The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Six (ed Jonathan Strahan, Nightshade Books, 2012)

First of the Year’s Best volumes to find its way into my clutches in 2012. As per usual, a run through what’s in there, with reviews from those stories I read in their original appearance, with the gaps being filled in due course. Of course, you should really buy the book : amazon.com | amazon.co.uk

Neil Gaiman. The Case of Death and Honey.
Originally in : A Study in Sherlock.

A Sherlock Holmes story.

E. Lily Yu. The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees.
Originally in : Clarkesworld #55 – and online to read in full

I’ve tried reading this, and tried listening to the podcast and it hasn’t grabbed me in either case. Click the link above to read it yourself.

Caitlin R. Kiernan. Tidal Forces.
Originally in : Eclipse 4

From the fourth in the Strahan-edited anthology, which I didn’t get round to buying and reviewing last year.

Karen Joy Fowler. Younger Women.
Originally in : Subterranean Magazine Summer 2011 – still online

Personally, I’d give short shrift to any story that was in the contemporary suburban teenage vampire milieu.

Catherynne M. Valente. White Lines on a Green Field.
Originally in : Subterranean Magazine, Fall 2011 – still online

An Owomoyela. All That Touches the Air.
Originally in : Lightspeed Magazine #11 – and still online

Geoff Ryman. What We Found.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September/October 2011

When it appeared last year I wrote :

    “Ryman takes us to Nigeria, gives us the texture and taste of that country, and the strange family of the protagonist, a young man whose scientific research provides the sfnal element to the story which is otherwise largely domestic and familial. His research suggests that too much scientific study, too much replication, is affecting science itself. It’s not a full-on science story approach a la Benford, just passing notes on the research to reflect on the story.”

Hannu Rajaniemi. The Server and the Dragon.
Originally in : Engineering Infinity

When it appeared last year in the Strahan-edited anthology I wrote:

    “Far-future far-distant post-human hard SF.

    ‘In the beginning, before it was a Creator and a dragon, the server was alone. It was born like all servers were, from a tiny seed fired by a darkship exploring the Big Empty, expanding the reach of the Network.’

    Rajaniemi is a clever guy, with a BSc thesis on Transcendental Numbers, and a PhD in String Theory (me, I barely got up to ‘hard sums’), and like fellow boffins like Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter, can give full rein to his scientific knowledge, and, like those authors, doesn’t overstep the mark too much in terms of the scientific concepts and language.

    He gives his ‘server’ protagonist some degree of emotion, lonely out there in the deep dark, and we follow it as it takes on the role of a creator on a local, but galactic, level; and as it finally makes contact, a climactic relationship.

    Clever stuff!”

Paul McAuley. The Choice.
Originally in : Asimvos, January 2011.

When it appeared last year I wrote :

    “A story in McAuley’s Jackaroo sequence, where that alien race have opened up the universe to Earth, potentially saving us from the ecological and political disasters we were bringing on ourselves.

    The story is set in Norfolk, a low lying part of eastern England now inundated by rising sea levels. Lucas is a young boy living with his ailing mother, a political activist, who heads off with a friend to find out whether the rumours about a beached alien vessel nearby are true.

    The setting and locals are lovingly described (just the odd Americanism being a bit of an anachronism in rural Norfolk), with family dynamics playing a strong part. What looks to be a story about a day’s adventure becomes much darker as the consequences of the their close encounter unfold.”

Peter Watts. Malak.
Originally in : Engineering Infinity

When it appeared last year in the Strahan-edited anthology I wrote:

    “Watts doesn’t look to far into the future in a story seen through the eyes of a semi-autonomous military killing machine. The story opens with a couple of quotes from real publications, to create the setting of the story : risk and ethics in military robotics, and collateral damage (aka killing civilians).

    The aerial robot the story follows is named Azrael, as in the Archangel of Death. Previously purely a machine following logic and detailed instructions about engaging the enemy, we hear his wranglers commenting on his new instruction set : he is now an experimental ‘killer with a conscience’.

    We follow Azrael as he comes to term with his new instructions, effectively giving him a new mind-set, and how he reacts over his next engagements, and the implications for him, and those he fights for. Thought-provoking, and difficult to read without the overlay of the wikileaked video of collateral damage in Iraq in your mind.

    There’s not too much military hardware porn, and some nice writing – in coming up against some much older hardware : “It is antique technology, decades deep in the catalogue : a palsied fist, raised trembling against the bleeding edge”. The robot’s reactions to sound is particularly effective, a nice counterpoint to his coding which uses estimates of the height of human objects on his radar to evaluate whether they are adults or not.”

Nalo Hopkinson. Old Habits.
Originally in : Eclipse 4.

A touch of the Langoliers, as the ghosts of people who died in a shopping mall live out the rest of their lives in that mall, deserted except for fellow ghosts, a daily re-enactment of their final moment of life taking place. We see this existence through an interesting protagonist, and this ghost story with a difference oozes quality throughout.

K.J. Parker. A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong.
Originally in : Subterranean, Winter 2011 – and still online

Kelly Link. Valley of the Girls.
Originally in : Subterranena, Spring 2011 – and still online

Cory Doctorow. The Brave Little Toaster.
Originally in : trsf : The Best New Science Fiction

When it appeared last year I wrote :

    “A gently humorous, cautionary tale to start the attractive anthology from The Technology Review.

    The stories in the volume are themed around new and emergent technologies, and Doctorow looks at the risks in giving just a little too much intelligence to our domestic appliances. If you weren’t worried about your fridge talking to you before this, then you will after reading it. (Me, I worry that I’ll get to the fridge and it will refer me to the fruit bowl until the bathroom scales give the fridge the ok to open the door again).

    It’s nicely told, and it’s a shame (IMHO) that Doctorow is able to make his living from writing stuff other than fiction. The guy should be locked up in an attic and forced to write more fiction*.

    * I should point out for the sake of clarity that I’m not actually promoting his kidnapping, incarceration and Kathy Bates’ ‘Misery’-style enforced writing.”

Michael Swanwick. The Dala Horse.
Originally on : Tor.com – and still online

Deceptively clever little story from Swanwick, as you might expect. It’s still online so take 20-30 minutes to read it, it won’t be time wasted.

The story initially suggests a traditional bucolic fantasy setting, as young Linnea has to flee her parents cottage, and is sent by them to her grandma’s house, with a rucksack and a map. Except that, as we find out quickly, it’s a talking rucksack and a map, and the rural idyll is not pre-industrial development, but quick some time after it. And whilst meeting a man/troll, and there being a battle between two beautiful spirit queens would also suggest more traditional fantasy, what goes on beneath (literally) is full-on SF.

I realise I haven’t read as much short SF from Swanwick of late, and shall have to determine whether that is down to him not writing it much these days (Editor’s! Hassle Unca Mike for short fiction!) or me not looking in the right places.

M. Rickert. The Corpse Painter’s Masterpiece.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, September/October 2011

When it appeared last year I wrote :

    “A strange and unsettling tale, a sort of bastard offspring of David Lynch and Tim Burton (I know they are both male, which makes that conceit even worse…)

    It took a couple of attempts for me to get into the story – I found myself a couple of pages in, but hadn’t tuned in to the frequency of the story. The story moves back and forth in time in the same paragraph, which feels a little awkward until you get used to it, then it totally works. Some of the background is revealed as the story progresses, but by no means all, leaving you with a strange, grieving couple, a very strange corpse painter, and a closing scene that leaves a strong impression.”

Ken Liu. The Paper Menagerie.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2011

When it appeared last year I wrote :

    “Another effective tale drawing on Chinese culture, following his ‘The Literomancer’ (F&SF Oct 2010 and ‘Tying Knots’ (Clarkesworld Magazine Jan 2011).

    Here a man with an American father and Chinese mother reflects on his relationship with her. Her father brought her back from China, a mail order bride, and as a teenager the son began to have contempt rather than love for her. The early days, where she uses old family magic to animate origami animals she makes, are poignant, and following her death, it is her words, written on the very paper of these animals, that allow him to reflect on their relationship, and to fully understand her life’s journey.”

Dylan Horrocks. Steam Girl.
Originally in : ‘Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories’

Maureen F. McHugh. After the Apocalypse.
Originally in : ‘After the Apocalypse’

Peter S. Beagle. Underbridge.
Originally in : ‘Naked City’

Urban fantasy in which a 50+ academic desperately seeking tenure finds things get a little … grimm.

Jeffrey Ford. Relic.
Originally in : ‘The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities’

Stephen Baxter. The Invasion of Venus.
Originally in : Engineering Infinity.

When it appeared in last year’s Strahan-edited anthology I wrote :

    “Another in a series of recent Baxter stories in which challenges to the future of humanity are seen through the lens of one or two individuals in a rural English setting. Here, rather than immediate apocalypse, humanity achieves not First Contact, but a bystander status at forces beyond our ken.

    The impact on one individual, religious, theological, and profoundly philosophical, are investigated.”

Robert Reed. Woman Leaves Room.
Originally in : Lightspeed Magazine #10 – and still online

Robert Shearman. Restoration.
Originally in : ‘Everyone’s Just So So Special’

Bruce Sterling. The Onset of a Paranormal Romance.
Originally in : Flurb, Issue 12 – and still online

Margo Lanagan. Catastrophic Destruction of the Head.
Originally in : ‘The Wilful Eye : Tales from the Tower Volume 1′

Libba Bray. The Last Ride of the Glory Girls.
Originally in : ‘Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories’

Nnedia Okorafor. The Book of Phoenix (Excerpted from The Great Book).
Originally in : Clarkesworld #54, March 2011 – and still online

Ian McDonald. Digging.
Originally in : Life on Mars

Kij Johnson. The Man Who Bridged The Mist.
Originally in : Asimovs, October/November 2011

When it appeared last year I wrote :

    “A much longer story from Johnson than we’re used to seeing, and she makes the most of the opportunity.

    The story covers several years, creating a setting that has a strong sense of place, and characters who are three-dimensional and who you feel have had a past, and will have a future beyond the story. An empire is split into two halves by a huge river/ravine through which a mist flows – there are dangers in the depths of the mist, creatures that live in it, and the mist itself frequently claims those who use the ferries to cross it.

    Coming from the city, Kit has the contract to build the first bridge across the river, and we follow his journey, differences between those in this more remote part of the country different to what he has experienced back at home. The characters are described lovingly, subtle changes in societal norms being used, rather than heavy-handed silliness with names, or giving characters different coloured skins, as less-accomplished authors would be tempted to do.

    It’s a story that gives an insight into several different areas, and rather than simply leading up to a dramatic challenge to be overcome, the final bridging of the mist, whilst important, is just another stage in the lives of the main characters. And there’s a tantalising glimpse of more to come.”

Ellen Klages. Goodnight Moons.
Originally in : Life on Mars

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