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The Mammoth Book Of Best New SF 22 edited by Gardner Dozois

01/10/2009. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy The Mammoth Book Of Best New SF 22 in the USA - or Buy The Mammoth Book Of Best New SF 22 in the UK

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pub: Constable Robinson. 725 page enlarged paperback. Price: 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84529-930-9).

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Golly! We've got a mention in the year's summation this year. Granted it's only a begrudged two words which amounts to the SFCrowsnest name and website on page xxii compared to what other websites receive but it's better than nothing. As my boss says, maybe we'll get a full sentence next year.

There are thirty stories in this volume and it must have been a crap year for Analog as nothing from them hits this selection which must be tough for any author contributing to their magazine. I'm beginning to think that there should be a fairer system of choosing the best or is that just me?

Anyway, here's a selection of choices from this anthology I felt moved to comment on.

The first story, 'Turing's Apples', by Stephen Baxter illustrates the dangers of what happens if we actually intercept an extra-terrestrial message with shades of 'A For Andromeda' without the pretty girl. I like the idea of the story more than its execution, mostly because although Baxter hits the right points to make it an up-close personal story, there is a failing when it comes to emotional content. In some respects, it also fails to address modern realities that more than a couple people would be involved in any decision which tends to make it more archaic. As to the actual message. An examination of any extra-terrestrial message would have to be done carefully and certainly away from any networked computers. If it happens for real, I hope that would be regarded as standard practice.

Ian MacDonald's 'An Eligible Boy' is about forty years into our future or more precisely that of India, where the unmarried men out-number the unmarried women by over two to one. We follow the life of Jasbir as he uses a cyber-aid matchmaker to assist him to find a potential bride. MacDonald shows a researched aspect of life and family Indian style which is definitely not western culture although after reading and reflecting the plot certainly could be reworked that way. Even so, it's a stark reminder that population levels need to be concerned with keeping a more level ratio between the sexes. Certainly in some parts of the world this isn't happening anyway or they'll have a new form of birth control, all bridegrooms and no brides.

I tend to enjoy Robert Reed's work but 'Five Thrillers' here is rather fragmented as we follow the life of Joseph Carroway, a man re-enforced with synthetic genes by his wealthy parents who takes extreme solutions to solve problems. He thinks nothing of murder of anyone, either side, with any choice made as he works his way through his career where he finally takes on the Rebirth people who also have synthetic genes. If anything, the story needs more space of a novel than a short story.

Greg Bear's 'Crystal Nights' is hardcore Science Fiction where a financer using the most advanced computer processor as a means to evolve nanotech creatures. It's textbook (sic) in how progress and development goes in the real world but could have done with a sharper ending. Not taking Bear to task alone on this. Many writers are forgetting that what differentiates short stories from novels is that there isn't such a big need to taper off to an ending. A sharp ending in a short story will leave you thinking or even considering the consequences of what happens next.

'The Political Prisoner' by Charles Coleman Finlay is an interesting one. Maxim Nikomedes returns to his colony planet under arrest during the middle of a coup and we follow his life in, for want of a better word, a concentration camp with a mixture of humans and the local species, the Adareans. Then it's a matter of survival until the messages he's left his people get to them to locate and rescue him. There are similarities to WW2 situations here but it's an intense read.

In many respects, 'Special Economics' by Maureen F. McHugh, shares a similar problem in that the story wouldn't be out of place in mainstream. Set in China, we follow the lives of two girls working for a company that keeps them out of pocket and unable to leave and which makes an alternative electricity supply from electric eels. Ultimately, the story is more about slave labour than Science Fiction.

'Balancing Accounts' by James L. Cambias has an interesting premise where robotic AIs out-number humans in Saturn space. It's just a shame more story wasn't chucked at it in terms of doing something more eventful.

In some respects, Paul McAuley's 'City Of The Dead' feels more like a detailed precise for a novel than wholly a short story, mostly from it's slightly more past tense. That's not to say it isn't bad but the space of a novel would probably give it more room to breath. A female sheriff on a colony world containing alien artefacts has to rescue a friend when people come to take her claim. The SF dressing is such that it could easily be adjusted to mainstream without too many changes which is a shame because the reality itself is interesting.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch's 'G-Men' is a story that you're going to think twice about as the approach is so close to our reality that you need to check up just when and how FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover died as in this story he and his bodyguards are killed giving Bobby Kennedy as Attorney General a chance to get access to his incriminating files. Rusch plays with a loaded deck, knowing a lot of the answers and attitudes from the 60s in regard to feelings towards people who are gay and how low on the police profile for investigation combined with conspiracy. If Rusch is thinking of making a switch to mainstream then this story is a definite springboard. Oddly gripping.

Nancy Kress' 'The Erdmann Nexus' downplays the SF a lot as well. The focus is on an old people's home where various pensioners are apparently attacked by something metaphysical and we only get a hint of some alien creature approaching the Earth in the odd couple paragraphs of italic text. In a traditional SF tale, the scientists would be all over the shop here but the token elderly physicist is the only one with the clue that something extraordinary is going on. It doesn't mean it isn't readable and certainly one of the longest stories in the book but it does raise the question as to whether some authors or publishers are losing their way in SF.

"The Ray Gun: A Love Story" by James Alan Garner is, as the title suggests, a blend of two genres set over an extended period as a boy finds an alien gun believing he has to prepare to use it against an alien invasion. It then follows his life and loves with the usual twists. If it wasn't for the SF twist and the boy turned man was purely delusional, it would easily fall into mainstream.

Less so is Gord Sellar's 'Lester Young And The Jupiter's Moons' Blues' where mankind was introduced to aliens in the mid-1940s who have a fondness for entertainment, including jazz with an unusual twist, they like it fast. Very fast. Sellar's combines this with his jazz knowledge so he hits the right background knowledge which brings the story to life. Even so, the aliens are still not a species you really get to know.

You might have noticed a developing common theme and comment in that some of the stories are merging genres rather than being what we would normally call purely Science Fiction in that they would only work in our genre. This might not necessarily be a reflection on editor Gardner Dozois' choice as a lot of publishers are encouraging SF authors to mix genres in an attempt to attract readers past the image of aliens and spaceships that our genre has. Saying that, as books such as this is nominally addressed to the SF audience, then the balance is going somewhat the opposite direction.

Unusually, I didn't have any problem reading the book straight through, averaging about three stories a day. In previous years, I tended to have a break mid-book and read a novel. Whether this is because this was less of a heavy read or not will have to wait for each of you to decide. No doubt those who prefer a lighter read will find this its more attractive this year. For SF in general, though, the future of this manoeuvre will only be discovered by sales figures. In the meantime, have a look at this volume and you can decide.

GF Willmetts

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