Best Short Novels: 2006 edited by Jonathan Strahan

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Image"The Little Goddess" by Ian McDonald

"The Gist Hunter" by Matthew Hughes
"Human Readable" by Cory Doctorow
"Audubon in Atlantis" by Harry Turtledove
"Magic for Beginners" by Kelly Link
"Fishin’ with Grandma Matchie" by Steven Erikson
"The Policeman’s Daughter" by Wil McCarthy
"Inside Job" by Connie Willis
"The Cosmology of the Wider World" by Jeffrey Ford
The number of "Year’s Best" anthologies is growing, and this is a Good Thing for readers who can’t keep up with the entire output of fiction in our field.  This particular volume, edited by Jonathan Strahan, is especially welcome, since the length of the novella prevents most of these works from being included in the other annual anthologies.  Here they have a place of their own.

First, despite the date in the title, the stories here were first published in 2005.  It is also notable that there is no mention of genre in the title, though its publication by the Science Fiction Book Club may be clue enough.  The contents reveal that Strahan’s selections tilt toward the science fiction end of the speculative fiction spectrum.

Are these in fact the best novellas published last year?  Probably not, although Strahan’s selection is better than that of the Nebula nominators, and I also note that 2005 does not seem to have been a vintage year for novella-length SF.  Strahan mentions other outstanding works in his introduction.

Are the novellas collected here good ones?  They are.  Each in its own way should reward the reader’s time.

"The Little Goddess" is an outtake of sorts from Ian McDonald‘s vast, magnificent novel River of Gods.  In the divine kingdom of Nepal, a young child blessed with a dissociative disorder is chosen to be the goddess Kumari, to dwell in a palace in Kathmandu and receive the worship of the people as the living avatar of the goddess until the day she first spills her blood.  But if Kumari is blessed, an ex-Kumari is cursed.  She can find no place in her superstitious kingdom, and she is drawn to cosmopolitan India.

Shining cities as old as history.  There aeais haunted the crowded streets like gandhavas.  There men outnumbered women four to one.  There the old distinctions were abandoned and women married as far up and men as few steps down the tree of caste as they could.
And there, the clear waters of  Kumari’s story of trying to find a place for herself  flow into the great sea of McDonald’s cyberdeva novel about the wars of the aeais, i.e., AIs.  Her mental disorder turns out to make her a perfect courier for smuggling illicit aeais within her brain.  But events turn out to be more powerful than even an ex-goddess can overcome.  The worldbuilding here is the real wonder of the novella, but it derives much of its exotic texture from the novel in the background, and too much depends on the larger political events in the book, of which the shorter work only shows us brief, confusing glimpses.  The greater story overwhelms the smaller.  Despite this, it is a work rich with ancient and sciencefictional wonders side-by-side, and if you put it down at the end only to search out the novel from which it was born, so much the better.

"The Gist Hunter" is a Henghis Hapthorn story, which is all you really need to know if you are familiar with this Vancean-inspired series of tales set in the far-future Archonate universe of Matthew Hughes.  Henghis narrates his own adventures as a freelance discriminator, the foremost of his era, and as he would be certain that no one else could do justice to his brilliance, I will allow him to recount a portion of his conversation with the Bureau of Scrutiny’s Colonel Investigator Brustram Warhanny:

"Hapthorn, what’s afoot?"
            "Much, indeed," I said.  "You have snatched up Turgut Therobar."
            His elongated face assumed an even more lugubrious mien.  "There are serious charges.  Blood and molestation of the innocent.’
            "These do not jibe with my sense of Turgut Therobar," I said.  "His name is a byword for charity and well doing."
           "Not all bywords are accurate," Warhanny said.  "I have even heard that some say that ‘scroot’ ought to be a byword for ‘paucity of imagination coupled with clumping pudfootery.’"
With misplaced faith in Therobar’s innocence, Henghis agrees to stand surety for his client, then proceeds to his estate, there to conduct his investigation, only to discover that Therobar has allied himself with others of ill intent.  There is much else here to amuse and delight, included a perverted demon, Henghis’s PDA, which has been inexplicably transformed into a querulous creature that grooms its fur obsessively, and his intuitive alter ego, who does not share the high opinion that his analytical self has for his own abilities.  The author has even thrown in a plot, as a bonus.

"Human Readable" by Cory Doctorow is a rare piece of real science fiction, devoid of fantastic elements and set in a world entirely explicable as the outcome of current technology.  Here, the world is run by ants–"networks modeled on ant-colonies that use virtual pheromonones to explore all possible routes in realtime and emerge solutions to the problem of getting everything, everywhere, in shortest time."  But the network isn’t perfect, and when a Downtime occurs, the entire system breaks down.  People die.  In response, Trish McCavity returns to Washington to head the effort to push a bill through Congress that would require the network to be interrogatable, or readable, by humans.  She suspects that certain very powerful interests are manipulating the supposedly self-governing system to their own advantage.  This puts her at odds with the man she almost loves, Rainer Feinstein, a network engineer who insists that it is scientifically impossible for the network to be corrupted.  Before long, Rainer appears on the Hill as an advocate for Trish’s opposition.  Despite the neepery, this is above all a very real and human story, as Trish and Rainer discover who the other really is.

Harry Turtledove is the colossus of alternate history authors, and "Audubon in Atlantis" is precisely what the title describes, a description of the travels of naturalist John James Audubon to the island nation of Atlantis, which lies in the middle of the Atlantic between Europe and the western continent of Terranova.  It is Audubon’s dream to see the giant flightless honkers of Atlantis and capture them on paper before they become extinct, along with the rest of the native fauna of Atlantis, doomed by human settlement and the more ruthless species that humans have brought with them to the island.  This alternate world is meticulously well thought-out and populated.  The introductory section, in which the sea-sick Audubon crosses the ocean on a paddlewheel steamship, suffers from longeurs, as it reveals little with which we are unfamiliar.  But once Audubon sets out into the outback of Atlantis, the story becomes a travelogue of natural wonders, worth visiting despite the author’s tendency to redundancies.

"Magic for Beginners" is without a doubt the story of 2005.  It has made its way into every relevant Years Best anthology, and author Kelly Link has only begun to accumulate the awards that it is certain to bring her, starting with the Nebula.  So it is interesting to note how many reviewers claim they do not entirely understand it.  This, I suspect, is part of the author’s intention.  "Magic for Beginners" is a metafictional equivocal fantasy.  That is, to put it simply, a story about a story, in which there is evidence for it being a fantasy and other evidence for it being no more than some character’s imagination, or dream, or a metaphor for something the author is trying to tell us; either answer is possible, although the author will often hint that one is more probable than the other.  And it’s also possible that the narrator is not always telling the entire truth.

It is the story about a fifteen-year-old boy named Jeremy, sometimes Germ to his friends, who is a fan of a TV show called The Library.  The narrator tells us that Jeremy is also a character in the show.  But the show that is Jeremy’s mundane life seems to have little in common with the show on TV, which appears in every respect to be a fantasy, filled with magic and wonder.  One of the characters on the show is Fox [think: kitsune], who is killed in the latest episode, though Jeremy and his friends believe she might still be alive, or come back to life.  It’s that sort of show.  In fact, it would be easy to believe The Library is not a TV show at all, but a glimpse into some other world that really exists and might even be accessible from this one.  Jeremy and his friends wish they could be characters in The Library, wish they could be part of that world.  Jeremy is sort of in love with Fox, which is less complicated than being in love with Elizabeth or Talis, either or both of whom might be Fox if they were all really characters in the show.  Fox talks to Jeremy from a phone booth in Nevada, which is less complicated than dealing with the fact that his mother might be leaving his father.  In the phone calls, Fox tells Jeremy she needs his help, that he is the only one who can save her.  When Jeremy finds the phone booth, it is empty, with a rank scent as if an animal had been living in it.  Maybe Jeremy has saved Fox.  Maybe he has started to grow up.  Maybe the real magic here is Link’s ability to evoke the turbulence and confusion that is the life of a fifteen-year-old boy.

In "Fishin’ with Grandma Matchie" Steven Erikson has given us not just a Tall Tale but three of them, told by young Jock Junior, who cannot learn to control his imagination, although Jock insists it is all the Truth!  It all comes about because his teacher assigns an essay about what he did on his summer vacation at Rat Portage Lake.  There, says Jock Junior,

Grandma Matchie lives in a two storey wooden lodge that has been under water since 1899.  That was the year the dam was opened.  Fifty feet down, she says, all lit up so that the astronauts can see it whenever they pass overhead.  She sleeps down there and comes up most mornings after breakfast, but sometimes earlier.
After that, things start to get really strange, in a way that make this a very Canadian Tall Tale.  There is One Armed Trapper, who steals Jock’s teenaged sister, there is OAT’s mother, Lunker, "the biggest pike you e’er seen!"  There is the lake full of dead buffalo, and the lampreys that Grandma Matchie rides on as if they were water skis: "as long as snakes, glowing from the inside out, and their round mouths had a thousand million seven hundred twenty-one sharp teeth prangled up inside, stickering out everywhere."  Jock Junior is a true master of both hyperbole and neologism.

Erikson’s story is one of two selections from PS Publishing’s chapbook series, and for me, these alone make this volume worthwhile, because I likely would not have encountered them anywhere else, as their length has kept them from being included in most other YB volumes.  This Tall Tale is a whole lot of over-the-top creative fun, with a hint of myth thrown in for extra savor.

Wil McCarthy is one of the field’s rare practitioners of hard science fiction, but "The Policeman’s Daughter" is more of a far-future legal mystery set in his "Queendom of Sol" universe. The root cause of the problem is the ubiquitous fax machines that the population uses for instantaneous travel and also to ensure their immorbidity by allowing everyone to keep backup copies of themselves on hand in case of accident.  Occasionally, an original and a copy may no longer see themselves as identical, and each wishes to maintain an independent existence.  This fate has befallen Theodore Great Kaffner, whose earlier self, Angry Young Theddy, has been attempting to murder the older version and thus become the only Theddy there is.  The older Theddy engages the services of his old college roommate, advocate Carmine Strange Douglas, who attempts to mediate between the versions of his friend.  But Angry Young Theddy insists on taking his case to court, and furthermore, he demands to be represented by his close friend Carmine.  Carmine is forced to activate a younger copy of his own self to fulfill this obligation, but Young Carmine turns out to be almost as stubborn and unreasonable as Angry Young Theddy.  Worse, he insists on trying to revive the love affair between himself and Pamela Red, which broke up almost a century ago.  Naturally, complications multiply.  This is a clever and entertaining story, but I have to think that the alienation of different selves would have had to be a far more common problem than seems to be the case in McCarthy’s world.

In "Inside Job" by Connie Willis, Rob is a professional skeptic and debunker whose motto is: "If anything seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t."  This includes his gorgeous, independently wealthy assistant, Kildy; Rob can’t figure why she would want to be working for his shoestring operation, The Jaundiced Eye.  Kildy is the one who discovers Ariaura Keller, a fraudulent psychic who seems to be involuntarily channeling the irascible spirit of archskeptic curmudgeon H.L. Menken [Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people], who breaks into her performances to denounce them as bunkum.  This apparition, as tempting as it might be to believe in, is definitely too good to be true.  But how can Rob prove that the "spirit of Menken" is just another fake?  This story is amusing, but the real interest is in the wealth of fascinating H.L. Menken trivia with which Willis illustrates it.

The crowning jewel of this anthology comes at the end with its longest work, the second novella from PS Publishing, Jeffrey Ford‘s "The Cosmology of the Wider World."  The other selections here are all pretty good stories, in one way or another, but this is a wonderful story.  This reviewer, longtime Tangent readers may recall, is not easily impressed, but Ford has done it, recombining the myths of Deadalus and Pygmalion into a new creation with a distinctly Vancean tone.

Belius the minotaur is in pain, and being Belius’, his pain is too large to be contained.

He lowed in a tone more of creature than man, and that sound flew out toward the horizon.  Upon losing speed, it dropped with a splash into the deep ocean and sank, frightening lamprey, scattering herds of sea horses, to eventually settle on the sandy bottom.  As Belius wiped his eyes clear, the egg of a bubble his voice had made cracked open, giving birth to the exact sound that had formed it.  The sad moan vibrated in every atom of green water for miles around.
For some time, Belius had seemed content in his home in the Wider World, working on his great creation, the Cosmology.  He has long believed that every civilization must have its own Cosmology, for "It gives to men and women a basic something in common, an illusion of certainty in which they can assuage the fear caused by the fact that they are utterly alone unto themselves."  Once, he had dreamed of fathering a civilization of Minotaurs, but this will never come to pass, for he is truly alone in the universe, half beast and half human.  In both the Wider World and the lesser one there are no other minotaurs, and he has no mate.  Belius mistakes this psychic pain for a physical one; he supposes he is dying, and he seeks the aid of his friends, who, understanding its real cause, attempt to construct a mate for him.

Among the many charms of this work are Belius’ friends, among them Pezimote the tortoise, with his marital complications, and Siftus the mole sculptor, who sees in the creation of  a female minotaur his greatest work.  These creatures, each in its own way, offer the minotaur their help and concern; from humans, where he had sought acceptance and love, he had instead received fear, hate and betrayal.  There is no cloying trace of cute in these animal characters, who each have their own weaknesses and so can appreciate the problems of their friend Belius.  Ford has a deft touch, allowing us to laugh at the absurdities of the situation yet still sympathize with a minotaur’s personal tragedy and pain.

Publisher: Howard Morhaim Literary Agency Inc (May 2006)
Price: $14.99
Hardcover: 392 pages