Guest review: Twenty-First Century Science Fiction by David G. Hartwell

Synopsis: Twenty-First Century Science Fiction is an enormous anthology of short stories—close to 250,000 words—edited by two of the most prestigious and award-winning editors in the SF field and featuring recent stories from some of science fiction’s greatest up-and-coming authors.

David Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden have long been recognized as two of the most skilled and trusted arbiters of the field, but Twenty-First Century Science Fiction presents fans’ first opportunities to see what their considerable talents come up with together, and also to get a unique perspective on what’s coming next in the science fiction field.

The anthology includes authors ranging from bestselling and established favorites to incandescent new talents including Paolo Bacigalupi, Cory Doctorow, Catherynne M. Valente, John Scalzi, Jo Walton, Charles Stross, Elizabeth Bear, and Peter Watts, and the stories selected include winners and nominees of all of the science fiction field’s major awards.

Review: While I enjoy reading Science Fiction, I’m far from an expert in it. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop me to enjoy this anthology. It features 34 stories published between 2003 and 2001 by sci-fi writers who came to prominence since the turn of the century. All the names were unknown to me, which allowed me to make some nice discoveries.

Some of these stories are really short (like Evil Robot Monkey by Mary Robinette Kowal which tells a lot of things in less than 1000 words), some others packed with enough content to make a full-length novel and for each of them there is a small introduction presenting the author and the text. Sadly, these synopses are sometimes a bit too revealing.

Because of the great number of stories, it’s hard to find a common theme, one of them even borrows heavily from fantasy elements. Space travels, aliens, spatial wars, and colonization of other worlds are of course addressed. But other topics include the expanding possibilities of virtual technologies, interrogations on the nature of the human being or questions on the future of human relationship (or human/robot relationship for the matter). Several texts in the collection also involve A.I., and those are the one that stood out for me.

So yes, a lot of themes then, providing this anthology many discussion points. But even if the stories are all different, I stay under the impression that most of them are dark, with an underlying pessimism about the humanity. But don’t worry, thankfully there are also a few lighter moments included in this anthology, with some really witty texts.

Like most anthologies it’s a mixed bag and reading it can sometimes feel a bit like of a rollercoaster. And while I didn’t get into some of the stories (like Rogue Farm by Charles Stross), there were several I loved and I would be thrilled to read something else from their authors. Besides, short stories, unlike novels, don’t have too much time to get into too complicated scientific details that would threaten the comprehension.

It’s hard to pick favorites with so many stories on offer, but my top 3 would be:

Tideline by Elizabeth Bear: In a devastated future, a dying military robot is determined to finish a self-appointed task. Meanwhile, he makes friends with a feral teenager and teaches him how to become more human.

Eros, Philia, Agape by Rachel Swirsky: An emotionally touching story about a robot wanting to be human, a woman and their daughter.

The Tale of the Wicked by John Scalzi: A fun story about a too smart spaceship which adopts Asimov’s Laws of Robotics for itself.

To summarize: a lot of different stories in there, which makes it difficult to find a unifying theme. A lot of them are kind of dark though. It’s a mixed bag with stories you’ll like and others you won’t. Perhaps not to read in one go, but a nice way to pick some texts here and then. Besides, for rookies like me, this book is an excellent way to get a feel for what’s out there in the sci-fi field.


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9 thoughts on “Guest review: Twenty-First Century Science Fiction by David G. Hartwell

  1. I like that you mention that a lot of them are dark, that intrigues me but I just don’t think this is one for me. I’m happy to see that you were able to enjoy it overall! Great review!

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