Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Year's Best ? REALLY?

It took a LOT of reading before I discovered I was a military Science Fiction fan. Old Yeller and Sherlock Holmes captivated me, and the series of Tom Swift books had me reading with a flashlight under the covers until I fell asleep (or passed out from anoxia). My relatives knew that getting me books for Christmas was a safe bet; the glamor of board games or lawn darts was a close approximation to the excitement I felt from getting a hair brush or a pair of green and orange tube socks. But books? Yeah, books got my attention.
And then, sometime between November of 1972 and March of 1973, I found a battered copy of 'Starship Troopers' in the dayroom of Company Charlie Two of the Medical Corpsman Training Battalion at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and I was hooked.
A few years after that, I discovered Hammer's Slammers, and the adventures of John Christian Falkenberg, and I was committed forever. I doubt my own military experience had anything to do with it, at least not directly; after all, I served my time as a medic in Germany, where the biggest threat was getting a traffic ticket. Who knows?
Through the efforts of some SERIOUSLY determined (and sometime demented) writers, I have had my horizons broadened in recent years, as I began to writing book reviews regularly. Nowadays, you can read my reviews of books about psychic lawyers, wine-guzzling semi-divinities hopping universes, shape-shifting cops and diner owners, pixies, and even grizzled old policemen approaching retirement. But my heart belongs to military science fiction.
And that's why, when I discovered a slight gap in my reading program, I jumped on Baen's "The Year's Best Military and Adventure SF Volume 3, which is also available on Amazon at the link at the top of the blog. A little bonus comes with the book: you get to vote on the 'Best of' Award, which has a nice little cash prize attached, IF you get your vote in before August 31, 2017. DragonCon, you know.
And here's my main impression, after devouring the book (WHILE NOT ATTENDING LIBERTYCON):  1. it's been a sparse year for military science fiction, strongly coupled with 2. authors aren't putting out much short fiction any more.
That isn't to say this volume is a loser! It's not; there really are some really good stories here. But, Best of the Year? That's a reach.
Now, before I get into the specifics, let me back-peddle by saying that I understand that putting together a collection is a thankless job, and one I certainly wouldn't want to attempt, for ANY amount of money under, say, five million dollars. I have no academic or industry credentials as a critic. So, if you disagree with my evaluation, fine. I'm probably wrong, and you are probably right.
I don't even go to cons!
But, that remains my collective impression of the book; now, what about the stories?

David Drake, "Cadet Cruise." It's entirely credible to include this story in the 'Best of Year' collection, since it is a prequel to the phenomenal adventures of Daniel Leary. It demonstrates the talents the young midshipman had at winning over people, as well as making complicated plans work out. If it WEREN'T for that other body of work, it would still be a good story; but compare it to the visceral punch of 'Under the Hammer' or 'The Butcher's Bill'?' That may be an unfair comparison, but we ARE talking about a high bar, here: Best of the Year. Still, I absolutely will accept this as worthy of inclusion, as it's a great read.

William Ledbetter, "Tethers." It's bad enough when space is trying to kill you; when your partner is trying as well? That's just not fair. This is first class writing; my only caveat is that it is adventure, and not military sci-fi, but the title of the book includes both, so I guess that's no quibble at all.

Eric de Carlo, "Unlinkage." The story of a retired mind-controller of a Brute, Hulk-type human is an ugly read in that it is awfully dark, and presupposes an ugly future society. However, the story does stress the values of loyalty to companions, and that's always worth writing about. I can't quite make myself see it as Best of the Year, but I won't complain if others see it that way.

Kacey Ezell, "Not in Vain." This one has my unqualified support. It takes a team of high school cheerleaders and their coach, and puts them in impossible circumstances, and shows how they all rise above their personal interests to put the good of the team first, even BEYOND death. This is written to be a part of John Ringo's Black Tide Rising universe, but you need no knowledge of that storyline to appreciate this selection. (And yeah, not military, but veterans, okay?)

Adam Roberts, "Between Nine and Eleven." This story also gets my unqualified support for  a BOY inclusion. It takes the Campbell premise of 'as good as a man, but not a man' and gives it solid form. The story works both as a personal adventure and as a good 'theory/concept' story.

Jack Schouten, "Sephine and the Leviathan." I didn't like anything about this story except that it eventually was over. It took too long to figure out what the heck was going on, and who these people were, and frankly, it seemed too much like an exercise in Creative Writing, and not a story. Dreadfully sorry, and I'm sure I'll regret saying this, but I don't have the slightest clue as to how this was chosen for the book. My apologies for offending with my strongly worded opinion. I feel certain I am mistaken.

Michael Ezell, "The Good Food." A seemingly light-hearted story about a somewhat too-independent scout and his trusty dog, this quickly became a nightmare. It deserves access to the volume for the creepy factor alone. I hate these scary stories (but in a good way).

James Wesley Rogers, "If I could Give This Time Machine Zero Stars, I Would." This is probably the story I enjoyed reading the most. It pays homage to certain of the Golden Age time-travel stories, AND gives a hat tip to the reviewing system that takes up so much of my time, and it's funny. However!  I don't see it as being EITHER military OR adventure, and I don't know why it's here. It's a great story, though!

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, "Wise Child." I.m not sure, but I THINK this is also another great story that is included in the BOY collection because of the existing body of material in this particular universe. It's very nicely done; however, since I am NOT a close follower of the Liaden Universe, it was missing some of the essential punch to bring it to BOY status for me.

Michael Z Williamson, "Star Home." You don't HAVE to be a fan of the Freehold/Grainne universe to get the brooding, repressive feeling of the reach of the Earth empire. I am such a fan, and I know (sort of) what's going on behind the scenes, This is a great story, and it's definitely worth reading, but:
"I read 'Soft Casualty,' Star Home, and you are no 'Soft Casualty.'"

Robert Dawson, "The Art of Failure." The punchline comes at the very end of the story, and it's thrown away so beautifully, it's a work of art. I endorse inclusion, just for that reason alone (but the rest of the story is good as well),

Allen Stroud, "The Last Tank Commander." No question about it; this story of the ancient, decrepit, rebuilt corporal of tanks leading a bunch of babies into battle deserves a place in this volume.

Jay Werkheiser, "A Giant Leap." A young man falls off his aircraft into the poisonous atmosphere of Venus; his hated father maintains radio contact with him all the way down. Without more exposition of the prior relationship between father and son, the meaning of the final words loses power. And by the way: who in heck designs a system that lets people fall off an airship? Tether cable, anyone? It's an okay story, but I didn't like anyone in it.

David Adams, "The Immortals: Anchorage." The story is certainly powerful enough to warrant inclusion in a BOY collection. Besides the rock'em-sock'em action, there were some great insights into what the three main characters were about to make this a leading candidate.

Paul Di Filippo, "Backup Man." This read like a noir detective story, with the appropriate corporate betrayal included (I'm thinking "Chinatown"). Does that make it a BOY selection? I'm not sure. Considering that the goal is cow flop from a modified children's toy, it might make it in on points. I couldn't make the call.

If I have counted right, that's seven out of fifteen stories that I believe are Best of the Year quality. Seven more were at least good, if not excellent. I definitely think you should buy the book! It's got hours of reading enjoyment for you, and you just won't get that anywhere.

And as to which one to vote for to receive the plaque and $500 at DragonCon? For me, it's toss a coin, between  Kacey Ezell for 'Not in Vain' and Allen Stroud for 'The Last Tank Commander.' I may actually have to do that; I'm pretty sure I have a coin around here somewhere. If not, I'll figure something out. Don't forget: voting has to be done by August 31, 2017!

Peace Be on your household.

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