The school year has begun, meaning that I'm about to be buried in grades--but still, I had time (in between bouts of indexing, amongst other things...) to read the thirtieth installment of Gardner Dozois' The Year's Best Science Fiction. As always, Dozois' tastes run to the post-apocalyptic; this year, though, solidifies some more recent themes in his anthologizing. Many of the stories are post-colonial as well as post-apocalyptic, and the human protagonists are frequently not of Western origin (without the paranoid overtones of "X runs the future" that sometimes accompanies this shift). There is also, I cannot help noticing, a bit more overall optimism, even if the characters have a habit of occupying locations in which everything, the flora included, wants to eat you.
SF often tends toward the allegorical, and many of the stories drift in that direction. Indrapramit Das' "Weep for Day," for example, imagines the slow march of conquest on a world in which one side is always light, one always dark; our POV character, the daughter of a knight, slowly moves from fear of the Nightmares, the planet's original inhabitants, to a yearning to study them and perhaps understand their own worldview. "We need to see the rest of this world, to meet its other inhabitants--if there are other inhabitants--with curiosity, not apprehension" (14) she writes, calling for an openness to the Other rather than militaristic rejection and warfare. Jay Lake's "The Stars Do Not Lie" is more transparently allegorical: on a distant planet, a scientist finds astronomical proof that the official religious account of how humans arrived there cannot possibly be true. The fallout, complete with scary fundamentalist-type clergymen and a somewhat odd stand-in for the Masons, replays the "religion vs. science" wars, with secularism ultimately pointing the way forward. (Of all the stories in the collection, this one drops the heaviest anvils.)
Some of the stories explore humanity from the viewpoint of quite alien others. The narrator of Pat Cadigan's entertaining "The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi" is a human transformed into an octopus in order to better operate in space (to go "out for sushi" means undergoing the necessary surgery). Much of the story explores the conflict between sushi, who "have a problem with the species [humans] on general principle" (81), and the humans on earth, who find the sushi loathsome; the apparent fluidity enabled by surgery, far from breaking down the human/other barrier, in fact produces new forms of social antagonism. Despite the narrator insisting that "strictly binary thinking's the first thing to go" after surgery, it's hard not to notice that it keeps cropping up anyway. Eleanor Arnason offers an engaging twist on the Sherlock Holmes stories in "Holmes Sherlock: A Hwarhath Mystery," in which Kla, a hwarhath translator--a woman from a collectivist, matriarchal species in which heterosexuality is practically unheard of--tries to make sense of classic human fiction. Kla is appalled by novels like Madame Bovary, in which men and women keep trying to enter into "heterosexual alliances that were supposed to last a lifetime" and were "often unhappy, as might be expected"; she concludes that "[m]aybe the book could be seen as an argument against heterosexual love" (98). "Holmes Sherlock," like "Weep for Day," features multiple ways of engaging with the unimaginable Other, here represented by the heterosexual (and, one notes, without celebrating matriarchy as some ideal form of alternative government). In the end, the story slyly rehabilitates Watson's role as the figure gifted with emotional insights that Holmes cannot hope to match. Hannu Rajaniemi's "Tyche and the Ants" is told from the POV of a child who is clearly no longer quite human, and who must come to grips with the possibility that her electronic protector is, perhaps, doing something else entirely. The reader must decode what is happening through Tyche's elaborate storytelling, in which her world of trolls and magicians is invaded by something far more adult and far more dangerous; the result is a coming-of-age tale in which Tyche must abandon everything that has nurtured her--including, ultimately, her fairy-tale world--to face down a bleak reality. Robert Reed's "Katabasis," part of his "Great Ship" series, offers parallel Dantean treks across hostile landscapes, both told from the POV of the non-human title character: in one, Katabasis acts as a "porter" to immortal humans trekking through the murderous landscape that separates City East from City West; in the other, Katabasis remembers her own people's trek to escape their poverty by joining with the humans. Both journeys are marked by horrific suffering, but the questions remain: what does it mean for an immortal to choose to suffer? What does it mean for the leader of a people to make them suffer in the slim hopes that someone else will save them? Here, as in his Robinsonnade "Eater-of-Bone," the story plucks a redemptive strand out of the universal misery by suggesting that new relationships--across cultures or across generations--may always be formed out of what otherwise appears to be an utter wreck.
Cadigan's and Reed's stories, in which free choices don't always quite add up to free thinking, also hooks into one of this anthology's major themes: the freedom, or not, of the will to make moral choices. What happens when the need to survive conflicts with the drive to be good? This conflict is the overt subject of Richard A. Lovett's and William Gleason's "Nightfall on the Peak of Eternal Light," in which a young man, Drew, who has betrayed his criminal family, seeks to escape on a lunar colony. His choice echoes the betrayal that still nags at the story's chief police officer, who elected not to rejoin the mother of his child when they were separated; by the end, after Drew realizes that his redemptive, self-sacrificial choices have bound him to a "new family" (158), the officer realizes that "true family" was, indeed, about "choices," and that, perhaps, "sometimes you could choose both" (158). Brit Mandelo offers a much less optimistic read of such choices in another space mafia story, "The Finite Canvas," featuring a female contract killer who comes to a doctor exiled to an overheated Earth; as the killer, Jada, narrates the story of how she came to murder her lover, the doctor becomes tempted by the lucrative reward offered for Jada's capture. The ending, in which the doctor begins to tell the story all over again, suggests that confession can do little to ameliorate an evil once it is accomplished. Self-sacrifice must be its own reward in Alastair Reynolds' "The Water Thief," in which a displaced African mother finds herself in an impossible position during a very long-range job: here, choosing to do the right thing, which has devastating consequences for her future employment (and, therefore, her survival) has no payoff, beyond reinforcing her determination to survive at any cost. Sarah Monette's and Elizabeth Bear's "The Wreck of the 'Charles Dexter Ward'" cycles through similar themes in its mashup of Frankenstein with H. P. Lovecraft and zombies, as a doctor in trouble for researching dangerous secrets encounters someone even worse. Although the doctor makes the right choice because "[y]ou saw the person suffering first, not the scientific achievement" (553), the story also warns that such quests are innate to the human condition--doubling, perhaps, as an explanation for the persistence of the Faust legend itself.
These questions of choice extend to stories in which the very ability to choose is in question. Ferron, the protagonist of Elizabeth Bear's post-climate change "In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns," is a detective who has been genetically programmed to be deferential and supportive of her mother, whose passion for virtual reality has eaten up her and her daughter's financial resources; the murder mystery runs alongside Ferron's ongoing struggle to assert herself as a full subject against her mother's domination. Families show up yet again in Megan Lindholm's "Old Paint," in which a single mother inherits an ancient car that allows her to revisit her wayward youth. The mother tells her kids that, as a teenager, "I made some choices in my life" that her grandfather hated (352), which led to their mutual alienation; the narrative, which unspools around self-driving cars going haywire, uses the car as a vehicle (ahem) to explore the persistence of love even when it appears to be submerged beneath irreparable conflicts. Love and choice appears again in Lavie Tidhar's "Under the Eaves," set in a far-future Israel, in which a young woman must ask herself if she can love a robotnik (a cyborg soldier). Isobel feels that she cannot commit herself until she perfectly understands his emotional capabilities; by contrast, a seer warns her that "[l]ife, like a binary tree, is full of hard choices," and that "[t]here are no certainties" (441). Here, the only fully available "truth" turns out to rest in Isobel's sudden awareness of their mutual shared existence (447). In a change from the postapocalyptic to the pre-apocalyptic, Adam Roberts' "You?" offers a seriocomic narrative of a series of scientists who encounter an academic from Oregon, Tessimond, who informs them of something so blatantly "obvious" that it leads them to abandon their incipient Nobel-prize winning project; in the end, we are left to ask what we would value when faced with a single life-changing (indeed, universe-changing) revelation. And Michael Bishop's "Twenty Lights to 'The Land of Snow'" traces one young woman's struggle against, and ultimately acceptance of, her position as the new Dalai Lama aboard a Tibetan colony ship. "I am I" (275), cries the child Greta Bryn; how can that "I" be stabilized, especially as other selves (the previous Dalai Lama, the ship's captain) crumble during the ship's long journey? What is the obligation of that "I" to the souls which are now under its care?