At times, this year's installment of Gardner Dozois' Year's Best Science Fiction feels like an overdose of dystopian medicine: between the (successful) alien invasions, rampant terrorism, apocalypses of sundry varieties and renegade capitalists, the future looks distinctly grim. In and of itself, this trend might not be so bad, were it not for the common grayness silvering everything: the bland, interchangeable prose that characterizes so many of these tales. These aren't bad stories; as always, Dozois has a good eye for well-plotted narratives with interesting SF devices. But there's little in the way of stylistic experimentation or attention to the power of language as such, which certainly hasn't always been the case in these anthologies (one thinks, for example, of Geoff Ryman's contributions).
For this reader, the only truly inexplicable entry is Walter Jon Williams' novella Investments, which fails to energize its intergalactic-capitalists-on-the-loose theme; the prose is flat, the characters feel borrowed from a genre warehouse somewhere, and the plot meanders. A couple of entries--Pat Murphy's "Inappropriate Behavior" and Paolo Bacigalupi's "The People of Sand and Slag"--start off with intriguing reflections on the nature of human identity (especially, in Bacigalupi's case, in a mechanized and post-apocalyptic setting), but conclude too patly. Readers who insist that stories ought to be about something will probably not like M. John Harrison's "Tourism," which is (appropriately enough, given the title) a sampling of the down-and-out lives in a seedy future bar, but it's an evocative set-piece. Meanwhile, readers who feel the urge to allegorize will be interested in Christopher Rowe's "The Voluntary State," which imagines what happens to a citizenry that has relinquished its liberties in favor of computerized oversight. Daniel Abraham's "Leviathan Wept," set in a future in which suicide bombers operate regularly within the USA, ponders the unintended psychological consequences of dehumanizing others. And Peter F. Hamilton's "Footvote," in which ethnically-correct English jump ship for one man's oddball libertarian utopia in an alternate universe, wryly dramatizes the conflict between political ideals and emotional ties.
Some of the more interesting stories in the collection deal with the problem of strangeness: if understanding a different human culture can be difficult enough, what do you do with aliens? Thus, James Patrick Kelly's "Men are Trouble" mixes noir conventions (the first-person narrator is a female Sam Spade) with an unusual alien invasion. In Kelly's tale, the invaders--called "devils"--have somehow eliminated all the men, while leaving most women in only makework jobs (robots do most of the "real" work). Part of the story's point is that the devils' behavior has no "point," at least not in any way that the women can understand: the women aren't slaves; far from intending to wipe humanity off the earth, the devils regularly "seed" women (a parody of the Virgin Birth, to say the least); women can abort the seedings without any retribution. At the same time, the women have somehow reorganized themselves into a functional lesbian culture, while embryonic stem cell research has now become the Christian thing to do; in other words, although the devils wreak havoc, humanity manages to adapt itself (be it ever so painfully) to the new world. Along the same lines, Michael F. Flynn's "The Clapping Hands of God," which follows the adventures of a multicultural interplanetary exploration team, reflects on what happens when human beings try to impose their own "stories" on a totally inhuman culture. While the final result does translate into human terms, it's not what the explorers wanted (or needed) to discover. Albert E. Crowdey's "The Tribes of Bela," which, at one level, could probably be classed as another pulp adventure story, at another shows how our late twentieth- and twenty-first century attitudes to exploration and native cultures have affected SF: our heroes have to fight back when attacked, but they're also aware that, strictly speaking, they're the aliens. Among the more innovative stories in the collection is Eleanor Arnason's "The Garden: A Hwarhath Science Fictional Romance," an "edited" text from an offworld culture. Although the experiment doesn't quite come off, the story's doubleness--we have to imagine a totally foreign culture's attempt to imagine the fantastic--is still a neat reflection on genre conventions.
Aside from Arnason's contribution, my favorite entries both dealt (albeit in different ways) with experiments in cultural development. Benjamin Rosenbaum's "Start the Clock" cocks a satirical snook at our contemporary obsession with youth by imagining a world in which "Communicative Developmental Arrestation Syndrome" leaves children literally in need of having their biological clocks started. Entire subcultures develop around various age cohorts--giving new meaning, in particular, to the terrible twos (and threes). There's a bit of a nod to Peter Pan, too, in the story's gentle evocation of the protagonist's fear of the sexuality involved in "growing up." Strictly speaking, Stephen Baxter's "Mayflower II" is really a thought experiment in evolution--the characters, at times, feel a bit tacked-on--but it's still intriguing. Take a lot of human beings and put them on a ship for several thousand years, under the supervision of a handful of immortals. What happens to them? Each decision by the immortal governors (eventually reduced to one) has unintended yet, in terms of adaptation, perfectly logical consequences for the humans as a species--until, by the end, the human beings are not really human at all. I do wonder what PZ Myers would think of it.
Overall, while this is not one of Dozois' more stylistically adventurous collections, most of the stories will repay the reader's attention. The series as a whole remains one of the more convenient ways to keep in touch with trends in current SF.