About half the short stories now published in English are science fiction or fantasy. There are four annual collections from this trove, more than appear for "mainstream" short fiction. The Gardner Dozois collection, by far the largest, runs to a quarter-of-a-million words.
Dozois also is the most fashionable of the genre's editors. He weighs this year's collection heavily with work from the "cyberpunk" writers, a self-announced group that stresses near-future computertech and lowlife characters. Dozois invented the cyberpunk label and feels it will grow into a major area of speculative fiction. It typically invests considerable energy in the surfaces of technology, retrofitted into a scruffy future.
This may seem narrow ground for an entire movement, and indeed the strains are already beginning to show. "Dogfight" by Michael Swanwick and William Gibson describes an earnest contest between war vets playing a high-tech video arcade game. Despite adroit, plotting and compact style, the story never escapes the feeling that arcade games are a worn-out metaphor.
A more substantial novella by Bruce Sterling, the leading writer of cyberpunk manifestoes, depicts a post-oil-boom Third World in "Green Days in Brunei." Sterling understands computer hackers and the uneasy interface of technology and fledgling governments. His hero restlessly tries to introduce robot technology into the sleepy Brunei economy. There are innumerable touches of telling local detail and plausible notions about how the worldwide computer net will intrude into even the furthest backwater.
This works well until the story's end, when the economic and plot logic crash in an orgy of coincidence. Third World problems of scarce resources, untrained excess labor and low investment cannot be solved by introducing robots, even if they do build cheap boats. Sterling's hero vaguely predicts the robots will make a Green Revolution flourish by launching floating greenhouse farms. Further, he solves the social problems of bureaucratic inertia by literally sailing away into the sunrise. The tale would have been far more convincing if it had stuck to its cyberpunk pessimism and not tried to solve big problems by sleight of hand. Still, the journey reveals some delightful characters and reminds us that more speculative fiction should look at the nations where most of humanity lives.
This is the retroactive aim of Robert Silverberg's Nebula-winning novella, "Sailing to Byzantium." In the far future, a man with curiously vague memory travels from one gaudy city to another. They are all re-creations of famous ancient towns, conjured up by an army of intelligent robots. This gives Silverberg ample space to display his considerable descriptive skills, smoothly taking us through the delights of Timbuktu and Alexandria and New Chicago.
His flawless, peaceful future society enjoys these arcane places, because mankind has finally proved what we all suspect: Perfection is boring.
This collection is certainly the best-buy, economy-size way to review last year's short fantastic fiction. A shorter, usually higher quality overview is Terry Carr's "Best Science Fiction of the Year." Dozois does have his finger pressed tightly to the developing pulse of the field, however, and provides lengthy notes about further work you may want to explore.