Tangent Reviews

The Year's Best SF 3
edited by David Hartwell

from Tangent online #1

Some history. Once upon a time the designation "science fiction" was reserved for tales of space, the far future, or other worlds. Few stories, outside of the occasional Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon, were set in our here-and-now world. Science fiction flourished in what I like to call the "consensus future," a glittery world of spaceships, warpdrives, oddly-shaped aliens and giant computers little changed except in relative sophistication from the world of the 30s pulps. A true revolution occurred around the time of the 60s New Wave. Cynical writers no longer believed in this future, no longer wanted to be distanced from the mainstream. The quality of the sentence-by- sentence writing improved tremendously, but the sense-of wonder content that had driven an entire generation of sf writers and readers became secondary to exploring slight twists in our current world.

Pendulums always swing back. David Hartwell's notion of a best SF story appears to be one in which wonder is primary. And he has a lot to choose from, because we seem to be on the verge of a new consensus future, so that writers can take for granted that readers will understand when they are presented with stories in worlds casually dependent on genetic engineering, virtual reality, designer drugs, computer-aided everything. A small thing? No. To a writer, the ability to wander freely through an environment is an enormous advance over having to blaze a trail of exposition wherever the reader is to be lead. For a while, writers could only give us marvels to gawk at, golden and hollow. The more recent stories inhabit dense and rich worlds, and if the extrapolations are more ambiguous about the effect of technologies on people than in Campbell's era, they also are no longer bogged down in the mire of punk noir.

Though cyberpunk may at last be dead, the blurb writer hails this series as "a cybercopia of astonishing stories," officially marking the day when the overuse of the prefix "cyber-" became a hanging offence. Fortunately for you, the reader, the word choice on the inside is consistently a level higher.

Greg Egan's "Yeyuka" takes an Australian doctor to Africa, one of the few places in his world in which doctors are still needed for hands-on surgery, although medical marvels should have made them obsolete even there. The gulf between first world and third world and between rich and poor is becoming hackneyed territory in too many writers' glib parables. Egan avoids glibness through careful detail and a believably not-quite-noble protagonist, and allows his Africans to come up with a brutally effective and logical low-tech solution to their woes.

Another Greg, Benford, has been working the hard sf mines for decades. His "The Voice," in which reading is rediscovered, harks back to a classic Asimov tale. But Benford is even better at conveying the wonder of it all.

Two writers who have been leaders in spinning literate hard sf over the past two decades are well represented: Nancy Kress is delightfully arch in "Always True to Thee, in My Fashion," extrapolating a time when the seasonal designs include emotions as well as clothing. James Patrick Kelly, is equally extrapolative in "Itsy Bitsy Spider," naughtily reminding us Boomers that our dotages are fast approaching, and that we had best make our amends to the nuclear family units so many of us disdain.

Paul Levinson's series forensic detective Phil D'Amato takes on "The Mendelian Lamp Case," his longest and perhaps best. It explores the very meaning of technological advance by setting it in the world of the Amish, and making us remember that humans have done genetic engineering since the first animals and plants were domesticated.

"Beauty in the Night"is one of a number of stories that Robert Silverberg will wrap together in a new novel. His world is ours, but utterly changed by the conquest of Earth by unbeatable aliens. Living under total domination changes the people as well, some much more than others. Growing up under total domination may be even worse.

Silverberg's story is set in England, but is not half as English as those by several native sons. Kim Newman's "Great Western" is just that, but his gunplay is set in the west of an alternate-world England in yet another story series. "The Pipes of Pan" is set in Brian Stableford's future history, and explodes a logical solution to the problem of overpopulation in the most emotionally messy way. Michael Moorcock's "Bone London" mines British history quite literally, and will keep you out of the collectibles market for some time to come.

Humorous works form a closed-matched pair. Geoffrey A. Landis' "Turnover" gives us this classic opening: "The scientist's guild had a requirement that each accredited scientist must have a beautiful assistant to ask questions." Similarly, old pro Katherine MacLean's Analog fantasy[!] "Kiss Me"starts: "Denny's new girlfriend, Laury, was not interested in science; ... but she was pretty ... and happily listened to him explain what he was doing."

Old science fiction writers write. Period. Jack Williamson, the oldest of us all, talks of young boys and their dreams in "The Firefly Tree." Gene Wolfe does the same, from the other end of life, in "Petting Zoo." Ray Bradbury forsakes youth entirely and introduces us to "Mr. Pale" on a ship to Mars, where mankind may yet achieve immortality, if death doesn't intervene.

Tom Cool's "Universal Emulators" are rich people's doubles in a future in which the few employed are far too busy to have lives. The story is pleasantly twisty. Everybody works in Terry Bisson's "An Office Romance," trapped as they are in Mircoserf Office 6.9. But they'll always have Paris. [Which reminds me that Douglas Coupland's non-sf novel, Microserfs does a better job of showing today's world to be yesterday's sf future than anything done in sf. Worth a read.]

If this anthology has a flaw, it's that all the best stories are bunched in the very middle of the book. Too many of the opening pieces are slow and somewhat clunky. Michael Swanwick can't write badly, but he tries for brutal reality in "The Wisdom of Old Earth" without achieving the clarity of character that it demands. Hartwell asks about S. N. Dyer's "The Nostalginauts," "Who is to say it is not serious just because it reeks with attitude?" Volunteers may form a line to the right. John C. Wright presents the future as baroque encrustation in "Guest Law," but the mock courtly double-dealing has as little humanity as his characters.

Tom Purdom comes closest to scruffy noir futures in "Canary Land," a statement about the hopes and fears of immigrants to new worlds that never quite came together. R. Garcia y Robertson writes a fine adventure story in "Fair Verona," but I kept waiting for it to make a point that never came.

And then there's William Gibson, whose "Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City" ventures into the postmodern poetry of lists territory of a Stephen Millhauser, though descended from the Wallace Stevens poem by way of Robert Coover. The impeccably mainstream heritage is somehow a giveaway; the attack on conventional narrative feels oddly more dated than the traditionally told tales surrounding it. Coover (and Barthelme and Barth and the rest) may have opened narrative doors for me in college but I soon learned that they were also part of a long and mostly forgotten heritage of writers fighting the conventional notions of storytelling. Such writing is still very much among us, yet remains a cultist's taste, its resonance in any audience as random as a quantum event. Today, staring into our onrushing future, I would rather read sf about quanta and their events, and not worry about the past.

Copyright 1998 by Steve Carper

Back to the top of the review

Back to Science Fiction and Me
Back to Home Page