Last year I reviewed a volume of best science fiction of the year edited by Gardner Dozois. There were good stories and mediocre stories, but overall it was a good read. This volume, however, was even more enjoyable. I think the inclusion of fantasy made the difference. I am generally opposed to genre divides, and I would be happiest if the so-called mainstream took science fiction and fantasy more seriously and the best short stories of the year could simply be the best, regardless of origin or content. This is wishful thinking on my part; the publishing world is not so idealistic. Categories must be devised, which seem rapidly to devolve into pigeonholes, molds, and storage compartments. Be that as it may, one has to take what one can find, and this book has many fine stories in it.
No best of the year collection really represents the best of the year, because best is a relative term. Probably the fairest thing to do would be to have a vote of readers, and that is the value of awards such as the Nebula and the Hugo. An anthology like this represents the best in the opinion of the editor, and we readers have to trust that the editor is widely read and has sampled at least most of whatever the field has to offer. Even so, many gems may have been excluded. There are several similar anthologies that come out every year, and their table of contents are quite diverse. A few stories overlap, but not many. In this anthology were absolutely sterling stories that leapt out of the pack, some so-so stories that were okay but not exceptional, and some stories that after reading I wondered what the editor was thinking and why they ended up among the other better ones. None of the stories were really bad, but one or two I had trouble finishing. However, that’s just the nature of the beast. I am not Jonathan Strahan and naturally would have chosen a different mix.
Four stories were absolutely stunning, with superb writing and fascinating subject matter. “The Sultan of the Clouds” by Geoffrey A. Landis is a hard science fiction story about a Venus whose atmosphere is replete with cities floating in the clouds. Not only does the writer manage to evoke a stunning sense of wonder but also sustains believability throughout. Considering he is a scientist at NASA currently studying Venus, he has a jump on the rest of us as far as raw data is concerned. “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window” by Rachel Swirsky, however, is pure fantasy. It begins at the protagonists death, and is told in stark scenes as she is called back from the dead to effect sorcery for those who call her. It’s a very original, well-told take on classic themes of magic and alternative societies. It won a well-deserved 2010 Nebula award for best novella. “Alone” by Robert Reed was one of the most far-out in a collection of far-out tales. A strange alien entity lives on the exterior of a massive intergalactic star ship, wandering by itself, exploring, trying to avoid contact with the diverse creatures it encounters. Eventually it goes inside, and encounters strange environments and cultures in its ongoing millennia-long quest. I didn’t so much like the ending; I felt it was a bit abrupt, but until the last few pages this long tale was so fascinating I was willing to put up with the less-than-satisfying conclusion. “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is a fantasy by Neil Gaiman. A strange small man searches for a fabled cave on an island, a cave in which vast treasure is supposed to be hidden. As he travels he discovers truths about himself, and in the end when he enters the cave he finds that acquisition of the treasure carries a fearful price.
These four stories alone are worth the price of the book, and there were a number of other stories which I greatly enjoyed but did not measure up to the quality of those four I have described. To sum up, I got what I expected. I didn’t expect every story to blow me away, but there were enough that did to make this book a great ride. Therefore, I recommend it. I will probably try Strahan’s best of the year again in the future because, as I said, I appreciate it that he includes fantasy as well as science fiction.