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WesternSFA
21st Century Science Fiction
edited by David Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Tor, $34.99, 572pp
Release Date: November 5, 2013

This mammoth anthology demonstrates that our current writers of science fiction can hold their own and do the genre proud. While I didn’t laugh very often, as most of the stories are on the somber side, I was variously captivated, charmed, and provoked by the stories herein, many of which won awards. If you want a good, beguiling, collection of stories to read as you travel, or as you enjoy an interval of down time, this is a powerhouse of cutting edge, international SF.

Here are a few highlights: “Strood”, by Neal Asher, is about aliens with a surprising agenda, the intent of which is almost lost in translation. (This is one of the few funny ones.) The remarkable “Eros, Philia, Agape”, by Rachel Swirsky, is a study of discovery as a robot chooses to reboot itself in order to come to love on its own terms. “The Nearest Thing”, by Genevieve Valentine, has a noirish quality and is reminiscent of Blade Runner, even though the setting is corporate research and development instead of urban underbelly.

“Erosion”, by Ian Creasey, one of the best written of all the stories, presents a future world in the wake of climate change and global warming, and an effort to colonize other planets that requires massive bioengineering to equip humans to survive their transplanting. I would think some of the trans-humans could just stay on Earth, being so tough and all; maybe that’s a side story. The descriptions of what it is like being a newly minted transhuman are riveting.

“The Calculus Plague” by Marissa Lingen sounds a warning about application technologies going viral. And these aren’t cute little cell-phone garnishes – these are bio-interface in-your-head false memories. This is a great story for sharing with a class or group, because it has so many discussion points.

“Tideline” by Elizabeth Bear was one of the big award winners, garnering the Hugo in 2008. It’s another of the superbly written stories: easy to read, visually stark and emotionally powerful. A crippled, sentient war machine is breaking down, but is determined to finish a self-appointed task.

“Finisterra” by David Moles is one of the most imaginative of all the stories, an adventure set in the upper atmosphere of a gas giant planet.

“Ikiryoh” by Liz Williams is a sort of inversion of the ‘deal with a demon’ trope. If I were to pick a single favorite, this would be my choice. This is also the one I’d like to make into a short movie.

The hands-down funniest story in the collection is “How to become a Mars Overlord” by Catherynne M. Valente. The title pretty much says it all. I’m not sure how this one missed being included in the recent Evil Overlord anthology; maybe it was written afterwards.

“The Prophet of Flores” is a tour-de-force by Ted Kosmatka, who probably read African Genesis at bedtime when he was six and had a subscription to Scientific American by age 8. The story is set in an alternate future history that has a lot in common with some of Heinlein’s grimmer stories. As the protagonist explores genetics and selective breeding in test species, he begins to wonder how God views humanity….

“Chicken Little” by Cory Doctorow is another short story with epic overtones that asks, among other questions, “What’s the survival advantage in being led by the nose by whichever witch doctor can come up with the best scare story?”

34 stories in all: humor, horror, dystopias, brave new worlds, sentient robots and super chimps, worlds lost and worlds found, and love in unlikely places. These are tales that change the reader; the writers have wrought well. – Chris R. Paige

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