Opening The Best of SF 13, the collection of what are supposed to be the year’s best SF stories, as collected by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer reminded me of opening up a New Dimensions collection from the 70’s and finding it full of the worst kind of experimental New Wave trash.
Am I being unfair? Not really. Five of the stories are satires, or that’s what they’re being called anyway. The worst of the bunch is John Kessel’s The Last American, which is a long, pointless and awkward narrative supposedly retold by a cybernetic intelligence (to make it more awkward) about the last human American President, as composed by a long session at an ANSWER rally. This kind of lame shopworn radicalism, that dates more to 2003 than 2008, fills the volume. Terry Bisson’s Pirates of the Somali Coast is labeled a satire, though it’s an ugly and pointless non-SF narrative told in letters so well researched that apparently Bisson is under the impression that the Somali pirates are arabs.
Then there are not one, but two, badly translated stories. First up is Baby Doll by Johanna Sinisalo , another non-SF satire, about the sexualization of young girls, that beats the point home by page 2, but drags on endlessly until you want to throw up. After finishing Baby Doll I assumed that I had survived the worst that Best of SF 13 had to offer. I was wrong. There was still John Kessel coming up.
Then there are the trunk stories. Marc Laidlaw’s An Evening of Honest Peril, a trunk story from six years back that features a “realistic” retelling of a World of Warcraft type MMORPG battle is a childish piece of fanfic that might have had some justification for existing in 2003, but has none in 2008. But in a bid for relevance Hartwell and Cramer seem to have gathered up gamer centered stories, including Kage Baker’s mediocre Plotters and Shooters.
Mediocre is the best that can be said of most of the stories in Best of SF 13. There’s Kage Baker and Joy Fowler, who along with Terry Bisson, have the ability to get their grocery lists printed in Best of SF collections. Nancy Kress shows up with Endgame, yet another story of a scientist discovering a substance that’s meant to improve humanity but destroys the world instead. Stephen Baxter shows up with a story that even the intro can’t help but connect to an Arthur C. Clarke original. Then there’s Gregory Benford’s Reasons Not to Publish, a two pager which revisits the astoundingly original idea that the whole world is a simulation. Tony Ballantyne’s Third Person hangs around the same neighborhood, and it’s a Solaris leftover, which tells you just what to expect. The Bridge by Kathleen Ann Goonan is yet another hardboiled PI in a cyberpunk future coping with wacky techno shenanigans involving human identity. Then there’s Ken MacLeod’s Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359, a story whose most interesting feature is its title. If you haven’t read any Science Fiction in the last 20 years, these might be new to you.
There are a handful of good stories in The Best of SF 13, if you look hard enough, mainly Wolfe’s Memorae, which makes an unusual amount of sense for Wolfe, How Music Begins by James Van Pelt is a nice surprise, Greg Egan’s Induction is passable and more notably Ian McDonald’s Sanjeev and Robotwallah is the one real winner here. John Henry’s As You Know Bob is amusing, mainly because it’s an unintentional parody of the rest of the collection. It also sums up why Science Fiction is in so much trouble.
That and the fact that David G. Hartwell, a Tor senior editor, and Kathryn Cramer, a reviewer at the New York Review of Science Fiction, think the mess that is The Best of SF 13 actually represents the best of Science Fiction. I can only hope that this collection was the product of the old boysgirls network in SF and that Hartwell and Cramer were just playing favorites with their friends. Because the only alternative is that they genuinely think that The Last American or Pirates of the Somali Coast or An Evening’s Honest Peril or End Game really are the best that Science Fiction has to offer. And from two people in a key position to shape what printed Science Fiction actually looks like, that is a very scary thought. Scarier than anything in this volume.