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Twenty-First Century Science Fiction: An Anthology Paperback – September 23, 2014
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From Publishers Weekly
Reviewed by Gardner Dozois. In my more than 40 years working in the science fiction publishing industry, I've seen this notion crop up every 10 years or so: Science fiction has exhausted itself. There are no good new writers coming along anymore. The genre is finished! Tor editors Hartwell and Nielsen Hayden thoroughly refute such claims with their huge reprint anthology featuring 34 stories published between 2003 and 2011 by writers who came to prominence since the 20th century changed into the 21st. Here in the second decade of the 21st century, some of these new writers, like Charles Stross, John Scalzi, and Cory Doctorow, have become big names; others, like Elizabeth Bear, Paolo Bacigalupi, Catherynne M. Valente, and Hannu Rajaniemi, have multiple novels and major awards to their credit; and some, like Ken Liu, Yoon Ha Lee, Tobias S. Buckell, and Vandana Singh, are just starting out, but will almost certainly be among the most recognizable names of the next decade. Twentieth-century Campbellian SF—the sort published in John W. Campbell's Astounding/Analog magazine of the '30s, '40s, and '50s—was often about space travel, colonizing other worlds, space warfare, contact with aliens, and the far future. By contrast, most of these stories stay closer to the present, and many don't leave Earth at all. Common topics include posthumans, interrogations of the nature and existence of human consciousness, and the exponentially expanding possibilities of information-processing and virtuality technologies. There are also many robots and artificial intelligences, including human-mimicking dolls, companions, and sexbots. It's worth noting that many of these authors would have been excluded from Campbell's largely white, male, middle-class American stable of writers. The face of science fiction has changed as well as its subject matter. It's hard to pick favorites with so many good stories on offer, but my personal selections would be Bear's Tideline, in which a dying robot in a devastated war-torn future teaches some of the human survivors how to become more human; Moles's Finisterra, a vivid adventure in which people engage in internecine warfare among huge living dirigibles in a layer of Earthlike atmosphere on a Jupiter-sized planet; and Watts's The Island, in which a work crew building a series of wormhole transport gates across the galaxy encounters a living intelligent creature the size of a sun. I'd like to have seen something by Lavie Tidhar, one of the most exciting new SF writers of the last few years, as well as some work by Aliette de Bodard and Kij Johnson, and while the late Kage Baker certainly deserves to be here, I'm not sure I would have picked Plotters and Shooters, one of her minor works, to represent her. However, these are just quibbles. Twenty-First Century Science Fiction will certainly be recognized as one of the best reprint science fiction anthologies of the year, and it belongs in the library of anyone who is interested in the evolution of the genre. Gardner Dozois has written and edited more than 100 books, has won 15 Hugo Awards for editing, has been inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and edits the Year's Best Science Fiction, a yearly anthology series. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
“A bumper crop of 34 stories from authors who first came to prominence in the 21st century, compiled by two of the most highly respected editors in the business....Grab this book. Whether newcomer or old hand, the reader will not be disappointed.” ―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“In my more than 40 years working in the science fiction publishing industry, I've seen this notion crop up every 10 years or so: 'Science fiction has exhausted itself. There are no good new writers coming along anymore. The genre is finished!' Tor editors Hartwell and Nielsen Hayden thoroughly refute such claims....Twenty-First Century Science Fiction will certainly be recognized as one of the best reprint science fiction anthologies of the year, and it belongs in the library of anyone who is interested in the evolution of the genre.” ―Gardner Dozois, Publishers Weekly
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Top Customer Reviews
I'm taking 1 star off because of the odd story arrangement (weepy stories in the first half, great hard sci-fi in the back) and the fact that the story synopses were a bit too revealing, ruining the element of surprise to the point where I started skipping them entirely. Here's a brief (and spoiler-free!) description of the stories in this collection:
"Infinities" by Vandana Singh
If Lifetime ever takes over the SciFi channel, the resulting TV shows would look a lot like this story. A tale of a mathematician's sad life, with a lot of math and not a lot of science fiction. A bit of a downer and an odd choice as the anthology's opening story.
"Rogue Farm" by Charles Stross
A hilarious short story about hillbillies of the future, their pot-smoking dogs and rogue space-faring collective farms.
"The Gambler" by Paolo Bacigalupi
Another growth&development story, this time about a Laotian refugee. Well written, but the sci-fi elements almost seem to be an after-thought.
"Strood" by Neal Asher
What would our lives be like if super-advanced aliens came a-knocking? Neal Asher's story sounds more plausible than most - and it has a great twist!
"Eros, Philia, Agape" by Rachel Swirsky
A moving story about a woman, her robot lover, their daughter and the dynamics of that relationship.
"The Tale of the Wicked" by John Scalzi
A witty story about the dangers of making your spaceship too smart. An oldie but a goodie that originally appeared in the "The New Space Opera 2" anthology in 2009.
“Bread And Bombs” by M. Rickert
A disturbing story from the point of view of a kid growing up in a world plagued by a war fought with futuristic technology and people with atavistic prejudices.
“The Waters Of Meribah” by Tony Ballantyne
A creepy, slow-paced but enthralling story about a convicted rapist sentenced to get his human body replaced with an alien one, one part at a time.
“Tk’tk’tk” by David Levine
The adventures of a software salesman on an alien planet. And you thought communication barriers between humans were bad!
“The Nearest Thing” by Genevieve Valentine
A rather tragic tale of a programmer who creates robots capable of imitating your loved ones. The tone and the main character reminded me of the protagonist of Neil Stephenson's Cryptonomicon.
“Erosion” by Ian Creasey
A supposedly deep story about a 22nd-century Brit who goes through extensive body modification to colonize a new world, goes soul-searching on his last night on Earth and gets in a world of trouble. Personally, I had a hard time buying the emotional epiphany at the end - it felt as fake as Nathan Petrelli's sudden religious awakening in season 3 of Heroes.
“The Calculus Plague” by Marissa Lingen
A great concept that isn't fully developed. The story abruptly ends without any resolution.
“One Of Our Bastards Is Missing” by Paul Cornell
An interesting story set in a futuristic world where the 19th-century empires never collapsed. This is the second story in the series, which is probably why certain things aren't fully explained. Still a good story, though.
“Tideline” by Elizabeth Bear
A moving story about the friendship between a dying combat robot and a feral teenager.
“Finisterra” by David Moles
If you like science fiction stories that build entire worlds and populate them with strange alien creatures, you'll love this one. This story is a bit like Moby Dick, except it's set in space. On a Jupiter-like planet. Oh, and the whales are miles long and know how to fly.
“Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal
A great exercise in creative writing, this micro-short story tells more in less than 1,000 words than most writers can fit in 10,000.
“The Education Of Junior Number 12″" by Madeline Ashby
A tie-in to Ashby's novel "vN" but it works perfectly fine as a stand-alone story. What happens to all the benevolent, unquestioning, slave-like self-replicating humanoid robots when the end of the world they'd been designed for fails to materialize?
“Toy Planes” by Tobias Buckell
Another micro-short story - this one is about an island nation that wants to join the space race. Not a lot of hard sci-fi here, more like a tale of independence
“The Algorithms For Love” by Ken Liu
A sad tale of what can happen when a brilliant expert on artificial intelligence becomes disillusioned in the very concept of intelligence, as well as free will.
“The Albian Message” by Oliver Morton
Yet another micro-short story. If super-advanced aliens left us a present a few million years ago, what would be in it?
“To Hie From Far Cilenia” by Karl Schroeder
One of the stories from the 2010 "Metatropolis" anthology. It's the longest story in this anthology and describes a complex near-future world where a Russian expert on radiation containment working for Interpol explores a vast underground virtual economy and the ethics of hijacking people's minds for their own good.
“Savant Songs” by Brenda Cooper
A brilliant autistic physicist tries to breach the walls of multiverse with her loyal assistant by her side. Told from the assistant's point of view, this story is equal parts about science fiction and relationships.
“Ikiryoh” by Liz Williams
A genetically engineered nanny (for some reason, I kept imagining her as Jar Jar Binks) exiled after a palace revolt is told to watch over a mysterious little girl. The story's take on the yin-yang balance isn't new, but the world it's set in is pretty interesting.
“The Prophet Of Flores” by Ted Kosmatka
If you like stories about alternate history, you'll love this one. In this story's world, Darwin's theory of evolution is considered a lie, all science is based on creationism and the main character, a young anthropologist/archaeologist, doesn't do what you'd expect him to.
“How To Become A Mars Overlord” by Catherynne M. Valente
A fun story told as an instruction manual for all the wannabe-overlords. It describes the many ways in which humans (and exotic aliens) have taken over Mars - or their local alien equivalents.
“Second Person, Present Tense” by Daryl Gregory
Most science fiction stories concentrate on the fiction part. This one goes against the trend and explores the science aspect. An all-too-believable story about the nature of human identity, a drug that takes away your conscious decision-making process and what can happen when you overdose on it.
“Third Day Lights” by Alaya Dawn Johnson
***DO NOT READ the anthology's synopsis for this story - it spoils one of the biggest surprises!***
One of my favorite stories in the anthology, it features a strange pocket universe and a moody alien queen with her quirky friends, as well as a mysterious not-quite-human man who wishes to court the queen by passing her 3 challenges.
“Balancing Accounts” by James Cambias
An interesting story where every main character is a space-faring robot. The protagonist is an entrepreneurial robot that does odd jobs in order to make a 6% annual return for its owners/investors back on Earth. Things change when a human enters the picture...
“A Vector Alphabet Of Interstellar Travel” by Yoon Ha Lee
One of my favorite stories in the anthology: a series of creative descriptions of space-faring alien races and how their spaceships work. (Or don't work, in some cases.) Short, sweet and unusual.
“His Master’s Voice” by Hannu Rajaniemi
In an overcrowded world where immortality is cheap, it's up to a hyper-intelligent dog and a cat (armed with quantum claws and Russian missile launchers!) to save their imprisoned owner. A+ for creativity.
“Plotters And Shooters” by Kage Baker
"Lord of the Flies" meets "Ender's Game" in this story about nerds and jocks charged with protecting the human settlements on Mars from rogue asteroids.
“The Island” by Peter Watts
As hard sci-fi goes, this story is harder than a diamond: a cynical human crew on a slower-than-light starship controlled by a sociopathic AI spends millions of years traveling the universe, setting up new stargates and seeing entire civilizations, monsters and gods appear and die as they pass by. This story features their encounter with something that surprises even them.
“Escape To Other Worlds With Science Fiction” by Jo Walton
Yet another little present for all the lovers of alternate history out there. In this world, the Nazis won, the economic boom of the 1950s never happened and things look pretty bleak for the working class. (Though not as bleak as they do for minorities...) This story is set in Walton's alternate history trilogy, which has just earned the top spot on my "to read" list.
“Chicken Little” by Cory Doctorow
One of the longest (and most interesting, in my opinion) stories in this anthology. We all know how hard it is to buy a present for somebody who already has everything. What kind of a present (or better yet, pricey product) can you give to a functionally immortal quadrillionaire that's over 100 years old?
Here are seven that stood out:
Vandana Singh’s “Infinities” follows Abdul Karim through his life, with occasional side trips into the realm of mathematics where he finds refuge from it. A bonus for readers is how much we learn about the actual mathematics of infinity and prime numbers.
Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Gambler” shows us future tools for mining global information flow and the kind of audiences, reporters and celebrities who are shaped by them. There is still room for more than one view of what is important.
John Scalzi’s "The Tale of the Wicked" evokes those feelings we sometimes have that our office computers are really running things--and that their errors are intentional.
Mary Robinnette Kowal’s “Evil Robot Monkey” asks whether animals are made more human by increasing their intelligence or by increasing our empathy.
Daryl Gregory's "Second Person, Present Tense" is one of those teen identity stories with a bratty, first person narrator. Actually, it's the second person, in the first person. But the first person isn't in there anymore. Much. Anyway, she really hates her parents.
Yoon Ha Lee’s “A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel” is a reference book from the far future. It classifies several alien civilizations by their methods for moving through space. Many of these methods are intimately related to their civilizations’ core values.
Elizabeth Bear’s “Tideline” portrays the parental relationship between a boy and a damaged robot struggling to remember the past with honor.
I recommend the collection as worth buying, reading, and keeping.