Science Fiction The Best of the Year 2007 edition, ed Rich Horton, Prime Books 2007

Hard on the heels of reviewing Hartwell/Cramer’s #12, is Horton’s second volume with his take on the Year’s Bests. Last year I noted that Horton’s volume had more ‘misses’ than ‘hits’, so what of this year? Seven of the twelve in the volume I’m already familiar with, and I concur with pretty much all of them, which is quite a contrast to last year, where there were a few I’d previously read which I couldn’t agree with. So, in order in which they appear ….

Christopher Rowe. Another Word for Map is Faith.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, August 2006

When I read this last year I wrote:

    Rowe’s ‘The Voluntary State’ on SCI FICTION was a memorable short story, and he hits the mark again, the only problem being the rising disappointment as the story progresses as you realise that the story is coming to an end. Editor GvG should really have returned this with a Twistian ‘more please…’ The setting is a near-future US, strangely affected by both geographic and religious upheaval. An academic group are visting part of the countryside where the geography no longer matches the maps. A splintered christianity is a further backdrop, and the fervour with which the group attend to the righting of the wrongs that their eyes see is a chilling foreboding.

    For me, similar to last year’s ‘The Calorie Man’ by Bacigalupi, Rowe has put together a believable, three dimensional, near future projection that is quite unique. OK it is short, but better that than ekeing out something thinly over a lot more pages (did someone say ‘Frank Herbert’?). A lot of SF simply relies on standard settings and tropes, and doesn’t really provide anything truly original, and stories which do have that bit of inventiveness do stand out. (Paging Messrs Dozois, Hartwell, Strahan, Horton).

Good to start the volume off with one with which both Horton and I share the same view!

Carolyn Ives Gilman. Okanoggan Falls.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, August 2006

In the same issue of F&SF as the previous story, the review of said magazine of which I noted that Rowe and Gilman ‘bring that something special’, I wrote of this L

    Humanity has been invaded by powerful aliens – a mostly peaceful affair, and in Okanoggan Falls the aliens are largely things to be seen on television, as rural life goes on. However, it transpires that Okanoggan Falls is sited on some real estate the aliens have taken a fancy to, and forceable relocation is going to happen. Resistance is futile, according to the aliens (not in those cliched words), and there is debate in the town council as to just how to react. Some politics are played out, and a local housewife tries a very subtle form of resistance.

    She welcomes the alien in charge of arranging the relocation of the townspeople, and the pair get to understand each other very well. As the rock-like alien gradually becomes more human (quite literally!) the bond threatens to become a stronger one.

    However, the potential love affair is of course doomed, as is Okanoggan Falls. But whilst the townspeople may lose their homes, humanity has perhaps made a small step, and whilst it may not be the end, or even the beginning of the end, it may be the end of the beginning. (Thinks : I’m sure I’ve heard that before…)

Although fair to say, the story doesn’t leap from memory like many others during the year.

Ian Watson. Saving for a Sunny Day.
Originally in : Asimovs, Oct/Nov 2006

In the review of Hartwell’s #12th, I noted that the two double-issues of Asimovs could be put together in a new cover as published as a Year’s Best, so good were they. This is one of the stories frome one of those issues, and I summarised it thus:

    Barcodable souls that enable reincarnation – so that no new souls are created, but old ones simply reincarnated into new bodies. But the controlling AI of course has a good memory, and debts incurred in a previous incarnation are very much carried forward into a new life, which isn’t always appreciated when you are a young child with a multi-million debt to service, as is the case with Jimmy. However, he has the smarts, and is able to find a way out of his predicament.

Although, as with the previous story, not one that at the time struck me as being of the very top ilk.

Robert Charles Wilson. The Cartesian Theater.
Originally in Futureshocks ed Lou Anders

A very clever piece from a collection which I didn’t quite get around to getting a hold of (Anders’ previous anthology, Live Without a Net, was excellent).

Wilson uses technology to make virtual the Cartesian soul. A couple of centuries hence a somewhat unpleasant performance artiste demonstrate how he can use hi-tech to substantiate a copy of a living creature, out of nano-gel. Having created a canine doppelganger, it lives for a few minutes before it starts to decohere.

The next step is to copy himself, and to set up a chillingly bizarre piece of theatre in which both he and his temporary twin will wait to see which of the two is the version which will not live long.

There is a neat twist in the tail as to who exactly is pulling the strings, the better to explore the nature of intelligence, humanity, and the soul, in creatures not of flesh and blood.

Ann Leckie. Hesperia and Glory.
Originally in : Subterranean Magazine

Leckie pays a tongue-in-cheek homage to ERB and Barsoom, in a tale of a Martian prince who finds himself likely stranded on Earth. He relates the challenges he faced back on his home planet, in which mind-power holds ultimate sway, and the fears he has that his Mars may not be there for him to return. Last year Horton chose Susan Palwick’s ‘Fate of Mice’ which nodded vigorously in the direction of another SF classic. I can see the attraction of doing this in a big collection, but with only a limited amount of space, this might be just too much of a luxury.

Walter Jon Williams. Incarnation Day.
Originally in : Escape from Earth

A strong story from Williams, as tends to be the case. He posits an intriguing background – a society in which many parents choose to raise their children as virtual ones – a sort of tamagochi – until such time as they, in their mid-teens, are ready to be encoded into a living, vat-grown, teen body. As virtual constructs, the children are able to develop virtually 24/7, and have their coded selves squirted across space.

We follow a group of virtual sibs, a cadre, who are approaching their Incarnation Day, and what appears initially to be an adventure story surrounding them, becomes much darker as the strains between one young woman and her mother develop into a life-threatening situation, as the parents have the right to return their virtual children to a zero state, and start again.

Ruth Nestvold. Exit Before Saving.
Originally in : Futurismic

Mallory is a hi-tech agent who ‘morphs’ – has herself uploaded into another body, the better to carry out industrial espionage. It’s somewhat unfeasibly hi-tech, and the story feels like a fairly low-rent TV scifi drama. A long way from a Year’s Best imho.

William Shunn. Inclination.
Originally in : Asimovs, Apr/May 2006

This would be one of the first stories to go into my Year’s Best, and I summarised last year :

    Part of a series of loosely linked storied set on the ‘Netherview’ space station. An earlier story of which, ‘Dance of the Yellow-Breasted Luddites’, was a Nebula nominee in 2001 (it was originally in Ellen Datlow’s ‘Vanishing Acts’ in 2000, and is available on Fictionwise). Prior to that ‘The Practical Ramifications of Interstellar Packet Loss’ appeared in Science Fiction Age during 1998 and was well-received, and that story is online, free of charge, at InfinityPlus Shunn sets up an intriguing setting quickly and well, as we hear the doubts of 15-year old Jude, who shares a small room with his father in the claustrophobic Machinist Quarter of Netherview’s Station Ring B : “The Manual tells us that in the beginning the Builder decreed six fundamental Machines. These are his six aspects, and all we do we must do with the Six. We need no other machines.” Shunn is economical but extremely effective in showing how the beliefs of the Machinists structure their lives, education and behaviour, in a few pages building a believable and three-dimensional community.

    Jude’s father has found him a job – outside the Quarter, as a stevedore at the docks at the Hub, and here his already wavering belief in those six fundamental machines (The Wheel, the Wedge, the Lever, the Plane, the Pulley, and the Screw) is further compromised amongst The Sculpted : humans with body modifications and beliefs diamaterically opposed to the utilitarian society in which he has been raised. His inner turmoil is heightened by his conversations with the blue-skinned Derek, the communal samesex showers after work, and a tipping point in reached when triple-pay is on offer (and his father needs the money) but minor Sculpting in order to work in vacuum is required.

    And in considering this option, a conversation with one of the ship’s AIs, ‘Geoff’, puts Jude in possession of a lot of new knowledge, about the Machinists, his father, his mother, and ultimately, himself.

Jack Skillingstead. Life on the Preservation.
Originally in : Asimovs, June 2006

When it appeared last year I wrote:

    A young woman is on a mission to undo the work of aliens, who have left Earth in post-apocalyptic meltdown, save for a domed city in which whose residents are ‘doomed’ to cycle through the same 24 hours. Kylie arrives with the means to destroy the city, but finds herself sucked into the intense life in the city, and finds she has a taste for a lot that is on offer. And she has to make a choice as the final minutes of this day end, and the same day will restart at midnight. The story flows very quickly, with the short staccato sentences driving the plot along quickly (perhaps a little too quickly), and gives a lot in a short space.

Adam Roberts. Me-topia.
Originally in : Forbidden Planet, ed Pete Crowther

When this appeared in one of the couple of original anthologies I read last year I said:

    ..starts with a crashlanded ship and a small crew trying to come to terms with the anomalous planet on which they find themselves. More is revealed as the story progresses, with some neat twists and revelations. The setting is a doozy : a flat, circular ‘planet’, side on to Earth, and off the ecliptic plane, the better to be hidden. The creator of the planet is a human, or more specifically, a homo sapiens, and the visitors are the genmod humans who had been left behind on the now inhospitable planet, ‘uplifted’ to homo neanderthalis, the better to survive. You’d have to be an academic like Roberts to spot that his homage is less to Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ than to Homer’s Island of the Lotophagoi from the ‘Odyssey’

Benjamin Rosenbaum. The House Beyond Your Sky.
Originally in : Strange Horizons
– and and still online

Horton does in his intro make clear that he has an intention to showcase new writers, and Rosenbaum is one such who has made a strong start to his writing career. This is a clever story, which shows a willingness to open up a story to some big concepts, but not to go too far. You can read it online (follow the link above) – it’s a short story, and well worth it, although it’s a thoughtful piece rather than offering a dramatic narrative.

And there’s a mini discussion on Strange Horizons in which the story is discussed, with a contribution by Rosenbaum. And for those who like your written science fiction squirted into your brain via the earhole, it is also available as a podcast. Having been made available in written and spoken form on a digital basis, it’s good to see it on slices of dead-tree and put into Bio Optic Organised Knowledge Source and thus brought to a larger audience.

Robert Reed. A Billion Eves.
Originally in : Asimovs, Oct/Nov 2006

Last year I wrote:

    A complex and initially very satisfying story. The story beings is a just-slightly-off-kilter rural American, describing a family vacation in a battered old car which is doomed to failure. Scarily, part of the background is that the trip is against a backdrop of women disappearing : there are ‘missing’ posters up everywhere, and there are secure places for women at the gas stations – and that there it is a very patriarchal society. The whys and wherefores of this are intriguing – it could in fact be contemporary America, as there are evidently equally bizarre ‘religions’ in that big country. The opening sequences ends with a nerve-jangling potential confrontation takes place with a gun-toting man with an old school bus, with a cargo which sends jitters around the family.

    The background to the story is gradually revealed, and we find that we are on an alternate Earth, founded by the First Father, who came across from Old Earth using ‘ripper’ technology, which creates a rent in the small gaps between the branes of the millions of alternate Earths. And this Earth has seen sprung up a range of religions, each with their own perspective on this First Father. The further details are somewhat bizarre, for the First Father was a young student who in fact stole a ‘ripper’ and took himself and a dorm full of college girls off to this Brave New World.

    The story of the young daughter, Kala, progresses, going forward several years, whilst more of the backdrop is revealed, including an attempted abduction of her by a young man who is one of a party who themselves are about to set off to another alternate world, to create another Eden.

    An excellent piece of inventive society-building, with the only slight problem for me being that structure of the story, in that it feels like a compressed novel, with several key peaks in it, which would work well at a greater length. But for a novella, perhaps just a couple too many peaks in it, as with each peak there is a bit of a surprise that the reader hasn’t crested the summit, but that another peak awaits. But that’s being a bit picky I suppose, as a lot of stories barely manage the odd hillock, let alone a mountain stage of the Tour de France.

Conclusion.

A collection more in tune with my preferences than last year’s, with the exclusion of Analog stories being the primary cause of that. Interestingly, Horton picked three stories which I had indicated that Hartwell’s 12th could/should have included (the Shunn, Reed and Rowe stories). It’s a good collection, albeit with a couple of weak stories, and I’m tempted to rate this above the Hartwell collection, despite that volume having more stories, as there are more top quality stories in the Horton collection.

In terms of bang for buck I’m expecting a good deal from the forthcoming Strahan and Dozois collections. In the meantime, I’m off to explore the quantum branes to find the world in which this volume included stories by Haldeman, Reynolds and Swanwick. The cover of the book has obviously leaked into Amazon-space in this brane, as evidenced by the cover picture above….

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