fan of Wolfe’s sf, but, then, I haven’t read a lot of it, and Wolfe seems to be a writer of many styles. I did like this creepy little story a lot though. It’s about the war of the sexes. At first, it’s a cold war of sorts as protagonist Emery Bainbridge awaits, in his isolated cabin, the appearance of his soon to be ex-wife, his step-daughters, and his son. He is willing to agree to just about anything to save his interest in and money derived from the company he founded, a company he already lost control of in his first divorce. But the war between the sexes turns hot with some mysterious female intruders who break in to his cabin, kidnap one of his step-daughters (who have been talked by their mother into making false accusations of child molestation against him if he doesn’t agree to her terms), take a shot at him, and, eventually, kill his son. Besides being a commentary (with Bainbridge’s comments on the difference between male and female love) on the relationship between the sexes, it’s a vengeance tale as Bainbridge avenges his son’s death and comes to learn, in a typically elliptic Wolfe way, that they are stranded visitors from a future where men are feared. The story’s end is rather creepy even though it sort of wraps things up. Bainbridge retrieves tech from the women’s crashed space station (crashed in a lake) to start a new company and has managed to capture one of the “Brownies” from the future and plans to make her his new wife and mother to future children. As unreasonable and unrealistic and immoral as his wife comes across, Bainbridge comes across as the representative of certain male obsessions about career and family no matter how strangely or unreasonable a man expects others to cater to those obsessions. It was also somewhat amusing to hear the detailed, dispassionate way engineer Bainbridge addresses certain technical issues in the midst of a divorce and avenging his son. As his wife warns her daughters, “Never marry an engineer, girls.”


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

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