Book Review: 21st Century Science Fiction Edited by David G. Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden

This is a good anthology.  It’s an effort to showcase the work of science fiction and fantasy writers who have made their mark on the field since the beginning of the 21st century, and for the most part it succeeds.

That’s not to say that all the stories are good.  Some are excellent, some are fairly good, some are merely passable, some are not really stories at all but merely info-dumps of ideas, and a few – one in particular – was so boring that though I was loathe to skip ahead (I almost never skip parts of books) I was crying out inside as I read, “Make it stop!  Oh, please, make it stop!”

The overall impression I get from the collection, though, is that it’s a solid, well-thought-out presentation of representative stories.  I not only had some great reading experiences with some of the tales, but I was able to catch overall trends of what has interested speculative writers in the last decade or so.

The first story, “Infinities,” by Vandana Singh, is superlative.  First published in India, it tells the story of a mathematician obsessed with number theories who uses them to achieve entry into an alternate universe.  “The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi, which I had read before in another anthology, deals with the media obsession with non-news and contrived news, but it works because of the depth of the main characters.  “Erosion” by Ian Creasey tells of a crisis an augmented human goes through on Earth before his trip to a far interstellar colony. “Tideline” by Elizabeth Bear is the story of an unlikely relationship between a damaged war machine and a scavenging boy along a beach in a post apocalyptic world.  “Finisterra” by David Moles has unique, mind-boggling, and very cool alien life forms large enough for towns of humans and aliens to live on them flying high in the atmosphere on a giant planet.  These are just samples of some of the many absorbing stories in this extensive anthology.

The editors do a good job of introducing the authors and hinting at the themes of the stories without giving too much away in the introductions.

I think this type of collection is valuable, especially for libraries, to preserve stories that might otherwise lapse into obscurity after electronic or paper magazine distribution and to provide readers with a glimpse into the diversity of the wonderful world of science fiction.  I have libraries to thank for much of my early introduction to the science fiction field – and I was especially drawn to anthologies of shorter works.

I don’t think I’ve ever read an anthology of which all of the stories pleased me.  There were always some I liked more than others, some I was drawn to and would read over and over, and others that just didn’t connect with me.  Overall, though, I would say that this anthology as a whole works as an introduction to a number of important authors and a diverting piece of entertainment.  It hits more than it misses.  It was particularly valuable for me, as it was my first introduction to the work of many of these authors.  I admit that I tend to favor science fiction from back in the late sixties and early seventies – the so-called new wave era – as that is when I cut my teeth in the field both as a writer and as a reader.  It’s not just nostalgia, though.  I think there was a vibrancy back then that is missing in much of today’s work, a trend towards experimentation and expanding the limits of the genre.  I saw some daring work in this anthology, but not much.  It sticks mainly to classic themes.  That’s not a criticism, just an observation.  The field could stand some shaking up.  This anthology provides some tremors.  I’m waiting for the earthquake.

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