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Fri, Apr. 15th, 2005, 02:38 pm

Title: The Mammoth Book Of Best New SF 17
Editor: Gardner Dozois
Publisher: Robinson

I believe that The Mammoth Book Of Best New SF 17 is the equivalent of volume 21 in the American edition of this annual collection of short stories. A fact that has been marked by a collection of stories taken from those 21 years being recently published. This 17th UK edition sees a departure in design terms from the last 6 years of collections that I own, the cover has a matt effect print, which makes it more durable than the usual gloss edition. The paper the book is printed on has changed as well, which in my copy at least, has led to a patchy print in some places. However the big bold science fiction cover remains the same, in this case a couple of space ships floating over a planet (probably the Earth).

Every year, for as long as I have been reading these collections, Gardner Dozois goes through the previous years short story work to be published in the science fiction field and put together this collection. In this case the year in question is 2003, with the collection being published in the US in 2004, with the UK edition appearing as usual in about November of 2004. He starts each volume with his summary of the year, a kind of state of the industry essay, discussing the ups and downs of publishers, of cinema releases, and of those who are no longer with us. The book then has about 700 pages of short stories, which is usually enough space for 20-30 contributions – and this is an oversized book with regular sized print, so those 700 pages aren’t half dense! The book is tailed off with the honourable mentions, those stories from the year which are good, but didn’t make the final short list.

One of the persistent themes of Dozois summary is that the short story market is a dwindling one. The amount of magazines printing new work is far from it’s peak, and most authors only use short stories as a means of getting themselves some attention, as the financial reality indicates that novels is where the real money is to be made. With that, volume 17 is probably the first of the 7 collections I have read that hasn’t had any of the big names which got me reading these books in the first place. No Greg Egan, Paul McAuley, Bruce Sterling, or the like in this years collection – which does make one stop and think, perhaps this is the year where the short story scene became so bad that the collection is no longer worth reading? Although of course, the collection still has a number of the writers that I have come to know through these pages over the years, and that is part of what makes them worth buying each year – material from the likes of Robert Reed, Charles Stross, Michael Swanwick, Nancy Kress, Kage Baker, Geoff Ryman and Paul Di Fillippo. Despite any fears, this is a solid collection, Dozois as reliable as ever in his selection of material from established names and new ones alike.

With Off On A Starship William Barton presents something of a history of science fiction, though in doing so he takes a novel approach. It is 1966 and Wally is 16 years old, a SF obsessive, he has read thousands of classic SF novels. So, when he boards a flying saucer one night, his first question isn’t about what is happening, but rather it is in which science fiction writer’s vision has he found himself. A clever and charming story that couples the feel of the period that it is focusing on with a contemporary undercurrent.

John Kessell’s It’s All True takes us from the Barton’s history of SF, to a history of film. In the previous year’s collection Kessell’s narrator was interested in Tyler Durden, this time he offers a time traveller encountering Orson Welles. Mixing a vision of Welles life with how it could have been. Kage Baker’s Welcome To Olympus, Mr. Hearst works in similar territory to Kessell’s. Baker follows her immortal cyborg time manipulators, The Company, as usual, putting them in 1930’s America dealing with the media mogul William Randolph Hearst. The story is littered with movie stars and period references to go with the central intrigue. To be honest, these kind of stories aren’t really of interest to me, particularly because they feel like they are wallowing in a period of American history that has become such a standard.

Charles Stross takes us back to basics with Rogue Farm. None of your flying saucers or time travellers here, self-sufficiency and agriculture is the order of the day here. But nature hacking is all well and good until you have a rogue farm on your hands – a bio-organic collective preparing to blast off for Jupiter. Tending towards the deeply strange, to say the least, for all the more mundane trappings.

Steve Popkes explores some contemporary and hot topics with The Ice, a story which isn’t immediately obvious from the title. The Ice has parallels with Popkes’s Winters Are Hard, both featuring a reporter breaking a story on someone who is biologically different. In Winters Are Hard we followed the reporter, while in The Ice we follow the person who is at the centre of the story. Phil Berger is just an ordinary teen, thinking about college, and hoping he can get somewhere with a good hockey team. When a bombshell is dropped in his lap, the press breaking a story that claims he is a clone of a famous hockey player. The Ice explores the topic of cloning, and at the same time celebrity and the media, following the ups and downs of each. Over the course of the story The Ice develops into a striking piece with emotional depth, making for an affecting read.

Ej-Es is this year’s contribution from Nancy Kress, in which Mia is a medical officer in an organisation that goes from planet to planet. Feeling her age after all this space travel, this is her last trip and as she encounters the broken down survivors of a plague she reflects on her life – has she achieved what she wanted? Is she happy?

John Varley’s The Bellman is a brutal little serial killer story. Someone is killing pregnant women, forcing a heavily pregnant woman to take on the role of the bait. But this is in a sprawling moon colony, so everything is that little bit different. A situation that has bad news written all over it, and you just know things are going to get messy.

The Bear’s Baby by Judith Moffett deals with the topic of conservation, in this case we follow a man who is working with a recovering bear population. But the new mood for eco-preservation is one of those deals where those who have everything enforce their decisions on those who don’t. Of course in this case those in power are aliens and despite the good they are doing for the planet, that doesn’t make them entirely popular.

Calling Your Name is the second story to be selected from a collection of material inspired by the songs of Janis Ian - Howard Waldrop’s piece following after that by Nancy Kress. This one follows the accidental electrocution of a man, who finds there after that the world he is in is not the world he was in before his accident. Here Nixon was never president, the Beatles never formed, and so on. His family’s distress is clear as he struggles to understand, and it isn’t long before he is forced to seek psychiatric help.

June 16th At Anna’s is like Calling Your Name, in that both touch in passing on the events of September 2001. Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s story dealing with the discovery that gets as close to time travel as it appears we will get. The ability to not travel, but open up the past and make recordings of events. From this has come a new art form – that of conversation; the recordings from Anna’s restaurant on the 16th of June 2001 have become particular cult favourites. As the man at the centre of the story reflects on his wife’s passing, we have a story about memory and melancholy – as he is left with endless editions of that famous conversation, one which summed up a period in time, one which his wife was present at before he met her in December 2001, and they had both changed.

The Green Leopard Plague is an interesting dual narrative by Walter Jon Williams, which follows a post-human future and key events in its creation. Michelle is a mermaid, she used to be an ape, but throughout she has a certain skill at research. Which makes her an obvious choice when an academic is trying to fill in the gaps in the life of a man who seemed to predict the changes that were to come. However what she finds seems to suggest that he didn’t predict anything, he was key to what was to come.

The Fluted Girl sees Paolo Bacigalupi present a vision of a future economy based on celebrity. The fluted girl of the title living in a fiefdom of a famous actress, putting her in place to be selected for some heavy engineering work as the latest toy of that actress. Following her realisation of what part she is to play as being the next little money earner for her host.

Dead Worlds comes from a familiar base idea, that of tele-presence and it’s use to explore other planets. But Jack Skillingstead follows the emotional impacts on that kind of exploration on the people operating the machines. Especially the kind of emotional detachment that arises from living in a tank for months at a time, only to be dropped back in society at the end of it all.

With a name like King Dragon it probably isn’t a surprise that Michael Swanwick’s contribution to this collection has a considerable fantasy element. For me, I wouldn’t count this as science fiction at all, even if the dragon is formed of iron, run by rocket fuel and piloted by elves. This fits into one of Swanwick’s recurring sequences, but in this story follows a young boy and how life in his village is changed by the arrival of a crippled dragon.

Singeltons In Love however is much more what I would call science fiction, with Paul Melko operating in what I might describe as the territory of Greg Egan and Ken MacLeod. A post-human Earth, where the bulk of the human race left in an Exodus group mind, though one individual from this movement was left behind. This story follows a composite personality, six bodies with a shared mind, that is training to become a pilot for a spacecraft, and what happens when they meet that last human.

An AIDS patient thinks he has it bad when he is rushes to hospital with pneumonia in M. Shayne Bell’s Anomalous Structure Of My Dreams. But this the latest opportunistic virus to take advantage of his condition is the least of his worries. They don’t even know what the guy in the next bed has, or where it came from, but it becomes clear quick enough – it is spreading! This is similar territory to Send Me A Mentagram, a story by Dominic Green that comes later in the collection, and also deals with a mysterious virus. In this case a team out to re-enact an expedition to the South Pole finds itself in trouble, but not with the Russian and American blockade, which it sneaks past without problem. Rather a ghost ship, where the passengers have been struck down by a mysterious virus – but is it one that has been revealed by the retreat of ancient ice fields, one which had similar symptoms in Roman times, or is it something strange from a Martian meteorite that has crashed landed? Or something else entirely? Both these stories have the paranoia associated with an outbreak, and the desperate scrabbling attempts at containment.

Vernor Vinge’s The Cookie Monster is an interesting piece, and one which isn’t immediately obvious from that curious title. A woman’s first day in tech-support goes off plan when she receives an abusive email – one that appears to have come from someone within the company’s grounds. She goes off in search of who has sent this email, and how they know stuff about her no one else should know. A mini quest story, where she gathers companions along the way, encountering temporal anomalies, clones, conspiracies... or what?

Joe Steele is the third and final story in this collection to have come from an anthology based on the songs of Janis Ian. This time it is by Harry Turtledove and follows an alternate history where Joe Steele became president of America in the 1930’s, and how that changed the course of the Second World War. The Eyes Of America, which follows later in this collection, sees Geoffrey A Landis playing with similar territory – though instead of a Stalinist type regime in 1930’s America, he follows the elections of 1904. Where Edison is persuaded to run against a devoutly Christian opponent. Though as Edison makes ground thanks to his wondrous inventions, it isn’t long before the other side have recruited Tesla – and a battle of wits and creativity is on! With Marc Twain caught up in the competition as a political commentator.

While Geoff Ryman’s story is a curious one, with the themes of homosexuality and the strange ideas get about it being genetic, or an alien plot or something else entirely. Birth Days follows the characters diary entries, each made on his birthday, ten years apart. With nano-tech being the answer to world hunger or the cure to all illness, William Shunn presents a scenario for one of the possible side effects of the technology. In Strong Medicine we are presented with a surgeon, who dedicated his entire life to healing the sick, only to find he is no longer able to do the job he loves, and looking down the barrel of a gun.

Awake In The Night is set in the world of William Hope Hodgson’s novel The Night Lands. John C. Wright being only one of a number of writers to contribute to this environment, a trend which has resulted in a dedicated website and collections of those stories. This story in particular I wouldn’t call SF, it falls particularly into the realms of epic fantasy, following the descendents of legends, and the prophecy of great events. There are some small elements of SF, this is a post-apocalyptic world of darkness, where space travel has failed, and the moon has fallen. But even with that, the elements of horror outweigh those of SF to prop up those of fantasy, this being a world that is now given over to monsters and evil spirits – with humanity making its last stand in a colossal pyramid.

The Long Way Home is a short and patchy piece by James Van Pelt, which shares some of the melancholy for the future that his A Flock Of Birds did in the previous year’s collection. This story covers a period of hundreds of years, jumping forward after a quick snapshot of each period, interspersed with a contrasting view. The Earth is on the brink of nuclear catastrophe, though 14,400 people have been selected to travel into space as the final hope. However, this is experimental technology and things don’t go as planned, leaving a ravaged Earth behind. We follow the progress on Earth as the survivors try to piece things back together, speculating on what happened to those who left – each of these sections separated by a brief update of what did happen to the explorers. Despite attempts initially maintain a continuity based on familial ties, the story seems to lose those as it goes on, which causes it to lose a certain flow.

Night Of Time takes place on “The Ship” of a number of Robert Reed’s short stories, and the novel Marrow that came from those; as well as his most recent novel, which is a sequel to Marrow. A colossal space ship, filled with mystery and strange environments, finds a Martian born human lurking in an environment that more suits his place of birth. He has collected rare technologies, and the skills to use them, which has given him a certain reputation. So when a scholastic alien finds a gap in it’s memory it comes to him for help. A simple story in practical terms – man hooks alien up to machine, sorts memory problem, they talk. But over the course of that the story covers the ideas of aliens, alien environments, the origin of species, the evolution of species, concepts of time, and the possibilities of infinite parallel worlds.

And The Dish Ran Away With The Spoon is this year’s contribution from Paul Di Filipo, a veteran of the short story scene. This piece however is particularly up to date, and is reminiscent of some of the material that has been published in recent years by some of the younger/newer writers, like Cory Doctrow or Charles Stross. Here he asks the question, what happens when all our belongings have been chipped and given processing power? Sure it will make life easier in so many ways, and makes a lot of sense. But, that doesn’t take into account what happens when all these separate components start communicating with each other, plotting, scheming to steal your girlfriend!

Terry Dowling’s Flashmen is a curious piece, which follows a group of Sergio Leone inspired gangs and their confrontations with alien manifestations. For ten years the manifestations have maintained a certain stability, but now one of them has given birth and the old gangs are getting back together and heading deep into alien territory. The manifestations are weird, the way they come down, and take over areas of land recalls Ian McDonald’s Chaga work. But the sort of patchy weird effects that each of the manifestations exhibits perhaps has something in common with the strange fractured world in Mick Farren’s DNA Cowboy series, something which is backed up by the fact that these gangs having a passing resemblance to those Cowboys. A fun read, which could most likely work just as well expanded to a series of shorts or a novel. Dragonhead by Nick DiChario is another particularly short story, like Strong Medicine earlier, barely more than 2 pages. The Dragonhead of the title is not a fantasy reference, rather it is a virus, one of information overload – where people are permanently connected to an information flow like the internet and reach a stage where they can no longer tell the difference between real life input and the data flow.

The last story in this year’s collection is Dear Abbey by Terry Bisson. A story which gets it’s name from Edward Abbey, who wrote the novel about environmental activists called The Monkey Wrench Gang. In the story a similar group of activists have come up with a master plan, one which will permanently stop humans from destroying the planet, which they have given the code name Dear Abbey. Unfortunately the plan is currently mathematically impossible – enter Dr. Lee, who has come up with “see-tomorrow” maths. So two doctors set up a system which should swing them into the future, where they can see the appropriate maths and bring it back. However it isn’t as easy as that, and instead they find themselves travelling further and further into our future, witnessing the ups and downs of what lies ahead. As a collection, this volume is perhaps one of the clearest examples of how certain ideas enter a genre’s psyche – Dear Abbey being the third story in the collection to make reference to September 11th, though like the other two references, it is a passing one and not the focus of the story.

For me the material by Barton, Stross, Popkes, Kress, Varley, Moffett, Williams, Skillingstead, Melko, Vinge, Wright, Reed, di Fillippo and Dowling all stands out. The kind of material that I particularly enjoy, and the kind of material that makes these collections such an essential buy each year.