I used to read a lot of science fiction back in the 1960s and 1970s. Among my favorite authors were Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Barry Malzberg, Ursula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree, Jr. I stopped reading the genre around the time that it took a quantum left field turn into Star Wars territory. I remember walking into a chain bookstore and finding that an entire wall of the store had been set aside for science fiction and fantasy, but there wasn’t anything I wanted to read. I never cared much for fantasy or space opera (with some exceptions), and the whole genre was given over to it.
"This sixth installment of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year is a panoramic view of the state of the genre, drawn from an extremely wide and diverse range of sources."
What fantasy/science fiction I have read in the intervening decades has been tapped with the horror tar brush, so I have been, shall we say, out of touch with the genre for some few decades now. So it is that THE BEST SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY OF THE YEAR: Volume Six, edited by Jonathan Strahan, contains a great number of authors who are award-winning in the field yet whose work I am encountering for the first time. My feeling with respect to anthologies of this nature is that, at least in part, they should provide an introduction to those who are looking to broaden their reading habits; this installment does that very well. By the time I finished reading it, my list of authors to check out was considerably swollen.
That is not to say that every author included in this generous collection was unknown to me. Neil Gaiman leads things off with “The Case of Death and Honey.” One expects nothing less than perfection from Gaiman, and true to form, he delivers in this short but riveting story that involves bees and immortality and combines science fiction and detective elements. Peter S. Beagle is also here; he has been writing fantasy since I was in short pants. I confess to never having been enamored with his work (his stories have won every award existing in the field, while Beagle himself has earned the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement, so I am obviouslyde minimis in this regard), but his “Underbridge” is a very solid story, set in the Seattle of here and now, though it brushes up against events weird and wonderful. There are others --- Michael Swanwick (“The Dala Horse”) and Cory Doctorow (“The Brave Little Toaster”) --- who have been around for a while and are admirably represented here.
Having said that, the width and breadth of subject matter in the stories is quite broad and deep indeed. One sees patterns here and there. Weaponry technology goes astray in “Malak” by Peter Watts and to a somewhat different extent in “The Choice” by Paul McAuley, where the discovery of a buried artifact creates a ripple of disaster that engulfs two boys on the cusp of manhood. Of course, mythological creatures in modern settings are represented, most notably in the somewhat predictable but still interesting “Younger Women” by Karen Joy Fowler, and Catherynne M. Valente’s “White Lines on a Green Field,” which features a high school football hero who is much more than he appears to be.
There are three stories that stood out for me. Please note that your results may, and probably will, vary. “Old Habits” by Nalo Hopkinson is told from the viewpoint of a ghost who is present in --- one hesitates to say “haunts” --- a Toronto shopping mall. Hopkinson made it onto my “check out” list with this story, by virtue of the fact that she infuses it with any number of short twists and turns that keep the reader moving ever forward. It is a definite new take on a well-traveled genre. “What We Found” by Geoff Ryman put me in the mind of Philip K. Dick; indeed, Ryman has the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award, as well as the James Tiptree Award and several others. His style differs markedly from Dick’s, but his subject matter does not; this story takes a different look at the Hawthorne effect from a very exotic but real-world setting. Then there is “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” by K.J. Parker. Set in a slightly alternative universe, this story combines elements of the fantasy and crime genres with music, intrigue, greed, jealousy and revenge. If there is a classification known as “fantasy noir,” this tale should be included within it.
This sixth installment of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year is a panoramic view of the state of the genre, drawn from an extremely wide and diverse range of sources. In his entertaining and informative introduction, Strahan finds the genre at this point to be healthy; I would concur, but add that my feeling is that it might be on the verge of another popular breakthrough, and not just by virtue of hunger games or avenging superheroes, either. Check out this volume and see if you agree.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 17, 2012