The Year's Best Science Fiction: Sixteenth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois

New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999; $17.95 tpb; 609 + lix pages

reviewed by Arthur D. Hlavaty

It would appear that the same thing has happened to Year's Best SF anthologies as to so much else in our culture: Where once there was a diversity of small enterprises, now the field is dominated by a single giant, operated by one of the major players in a neighboring area. Records have the Virgin Megastores; print has Murdoch everywhere you look; and sf has the Annual Monolith by the guy who gives you Asimov's every month.

It is the sheer size of this book that one immediately notices: over 600 trade paperback pages of fiction. One wonders how many years of the Good Old Days with four or five such anthologies to choose from offered that much Year's Best SF. And we could say that this is only half the field; worthy fantasy and horror stories used to be included in the sf collections, but now those genres have a yearly volume of their own, of comparable size. There has also been some looking askance at the fact that the editor of these volumes holds the same position with one of the major magazines. I can't see any way that this causes corruption and collusion, but it does leave one wondering just how few people are qualified to select short sf. These problems should not cause too much alarm; just as the megabookstores offer a much better shopping experience than might be concluded from much of the rhetoric about them, so this volume presents a variety of delights.

For instance, those who lament the loss of the great single-punch story, wondering if all the good ones have been told, might consider this book's opening tale, Greg Egan's Locus- and Hugo-winning "Oceanic," which in essence contains such a story in its theological theme, but weaves it together with odd biology and personal loss, to create a larger work of which the worst that can be said is that its author has been known to do even better. Perhaps the closest this volume offers to the traditional punchline story is Ursula K. Le Guin's hard-hitting "The Island of the Immortals."

One noticeable trend visible in this book is that the Shapers are beating the Mechs. That is, there is very little cyberspace, but biological themes are prevalent, from the "gengineered biowar macroforms" of Paul J. McAuley's "Sea Change with Monsters" and the cellular silly putty Tony Daniel calls "Grist" to the breakthrough in reproductive strategy reported in Robert Reed's "The Cuckoo's Boys" and the mutant strangeness in Liz Williams's "Voivodoi." These four stories are all admirably inventive and interestingly peopled, and at least the first two seem likely to be the bases of longer works.

There are also more traditional adventures and explorations of the physical world, likewise done with style, inventiveness, and an eye to the human aspects. Geoffrey A. Landis's "Approaching Perimelasma" is an exemplar of the scientific problem adventure, in this case a scientist sending a duplicate (echoes of Rogue Moon here) into the heart of a black hole, with theoretical knowledge and quick thinking needed to find the way out. In "Taklamakan" a couple of Bruce Sterling's street pioneer types find wonders and marvels in an Asian military complex. Ian McDonald's "The Days of Solomon Gursky" is a condensed novel, with a series of richly imagined, ever-expanding future societies. And Stephen Baxter's "Saddlepoint: Roughneck" conjures an opening up of the Moon that finds something new.

Two highlights of the book are stories that take up themes briefly suggested in works of mainstream fiction, finishing the jobs that their authors left undone. In "Divided by Infinity," Robert Charles Wilson more fully explores the alternate-life possibilities Vladimir Nabokov suggested in Despair, while Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" gives us a far more rounded and complete view of the kind of fourth-dimensionality Kurt Vonnegut said his Tralfamadorians would have. The brilliance with which Chiang handles the difficulties of discussing alternate approaches to time, while telling a human-interest story, make this one my choice for the year's best short-form work. Tanith Lee's "Jedella Ghost" and Gwyneth Jones's "La Cenerentola" take more familiar tales and add a speculative scientific element, skillfully enough to give us new stories, rather than simple translations of old ones.

And still, there's more. For instance, Cory Doctorow's "Craphound" is an amusing version of the Aliens-as-Tourists motif. "US" is Howard Waldrop in fine form, playing around with possibilities, in this case three alternate fates for the Lindbergh baby. "The Halfway House at the Heart of Darkness," by William Browning Spencer, may be the funniest story in the book, applying the paradigms of addiction and recovery to virtual reality. "Unborn Again," by Chris Lawson, is a chilling tale of a nasty new technological corruption.

The collection starts out strong, with the Egan, and finishes strong, with Ian R. MacLeod's "The Summer Isles." The booming Alternate History subgenre, like science fiction itself, can become simply a vehicle for Big Ideas, for imagined alternatives that the historians praise as Counterfactual History, and for amusing ironies of the famous and infamous recombined into new positions in somewhat familiar narratives. But going back to The Man in the High Castle, there is another tradition, the tale of an ordinary person caught up in the historical processes, and this is the sort of story MacLeod tells us. Griffin Brooke, the narrator, is very much the sort of fully rounded character Ursula Le Guin was calling for in "Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown," and the changed England he is on the margins of, while interesting in its own right, is background to his story.

As part of its effort to capture an entire year of sf between covers, the book leads off with "Summation: 1998," which discusses the area of shorter fiction as fully as the main body of the text excerpts it, with substantial analysis of magazines, original and reprint anthologies, and collections; most usefully, it provides ordering information for the many obscure, hard-to-find items discussed.

The introduction is less successful in summarizing other parts of the field, often resorting to undifferentiated copia. Novels are pretty much just listed, with a separate list of eight that Dozois particularly likes, and one-sentence summaries here and there. I suppose if one is going to give a thorough discussion of only one novel, it should be a worthy, but unusual example, one that might be missed in a superficial perusal of the field. Geoff Ryman's 253 is an excellent choice for this honor. The discussion of other areas—media, related nonfiction, critical publications, awards, necrology—is similarly brief and list-heavy. It is usually competent, though this volume, like earlier ones, gives the impression that NYRSF is the work of a single individual. The book concludes, as usual, with a list of over 300 works given the accolade of Honorable Mention. I do not know what percentage of published stories this represents, but it seems to resemble the pro basketball and hockey playoffs, where being out is more noteworthy than being in.

So the book is not, and cannot be, a year in a capsule. Still, there's no story in it that I'd like to rip out and fling aside. There are, of course, omissions, but the three that leap to my mind--Geoffrey Landis's "Snow," Bruce Sterling's "Maneki Neko," and Stephen Baxter's "The Twelfth Album"--are at least by writers already represented here. The book is imperfect, but it's a rich and varied selection of the best that is being done now.