This is my first encounter with the acclaimed Mammoth Book of Best New SF and I can see why its editor has won so many awards over the years. The stories selected here are of consistently high quality and offer a balanced collection of new and established writers.
On the downside, the content of issue 21 is dominated by white, male authors (25 men to 8 women) and you can see that in 2008, women writers and writers of colour were not getting the same level of attention as white, male writers. As far as I could tell (without looking everyone up) there are only two writers of colour included in this anthology! On a somewhat more positive note, the stories do feature a lot of female protagonists (16 of the 25 stories) which does at least suggest that male writers are starting to consider women as being worth writing about, which is something.
The standout story, for me, is Stephen Baxter’s Hugo nominated ‘Last Contact’. The tale consists mainly of an old woman tending to her garden while receiving visits from her daughter, a scientist who has had a hand in discovering the imminent arrival of ‘the big rip’, an atom-shredding event which heralds the end of the Universe as we know it. As the rip approaches and people try to prepare for the end, Earth begins to receive messages from other civilizations around the galaxy, messages they lack the ability to decode. The story taps directly into our fear of death and nothingness, and gets you thinking about all the things we do to avoid facing up to those fears. The ending is phenomenal – I think I cried for about an hour.
‘Tideline’ by Elizabeth Bear ran a close second. This wonderful story set at the end of a disastrous war is the tale of a damaged robot trying to create a memorial for her fallen human comrades before her batteries give out. The story asks questions about what we are doing when we try and memorialise the dead. As she combs a beach for materials, she finds herself shepherding the development of an orphan boy. The relationship between the child and the robot is beautifully drawn and although it brings tears to the eyes, the ending is also quite uplifting.
Nancy Kress’s ‘Laws of Survival’ is another standout piece. Aliens arrive on a devastated, post-apocalyptic future Earth, only to set up a series of strange, impenetrable domes and entirely ignore humanity. A woman eking out a life in a refugee camp finds herself drawn into one of the domes and a surprising situation. The aliens have no interest in humans because they are trying to cultivate a relationship with another of Earth’s species, namely, dogs. But they need someone to help them with training the animals. This disturbing story about survival questions the ego-centric idea that aliens would necessarily be interested in us and, in its tone, rather reminds me of Octavia E. Butler.
James Van Pelt’s ‘Of Late I Dreamed of Venus’ tells the story of an enormously wealthy businesswoman in the far future who sets out to terra form Venus and turn it into the planet of her dreams. Since this will take hundreds of years to achieve, she and her devoted assistant have to go into stasis for long periods of time, emerging at intervals to see how things are going. What I really liked about this story is that at the beginning it looks set to be your “science gone too far” story, but turns out to be something quite different. It has a good complex female protagonist too.
Those were probably my favourites, but I found the following stories very, very good.
Justin Stanchfield’s ‘Beyond the Wall’ is an eerie, atmospheric tale about a gigantic alien artefact found on Saturn’s frozen moon, Titan. A team of investigators enter the forbidden area of ‘the wall’ only to find themselves caught up in strange time distortions.
Alastair Reynolds’s story, ‘The Sledge Maker’s Daughter’, is set in a future in which the people of Earth, plunged into another ice age, have regressed into a medieval, feudal society. But then a young girl discovers that everything is not what it seems and finds herself gifted (or burdened) with a unexpected destiny. Reynolds has a lot of restraint as a writer, telling the reader just enough to fire the imagination without giving too much away. This one also features good female characters and great storytelling.
Vandana Singh’s ‘Of Love and Other Monsters’ is a beautifully written story about a damaged alien living among us who can connect people with one another telepathically, and who must make a choice about whether to ally with humans or the one last remaining member of its species, a creature who believes humans to be inferior. It’s a haunting tale about love, betrayal, communication and our ultimate aloneness.
‘Craters’ by Kristine Katherine Rusch is a post 9/11 story concerned with the role of the media in constructing narratives about terrorism. All around the world 5-year-old children are being deployed as bombs. Are the parents involved, as most people believe, or is there something else going on, something that is perhaps even worse? A journalist sets out to investigate but doesn’t find any easy answers – very grim, but powerful.
Robert Reed’s ‘Roxie’ has a similar theme to ‘Last Contact’. As an asteroid flies through our solar system on a probable collision course with Earth, the possibility of the end of the world is explored through the relationship between a man and his ageing pet dog. This is another story that considers the meaning of life in the face of inevitable death and does it very well.
I don’t usually do cyberpunk and I can’t say I understood everything in this story, but I really liked Pat Cadigan’s ‘Nothing Personal’, a SF procedural in which a tough cop investigating an unusual murder case finds that her fears are not what she thought they were. Excellent character writing and it’s nice to see a middle-aged, female protagonist.
Kage Baker’s ‘Hellfire at Twilight’ is pure fun. Sometime in the future, a powerful corporation with the power of time travel turns people into cyborgs and deploys them in various moments in history to find rare works of literature for high-paying buyers. In this story, a cyborg named Lewis is sent to find a copy of The Elysian Mysteries which is rumoured to be in the possession of Sir Francis Dashwood, an eighteenth-century libertine and founder of the infamous Hellfire Club. It’s a charming story that could form the basis for a series.
Una McCormack’s ‘Sea Change’ is a lesbian-themed tale set in a future in which the divide between the rich and poor has become even more extreme. Robert Silverberg’s accomplished ‘Against the Current’ gives us a man moving backwards through time and is the kind of story that might have once seen featured on The Twilight Zone. I also liked ‘Glory’ by Greg Egan, a story about scientists going to considerable lengths to solve a mystery. In tone it reminded me a little of Ursula K Le Guin. Ted Kosmatka’s ‘The Prophet of Flores’ was also good, but assumed a lot of knowledge about evolutionary theory and Palaeoarchaeology which, unfortunately, I do not have at this point in time.
Although I wasn’t sure about its representation of Islam, I liked David Moles’s ‘Finisterra’ for the image of huge space creatures that can carry entire civilizations on their backs. ‘Saving Tiamaat’ by Gwyneth Jones is another one that didn’t quite sit right with me for various reasons, but was interesting. ‘Brian Stableford’s’ ‘The Immortals of Atlantis’ was based on a great idea, but it was a bit ‘Daily Mail’ in its representation of a ‘feral’ British underclass!
There were other stories which I’m sure were good, but weren’t quite to my taste – I don’t really do cyberpunk or very hard science. I’m also way past the age of slogging through stories just for the sake of it, so if they don’t grab me after a few pages, I tend to skip them.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this anthology and I found several writers who I’d like to read more of. I’ll be looking out for the other twenty Mammoth Books of Best New SF.