Gardner Dozois' anthology of thirty-two stories is, as always, noteworthy for featuring generally well-written and well-crafted stories, many of which lean to the dystopian. Surprisingly, given Dozois' affection for online venues, all but two stories originated in print magazines and other anthologies, and the two exceptions both came from the same venue. While the number of apocalypto-fics continues to decline (and the two most obvious examples are not manmade apocalypses), Dozois still has a taste for visions of the future in which terrorism and total warfare are a fact of life.
In some ways, this was a very "flat" anthology, in the sense that no single story stood out as particularly adventurous; nearly all the stories were, as I said, well-crafted, but there are no exceptionally striking or startling entries. Just about everything is told in linear fashion and in the realist mode, and few of the authors have a really individuated style. Three of the stories have metafictional or metahistoriographical aspirations. John Barnes' "An Ocean Is a Snowflake, Four Billion Miles Away" follows two future documentary filmmakers as they record both each other and the terraforming of Mars; their interactions (filmed by cameras pointedly called "stalkers"), their editorial practices, and their philosophies of documentary art all leave "reality" up in the air. Similarly, Tom Purdom's "The Mists of Time," a time-travel story, suggests that the present's interpretive frameworks will not be dispelled just by exposure to a past event in real time. In the end, even the past is trying to live up to its own past. And Elizabeth Bear's "Tideline," set in an unknown wartime environment, shows how storytelling and memory can begin to reunite an otherwise entirely atomized culture. The story most explicitly engaged with the SF literary past, meanwhile, is Nancy Kress' "Laws of Survival," which rewrites Harlan Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog" on feminist terms. ("A Boy and His Dog" gets namechecked in passing.) For Kress' heroine, whose son was murdered by soldiers, training dogs for some unknown alien purpose leads her to revise her fifth "law," "Feel nothing" (493), into the more emotionally adventurous "Take the risk. Love something" (504). There is no certainty at the end of the story--not least because our heroine is flying off to some unknown planet--but, at least, there is a makeshift affective community.
Of the two full-blown apocalypses, I preferred Robert Reed's gentle "Roxie," in which the narrator's love for his dog (and apparent alienation from his wife and child) eventually becomes a meditation on what makes a life worth living--in the face of a very likely meteor strike that will destroy civilization as we know it. The oddest of the total war stories is Ian McDonald's "Verthandi's Ring," involving multiple universes, intergalactic conflict, and wild strategies that would probably stump Clausewitz. McDonald's other entry, "Sanjeev and Robotwallah," is a more measured, elegiac story about adolescents recruited for long-distance soldiering, and what happens to them once the war is over; once a morbid rock star, of a sort, the impoverished Sanjeev's robotwallah ultimately turns into a defeated child again, "like a calf, quiet and meek" (308). The childhood and warfare theme (also a part of "Tideline") arises again in Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "Craters," which bears some similarities to another story anthologized by Dozois a few years back, Daniel Abraham's "Leviathan Wept." As in Abraham's story, "Craters" imagines a world in which children have been turned into suicide bombers (here, the children literally are bombs); confronted with a horribly mutilated child who managed to survive her own explosion, Rusch's journalist protagonist grimly realizes that she has become a person for whom such a child is just "another fact in a lifetime of useless facts" (547).
Financial speculation, capitalism, greed, and general profit-seeking tend to be alive and well (so to speak) in all of these futures. Granted, as in Ken MacLeod's rather John Varleyesque "Lighting Out," things don't always go quite so well as the future eBayer (of a sort) intends. Neal Asher's adventure tale "Alien Archeology," which returns to gabbleducks, is moderately less sadistic--despite torture, decapitation, etc.--than his previous outing in this universe. Kage Baker's "Hellfire at Twilight," one of her Company stories, is probably the fluffiest story in the anthology, but it provides some welcome comic relief from the death and destruction elsewhere. The most complex of the financial tales, however, is Bruce Sterling's "Kiosk," which imagines how replication devices might affect a downtrodden, post-war economy, while also suggesting the unpredictability and, perhaps, the sheer strangeness of history; it's someone from "a small place under unique circumstances," whose story is altered beyond recognition by outsiders who were "the Voice of History," who manages to change the globe (267). Like "The Mists of Time," "Kiosk" dryly notes that the past will always be a foreign country.
Of the remaining stories, the one I found most interesting was Vandana Singh's "Of Love and Other Monsters," which is one of the stories that dwells on what happens when humans encounter something entirely Other. In a way, the story literalizes Homi Bhabha's theories of mimicry and hybridity. The aliens are both us and not-us, and humans "feel alienated, not only from each other but from their own selves" because we have been colonized from within (361). (That's one way of answering Arnold's question.) The narrator is himself an alien who has been "fixed," as it were, into a single form; his coming-of-age is really a coming-of-alienation, the realization both that he is mimicking humanity and that humanity itself has become a sort of hybrid, two species at war within single minds. What to do--embrace one's terrifying difference, which might turn out to be a comfort, or try to find some companionship with others who both are and aren't like you at all?