I don't normally read these two "year's best" SF anthologies back-to-back, so this year's installments certainly highlighted how editorial preferences define "the best" that has been known and thought in the genre world of 2005. Gardner Dozois' The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Third Annual Collection reprints thirty stories; David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's Year's Best SF 11 reprints thirty-one stories. But only five stories overlap: Hannu Rajaniemi's "Deus Ex Homine," Daryl Gregory's "Second Person, Present Tense," Ken MacLeod's "A Case of Consilience," Alastair Reynolds' "Beyond the Aquila Rift," and Joe Haldeman's "Angel of Light." Dozois is moderately more friendly to work that originally appeared online, while Hartwell and Cramer seem much more fond of the not-quite-short-shorts published in Nature. Both anthologies are lighter on the apocalyptic stories characteristic of years past, although global warming and environmental collapse, Islam, and various global (or intergalactic) wars all appear regularly. But Dozois' anthology tends to emphasize strangeness and playfulness--not to mention basic craft--over strictly-delineated genre conventions and clear "messages." Or, to put it differently, Dozois puts a higher value on a willingness to explore ambiguities, accidents, and conundrums, whether in terms of content, style, or genre.
For example, take two stories on a near-identical theme: Vonda N. McIntyre's obviously Swiftian "A Modest Proposal for the Perfection of Nature" and Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Calorie Man." In McIntyre's short satire, man and his genetically-engineered food have taken over the earth, exterminating everything irrelevant to man's wants: "No creation of nature has an inherent right to exist, independent of our need" (88). Here, simplistic theology meets with an equally simplistic scientism to produce a world of truly nightmarish narcissism. There are, however, no actual humans in the satire, beyond the communal "we" and "our"--"man" as an entity remakes the planet in his own image. By contrast, even though Bacigalupi's tale also takes on the danger of genetically-engineered foods (and animals), it does so by emphasizing both dissent and accident: while genetic engineering has certainly brought profit to some and is accepted uncritically by others, it has also inadvertently destroyed the nascent global economy and catapulted many countries into starvation and ruin. The "cheshires," modified cats who can disappear (natch), miniaturize what's at work here. A luxury plaything multiplies, displaces nonmodified cats, and exterminates local bird populations--but at base, that's an accident. The extermination of non-genetically modified foods, the story suggests, was not an accident--but the collapse of globalism probably was. More to the point, Bacigalupi shows us the devastation from the point of view of Lalji, an Indian "antiques dealer" (and smuggler) who came to America for the "calories." What makes the story more than a political polemic is Lalji and his interactions with the other characters--his guilt over abandoning his starving sister in India, his desire to survive and profit, his surges of cowardice and bravery, and so forth. Lalji, that is, complicates things.
McIntyre offers a perfectly fine Swiftian satire with an obvious message, and the message's relative transparency characterizes much of the Hartwell and Cramer anthology. Sometimes, the political point shifts into aggravating overkill, as in Peter F. Hamilton's "The Forever Kitten"; at other times, it's amusingly satisfying, as in David Langford's "New Hope for the Dead." Greg Bear offers a wicked take on book reviewing in "Ram Shift Phase 2," while Adam Roberts offers pointed twists on both contemporary politics and medievalist nostalgia in "And Future King..." Larissa Lai's "I Love Liver: A Romance," featuring a woman in love with, er, a liver, is without a doubt the anthology's most entertainingly bizarre entry. Of the stories that overlap with Dozois, the most interesting are Daryl Gregory's "Second Person, Present Tense," which imagines the possibility of a drug that might "kill" a personality altogether, and Ken MacLeod's "A Case of Consilience" (hat tip to James Blish's A Case of Conscience), which suggests that bringing the Good News to the slime has its difficulties. There are also a number of stories which, while not bad, don't seem to qualify as "best," including all three of the stories involving literal, figurative, and/or evolved rats (really--what was it with the editors and rats?), Gregory Benford's "On the Brane" (nice idea, clumsily executed), and Rudy Rucker's "Guadalupe and Hieronymus Bosch" (shouldn't a story involving Bosch be more...surreal? Flamboyant? Odd?).
Dozois' selections, in addition to being somewhat more artistically adventurous, also tend to be longer; no almost-short-shorts here. I found the only really off-putting entry to be Neal Asher's "Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck," a hunting story which at times devolves into sadistic wish-fulfillment. Robert Reed's "Camouflage" and David Gerrold's "In the Quake Zone" both venture into that dangerous territory known as the SF mystery, and succeed quite well (although the reader trying to solve Reed's case along with the detective may have a tough time of it). Dominic Green's "The Clockwork Atom Bomb" supplies the anthology's darkest humor, as a man tries to handle the discovery of some weapons of very mass destruction. Vonda N. McIntyre's "Little Faces" most successfully drops the reader into a strange environment--intergalactic space, organic ships, an all-female society, and a very odd version of the man of the species--without resorting to the dreaded infodump. Both Ian McDonald's "The Little Goddess" and Chris Roberson's "Gold Mountain" imagine, in different ways, how people can be exploited in the clash of cultures, traditions, and economies. Chris Beckett's "Piccadilly Circus," in which a few "Physicals" survive after most of mankind has uploaded itself into virtual reality, is the anthology's best moodpiece; like Alastair Reynolds' "Zima Blue," which features the galaxy's most unusual Christo-type artist, it shares the preoccupation with identity found in Gregory's story. And James Patrick Kelly's "Burn," a novella, brings a post-Thoreau planet into contact with a bizarre child ruler in order to meditate on what's at stake in utopias.
Overall, while there's much worthwhile reading in both anthologies, Dozois' entry still sets the gold standard for "Best of..." collections. Hartwell and Cramer, however, may be more attractive for those who prefer their SF to have less gender-bending and more adventure.