Side Quest, attempt #2

Last year, I announced my side quest to read several “best of” collections and see whether any of them were worth reading through the years.  My first attempt was a disaster.  Check out the wrap-up post.

For attempt #2, I’m reading The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Six.


Here are my takes on its first nine stories:

The Case of Death and Honey by Neil Gaiman.  A story about a Chinese beekeeper and Sherlock Holmes.  The opening is pretty choppy and sometimes difficult to follow.  I’ve seen this a few times recently, where a story is all artsy at the beginning, like the author needs to establish his literary cred, then settles down and writes in a format that readers will tolerate.  My opinion:  if literary mumbo-jumbo is good, then why don’t you write the whole story using it?

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees by E Lily Yu.  A Chinese village discovers that when they pour boiling water on paper wasp nests, the nests unfold into detailed maps with Mandarin labeling.  The last wasps in the area escape, setting up a new colony downriver and subjugating a local beehive.  Some anarchist bees escape, establishing a queenless colony.

The three hives settle in for the winter.  Human villagers capture the wasps, the anarchist hive dies of starvation, and only the original beehive survives.  Some of its bees copy down the anarchists’ writings, I guess because they want the great wisdom of the anarchist hive — you know, the one that starved to death during its first winter.  Is this a dig at westerners who try to posthumously glorify communism?

Tidal Forces by Caitlin Kiernan.  One of this story’s first sentences is “The sun melts like butter across her face.”  Things go downhill from there.

A black hole monster lays an egg in a woman.  I’d write a second sentence about the plot, but then I’d be giving it more attention than the author did.

Younger Women by Karen Joy Fowler.  A family drama between a mother, her teenage daughter, and the daughter’s hundreds-of-years-old vampire boyfriend.

White Lines on a Green Field by Catherynne Valente.  A high school story that was less interesting than actual high school, and seemed to last longer.

All That Touches the Air by An Owomoyela.  This story starts off OK, with colonists living in a dome because the planet outside is crawling with parasites and a few of their zombie-like victims.  The main character is a girl who’s so scared of the parasites that she wears her envirosuit inside the dome, only taking it off to eat and go to the bathroom.  The colony’s government recruits her to lure a parasite-infested zombie back to the dome so they can test experimental parasite-killing methods.

Outside, the girl takes off her helmet, exposing herself to her pathological fear, and verbally warns the parasite zombies of the danger from the humans.  I guess it was opposite day?  Seriously, I don’t believe it’s even possible to write a character behaving more contrary to everything previously known about her.  Maybe the author’s intention was to write an example so bad, it wouldn’t have any bad-example competition in future writing textbooks.

What We Found by Geoff Ryman.  I read this story earlier in my side questing.

The Server and the Dragon by Hannu Rajanemi.  The author of this story is from the same small town in Finland as my grandmother, so it’s possible were are distant relatives.  Now, for the plot of the story [deep breath]:

Automated probes are being launched to every star system in a galaxy, converting all of their planetary masses into communication devices and such.  Defeats the purpose of exploring, in my opinion.  Our POV probe ends up with a twist, because it lands in a rogue star system that was just zipping through the galaxy, so once it builds its comm infrastructure, it’s too far away to communicate with home.

So, it creates a new universe.  Apparently that’s easier than solving long-distance communications problems.  Then, a data packet containing a virtual dragon arrives, so the probe creates a dragon avatar and they have virtual dragon sex.  Then, it turns out the sex dragon was a virus, so the probe’s systems spit out billions of virtual-sex-dragon packets.  Finally, the probe turns its star into an engine and goes off exploring.

The Spoiler DragonDon’t get any funny ideas, pal.

The Choice by Paul McAuley.  I also read this story earlier in my side questing.

It looks like we have another disaster on our hands.

My average rating (5 star system) of the above stories:  1.94

Suggested use for this collection:  convincing young people not to study science or engineering.


  1. Anonymous · · Reply

    I read a novel by Karen Joy Fowler. Spoiler, that long list sister the main character barely remembers was a chimp. Clearly this was an inspiration for your four apes stories.

    1. If my chimps in the Four Apes decide to look for girlfriends, they know where to go now.

  2. Excellent, just excellent. I love seeing the cream of our generation put forth their best efforts and how the editors obviously carefully weed out all the good stuff 😉

    Who reads crap like this, for fun I mean?

    1. What is that old saying? They separate the wheat from the chaff and throw away the wheat.

      1. I’ve never heard that one before. Seems relevant here.

    2. I’ll have to go over the whole collection and see if I have a guess as to what’s going on with this one. The last “best of” collection seemed to focus on the reputation of the author rather than the quality of the story, and it’s possible that’s what’s going on with this one as well.

      1. wouldn’t surprise me at all…

    3. If I had to guess, I’d say the purchasers of this book are all authors trying to figure out what kind of story they need to write to get into the book’s future issues.

  3. Crazy idea, but hear me out: we could use an anthology devoted to SF that is…enjoyable.

    1. Enjoyable is pretty low on the priority list, if it’s even on the list at all.

      The author’s name/reputation seems to be #1, followed by fitting into a certain literary writing style, followed by having the right political opinions.

      In the above set of nine stories, I’d say only three of them were even based on a sci-fi or fantasy idea, and all three kind of turned the idea into nonsense by the time they were done.

    2. Dude, you’re nuts. You mean like good stories, without any ulterior motives?

  4. Thanks for taking the bullet. Sending some virtual bandages your way.

  5. This collection made me stop reading sci-fi for a couple years. It is an awful collection.

    1. Almost did the same to me.

  6. I laughed really hard reading these summaries. Some were so hilarious I had to read them to my son. I read with the caveat in mind that most scifi and fantasy ideas do indeed sound really stupid out of context, but my experience with reading contemporary short stories is that they are mostly really stupid even in context. Most of them are not even written well. When I find a good one, it’s an event.

    1. I’m glad you’re getting some enjoyment out of my side quest, because I sure didn’t get any!

      You’re right on both counts about sci-fi/fantasy ideas, and apparently a lot of authors sidestep the problem by just leaving the ideas out.

  7. […] didn’t have good luck with the first nine stories from this collection, but I’m sure that was just nine anomalies in a row.  Here are the next […]

  8. […] I didn’t have good luck with the first nine stories in this collection, or the next ten, but here are the last eleven […]

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