This fourth annual anthology of best SF stories covers works published in 1986. Sadly, after the extraordinary 1985 collection, this book is less successful, although still well worth reading. After a very complete analysis of what happened in the SF field in 1985, we can enjoy many excellent short stories, but this time there is also quite a lot of average ones - and some are simply bad. At the end as usual there is a long list of "Honorable mentions" - short stories considered by the editor as good, but which for lack of place (and it is already a huge book) couldn't be included.
Other than the lesser quality as compared with 1985 collection, the surprising thing is the presence of many stories which can hardly be considered science-fiction. Some of them I would rather consider as fantasy or fantastic tales and some would be probably more appropriately considered as mainstream literature, with some elements of "magic realism".
Below you will find my personal impressions about all the stories, with LIMITED SPOILERS.
"R&R" by Lucius Shepard - a long, very brutal and powerful story describing a hypothetic future war in Central America, in which Americans and local corrupt governments face Cubans and local guerillas; this is a very left-wing oriented thing, inspired clearly by author's deep detestation of Reagan's administration support for Salvador government and Nicaragua's Contra guerillas; American soldiers are here described with all the worst stereotypes from Vietnam War. It made me laugh out loud at one moment when author described "American defeat in Miskitia" - when in the real world Miskito Indians from Nicaragua were the toughest element of pro-American Contras! As in the 8Os I personally was very firmly for the Contras and the Salvador government I really didn't like the politics of "R&R" - but I must admit that it is written with great talent and it is a really good SF story.
"Hatrack River" by Orson Scott Card - the renowned author of "Ender's Game" gives here an absolutely splendid fantasy story taking place amongst a group of American border pioneers living somewhere in the wilderness of Ohio, in an alternate history in which there never was American revolution or Louisiana Purchase, as it is mentioned that England still dominates the colonies and there are still French "up Detroit" - and they are ennemies, no allies. The story is about magic and it is one of the absolutely best such things I ever read! This story so much charmed the readers in 1986 that Orson Scott Card gave it a suit, then another and finally wrote a series of novels occurring in this alternate history (Alvin Maker series). It is in my opinion the THIRD BEST story in this collection. No more will be said - discover the mystery of Hatrack River by yourself!
"Strangers on paradise" by Damon Knight - this very famous writer never disappoints and his story about a paradisiac Earth colony in the outer space harboring an extremely dark secret for which clues are hidden in half forgotten poetry is excellent. The story includes some pretty scary rabbits. Enjoy!
"Pretty Boy Crossover" by Pat Cadigan - contrary to the previous three stories, this tale of two heavily partying homosexual lovers who at one moment make very different life choices in a future society is rather weak; it is however mercifully short
"Against Babylon" by Robert Silverberg - this is one of the very few stories by this giant of SF that I ever found weak; the story is about an aging pilot who makes his living fighting forest fires on the Western Coast of USA; one day, a series of particularly violent fires begin simultaneously all around California and before the end of day his life will completely change forever. The story begins well but lacks a clear conclusion and as a whole is really disappointing.
"Fiddling for waterbuffaloes" by Somtow Sucharitkul - the well known Thai-American writer offers here an extremely funny and interesting story about an alien stranded on Earth, in a little provincial town in Thailand; this absolutely hilarious tale is for my personal taste the SECOND BEST in the whole anthology; I was however somehow surprised by the incredible racially based cotempt with which the heroes (who are Thai) talk about the whites; I wonder if Gardner Dozois would dare publish a story in which white characters were saying the same kind of things about Asians...
"Into gold" by Tanith Lee - the great mistress of dark fantasy wrote this tale clearly inspired by one of the Greek myths about goddess Demeter and her protégé Demophon (but if you want to really enjoy the story, my advice is to NOT research the details further before reading); an excellent story occurring in Britain just after the departure of Roman legions, very well written and with a very nice twist at the end
"Sea change" by Scott Baker - this is a rather good story about the very surprising fate of city of Venice after the arrival of aliens on Earth; please be aware however that it is very depressing; the ending can be interpreted in two opposite ways: one of them is only unbearably sad - the second one is absolutely heartbreaking...
"Covenant of souls" by Michael Swanwick - it is quite amazing how pessimistic were American SF writers in the 80s about the future of USA; in this story United States are populated by a pauperized population living in fear of thugish policemen, under the menace of the Third World War; the main character is a very special fugitive hiding in the basement of a slowly decaying church...; the first half of the story is really good, but then author clearly painted himself into a corner - and nothing short of a nuclear weapon couldn't deliver him from this trap...
"The pure product" by John Kessel - this is a story about very special and very anthipatic tourists from the future; I must say that I did not like it at all as I found the main character morally repulsive and the conclusion of the story didn't make any sense for me
"Grave angels" by Richard Kearns - this is a good fantastic story about the necessity to accept death as part of life - and of dire consequences if we refuse it; this is absolutely no science-fiction, but I liked it anyway
"Tangents" by Greg Bear - for me it was one of the weakest stories in this anthology; a young neglected boy becomes friends with an old homosexual British scientist living illegally in USA; together they look for a gate into another universe...
"The beautiful and the sublime" by Bruce Sterling - in my opinion it was another weak story; in a future society scientists and engineers became redundant as artificial intelligences now care for all the needs of humanity; quite naturally citizens of this new brave world became decadent and rather unpleasant. Author wanted to imitate in this story the style of Wodehouse and the idea was not bad, but I found the final result boring.
"Tattoos" by Jack Dann - this is again not really a science-fiction story but rather a fantastic tale about magic; not bad, but not particularly good either
"Night moves" by Tim Powers - once again this is a fantastic tale; a great wrong was done once and this night something has to be done about it... Quite a good fantastic story with a very surprising and really not politically correct ending.
"The prisoner of Chillon" by James Patrick Kelly - inspired by a poem of Byron this is a really good "cyberpunk" story about two future outlaws forced to hide in an old half ruined castle in Switzerland owned by a strange handicapped man... A good read.
"Chance" by Connie Willis - and once again, not science-fiction, but rather a fantastic tale, about the role of little events in our lifes; a woman made once a mistake (nothing criminal though) and lifes of at least two people were ruined; can it be somehow fixed? Not a bad story, but I was surprised by the unfair Christian bashing: at one moment a fervently Christian lady tells the main character that God can forgive any sin; she gets an angry answer that little mistakes are not sins; but just a couple of pages further we learn that the (finally not so little) mistake was caused by pride - which is actually (maybe the author didn't know it) considered by Christians as the deadliest of all sins and also Satan's most favourite one...
"And so to bed" by Harry Turtledove - for me it is THE BEST STORY in the anthology! The great master of alternate history imagined here a XVII century considerably different than the real one, with Europe being mostly as we remember it but with America being still inhabited by Pleistocene mega-fauna and also populated (instead of Indians) by a kind of early Homo erectus prehistoric people (called "sims" by Europeans). The story takes the form of personal journal kept by an alternate Samuel Pepys and it is full of humor and wit. The quality of writing is purely incredible - I really had the impression that I moved to XVII century London for a moment! AN IMPRESSIVE ACHIEVEMENT!
"Fair game" by Howard Waldrop - a good story, but once again it is rather a fanstastic tale or a kind of "magic realism" main stream letters about the last days in life of Ernest Hemingway; I liked it, but it is really not science-fiction as we know it...
"Video star" by Walter Jon Williams - a good, honest "cyberpunk" story about a young, very talented and very dangerous future gangster mounting an extremely daring robbery, hoping it will bring him enough to retire; as usually in such cases, things get complicated...
"Sallie C." by Neal Barrett, Jr.- a funny although a little weird story about an alternate reality Far West, describing how in 1903, in a little town called Sallie C. brothers Wright made their first flight, watched by an aging Pat Garrett and a very young Erwin Rommel, who already "took to the desert like a fox"...)))
"Jeff Beck" by Lewis Shiner - possibly the worst story in the collection; again, it is not science-fiction but rather a fantastic tale about a kind of artefact bestowing wishes - but I found it really boring
"Surviving" by Judith Moffett - well, this is not science-fiction but pornography - there is no other word; this story includes so graphic descriptions of bestiality and pedophilia, that it shocked me quite a lot; when in the second half things moved towards a very explicit description of saphic loves of main characters, it was actually quite a relief... For the life of me I can not understand how this story got included in this collection...
"Down and out in the year 2000" by Kim Stanley Robinson - as usual with this author of renowned "Mars trilogy", the writing is top level and this story is an excellent read; however I was somehow surprised (again) how incredibly pessimistic were American left-winged authors about the future of their country in the middle of Reagan years; in this story USA in year 2000 are a country in which poor people are very literally starving to death (clearly there is no more food stamps), private security guards of rich people have the right to kill juvenile thieves and leave their bodies rotting on the streets, there is no more public transportation of any sort, there is not even the possibility to call 911 or to bring a sick person to the ER, without first paying a fee, etc., etc; In this crazy universe a middle aged African American living in Washington DC tries to simply survive, with the starvation being a very real threat... It is more an anti-Reagan political pamphlet than science-fiction, but I must give it to the author, that it is really well written
"Snake eyes" by Tom Maddox - this story is somewhere between "cyberpunk" and more classic science-fiction and it deals with the possible sequels (both physiological and psychological) of brain enhancing implants in a future society; not particularly good, but not bad either
"The gate of ghosts" by Karen Joy Fowler - a fantastic tale about Chinese ghosts and children dreams; not bad, but with a somehow vague conclustion - and it is definitely not science-fiction
"The winter market" by William Gibson - the Founding Father of "cyberpunk" offers here a story about a handicapped artist and her life and career choices in a very cybernetic future; a rather disappointing story from such a renowned author
CONCLUSION: It is a very honest collection, certainly worth reading and owning - but sadly not as excellent as the 1985 vintage anthology; therefore I can give it only four stars. But still I do not regret buying and reading it and I will keep it preciously.