Let’s get one thing clear from the get-go: taken as a bundle, the stories in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 2 will almost certainly not be the best science fiction and fantasy stories of the year for anyone except Jonathan Strahan. Taste is too fickle a thing, and the acreage the book tries to encompass too great. As if to ram home the point, only six of the sf choices overlap with Dozois’ behemoth; only two from Rich Horton’s fantasy collection, and one from his sf book; there are two selections also in the Hartwell/Cramer fantasy book, and there’s no overlap at all with their sf volume. Strahan does get four Hugo nominees, two Nebula nominees, and two Sturgeon nominees, and his anthology is a good read, cover to cover, if that’s the only thing that matters to you; but the larger point indicated by the diversity of contents is that there are reasons beyond simple quality to read a Year’s Best. Strahan — while being quite clear that these are indeed his favourite stories of 2007 — acknowledges this in his introduction, saying that any Year’s Best is “an attempt by an informed reader to identify the best work published in a given year, to put it in context, and to sketch out where SF and fantasy might be going” (2). It’s an attempt, in other words, to provide a map; or, more aggrandizingly, to define a canon. Year’s Bests are one of the most visible and enduring ways in which the sf and fantasy genres memorialise themselves. They are a source to which historians will return.
And what will such historians conclude, on the basis of Strahan’s selections, about 2007? They will, I would imagine, be less interested than most of the book’s present-tense readers about whether it was a good year or a bad year, and more interested in the validity of Strahan’s core assertion about the twenty-first-century field. This assertion, arguably implicit in the decision to include sf and fantasy between one set of covers but made explicit in the introduction, is simply that the walls are breaking down. Strahan credits the change mostly to the ongoing expansion of the field, and the effect this has on how the genre talks to itself: “In effect, the direct dialogue from old to new works has been disrupted, and the nature of the dialogue has broadened enormously … SF and fantasy are broadening, changing, diverging” (2-3). Though he’s careful to note the limitations of grouping the two forms together, and reassure readers that there are traditional SF and fantasy stories in the book-to-come, it’s in the fluidity of the contemporary conversation that Strahan seems to be most interested, building on Gary Wolfe’s argument (I’m brutally paraphrasing “Evaporating Genres”) that the genres of the fantastic have to either live free or die hard: expand their discourse or stagnate.
So even without considering the story’s quality, it’s no surprise that Strahan opens with Ted Chiang’s “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate“, and points out that it’s a hybrid: time travel may be a classic science fiction theme, but stylistically the story’s ancestry is fantasy. A lot has (inevitably) already been said about this story, and I don’t intend to repeat it all; William Mingin’s review is the clearest enumeration of the story’s virtues that I’ve seen, but it’s also worth noting Abigail Nussbaum’s observation that it’s precisely the story’s mixed heritage that allows Chiang to approach one of time travel’s core issues from a fresh angle. The only thing I’d add is another measure of praise for Chiang’s technique, particularly the way in which he renders abstracts concrete (for example, the description of how the time gate works as akin to a secret passage in a palace), and for the way this allows him, as Mingin puts it, to “suggest how we should be and act”. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” is beautifully gentle in its moralizing; on one level it’s about how we know the world, but it frames its debate in the most practical terms, such that what can and cannot be done is central, and how people act is the most meaningful measure of their character. Perhaps the only contemporary writer whose skill and thoroughness at working through an argument can match Chiang is Greg Egan, represented here by the purely science-fictional “Glory” [pdf]. I’ve written about it, or specifically about the brilliantly barmy opening set-piece, before; second time around it struck me as a bit more coherent, more integrated in its presentation of its core argument, namely that the underlying information of the universe is consistent and can be understood. So, for example, the information that makes up the story’s protagonists, Joan and Anne, can be transformed from human to alien; and in their alien form they can understand other aliens as naturally as they understand their own species; and the ancient mathematics they seek is described in a novel algebra but is still comprehensible; and the final theorem can be re-described by a feat of aerial acrobatics. This pleasing neatness notwithstanding, “Glory” still strikes me as a little too rickety to be first-rank Egan. While there’s something endearing about the blatant way the story is rigged to focus on purely intellectual questions (by, for example, hand-waving away the potential problem of sexual attraction), after those first few pages the glory of the mind isn’t quite conveyed with enough conviction to carry the story on its own, and there’s nothing to tie the mind and the heart together the way they’re interlocked in Chiang’s tale.
If Strahan is arguing that the part of a Year’s Best job that involves teasing out such influences and connections is as important as it has ever been, though, we should be able to find stories among his selections that sit in the same conversation as, say, Chiang and Egan: stories that circle the same issues, that are heirs to the same tradition. And we can. One example is Daryl Gregory’s marvelous, economical “Dead Horse Point”. In its exploration of the psychological consequences of the pursuit of intellectual satisfaction it echoes “Glory”, not to mention some of Egan’s earlier stories, although there’s no evidence of Egan’s sometimes-clinical approach. (Strahan identifies a Tiptree influence, which I can see in the outdoorsy setting, although the story itself is gentler than any Tiptree I’ve read.) In some ways, it’s little more than a character vignette: a woman receives a call from her girlfriend of years earlier, and travels to visit her and her brother; there is some reminiscing about old times, and some discussion of the present; and then a turning point is reached. The sfnal elements, too, are minimal: the girlfriend, Julia, suffers from a psychological abnormality that, so far as I know, doesn’t exist, but which is characterised as “the opposite of attention deficit disorder”, meaning that she has a tendency to disappear into fugue states for periods of time ranging between hours or months, focused utterly on solving whatever problem has snagged her attention. The current problem, which may be drawing Julia so deep into a fugue that she will never return, is a new interpretation of quantum mechanics, the implications of which — and the ways in which those implications are refracted by the actions of the trio — echo not just Egan, but also “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”. The balance in “Dead Horse Point”, though, is tilted more towards heart than head, which is enough to ensure that the story is in the end nothing but itself. Another story in the book, though, seems to owe an even clearer debt to Chiang; in fact, if you told me you’d read a story about the conflict between belief and reason, set in a world where creationists were proved right about the age of the Earth by carbon-dating in the mid-twentieth century, and I didn’t know better, Chiang would be my first guess for the author. In fact it’s Ted Kosmatka. Like “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, “The Prophet of Flores” derives its strength from its hybridity — in this case a science-fictional exploration of a fantastical conceit, rather than vice-versa — and though the pacing, among other things, is not as polished as it might be, the story’s portrait of life in a cosmologically alternate history is thorough and convincing. The protagonist is a boy who grows up to be a “paleometagenomicist” (a sort of cross between an anthropologist and a geneticist) and, as the title suggests, is ultimately sent to investigate the story’s novum — the discovery of the bones of the hobbits of Flores, which, by representing a challenge to the idea that all life was originally created by God, has the potential to send shock waves through this world’s society. Kosmatka’s execution of this pregnant conceit is notable first for its sensible handling of the faultlines between faith and evidence, and second because he finds a resolution which remains true to the parameters of the world established, but still manages to deliver a good old-fashioned conceptual breakthrough.
All four of the stories I’ve discussed so far have recognisable science fiction antecedents, even if two of them are not pure sf and one of them is only tenuously speculative; and none of them ever doubts that reason and logic are appropriate tools with which to try to understand the world, even if they are interested in the emotional consequences of that understanding. A story like Bruce Sterling’s “Kiosk” is more in orbit around this cluster than a part of it, but displays a similar faith that the world can be grasped, albeit with business nous rather than pure rationality. “Kiosk” is your everyday tale of economic revolution, or the Third Transition for the Eastern European country in which it’s set (the first two, we are told, being the fall of communism and the trauma of peak oil), in which a small-time businessman acquires a high-grade cornucopia device and finds himself getting step by step deeper into what eventually becomes a full-blow revolutionary conspiracy. Along the way, there’s a lot of energetic, energising and funny talk — it’s a much more lively story than any of the four above — plus plenty of pithy encapsulations of the way the world is changing. The ultimate moral is that it’s not enough just to have a mechanical invention; you need a social invention to go with it, because one will ultimately be demanded if the technology is pervasive enough. “Kiosk” is certainly one of Sterling’s better stories of recent years, and the most complete dramatisation of a social change in this Year’s Best; but I don’t think it’s the best story about economics. I’d give that honour to Daniel Abraham’s “The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairy Tale of Economics“, which is a less raggedy and ramshackle story, and impressive for the thoroughness with which it does exactly what it says on the tin. Formally, Abraham’s story is indeed a fairy tale, in which an admirable hero (“a man of few needs, tepid passions, and great kindness”) overcomes a series of challenges in order to live happily ever after. But there’s no magic, and in fact the setting is a version of our world (Cairo and Paris are mentioned), though not in an analogue of any single historical period I could confidently pin down. The challenges, which are set for Our Hero by a debauched local lord, have to do with the principle of exchange, and quickly become about more than mere physical goods, at which point they demonstrate every bit as much as “Kiosk” how much economic forces shape our lives. But Abraham’s story is told with a much lighter touch than Sterling’s, although both are charmingly logical at points, and offer the satisfaction of seeing smarts win out.
As I’ve hinted, you can argue half of the stories I’ve discussed so far — Chiang, Kosmatka, Abraham — as either science fiction or fantasy. Another example would be Susan Palwick’s “Sorrel’s Heart”, which is once more science fiction — set in a world where extreme mutation has become both rife and survivable, and where people born with their organs external to their body are relatively commonplace — and told in a fantastical tone. (The year’s other girl-with-her-heart-outside-her-body story, Rachel Swirsky’s “Heartstrung“, which inevitably shares some themes, can be found in Rich Horton’s Fantasy Best.) A relationship develops between the title character and a man, Quartz, whose abnormality is less visible; he is a sociopath, but decides that because he can see how his desires hurt Sorrel, he doesn’t actually need to act them out. Their relationship is an abnormal kind of normal; caring and coping and complementing are at the heart of it. Palwick’s touch is sure, and if the use of the heart as a symbol becomes a little bit too explicit at the end (we didn’t need to be told that Quartz’ child becomes his heart) there are powerful moments along the way. But you can also put her story, or Abraham’s, into a fantasy conversation rather than an sf one, by heading into fairy tale and folk tale, and looking at the contrast between Abraham’s story and an ostensibly more traditional fairytale retelling such as Holly Black’s “The Coat of Stars”. The tale of a gay costume maker, a troubled visit to his redneck home, and his attempts to rescue a childhood friend from the clutches of the fairy queen — yes, the double meaning is both conscious and worked through the story — by a succession of increasingly elaborate coats as gifts, it’s a thoroughly unsentimental offering and, in some ways, not that much more traditional than Abraham’s story. Although there is magic, the presentation of it is notably un-magical, and in fact I suspect the complete lack of ethereality is the only reason the happy ending is bearable. You could also look at the two witch stories in the book, by Neil Gaiman and Elizabeth Hand; both are to an extent engaged in dialogue with the conventions of fairy tale, although I’m not sure that the image of a witch as an evil old woman, which both stories clearly want to bounce off, is as pervasive as it used to be. This is not a problem for Hand’s story, which has a lot of other resonance to juice it up; the small-town setting is evoked with skill, but the story’s real triumph is that it manages to talk about the preservation of the environment — in this case, represented by three old trees — from the depredations of business without getting drippy. The magic is real and fierce — the sort of thing that is felt as much as seen — which makes the tinge of wish-fulfillment inherent in the premise bearable.
The feeling that the story might not actually add much to the ongoing dialogue is more of a problem for Gaiman’s “The Witch’s Headstone”, which is as much about Good and Bad as Hand’s story, but is surprisingly clumsy — featuring such convenient environmental responses as the fact that, immediately after the protagonist is captured, what had been a fine autumn day turns gray — although perhaps some of its other clumsiness can be attributed to the fact that it’s an extract from a novel, and is thus filled with hanging references. Still following the trail of a fantasy conversation, from Chiang’s (quite literal) portal-quest story you could skip to a piece like Alex Irvine’s “Wizard’s Six”, which makes more use of traditional high fantasy gamepieces — formal language, unironic wizards and dragon-slaying — than any other story in the book, and goes to some lengths to frame its narrative as one of moral questioning. (Although unlike Chiang’s story, the protagonist is probably not a good match for many of the people reading about him.) Or you could go to another hybrid form, alternate history, and look at Chris Roberson’s “The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small”, an entry in his interesting Celestial Empire series. This time around I think the detail of the research is more impressive than the detail of the prose, but like “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” the story is structured as a series of philosophical challenges, in which an old man leads a young man through an argument, in an attempt to get him to see the wider world.
The concept for The Graveyard Book — from which Gaiman’s story is taken — is, of course, is itself another example of fantasy dialogue, in this case with Kipling’s Jungle Book, a work substantially older than anything most of the sf stories try to engage with. (The exception is Charles Stross’ cacophonously unfunny Wodehouse-homage/parody “Trunk and Disorderly”, but frankly the less said about that the better.) Fantasy has a rather longer tradition to draw on than sf, so it’s not at all a surprise to find other similar examples in Strahan’s selections; such as Theodora Goss’s decision to respond to “Kubla Khan” in “Singing of Mount Abora”. In doing so she is clearly aiming for something of the same intensity of image and feeling — an approach summed up by the observation that “beauty was not a quality but a state of being” — but although there are many things to like about the story, particularly the dance between segments set in Xanadu and those set in contemporary Boston, for me at least the end result is (oddly, like Egan’s story) more beautiful in its conception than its execution. Individual moments, such as the matter-of-fact way the narrator tells us that she’s been to Xanadu and Coleridge got the details wrong, work wonderfully as a way of asserting the importance of individual imagination; but ultimately the story as a whole is too dependent to truly live. More generally, stories like Goss’ and Gaiman’s, and indeed most of the fantasy stories in this collection, seem to point to a difference in the way genre dialogue works, compared with science fiction, specifically that fantasy stories don’t seem to draw as directly on its contemporary tradition in the way that sf does. That may be changing — look at the response to Perdido Street Station (at least if you read it as fantasy), and to a lesser extent the response to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell — but it still seems more common to see direct inspiration (such as Accelerando leading to Postsingular) in sf, and there’s more of a sense of common purpose between Egan/Chiang/Gregory/Kosmatka than between any of the more traditional fantasies collected here.
If this isn’t just observer bias, it may be something to do with the fact that fantasy has a wider range of established narratives to draw on. The danger is that stories that aim to deploy a formula end up mastered by them. Hence stories like Black’s, or to an extent like Elizabeth Bear’s “Orm the Beautiful“, which is an almost flawlessly executed story about a last dragon, but is still a last dragon story. The twist is that said dragon is emerging into the contemporary world; the resulting negotiation with mundane concerns is witty, and the conception of the dragon society is original and impressively fully-formed for a story of this length, but it never feels as though it desperately needed to be told. Similarly, Michael Swanwick’s exodus/development-of-language myth mash-up is impressively textured, obviously knowing in several ways, and better than most examples of his short fiction that I’ve read, but can’t quite overcome the (necessary?) familiarity of its basic plot, in which a girl is kidnapped, an honourable man rescues her, and a treacherous man causes trouble. None of these stories are without merit, but next to, for example, Abraham’s twist on the fairy-tale formula, they feel too well-worn. I’ve praised M. Rickert’s “Holiday” before, and its skillful insinuation of unease into the narrator’s apparent attempt to be straight with us retains its power third time around, but it’s worth noting that it’s effective as a ghostly horror story not just because of its general grimness of tone, but because it successfully misdirects us as to where the horror is going to come from. The presence or absence of that sort of surprise, I think, makes or breaks any story that’s operating within a particular form. It’s why I think that, say, Nancy Kress’s “By Fools Like Me” is not her best work; the setting is almost generically post-Crash — global warming, disease, birth rate way down, garbled religious teachings — and what the characters stand for starts to overwhelm who they actually are. It’s also why I think Stephen Baxter’s “Last Contact” is admirable in concept but not quite deft enough in execution. I’m still a little surprised that it earned Baxter a Hugo nomination. Some of the detail is nice (particularly the idea that the announcement of a universal apocalypse would be made on Radio 4, and that the schedulers would be thoughtful enough to make the entirely pointless gesture of scheduling it for after the watershed), and the total impersonality of the catastrophe is as chilling as Baxter ever is. But some of the rest — particularly the guff about establishing a shelter to survive the end of the universe for about 30 seconds, just to eke out that little bit more knowledge, and the intuitive decryption of alien messages — is trying too hard. It might work in a longer story, but here I can feel my buttons being deliberately pushed. I don’t object to similar button-pushing in Ken MacLeod’s “Jesus Christ, Reanimator”, which depicts a 21st-century second coming, simply because the story is so funny and inventive, from the opening image of the Heavenly host being welcomed with an F-16 fighter escort to the concept of Jesus’ blog (and his “devastating put-downs in the comments”), or Jesus’ own admission that reading Tipler helped him understand how the universe works. It’s a story that ends in the only way it could, but has an awful lot of fun getting there, and is probably MacLeod’s strongest short-form work to date.
What’s left after all this discussion is the set of stories which, for one reason or another, I couldn’t fit into a neat discursive category. In some cases, that’s because the premise seems truly original; the notable example here is Peter S Beagle’s “The Last and Only, Or, Mr Moscowitz Becomes French”, in which nationality is, literally, a disease. But it’s an originality whose charm passes me by, as with so much Beagle; “Mr Moscowitz” seems too fable-like to be satisfying as a rational fantasy (for example, nobody talks about potential treatment of Mr Moscowitz) and yet not fable-like enough to achieve much power (the scattershot targeting of everything that comes within range — law, celebrity, marriage — ends up feeling ineffective). It feels like it should be a story about identity, yet because of the totalizing nature of the change, it has frustratingly little to say there (certainly in comparison to a story like “Dead Horse Point”); yet it is not simply beautiful enough to absorb. In contrast, there’s “The Dreaming Wind”, which is both unlike any other fantasy in the anthology and successful, although perhaps not exactly new ground for its author. “There is no way,” the narrator says near the start, “to encompass in language the inexhaustible creative energy and crackpot genius that was the Dreaming Wind”. But Jeffrey Ford gives it the old college try. The dreaming wind sweeps through the town of Lipora once a year, when summer and autumn “are in bed together” (a lovely phrase), bringing in its wake a rush of surreality. People and landscape become jumbled and strange, and only rearrange themselves when the wind has passed. It’s an event that serves as a demonstration of Ford’s tremendous gift for invention, and the story is worth reading for that alone. But then “The Dreaming Wind” becomes something more: one year, the wind does not come, and as so often happens the absence of a feared thing becomes scarier than the thing itself; at least it turns out not to be the expected blessing. Eventually, the townsfolk put on a play, telling a story that explains why the dreaming wind was and why it is no more; when the magic vanishes, in other words, it is recreated in story, and magic and story might almost as well be the same thing. Tony Daniel’s “In the Valley of the Garden” is, like “Glory”, taken from The New Space Opera, although like “Glory” I’m not sure I could actually call it that; a story about someone who’s survived a space opera, maybe. Strahan places it immediately after Rickert’s story, and initially the change from the intensely personal supernatural horror of that story to the still-personal but much more expansive and adventurous sf of Daniel provides the sharpest whiplash in the book; but the story outstays its welcome somewhat. Interestingly, it echoes Swanwick’s story in several ways: both stories play with sf/fantasy texturing; they have similar villains (Daniel’s aliens are described as “parasites, feeding on order”, which makes them sound awfully like Swanwick’s language-eating demons); and in “Valley”, as in “Urdumheim”, inventiveness is ultimately tamed by a conventional undercarriage.
Strahan closes his anthology with a story by possibly the only contemporary short story writer as near-universally acclaimed as Ted Chiang; but Kelly Link’s “The Constable of Abel” seems to me a less secure anchor, not just because I find it less engaging as a story than my pick for Link story of the year, “Light” (I’m able to believe that Strahan disagrees), but because “Light” seems so much better-placed to illustrate Strahan’s core argument about the breaking down of barriers. Like “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, it fantasticates a science fictional conceit (pocket universes), but it does so in a provocatively different way. “The Constable of Abel”, by contrast, is set in a more straightforward fantasy world than is usual for Link, and has a more traditional narrative architecture, built around a mother and daughter con-artist team who leave one town and move to another after the mother kills the local constable. There’s a lot of talk about death, which only Link’s narrative voice manages to avoid making morbid; but it seems more of a struggle than usual, as though the demands of plot cut down the characteristic interplay. Though there are still Linkish touches — such as the way people keep ghosts, which are pocket-sized and need blood to live — under such bright light they start to seem unconvincing, rather than illuminatingly weird. And the final revelation, much as Link tries to spin it into a new riff, can’t stop the story being a rather wearying note on which to end an otherwise good anthology.
But what “The Constable of Abel” does have going for it is that it’s more typical of the direction Link’s work has been going in; and even if you like fewer of them than me, I think it’s hard to deny that Strahan’s selections capture something of the fluidity of the contemporary genre, and range widely over the territory. Of the handful of omissions I think really weaken the collection, for instance, I can see that “By Fools Like Me” already covers the post-ecotastrophe terrain that Holly Phillips’ “Three Days of Rain” evokes so wonderfully; and while I’d have taken Rachel Swirsky’s “Dispersed by the sun, Melting in the Wind“, I can see that the clear debt to classic end-of-the-world stories that “Last Contact” brings is interesting in itself; and while I find the omission of David Moles’ “Finisterra” baffling, I suppose Tony Daniel’s story supplies the heavy-worldbuilding sf adventure. As for the fourth story I’d have picked, Ian R MacLeod’s “The Master Miller’s Tale”, its industrial magic isn’t particularly well represented elsewhere in the book, but it’s a novella, and even in Night Shade’s somewhat cramped layout that demands a certain number of pages. You may have noticed that all my omissions — and all the stories Strahan did pick — are, however they might colonise other narratives, solidly genre stories, drawn from genre sources (for a different kind of fluidity, drawing on newer markets or non-genre markets, you’ll want Horton’s volumes, or Best American Fantasy, I suspect — and in fact, see Abigail Nussbaum’s review here); but if Strahan’s self-appointed task is to map the field of speculative fiction, rather than the mode in the broadest sense, then that makes perfect sense. And I find myself in agreement with the sense of the field that this book promotes: which is to say that I like this map.