The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
THE OVERWHELMING SENSE ONE GETS, working through so many stories that are presented as the very best that science fiction and fantasy have to offer, is exhaustion. Not so much physical exhaustion (though it is more tiring than reading a bunch of short stories really has any right to be); it is more as though the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion.
In the main, there is no sense that the writers have any real conviction about what they are doing. Rather, the genre has become a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them. For example, “Dolly” by Elizabeth Bear (in the Gardner Dozois collection), is a story of police investigating a murder that may have been committed by a robot. It is not a bad story, in the sense that it is efficiently told, with enough detail of character and setting to reward the reader, but the story itself deliberately harks back to the robot stories that Isaac Asimov was writing in the 1940s. Bear has brought the trope up to date, but she has not extended the idea or found anything radically new in it. Asimov’s stories can still entertain, and Bear’s story is much the same, but to find that one of what we are told are the best stories of 2011 is ploughing a furrow that is more than seventy years old is somehow dispiriting.
Bear is far from alone in this, and I’ll come back to other examples later in the review. This retrograde aspect of science fiction has been a commonplace in the genre since the emergence in the 1990s of what became known as the “new hard SF” and the “new space opera.” What is even more evident throughout these collections, however, is a more recent trend of writing SF as though it were something else, usually high fantasy. Many years ago, Arthur C. Clarke proclaimed that “any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.” It is a notion that has clearly taken root with today’s writers since they consistently appropriate the attire of fantasy for what is ostensibly far-future sf, even to the extent of referring unironically to wizards and spells and the like.
An example of how this can be done well is “Silently and Very Fast” by Catherynne M. Valente (in Dozois). Again, this is an old story, about an artificial intelligence becoming human (think back, for instance, to another of Asimov’s robot stories, “The Bicentennial Man”), and the only really novel thing that Valente brings to it is the manner of its telling. For Valente dresses the story up as a fairy tale, complete with magicians and evil crones and impossible quests and sleeping princesses. This works on two levels: fairy tales are what the human characters have told the A.I., Elefsis, in order to teach it narrative understanding; and Elefsis partly emerged out of the virtual-reality adventure scenarios a group of children used to play. Valente captures the diction of a fairy tale very nicely, and though this can, in truth, be wearying, on the occasions when it really takes flight, it can be wonderful. There is one brief section where the life of Alan Turing is recast as a variant on “Sleeping Beauty,” complete with poisoned apple, and it works extraordinarily well both as a fairy story and as a life story. Yet in the end, while admiring a be...read more