Twenty-First Century Science Fiction features stories from sci-fi authors that have risen to prominence since 2000. All of these stories are new to me (apparently I don’t read enough short stories!) and the collection contained a pretty wide spread of subgenre and length of stories.
One thing that struck me about this collection is that more often than not, humanity is portrayed with such pessimism – apparently in the future, we’re going to be more and more cold, power-hungry and selfish. Most of my favourite stories in this collection had robot protagonists. As a huge Star Trek fan, my default view of humanity has always been optimistic, so I found the onslaught of cynicism somewhat disconcerting. I wish the editors had varied the tone a little.
As per my usual anthology review format, I’m not going to talk about all the stories, just the ones I liked most and least. The stories I enjoyed the most:
“Infinities” by Vandana Singh
This opening story was set in India (where I’m from), and I was thrilled to read sci-fi written by an Indian writer. I have no idea if this story is objectively good, but it was cozy and familiar and poignant. It involves an old mathematics teacher who dreams of seeing infinity. The sci-fi aspect of the story is pretty subtle.
“Eros, Philia, Agape” by Rachel Swirsky
Anyone who says science fiction can’t pack a deep emotional impact needs to read this story. It offers a fresh new twist on the trope of the robot wanting to be human, but backs it up with the real relationship of a robot, a human and their daughter.
“Tideline” by Elizabeth Bear
I’ve read and loved Elizabeth Bear’s fantasy, and now I can’t wait to read more of her sci-fi work. A forgotten military robot strikes up a friendship with a feral teenager, but her power is running out. Another moving story.
“Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal
This is a very short story – about two pages long, but it takes as incisive look at genetic manipulation and animal testing, while also managing to be touching.
“The Algorithms For Love” by Ken Liu
If pressed, this would probably be my favourite story of the collection. A designer of AI-like dolls is so successful that she starts to lose faith in free will and intelligence itself.
“Ikiryoh” by Liz Williams
An exiled genetically engineered being takes care of a disturbed little girl sent to her by the current goddess-ruler. The world of this story is what made me fall in love with it; the science fiction ideas are incidental, but seemed a little bit more like fantasy.
“Second Person, Present Tense” by Daryl Gregory
The protagonist of this story is a teenager who has overdosed on a drug that completely erased her personality. She’s spent years being coached to be who she was before, but she just can’t seem to do it. I loved the exploration of identity and consciousness, and it was very believable.
“Balancing Accounts” by James Cambias
One of the most fun stories in the collection. In this future, there are so many robots that there’s a robot society within human society, and our protagonist rocketship/odd job robot is one of them. His latest cargo seems like a lot of trouble, but he needs to make his human owners money, so he takes it on anyway. I imagined the world described to be kind of like the excellent game Machinarium.
Other good stories: The Tale of the Wicked by John Scalzi (Scalzi as a writer is kind of like Hugh Grant as an actor – he does the same thing all the time, but does it excellently), Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction by Jo Walton (I need to read her books!), A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel by Yoon Ha Lee (a story in encyclopaedia form!), How to Become a Mars Overlord by Catherynne M. Valente (a story in guide form!), The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi (journalism in the future!), The Calculus Plague by Marisa Lingen (memories transmitted virally!), and His Master’s Voice by Hannu Rajaniemi (a dog and a cat set out to rescue their master, armed with very cool technology).
The ones I wasn’t as thrilled by:
“Rogue Farm” by Charles Stross
I’m not going to say this was a bad story… I just didn’t get it. I wasn’t sure why the farm was called a farm; it seemed to just exist so we could be amused at the idea of a farm trundling towards a farmhouse. I didn’t understand why the protagonist was so anti-farm even before he knew what it wanted to do (hillbilly joke?). This story wasn’t for me.
“Third Day Lights” by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Another story that I was just plain confused by. A sci-fi story involving pocket universes and the future of humanity, but borrows heavily from fantasy tropes. I didn’t get the romance, and I didn’t get the pocket-universe creatures.
“The Island” by Peter Watts
This was a well-written and compelling story, but it just made me depressed to read it. The protagonist is a crewmember on a automated starship designed to make space travel gates, but they’ve been doing it for millions of years and seen civilisations rise and fall countless times, and the AI controlling the ship won’t let them stop. In this story, they encounter something that they’ve never seen before (and that part is awesome!)
Overall, this is definitely worth buying. It’s a great introduction to a lot of authors, as well as to the staggering breadth of SF.
Twenty-First Century Science Fiction by David G. Hartwell & Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Tor Books, 2013 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.