Year’s Best Science Fiction, 7th Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois

Yes: 30-year-old science fiction.

I’ve been pondering lately the future of the Year’s Best collections, as published by St Martin’s Press and edited by Gardner Dozois for 35 years until his death last year. Will they continue? I think the answer is probably not. By now, you would usually be able to pre-order the latest edition, and there’s no sign of it. Dozois would be hard to replace, anyway. The monumental achievement of maintaining consistently high quality over the best part of four decades of changing fashions in science fiction was all due to his experience and expertise; I can’t imagine anyone wanting to step into those shoes, to perhaps be the one to kill the franchise.

Meanwhile, what will replace it in my summer reading virtual pile? One likely candidate doesn’t even get a Kindle edition. Others mix fantasy with science fiction, and I’ve a low tolerance for fantasy, so I’d feel like I was wasting half my money.

Yesterday, I had one of those reading emergencies. I’ve had a couple of duff downloads, books I gave up on because they weren’t grabbing me, and I was casting about desperately for something to read. In this situation, pre-Kindle, I would usually end up in Fnac looking at their paltry selection of overpriced books in English. Because I can instead just download something from Amazon, I ended up, after a long and uninspiring browsing session, buying a 30-year-old edition of the Year’s Best, volume 7, which I think I haven’t already got (there were a few early in the run that I didn’t have and I’ve been slowly catching up with them through digital versions).

A couple of things about this choice. First, the uninspired browsing session is largely the result of the current fashion in SF publishing. I’m just not that into the stuff coming out at the moment. Even with a willingness to buy, I’m just not finding books I love to read. Part of the problem, too, is that there is so much dross on the Kindle store, thanks to self-published authors like myself. Mind you, my two duff downloads were both well-reviewed, properly published, nominated for awards etc., but still didn’t speak to me. Jade City by Fonda Lee was an urban fantasy in a Hong Kong like city in which the magical properties of Jade give crime families superpowers. And I just didn’t care. Meanwhile, Claire North’s 84K is a kind of 1984 de nos jours, just stretching the Tory mania for austerity and privatisation a little further into a nasty dystopian vision of Britain. My problem with it is the same as the one I had with Ricky Gervais’ The Office. I didn’t find that show funny because my then-boss was exactly like that, and I was living The Office every day, depressed and feeling bullied at the same time. So I couldn’t enjoy 84K because I already feel as if I live in a nasty dystopian version of Britain. Another issue I have with current publishing is the trend to put hyperbolic marketing messages and blurb into the book title on Amazon. It smacks of that terrible trend on YouTube for people to hype videos with such titles as, “The Most Incredible Version of this Song Ever”. It’s all part of the dystopia we live in.

Meanwhile, what is 30 year old science fiction like? Because SF is always about the here-and-now, of course, and the human condition under what if…? conditions. Which is why it has always been my favourite genre, and why I’d rather read science fiction than mediocre lit-fic by the likes of Ian McEwan whose appalling comments about SF in an interview gave lots of people the rage this week.

So, the second thing about my download choice is this: what were SF writers obsessed with in 1989? I’ve only read the first four stories so far. As you might expect, Gardner Dozois’ selections are superb, but I’m still noticing stuff. Cast your mind back to 1989. I mean, it’s recognisably the modern era, post-PC, post-space shuttle, early days of the internet and so on. But mobile phones haven’t become ubiquitous, climate change hasn’t become an obsession, and we’d only experienced 10 years of neoliberal economics.

The first story in the collection, by Judith Moffett, is ‘Tiny Tango’, a novella about the AIDS epidemic, genes, cross-dressing, indifferent alien visitors, and nuclear meltdown. It covers a hell of a lot of ground, but the thing that surprised me the most was the attempt to lay out the possible future of how HIV/AIDS would develop. It was a shock to remember how terribly urgent and present the disease was back then. The other interesting trope was the visiting aliens who, it turned out, didn’t seem all that interested in humans and their problems. Watch this space for that theme and what it might mean.

Charles Sheffield’s ‘Out of Copyright’, on the other hand, could have been written yesterday. He merges the idea that humans can be cloned with issues of intellectual property, and suggests that 75 years after someone’s death they might be cloned by anyone willing to bid for the rights. So who would get cloned and why, and how much would corporations be willing to pay? A brilliant story that still seems fresh. The identity of ‘Al’, the narrator, is the punchline.

Mike Resnick’s ‘For I Have Touched the Sky’ was probably a bit controversial even in 1989, but if published now might face accusations of cultural appropriation or similar. Resnick imagines a space habitat constructed for a throwback Kenyan tribal culture, a society deliberately harking back to a pre-contact state of innocent primitivism. There’s even mention of female circumcision, which these days gets called FGM and is extremely problematic.

Which brings us to Gregory Benford’s ‘Alphas’, which is the human nickname for another group of indifferent alien visitors, who arrive in the solar system and start messing with Venus using technology so advanced it looks like magic. In 1989, Benford was at his peak, having published the groundbreaking novel Timescape, which I remember reading and re-reading shortly before going to university. It still holds up as a ‘difficult’ hard science text, using concepts that come straight out of the research labs of top universities.

That’s it so far. So what about these indifferent aliens? What was happening, culturally, in the late 1980s to cause science fiction writers to imagine that they might not care about us very much? In the 50s and 60s, the aliens had been all about stepping in to steer or guide humanity in some way. In the 70s, they wanted to eat us. Probably. But by the end of the 80s, they just didn’t care. I wonder: was this the result of the Thatcher/Reagan years? A general feeling of uncaring individualism, loss of social cohesion, indifference to wider social issues, being content to leave people to their abjection?

And here come the aliens, who are merely, of course, a mirror held up to an uncaring society. They don’t care about our petty problems, our obvious suffering, our urgent need for kind intervention.

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Star Trek 2017 – graphic designers in space?

StargateUniverseCBS have announced that they’re launching a new Star Trek TV series in 2017, to be screened (in the USA) on their streaming service All Access. I wonder what that means for the UK? Amazon? Netflix? A CBS app on Apple TV? Sky Atlantic? I’d be surprised if any of the terrestrial broadcasters bothered with it. Anyway, people are already speculating about what form the new series would take, and in what era. On a ship with a crew? A space station with a crew? Would it be in the JJ Abrams reboot universe? It’s unlikely to tie too closely with the recent films – if only because the rights to the film franchise is jointly owned by Paramount and CBS.

This is something I’ve thought about before. The last Trek series that was decent, even if only in parts, was Voyager, and that was mostly for a couple of years at the beginning of Seven of Nine’s residency. Even Voyager had too many silly characters. Enterprise was disappointing, partly because it seemed like too safe a choice, and partly because they allowed it to be derailed by the 9/11-style attack on Earth and all the subsequent War on Terror nonsense. So the show died, in my mind, before it could really get going. Prior to all that, I never much liked Deep Space Nine, although some people do swear by it. I expect if I saw it again now it would be better than I remember. Apart from those Ferengi plots. And Odo.

TNG was also a mixed bag. Better after its creator died, but like most things probably overstaying its welcome.

My ideal new Star Trek has already been made: it was called Stargate Universe, and like the Original Series of Trek, it was cancelled (too soon, I say). Others might argue that Firefly had something of the original Trek frontier spirit, but that too was cancelled too soon.

Here are some of my ideas for the new Trek.

  • Game of Trek – diplomats vying for supremacy, the Federation falling apart, intrigue, murder, a cast of thousands. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Star Fleet Academy – a revolving cohort of young people on training missions that, like the holodeck of old, always go wrong. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Star Trek Parallels – life is tough in the Mirror Universe. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Star Trek Frozen – a character frozen in the OS era wakes up in his/her far future. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Star Trek Bios – the crew of a ground station on a planet with a hostile biological environment but valuable secrets. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Indistinguishable – the adventures of a small but dedicated group of researchers in the Advanced Technology Unit – creating and testing new, experimental tech that is indistinguishable from magic. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Edge of Forever – time portal Trek. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Starfleet Weapons Inspectors – trying to prevent the next devastating intergalactic conflct. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Graphic Designers in Space – needs no explanation
  • Star Trek Dreamscape – the whole thing takes place in one of Chakotay’s vision quests. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan bajoran entirely optional.
  • Star Trek Refugee – a small crew on a broken down ship try to survive in a hostile universe, and try to avoid the attentions of the Federation (hmmm… seems familiar). Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Star Trek Derelict – a crew of “wreck divers” discover an abandoned alien ship with technology so advanced they barely understand it – and attempt to fly it home (hmmm… seems familiar). Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.