The Year’s Best Science Fiction (15th Annual)

Ed. by Gardner Dozois

In the words of Gardner Dozois, introducing his selection of the year’s best, “the Death of Science-Fiction has been greatly exaggerated.” Certainly if the quality of the stories collected here is any indication, the genre, whatever its commercial health, is enjoying a creative Golden Age.

Perhaps because it is primarily a fiction of ideas rather than character, SF has always seemed to work best in short stories. And while this anthology has a wide selection that ranges from humour to horror, there are certain ideas that seem to predominate.

David Marusek’s “Getting to Know You” is one of the best stories in the collection, and can also be seen as one of the most representative. In 2062, Zoranna, who works as a corporate investigator, visits her sister Nancy, who lives on one of the sub-floors in a gigantic egg-shaped apartment complex.

Immediately we have what seems to be the dominant theme in SF today – a vision of society divided between a class of super- or post-human “haves” who live in sky cities or some other privileged place, and the outcasts and cellar dwellers who belong to a lower order of being altogether. As one of the characters in the story complains, “We’ve returned to Roman society! Masters and servants! Plutocrats and slaves!”

Within the apartment building the top floors are occupied by clones with lower-case names and upper-class pretensions, while the sub-levels are a dumping ground for the proles. The myth of the Morlocks is getting a lot of extra play these days. The presence throughout the anthology of various rebels, terrorists, and revolutionaries only underscores this rigid high-low hierarchy. The New Order is constantly threatened from within.

Of course, none of this has very much to do with spaceships and aliens, but that’s the point. The best SF goes beyond the effects of strange new technologies to engage broader cultural and political anxieties. Fifty years ago, Kingsley Amis observed that SF should be seen as an instrument of social diagnosis and warning. That judgment still holds true today.

Moving on, we find that Zoranna’s sister is all too human. She runs a virtual hospice out of her apartment and, dying herself, is surrounded by holograms of the nearly dead. Again this is typical of today’s SF, which seems obsessed with disease and other terminal conditions. One might guess that some of the writers are half in love with death. It is surely no coincidence that two of the stories here specifically deal with some kind of hi-tech necrophilia (as did the best story in last year’s collection, “The Dead”).

This focus on sickness and death is not flattering. Humankind is clearly something to be surpassed. Advances in robotics and genetics have made the species out-of-date. As a technology, homo sapiens is obsolete.

And it’s a good thing too. With some exceptions, this is a dark future that is being imagined. Things are running down even as they evolve.

It’s only the stories that are getting better.

Review first published July 4, 1998. This anthology is almost always a good buy.


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