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Book Review

Year's Best SF:

Eighth Annual Collection

Reviewed by Robert J. Sawyer

This review was first published in The Globe and Mail, Canada's National Newspaper in 1991.

Copyright © 1991 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved

The Year's Best Science Fiction, Eighth Annual Collection. Gardner Dozois, editor. St. Martin's Press, 624 pages. CDN$37.95, hardcover; $21.95 paperbound.

Gardner Dozois offers up 250,000 words, representing his picks for the best short science fiction of 1990.

Ten of the stories collected here originally appeared in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, which is also edited by Dozois. That's not completely vanity on his part. A goodly hunk of what appears in the other SF magazines are things Dozois himself has already rejected.

Still, it seems begrudging tokenism that Dozois found room for exactly one story apiece from the other genre mainstays, Amazing, Analog, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. To his credit, though, he does also dip into some obscure sources, including the anthology Alien Sex and the British magazine Interzone.

Dozois leads off with the novella "Mr. Boy," by James Patrick Kelly, the story of a 25-year-old anarchist who takes "stunting" treatments to keep his body that of a child. It's a gutsy choice for first-to-bat, typical of the kind of SF that those unfamiliar with the genre find unreadable, full of made-up vocabulary and fantastic devices that are hinted at rather than explained in detail. On the other hand, it's also arguably the best piece in the book.

At the other end, both on the SF spectrum and in physical placement, is the final offering, "The Hemingway Hoax," by Joe Haldeman, about a man whose attempt to forge a lost Hemingway novel attracts the attention of a cosmic time-police force. Taking his cue from Papa himself, Haldeman has spun a straightforward yarn, accessible to all.

Between the Kelly and the Haldeman are 23 other stories. Unfortunately, many aren't really SF in the traditional sense of being about the future, technological change, spaceflight, or non-human intelligences. Connie Willis's "Cibola" has no speculative element at all — it's a mainstream story about remembering to notice the beauty around us. Charles Sheffield's "A Braver Thing" likewise is a contemporary tale, unencumbered by SF elements, about a Nobel Prize winner's guilt.

Ted Chiang's "Tower of Babylon" is pure fantasy, about building a tower to reach up and touch the vault of heaven. Kate Wilhelm's offering, "And the Angels Sing," is also a fantasy, about an angel who drops into the life of a small-town newspaper editor.

Terry Bisson's "Bears Discover Fire" — about just what the title says — is more an American tall-tale than anything else. Lewis Shiner's "White City" is also a tall-tale, but with a technological rather than rustic bent, telling of an inventor's final wild project.

And Bruce Sterling's "We See Things Differently" didn't have to be SF; it's just a portrait of North American decadence as seen through Muslim eyes.

What about real SF? Well, there's Pat Murphy's haunting "Love and Sex Among the Invertebrates" (great title, eh?). Ironically, it begins with the line, "This has nothing to do with science," but it goes on to tell the startling story of robots learning to reproduce.

Ian R. MacLeod's "Past Magic" is strong medicine about cloning a dead daughter. Robert Silverberg's "Hot Sky" deals with iceberg finders in a world devastated by global warming. John Kessel's clever "Invaders" parallels an alien invasion of Earth with the Spanish conquest of Mexico. It's one of the best pieces here.

The gem of the collection, though, is "Learning to Be Me," by new Australian writer Greg Egan, a surprisingly poignant and terrifying story of jewels that replace human brains so that the owners can live forever. Egan is the only writer to have two stories in the collection. His other offering, "The Caress," deals with decadent crimes of the future.

Other writers present include John Brunner, Nancy Kress, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Michael Moorcock. The anthology is rounded out with Dozois's usual year-end summary.

It's interesting to note that Dozois's tastes are not a close match for those either of SF readers or SF writers. Of the 16 short-fiction works nominated for this year's Hugo, which is the SF people's choice award, Dozois has only six. And of the 19 short-fiction works nominated for the Nebula Award, given by SF writers, Dozois has just seven.

In one sense, it's great to see so many powerful stories gathered together. In another, though, it's sad that with so much room, Dozois was able to find so little that the traditional SF reader — the kind who grew up on Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein — would recognize as part of the genre.

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