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Best Short Novels 2006
edited by Jonathan Strahan
Science Fiction Book Club, 573 pages

Best Short Novels 2006
Jonathan Strahan
Jonathan Strahan was born in Belfast and moved to perth in 1968. He is the co-founder of Eidolon: The Journal of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy and is currently the reviews editor of Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field. He lives in Perth, Western Australia, with his family.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Best Short Novels 2005
SF Site Review: The Locus Awards

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the Year's Best Fantasy 6 edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer.]

Continuing my discussion of best of the year anthologies, there are a couple of curious things to point up about Jonathan Strahan's Best Short Novels 2006. Actually there are three things worth noting, but the first is relatively trivial: the title. This is a collection of, in the main, novelettes, perhaps at a stretch the longest of the pieces here might have made it as half of one of the old Ace Doubles but they are not really short novels. While the length of the pieces allows a little more room for development than you get with a short story, most of them are structured more like an extended short story than a cut-down novel. It is also worth noting that, I think alone of all the current crop of best of the year anthologies, Strahan does not specify a genre in his title. In fact he doesn't even specify that the stories are generic, so presumably a short mainstream novel could be included at some point, though there are none here.

The other two general points I want to make before we get on to the actual stories are rather more significant. The first is that Strahan includes a page of acknowledgments thanking the people who have offered help and support and suggestions. Of the 19 people named, including his agent, editor and various publishers, no fewer than seven edit their own year's best anthologies. Now I don't expect the various rival editors to be in a state of undeclared warfare, but I still find this somewhat unsettling. Can we imagine conversations along the lines of: "I can't fit this one in, why don't you pick it up?" or "This isn't my sort of thing, but you might like it." Either way, one can be left wondering how much the contents of any of these anthologies reflects all and only what the editor believes is best.

That point is at least partially answered by my third and final general comment: Strahan is the only best of the year editor I've encountered recently who repeatedly and enthusiastically uses the word "best" when describing the stories he has picked. It is only when you notice the word cropping up for the sixth time in one short paragraph (overviewing the longer fiction in four magazines) in Strahan's introduction that you realise how little it is used by his rival editors. Aside from the engagingly eager response to the genre that this indicates, it also suggests an editor with a clear and personal understanding of what he is looking for as "best" in the genre. Coupled with the necessity to limit the number of stories (there are only nine pieces here in a book of nearly 600 pages, in contrast to, say, the 22 stories in Hartwell and Cramer's 354 pages), it means that this is not an anthology attempting to be all things to all people. One may not always agree with his choices (there are two stories here I wouldn't even have published let alone picked as best of the year, and another two I'd have great difficulty arguing should belong in such a volume, but I'll come to them later), but overall because of its limited range and clear focus, the book comes closer to feeling like it really does represent the best of the year than any of its over-inflated rivals.

Best, of course, is a very slippery term: better than the rest, but on what criteria, and how are the criteria to be judged? There can be no absolutes in this business, no matter how confidently we hand down our judgments, and it's always easier to be negative than positive. Nevertheless, while I would hesitate to say Strahan was wrong to select "The Gist Hunter" by Matthew Hughes and "Fishin' with Grandma Matchie" by Steven Erikson, I can't understand either choice. "The Gist Hunter" is poorly written, on a word choice and sentence structure level, and the story it tells is neither original enough nor entertaining enough for me to overlook these faults. It's an old story, coming down in the end to a magic duel, and is played rather crudely for laughs. Its main distinction is that it echoes something of the style of Jack Vance. Poor Jack Vance must be one of the most copied writers in science fiction, but then he did have the sort of overblown style that is easy to copy. (At least Neil Gaiman, in the Hartwell and Cramer collection, chose to take on the much more individual and difficult style of R.A. Lafferty, and did so with considerable aplomb; Hughes just makes a mess of the most obvious of Vance's stylistic quirks.)

As for Steven Erikson's story, it's one of those tall tales where ridiculous and impossible things are recounted without any sense of wonder, and it's all told in the over-excited voice of a child full of made up words and exaggerated comparisons. Page after page of this remorseless monotone is hard to take, and I confess that this is the only story in either of the best of the year anthologies that I could not force myself to finish. There may be wonders at the end of the story to justify its inclusion here, but I had lost the will to live long before I could reach that point.

The real tragedy is that Erikson's story is placed immediately after "Magic for Beginners" by Kelly Link, another story which uses the patterns and vocabulary of a child's voice, but the difference between them is the difference between childlike and infantile. I have said that it is now mandatory for any best of the year collection these days to include a Kelly Link story; "Magic for Beginners" is what justifies that status. It is one of those subtle fantasies that may not contain anything actually fantastic, indeed I think it might be best to read this as a story that tests the limits of realism. There is a cult pirate television show that obeys no schedules, and what happens in the world-library that is the setting for the show is indeed fantastical (and in the idiosyncratic episodes that are vouchsafed to us I detect homage to other mainstream fantasists such as Borges and Millhauser), but weird things on a television show don't necessarily count as real fantasy. And there is the fact that the recently killed star of the show may be talking to our central character, Jeremy, by telephone. But we have no reason to suppose that this is not in his mind, since we are also watching Jeremy grapple with the complexities of relationships, with his friends, with girls, with his parents.

If Link is a big name who earns her place here (and this is a far better choice as one of the best stories of the year than her "Monster" in the Hartwell and Cramer collection), I'm less convinced by Harry Turtledove. In the main I enjoy his alternate histories, but there are times when they have a plodding quality. "Audubon in Atlantis" is just such a plodder, partly because the whole story is in the title. In this universe Atlantis is a large island with unique wildlife, and it is visited by the noted wildlife painter John James Audubon -- and that's basically it. Along the way he makes observations which, if pursued, could lead to the early development of the theories of evolution and of continental drift, but they aren't pursued. Then he shoots and paints a native bird on the verge of extinction, end of story. It's skilfully done, but it lacks drama, plot, development; I kept wondering: what's the point?

On the other hand, "The Policeman's Daughter" by Wil McCarthy doesn't have too little plot, quite the contrary, there's almost too much going on here. It's a world where everything, including people, can be digitally reproduced, so people are effectively immortal ("immorbid", McCarthy calls it) and can have multiple copies of themselves from different periods of their lives. A lawyer represents a man who is in fear of being murdered by a different version of himself; but by a rather creaky plot twist, a younger version of the lawyer is representing the would-be murderer. Meanwhile there is rivalry over the love interest of the title. It's a cluttered story with all sorts of intertwining plot strands happening at a constant breakneck speed. McCarthy handles the potential chaos with considerable confidence, but there is still a persistent sense that the whole thing is on the point of collapse. This can be both exhilarating and exhausting, but in the end the exhilaration didn't quite carry me through the exhaustion. This was in part, I think, due to a sense that the mechanics of the story and the idea outweighed the humanity, any real human feeling was swamped by the inhuman extravagance of device and design.

I suspect that this wouldn't have mattered so much, and McCarthy's story might therefore have come across as better, if we hadn't already encountered Cory Doctorow's "Human Readable." This, too, is a story of human feeling in a digital future; not so far in the future or as extravagant of invention as McCarthy's story, but still basically exploring the same dilemma. Set principally in Washington DC in a very near future when computers are controlling more and more aspects of our daily lives, it concerns the debates about what legal and political limits could and should be placed on the technology. But Doctorow neatly puts this in the context of a love story between two people on opposite sides of the argument, so that the emotional and intellectual sides of the story work in balance.

Just as a love story serves to make the science fiction more accessible in Doctorow's story, another love story is used for a similar purpose in Connie Willis's fantasy, "Inside Job." This is the only overlap with Hartwell and Cramer's Year's Best Fantasy 6; there it stands out as easily the longest and clearly one of the best stories in the collection, here it seems rather less distinctive. This illustrates one of the abiding problems with such anthologies: the context within which we read a story can affect our reading of it. A competent story in an otherwise lacklustre anthology can look much better than it is; set the same story in brilliant company and it can look dull. Alongside the often rather po-faced tales picked by Hartwell and Cramer, Willis's piece is a vivacious light comedy; alongside the more varied and often more daring stories picked by Strahan, it seems more conventional and slightly less convincing. After all, "Inside Story" does what Willis has done many times before: it is the literary equivalent of the Hollywood screwball comedy. In this instance, a cynic who makes a living debunking the frauds who pose as psychics encounters someone who appears to be genuinely channelling H.L. Mencken, who was effectively the patron saint of cynics and debunkers. What follows is a comedy of doubt, which ends with Mencken having to prove that the woman channelling him is a fake in order to prove that he is genuine. It is light, funny, effective, though Willis does rather fudge the dilemma that gives the story its climax. Willis has gone this way before, often to better effect, but in the end I think light comedy does deserve its place among the year's best, and this is an excellent example of the type.

I am undecided whether "The Cosmology of the Wider World" by Jeffrey Ford really belongs in this company. It is well written, with occasional linguistic flights that work more often than they have a right to, and set-piece scenes that are terrific. But in the end it is a talking animals fantasy with animals given human characteristics, and such stories simply do not work for me. So I shall pass it over and move, at last, to the outright best story in this collection, a story which interestingly Strahan also labels "the best science fiction story of the year": "The Little Goddess" by Ian McDonald. This is a pendant to his award-winning novel River of Gods, set in a balkanised near-future India where past and future have collided with complex, devastating yet fascinating results. It is the story of a girl who begins life as the human embodiment of a god, drifts through various segments of society, but ends with a highly powerful AI embedded in her brain which makes her effectively a god. This trajectory allows McDonald to show, in vivid and colourful detail, the trajectory of India's social and cultural life. It is potent, convincing, challenging, an encounter with a future that is as bustling, dirty and contradictory as real life always is. This, undoubtedly, deserves to be hailed as one of the best stories of the year.

But the question still remains: how many best stories can a year produce? With the number of best of the year anthologies now around double figures, and most of them seeming to get fatter with each passing year, the number of stories singled out as being the "best" is now probably around 150+ (there are 31 alone in the Hartwell and Cramer and the Strahan anthologies reviewed here). Throw in the "Honourable Mentions" that both Dozois and Datlow, Link & Grant include and the number probably goes up to around 1,000. I have no idea how many short science fiction and fantasy stories are published in any year, but given how often we are told of the perilous state of the industry it cannot honestly be growing at the same rate that the number of bests are growing. Of course, any of us who read widely would have no difficulty finding a large number of good stories to laud; but if "best" is to mean anything at all it should be an accolade reserved only for the very few. That is not the case today. These are both moderately good reprint anthologies, but don't read them if you genuinely expect them to live up to their titles.

Copyright © 2006 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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