Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 21, edited by Gardner Dozois (Part 1)

I don't normally buy anthologies but read a very good review of this one so I added it to my "to read" pile. It took a couple of years before I pulled it out, though; the occasion being a travelling-light holiday abroad for which I needed one book which would keep me entertained for the entire period. At over 700 pages of small print this proved to be more than adequate, and I only managed to get part way through it. So this is just the first instalment, covering eight of the thirty-two stories in the book; the rest will follow in due course.

I'm new to this series, so I was pleasantly surprised by the Summation which occupies the first fifty pages of the book. In this, the editor gives a detailed analysis of the SFF fiction market of the previous year (2007), discussing among other things the varying fortunes of short-story outlets, both paper and electronic. A fascinating insight into contemporary trends. Now for the stories:

Finisterra by David Moles. A far future in which humanity shares the galaxy with other intelligent races. A woman trained secretly as an engineer in a male-dominated society accepts an illegal but high-paying task on a strange world. It is a gas giant with a narrow zone within its atmosphere capable of supporting human life. In this float vast living islands up to 100 kilometres long, on which remanents of humanity have settled. But the islands have a greater value to some off-planet species. An original and memorable setting, complex and interesting characters and a gripping plot: what more could one ask for?

Lighting Out by Ken MacLeod. Another optimistic future in which humanity has spread to the stars, primarily threatened by artificial intelligences getting out of hand. A young woman is haunted by her mother who constantly sends virtual versions of herself to inveigle her into worthwhile activities. A grand plan for marketing some of the huge variety of new developments flooding back from the stars produces unexpected results.

An Ocean is a Snowflake, Four Billion Miles Away by John Barnes. Two rival documentary makers combine to produce a story on a Mars whose terraforming is about to be completed by breaking up a huge comet in such a way that the ice falls to the surface and creates oceans. But they have different priorities and not everything goes to plan.

Saving Tiamaat by Gwynth Jones. Human diplomats try to intervene in a devastating civil war between the humanoid masters and slaves of a distant planet. But the situation is more complex than had been imagined, and some unorthodox methods are required.

Of Late I Dreamt of Venus by James Van Pelt. The world's richest woman decides to sponsor the terraforming of Venus, but this will take so long that she decides to sleep for a thousand years, waking only occasionally to review progress. Society does not, however, stay unchanged.

Verthandi's Ring by Ian McDonald. A galactic war to the finish between humanity and an impenetrable alien race. Three warriors, used to being constantly switched between different virtual and actual bodies, win a significant victory but discover an alarming threat to humanity's survival.

Sea Change by Una McCormack. A near-future story on a smaller scale concerning two upper-class girls whose perfection was assured by genetic modifications, and how they relate to each other and to the rest of society.

The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small by Chris Roberson. Another change of pace and scene in an alternative history story which barely qualifies as SFF. A young functionary in a Chinese Empire is given the task of researching the distant land of Mexica in preparation for a planned invasion. He discovers that the best source of information is a political prisoner who has for decades resisted every attempt to make him cooperate; but his future is on the line.

In summary, a promising start. I was pleasantly surprised at the traditional and optimistic setting of so many of the stories, featuring a galaxy-spanning (or at least system-spanning) humanity. It will be interesting to see how many of the rest have similar themes.


WCG said...

Interesting, Tony. And mostly new authors, for me.

Did you have a particular favorite among these?

Anthony G Williams said...

So far, the first one appealed to me most. A rather traditional story in some ways, but none the worse for that!