Science Fiction : The Best of the Year 2006 Edition – edited by Rich Horton, Prime Books, September 2006

Rich Horton has been reviewing substantial amounts of short SF in recent years, and the opportunity to edit a Year’s Best for both Science Fiction and for Fantasy must have seemed like a dream come true (I’m guessing his response was along the lines of “..and they’re going to pay me to do this!”). When I say he has been reviewing substantial amounts of short SF, to be precise, last year he read ’46 novellas, 311 novelettes, and 1400 short stories’ which is w-a-y- too unhealthy for anyone who isn’t a pair of identical twins masquerading as a singleton to get through.

Horton went on record earlier this year with his ‘virtual Year’s Best’ so it will be interesting (for those of us with a tendency towards anality) to ponder the difference between what his virtual year’s best is and what is contained herein.

So what of Horton’s take on the best of 2005? As ever, I shall make my way through the volume drawing upon previous reviews where available.

Michael Swanwick. Triceratops Summer.
Originally on Amazon

Also picked by Dozois, where I read it and wrote :

    Another story I hadn’t read originally. A short short made available on amazon.com last year to promote a novel. So why didn’t I read this short short which was online? Well, it was online on amazon.com but not on amazon.co.uk and amazon.com blocked internet users from outside the USA reading the story. Which is even more galling than the Science Fiction Book Club preventing non-US citizens from getting a hold of their books. gaaaaaaaaaaaaah. Anyhoo, as you except from Swanwick, a neat little story, in which the effrets of a short-term visit to current times by a group of triceratops (triceratopii?) on a small group of people is observed. Neat, without being a wowza.

Tom Purdom. Bank Run.
Originally in : Asimovs, October/November 2005

When this story appeared last year, I was far from impressed:

    Sabor Haveri, ultra-rich banker, finds his idyllic boating trip, in which his splitting his attention between playing the markets and toying with his concubine. However this idyll is spoilt by a customer of his with a grudge, who turns up on a faster boat armed to the teeth and with several armed guards. Those guards have been specially created, as has his concubine – ‘a fleshy woman with a strong sex drive’. Fortunately Sabor has a ‘chinup elan’ (specified by his mother when he was conceived), and access to a Fabricator (which can, duh, fabricate all manner of things, including ‘people’) and he uses this to evade capture. There then follows a chase through the uninhabited jungle of the planet. I have to disagree with the introductory editorial comments as to this being ‘fast-paced’ as I found it too cumbersome to be readable, overly verbose, leaden dialogue and just lacking in any subtlety or anything other than simply ‘average SF’ as opposed to ‘Best SF’. Looking back on my previous reviews of Purdom’s work I find that I have used ‘heavy going’ previously. This story suffered as I read it (or the first half of it) directly after Paolo Bacigalupi’s ‘The Calorie Man’ in F&SF Oct/Nov 2005, which was way more subtle and properly fast-paced. For me I’d expect the Bacigalupi story to be in Asimovs, and this Purdom story to be in Analog.

Hmmm ‘too cumbersome to be readerly, overly verbose, leaden dialogue and just lacking in any subtlety or anything other than simply ‘average SF’ as opposed to ‘Best SF'”.

So I think it would be fair to say that Horton got something out of this that I didn’t! For the record, in the introduction to his collection, Rich states ‘at once an exciting adventure story about finance, and a challenging look at gender roles, and once again, love’. Perhaps I’m not one for an ‘exciting adventure story’, but I do feel ‘a challenging look at gender roles’ is s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g it a bit far for my money, as it ain’t Tiptree, but rather a pre-Tiptree era simple take on male/female gender roles which we’re way beyond (certainly in metropolitan London) in 2006

Douglas Lain. A Coffee Cup/Alien Invasion Story.
Originally in Strange Horizons, February 2005 – and still online

Horton’s volume takes a couple of stories from the small press magazines (and small online zines), which the other year’s bests tend not to do. This is an interesting story in the obtrusive presence of the narrator in describing how the main protaganists were named, and in describing itself as a New Yorker Cup of Coffee type of plotless story. This meta-fictional approach is perhaps more interesting than the narrative itself in which a couple go through a Woody Allenesque bit of existential angst that the threat of an alien invasion (literally) hanging over their heads causes/triggers.

As a Post-9/11 story it works more than as a straight SF story.

James Patrick Kelly. The Edge of Nowhere.
Originally in : Asimovs, June 2005

Also picked by Hartwell/Cramer for their anthology, I was impressed in its magazine appearance :

    In contrast to the post-Singularity upload landscapes of much SF, Kelly provides a stranger landscape. His ‘cognisphere’ is an AI-controlled environment, called Nowhere, and where less than a thousand re-constituted souls live their lives, contributing to the Memory Exchange. They are on a high piece of land, surrounded by fog and a great drop, although in the distance it is possible to see other checkerboard landscapes. Those who have been brought back to life have been chosen at random, and they struggle to understand to what purpose they are there. When Lorraine Carraway is approached by representatives of the AI, which come in canine form, she realises that something very strange is happening. Her young lover, Will, has been working on his attempt at The Great American Novel, and this new creation has, it would appear, an important role to play. However, in giving up this work, and attempting to climb down from Nowhere, Lorraine is left to make sense of her world, which she is able to do through writing a story. Her story is, it transpires, that which we have been reading.

    An intriguing and inventive story.

Joe Haldeman. Heartwired.
Originally in : Nature

Hartwell/Cramer chose no less than 10 short-shorts from last year’s Nature magazine for their anthology, but Horton chooses a different one from that source for his anthology. Go figure!

A story in which a wife attempts to spice up (or, chemically enhance) the physical side of her relationship with her husband. Mildly diverting, and the drug I suppose brings a scientific element into the story, but SF?

Susan Palwick. The Fate of Mice.
Originally in : Asimovs January 2005

When it appeared in magazine form last year I grouped this story with a couple of others in the issue which I referred to as ‘lightweight’. The story summation was :

    e mouse in question is Rodney, a lab mouse. But not your common or garden lab mouse, as he has an IQ boost and a vocal synthesiser, which enable him to establish a relationship with the scientist’s young daughter. Rodney’s worldview is of course limited, although he has strange dreams, and, inexplicably is aware of the place of meeses in our literature – from Cinderalla to the sfnal eponymous mouse in Flowers for Algernon.He dreams of being free, but the scientist has warned him of his likely fate – mouse traps, and cats and other horrors. However, young Pippa has his best interests at heart, and he is freed on the doorstep of the lab.

And upon further reading, I still would categorise this as lightweight. True, it does clearly reference an SF classic, but it’s anthropomorphic and a faint shadow of the story to which it refers.

Howard Waldrop. King of Where-I-Go.
Originally in : SCI FICTION – ONLINE

An excellent story, which if you haven’t read it yet, and can spare about 45 minutes, I would urge you to read. A brother/sister relationship defined by her childhood polio is affected by…. well, you’re going to have to read the story.

Wil McCarthy. The Policeman’s Daughter.
Originally in : Analog, June 2005

When it first appeared I wrote :

    Attorney Carmine Strange Douglas finds himself in a predicament, as a younger, ballsier version of himself is defending a younger, ballsier version of his old friend. This has been able to happen due to the extensive use of a technology which makes it -extremely- simple to make backups and duplicates of oneself. I got halfway through before baling out. The overall premise stretched my suspension of disbelief, and the hefty chunks of dialogue and background setting just didn’t offer any prospect of the story providing relatively routine fayre. There may be clever, subtle stories which look at how technologies of this type may challenge the sense of self, but this isn’t one of them. As with a lot of ‘easy SF’ the characters could just have easily come from a 1950s detective story, with no sense of being from a century or more hence (other than by having slightly unusual middle names) – in a week after it was announed that by 2050 the USA will be more than 50% ethnic ‘minority’.

    The story suffered (perhaps unfairly, perhaps not) from being read immediately after Christopher Rowe’s ‘The Voluntary State’, which appeared on SCI FICTION last year, and which offers the kind of inventive nearish future story which is nearer to my idea of what the best SF should provide, as opposed to a story which could have been penned by Isaac Asimov in his heyday (which was fine for those days).

This isn’t the only time that Wil McCarthy hasn’t done anything for me I would point out that this is me being consistent rather than having a thing against McCarthy as to date I have read each of these stories without recollection of his previous stories. The one exception that proves the rule is his which is a horse of a very different colour.

Leah Bobet. Bliss.
Originally in : On Spec, Winter 2005.

Another small press story. As with the Haldeman story, the sfnal element is thin, but chemical. A young man brings his sister, the victim of domestic violence, to his apartment, where she, against her will, goes cold turkey from the drug of the title. She is as desperate to escape to the world of Bliss as he is to get her back to some semblance of normality. His workplace MD is a bit of a chemist on the side and is able (little bit creaky here) to concoct a drug to this effect. However, the sister is also wanting to get her brother hooked into Bliss, to cheery him up (he is a bit of a grumpy git).

For my money, as an SF story, the minimal SF content makes it OK without being oustanding. I’d guess that if I was to read it with a mainstream, non-genre hat on, I’d possibly score it higher.

Robert Reed. Finished.
Originally in : Asimovs, September 2005

When it appeared I wrote:

    Reed has the happy mortgage-paying knack of turning out a lot of neat, effective stories which provide interesting and usually unique takes on future possibilities, just slightly different from well trodden sf tropes (and boy, you can smell those well trodden sf tropes at times!). Here he looks a human uploading to attain virtualy immortality, although his Finished are those humans who upload into artificial bodies – extremly lifelike and repairable bodies. The protagopnist is onesuch, and we follow his relationship with a young woman who finds herself considering following his footsteps and becoming Finished. Reed explores taking what making such a decision must involve, and captures evocatively the feeling of entering the clinic to undergo the process on a bright, cloudless, blue sky day, and having that feeling for eternity.

James Van Pelt. The Inn at Mount Either.
Originally in : Analog, May 2005

When it first appeared, my summary of the issue in which the story appeared was ‘standard Analog fayre’, and of the story I wrote:

    A wonderful holiday at a hotel which offers timeshifting trips to quantum alternate realities goes badly wrong when Dorian’s wife gets lost. Not just lost in the hotel – lost amongst the multiple hotels. After some panicky searching, Dorian is reunited, but has a sneaking suspicion that the wife which he has now isn’t exactly the wife he had previously.

Mary Rosenblum. Search Engine.
Originally in : Analog September 2005

When it first appeared I mentioned this story as being ‘slightly above the (usual Analog) run of the mill’ and summarised:

    Private Eye Aman Bourton has a Fed turn up, who wants him to trace the whereabouts of a young man who has gone below the radar of the otherwise all-seeing RFIDscape. The young man, the same age as Aman’s son, has followed the same route as his son – getting his chip removed and joining the Gaiist movement, those fighting the technological advance for the sake of mother Earth, Gaia. However, whilst the young guy believes he is now operating incognito, it is only a matter of minutes before the data warehouses accessible to Aman’s ‘Search Engine Inc’ are hot on his trail – for even a vegan paying with cash leaves a trail. Soon Aman is confronting the young guy, but it turns out that Aman’s office assistant has an interest in the case, and a shootout ensures. Aman is injured, but decides enough is enough and joins the Gaist cell, led by… (can you guess who?)

    An interesting setup, although the plot fits together just a bit too neAatly.

Also chosen by Dozois for his 23rd Annual Collection.

Stephen Leigh. “You”, by Anonymous.
Originally in : I, Alien

The story appeared originally in an anthology by Mike Resnick, in which all the stories were in effect from alien POV.

Leigh’s contribution is, I would imagine, a bit different from the others in the volume, as it is written in second person, addressed to the reader. (He also disses fat balding computer programmers, which would upset about 60% of SF readership by my reckoning).

Daniel Kaysen. The Jenna Set.
Originally in : Strange Horizons, March 2005 – ONLINE

As with the online Waldrop story above, I’d urge you to read this, especially if you have a slightly warped sense of humour. An AI-controlled answering machine proves particularly capable of passing the Turing Test by carrying on your conversations for you.

Alastair Reynolds. Understanding Space and Time.
Originally : a chapbook

I would direct you to the longer review than I normally give for and excellent story with which to close the volume.

Conclusion.

A few thoughts.

Horton has chosen stories primarily from magazines and webzines with all but two being from those sources (Asimovs 4, Analog 3, Strange Horizons 2, Nature, On Spec, SCI FICTION). There’s only one story from an original anthology, in a year with some very good original anthologies (as drawn upon by Dozois and Hartwell/Cramer).

The stories themselves had more ‘misses’ with me than is normally the case with such anthologies – notably the Analog stories. My guess is that Rich Horton has a penchant for more ‘golden age/classic SF’ than I do (he certainly reads a hell of a lot of older stuff!) Of the 13 stories, there are only really 5 (Kelly, Waldrop, Reed, Kaysen, Reynolds) which would be in my pick.

Interestingly the aforementioned virtual Year’s Best of Horton’s throws up stories in his long list with which I do concur, notably

  • “Magic for Beginners” by Kelly Link (F&SF, September; Magic for Beginners)
  • “Burn, by James Patrick Kelly (Tachyon Press)
  • “The Little Goddess” by Ian McDonald (Asimov’s, June)
  • “I, Robot” by Cory Doctorow (Infinite Matrix, February 15)
  • “Second Person, Present Tense” by Daryl Gregory (Asimov’s, September)
  • “The Calorie Man” by Paolo Bacigalupi (F&SF, October/November)
  • “Written in the Stars” by Ian McDonald (Constellations)
  • “Little Faces” by Vonda N. McIntyre (Sci Fiction, February 23)
  • “Beyond the Aquila Rift” by Alastair Reynolds (Constellations)
  • “Amba” by William Sanders (Asimov’s, December)
  • “Winning Mars” by Jason Stoddard (Interzone, January-February)
  • “Zima Blue” by Alastair Reynolds (Postscripts, Summer)

and of these, I would put the McDonald, Bacigalupi, and McIntyre stories as being w-a-y ahead of the Analog stories included by Horton in this volume.

The aforementioned ‘virtual year’s Best’ page gives Horton’s overall favourites, but also his Dozois-length selection, and his Terry Carr-length selection. Interestingly, both his Dozois-length selection and his Terry Carr-length selection are more in tune with me than the volume in hand, so perhaps contractual issues, or space issues, got in the way of translating Horton’s ideal collection into reality?

Next up: Jonathan Strahan’s take on 2005….

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