This is the second volume of David Hartwell's annual anthology of science fiction stories. It contains twenty stories, each with an introduction to the story's author and the author's other works. The first volume in Hartwell's series was a good beginning; this one sets the pattern for a great series.
My five favorite stories are listed below.
Dave Wolverton's "After a Lean Winter" is very consciously H. G. Wells's content written in the style of Jack London. There's more to it than a mid-winter dog fight.
Sheila Finch's "Out of the Mouths" is about the language and culture that both human and alien children learn as part of growing up. Even when the adults who love them don't quite understand.
Gene Wolf's "Counting Cats in Zanzibar" is about a woman on the run from her past. When it catches up with her, she embraces it.
Bruce Sterling's "Bicycle Repairman" has become a cyberpunk classic. More than anything it is a portrait of a low-key, high-tech social outcast. Well, there is more than one, actually.
Connie Willis' "Nonstop to Portales" pays homage to a Grand Master of science fiction and his vision of the future. And it's a good story about an ordinary man deciding whether to spend time in a little town where nothing seems to happen.
The introductions in this volume, while adequate, are briefer than those found in later volumes. I am glad that this early form changed into the more extended treatment of each author and their other works that is characteristic of later books in this series. Hartwell's longer introductions add a great deal to the reader's enjoyment. This collection is recommended for its well-crafted stories and the editor's good taste in selecting them.
1996 was clearly a particularly good year for science-fiction, because both main yearly anthologies on the market presented a particularly strong selection. This second volume of David G. Hartwell's yearly collections is as well done as Gardner Dozois anthology - which in 1996 was also very honest (see my review of this one).
This anthology doesn't have the yearly review and "honourable mentions" list offered by Dozois. It is also less voluminous than Dozois mastodons and more focused on short stories, instead of novellas. Still, there is twenty stories to discover here and almost all of them are good, some indeed are very good. Also, only three out of twenty stories figured also in Dozois selection - therefore it is still worth to purchase both of those 1997 anthologies.
Hartwell clearly has a rather "classical" taste and therefore you will find here less freakishly weird stories, which sometimes overwhelm Dozois collections to the point of making them difficult to read. In this book, the stories are in general not very different from those you could read in the 60s and 70s - and sometimes even reminded me of the classics from the 40s and 50s.
Below, you will find more of my impressions, with limited SPOILERS!
"After a Lean Winter" by Dave Wolverton - couple of years after Martian invasion described by H.G. Wells a handful of human survivors meet for a winter "conclave" in Alaska; author deliberately (and successfully) imitated Jack London's style... A good, solid story.
"In the Upper Room" by Terry Bisson - original, interesting and by moments quite funny story about risks, perils and possibilities offered by a holiday in Virtual Reality; a story clearly inspired a little by "Total Recall" film from 1990, but without Mars and all the bloodbath... I liked it a lot.
"Thinkertoy" by John Brunner - in this story a very concerned father buys for his son an extremely costly and very high-tech toy - and I will say no more. A very good story in which this renowned author keeps throwing us one curve ball after another...
"Zoomers" by Gregory Benford - less good than the previous three, this story shows a future commodities market and two competing traders who operate on it. Can't say that I understood the market, but the conclusion was quite original...
"Out of the Mouths" by Sheila Finch - now that is Sci-Fi at the highest possible level! For my personal taste, this is the BEST story in the collection. In a distant future, a scientist tries to break the mystery of an alien language by raising together two little children - one human and one alien... A clever, original and VERY shocking story! Enjoy!
"Breakaway Backdown" by James Patrick Kelly - it starts slowly, but this story about the first real steps of human colonisation of Solar system packs a mighty punch. Enjoy!
"Tobacco Words" by Yves Meynard - a strange, even a little weird story, about a space station offering a quite unique service for space travellers. Well written, original and certainly hard to forget.
"Invasion" by Joanna Russ - a hilarious short story about a human space ship "invaded" by very peculiar aliens...))) I think it was at least partly inspired by two different episodes of "Star Trek" (the original series), which you should instantly recognize. Enjoy!
"The House of Mourning" by Brian M. Stableford - once again, a strange, even a little weird story, about a near future world in which appeared a new kind of prostitution... Not a very pleasant thing, but well written.
"Life Edit" by Damon Knight - as usual with this author, this story is both excellent and deeply shocking... Nothing more will be said, but for me it was the THIRD BEST story in the collection (it is however very short).
"First Tuesday" by Robert Reed - the president of USA (half Black and half Latino) visits millions of families simultaneously by using VR and AI; the general idea was not bad, but the vision of this future USA is pretty nightmarish - also, the political correctness hurts this story a little
"The Spear of the Sun" by David Langford - a tongue in cheek imitation of famous Chesterton's stories about Father Brown - but this time Father Brown is investigating on board of a interstellar space ship...))) A nice, very funny read.
"Counting Cats in Zanzibar" by Gene Wolfe - a woman who did everything she could to sabotage the creation of working humanoid androids must admit her defeat when one such "machine" tracks and captures her after she spend years on the run. How can a defenceless woman still deal a blow to those she considers as enemies and a threat to the whole human race? A good, quite powerful story, which figured also in Dozois selection.
"Bicycle Repairman" by Bruce Sterling - a somehow anarchic bicycle repairman receives a mysterious package from a friend who left for distant countries - and immediately after arrives to his humble dwelling a gorgeous woman ready to almost anything in exchange of just some information... A nice, gentle and funny story, which figured also in Dozois selection.
"Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland" by Gwyneth Jones - a story about psychotherapy via virtual reality, which serves just as a cover for people to send their avatars in VR so they can enjoy a virtual "roll in the hay". Of course, things do not always have to go the way the customers expect, because they have no control over avatars of other people. Sadly, I personally found it weak and weird. But it is my subjectif opinion and, considering that this story also figured in Dozois selection (and so obviously seduced both main SF anthologists on the market), you can still appreciate it.
"Doblin's Lecture" by Allen M. Steele - for me, it is the SECOND BEST story in the book, with a surprise at every page and a total lack of political correctness! I will say nothing about the contents, but this one will surprise and shock you. Kudos for Allen M. Steele, because it took courage to write it!
"The Bride of Elvis" by Kathleen Ann Goonan - a very detailed explanation of Elvis Presley continuing fame, even after his death; a good, solid, Sci-Fi story with quite a lot of humour
"Forget Luck" by Kate Wilhelm - from this very famous writer comes an excellent story about a journalist who hates his job until the day he meets a crazy scientist; written in a style reminding of those old SF stories by Henry Kuttner or William Tenn. Enjoy!
"Nonstop to Portales" by Connie Willis - a panegyric for Jack Williamson more than a story - but it is almost always a pleasure to read Connie Willis texts and this one is also quite pleasant to discover
"Columbiad" by Stephen Baxter - a little nostalgia trip to the early years of Sci-Fi, when the main names in the field were Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. A good story.
CONCLUSION: a good collection, with 18 good or very good stories and only two ("Zoomers" and "Red Sonja and Lessingham in dreamland") somehow weaker. Enjoy!
on 20 January 1999
It opens with a tribute to H.G. Wells and ends with an homage to Jules Verne.In the middle are 18 more stories that span from side to side of the SF spectrum and, even though they might not be all in the reader's preferences, are sure worth reading, if not thought-provoking. Talking about preferences, I can't help mentioning Terry Bisson's "In the upper room" and Damon Knight's "Life edit" as the best of the lot. Look forward for number 3, and 4, and...