Science Fiction The Very Best of 2005 – edited by Jonathan Strahan, Locus Press, September 2006

Strahan had co-edited with Karen Haber the last couple of volumes of ibooks ‘Science Fiction The Best of 200xseries, which had launched initially with Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber at the helm. The ibooks volume had (presumably) prided itself on being the first of the annual anthologies to be published each year (to the extent of rather precluding stories appearing very late in the preceding year).

With ibooks bankrupting very early this year, Locus Press has stepped in to publish this year’s volume (alongside the complementary fantasy volume), and a very handsome job they have done, with a larger format book with a spanking cover by John Picacio.

So how does Strahan’s choices for the very best of 2005 compare with my thoughts on the matter? And how will this volume differ from the recent Hartwell, Dozois, Horton anthologies reviewed here in recent weeks?

Michael Swanwick. Triceratops Summer.
Originally : an Amazon short

Also picked by both Dozois and Horton for their anthologies, whence I 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 effects 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.

Vonda N. McIntyre. Little Faces.
Originally in : SCI FICTION – ONLINE

Picked by Dozois, and still online, and I previously noted:

    A bravura piece of far future SF from a master. Positing an all female future, in which longevity and extreme hi-tech enable humans to explore the universe at their leisure in symbiotic relationships with their spaceships, and in which the humans have strange creatures as companions, living in their bodies. As a group of star-travellers gather in orbit, some old human frailties emerge, and the delicate balance is threatened. As good a piece of hard sf as you’ll find this year.

James Morrow. The Second Coming of Charles Darwin.
Originally : an Amazon short

Another e-only story from Amazon.com only available to US citizens, so thanks to Strahan for making this neat little tale more widely available. A time travelling tortoise is on a mission to pull the rug out from under Darwin’s feet by destroying the evidence in the Galapagos islands which will result in the Bible being moved from the non-fiction shelves in public libaries to the fantasy section.

Pat Cadigan. Is There Life After Rehab?
Originally in : SCI FICTION – online

Nice to see a Cadigan in a year’s best anthology – and a sort of return to her cyberpunky best with a post-cyberpunk take on vampirism, in which a vampire(ss) who has been ‘cured’ of her nocturnal cravings, is given a chance to return to the blood-drinking fold. Will she embrace the Prince of Darkness, or spurn his advances (actually its ‘her advances’ as its a very 00s post-modern saphhic temptation which is on offer).

The story is still online, and if the opening line doesn’t leave a bad taste in the mouth, do carry on.

Alastair Reynolds. Understanding Space and Time.
Published : Novacon 2005 chapbook.

Also chosen in the Horton collection, I will direct you to the longer review than I normally give for this excellent story. Interestingly, Dozois, who did a lot to bring Reynolds to prominence through appearances in previous volumes, didn’t pick this story, but chose another two Reynolds stories (‘Zima Blue’ and ‘Beyond the Aquila Rift’). The Hartwell/Cramer volume picked ‘Beyond the Aquila Rift’, which gives Reynolds no less than five appearances in this year’s ‘best of..’ volumes.

Gwyneth Jones. The Fulcrum.
Originally in : Constellations (ed Crowther) 2005

Also chosen by Dozois, and in its original anthology appearance I stated :

    a .. claustrophobic affair, set on board a very seedy vessel, full of criminals, low-life and aliens on exercise bikes. There’s more than a touch of the Wild West about the story – just imagine Deadwood with most of the swearing removed, but a quasi-human grotesquely being milked of a very precious fluid, skanky VR ho’s, criminals and prospectors. Well worth a read, although the squeamish may grimace once or twice.

Bruce Sterling. The Blemmye’s Strategem.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 2005

When I read it in F&SF I stated:

    Good to see some short fiction from Sterling, albeit not SF. Here he gives Gene Wolfe a run for his money, in a very strange fantasy set in the The Holy Land and drawing on some mediaeval mythology. The Blemmye is a ‘man’ from the land of Prester John, who is notable for having no head – his face is on his chest. But the Blemmye loves on far stranger than he. The Abbess Hildegard and her lover Sinan aid this ruler of their land, and are on hand when he falls, saving his beloved (crablike) from the clutches of impish devils. The structure of the story is somewhat disjointed, making for an unsettling narrative, if an intriguing one

FWIW A story which I think would be better in Strahan’s Fantasy volume.

Wil McCarthy. They Will Raise You in a Box.
Originally in : Asimovs, April/May 2005

In its original magazine appearance, whose contents I described as ranging from ‘excellent to very good’ I said:

    A very short piece of literary writing, in which the interdependence of the creators and the created are viewed through the relationship between a created intelligence and those would have it do their bidding.

All the more intriguing, as mentioned in the recent review of Horton’s anthology his inclusion of another McCarthy story somewhat baffled me.

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

In its original appearance 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.

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

Upon reading previously :

    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.

Paolo Bacigalupi. The Calorie Man.
Originally in : F&SF October/November 2005

When it appeared last year I wrote:

    Bacigalupi, like Ted Chiang, doesn’t write very often, but when he does, like Ted Chiang, they’ve been stories to make you sit up and notice (‘The Fluted Girl’ (F&SF Jan 2003), ‘The People of Sand and Slag’ (F&SF Feb 2004), ‘The Pasho’ (Asimovs Sept 2004)). They’re not quite up to the standard of Chiang, but close enough. As before, he creates a quite unique setting on which to hang his story. The story is set on the Mississippi delta, near-future, but quite different from the society now, as humanity is reduced to mostly manual energy creation and utilisation, with what energy that is created being stored in springs for future use. He gradually explains all, as Lalji sets out on a mission upriver to bring back a man who just might have the answer to the yoke under which the agribusiness monopolies have been putting us under. The imagery of a slower paced life, with most of the country turned over to agriculture, and the sacrifices which Lalji has made, is an effective one, and the story rolls towards the inevitable dramatic conclusion. I read this directly after reading Tom Purdom’s ‘Bank Run’ in Asimov’s October issue (not yet reviewed) and there is a stark contrast – Bacigalupi is a far more thoughtful, interesting story, with sharp detail and exploration of implications of the technological impact he has postulated, whereas Purdom’s isn’t. (It is at best, a simple ‘fast-paced adventure’.) Suffice to say, the story in hand would sit well in Asimovs, and Purdom’s would have been better placed in Analog.

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

Well Strahan chose the story for this volume, Horton for his volume, and Asimovs editor Sheila Williams obviously liked it. Me, not really – in its original appearance I gave this plot summary

    the 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 in Horton’s anthology I added ‘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’.

Cory Doctorow. I, Robot.
Originally : on Infinity Matrix – still online

In its original appearance in the now defunct ‘zine, I said:

    I was attracted to this story due to a) its length (Infinite Matrix tends towards ‘nanotales’, a form of story which tends not to do much for me) b) its authorship (‘nuf said) c) and the intriguing background to the story : ‘Last spring, in the wake of Ray Bradbury pitching a tantrum over Michael Moore appropriating the title of ‘Fahrenheit 451′ to make Fahrenheit 9/11, I conceived of a plan to write a series of stories with the same titles as famous sf shorts, which would pick apart the totalitarian assumptions underpinning some of sf’s classic narratives.’ Arturo Icaza de Arana-Goldberg is the cop who struggles with the ubiquitous nature of robotics in Doctorow’s disturbing near-future USA. He has trouble with them, with his teenage daughter, whose middle name -is- Trouble, and with his wife who has left him, and his country in the lurch. Whereas the Will Smith vehicle of this title has US Robotics as the global hi-tech leader, her we have UNATS Robotics’ robots making the streets a safer place. Unfortunately, whilst they are properly imbued with the 3 Laws, the robots from Eurasia have no such positronic compunctions, which is bad for global relations and bad for the United North American Trading Sphere, but personally bad for Arturo, as his wife has fled the States to take her world leading robotic skills to that other continent.

    Doctorow unfurls on the one hand a reasonably dramatic search/rescue mission, as Arturo has to use his native human cunning to track down his missing daughter, whilst a very scary society in with Regional Managers for Social Harmony are keeping a very close eye on people is detailed.

    Arturo ends up following his wife’s lead, hoping for a somewhat freer life away from the claustrophobic States, only to find that the use of robotic tech has gone much further, and that humanity is threatened in an entirely different, albeit similarly scary manner.

Ian McDonald. The Little Goddess.
Originally in : Asimovs, June 2005

When the story appeared in its original magazine appearance I enthused:

    The issue gets off to a strong start with the reminisences of a girl who has been the ‘Kumari Devi’, a Living Goddess. She remembers how she as a young child she was chosen, the bloodcurdling rituals, the separation from family, and the years waited on hand and foot, worshipped as a god, but only whilst she remains pre-pubescent. This early part of the story, with only a few references to the fact that we are about fifty years hence in Nepal, is unsettling and alien (assuming that most Asimovs readers are not Nepalese). As I’ve stated before, often such settings are more ‘alien’ than many offworld settings in poorer SF. The sfnal elements come into play when the young girl, returned to her community, finds her next role in life is to be that of a wife. As soon as she is 14 she is betrothed to a Brahmin, one of the higher castes in India, who benefit from tweaked DNA, giving them twice the usual longevity, but consequently grown at half the usual pace. Her husband, aged 20, is therefore physically only a 10 year old boy, and the wedding night comes as a shock to her (I’m guessing here, but this may be the first SF short story to feature a strap-on?)

    Following her failed marraige, she becomes involved in smuggling – not as a drug mule, but by transporting outlawed AI’s in her own skull. However, this becomes increadingly hazardous, and a final smuggling run, with a risky complement of 5 AI’s ‘on board’ sees her finally able to take a grip on her future, and to be able to become, in effect, a little goddess in her own right.

    A powerful story, in which you can almost smell the ghee and feel the heat, evidently sharing some story elements with his very well received novel ‘River of Gods’ from last year, and which, on this basis, I may well choose to be one of the few novels I read this year.

And, when reviewing Dozois annual collection, which opens with this story I provided an update to that earlier review:

    And, gentle reader, ‘River of Gods’ was one of the few novels I did read last year (or maybe earlier this year) and I have to say that the novel was every bit as good as this novella, and I would humbly suggest if you haven’t read either that novel or this novella, then you have missed out, big-time.

And looking back on this year’s Dozois, just look at that opening sequence of stories, a cojone-grabbing, cerebrum straining opening sequence to die for IMHO! And a strong conclusion to this volume.

Conclusion.

A very strong volume, IMHO, with only the Palwick story being the one to which I would object to (although with the proviso that the Sterling and Cadigan stories were for my more towards the fantasy end of the spectrum than the SF, especially for an editor who does have a complementary fantasy collection). 6 of the 14 stories are in the Dozois collection, and of the other stories several are from authors who regulary appear in Dozois (Reed, Reynolds, Cadigan, Waldrop) which gives this a feel of a DozoisLITE.

If the house was burning down and I had to take just one of the four 2005 anthologies, Dozois would be the first choice. If I had only a small pocket, then Strahan would be the one saved from the fiery furnace, as the majority of stories are very strong ones (the book does live up to the ‘Very Best’ in the title).

But if I was wanting a bit more variety, then Hartwell/Cramer with its many more stories (albeit a lot of short shorts) would be the choice, as that has a similarly close match to my preferences.

The Horton collection would be last on the list, I’m afraid, as there only a few stories which matched my preferences, but that still makes his volume the fourth best SF annual anthology in the world, and his broader range of sources makes his more of a review of the field for the year.

There aren’t many overlaps between the Hartwell/Cramer, Horton and Strahan volumes, each giving a different perspective on the year in question, so really I have to urge you to buy all three of these volumes alongside the Dozois volume. I did.

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