Twenty-First Century Science Fiction: Packed full of excellent SF stories

Twenty-First Century Science Fiction edited by David G. HartwellTwenty-First Century Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsTwenty-First Century Science Fiction is packed full of excellent science fiction stories. I’ve been reading anthologies lately, partly to improve my own short story writing, and this is the best I’ve found so far. It contains stories by authors such as Paolo Bacigalupi, Cory Doctorow, Catherynne M. ValenteJohn Scalzi, Jo Walton, Charles Stross, Elizabeth Bear, Mary Robinette Kowal, Madeline Ashby, Tobias Buckell, Karl Schroeder, Brenda Cooper, Liz Williams, Daryl Gregory, James L. Cambias, Kage Baker, Rachel Swirsky, David D. Levine, Genevieve Valentine, Yoon Ha Lee, and Paul Cornell.

With two exceptions, which I’ll talk about in a moment, the 34 stories in this volume reminded me of how I first encountered SF while growing up: mind-expanding, excellently written, absorbing, thought-provoking, putting the “speculative” in “speculative fiction.” They mostly take current science as a starting point and ask an intriguing “what if,” at the same time telling an engaging human story — even if the main characters often aren’t, by our current definitions, human. We have androids, AIs, an enhanced ape, posthumans and aliens here, and they’re delightful.

Although I wouldn’t call most of the stories optimistic, they’re not the SF equivalent of grimdark fantasy either. SF can all too easily go down the dystopian and alienated route to nihilism, which isn’t a kind of story I enjoy. Even when things go terribly wrong — and they do — these stories retain, if not hope exactly, at least a commitment to the idea that life is somehow meaningful, that connection to other beings exists and is worthwhile.

Science fiction has become deeper and wider since the old days, and there’s now a strong “literary” wing, represented by magazines like Lightspeed and Clarkesworld. For my taste, those magazines often go too far towards lit-fic, at the cost of story, character and meaning (and speculativeness, frequently). The stories in this collection seem to be mainly up at the other end of the spectrum. The editors don’t tell us where most of them were originally published, which I feel is an unfortunate omission that makes it harder for readers to find other, similar stories, but I would bet that a lot of them came to us first via Asimov’s, F&SF, Analog and TOR.com.

Although the approach to story is, in most cases, the more classical one in which characters with agency face conflict and there’s some sort of resolution at the end, these are not, by any means, throwback stories which could have been written 50 years ago (a type of story which Asimov’s, for one, tends to publish). For one thing, contemporary science is often key to the story problem. Contemporary issues, too, are visible in many of the stories, though few of them deal with issues of race, sexuality or gender identity, something which is more common on the Lightspeed/Clarkesworld end of the SF spectrum. We do get terrorism, advertising, privacy, increasing integration of human life with technology, and other such themes.

I mentioned that there were two stories that didn’t work so well for me. The first was John Scalzi‘s “The Tale of the Wicked.” I read Scalzi’s blog sometimes, and I generally agree with what he says, though sometimes how he says it could do with some extra thought. I’m no fan of his fiction, though, and this story epitomizes why. Although some of his characters have women’s names, and some of them have non-Western names, they are the opposite of “diverse”: they’re indistinguishable. Every character of Scalzi’s, in anything I’ve read of his (one novel, one novella, and this short story), sounds completely identical, sounds, in fact, exactly like Scalzi does on his blog. Since he never describes anyone even with a single word, they might as well look identical as well. Far from having cultural differences, they don’t even have individual differences; they’re not just cardboard cutouts, they’re multiple copies of the same cardboard cutout. Their environment is equally undescribed and generic. And this story, along with most of his others, employs a trope that was old and tired before Scalzi was born: interstellar war against the aliens.

The other story that didn’t work for me is “How to Become a Mars Overlord” by Catherynne M. Valente. It’s possible to write a short piece that doesn’t have an actual story and make it work; Yoon Ha Lee does it in this volume, in “A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel.” But “Mars Overlord” doesn’t pull it off. It has references to multiple stories, which sound interesting, but they’re not told, just alluded to, and the whole thing is so weighted down with self-consciously evocative language that I ended up skipping to the end, or, more accurately, to the point at which it stopped. No other piece in this volume even tempted me to skim, but this one I wish I’d skipped altogether.

If we ignore those two, there are 32 excellent stories in this collection, more than the average number for an anthology, and certainly far better than the average story. It made me enthusiastic about SF again, and confident that the field is in vigorous health and excellent hands.


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MIKE REEVES-MCMILLAN, one of our guest reviewers, has eight bookcases which are taller than he is in his basement, and 200 samples on his Kindle. He's trying to cut down. A lifelong lover of the written word, he's especially a fan of Jim Butcher, Lois McMaster Bujold, Terry Pratchett and Roger Zelazny. He reads a lot of indie fiction these days, and can report that the quality and originality are both improving rapidly. He himself writes the Gryphon Clerks fantasy series, and numerous short stories. Mike lives in Auckland, New Zealand, and also in his head, where the weather is more predictable and there are a lot more dragons. He rants about writing and genre at The Gryphon Clerks and about books he's read at The Review Curmudgeon.

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