Review: The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2014

The introduction to The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2014 (Rich Horton, ed.; Prime Books) gave me a terrible sinking feeling. It was the anthologist’s self-congratulatory talk about “diversity” that did it.

In the real world, when an employer trumpets its “diversity” you are usually being told that hiring on the basis of actual qualifications has been subordinated to good PR about the organization’s tenderness towards whatever designated-victim groups are in fashion this week, and can safely predict that you’ll be able to spot the diversity hires by their incompetence. Real fairness doesn’t preen itself; real fairness considers discrimination for as odious as discrimination against; real fairness is a high-minded indifference to anything except actual merit.

I read the anthologist’s happy-talk about the diversity of his authors as a floodlit warning that they had often been selected for reasons other than actual merit. Then, too, this appears to be the same Rich Horton who did such a poor job of selection in the Space Opera anthology. Accordingly, I resigned myself to having to read through a lot of fashionable crap.

In fact, there are a few pretty good stories in this anthology. But the quality is extremely uneven, the bad ones are pretty awful, and the middling ones are shot through with odd flaws.

James Patrick Kelly’s Soulcatcher is a tense, creepy little SF piece about psychological slavery and revenge. Not bad, but not great. It’s what I think of as read-once; clever enough to be rewarding the first time, not enough depth to warrant reconsideration or rereading.

Angelica Gorodischer’s Trafalgar and Josefina plunges right into awful. There’s actually a decent secondary-world story in here struggling to get out, but the framing narrative is both teeth-jarring and superfluous. Yes, you guessed it – a diversity hire, translated from Spanish.

Tom Purdom’s A Stranger from a Foreign Ship is a welcome surprise; Purdom is a fine writer from whom we’ve heard far too little in recent decades. He gives us a noirish tale of a man with an oddly limited superpower.

Theodora Goss’s Blanchefleur is an otherwise appealing fantasy seriously marred by the author’s determined refusal to maintain internal consistency in the secondary world. Yes, standards are lower for this in fantasy than SF, but really…medieval-technology villages and taking animals and dragons coexisting with electricity and motorcars, on Earth, and nobody notices? FAIL.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Effigy Nights is a weird tale of warfare in a world (apparently) so saturated with smart matter that symbols can take on real life. Either that or it’s a particularly annoying science fantasy. It’s a flaw that the author dropped so few clues that I couldn’t tell whether its universe is an SF one or not.

Maria Dahvana Headley’s Such & Such Said to So & So is an urban fantasy featuring cocktails come to life that wants to be hip and edgy but achieves excessively cute and nigh-unreadable instead. I had to struggle to finish it.

Robert Reed’s Grizzled Veterans of Many and Much is a hard look at the implications of a technology that can trade the last years of a fading life for a few days of turbocharged superintelligence. This really is edgy, and one of the better efforts in this collection.

Geoff Ryman’s Rosary and Goldenstar is an alternate-history romance in which Dr. John Dee and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern conspire to turn William Shakespeare into an SF writer. Arcane historical references to the Renaissance ferment in astronomy add value for those equipped to decode them, with language-translation humor as a bonus. Alas, this never really rises above being a clever stunt.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s The Bees Her Heart, The Hive Her Belly is a tale of the strange turns familial love can take in a world of pervasive smart matter and mutable identities. It takes some work to keep up with what the author is doing, but the effort is rewarded. This goes beyond a read-once; in fact, it may take a second reading to absorb all the implications.

K. J. Parker’s The Dragonslayer of Merebarton does an interesting turn on the knight-vs.-dragon scenario of popular folklore by treating it absolutely straight as a problem in tactics and mechanics. Technology-of-magic without the magic…

Lavie Tidhar’s The Oracle is a well written narrative of the emergence of nonhuman intelligence, but has no real surprises in it if you understand genetic programming and have read other SF about fast-takeoff singularities.

E. Lily Yu’s Loss, with Chalk Diagrams is atmospheric but pointless. It wastes its SFnal premise (brains can be rewired to remove traumatic memories) on a mere character study. There’s no conceptual breakthrough here, just a rehash of tired pseudo-profundities we’ve seen far too many times in literary fiction.

C.S.E. Cooney’s Martyr’s Gem considers love, obsession, status, and revenge in the context of a society not quite like any that has ever been real, but imagined in lovely and convincing detail. This is fine worldbuilding even if none of the pieces are made of any technology but magic, and better SF in its way than several of the stories full of SF stage furniture elsewhere in this volume.

Alaya Dawn Johnson’s They Shall Salt The Earth With Seeds of Glass is another waste of a potentially interesting premise on a mere character study. If this were proper SF we would learn what motivates the glassmen and, perhaps, how they can be defeated.

Jedediah Berry’s A Window or a Small Box is trying to be surrealistic. I think. I found it pointless, unreadable garbage – so bad I found it too offensive to finish.

Carrie Vaughn’s Game of Chance argues that the ability to change history is best exercised in small, humble steps. Competently written, but there is nothing here one can’t see coming once the premise and characters have been introduced.

Erik Amundsen’s Live Arcade is another case of too much cleverness and wordage being expended on too slight a premise – characters in a video game are more than they appear. While reading, I wanted to like this story more than its big reveal turned out to deserve. Alas.

Madeline Ashby’s Social Services is creepy but less slight. In a world of ubiquitous surveillance and paternalistic social services, how dies a child stay off the grid? The creepiness is mainly in the ending; one gets the feeling the viewpoint character may be disposable.

Alex Dally McFarlane’s Found examines what might make life worth living in failing asteroid colonies – and what might end it. It makes its point – that being forced out of the only ecological niche for which one is actually adapted is a tragedy even when it’s required for survival – in a particularly haunting way.

Ken Liu’s A Brief History of the Transpacific Tunnel is an excellent examination of an alternate history better than our own, changed by a vast engineering work. It is also about guilt and remembrance and how crimes come to light. Thankfully, the author had the good judgment not to let the psychological elements crowd the SF story values offstage, avoiding a mistake all too common in this collection.

E. Lily Yu’s Ilse, Who Saw Clearly is a lovely allegorical fantasy about how quests can become larger than one intended. This one deserves to be remembered.

Harry Turtledove’s It’s the End Of The World As We Know It, and We Feel Fine looks as whimsical as its title, but there’s a serious SFnal point about the wages of (non)-domestication inside it. I think his future would actually be a nightmare of gentled humans being systematically abused by throwbacks, but – perhaps this is the world we already live in…

Krista Hoeppner Leany’s Killing Curses: A Caught-Heart Quest is not terrible, but by trying so hard to avert any recognizable fantasy tropes it becomes over-clever and unengaging.

Peter Watts’s Firebrand could be a lesson to all the authors of muddled, pointless, defective science fiction in this anthology about how to do it right. A disturbingly plausible premise about human spontaneous combustion is pursued with inexorable logic and dark humor.

Maureen McHugh’s The Memory Book is a dark, well-executed fantasy about Victorian voodoo. At best a read-once, alas.

Howard Waldrop’s The Dead Sea-bottom Scrolls is an entertaining but slight tale of windsailing on an alternate Mars that really had Martians. Aside from raising a mild chuckle I didn’t really see a point here.

Karin Tidbeck’s A Fine Show on the Abyssal Plain is another dark fantasy about the collapse of the fourth wall around a very strange theatrical troupe. Another well-written read-once.

Linda Nagata’s Out in the Dark is much more substantial. It incorporates some speculative technologies we’ve seen before in SF for body modification and self-duplication with a suggestion that some of their more troubling implications might be treated as crimes against unitary personhood that need to be policed against. But that’s a model that could, under some circumstances, produce injustices – and what’s an honest cop to do?

Naim Kabir’s On the Origin of Song is a wildly inventive fantasy full of vivid, almost Vancian imagery. One could milk a novel, and a lesser writer might have milked several, out of this setting.

Tang Fei’s Call Girl is yet another over-clever cloud of nothing much. The only way the story makes any sense at all is if all the characters are embedded in a giant VR after the fashion of the Matrix movies, but if this is so no interesting consequences are ever drawn from it.

Christopher Barzak’s Paranormal Romance isn’t even clever. It tries to be cute, but you can see every plot twist coming a mile off. Yeah, of course the witch’s blind date is a werewolf, etc weary cetera. Yawn.

Yugimi Okawa’s Town’s End is a fantasy premised on creatures of Japanese mythology needing a dating service to find men. A transparent and sad allegory of Japan’s dire demographic situation, but lovely and a bit haunting nevertheless.

Ian R. MacLeod’s The Discovered Country looks like a political allegory of an angry man determined to destroy the virtual paradise of the post-mortal idle rich, but it has a sting in its tail: when reality is virtual you may not even be able to trust your own memories.

Alan DeNiro’s The Wildfires of Antarctica is a middling amount of sound and fury about nothing much. Sophont art turns on the dissipated patron that bought it…boring and obvious.

Eleanor Arnason’s Kormak the Lucky finishes the anthology strong with a steampunkish take on Norse and Irish mythology.

If I believed the title of this anthology, I’d have to think the SF field was in desperate shape and fantasy barely better off. There are maybe five of the SF stories that will be worth remembering in a decade, and at best a few more of the fantasies. The rest is like wallpaper – busy, clever, and flat – except for the few pieces that are actively bad.

I’d ask what the anthologist was thinking, but since I’ve seen the author list on one of his other anthologies I don’t have to guess. For truth in advertising, this should probably have been titled “Rich Horton Recruits Mainly From His Usual Pool of Writers There Are Good Reasons I’ve Never Heard Of”. And far too many of them are second-raters who, if they ever knew how to write a decent F/SF story, have given that up to perform bad imitations of literary fiction.

In SF all the writing skill in the world avails you naught unless you have an idea to wrap your plot and characters around. In fantasy you need to be able to reach in and back to the roots of folklore and myth. Without these qualities at the center an F/SF story is just a brittle, glossy surface over nothing. Way too many of these stories were superficial cleverness over vacuum.

14 thoughts on “Review: The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2014

  1. The mention of Peter Watts reminds me that I need to read his other books, of which I’ve only read Blindsight. You might enjoy that one.

    Where does one go for good SF short stories, these days? My understanding is that there used to be magazines of the stuff, with the operative words being “used to.” Yes, I can google, but I don’t think google (or crowdsourced reviewers of anthologies like this one, e.g. amazon) will know the difference between good stories and bad stories.

  2. So how close to validating Stugeon’s Law are you? And do you consider the 90% of reading time wasted on crap to be nevertheless worthwhile somehow?

  3. @A: “My understanding is that there used to be magazines of the stuff, with the operative words being “used to.”

    There still are. Analog still exists, as does Isaac Asimov’s SF Magazine, from Dell Publications.
    (http://www.analogsf.com/2014_09/index.shtml and http://www.asimovs.com/2014_08/index.shtml)

    The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction still exists, edited and published by St, Martin’s Press editor Gordon Van Gelder, who bough the title from former owners Mercury Press. (http://www.sfsite.com/fsf/)

    Amazing Stories has revived, under the editorship of Steve Davidson, and is trying to bootstrap itself into a regular publication as a labor of love by fans. (http://amazingstoriesmag.com/)

    Horror and dark fantasy are the stuff of Weird Tales, acquired a while back by fantasy writer Marvin Kaye and partner, from John Betancourt at Wildside Press. (http://weirdtalesmagazine.com/)

    There are other markets as well, like Hildy Silverman’s Space and Time Magazine (http://spaceandtimemagazine.com/wp/), Neil Clarke’s Clarksworld (http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/), and Lightspeed Magazine (http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/)

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so I can’t say whether what they publish will be “good” by your standards, but these are generally professionally produced and edited by people who know quality work.

    The problem is that the market for short fiction has increasingly shifted to the web. Recent Best Short Story Hugo Award nominees have large numbers of authors I’ve never heard of published in markets I’ve never heard of.

  4. There were never magazines full of good SF stories, as Sturgeon’s Law assures us; there are still magazines, though. Your only hope for finding good SF stories consitently is to find an opinionated person whose opinions on the subject you generally agree with, and follow them. That person used to have to be an editor or a reviewer for a major periodical in the general case, but SF has always had reviewzines, and of course the whole Internet is basically one big zine from this perspective.

  5. Linda Nagata is one of my favorite scifi authors. She got the rights to her back catalog that has been out of print back a few years ago and has re-issued her amazing Nanotech Succession series (and others) as e-books and print. And she’s a programmer, geek and all around nice lady (know her from twitter only, but lots of 140 char back and forth).

  6. >So how close to validating Stugeon’s Law are you?

    Oh, I think I’ve validated it quite thoroughly. I’m just disappointed at so high a crud percentage in something billed as “best of”.

    >And do you consider the 90% of reading time wasted on crap to be nevertheless worthwhile somehow?

    Somebody’s gotta stick up for good old fashioned sensawunda in public. If it takes wading through crap to establish my position to do that, I’ll pay that price.

  7. >The mention of Peter Watts reminds me that I need to read his other books, of which I’ve only read Blindsight. You might enjoy that one.

    Did. And argued with Watts about it. In consequence, we’re acquainted.

  8. I haven’t run the numbers, but it looks as though the authors who may
    have been picked for diversity produced at least as good stories as those
    who weren’t. Admittedly, you simply said that Horton didn’t seem to have a
    way to make the book look attractive.

    Your description reminds me of what a friend said about Ace Doubles– they
    looked as though they were edited by an editor with no taste. Not bad
    taste, but no apparent editorial preference or standards at all. (In both
    cases, the worst was presumably eliminated.

  9. If you are interested, esr, we should be pleased to send you several books we recently published by John C. Wright and Tom Kratman, as well as a new novella that is presently forthcoming. Three are proper SF, one is high fantasy, and there is every reason to believe you will find they more than meet even the most exacting standards of the genre.

    Castalia House was set up specifically to address the problems you have identified here, namely, the elevation of prose style, political correctness, and diversity checkboxes over ideas, folklore, myth, and addressing the human condition. Based on the Amazon reviews, it would appear that we have been moderately successful in that regard.

    You have only to drop us an email and we will send you the books.

  10. Dozois said nothing about SFWA in the 2014 edition, but I’m expecting he won’t be able to ignore it next year.

  11. real fairness considers discrimination for as odious as discrimination against

    Indeed, since “discrimination for”, while not motivated by a dislike (and thus something people tend to intuitively view more positively – and maybe this is not entirely wrong) nevertheless axiomatically means “discrimination against every other”.

  12. CH: “we should be pleased to send you several books we recently published by John C. Wright”

    This is probably worthwhile. I loved his Golden Age.

  13. (I’m posting way late.)

    “They Shall Salt The Earth With Seeds of Glass” strikes me as not a character study, but pretty heavy-handed message fic. The only thing not heavy-handed about it is the fact that we’re sort of sympathetic to the young, eager American soldi– er, I mean “glassman”. There is even a giant pipeline in the middle of the story, which carries something the oppressed Musli– er, I mean “humans” — don’t understand but which is important to the glassmen.

    (A secondary message is found in the abortion element – naturally, the Amer– glassmen disapprove of it, but it’s absolutely necessary.)

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