Fiction Reviews

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 17

(2004) Gardner Dozois (ed), Robinson, 9.99, trd pbk, 718 pp, ISBN 1-841-19924-9


Gardner does it again and provides his personal choice of science fiction and some fantasy from across the genre. If your taste in SF is broad then many of the stories will delight. Conversely if you tend to like just some aspects of the genre, or even positively dislike some other aspects then you will justhave to accept the rough with the smooth.

This year's gems include the following. Off On A Starship by John Varley which is a retro SF story written in 1950s style and set in that decade with - as the title suggests - the protagonist going off on a starship. Nancy Kress (as in common with a number of her novels) provides a biological story, EJ-ES, when humans who check up on colonies in remote star systems and find one that they had thought had died out but there are survivors. The problem is that the survivors have the virus that also gives them ecstasy, so should the virus be wiped out? Continuing the natural science theme is Judith Moffett with The Bear's Baby concerning aliens who come to Earth and help us get our environmental problems sorted. The only thing is that this is not altruistic and they have their own (biological) motives. Still on the biology front, but with sexual politics, is Geoff Ryman and Birth Days. In the future gays coming out in a neo-Christian society not only presents obvious difficulties but it is becoming rarer. This is because of embryo screening for 'gay' genes and also because there is a (biochemical) cure being developed for 'same sex'. Yet genius is sometime associated with being gay, cf. Turing. And there are also (other) Darwinian benefits... Well it is an interesting flight of SF fancy and this story is close to Geoff's heart.

There are also Gardner's non-hard SF offerings. Of these one of the best (allowing for personal taste) is It's All True by John Kessel in which Hollywood scouts the dead from the past to make films and so Orson Welles gets recruited.

Perhaps one of the most useful parts of this book series (especially if you do not have a Locus subscription) is Gardner's 44-page review of the SF year. Of course this is not really a review of the SF year but a review of the Anglophone year and a somewhat US centric one at that. Interesting though this year is that one theme explored is that of 'SF dying'. As many of you may well be aware SF magazines (Analog, Fantasy & Science Fiction, etc.,) seem to be universally dying. Gardener also points out that the impression one gets from people in the trade is that book publishing is in similar decline. However Gardener has a different take which is data-led (hooray). In notes that in the US (I did say it was US centric), the total number of SF novels published in 2003 were 236, which is in fact up on 225 in 1972. Further SF as a genre compared to others is still the big player. Gardener agrees that magazine subscriptions are down but then so are Playboy's and The TV Guide. (Of course had this been a more international review he might have included non-Anglophone examples such as Italy's Urania which used to be bi-monthly and with a 40,000 print run a few decades ago and which is now monthly with less than a 10,000 run, but I digress.) He also points to the rise of internet fiction not to mention its on-line chat rooms such as Delphi's on Wednesdays at 22.00 EST (Eastern US Standard Time). What he does not mention is how other more broader and media orientate SF magazines have fared. UK examples would include Starburst and SFX while US counterparts might be Starlog (if, that is it, is still going). Nonetheless his discussion is interesting.

On the non-fiction front he cites the publication of the The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction but opines that "the average reader will probably be more interested by - and have more fun with - two books of smart and trenchant reviews and essays: Up Through An Empty House of Stars: Reviews and Essays 1980-2002 (Cosmos) by David Langford, and Scores: Reviews 1993-2003 (Beccon Publications) by John Clute." I whole-heartedly agree with this.

Gardener's film and TV SF review is less strong and virtually entirely restricted to America's Hollywood so that the rest of the planet and independents to all intents and purposes might not exist were it not for anime. But then these are not Gardener's strengths and quite frankly I still do not see why he goes there.

This last not withstanding this series remains a useful taster of Anglophone SF shorts and the annual review does convey how the Anglophone written SF scene, especially as it relates to North America, has developed over the previous year. Many will find this annual series of interest and, if you have not yet done so, it is worth checking out. However if your tastes are less broad you may find more themed or single author anthologies to your taste. I guess it depends on the type of reader you are.

Jonathan Cowie

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