Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Review of "Twenty-First Century Science Fiction"

Edited by David G. Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Tor hb, 576pp, $34.99

A shorter (and probably better) version of this review originally appeared in Interzone 249

Is it too early for an anthology called Twenty-First Century Science Fiction? Maybe not. Maybe there's already not that much science fiction left, or that much century. At any rate, Twenty-First Century Science Fiction assembles thirty-four stories from the last thirteen odd years. It showcases the fiction of this period, but it also showcases the authors, insofar as “nobody in this book came to wide notice before 2000” (p. 9).

One drawback of that selection criterion is that the editors are less free to include authors who should have come to wide notice, but for one reason or other have not. The anthology conveys that faint, inexpugnable belligerence of a definitive textbook, positioned somewhere between “here’s the state of the art, by its acknowledged masters” and “here’s the next big thing.”

Stories do range from quite good to extremely good. They’re nicely sequenced too (though maybe only easily baffled reviewers really read start-to-finish).

I’m less wild about the editorial meta-text. We get a terse preface, mostly just to say hi (hai!). Then each story gets its own little fanfare: a few bars of bio, followed by a parp of hype. These intros are smart and speckled with clarity and titbits, but they’re fairly spoilerish. Without quite divulging any endings, they manage to upset some of the more delicate calibrations of pacing and expectation. For instance, they may give away the middle, or hint at what kind of ending to expect, or what the ending won’t be, or reveal that there will be a reveal.

When an author has deliberately arranged a dissembling arras, and now strains with all their might not to glance over in its direction, what’s with the two esteemed editors leaning elbows against it and waggling their eyebrows? If you can tear your eyes off the intros, save them as a post-anthology treat.

I do find it fascinating that genre anthologies so often use this format, of potted bio and frenzy-stoking prior to each tale, whereas mainstream literary anthologies so rarely use it. It’s probably worth thinking about that more carefully some time. Why has it happened, what does it imply? Harlan Ellison’s famous 1967 Dangerous Visions anthology is an extreme precedent, with its tales sprinkled throughout its the editorial apparatus like raisins in a sponge cake. I also wonder if editors may even do themselves a disservice by using it, demoting themselves to warm-up acts, whereas these nuggets could probably easily have been cut-and-pasted onto the preface and worked up into an intriguing critical introductory essay. But then, perhaps SF editors are keen to differentiate themselves from literary critics?

The preface of Twenty-First Century Science Fiction points to “a world in which SF, far from being marginal, is a firmly established part of the cultural landscape” (p. 9). That makes sense, but 2000-2013 has also been the era of a certain sexy vampire called Harry Potter. Fantasy fiction is the mithril-barded three-trunked oliphant in the room, and its ascendant presence shapes and colours this anthology in subtle ways.

Alaya Dawn Johnson’s faintly Zelazny-remniscent “Third Day Lights,” for example, feels like fantasy that simply happens to be as confident in borrowing from SF as from any other mythology. Liz Williams’s “Ikiryoh” is delicately poised on the threshold between fantasy and SF. “It would have been called black magic, once. Now it is black science” (p. 372). Indeed, the story turns on that undecidability: when a kappa (not even a space kappa) is faced with a tough choice, the right decision probably depends on whether her world’s logic is magical or technological. Paul Cornell’s faintly Moorcock-esque “One of our Bastards is Missing” is my pick of the swashbuckling yarns, though it may have more in common with historical fiction than fantasy per se. One of its virtues is a protagonist whose mind is likable, recognisable, and yet unquestionably not of our time and place.

Three stories (by Rachel Swirsky, Genevieve Valentine, and Madeline Ashby) deal in different but complementary ways with sex and love between humans and robots. These stories share an interplay between: (a) the robot as metaphor for some real kind of oppression; and (b) the robot who implies a new axis of identity altogether, one which intersects with race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, age and others. I took two things from this: first, a fierce reluctance to blur the lines between different forms of oppression; our zeitgeist even takes care not to appropriate the experience of fictional robots. Second, prophetic expectation of a new figure of oppression may suggest unease with existing struggles, unease with the existing ensemble of politically-organised dimensions of identity. Perhaps: a sense that some people not only fall through the cracks, but also still fall through the cracks of the very best societies we can yet dream up.

John Scalzi’s breezy Golden Age reboot sits nearby thematically – Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, only hold the robots. Hannu Rakeniemi’s jailbreak caper involves a droll and slightly unhinged account of what it is like to be an artificial intelligence – to be simultaneously constrained and constituted by artificial rules. James Cambias’s and Elizabeth Bear’s compelling and elegant contributions prod at machine morality and machine mysticism. Ken Liu and Daryl Gregory could also fit into this general cluster, with stories drawing on neuroscience-savvy Anglo-American philosophy of mind. It’s an interesting relationship, considering philosophers working in this area have already drawn liberally on speculative fiction imagery (Chalmers’ zombies; Searle’s Chinese Room; Jackson’s Mary’s room; also zimboes, swampmen, blockheads, twin earthlings, weather watchers, brains in vats, brain tissue gradually replaced with circuitry, etc.). Such philosophers also frequently turn storyteller: many of their significant positions are so dependent on thought experiments they are already more-or-less science fiction. So I dunno: could this be an area where science fiction writers have an unusually pronounced duty towards philosophical rigour? Liu’s “Algorithms for Love” blurs distinctions between ‘determined’ and ‘predictable,’ whilst Gregory’s “Second Person, Present Tense” likewise seems to fudge two different kinds of ‘self’ – stream-of-consciousness self (the linguistic aspect of the phenomenology of working memory, maybe?) and psychological and interpersonal self (traits, habits, cathexes, social ties and so on). However, both stories are affecting and intellectually provocative, and their elisions do serve narrative purposes, and are anyway not uncommon in the philosophical literature itself.

Overall Twenty-First Century Science Fiction offers a good diversity of subject, style, mood, length, and accessibility. There seem to be a lot of kids; a fair bit of grief and loss; dogs tend to be funny (Stross’s bong-hitting bro hound perhaps the funniest); whether these are statistically significant signs of the times will be hard to tell until I’ve read some sort of control anthology packed with completely neutral content.

Of course it doesn’t cover infinite territory, and it’s easy for any reviewer to lament their pet baffling omissions – but maybe a better approach is to suggest some complementary reading? Most of the contributors are British or North American in one way or another; there are no names shared between this collection and for instance last year’s The Apex Book of World SF 2 (ed. Lavie Tidhar) or the recent colonialism-themed We See A Different Frontier (ed. Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad).

Also, with the exceptions of Karl Schroeder’s “To Hie from Far Cilenia” (a techno-thriller threaded through a tapestry of augmented reality, MMORPGs-within-MMORPGS, digital post-nations, and steampunk cosplay, plus some unabashed infodump design fic thrown in), Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Gambler” (about clickbait journalism), and perhaps Cory Doctorow’s “Chicken Little” (about various things including nudge economics), Twenty-First Century Science Fiction contains little sustained and direct exploration of the hereafter of the buzz. As far as I can remember, nobody hacks cryptocurrency, snaps a selfie or 3D-prints a harpoon. The anthology TRSF (2011), ed. Stephen Cass, contains several of the same authors, but writing in more of a near future, extrapolative modality. Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic SF (2010), ed. Jetse de Vries, could also be worth a look? I love the lone one-star review on Amazon: “SHINE is a sadly depressing collection of dark stories, which are set in a dystopian nightmare world of tomorrow.”

There’s also not much by way of New Wave legacy, not much formal experimentation or innovation. Okay, ‘experimentation’ and ‘innovation’ aren’t quite the words I want here. What I actually mean is, few stories stop ploughing the Marianis Trench-esque furrow of narrative realism even just to stray along the most well-worn paths of modernism, post-modernism, metafiction, hypertext, verse, collage, poioumenon, a story implied by an imagined advertisement or how-to manual or email chain or whatever . . . let alone to attempt to experiment!

Maybe it doesn’t matter. There are partial exceptions. Jo Walton’s “Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction” gathers up some fragments of a 1960 America in a world where which Axis Powers won the war. It is a massive bummer, but it is definitely not a story about how lucky we are the good guys won the war. It is something far more persnickety and lingering. Hmm. Then there are the two opulent and tyrannically witty anthologies-within-the-anthology – Catherynne M. Valente’s “How to Become a Mars Overlord” and Yoon Ha Lee’s “A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel” – which are a little reminiscent of Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars (1984/1988) or Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics (1965/1968). Valente is also channeling the overwrought loftiness of the fin de siecle Martian reboot of Gothic Romanticism; the mock heroic here becomes the perfect cover for a real craving. Oliver Morton’s “The Albion Message” is probably an email; the storyettes from Lingen, Kowal, Buckell and Lee also feel a little less formally conventional by default: there isn’t quite enough space for their structures to unfold into utterly familiar configurations.

I don’t quite know what to recommend as complementary reading on that point. The Best Bizarro Fiction of the Decade (2012) ed. Cameron Pierce, or the Bizarro Starter Kits? The New Weird, ed. Ann VanderMeer & Jeff VanderMeer (2008)? Collections by individuals authors? – Steve Aylett’s Toxicology (1999/2001) and Smithereens (2010) (or indeed Lint (2005/2007)), Adam Roberts’s Adam Robots (2013), or Kelly Link’s slipstream-ish Stranger Things Happen (2001) and Magic For Beginners (2005)? Jeff VanderMeer provoked some interesting chat and useful shout-outs in 2011 with the question “What’s the Craziest or Most Experimental Science Fiction or Fantasy Book You’ve Ever Read?”.

But perhaps I’m gliding off topic now, and perhaps also into other genres. (Maybe that’s a helpful point, actually: maybe the reason there seems to be so little formal play is that most of the play is going on in the genre dimension (you can do a lot with ticklish little code switches between different sub-sub-sub-subgenres), arguably agitating genre structures to such a temperature that they start to evaporate).

I’ll just finish up by mentioning my personal favourites from the anthology: the robot triptych, especially Ashby’s “The Education of Junior Number 12”; Catherynne M. Valente’s “How to Become a Mars Overlord” and Yoon Ha Lee’s “A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel”; David Levine’s “Tk’tk’tk,” a charismatic story of the Other, which has led me to believe that David Levine has been somewhere on holiday; Tony Ballantyne’s “The Waters of Meribah,” which out-Dicks Dick; and two incisive, physics-respecting space operettas, Peter Watts’s “The Island” and James Cambias’s “Balancing Accounts.”

Elsewhere: Dudes Review SF >
John Clute's review at the NYRSF.
Damien Broderick's review.
Steve Donoghue's review.
Eamonn Murphy's review.
Jeremy Estes.
Rick Feldschau.
John Walters.
Mark Thistle.
Gardner Dozois's review in Locus (requires purchase)
Partial review from Daniel.

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