(2003) Gardner Dozois (ed), Robinson, £9.99, trdpbk, 719pp, ISBN 1-841-19795-5
There are broadly two types of short story collections. One: those that are from a single author or a specific sub-genre. The other sort: those that attempt to cover an entire genre. The problem for the reviewer with this last category is that genres such as SF are so broad that unless this is matched by a similar breadth of interest it is impossible to fairly review the collection. The Mammoth Book of Best New SF series is in this latter camp and I immediately put up my hand to say that I like my SF embedded firmly in (potential) science and its (potential) impact on life, the universe and everything. Fantasy wrapped up as science fiction and stories whose connection to science is tenuous - no matter how well written - personally speaking you can keep. Consequently I have to confess to skipping half a dozen of the 25 stories Gardner has collected: I make no apology for failing to connect with a story that fails to engage me in its first four pages. Besides an over three-quarters success rate is not bad for fussy old me.
With the above caveat over I can report that the vast majority of the stories I did find engaging and so I can only assume that the remainder, whose style or content was not my cup of tea, were of a similar quality and can be appreciated by those whose tastes are broader. In turn of the three-quarters I was only really taken (and I mean 'really') with half a dozen. McAuley's The Passenger is a lovely space opera set in a corporate salvage business when a team inadvertently picks up a passenger who has her own agenda. Robert Reed's Coelacanth's is a superbly crafted post-human tale of a single episode but from various perspectives. Maureen McHugh's Presence stunned me. It is a brilliant biotechnology tale of the implications of near-future Alzheimer treatments. It reminded me of Flowers for Algernon and deserves to be on the reading lists of all those whose university course has a science ethics module. It was nominated for a Hugo and for my money deserved to have won: it nearly did, coming second for 'Best Novelette'. The 'Novelette' winner that year went to Charles Stross' Halo which Gardner has also included. It is an amusing space opera that I enjoyed concerning a young girl's bid to determine her own identity despite a possessive mother back on Earth. It was far more fun than McHugh's and a great read, but McHugh's was streets ahead on poignancy and in using the genre to say something far more meaningful. Clearly the masses like 'fun' and you can't blame them for running after the tinsel (after all I frequently do too). Meanwhile Steven Popkes provided another post-human story, Winters Are Hard, but set in the near future and concerning someone who had modified themselves to be part wolf to run with a pack. This was a dark and, dare I say, more of a whimsical piece though with growth of the breast enhancement, nose jobs, liposuction etc., industry it was a tale not devoid of social relevance. Geoff Ryman's V.A.O is hugely enjoyable: dark, funny and - given as I type this there is yet another pension collapse fear story on the news - also pertinent to today's concerns. Its protagonist is in an old age home in the near future where the toilets chastise you for not taking your medicine as it analyses your pee. Some oldsters resent their being sidelined by society and so go on a terrorist rampage but alas our protagonist's granddaughter gets caught up in the cross fire so our man tries to help track down the culprits.
There were other stories that I enjoyed but, I have to confess, which failed to fire. Greg Egan's Singleton was essentially a different take on the concepts that underpinned his excellent novel Quarantine, but it was interesting to see another aspect of how the man's mind can work. There were others still that, it has to be said were conceptually weak, or rather failed to vividly bring a fresh perspective despite being 'well' written (and as said such alone does not do much for me) but I will not embarrass the authors by citing them. Besides, I am certain that there will be other readers who will derive enjoyment from them.
One advantage of this Mammoth series is that at the volume's beginning Gardner provides an excellent summary of the previous written SF year. (Which sadly includes our loss of Harry.) In fact one could almost say that if you needed a summary of the written SF year that this was the one that could arguably best serve you. Indeed even if you do not buy this collection, if you have an interest in written SF (and do not have a subscription to Locus (why not?)) then seek out this annual summary from a library copy. Having said this, while I applaud this annual review of Anglophone written SF, Gardner Dozoiz lets himself (and us) down badly by straying into other SF media. His TV coverage is US centric, as is his review of SF film which is also Hollywood centric (didn't the independents do anything in 2002?) and his popular science coverage is cringingly deficient: the man clearly has next to no knowledge of that landscape and is apparently quite oblivious of this: one almost felt embarrassed for the man. With genuine respect, I suggest that he stick to reporting Anglophone written SF, of which he clearly extremely knowledgeable, and avoid the rest.
Then there are the, ahem, 'Honourable Mentions' list of short story titles at the book's end. I could not figure out what was going on here? With nearly nine pages of short stories listed you really would have to be a dedicated reader to want to cover that ground, so I cannot believe that this is a working reading list. Now maybe there are such readers but bearing in mind that over half this list consists of stories from half a dozen magazines (be they print or on-line) then such dedicated folk would presumably already be checking these out. So what is the list's utility? Is the man giving an apologetic nod to those he has left out? I do not know. You could argue that you can see from the list where the good stuff comes from but then that really is covering the same ground he traversed in his annual summation at the book's beginning. About the only thing I discerned from the nine pages was wonderment at Michael Swanwick's 'quality' output, the list of which at half a page is streets ahead of everyone else.
Now, as stated I have my preferences within the genre, just as I am fairly certain most do. So how does Gardner define 'best' to include it in his collection of Best New SF? 'Good question,' I hear you tell me. 'Damn right,' I reply. 'Absolutely,' you rejoin etc. And indeed in 2005 we (Concatenation) - having given thought to at least one interpretation as to what 'best SF' might mean - are through Porcupine hoping to publish our own concise guide to Essential SF. Our definition of 'best' SF for this purpose is based on fan-voted awards and a variety of other market identifiers (but not small panel awards or American authors - perish the thought). So what is Gardner doing? I started to cross reference the stories in The Mammoth Book of Best New SF with Locus and Hugo nominations to see if that would provide a clue. Having spent half an hour I resorted to the internet for the more difficult bits only to find that wonderfully James Wallace Harris has already done similar leg work for us so you can check this out at jameswallaceharris.com and see the score for your self.
In summary: The Mammoth Book of Best New SF demonstrates that written SF is alive and well, and as such the collection is a good diagnostic for the genre's pulse. "It's not dead Jim." If like me you like what you like and are not so keen on the other stuff, the book usefully helps you glimpse what is going on elsewhere. (No harm in broadening one's perspective as you never know how your tastes, or the genre, have evolved.) For example, I never knew that Ryman could write like that. (Sorry Geoff, accept this as praise though and a sign of my ignorance.) From what I can see, and J. W. Harris' assessment, Gardner has done an worthy job of compiling much of the 'Best' of new SF even if there is other stuff out there arguably just as good and which others include in their respective collections. Consequently this is one of those book series where the publisher is providing a most welcome service. Afore caveats notwithstanding, long may it continue. Indeed, by the time your read this there may be a more recent edition out...
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