Jonathan Strahan. The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year. Volume 3.

As I’ve done in the past (you have looked into the Year’s Best category listing to the right I take it), I won’t be re-reading stories previously reviewed on Best SF, just referring back to the original review. So what of this handsome volume, covering both SF and fantasy?

Ted Chiang. Exhalation.
Originally in : Eclipse 2, ed Jonathan Strahan.

Strahan starts this volume with a story from one of his own anthologies, Eclipse 2. However, Strahan the Year’s Best anthologist wasn’t alone in choosing this excellent story, as it was also covered in the Hartwell/Cramer Year’s Best SF #14, where I read it and wrote :

    As you expect from Chiang, an inventive and expertly crafted tale. He smoothly posits a humanity in which lungs are replaced when empty of air, in a society constrained within a finite dome. What is not finite, in fact, is the oxygen which they breathe, and we follow one scientist as he explores the nature of their reliance on oxygen, and the implications of a supply that will not last much longer. One to be instantly re-read to savour the quality.

And if you like short SF, and don’t have a copy of Chiang’s ‘Stories of Your Life’ collection, then I would suggest you rectify that situation.

Elizabeth Bear. Shoggoths in Bloom.
Originally in : Asimovs, March 2008.

When I read this last year I noted that it was a ‘clever’ story, but suffice to say it didn’t grab my reviewing cojones :

    I’ve little knowledge of the Cthulhu mythos, so apologies if I’m missing a trick here. The story features shoggoths, jelly like creatures off the Maine coast. A young black academic visits to study the creatures, and it being the 1930s we find out a lot about being a black American at that time, with another war on the way. The academic finds out that it is not the race that evolves, but individual shoggoths – and he is offered an opportunity to offer leadership to the largely unthinking creatures he has been studying, who exist simply to obey. But rather than taking that opportunity, it is to France he heads, making that same evolutionary step himself.

    A clever story, with perhaps even more for Lovecraftian students. (I recall reading The Mountains of Madness, and by golly it gave me the willies!)

Peter S. Beagle. Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifka and the Angel.
Originally in : Strange Roads.

A young Jewish boy observes the impact a visiting angel has on his artist Uncle Chaim. The angel has been sent as a muse, and the relationship between the artist and the angel is an intriguing one. Matters come to a head, however, when a family friend, a rabbi, visits the studio and realises that a dark dybbuk is lurking within the angel. In offering the dybbuk an opportunity to leave the angel, the young boy enables that dark spirit to transcend to heaven – something of which, and about hell, that is revealed in the story.

It’s a beautifully written story.

Jeff VanderMeer. Fixing Hanover.
Originally in : Extraordinary Engines.

When I read this in Nick Gevers’ steampunk anthology last year I wrote :

    Somewhat less steampunky than most stories in the volume. In a coastal village a man with a hidden history is perturbed when the head of an automaton washes up on the shore. The ex-partner of his lover wants him to fix it, and he is in no position to refuse, even though he suspects that by re-animating the robot he may be jeopardising his new identity and his new life. True enough, the robot is indeed the herald of his undoing, as once operational, it can fulfil its role as a beacon to draw those from whom he has escaped back into their fold.

Paolo Bacigalupi. The Gamber.
Originally in : Fast Forward 2.

When I read this last year in Lou Anders’ anthology I wrote:

    Bacigalupi explores the world of hi-tech internet media, through the eyes of someone working, but somewhat detached, from the hyper-obsessed American culture. One of the stars of his news gathering corporation gets a hot story and generates enough traffic to their site to guarantee bonuses all round. Having left a lot behind in his native Laos, Ong finds himself, instead of writing niche stories with low levels of footfall, he has a chance to hit the big time in being pitched in with a major celebrity from his home country and with, seemingly, a lot in common. However, it turns out that the celebrity has very much embraced the modern culture of the US, and he has to take a gamble on which route to take.

Ian McDonald. The Dust Assassin.
Originally in : The Starry Rift.

Taken from another Strahan anthology, when I read this in the Young Adult volume I noted :

    MacDonald’s ‘River of Gods’ novel and the complementary short stories in the ‘Cyberabad’ sequence have been standouts for me in recent years, and here he gives full rein in a story that is a more of a full adult story than a YA story. It features a young woman in one of two families who own major water companies in India, whose family is wiped out by the other in one awful night. However, her future has been mapped out for her, with one of the neuters who feature in these stories, pulling the strings.

Holly Black. Virgin.
Originally in : Magic in the Mirrorstone.

Short urban fantasy in which a young girl living rough on the streets is enraptured by a young man she meets. He’s living out near the zoo, and he eventually unburdens her with his story, and the unicorn that lives in the woods. Its an unrequited love, but after his departure, the girl is haunted by the absence of the faerie.

John Kessel. Pride and Prometheus.
Originally in : Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 2008

    What I believe the younger generation call a “mash-up”. Kessel puts the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice together with Victor Frankenstein. Kessel does a more than passable rendition of the writing style of Miss Austen, which will doubtless please those who like their fiction written in a style now two centuries old, although it can at times err on the pastiche, and I for one was reminded of the classic French & Saunders pisstake on such costume dramas on TV (“You suppose? You suppose? Madam, I find you very suppository!”)

    The two unmarried Bennet daughters, Mary and Kitty, are in London, the younger, prettier, out to catch herself a man, like Mr Darcy, of some six thousands pounds per year. However, it is Mary who is smitten – by Mr Frankenstein. The creature also lurks, and the story leads a leisurely pace until a dreadful denoument, when young Kitty dies of a fever, and her body is resurrected by Frankenstein, to furnish the creature with a mate.

    Actually, this is a false denouement, as we find through means of a newspaper clipping a year hence, of the likely fate of several of the characters, although this rather wraps up the story post-haste and with less satisfaction than one would like.

Paul McAuley. The Thought War.
Originally in : Postscripts #15.

Post-zombie-apocalypse, with one of the survivors relating the slow encroachment of the zombie invasion, and postulating a more scientific and much bigger picture rationale.

Garth Nix. Beyond the Sea Gates of the Scholar Pirates of Sarskoe.
Originally in Fast Ships, Black Sails.

Originally from a piratical fantasy collection, Nix has some interesting backstory underpinning an assault on a seemingly impregnable fortress. There is treasure to be had, but Hereward and his small magically animated puppet, Mr Fitz, have another reason – the removal of an unauthorised godlet. There’s a cannibalistic half-leopardess pirate, lots of swashbuckling, cthulhian monsters in the deep, and a sense of it being but one adventure in the life of its protagonists, and clearly a closer link to space opera than you might think, me hearties.

Holly Phillips. The Small Door. (The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year 3)
Originally in : Fantasy Magazine, May 2008.

A teenage girl, and her chronically/terminally sick twin, worry about what is going on in the garden that backs onto theirs. The old guys has a number of sheds, and he keeps animals in there. But what does he do with them? Sal attempts to find out, and with her sister rushed off to hospital emergency, goes against all advice and not only goes into the old guy’s garden, but follows him into his house, and into his cellar, and along a corridor that leads to … something magical. But not magical enough. Classy writing.

Stephen Baxter. Turing’s Apples.
Originally in : Eclipse Two, ed Jonathan Strahan.

Also collected in Dozois 26th, where I noted:

    Baxter has produced a number of shorter stories in recent years, memorably looking at a variety of means by which humanity comes to an end in the near future, subtly blending the technical background with its impact on a small group of people.

    The story references the potential impact on mathematician Turing on two young boys, who each grow up to be math whizzes. One is very much ahead of the other, albeit slightly further down the autistic spectrum path, and it is he who is able to make the scientific breakthrough to decode the messages from far-distant aliens that are being picked up on the far side of the moon. However, in taking the decision himself to run the program that is being delivered to us, he is opening up Pandora’s Box.

    The reason behind the nature of the ‘gift’ being delivered is one that has a truly galactic spanning backdrop.

Stephen King. The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates.
Originally in : Fantasy and Science Fiction, October/November 2008.

When it appeared last year I wrote:

    A masterful piece from a master : a young widow is grieving her recently lost husband, killed in a plane crash. However, she gets a phone call from her husband, who is able to speak to her through some quirk in the fabric of time, and he is able to pass on some advice in the few minutes they have left together.

Robert Reed. Five Thrillers.
Originally in : Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 2008.

When it appeared last year I enthused:

    A very strong story from Reed – it could in fact be mistaken as a Gene Wolfe. The only irritant for me is that the title isn’t going to lodge my mind as being ‘the story in which one man makes some major sacrifices, and sacrifices others, many others, for the greater good, in a story which spans time, what is is to be human, and, in the end, the virtual annhilation of the human race, as he, the last President urges those few remain to keep the light burning to wreak a revenge on those who have brought us to near extinction’.

Meghan McCarron. The Magician’s House.
Originally in : Strange Horizons, July 2008.

A teenage girl gets help in becoming a magician from a neighbourhood magician, in a contemporary fantasy.

Joan Aiken. Goblic Music.
Originally in : The Serial Garden, The Complete Armitage Family Stories

A rural English village is somewhat perturbed by some displaced goblins decamping on a farmer’s field.

Margo Lanagan. Machine Maid.
Originally in : Extraordinary Engines.

I was impressed with this, when reading it last year :

    In the outback of Australia a new wife is discomfited by her husband’s -ahem- demands and depredations. She remains tight-lipped of course, but finds that she is not alone in being subject to his carnal desires. The robotic domestic servant is a very human-like creature – certainly more lifelike and attractive than a domestic appliance would need to be. But there is a reason for this, as she finds out when her husband is away on a business trip. The maidservant, Clarissa, has some programmes which very are very much aimed at meeting the needs of the master of the house. With growing horror, the wife investigates the extent of her functions, and decides that with a bit of tweaking of code and hardware, her husband will learn the errors of his ways and find that he has bitten off more than he can chew (or to be more precise, to find that he has had bitten off more than the maid can chew).

Ted Kosmatka. The Art of Alchemy.
originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, June 2008.

When it appeared last year, I was impressed :

    Excellent SF/science thriller. It has a sense of place (the dying little steel towns of NW Indiana), and has an interracial relationship : it brings you up a little when the issue of race between the protagonist scientist and the attractive young science politico is raised, in that its novelty suggests that the complexities of real-life issues don’t regularly appear in SF.

    The scientist is at the leading-edge in working with metal with a memory – metal which can remember and revert to, a specific shape they are designed to be in at a specific temperature. The drama is set up straight away (with their relationship being developed through flashbacks) as a shadowy Eastern European offers them some even more hi-tech, at a price. What he offers is something that would pull the rug from under the dominant steel companies – a carbon nanotube : immensely strong and virtually invisible.

    The couple are in a quandary – if they hand over this tech to their parent company, they will sit on the new tech in order to maintain the status quo with steel as a major player in the world markets. The alternative : putting the tech in the public domain, and seeing what can be made of the tech. However, the steel companies are on the case, and will go to any lengths to get their hands on the nanotube sample, and the story reaches a dramatic, murderous, climax.

Kij Johnson. 26 Monkeys, also The Abyss.
Originally in : Asimov’s Science Fiction, July 2008.

When it appeared wrote :

    In which Aimee inherits a circus act involving 26 monkeys which disappear onstage. It’s a strange life for Aimee, but one that is a passing phase in her life, as she must pass on the act, but with it having changed her and her life. More of an F&SF kind of story, than a ‘mov’s.

Rachel Swirsky. Marry the Sun.
Originally in : Fantasy Magazine, June 2008.

Bridget backs out of her wedding at the lost moment, on account of her husband-to-be setting fire to her wedding dress. Problem is that he’s a Greek god, god of the sun, no less. and these god/human relationships are tricky things.

Greg Egan. Crystal Nights.
Originally in : Interzone, April 2008.

As with this volume, in its originally appearance the story followed a fantasy story, and I wrote :

    Back to the SF. Huzzah! It’s Greg Egan, which is good. And it’s Egan and good form, which is even better news. He follows one driven scientist whose discovery of a means of creating computational power previously only dreamt of, enables him to explore the limits of just what can be created inside silicon. He creates powerful simulations, in which the building blocks of life are created, and in which he encourages his creations to develop sentience through setting environmental challenges.

    The processing power enables him to develop sophisticated creatures quite rapdily, but this does require him to play god with those he creates, discarding those headed into evolutionary dead-ends. Fortunately, he is able to recognise the point at which those which he has created are sentient enough to feel sadness, and then it becomes more of a challenge, encouraging them to grow thorugh direct intervention.

    As his creations develop apace it becomes clear that he has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, although a nightmare unfolds as they are able to make the leap from creatuers living in a computer simulation to ones which can manipulate the world outside.

    Top quality.

Hannu Rajaniemi. His Master’s Voice.
Originally in : Interzone, October 2008.

When it first appeared I wrote :

    Rajaniemi impressed with the only other story of his I read – Deus ex Homine in the excellent collection ‘Nova Scotia’. Here he is similarly hi-tech, with a POV character of an enhanced dog which, along with feline support, makes a daring raid to rescue their creator from the lengthy incarceration imposed as a result for his transgressive cloning experiments.

Maureen F. McHugh. Special Economics.
Originally in : The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed Ellen Datlow.

I read this last year in Dozois’ and stated:

    McHugh does for near future hi-tech China what Ian McDonald has done for near future hi-tech India.

    She looks at indentured labour, as a young girl takes a job for a hi-tech city firm, only to find that the money she earns doesn’t cover her keep. She uses her street-cunning, and a fortuitously quick bus journey, to take advantage of a government agent, to redress the balance in favour of her fellow employees.

M. Rickert. Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment : One Daughter’s Personal Account
Originally : Fantasy & Science Fiction, October/November 2008

This was one of the highlights of the issue in which it appeared, and in reviewing the issue I noted that Rickert was ‘pulling out the stops’ in this story :

    An emotionally draining story. Set in a near future USA, in which the anti-abortion lobby have very much got their way. Women who have had abortions are criminalised, and there are public executions, described in disturbing detail, in which the community comes together to celebrate justice being seen to be done.

Michael Swanwick. From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled…
Originally in : Asimovs, February 2008.

Was I impressed when I read this? :

    The opening paragraph is a doozy – it describes the titular city on Europa, and does so quite beautifully across several sentences, and then kicks into a higher gear as the narrator describes herself : a simulation of one of the humans killed in the destruction of the city, and then the story starts with a “Here’s what it was like…”

    It’s an opening that you could use over the first month of a Science Fiction Writing 101 course, and the rest of the story lives up to that standard. The narrator, Rosamund, is embedded in the hi-tech suit of one of the survivors of the meteorite strike – Carlos, her lover. She has to care for him using the suit’s advanced medical capabilities to get him to the point of being in a state to be brought back to consciousness, and we follow them as she guides him, and one of the strange, definitely non-human race on the planet. In order to escape the armed warriors of his race, Uncle Vanya has to undergo the unkindest cut of all – “The first thing we have to do is castrate you..” is the kind of line you can only come up with after some years in the business. Swanwick takes the unlikely trio through an alien world, effectively getting across the alieness of Uncle Vanya through his speech patterns, and cleverly intertwining the action with backstory.

    And the ending is just terrific – with Rosamund left embedded in the spacesuit, hanging up in a locker. It’s a story that is simply top class.

Richard Bowes. If Angels Fight.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 2008.

Another story that excelled, and when read previously :

    Now, unlike the previous three stories, a story that is original, and almost too clever for its own good – like one very bright student in a class of otherwise average students. It’s one difficult to describe and to do it justice. You could spend a lot of time studying the story in order to fully appreciate its workings, in the way it subtly and sneakingly moves the reader through time, and different perspectives, and always gives the literary equivalent of seeing something from the corner of an eye, as opposed to clearly in 20-20 vision.

    The story is about that certain, undefinable something that some people have, and draws upon American politics, with a Kennedy vignette, and a family of several minor politicos.

    The angels to which the title refers are (inasmuch as the story makes such things clear) is the power that can lie behind the eyes of such people, and which can move between people, and which are there are important times. A man approaching retirement is brought in once again by the family of his old school friend, long since dead from drug-induced suicide, but whose influence remains strong, and quite palpable.

    I could go on, but I think I’m going to read the story again. It’s a standout.

Ken Scholes. The Doom of Love in Small Places.
Originally in : Realms of Fantasy, April 2008.

Neat little love story set in a broken, bureaucratic post-something society just a little skew-whiff. The journey from the fifth floor to reception is one that takes weeks, but the beautiful Miss Sketteron and Drumm, somewhat surprisingly, get along well. And despite him hoarding a little bit of love, to keep her with him, love flourishes.

Kelly Link. Pretty Monsters.
Originally in : Pretty Monsters.

Strahan closes off his Volume 3 with a very classy story by Kelly Link, although if you were pedantic you would say it was horror rather than fantasy.

It’s cleverly structured, with two stories having their narratives entwined – until the end, when a third, meta-perspective concludes the stor(ies). Inasmuch as the stories are concluded, as the endings are left to the reader. The opening, initial narrative features a young girl who sleepwalks her way into danger, going out into the ocean and being caught in a riptide, only saved by a surfer dude. She falls in love with him, a love unrequited, and indeed, rebuffed over the years. To make matters worse, his sister marries her uncle. However, there is more to him than meets the eye, as we are forewarned in the other narrative, whose characters are reading this story.

The other narrative features a group of teen girls, the ‘Pretty Monsters’ of the title, as one of the gang of friends submits to an initiation ceremony that each has to go through. Each ceremony – they call it an ‘ordeal’ – is different, and this young girl has the misfortune to have her ordeal planning by a girl who has taken dislike to her mother, and who therefore intends the ordeal to be as big for the mother as her daughter.

Both narratives are handled beautifully, the relationships between the characters, the family members, all believable and engaging. As the stories progress, the themes of identity and persona, and hidden secrets gradually become increasingly clear, with mounting lycanthropic horror, although that horror is always off-stage.


A collection of excellent stories. The fantasy stories are very much of the urban contemporary manner, which is fine by me, as if I have to read fantasy I’m much rather read this type than fantasy featuring wizards and quests. On the SF side, perhaps less of the far-future and/or space opera than I’d like to see, but quality writing.

4 thoughts on “Jonathan Strahan. The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year. Volume 3.

  1. Have you thought about giving away fewer plot points when talking about the stories? I think you probably ruined quite a few I haven’t read.


  2. Jeff – thanks for the contribution. I did put up a spoiler alert on a review of a new Clarkesworld story yesterday, routing people through to read the online story before reading the review. I would hate to ruin anyone’s reading of the stories, but would hope that visitors to the site would realise quickly the nature of the review, and perhaps then limit themselves to reading the short summary with each volume, and/or skipping to the conclusion. But I’ll give some thought to your suggestion.

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