David G. Hartwell’s The Year’s Best SF 2 collects the putatively-best SF (here, narrowly defined to include only science fiction proper and no fantasy) from 1996. Since I don’t remember the state of the SF short fiction world back then, I haven’t the foggiest idea whether Hartwell’s selections are defensible as being really the best. If they are, though, it was a bit of a weak year for the genre, I’m afraid.
It’s not that the stories here are bad; they’re not (possible exception: the pointless Connie Willis tongue bath to Jack Williamson; appropriate for its original appearance in a Williamson tribute volume, but embarrassing out of that context). Every one of them was readable and notably above-average. But that’s about all I could say for them; none of them up and blew me out of my seat in the way that the best short stories do.
Thematically, most of the stories fell into one of two categories: SF history and Internet-related. The Internet ones are understandable, given that 1996 was still in the early breakout years of the Internet, and everyone was thinking about the future of the Internet. The SF history ones are a bit less explicable: There’s a Verne pastiche, a Wells pastiche, and the aforementioned Williamson tribute. The effect of reading all three at once is to wonder why the genre was so intent on looking backward right then. (Or why Hartwell was disproportionately collecting that sort of story for his book.)
It belatedly occurs to me that, contrary to what I wrote in the first paragraph, I do know a bit about the state of the short story market in 1996, and I can say definitively that Hartwell’s selections aren’t the best. The Year’s Best SF 2 is worth reading, but if you’re going to read only one collection of short stories from 1996, you should make it Starlight 1 (which has more than one of those blow-me-away stories) instead.