Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 1)

I’ve finished reading the stories with multiple “year’s best” appearances as listed in Links to Stories the Big SF/F Editors Picked As Their Favorites of 2016. My reactions pretty thoroughly undercut the gist of Year’s Bests and My Recommendations, that gist being that I was on the same page with the big editors with just a couple of reasonable exceptions.

It’s not that I hate the stories (I actually like a surprisingly high percentage of them) but that I don’t love them and wouldn’t have recommended very many. At least, I don’t think I would have. Given that I come at these stories as “bests” there is an assumption that someone thought they were good which is a bias in favor of them coupled with a higher chance of unfair expectations and disappointment which gives them an extra liability. It’s hard to say what my reaction would have been if I’d encountered them in the wild.

First, my idiosyncrasies: I didn’t read the de Bodard as I seem to have some blind spot there (at least with the Xuya stories) that I’ve experienced often enough to cause me to give up. And I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed a Tidhar story but have come close enough to keep trying but this one wasn’t especially close. I much prefer Dickinson’s SF to the fantasy story from this list. The three or so Miller stories I’ve read have been about the same, though this one probably was the best but seemed derivative of a derivative (Miller via Watts via Campbell). The Campbell and Watts were sufficient.

As mentioned in the second post linked above, I didn’t recommend the Gilman when I read it last year, but its pick (by Clarke, Dozois, and Strahan) is explicable to me. (Even so, that doesn’t much affect the irony of preferring the stories two editors selected to those three or four editors selected.) The Valentine was perhaps in Gilman territory and the DeLancey was good, but read like an excellent episode of a TV show more than a great story.

I’m not sure if I would have recommended Nina Allan’s “The Art of Space Travel (Dozois, Strahan) but I certainly would have thought about it. Stories published as science fiction which have titles like this and turn out to be about the head of housekeeping of a hotel wondering who her father is tend to really disappoint and annoy me but Allan had previously caught my attention for her somewhat oblique stories and this is another one of those. It is a long story and has relatively little action, yet reads quickly. The protagonist is compelling (her blindness to the obvious strains credulity but Allan doesn’t seem to be hiding it from the reader and it would obviously look different to the protagonist) and the story is about a sort of space travel, ultimately, and in a broad way. All in all, I’m glad I read it, so I suppose that’s a recommendation.

Carrie Vaughn’s “That Game We Played During the War (Dozois, Horton) is also in that borderland of good/honorable mention/recommendation. Taken literally, as actual capital “S” science fiction, this is quite a silly story. Two societies of apparently basically the same species in the same part of a world have just concluded a war. One of them is telepathic and the other is not. If you swallow this premise for its metaphorical purposes, you get a very nicely done story about a non-telepath and a telepath who had been each others’ prisoners at various times during the war. During one of these times, the telepath had learned chess from the other. The game and their situation is then exploited for its thematic richness. Again, not an action-packed riot of hard SF adventure, but an interesting tale.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Mika Model (Dozois, Strahan), however, is certainly recommended. Sexbot stories are nothing new and this is a very brief handling of the subject but idea- and emotion-packed concision is a virtue to me and this additionally has a rather extraordinary event near the end. My only problem with the story is that, no matter what you think of the status of the robot regarding her sentience, liability, or crime, there is a crime the other main player in the story should have been charged with, but I can’t get into that without spoilers. Either way, it’s a very effective dramatization of a very interesting issue.

Finally, there’s Steven Barnes’ “Fifty Shades of Grays (Dozois, Horton). It’s a story about aliens who arrive on Earth and don’t want to blow us up or steal our resources or even invite us into a galactic federation. They just want to have sex with us. Problem is, they are really, really ugly. But, after our ad exec protagonists succeed in their job to “make ugly sexy,” it turns out the aliens are pretty sexually satisfying, too. This has apocalyptic ramifications (in the nicest way).

My reading of this was a comedy of errors. I went to this story directly, so didn’t realize it was part of Lightspeed‘s “People of Colo(u)r” issue. While I know there is a Steven Barnes and there is a John Barnes who both write science fiction and one collaborates with Niven and I have a couple of books by the other, I can never keep them straight for some reason and thought Steven Barnes was John Barnes until I got to the author blurb at the end. (And the errors may still not be over: I get at least some aspects of the punning title but have never read or seen Fifty Shades of Gray so, if there are any important allusions to that in this story (beyond the bondage references), I’ve missed them.)

I tend to read (or want to read) the science fictional aspects of SF much more literally than seems fashionable. So I just read this story as a wildly conceived, briskly told tale of one of the stranger alien invasions ever and enjoyed it immensely. The ad execs reminded me of Pohl and Kornbluth’s classic The Space Merchants, the ugly aliens and the efforts to make them acceptable reminded me of Foster’s The Man Who Used the Universe. The blurb eventually informed me that Steven Barnes has written for television which may help explain the lack of faux literary pretension and the vigor of the dialog and storytelling, though this story is far more than your average TV fare.

So then I got to the end, saw the author blurb, and realized one mistake, then read the “Spotlight” interview and it told me that the story was written “for a non-white audience” and was supposed to depict “the sickness of being human and trying desperately to fit in with a dominant culture.” Some of that further puzzled me until it dawned on me that this may have been from the PoC issue so I looked and, indeed, it was. In retrospect and knowing that this was for an ideological issue of a magazine, I see that there were all sorts of racial references in the story and that they should apparently have greater weight than I realized but, even on a re-read, I still see many things in the allusions and symbolism that don’t fit and/or are offensive if they do. To me, if the aliens have to symbolize anything, they’d better serve as corporations which, after all, are the ugly things advertisers sell and which provide the products we “need” and which wish to dominate all things. Either way, as a didactic piece it becomes much less interesting and more problematic as a story but is still obviously loaded and interesting (however much one may agree or disagree with it). As a story, it’s much more interesting and enjoyable to me. And, again, either of those ways, it’s certainly a fascinating and provocative something that shouldn’t be missed.

(This doesn’t really fit above or bear mentioning, but it bothers me (and, given my recent Elvis birthday post, that should come as little surprise). The lead alien calls himself “Elvis” and it’s explained that the aliens learned about us by picking up 50s television broadcasts. There are innumerable SF stories involving Elvis so I just took it as one of those quirks. My only problem with the story, on a first reading and apart from the “transmissions” cliche itself, was that the alien Elvis was depicted as wearing the rhinestones of 70s Elvis. While the aliens certainly could have continued to follow his career through the transmissions of Aloha from Hawaii and beyond, this was never made explicit and it still gave the appearance of an error in the story. Beyond that, if we’re to take this story as a racial metaphor, then the alien’s being “Elvis” could be more significant than I initially supposed. If anything, in racial terms, Elvis could work as a symbol of interracial harmony. Yet now I have the disturbing feeling that he may have been intended as a symbol of the current meme of “cultural appropriation” which I wouldn’t appreciate.)

An interesting thing to me about these four stories is that, while Horton and Strahan picked two each, Dozois is the only editor common to all four. Also, while I often like a lot of Clarkesworld stories (and really hate an occasional one) Clarke is the only one who picked none of these (or any twofer story). Next up will be the stories that only appear in one anthology, so we’ll see if those trends continue or change.

Edit (2017-01-21): Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 2)