THE BEST SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY OF THE YEAR, VOLUME 9


22609311The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year
(Volume 9)
Edited By Jonathan Strahan
Solaris – 12th May 2015
ISBN 9781781083093  – 624 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“Slipping”, by Lauren Beukes (Twelve Tomorrows: MIT Technology Review SF Annual 2014)
“Moriabe’s Children”, by Paolo Bacigalupi (Monstrous Affections)
“The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family”, by Usman T. Malik (Qualia Nous)
“The Lady and the Fox”, by Kelly Link (My True Love Gave to Me)
“Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind)”, by Holly Black (Monstrous Affections)
“The LONG HAUL, from the ANNALS OF TRANSPORTATION, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009”, by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld, Nov 2014)
“Tough Times All Over”, by Joe Abercrombie (Rogues)
“The Insects of Love”, by Genevieve Valentine (Tor.com, 28th May 2014)
“Cold Wind”, by Nicola Griffith (Tor.com, 16th Apr 2014)
“Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8), by Caitlín R. Kiernan (Sirenia Digest #100, May 2014)
“Shadow Flock”, by Greg Egan (Coming Soon Enough)
“I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There”, by K.J. Parker (Subterranean Magazine, Winter 2014)
“Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)”, by Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Magazine, Summer 2014)
“Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They are Terrifying”, by Alice Sola Kim (Tin House #61)
“Shay Corsham Worsted”, by Garth Nix (Fearful Symmetries)
“Kheldyu”, by Karl Schroeder (Reach for Infinity)
“Caligo Lane”, by Ellen Klages (Subterranean Magazine, Winter 2014)
“The Devil in America”, by Kai Ashanti Wilson (Tor.com 2nd Apr 2014)
“Tawny Petticoats”, by Michael Swanwick (Rogues)
“The Fifth Dragon”, by Ian McDonald (Reach for Infinity)
“The Truth About Owls”, by Amal El-Mohtar (Kaleidoscope)
“Four Days of Christmas”, by Tim Maughan (Terraform, Dec 2014)
“Covenant”, by Elizabeth Bear (Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future)
“Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology”, by Theodora Goss (Lightspeed, Jul 2014)
“Collateral”, by Peter Watts (Upgraded)
“The Scrivener”, by Eleanor Arnason (Subterranean Magazine, Winter 2014)
“Someday”, by James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Apr/May 2014)
“Amicae Aeternum”, by Ellen Klages (Reach for Infinity)

Ninth in Strahan’s series of yearly collections, this is the first one I’ve read and it’s now a series I’ll be striving to fit into the reading list for years to come. It tends to favor the longer length of novella over shorter works, a factor that I’d a priori consider a major strike against. I’m not a huge fan of novellas, but there are certainly cases where they work exceptionally well for my taste. Most of the ones in this anthology do just that. As I write the paragraphs that follow I realize that a lot of the stories also tend towards the darker side, particularly the fantasy. I tend to like that style/ambience in stories, but obviously some readers may shy away from it.
The six stories that volume 9 begins with are all superb, representative of the quality and variety to come. I had already enjoyed both Ken Liu’s story and an earlier print (original?) of Holly Black’s fun space adventure with a compelling pair of characters (one human and one alien) and the interesting themes of monstrosity and the discoveries during coming-of-age. Kelly Link’s beautiful story is part urban fantasy and part fairy tale on family and friends set at Christmas. Similarly, Bacigalupi’s story is a fantasy hailing from the same original themed collection, but this one (unlike Link’s) is full of a darkness, a broken world, that I’d expect from him. Used to the SF stories I’ve normally seen from him though, this was a nice change done just as well. (I really need to read Monstrous Affections it seems). I’d already also read the latter story by Alice Sola Kim in Tin House that was reprint in Monstrous Affections too, and it is equally superb, though grounded in realism.
I have MITs Technology Review fiction issue on my shelf to read, and experiencing Beukes’ story from it in Strahan’s anthology makes me more eager to get to it. I’d only read Beukes’ The Shining Girls prior (which I found over-rated, but okay). The hard sci fi from her in this story is superb, featuring competitive sports and artificial enhancements taken to the next level. The tech is interesting here, but the humanity and depth of her protagonist is even more astounding.
Among those opening six, Usman T. Malik is yet another that blew me away with its effective treatment of terrorism and violence from a large scale focused down to the personal human level. This one just won a Stoker Award, and understandably, it is perhaps more horror than SF – and I recognize Malik mostly from appearances in Nightmare Magazine. Malik has another really powerful story in the themed collection Truth or Dare, that I’m reviewing next up. If you haven’t checked out his fiction yet, try either of these recent reprints. A latter story by Nix previously read in Fearful Symmetries also is truly horror in genre, though also a great story. I remember it vaguely from reading prior, but I think I enjoyed it this second time round even more.
The vague disbelief that I was so thoroughly enjoying these relatively long stories without growing restless or annoyed that I couldn’t finish in a bus ride finally broke with the seventh story, Abercrombie’s adventure from the Rogues collection. I have no idea if this is the case, but it felt as though I was supposed to already know these characters from somewhere, and I found it difficult to get into. Ultimately the story just kept going and I was long past caring. Swanwick’s story later from the same collection had the same effect. Egan’s also felt as though it was just a part of something larger, not a tale of its own.
Valentine and Griffith have a pair of stories that have a sort of ephemeral fantasies that have a beauty in the language but a strong tinge of darkness in their plots and ambience. Fitting in to this kind of story, Amal El-Mohtar’s “The Truth About Owls” is one of my favorites from this anthology. She does an absolutely beautiful job relating the life of her protagonist with interludes about the biology/behavior of owls, with mythology, and with language. I read this one right before going to sleep one night and it made a fantastic bed time story.
Lastly, there were a few cases that surprised me, both negatively and positively. (Abercrombie was kind of one too given that I loved the only other thing of his I’ve read: Half a King.) First, the story by Wilson is on an important and relevant theme of racial issues, explored partially through a fantastic lens. I expected to adore it and be moved. Instead I found the structure and length to be an impediment. Second, Ellen Klages is represented with two stories here, I found this surprising, inexplicable. One would have sufficed and given room for something else. I didn’t find either bad, but neither impressed me to understand why both were here. Third, I really enjoyed Schroeder’s SF adventure. I haven’t liked a lot of his stuff in the past in Analog, but this is probably because they were mostly serials. Here it felt just right, and his strength in telling a good story with hard SF elements and a bit of optimism fit perfectly amid the other types of stories in the collection.
Any serious fan of SF/Fantasy should find things of joy here, and readers who don’t normally read the genre may find the novella lengths that mostly make this up to be perfect for dipping into some of the best authors in the fields. They vary from the simple entertainment to the literary, from the fantastic to the realistic. Although I’d read a decent number of those included in this before, almost all that I had (if not all) were ones that initially had really impressed me. (The only ones not already mentioned above are “Someday” from Asimov’s and Theodora Goss’ story, which is a fantastic achievement in making a compelling story out of something that reads like a nonfiction, a history.) I appreciated reading all these stories a second time, affirming to me that anthologies are useful even if you’ve read the fields somewhat well.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Solaris via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

DANGEROUS GAMES, Edited by Jonathan Oliver

21412123Dangerous Games
Edited by Jonathan Oliver
Solaris Books – 2nd December 2014
ISBN 9781781082683  – 320 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“Big Man”, by Chuck Wendig
“The Yellow Door”, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
“Die”, by Lavie Tidhar
“Chrysalises”, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“South Mountain”, by Paul Kearney
“The Game Changer”, by Libby McGugan
“Distinguishing Characteristics”, by Yoon Ha Lee
“Captain Zzapp!!! – Space Hero from 3000 AD”, by Gary Northfield (Comic)
“Death Pool”, by Melanie Tem
“The Bone Man’s Bride”, by Hillary Monahan
“Honourable Mention”, by Tade Thompson
“Loser”, by Rebecca Levene
“Two Sit Down, One Stands Up”, by Ivo Stourton
“Ready or Not”, by Gary McMahon
“The Monogamy of Wild Beasts”, by Robert Shearman
“The Stranger Cards”, by Nik Vincent
“All Things Fall Apart and Are Built Again”, by Helen Marshall
“Lefty Plays Bridge”, by Pat Cadigan

 Among the short story collections that I’ve read recently, Dangerous Games was unfortunately one that I enjoyed less. While certainly not a poor showing, I personally found most of the stories going in styles or directions that simply weren’t my favorite. This may be from the luck of the draw. I don’t love everything and in the game of collection readings there are going to be some that just don’t fit. It may also arise from the theme of the title, which limits the stories somewhat, where most fit into the description literally with characters in some dire scenario of competition. There is less here of internal struggle than one might find in a general collection or with another given theme.
“Big Man”, by Chuck Wendig opens the book with a story that was a superb choice for lead-off hitter. It sets the tone with a bit of darkness to accompany that ‘danger’ and presents a present day horror without flowery adornment with a very readable voice. It also introduces a common theme of making circumstances of the horror/fantasy open to reader interpretation.
While I enjoyed this start well enough the next series of stories made it more difficult for me to get into things. Lovecraftian stories (like Moreno-Garcia’s) elude me, perhaps I really just need to take the time and read some of his classic works. Lavie Tidhar is an author who I find hit or miss, and here the miss arises from a similar sense of the story not packing enough of a punch or depth despite well handled language; similarly, Sriduandkaew at times connects, but I often get lost in her dense word spinning web. This one (or duo of tales) just confused me despite reading twice.
This trend of the stories being okay but not really resonating with me in terms of the plot, action, or underlying theme continued through the comic by Northfield and beyond. I cannot comment at all on “Captain Zzapp…” at all. An eReader is simply useless to me for being able to resolve a comic’s panels or text.
Eventually I came to a pair of stories I really did adore, “Death Pool”, by Melanie Tem and “The Bone Man’s Bride”, by Hillary Monahan. These each had a strong sinister factor mixed with underlying themes/character psychology that connected with me, mental health in the case of addiction in the case of the former, and sacrifice/servitude in the latter. “Loser” which follows soon after had a similar dark tone with strong characterization to deal with a troubling subject that I found impressive.
“Two Sit Down, One Stands Up”, a spin on Russian Roulette, no pun intended 🙂 was the one more literal take on a game that kept me fully interested in as a tale, mostly because I was eager to see how it turned out. And as I enjoyed her Gifts for the One Who Comes After, I loved the mystique and mood of Helen Marshall’s story. However, while I loved the style and feel of the words on my brain, the plot left less of a mark as notable.
And that situation is somewhat emblematic of many of the other stories here, there may have been an elements that I enjoyed, but other aspects of the given work failed to engage me and that one aspect that hit just wasn’t strong enough to carry everything. In the end your reaction to this, like many collections will come down to personal preference and is harder to predict. But if the theme of Dangerous Games sounds interesting to you and you know a large chunk of these authors as ones you’ve liked before then it’s worth a try.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Solaris Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Solaris Rising 3, Edited by Ian Whates

Solaris Rising 3: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction,
Edited by Ian Whates
Publisher: Solaris
ISBN: 178108209X
448 pages, paperback
Published 14th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“When We Have Harvested the Nacre Rice”, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“The Goblin Hunter”, by Chris Beckett
“Homo Floresiensis”, by Ken Liu
“A Taste for Murder”, by Julia E. Czerneda
“Double Blind”, by Tony Ballantyne
“The Mashup”, by Sean Williams
“The Frost on Jade Buds”, by Aliette de Bodard
“Popular Images from the First Manned Mission to Enceladus”, by Alex Dally MacFarlane
“Red Lights, and Rain”, by Gareth L. Powell
“They Swim Through Sunset Seas”, by Laura Lam
“Faith Without Teeth”, by Ian Watson
“Thing and Sick”, by Adam Roberts
“The Sullen Engines”, by George Zebrowski
“Dark Harvest”, by Cat Sparks
“Fift and Shira”, by Benjamin Rosenbaum
“The Howl”, by Ian R. MacLeod & Martin Sketchley
“The Science of Chance”, by Nina Allen
“Endless”, by Rachel Swirsky

My thoughts on Solaris Rising 3 have been languishing for awhile now as a co-review was first planned for Skiffy & Fanty and then got delayed and didn’t end up happening. As I look back over the notes I had written and the skeleton of this review in correspondence with my colleague Cecily Kane I realize just how much I want to go back and read this un-themed collection again.

Yet, this is the first of the Solaris Rising series that I’ve had a chance to read, so I should probably go back and read the first two. It’s a testament to how enjoyable the stories are here in what is a stellar lineup of highly-regarded contributors that re-reading this again so soon feels like something warming and relaxing. Though there were a couple stories here that just didn’t work for me, it is probably still the best collection I read in 2014 for its sheer entertainment.

And my favorite stories in here were also quite a surprise to me. In his introduction, editor Whates comments on the opening line(s) of one story and how magnificent it is/they are. Though they are great I have to say that the opening lines of the collection, in Benjanun Sriduangaew’s “When We Harvested the Nacre-Rice” are far more stunning in its powerful flow and imagery. This ended up being my favorite story in the collection. I’d read a couple of other stories from the Hegemony universe and while I appreciated the poetic style and alien weirdness, they were a little dense; their vagueness left me feeling unmoored from the plot. With this, Sriduangaew’s writing fully connected with me.

Protagonists Pahayal and Etiesse are both delightfully rendered, complex mixtures of weakness and strength that draw forth reader empathy and disdain; their relationship is an echo of the larger issues of political control at the center of the story’s plot. Sriduangkaew handles the themes of dominance and submission, vulnerability and safety, trust and betrayal, creation and destruction with masterly control in scant pages.

I was likewise surprised to find the story I expected to love most in Solaris Rising 3, “Homo Floresiensis“, by Ken Liu to not resonate as strongly with me. Liu is one of my favorite authors and I would still call this story really good. But what I like about Liu is sort of what I like about a good film director like Kubrick or Hitchcock. He achieves a balance of great story, deeper meaning, and artistry in his creations. Liu’s story here is strong in he meaning department, and raises a big point about scientific advancement that I wish would crop up more often in the field. However, the structure of the story ends up making it feel like two separate entities of scenes that introduce and then scenes at the heart of the matter.

“Double Blind” by Tony Ballantyne, “The Mashup” by Sean Williams, “The Science of Chance” by Nina Allen, and “Thing and Sick” by Adam Roberts were all stories that I greatly enjoyed and each were science fiction mashups of sorts, whether taken literally (Williams’), with horror (Ballantyne’s and Robert’s) or  with mystery (Allen’s). These are all examples of a wide range of fine writing also across the board from light to subtly crafted to all out crazy.

“Thing and Sick” also represents one of a few stories in the collection that I quite liked for their approach to the concept of the alien “other”. A similar theme is taken up, at least in part, in the stories by Beckett, MacFarlane, Lam, Rosenbaum and the aforementioned Liu.

In some this ‘regard’ at the other makes the story a critique of colonial aspects. MacFarlane’s “Popular Images from the First Manned Mission to Enceladus” delves into such themes through the use of a non-traditional narrative that describes propaganda-esque posters through the eras of expedition to Saturn’s moon. I adored the ideas here, but the reading ended up being a bit on the drier side. Beckett tackles colonial issues head-on with a far more traditional plot. However I also found his story to be one of the most disturbing in the violence of its action and language against the other, in  this case aliens and female. It was sort of hard to figure out whether certain aspects were honest portrayals of very ugly characters and a commentary or something unintentionally offensive. Extremely well written and powerful, I loved it, but feel warning should be made for sensitive readers.

In “Thing and Sick” and in “They Swim Through Sunset Seas” the treatment of the alien ‘other’ was more focused on the psychology or biology of the nonhuman entity. I particularly found Lam’s story to be poignant and a great SF focus on biological science and the basic emotions that intelligent life forms may share for better or for worse. Rosenbaum’s “Fift & Shira” is simply an excellent biological speculation on gender and social structures in a non-human community. The story itself is not as enthralling as the ideas at play, but for me as a biologist I remained captivated nonetheless.

On the other end of the spectrum I personally found nothing to appreciate in  Zebrowski’s “The Sullen Engines” or in Watson’s “Faith without Teeth”. The remaining stories were good, but just haven’t stuck with me as strongly. Fans of the particular authors will surely appreciate the additions here. If you didn’t get a chance to pick this up back when it came out and are a fan of SF, I really recommend checking this out, particularly if you are someone that doesn’t normally read shorter works in the field. You may find your next favorite author.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Note: Thanks to Cecily Kane for some editing of my rambling thoughts on Benjanun Sriduangaew’s “When We Harvested the Nacre-Rice” that made it into this final post.

Blood Kin, by Steve Rasnic Tem

Blood Kin, by Steve Rasnic Tem
Publisher: Solaris
ASIN: B00INHMFKA
222 pages, Kindle Edition
Published February 2014
Source: NetGalley

I began this excited from the book’s description, eager to delve into a horror novel with rich, gothic mood. High expectations probably account somewhat for my overall feeling of being let down. I’ve come across Steve Rasnic Tem’s fiction through short stories, particularly those published in Asimov’s in the past years and seeing how his style fit into a longer form held my curiosity. To my mind his work is known for a heavy dose of darkness, occurrences that will not go well for characters, no bright futures.

“Blood Kin” fits into this thematic mode well, but the plot and overall divided structure of the novel creates some problems. I’m not talking about the division of plot into two point-of-view protagonists here. Both Michael, and his grandmother Sadie are compelling characters. The switch of narration between the ‘present day’ and Sadie’s past works well. The division that posed a problem for me is regarding the genre emphasis throughout the novel. The story opens with a strong sense of Southern Gothic realism, with perhaps a tint of the magical. After building some tension and increasing the fantastic elements of the story it ends in a stronger dose of horror. At least one other reviewer found this to be the case and preferred the first half of the novel. However, for the most part, my interest in the story lay stagnant until the last moments.

There are some notable exceptions to this. The start of the novel with its Southern gothic vibe and the element of the encroaching kudzu grabs your attention. About midway through there is a fantastic chapter detailing Sadie’s first exposure to the church and its snake handling. Between these moments and the close, however, I simply felt the story drift within a lot of potential, but going nowhere significant.

This would have made a fantastic novella, the aforementioned highlights of the novel could have been condensed into one and I think the story would have had a far greater impact overall. If you are a fan of Tem’s work, or if the plot description rings as something you tend to like then this is worth reading. I wish as a novel it would have had greater development or a more consistent focus on horror/fantasy.

Two Stars out of Five