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Year's Best thoughts


Just finished reading Hartwell/Cramer's Year's Best SF 10. If I were organized, I would wait 'til I'd gotten through the other Year's Bests before writing up thoughts, but I'm not, so I won't.

My favorite story in the book was Ray Vukcevich's "Glinky," from F&SF: silly, surreal, imaginative, entertaining, and has some nice depth to it too. I could try to describe it further, but I think I'll stick with Robert Burke Richardson's description from the F&SF discussion forum: "It moves from a Tarantino-esque opening to the perfect ending, with all sorts of madness and sandwich eating in between." Truly it is said: There's nothing else quite like a Ray Vukcevich story. "Glinky," btw, has qualified for next year's Nebula preliminary ballot.

There were a fair number of other stories I liked in the book as well. But rather than list those, I'm gonna discuss some generalities. Such as:

There were several stories that I found extremely predictable—from the first few paragraphs, I got a pretty clear sense of what the rest of the story was going to be, not just in general terms ("Something bad is going to happen to her") but fairly specifically, sometimes including the surprise twist ending. I suspect that many other people aren't as bothered by stories being predictable as I am. Of course, in stories where plot isn't the point, predictability isn't so much of an issue; and of course, there are lots of stories whose predictability is outweighed, for me, by various other factors, such as charm or humor or the route taken to get to the predicted ending. But in general, predictability is one of the things that bothers me most about stories in which it bothers me.

One factor that can outweigh predictability for me is good worldbuilding, and there's lots of that in this anthology. In fact, there are half a dozen stories here in which I like the worldbuilding more than I like the story as a whole. Good sense of place, good sense of rich history, good sense of strangeness.

Hartwell and Cramer continue to maintain strict genre separation; in their introduction, they say "every story in this book is clearly [science fiction] and not something else." Which I find fascinating, because on the one hand, I don't like the strict separation (I'd still like to see a Year's Best Speculative Fiction that pays no attention to genre boundaries within the very broad outlines of "speculative fiction"; perhaps to be edited by Rich Horton 'cause I've liked the imaginary tables of contents for such that I think I've seen from him), but on the other hand, I don't actually agree with them that every story in the book is clearly, or even primarily, science fiction. There are half a dozen stories here that I read as basically fantasy, usually with a thin veneer of science fictional justification, and a couple others that are somewhere in the interstitial/slipstream spectrum, not easily pinned to any particular genre. I'm not objecting to those stories; on the contrary, I tend to like them more than the ones that read more firmly as science fiction to me. But I find it interesting that the editors take a harder-line stance on genre boundaries than I would, and then turn out to have broader definitions than I do of where those boundaries lie.

(An aside: I also find it interesting that I tend to classify as fantasy almost any story in which God is demonstrated to exist. I can't decide whether that's my atheism/agnosticism showing, or whether it has to do with God usually stepping in and taking a direct hand in making things happen in such stories. There are two such stories in this book; both are arguably science fiction, but—like Clarke's classic story "The Nine Billion Names of God," which one of these stories pretty strongly echoes—the approach feels to me more like fantasy than like science fiction. I'm not sure I can justify that statement beyond pure gut feeling. Interestingly, Clarke's classic story "The Star" does read more like science fiction to me, perhaps because although there is evidence of God's hand in that story, God does not directly step in and cause things to happen to the protagonists on-camera.)

On a much more specific note, there are at least two stories in this book featuring autistic characters. It seems to me I've been seeing a lot of such stories in the past couple years, perhaps spurred partly by the success of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and partly by what I gather is an inexplicable rise in the incidence of autism in the real world in recent years. I think sf writers may have decided en masse that there've now been enough stories about Alzheimer's (some of which are heartbreaking, but to me there gets to be a certain sameness about them, and there've been a lot of them lately) and are now moving on to stories focusing on autism.

Perhaps I'll report on other Year's Bests as I finish 'em, perhaps not. In case I don't, I'll mention here that I'm currently about halfway through Hartwell/Cramer's Year's Best Fantasy 5; so far, my favorite story in that is Dale Bailey's painful and dark "The End of the World as We Know It," also first published in F&SF, which has also qualified for next year's preliminary Nebula ballot.


I think Ben's on to something with his concept of genre boundaries as being defined by sources of reader pleasure. Not that that's the way most people define them, but it speaks to my instinct to classify (for instance) "Seventy-Two Letters" as science fiction.

It's pretty common for me to find stories in what is labeled a "science fiction" anthology that I would classify as fantasy. As we've discussed before, we'd all make different picks if we were the editor.

As for Clarke's story "The Nine Billion Names of God," I can sort of construct an argument as to why it's science fiction rather than fantasy. One of my personal criteria for distinguishing between the two is, roughly speaking, does the universe know that you're a person? Does the universe distinguish between persons that act with intention and mechanisms that don't? If it does, that suggests to me that the universe is, in some sense, a person itself, and that is the mark of a fantasy universe.

The universe in "Nine Billion Names" doesn't distinguish between persons and simple machines. It behaves like a rule-bound system. If you had given someone the assignment of writing out nine billion names, you might consider the use of a computer to be cheating; it fulfills the letter of the law, but not the spirit. But the universe in "Nine Billion Names" doesn't care; it doesn't demand sweat and exertion. (The monks didn't even build the computer themselves, they just rented it.) The story's universe may be run by a God, but it's a God so impersonal as to be very similar to a set of natural laws.

This is not an airtight argument, of course, and I don't imagine it reflects what Clarke had in mind, but I offer it for what it's worth.

On autism stories - I've read some of these (Curious Incident, Speed of Dark, Inappropriate Behavior at Scifiction), and find them fascinating and compelling. Autistics are maybe as close as we can get to aliens in real life - intelligent beings whose brains work really differently in some ways, but have many important things in common with us - and obviously sf types love aliens. ::grin:: Also, I think a lot of sf geeks had frustrating experiences with conformity, especially in adolescence, and one of the main conflicts that shows up in the autism stories I've read is intrusive pressure for autistics to conform to neurotypical norms, particularly in the SF stories, which both have autistic narrators who have (heartbreakingly) internalized the demand for conformity more than the narrator in the mainstream novel Curious Incident, which I do not think is a coincidence. In Speed of Dark with its adult narrator, the conformity thing hits particularly hard, with the realization that, unlike sf-geek adolescence, there is no magical age at which the autistic will get out from under unsympathetic authority.

I hope that doesn't sound exploitative of autistics... not sure if it's better or worse if I mention that it's some of the same reasons I like stories about gay or wizarding or asexual or transgendered or psychic characters. "People who are internally different in some interesting way and mundanes are giving them shit about it" is generally a pretty successful plot for me, what can I say. ::grin::

David: Aha—I was trying to think of the phrase "sources of reader pleasure" earlier but couldn't. Thanks for reminding me. And yeah, "Seventy-Two Letters" is an excellent example; it feels to me, too, like science fiction, even though by my usual content-based definitions it would be hard to justify not calling it fantasy.

Ted: That's a really cool approach; I like it. Thank you! But I'm not sure I can apply it consistently. Would you be willing to tell us whether you thought of "Seventy-Two Letters" as science fiction or as fantasy? IIrc, the universe in that story doesn't know the characters are people, but something about the way things turn out to be constructed in the end (again iIrc) felt to me like the hand of a universe that is itself a "person" in some sense. But I doubt I could explain why it felt that way. Time for me to re-read the story, I guess.

Amy: Yeah—I think to some extent the use of autistic characters in sf is another form of the traditional use of reader-identification characters in sf, generally smart misfits of one sort or another.

And I do find autism interesting, especially the comparisons between high-functioning autistic behaviors and geek behaviors.

But some part of me is resistant to stories about autistic characters. Your comparison with stories about other kinds of characters—especially gay characters—is a really interesting one, and I'll have to think about that some more; certainly it could be argued that there's a certain kind of sameness to a lot of stories that feature gay characters, and that there's been an increase in such stories in recent years so it may feel a little trendy. I want to say "But that's different!" but I can't articulate why it's different; possibly it isn't. Further thought needed.

Thanks for the comments, all!

My previous comment about the difference between SF and fantasy is a result of my thinking about the difference between science and magic. As I see it, what distinguishes magic from science -- even imaginary science -- is the role of consciousness. Magic has a subjective component -- the intention, desire, etc. of the practitioner -- that is explicitly excluded from scientific experimentation.

One consequence of this is that a scientific result can be replicated by a mechanism, and that mechanism can be mass-produced; thus we all own products containing electric motors, lasers, etc., even though such things were once objects of wonder found only in laboratories. This is generally not true of magic; no one expects that a great magician's ability to turn a pumpkin into a carriage will, decades later, result in cheap shape-shifting gadgets. That pumpkin-into-carriage spell is dependent on a magician, which indicates that the universe knows about persons.

In "Seventy-Two Letters," nomenclature is subject to mass-production; as you note, Jed, it doesn't distinguish between mechanisms and persons. For that reason, I think of nomenclature as being more like an imaginary science than a system of magic. And in that respect, I think, the story is more SF than fantasy.

As for the universe of the story showing signs of being constructed by some creator, yes, there is definitely a strong suggestion of that (although the evidence is not conclusive). For me personally, though, that isn't enough to make a story a fantasy. The universe of the story appears susceptible to scientific investigation, and even technological manipulation. The characters in the story are trying to use technology to avoid what looks like their natural fate, and I think the story suggests they have a reasonable chance of success. The monks in "Nine Billion Names" likewise seem to be successful in using technology. I think that in a real fantasy story, technology can't make a fundamental difference.

This is interesting. I usually draw the line between fantasy and science fiction based on whether the universe recognizes meanings or only functions. In that division, there's a motley area of stories like "Nine Billion Names", L. E. Modesitt's Chaos and Order books, Patrick O'Leary's The Gift, and "Seventy-Two Letters" that blend function and meaning in one way or other.

If you shift the border from meanings to people, most of the stories in the previously blended area fall more or less towards the impersonal. The Gift continues to straddle the line, with a very person-centered magic with a mechanistic origin. I can't think of any more that remain ambiguous under Ted's distinction at the moment, but I'll be looking out for them more specifically, now.

Dan, can you say more about the difference between meanings and functions? It sounds like it's in the same ballpark as my distinction between persons with intention and mechanisms without, but I haven't read all the works you mention, so I'm not sure.

(And, just in case it's not clear, I don't claim that the personhood/consciousness criterion is definitive or free of grey areas; it's just one way to look at things.)

I wrote a little bit about this in my book report on The Gift a while ago. It reduces down to a materialist vs. a (neo?-)Platonist view of the world: does a meaning exist independent of the mind that comprehends/creates it? Can an element of the material world be affected by or have an effect on the world not through any of its physical attributes but solely because of what it is? Or, in the case of words, what they mean?

I've been privately applying the label "hard fantasy" to stories that allow the material and semantic worlds to interact in a systematic, replicable fashion. Charles Stross's (Hugo-winning) "The Concrete Jungle" is a good example. I seem to remember that Mercedes Lackey verges on it, too, as do most fantasy role-playing games. Definitely any of the computer-game variety.

I like the personhood/intention measure better because it pulls Lackey and the FRPGs cleanly back into fantasy (where they intuitively belong) while pushing the Stross story, "Nine Billion Names," and "Seventy-Two Letters" closer to science fiction (where, I sense, their hearts might be).

(And re: autism stories, it doesn't seem right to let a run-down of such stories in SF go by without gratuitous name-dropping of the Voluntary Autists in Greg Egan's Distress: given proof that the feeling of understanding another person's mental state is an illusion created within the brain, they choose to damage the capability of their brains to create that illusion and to live with the socially-crippling truth.)

Thanks, Dan.

A further comment on Jed's remark about the existence of God making a story fantasy. To me, what would make a story fantasy would be a God who's engaged with the characters on a moral level. Is God responding in some way to the morality or immorality of the characters' actions? Recognizing morality is pretty much equivalent to recognizing persons.

By contrast, evidence that the universe was created by God could be consistent with a universe that is otherwise completely mechanistic. An extreme example of this is a "Garden of Eden" configuration in Conway's Game of Life, which is a configuration that has no predecessor according to the cellular automata's rules. In a cellular automata universe, such a pattern would have to be created by extra-universal means. (Another Greg Egan reference: this comes up in his novel Permutation City.)

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