The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year Volume 5. (ed Jonathan Strahan, Nightshade Books, 2011)

First of the year’s Year’s Best anthologies to be delivered, mmm…

Working my way through the volume, with stories being reviewed individually on the site and pasted into this ever-growing review. |

Hannu Rajaniemi. Elegy for a Young Elk.
Subterranean, Spring 2010

When I read it earlier this year I wrote :

    Still online on the Subterranean website, so read the story if you haven’t already.

    Living in the arctic wilderness of Finland, with only a talking bear to keep him company, is a young man who forsake the option to upload. When visited by a digital, partial substantiation of his ex-wife, some ghosts of the past are awakened, and in taking up a request to help those who are no longer earthbound, he enters a strange city, under the thrall of the plague gods, and there is a reunion.

    Well written, lyrical and elegaic in its own right. My only beef with Rajaniemi is that he’s gone to writing successful novels way too quickly, and we’ll likely see less short SF from him than we would selfishly like to see!

Neil Gaiman. The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains.
Originally in : Stories : All New Tales (Morrow, 2010).

From an anthology with a lot of quality writers in it, a story from Gaiman which follows a dwarf who employes a reaver to guide him to the titular caves. There’s gold in the cave, but there is a price to be paid, and both dwarf and guide have some secrets. The dwarf, the narrator of the story, is a complex character in a story which poses more questions than it answers.

Sandra McDonald. Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots.
Originally in : Strange Horizons. And still online here, so have a mosy on over and read it!

An elderly woman reflects on her robotic companions, part of her divorce settlement from her inventor husband, who is attempting to reverse climate change. She relates the foibles of her robotic paramours, and how, as she aged, she lost each of them.

Sarah Rees Brennan. The Spy Who Never Grew Up.
Originally in : Kiss Me Deadly.

In which we find out that Peter Pan is in her majesty’s service, and whilst he has little aged, there have been some changes in Neverland. The story jars a little with an overindulgence of simile in the first couple of pages (‘like the abandoned shells of nuts eaten long ago’, ‘like bones’, ‘like jewels and children;s toy and human bones’, ‘like a kiss with no innocence in it’, ‘like a vampire exposed to sunlight’), but the distanced tone of the narrator works well, and it is gently charming.

Holly Black. The Aarne-Thompson Classification Revue.
Originally in : Full Moon City

Nicely told contemporary urban dark fantasy/horror story about a female werewolf, who finds unexpected and unwanted success in an audition for a theatrical show.

But the main issue for me with the story is that there just isn’t any of the kind of real creativity you get with good sf/fantasy that is set in different times and different places with different people, just bog-standard modern Buffylore.

Damien Broderick. Under the Moons of Venus.
Originally in : Subterranean Online, Spring 2010, and still online.

If you haz not read the story yet, follow the link above.

It’s a complex story, as you’d expected (and demand) from Broderick, that starts off feeling like one kind of story – a sort of mix of JGB and ERB, with Blackett mourning the Venus that he has lost, to which almost all humanity have been instantly, unexplainedly, transported, along with our moon. Has that happened, or is he delusional?

There is interesting character-driven interplay between himself, a female neighbour who is offering psychological support (or not), and a bed-ridden neighbour, but then some science starts to creep in, and there is math to support a very strange explanation….

Joe Abercrombie. The Fool Jobs.
Originally in : Swords and Dark Magic – the New Sword and Sorcery.

Clearly not a story that I would normally read, but I do tend to trust Strahan’s fantasy choices in this volume. I did read a Robert E. Howard Conan novel/fixup back in the 1970s!

Abercrombie posits (I think) a near-future post-something world, with a band of warriors on a quest. Except that the band of warriors is in fact a band of ne-er-do-wells who rub each other up the wrong way, use bad language, and generally are just a long way from the clean cut Cimmerian. They have a job to do, a job to order – taking possession of an item that belongs to a small community. There’s no nobility on offer, an almost police-procedural amount of detail in the raid, with the kind of detail about the group members you get in a novel.

Robert Reed. Alone.
Originally in : Godlike Machines, ed Jonathan Strahan, SFBC 2010.

Reed at his best – given the time to paint an epic story against a backdrop of immense time and space. His stories about The Ship have been favourites of mine now for many years, the audacious setting giving him free rein to his imagination. As with the stories he takes a close view of an individual to illustrate the immensity of the setting, and here he follows an initially unidentified, unspecified entity walking the hull of The Great Ship. The distances the entity travels, and the time it takes, are awe-inspiring, and as it finds out more about where it is, and we find out more about it, there are guest appearances from characters from stories past, as Reed pushes the story arc forward and opening up big vistas. Excellent – a real pleasure to continue to be entertained by a setting and with characters first encountered (by me) in ‘The Remoras’ more than fifteen years ago. Hopefully Reed (and myself) will have at least another 15 years more of The Great Ship to look forward to.

Kij Johnson. Names for Water.
Originally in : Asimovs October/November 2010.

When it appeared last year I noted :

    Another effective short from Johnson, somewhat less challenging than her ‘Spar’!

    A young girl is on her way to her engineering class at university when her cell phone rings. She’s grateful for the interruption as she’s struggling with the class as indeed thinking of changing her major. There’s no-one at the other end of the connection – just static, or perhaps the sound of water.

    She pauses, wondering where that sound could be coming from. Beach? Lake? Her minders wanders, becoming more fanciful as to the location of the water, in out countries, in other continents. The story gently takes off as her fancies become wilder, looking much farther afield, to distant planets, and then we get a glimpse of just where this student is heading in terms of her career, and just where her research is going to lead other people, centuries down the line.

    A delicate touch.

Theodora Goss. Fair Ladies.
Originally in : Apex Magazine

Fantasy set in the inter-war years in Europe, in which a woman of specific talents is employed by a Duke for his errant son.

Ellen Kushner. The Man With the Knives.
Originally in : The Man With the Knives

Nicely told story of a grief-stricken man rescued from madness, but there’s no fantasy element – unless being set in a standard rural fantasy/medieval setting makes it a fantasy story.

Cory Doctorow. The Jammie Dodgers and the Adventure of the Leicester Square Screening.
Originally in : Shareable, May 2010. And still online, and my recommendation is to invest the next 15 minutes of your life reading it.

A neat story about a young gang using a bit of clever tech to get their movie mashup on the big screen in Leicester Square, in a society where Creative Commons is a double-C word. Since this first appeared last year, things have got worse on both sides of the Atlantic – this story could easily be seen by the powers that be as incitement to commit any number of copyright and internet crimes. Probably best to retract it, to avoid a 5 to 10 stretch! The story brings to life a lot of the issues readers of the likes of boingboing/The Guardian and of The Daily Mail/Telegraph will be concerned about, although the natures of those concerns will be diametrically opposite!

More fiction please Mr. Doctorow!

Elizabeth Hand. The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon.
Originally in : Stories – All New Tales (ed Gaiman)

Wonderful story from Hand, full of humanity and tenderness. Good news is that it is online, so before you read the next para – read it here.

Two or three strong characters in the story, all far from perfect, who set themselves the task of re-creating lost footage of an early human-powered flight. The mourning widower, and his relationship with his son and his ex-colleagues, alongside a quotient of nerdy SF/spaceflight backdrop, gives the story depth and resonance.

Margo Lanagan. The Miracle Aquilina.
Originally in : Wings of Fire.

Another strong fantasy from Lanagan with strong female characters. Two of them in this instance, a single, powerful scene if which a young woman braves the punishments heaped on her by the king following her refusal of him. Great use of language and description.

Pat Cadigan. The Taste of Night.
Originally in : Is Anybody Out There?

When I read it last year I wasn’t hugely grabbed by it, noting thus :

    A young woman living on the streets is struggling with an sensory overload – is it synesthesia, or a sixth sense? As her symptoms become much worse and she is hospitalised she realises there is a reason out there for what is happening in hear head.

Bruce Sterling. The Exterminator’s Want-Ad.
Originally : online on

When I read it earlier I noted :

    A very subtle and sharp look at a near-future where pretty much everything has gone to wrack and ruin. Without giving too much away, the person providing the monologue isn’t the most likeable narrator, and you do get to see the view from the other side of several fences.

    Currently still online here and worthy of 15 minutes of your time.

Christopher Barzak. Map of Seventeen.
Originally in : The Beastly Bride and other tales of the Animal People.

A 17-year old girl is about to discover the world beyond the small rural community that she has known (and has been restricted by) all her life. Her gay brother returns to the family with his lover, and that lover opens her eyes up to a number of issues.

Maureen McHugh. The Naturalist.
Originally in : Subterranean Magazine, as is online still

Have a read as it’s a good story, although I wouldn’t count it as either SF or Fantasy, as it’s contemporary zombie horror. Not that I’ve anything against contemporary zombie horror, as I enjoyed both series of The Walking Dead for the most part, and have fond memories of playing Resident Evil 2 on the original Playstation, in the darkened living room m-a-n-y years ago.

Obviously as editor of the volume in hand Jonathan Strahan was happy to include the story, and of course the guest editor of the issue of Subterranean Magazine in which it originally appeared was also happy so to do. (But that guest editor was one Jonathan Strahan…..)

So, presuming you’ve either followed the link above and read the story, or for some sturrange reason have an interest in what I have to say about it, what I have to say is that it’s nicely handled by McHugh, with a protagonist who is struggling to survive in a zombie-infested reservation, having been decanted there from prison. The story takes a twist as he takes a scientific interest in the nature of the zombies, and a ghastly twist as he begins to test their behaviours through…

Sara Genge. Sins of the Father.
Originally in : Asimovs, December 2010

When I read it a while back I noted :

    A young, exiled merman makes a heartfelt plea to his mother for understanding, but not for his own personal benefit. In doing so he relates his life among humans, and his falling in love.

    You would think it a fantasy story, but there are one or two references during the story, until all is revealed in the closing paragraphs.

    It’s a touching story of alienness, integration, longing, loss and sacrifice.

Geoffrey A. Landis. The Sultan of the Clouds.
Originally in : Asimovs September 2010.

Back in 2010 I wrote:

    An intriguing political background, and an imaginative setting amongst the clouds of Venus, to which the story doesn’t quite live up.

    Humanity had spread outwards across the Solar System, thanks to private rather than governmental initiative, and as a result wealth beyond imagination rests in the hands of the small group of commercial enterprises who know effectively own the transport and the infrastructure on which travel relies.

    There’s a feel of the Golden Age about it, a touch of the Brave New Worlds/Metropolis, and the occasional bit of anachronistic language (‘darn’ is the oath of choice), and a tad of teenage wish fulfilment – a teenager is the titular Sultan of the Clouds, and he has not only massive wealth but the opportunity to have a bride – an older woman wise in the ways of the marital bed.

    At heart there’s a scientific conundrum to be de-conundrumised, wrapped around some derring-do, with the help of ‘Pirates’ who oppose the current regime. David Tinkerman has to solve the conundrum, whilst protecting the beautiful female scientist who is aloof throughout (and who remains an enigma). So, a bit on the retro side, but the story skips along nicely enough.

John Kessel. Iteration.
Originally on : Strange Horizons (and still online)

Neat little story that is worth the 15 minutes of your life it will take to read. Enzo is working at the checkout at a superstore, and little by little things begin to change for the better. It’s an iterative process and doesn’t always work out for everyone (waking up in the morning next to a pretty girl is good for him, but colour her unimpressed).

Things change (Mr Kessel gets a bit t-o-o silly with the proposition that my Buffalo Bills win the Superbowl!), and it’s a good example of pitching a story just right.

Diana Peterfreund. The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn.
Originally in : Zombies vs Unicorns

From the same setting of a series of novels in which “real unicorns are man eating beasts with razor sharp fangs and a fatal venom in their lethal horns. And they can only be killed by the virgin descendants of Alexander the Great.” Hmm, read several pages and it felt a bit Buffy-esque to me…

Lavie Tidhar. The Night Train.
Originally in : Strange Horizons, June 2010 (and still there

Some two years after it first appeared, I’ve finally got round to reading it, as part of finishing up the few outstanding stories in last year’s take by Strahan on 2010′s best story. And this is indeed an outstanding story, which gets a big thumbs up from me. A gnarly cyberypunky, getting into some transgender/sexual territory, with a toadlike (Boss Nass)like hood, and much more.

Ian Tregillis. Still Life (A Sexagesimal Fairy Tale.)
Originally in : Apex Magazine, June 2010 – and still online

A lovely little fantasy in which a smitten timekeeper in a land without time pays a high price for her unrequited love for the handsome Valentine. But of course fairy tales always have a happy ending….

K.J. Parker. Amor Vincit Omnia.
Originally in : Subterranean Magazine/Andomeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.

I read this in its appearance in Horton’s take on the best SF&F of the year and noted :

    “Still online at Subterrenean Magazine here, so read it.

    Some wizardly goings-on for those of you missing Harry Potter. Admittedly somewhat darker, with adult scenes!”

Peter Watts. The Things.
Originally in : Clarkesworld Magazine

When I read it a while back I noted:

    “Watts gets into the mind of the creature that was John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ (via Richard Matheson’s original story). He provides a background to the creature and its distributed/decentralised self, its mission that is taking it across the galaxy, and how it struggles at first to understand the centralised nature of humanity, the existence of a central brain to control the individual, and the absence of a networked whole for humanity. It’s an interesting hypothesis, and the monologue works well, referring back to key scenes in the film to provide dramatic tension.

    Read it here

Genevieve Valentine. The Zeppelin Conductors’ Society Annual Gentlemen’s Ball.
Originally in : Lightspeed Magazine, #23, April 2010 – and still online

Being a short, but effective, reflection on the highs and lows of a career in a zeppelin.

Rachel Swirsky. The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Windows.
Originally in : Subterranean Magazine, Summer 2010 – and still online

Read just recently in the Nebula Awards 2012 volume in which I noted :

    So I finally got round to reading the much lauded fantasy story The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window, originally published two years ago, and still online on Subterranean Magazine.

    Read it on account of having a long train journey, and a copy of the Nebula Awards volume in my briefcase. Magic, queens, dwarves, spells, exactly the kind of stuff that hasn’t ever grabbed me. But I stuck with it, and can see the reasons why those who worship the second F in SFFWA lauded it with the Best Novella Award this year.

    The one odd thing that struck me -it may well have struck many others, but I don’t have any time to spare to read other people’s ponderings on SFF – was that the extent to which it was very similar to hard SF in some ways. Partly in the use of a construct to enable a person to live a massively long time, which, in an sfnal form is used often by Baxter and Reynolds, to get their protagonist towards distant millenia, and often the end of time. With them it is cryogenics, or self-repairing dns, or wormholes or such, whereas with Swirsky it was magic. And one of the failings of hard SF is the focus on the technology at the expense of the story or the people in it (I’m thinking more Analog authors here rather than Baxter or Reynolds). “They constructed their spells into physical geometries by mapping out elaborate equations that determined whether they would be cylinders or dodecahedrons, formed of garnet or lapis lazuli or cages of copper strands” is very resonant of techno-babble often used to describe the tech in hard sf.


An excellent collection.

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