SINCE ART is all the harder to achieve in miniature, I've always had a deep love and respect for the short story form. To cross forms by way of explanation: you can hide less-than-perfect choices much more easily in a symphony than a sonata. Gardner Dozois' 26 selections for The Year's Best SF: Second Annual Collection (Bluejay Books, $19.95; paperback, $10.95) indicate that he knows this quite well. Here are some marvelous discoveries and very few disappointments.
My personal favorites: Robert Silverberg's "The Affair," a stunner about a telepathic love affair, a grownup, mellowed-out version of his novel Dying Inside; R.A. Lafferty's "Company in the Wings," startling as a new taste in your mouth, funny-sad as Monty Python gone profound; Nancy Kress' "Trinity," which does beautifully what Paddy Chayefsky blundered in Altered States; Octavia Butler's "Blood Child," and John Varley's "PRESS ENTER," a story of computer hacking raised to the ominous power of log 10; and Tanith Lee's "Foreign Skins," a beautiful weaving of Indian legend and English barbarity.
There are two relative newcomers here. Rena Yount's "Pursuit of Excellence," has a gritty working-class truth to it, near-future or not, and Molly Gloss' "Interlocking Pieces" the still, spare purity of Ursula Le Guin before she was canonized. Keep your eye on these two writers.
The pantheon is also represented: Le Guin's own "Trouble With the Cotton People" is a fragment from a forthcoming novel, Always Coming Home, but not really that effective out of context. Frederik Pohl's "The Kindly Isle" is a sly, gentle rum drink of a story, going down easy with a hell of a kick at the end. Pat Cadigan's "Rock On" is a jittery, electric-pink nightmare of punk mind- rock. Cadigan has always been my personal nominee for this genre's Dorothy Parker. Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Lucky Strike" is a powerful, deliberate alternate-history tale of a rather fateful day in August 1945. And Jack McDevitt's "Promises to Keep" is an ordeal-in-space story that would have filmed better than the vacuous 2010 -- but Clarke is a god whose advances go seven figures now, and who knows McDevitt of Oshkosh?
The disappointments in this anthology are by names who should know better: Connie Willis, Jack Dann, Michael Swanwick and Lewis Shiner. None of their stories was incompetent, yet none deserves to be remembered in a gathering of the best, either by theme or execution.
There are also good, readable entries from Gene Wolfe, Lucius Shepard, William Gibson, Richard Cowper, Bruce Sterling and Elizabeth A. Lynn. The editor provides a very comprehensive survey of the genre in 1984, lucid and self-effacing introductions to each story and a long list of "Honorable Mentios." This anthology is worth collecting for fans and, for you browsers just coming in, this is, warts and all, state of the art.
ON A superficial level, Kit Reed's swift-moving Fort Privilege (Doubleday, $12.95) has some of the unsettling qualities of Jean Raspail's The Camp of the Saints: the have-nots overbreeding and turning the balance of power on the haves. Here the author presents us with a smaller canvas and a more simplistic premise. The decay of New York City has advanced to where the middle class has deserted, leaving only a dangerous no- man's-land of have-nots and a very few of the wealthy who can afford to protect their impregnable castles like the Parkhurst, a huge old apartment complex on Central Park West, about to celebrate its centennial with a large party. Among the guests are Bart Cavanaugh and Dr. Regan Millane, each trying to glue himself together after a life- shattering experience.
This is a fateful night for the old Parkhurst because the lawless forces beyond the granite walls have decided to attack. The party goes from chic fun to chic war as the characters gaily martial their resources to resist the attackers. As the shooting battle wears on, water fails, and disease and fatigue take their toll, the situation turns grimmer. There are power struggles among the defenders, and it's clear there's a spy in their midst. They can't hold out forever without help. Will it come in time before the vicious dregs of the city breach their last defense or the defenders mutiny?
Reed writes with spare clarity and has an ear for the deftly descriptive phrase. Her plot never lags and the buildup of tension before the battle is expertly done. Yet you have the feeling that it's all slicker than deep. The problems of the protagonists, Bart's hysterical amnesia, Regan's broken marriage and her fight against alcoholism, are textbook- customized to fit into a story yearning to be a John Carpenter movie. Still, Reed manages an understated allegory on the wielders of power and the confused followers who will shift toward it at one point and abandon it at another. She doesn't intrude easy solutions on the denouement; nevertheless the character development is just deep enough to keep you moving but not really caring, because you don't know enough about the why of Sarah Parkhurst or Ted Beckett whose actions are crucial to the plot. You'll be sufficiently diverted for a few hours and won't much remember or care when you've finished.
RICH AND ECCENTRIC is a pallid cliche for Bruno King. At his fenced, guarded "farm" outside Fairboro, experimenting with well- paid volunters, King's technicians have achieved not a break-through but a genetic explosion.
"The old notion that evolution has to take hundreds of thousands of years has really gone out of the window . . . the next evolutionary stage is sitting waiting in us all along. Like a butterfly in a chrysalis . . . the turning point of all future time . . . What is latent becomes actual throughout the whole body. The flesh itself changes . . . the brain reorganizes itself."
On this rock, Watson founds the swift (even Swiftian) satire of Converts (St. Martin's, $11.95). From painfully ordinary volunteers, the genetic converts soon include an amazon and Ariel who make love electrically by literally turning each other on; an oracular man-tree, fiery Phaeton, all-seeing Argus and more subtly altered types called Joiners -- all linked together as Pansapiens. Through this melange races a rebellious group of superchimps learning good and bad things about aspiring to human culture, including the ability to lie. Con brio, the evolutionary Great Leap Forward charges off in a number of cockamamie directions and purposes . . .
At times, Converts seems a giddy mixture of Paradise Lost and Steven Spielberg at his most beguiling. Watson's wit is allusive and mercurial. Once a premise is slated, it's fair game for whatever variations Watson wills. The book does suffer somewhat toward the last third from a diversity of focal characters. You find yourself laughing at what happens rather than caring who it happens to. But like any good wit, there's serious purpose behind the laughter. Frankly, I haven't enjoyed satire this much since Jakov Lind's Travels to the Enu. Converts is highly recommended for an intoxicating breath of literary fresh air.
READ BACK to back, Greg Bear's Blood Music (Arbor House, $14.95) and Converts share the theme of genetic revolution, but where Watson's approach is satiric, Bear's is apocalptic. Expanded from an earlier Nebula/ Hugo-winning novelette, Blood Music postulates as force-for-change a plague that thinks, however benevolently. A California laboratory, Genetron, is working to produce MABs, medically applicable biochips of protein on a silicon base. One of their researchers, Vergil Ulam, has quietly produced a strain of self-reproducing cells that learn and pass on their education to others. Sacked by the company before he can complete his experiments, Vergil injects the cells under his own skin, hoping to retrieve them later . . . but later's way too late.
The change in Vergil is not immediate. His sex life improves and he looks marvelous except for the strange white ridges criss-crossing his skin. His best friend, Dr. Milligan, diagnoses what looks like a severe leukemic infection. Not to worry, Vergil says. "They're finding out who I am."
Eventually, Vergil is unrecognizable; so, after a time, are Milligan and his wife. Michael Bernard, also infected, voluntarily places himself in observed isolation in Germany as the entire North American continent is covered by the industrious "plague." As Bernard changes, the language of the cells, the blood music, becomes more intelligible to him. There will be change, the cells tell him. There will be great change soon. We understand you, we will take care of you. But first we must understand what is micro and macro. Is there space beyond you?
Blood Music is conceptually dense. The early expository passages assume a certain familiarity with DNA and cell formation on the reader's part. Lacking this, as I do, you have to follow very closely, but Bear rewards you with clarity. "The idea of an intellectual cell . . . what was reproduction after all but a computerized biological process of enormous complexity and reliability?"
The concept is admirable, the novel is all meat, and if it sometimes gives the same impression as Childhood's End, Bear manages it without Clarke's cosmic solemnity. A lucid writer of hard sf he is, a stylist he is not. Even in his best flights of imagination, Bear's prose is earthbound, the music all in his title. In exposition, he strings one past-perfect after another until all you think of is what someone had done. This, of course, is nit- picking and won't matter one damned bit to the people who vote for Nebulas and Hugos. For those faithful, Blood Music is nominee material.