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21st Century Science Fiction
Ed. David Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Tor, $21.99 TPB, 572pp
Published: September 2014

This collection of short stories spotlights what the editors deem as the best SF published within this century.  Some of the authors are well-established, and some are new to the field. Many of the selected stories include winners and nominees of the SF field’s major awards.  Each story is accompanied by a note discussing where the story and author fit within the context of the field.

Overall, I found the theme of the book to be consistent.  I confess myself to be a Golden-age aficionado and less conversant with the newer themes including cyberpunk and stories using current mainstream ideas.  So, I have to admit that some of these stories made me flounder.  Others I found to be brilliant.

The ones that shone for me were:  “The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi is a very timely story challenging the worth of mainstream “news” that panders to the lowest common denominator where the internet both rules and determines what news we see.    John Scalzi did not disappoint with his “The Tale of the Wicked.”  This was a great story about an AI-controlled interstellar ship and what happens when two enemy ships start talking to one another.  Both the humans and the aliens discover they aren’t as much in control as they thought they were.  “Erosion” by Ian Creasey was a very short story with a big punch.  It examines the heart and motivations of a man who chose to be genetically altered to exist on a different planet.  He takes one last walk on earth to say goodbye.  It’s hard to anticipate how humans in a time of such technology will be reacting but I found him to be quite alien already.  I loved Elizabeth Bear’s “Tideline.”  Not a real original plot but so very well done.  An old, dying soldier encounters a youngster orphaned by the war.  The soldier regrets all the death and wants to make a memorial to her fallen comrades.  What makes this story stand out is the nature of the soldier and I won’t say more.  For originality, I pick Madeline Ashby’s “The Education of Junior Number 12.”  This was a thought-provoking story of AIs and a very different take on what might be their nature once they integrated into our society and….look like us.  Some uses are just so obvious as to be a stereotype.  Karl Schroeder contributed a fairly long piece that really needs a bigger venue.  The ideas he proposed of a virtual world blow away all other concepts and I actually read it twice to make sure I got it.

The ones that disturbed were:  “Infinities” by Vandana Singh. It touched on the hate wars that have plagued this century and disturbed my sleep that night. A love story by Rachel Swirsky was troubling in that it touched on a subject near to my heart – how will I be able to relate to my granddaughter and the world she will grow into.  There will be hurdles we can’t even yet imagine.  David Moles’ “Finisterra” was overly convoluted and while I can appreciate the message he was trying to send, the story didn’t really carry it for me.  The message is a little trite, too:  don’t kill creatures for profit.  Liz Williams offered up a disturbing, but not terribly original, piece called “Ikiryoh.”  Now, the title word, and the nature of the subject of the story, might be a familiar word in another culture but it was a word that I tripped over every time I read it.  This idea has been done before (Star Trek did it) but this was well-written and might be new to younger readers: it’s easy for someone to be good, noble and pure if their baser characteristics were simply…removed.  As usual, I do not understand Hannu Rajaniemi.  I think I am too old and reluctant to embrace all the new technology that is overpowering my comfortable world.  But this one was, at least, somewhat understandable.  I liked “Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal, not the least because of the title.  I’m a closet Planet of the Apes junkie (the old stuff) and this story felt familiar.  But it was really good, too. “Plotters and Shooters” by Kage Baker was a whole bunch of fanboy fun; don’t miss this one.

Others of note were:  “Rogue Farm” by Charles Stross which was fairly familiar with a weird twist that I didn’t fully ‘get.’  Marissa Lingen wrote a very short piece that examined the effect on an ordinary woman and her family when irresponsible researchers release a plague – a plague of memories.  The idea was fun but the story didn’t really grab me.   Paul Cornell had a very challenging story amusingly titled “One of Our Bastards Is Missing.”  The plot was actually familiar – political power plays within a royal family – but it was the world-building that got my attention.  Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s enough to hang a short-story on; it would have been better employed in a fuller piece.  The shortest story by Oliver Morton had a funny punchline (not intentionally, I suspect) but it seemed a lot of effort by the author for something I won’t remember tomorrow.  The very best thing about Daryl Gregory’s story “Second Person, Present Tense” is the title.  And I don’t mean that the story wasn’t good, it was; it’s just that you need to go back and consider the title after you read the story – then you’ll get it.

The worst one, for me, was “How To Become a Mars Overlord” by Catherynne Valente.  The title was tantalizing and I was hoping to be amused but, instead, I slogged through a ponderous sales pitch.

In terms of the most outlandish, out of our normal SF boundaries, I have to pick “Third Day Lights” by Alaya Dawn Johnson.  The multiple concepts kept me completely interested; mostly because it hinted, without completely telling everything, that mankind could become something quite alien without losing our physical appearance, or our desire to be loved.

Yoon Ha Lee seems to have an inflated opinion of herself and her ‘story’ is illustrative of that.  It’s not so much a story as bits out of an alien culture encyclopedia.  Amusing but not edifying.

The editors tried to save the best for last so I’ll place it here, as well.  “Chicken Little” by Cory Doctorow.  I’m torn on this one:  it is both unoriginal and intriguing.  This genre is so well-mined I’m of the opinion that there is nothing truly original left.  This was just a really nice rendition of “if we can control all the dumb monkeys on this planet (meaning us), we can make a fortune.”

Other contributing authors are: Neal Asher, M. Rickert, Tony Ballentyne, David D. Levine, Genevieve Valentine, Tobias S. Buckell, Ken Liu, Oliver Morten, Brenda Cooper, Ted Kosmatka, James L. Cambias, Peter Watts, and Jo Walton. ~~ Catherine Book

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