The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction

The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction - Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Stephen Baxter, Lucius Shepard, Ian R. MacLeod, Greg Bear, Connie Willis, John Crowley, Brian Stableford, Ted Chiang, William Sanders, Steven Utley, Molly Gloss, Tony Daniel, Robert Reed, David Marusek, Maureen F. McHugh, Greg Egan, Paul J. This is a collection of 36 stories ranging from 1981 to 2002 and purporting to represent the best shorts in science fiction in those years. A blurb on the back by GRR Martin says that "if a science fiction fan from 1984 chanced to stumble into a time warp and pop up in the here and now, and wanted to know what had been happening in his favorite genre in the last twenty years, all you'd need to do was hand him a copy of Gardner Dozois's Best of the Best." In a way, I'm that fan. I read a lot of science fiction in my childhood and early teens--mostly by writers of the Golden Age whose heyday had passed before I was born: Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke. Then I largely lost interest and instead my escapist drug of choice became fantasy. Maybe because by then science fiction had become less and less of an escape--more literary, less adventurous. Just recently I read a volume of short stories, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame filled with the classics of that Golden Age from 1929 to 1965. Several were already favorites and I recognized the names of all of the authors, almost all of whom I had read before. It's a very different case with the Dozois anthology. I had read--and recognized--few names: Nancy Kress, William Gibson, Robert Silverberg, Connie Willis, Joe Haldeman, Ursula Le Guin and Molly Gloss--who I knew from a Western she wrote. All the other names were new. And though I enjoyed and found many of the stories thought-provoking--and all were very well-written--I can't quite say I found any of them the equal of the best in the earlier anthology. There's no story here I'd put next to Asimov's "Nightfall" or Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon" in impact. And while I could say I loved all but a handful of the stories in the Golden Age anthology, I'd say that's true of perhaps only a bit more than a third here. And some stories I simply loathed--such as "Salvador," "The Pure Product," "Lobsters" or were a big huh? But that says less about the quality of the stories than my personal tastes--but it is why I rated this lower. Below are a dozen of my favorites in the order they appeared: 1) "Blood Music" by Greg Bear - reading this I was reminded how often there's a very thin line between science fiction and horror. A tale of nanotech that's truly gut-punch chilling. 2) "Trinity by Nancy Kress - I've read novels by Kress I've loved so no surprise to me she'd produce a story I'd find outstanding. This one about people trying to use science to tap God on the shoulder. 3) "Dinner in Audoghast" by Bruce Sterling - a story of prophecy and the ironies of history that lingered with me even days later. Reminiscent of the poem "Ozymandias." 4) "Kirinyaga" by Mike Resnick - this story about a "utopia" trying to recreate an old Kenyan culture--down to infanticide--is rather disturbing. Interesting especially after having recently read Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. 5) "Tales from the Venia Woods" by Robert Silverberg - a tale of a Rome that never fell in the modern age. A thought-provoking alternate history about the possible gains from an everlasting empire. 6) "Even the Queen" by Connie Willis - one of a bare handful of humorous tales in the book. There's something so pitch perfect about the way Willis plays with cultural fads and fashions in this gender-twisty tale. 7) "Mortimer Gray's History of Death" by Brian Stableford - I recently read C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy and am currently reading Joseph Campbell's Masks of God. I couldn't help but think of both works reading about this tale about the quest for immortality. 8) "Wang's Carpets" by Greg Egan - one of the few stories that really reminded me of one written in the Golden Age in the way it used science and provocative ideas that make you see the universe and what is human with new eyes. 9) "Coming of Age in Karhide" by Ursula K. Le Guin - a classic science fiction novel and a favorite book of mine is Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness about a planet whose people have no definitive gender, so it was interesting to read this tale set on that world. 10) "The Undiscovered" by William Sanders - an alternate history of William Shakespeare among the Cherokees; this was hysterical--the one story in the book that made me laugh out loud. 11) "The Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang - easily the most moving story in the book, it was both a great sci-fi tale of aliens and linguistics but also a poignant story of motherhood, love and loss. 12) "Daddy's World" by Walter Jon Williams - similar in theme to Marusek's "The Wedding Album," which was also excellent--but this left me just a bit more chilled to the bone. I've noted reading other reviews there seems no clear consensus about what are the best, or at least favorite stories. Something before reading this I thought might be a sign of weakness, but afterwards I took as a sign of strength. Everyone I think will find stories to love here--including the ones I hated. Another interesting thing struck me reading these and the Golden Age anthology--and rather reassuring. Science does have its fads, can be absurdly wrong, and science fiction writers aren't really great prognosticators. Which, given the doomsday scenarios both within these stories and trumpeted though contemporary popular media, is rather reassuring. This book is staying on my shelf. Perhaps someone other than Dozois might have picked stories from this era I might have loved more, but this is still an outstanding collection. Now if only I could find an anthology to fill in the years between 1965 and 1980 spanning the Golden Age and this later era.