Tag Archives: gord sellars

Reading The Immersion Book of SF, ed. Carmelo Rafala

Another review from Vector, in 2010. <hr>

The Immersion Book of SF, edited by Carmelo Rafala
(Immersion Press, 2010)

Immersion Press, according to its website, specialises in “limited-edition, single-author collections and short novels”. As The Immersion Book of SF is neither, one should perhaps regard it as a calling card, introducing the Press’s authors and laying out its wares. It is a mixed bag.
The majority of these stories feel as though they belong in the Eighties rather than in the 21st century. Chris Butler’s ‘Have Guitar, Will Travel’ is a prime example, with its faux-Gibsonian plot about the consequences of a rock star becoming infected with virus software. Although competently written, the story is unsurprising. Al Robertson’s ‘Golden’ is similarly predictable, its disillusioned salesman receiving tantalising hints of a world where humans have continued into space, its ‘surprise revelation’ heavily signalled. Both stories also suffer from a sense that the sf elements are window dressing for studies of emotional upheavals rather than integral to the story.
This feeling permeates the collection. Aliette de Bodard’s ‘Father’s Last Ride’, dealing with a daughter’s coming to terms with her father’s life as an “aurora rider” might as easily use a non-sf setting and occupation and achieve the same cathartic ending Jason Erik Lundberg’s ‘The Time Traveler’s Son’ is, like the de Bodard, a nicely observed mood piece and there were hints that it is moving beyond a merely evocative account of an mostly absent father with a taste for tall tales but it doesn’t fully realise its own premise.
‘Dolls’ by Colin P Davies and ‘Grave Robbers’ by Anne Stringer are very disappointing. Davies’s story, about child pageants taken to competitive absurdity, swirls aimlessly before ending in a desultory fashion. Stringer’s story is the weakest in the collection (although Eric James Stone’s ‘Bird-Dropping and Sunday’, a leaden fairy tale, runs it a close second). The idea of grave robbers uncovering alien artefacts is not new and Stringer does little to refresh it. Gareth Owens’s ‘Mango Dictionary and the Dragon Queen of Contract Evolution’ has the most ingenious title but, as with so many of these stories, there is no sense of anything beyond the conclusion and it feels more like a writing exercise than a fully-fledged story.
Gord Sellar’s ‘The Broken Pathway’ has flaws but he works hard to create a world beyond the story and sets up an intriguing clash of cultures, expressed through geomancy and cartography. Finally, Lavie Tidhar and Tanith Lee show how it should be done. Tidhar’s ‘Lode Stars’ skilfully packs a fully-realised space opera into twenty pages of story which is full of telling detail and wrong-foots the reader throughout. Lee’s ‘Tan’ is tiny and has an improbable premise involving dead aliens and a sun tan but works because of an unforgettable final image.
But these three stories are not enough to sustain the rest of the collection. The retro feel – even down to the cover picture with its pouting female astronaut, hair floating softly, breast-shaped bulges built into her spacesuit – seems neither intentional nor ironic and as such suggests that the Immersion Press view of science fiction will be traditional rather than innovative. This might not be a bad thing in itself but let it at least be good traditional storytelling rather than, as in so many instances here, something lack-lustre and unappealing.

Archive – The Year’s Best Science Fiction: 26th Annual Collection – Gardner Dozois, ed.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection
Gardner Dozois St Martin’s Griffin, 639pp, pb

After twenty-six years, Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction is not so much an anthology as an institution. Solid, reliable, it arrives punctually every year, offering over quarter of a million words of short story as well as Dozois’s summary of the year’s activities in science fiction publishing. Its arrival used to be an major event for me and I doubt I was the only one who used Dozois’s selections as a pointer for further reading. If Dozois’s word was not law precisely, his undeniable good taste in stories surely prompted readers to take a few risks in what they tackled.

Times change: there are now various annual ‘best of’ anthologies available, with each editor having his or her own take on what constitutes ‘best’ and, for that matter, what constitutes ‘science fiction’. For all the endless rehashing of the genre wars, not to mention what should and shouldn’t be part of the ‘canon’, that the sf ‘church’ is now such a broad one is in no small part thanks to Dozois’s generous promotion of the likes of Gene Wolfe, Joanna Russ and many others. So where does that leave his own Year’s Best anthology? Does anything, apart from its size and publishing longevity, continue to set this anthology apart? Looking at this year’s volume, it is a surprisingly difficult question to answer.

Not least on the agenda is what makes these thirty stories ‘best’? Nancy Kress’s ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ won the 2009 Hugo for Best Novella, but Elizabeth Bear, winner of the Best Novelette Award, is represented by a story co-authored with Sarah Monette, while Ted Chiang, winner of the Best Short Story, is not represented at all. On the other hand, a number of the Hugo-shortlisted stories do appear in this collection. Pick another award: how about the Nebulas? There’s very little correspondence between those shortlists and this anthology’s contents. Then again, there is very little correspondence between the Hugo and Nebula shortlists, period. I could slice and dice award shortlists all day long, but the fact remains that these are the stories Dozois considers to be the best he saw during 2008.

What strikes me is that they are mostly as solid and reliable as the anthology’s reputation. There are no bad stories here, but by the same token, there are few if any that actually excite me. Take Kress’s ‘The Erdmann Nexus’: this is a well-constructed story, as one would expect, with a neat idea at its heart. I like the fact that she engages with what it means to grow old and that her elderly characters are passionate, mindful, valuable people. Yet this story is just a little too long, teetering on the brink of sentimentality, and that’s typical of a number of stories here, from Maureen McHugh’s ‘Special Economics’ to Daryl Gregory’s ‘The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm’. As one begins reading, there is the sense of being pleasantly enveloped by the promise of a feel-good ending without being truly nourished on the way. By contrast, Ian McDonald’s ‘An Eligible Boy’, set in his future India, while it initially promises something similar, cheerfully wreaks havoc with the reader’s expectations. His other story included here, ‘The Tear’, although very different, is similarly rich in invention.

Invention, novelty (as in new rather than gimcrack): these are qualities which do seem to be lacking in this selection. I am mystified, for example, as to why Charles Coleman Finlay’s ‘The Political Prisoner’ seems to have attracted so much attention in the last year. It’s a study of wrongful imprisonment and endurance of the system, but it feels old and tired as a narrative conceit. And truly, I did not expect to see yet another alternate history featuring a Kennedy brother, but Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s ‘G-Men’ delivers just that. The ‘alternate history’ is little more than a convenient hook on which to hang a thin story of the murder of J Edgar Hoover.

Gord Sellars’ ‘Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moons’ Blues’ is a cleverer and wittier alternate history, examining the fate of the jazzmen who travelled on the Frogships, and I enjoyed it for his knowing reworkings of familiar technology. However, it still feels a little too slick for its own good, and goes down a little too easily. Indeed, the same could be said of many stories in the collection, from Bear’s and Monette’s ‘Boojum’ to James L. Cambias’s ‘Balancing Accounts’ with its robot ship making its way, earning its living. Where is the story that makes one want to rush out and buttonhole one’s friends, saying ‘read this’.

In truth, apart from the two by McDonald (who is anyway one of my favourite writers), there isn’t a story that really excites me. Few that stick firmly in the memory, to re-emerge days later. The anthology feels autumnal, retrospective, conservative and cautious (it seems significant somehow that only one story is drawn from an online magazine, Jay Lake’s wonderfully-titled ‘The Sky That Wraps The World Round, Past The Blue And Into the Black’, which first appeared in Clarkesworld, and which itself reflects on the past). The autumnal chill invades Dozois’s summation of the year, which makes sobering reading as he charts the ups and downs, mostly downs, of the sf industry. And perhaps that’s what this anthology is all about: Dozois’s response to recession, fuelling a desire for stories in which good always triumphs in the best possible way. As usual, Dozois’s generous spirit is shown to best advantage at the end of the collection, with eleven pages of ‘Honorable Mentions’, the Carrollian moment when everyone gets a prize. I’ve seen him mocked in the past for doing it, but it remains a big deal for a writer to be noticed, and part of what Dozois’s Year’s Best has always been about is noticing. I may disagree profoundly with him about the story selection this year, but he remains our witness to the ebb and flow of the genre and of the industry.