Tilling the Fields of Giants

By Dan HartlandJanuary 28, 2014

Tilling the Fields of Giants

Year’s Best SF 18 by David Hartwell

WE STAND NOT on the shoulders but in the fields of giants, tilling crops long since harvested by more capacious hands. Such is the lot of today’s science fiction writers, faced with the thankless task of toying with the tropes of yesteryear and imagining something fresh. So, too, however, is the state of this very review: last year’s LARB essay on science fiction’s Year’s Best anthologies, Paul Kincaid’s “The Widening Gyre”, won not just a spot on BSFA Awards shortlist but the unusual distinction of being referenced in the introduction of one of this year’s sequels, Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy.

“I wouldn’t go so far,” writes Horton of Kincaid’s central thesis that short science fiction exhibits all the signs of exhaustion. “I don’t think that 'all meaning has been drained from' the tropes we use, but I do think they are becoming overfamiliar. And I do think that the field of science fiction has to a considerable extent become enamoured with explicitly backward-looking ideas.” As you might imagine, Horton goes on to defend many of his selections as special butterflies which offer some remarkable feature or bug that happily exempts it from one of Kincaid’s many categories of exhaustion (steampunk, science fantasy, “traditional” sf, nostalgic sf, vampires). But it’s hardly a propitious start for a volume ostensibly dedicated to championing the finest science fiction in the field.

 Alas, though, such sweeping scope is beyond the remit of this current book-review assignment. Of all this year’s volumes (including collections from Gardner Dozois, the Nebula Award, and Jonathan Strahan), only David Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF 18 (Tor, 2013) has arrived on my desk. Like a pygmy in an over-sized playground,then I shall make a virtue of detail over breadth: if science fiction is exhausted, can we hear every desultory pant in the stories collected, diligently and without recourse in his own introduction to pre-emptory defence, by Tor Senior Editor, David G. Hartwell?

Things start rather well: Megan Lindholm’s “Old Paint” is a carefully structured, patiently developed story which has not a few enjoyably fresh quirks. Narrated by what book marketing people now excitedly describe as a “young adult” (a not uncommon choice in this volume — of which development more later), “Old Paint” is set in the near future and revolves around the bequeathing to a mother and her two children of an old mini-van, so old indeed that it was one of the first to be fitted with a rudimentary AI. In this slightly down-at-heel USA we glimpse through the cracks in the narration, cars drive themselves, talk to their passengers, report to mechanics when necessary and fuel up with convenient autonomy. The narrator’s mother refuses to upgrade her inheritance, preferring to keep the old boy as she remembers him: reliable, stolid, unsophisticated (in these qualities, it seems to resemble the best parts of its erstwhile owner, the narrator’s estranged grandfather). When faced with the statistics that prove car-brains react faster than human ones, mom simply replies that, “they can only react one way, and human brains can think of a dozen ways to react to a tough situation”.

Gone, we assume, are the verities of Gernsbackian “scientifiction”, one of those positivist, retrograde stripes of sf the shadows of which Kincaid perceives in the dullest of our current crop. Indeed, when the narrator’s brother infects the poor old mini-van with the latest nanos, its paint does not improve but simply starts to decay and mottle as a result. An unexpected sentimentality creeps into the story at this juncture: when that van reveals itself to come pre-installed with the vehicular equivalent of a Prime Directive (“Protect logged users”), the kids come to see not just the battered old motor as human (“Just programming kids,” their mother insist; “The car?” they reply, “or grandpa?”), but their mother herself (“Ben and I both started to see her differently, like someone who really had been a kid once”). None of these pat moral lessons will trouble the reader with anything approaching a revelation, but “Old Paint” is effectively written, happily stocked with entertaining and evocative futurological grace notes (“there was nothing but some empty nano jars and some frustrated paint crawling around on the ground trying to cover crumpled pop cans”). “Old Paint” reads — and here we trip over one of Kincaid’s dreaded signs of exhaustion, the homage — like ET with engines. When a story is this sweet but also this smart, we shouldn’t be troubled by that.

Lindholm’s interest in how the future might affect the intimacy of human relationships is matched by another of the volume’s stand-outs, Kathleen Ann Goonan’s rather grimmer “A Love Supreme”. Again set in a near future U.S., Goonan’s story is concerned with overpopulation and its effects: the story’s narrator, a doctor who is estranged from her father, spends almost all her salary on a small apartment in The Enclave, a protected and pricey gated community, a “small, pure paradise [where] the incredibly rich claim more cubic feet than most people in the world can dream of, dine on rare organic food, and ingest the most finely tuned infusions”. Those infusions are drug cocktails that provide youthful skin or immunity against disease to those who can afford it; we see the exaggerated ghost of our own increasingly bifurcated world here, botox and Beverly Hills replaced by a “discreet, invisible boundary [… across] which throbs […] the dense crowds that now fill most of the cities on Earth”.

 In this world, prices are kept high, medical care rationed and under-administered, in order both belatedly to keep population growth under control and eliminate the problem of the “Cs” — centenarians inherited from a selfish time resembling our own, when competition for resources was intense but not impossible. Goonan excels at telling details and concentrated exposition — “An army of people flows among the cars. Ragged clothes, muffled chants. A bat, smashed windows, her mother sprawled over the seat screaming” — which conjure an uncomfortably plausible world of little space and less pleasure. The story’s closing paragraphs, however, focus squarely on the narrator and her father — “she looks directly at him, seeing him as if for the first time” — and asks what ever more crowded horizons might do to our interior lives. It’s a quietly eloquent performance from Goonan, and one of the volume’s most moving passages.

What might also be garnered from those twin bright spots, however, are several similarities: the usual insistence on first-person narration, of course; but also the relative backseat taken by the science fiction elements, the way in which they are used to emphasise or enhance the kinds of story — of personal development or psychological shift - often also told in literary fiction. In a truth so obvious it is now a critical cliché, one of the challenges faced by contemporary science fiction is that our own present world resembles so much — and yet so little — the world imagined by the genre's founding writers. In this context, a story such as Yoon Ha Lee’s “The Battle of Candle Arc” — a yarn which is more a less about a conversation between two supposed master strategists, and is in the words of Lois Tilton, quoted here by Hartwell, “mannerist military SF” — seems divorced from anything approaching a wider relevancy. Others of Hartwell’s stories also drift by in a miasma of meh: Sean McMullen’s “Electrica” is a by-the-numbers weird steampunk, with the added twist of a poorly-executed Napoleonic setting, although it might serve as a decent set-up for a lucrative new series; Eleanor Arnason’s “Holmes Sherlock: A Hwarhath Mystery” is a member of another sequence, and also another tortured attempt at ventriloquism, this time of the mysteries of Conan Doyle, the warmth and derring-do of which this attenuated story fails to match; and in Linda Nagata’s ‘Nahiku West’, the splicing of sf with the police procedural (itself, of course, not an entirely fresh mash-up) fails to heat up a fairly turgid central mystery.

If the sometimes torturous and often pedestrian prose on show in some of Hartwell’s stories is the best the genre has to offer, it is not so much exhausted as already recumbent. Rare are the attempts to inject life into a story with something as radical as style: the characteristically pedestrian “Prayer”’ from Robert Reed tries for something approaching the chutzpah of Kameron Hurley’s recent Bel Dame Apocrypha, but lacks even modest zip or vim:

Canada is luckier than most. That can’t be debated without being deeply, madly stupid. Heat waves are killing the tropics. Acid has tortured the seas. The wealth of the previous centuries has been erased by disasters of weather and war and other inevitable surprises. But the worst of these sorrows have occurred in the Greater United States, and if they had half a mind, Canada would be thrilled with the mild winters and long brilliant summers and the supportive grip of their big wise master.

These words have a job to do, and they’re going to do it as clumsily and as quickly as possible. Only the best of Hartwell’s writers — Paul MacAuley, for instance, in his “Antartica Starts Here” — have both good enough ideas and something approaching an ear for prosody. Many more — for instance, Michael Swanwick in the groansome ‘The Woman Who Shook The World Tree’ — match the featureless character of their prose with thoughtless execution of concept. In this story, a genius woman comes to be defined wholly by her love for the man she hires as her research assistant (she, of course, is ugly; he is beautiful): “There was money enough to do anything except the one thing Mariella wanted most,” we learn once her science project bears revolutionary fruit, “which was to be left alone with Richard, her thoughts, a blackboard, and a piece of chalk”. We note the order of priorities there and also that the story’s close sees Mariella throw all of them away except, of course, her man. Hartwell has a conservative taste — he collects stories which treat sf’s past not just with respect but as a template to be followed. The narrowness of his purview is evident in the company kept by Swanwick’s story: also included here are Gene Wolfe’s “Dormanna”’ (a mysterious and gentle vignette, if not the author’s best work) and Gregory Benford’s “The Sigma Structure Symphony”, which along with “The Woman Who Shook The World Tree” appeared in The Palencar Project, an ebook from Tor edited by one David G Hartwell. The editor knows what he likes to such an extent that sometimes he collects things twice.

Amidst all this, however, there are stories which strike a light in the darkness: Indrapamit Das’s “Weep for Day”’ evokes its interplanetary setting beautifully, and if it looks a little like the “science fantasy” stripe of exhaustion that Kincaid treats with the suspicion of a good rationalist, it also features one of the best-executed young adult narrators in the volume, offering some useful ballast to a trend that at times seems rather difficult to see as much more than a PR bubble. Similarly, Nikki J. North’s “Branches on My Back, Sparrows in My Ear” doesn’t always quite bear the weight of its own stylistic invention — “Lay upon this sheath of skin, map of bone and tendon, pulling muscle and equilateral contraction, a vacant mold” — but it is at least trying, and North’s weird tattoos, painted in the neural ink that has rendered a whole world silent with the “stream of sub-q communications” it allows,  are a memorable conceit. Naomi Kritzer’s “Liberty’s Daughter”, too, offers a lightly present, characterful style, an engaging and entertaining central plot, and a believable narrator (again a young adult); if its near-future collection of libertarian Pacific colonies, built from old container ships and beyond the restrictive laws of the mainland, doesn’t really work, then at least it’s something approaching (if we ignore Waterworld) a fresh take. There are reasons to be cheerful.

In Catherine H. Shaffer’s awkward “The North Revena Ladies Literary Society”, a story much too broad to possess what Hartwell oddly terms “understated humor”, time travellers from a future war seek to encode all human knowledge in a network of ladies’ book clubs, one cell of which has an ex-CIA agent as its member. If we pass over the wilful absurdity of the premise, we might ask what useful human knowledge Year’s Best SF 18 might pass on to the brave rebels who will fight against “a warlord named En’uka” in the dark horror of the future. In its irreverent, playful sketches — Lewis Shiner’s PC’s revenge tale “Application”, or Tony Ballantine’s amusing riposte to anti-rationalists ‘If Only …’ — we see writers enjoying jokes with fellow travellers. In Andy Duncan’s “Close Encounters” or Aliette de Bodard’s “Two Sisters in Exile”, we see a science fiction reliant on alternative history to develop new visions of futures long since sailed past our own Jonbar points. And in Ken Lui’s “Waves” or C.S. Friedman’s “Perfect Day” — both well-written and diverting pieces of writing — we read about generation starships and personalized advertisements, in the same way we have been doing so for forty years.

Thus we toil in the field that John W. Campbell built. Where he’s not still printing them, Hartwell routinely harkens back to canonical writers of the past in his summaries of these stories’ virtues– “reminds me of the work of Connie Willis at her best”, “reminiscent of the classic ‘Heinlein individual’”, “reminded me of early Zelazny” — and in this he’s only reflecting the retro tendencies of his chosen authors. But where are writers such as Ekaterina Sedia, Samit Basu or Zen Cho, all of whom had stories published in 2012 (this volume, like its competitors, isn’t really the most recent year’s best SF), and each of whom might be said (like Kincaid’s Theodora Goss and Lavie Tidhar last year) to be pushing science fiction outwards? Hartwell’s volume seems first to define science fiction, and then ignore all those cousins-twice-removed which are working to enhance, enrich, and expand it. The records of a genre — its message to its future — should make those efforts clear.

As Kincaid wrote last year, there’s no coincidence that many of the best “best of” stories are from non-Anglophone or women writers: new perspectives offer fresh approaches. But at the same time, I wonder if Paul didn’t undersell the extent to which editorial choice, not real authorial activity, dictates the wearying monotony of the “best of” form. In a smart Gwyneth Jones story collected by Hartwell and entitled “Bricks, Sticks and Straw”, the human controllers of virtual avatars exploring one of the moons on Jupiter lose contact with their doubles; against their assumptions and expectations, the avatars keep going, unguided but independent. In whatever field we find ourselves, thankfully and reliably, the giants don’t always get the final say.


LARB Contributor

Dan Hartland lives in Cheltenham,  UK. His reviews have appeared in publications including Foundation and Vector, and also feature regularly at Strange Horizons. In addition, he intermittently maintains his own blog.


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