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Mammoth Book Of Best New SF 21

01/10/2010. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

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The Mammoth Book Of Best New SF 21 edited by Garner Dozois. pub: Constable Robinson. 714 page enlarged paperback. Price: GBP 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84529-828-9.

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A new volume of the ‘Best New SF’ and at least our website gets a one word mention in the annual summation even as my boss reminds me, we probably get more monthly hits than the rest of the SF websites combined together. Ah well, ignoring us only makes us a stronger underdog. At least editor Gardner Dozois is more reticent about his contributions elsewhere than the multiple plugs Locus give themselves. No sour grapes. I’m just a good observer of product placement. If you want to know the state of affairs in Science Fiction last year though, you can get it all in one go with this opening section of the book, not to mention a lot of information in how to track down done a lot of the smaller publishers. It is good to hear book sales are up even if there are a disproportionate fewer number of bookshops around but then how many of us buy off the Net than shop for them these days? The only error I spotted was saying the BBC produced ‘Primeval’ when it was an ITV product.

It isn’t until a few stories in that I come across a story that is well written by Maureen F. McHugh called ‘Useless Things’ although saying that, I have to wonder why other than a few trappings it would be considered Science Fiction. It might just be me but a requisite for a story to fall into our genre is for it to be difficult to place in any other genre.

Saying that, the first real SF story here is ‘Crimes And Glory’ by Paul K. McAuley gets off to a good start even if without the references to her husband, his lead character comes over as a tad masculine. Oddly, the reality ends up being more interesting than the story and even at forty pages is a squeeze to get everything in. Essentially, a detective is tracking down a murderer who skips worlds and questions if she’s on the right side.

Although Albert E. Cowdrey’s ‘Paradiso Lost’ is essentially a first person past-tense space opera, it isn’t until half-way through this book that space travel is used at all. I’ve never believed SF to be solely about space travel per se, you would have thought that there might be more imaginative minds out there wondering what can be done with the medium next. Cowdrey’s story isn’t bad by the way even if there is still the tendency to use naval chains of command. I’d love to see someone use anything but naval terms in space one day.

James Van Pel’s ‘Solace’ is about the members of a hibernating crew revived every hundred years in rotation to do maintenance of their spacecraft. The emotional content works because we follow it through the eyes of Jane who deals with the hydroponics section amongst her duties and misses the plant noises from Earth. Things take a turn for the worse when one of the crew ends up staying awake for forty years to advert a disaster and so, of course, is much older than her. Nicely conceived addressing the problems of such trips.

Not sure if I agree with Nancy Kress in her story, Act One’, that powerful empaths make for better adjusted people simply because more demands are made on them by the people about them. I usually like Kress’ work but this one tends to steer away from her plot-thread about the dilemma of dwarves face at seeing themselves as an abnormality but normal losing its message somewhat.

The usually reliable Robert Reed’s story, ‘Before My Last Breath’ is bitty but I hope he considers expanding it into a full novel as there’s some great ideas here. A centuries old gravesite of stranded aliens is found and how its affect on the world.

Ian Creasey’s ‘Erosion’ tells of an enhanced human’s last days on Earth before heading off planet. In some respects, this story could be a lot stronger and play up on the emotional content more than it does but there are so few gems in this collection that this late into the book I’m settling for any glimmer.

The final story, ‘Vishnu At The Cat Circus’ by Ian McDonald, unlike all the other stories is actually taken from a book, ‘Cyberabad Days’, rather than a magazine and is practically a novella than a short story. Not that it isn’t a good story, dealing with the resurrection of some Indian gods in the future and how one of them copes with being the lesser of the three and tells his story wherever he goes. As it uses SF tropes it stays within our genre and McDonald really does get into the mindset.

Out of thirty-two stories I found I could only comment on eight of them and even with half of these didn’t think they were as good as they could be. To be fair to editor Dozois, there is a greater scatter amongst the various publishers this time than I’ve seen in the volumes over the past decade but it is a puzzle at the material itself where there is more style than strong ideas. Considering that two stories came from collections Dozois co-edited and even a few from the pro-publisher websites tends to suggest a real search for was made in 2009. However, if this was the best then I tend to think editors need to encourage better material or we’ll be living up to the summation and seeing few places for good writers to break out in the future. A story should always be considered first rather than just who writes it as being providence of quality and I’m all for good material. Let’s hope there’s a better selection from this year’s output.

GF Willmetts

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