The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 7 (ed Neil Clarke), Nightshade Books 2023

This volume was finally delivered by Amazon UK in late November 2023, some months after the initial publication date that was quoted. It’s a year out of date, as it were, as it covers stories published in 2021, and would ‘normally’ (i.e. pre-COVID and pre-Shit and Stufftm have been published in late 2022. I’d best get cracking as volume 8 is currently showing as heading my way in March 2024 (I’m guessing a bit later). But, hey ho, my ZX Spectrum Next has evidently just arrived in the UK in a container alls the way from China, two (or is it three?) years late due to chip shortage. It’s the only Year’s Best SF volume these days (sigh).

Clarke has taken over the late Dozois’ task in providing a substantial summary of the year in SF to get the ball rolling. Then into the fiction :

Ray Nayler. Muallim.
Originally in Asimovs, January/February 2021.

Nayler is one new(ish) author whose name I watch out for, and he’s got two stories in this volume. This is a neat little story, but I do miss the days when a story would have been set off world, to give it an additional sfnal dimension. Here the SF element is relatively minor, inasmuch the idea of an intelligent humanoid robot (the Muallim of the title) that is capable of teaching children, is not so much of a thing of the future as it was when I started reading SF more than 50 years ago. The setting is still, however, a strange one to those of us who, unlike Nayler, haven’t travelled to the more remote parts of our world, in this case a remote village in Azerbaijan (tbh not too dissimilar to Tattooine). There are two female protagonists. One is a local female blacksmith, who we see attempting to fix dents in the robot. Another is a female international NGO staffer who is dropped into the village for a few days to evaluate the impact of the robotic teacher who was supplied by another NGO. Turns out that it’s not much of an evaluation as there are only 5 children at the school, not 25 as they had been told, and they don’t go to school on Fridays. It seems the robot teacher initiative, like others before it, has come up against corruption, local issues and so forth. And when the robot is evidently destroyed by local youths, she flies out to take on her next assignment. Except that the locals have in fact pulled a fast one on her and the NGO (the robot hasn’t been destroyed, and so when she leaves and the robot is written off, they are able to keep it to meet their needs). An nice start to the volume, without being a standout. [29th Nov 2023]

Alice Towey. Dark Waters Still Flow.
Originally in : Clarkesworld November 2021 – and still online

A story from an author new to me, and one of two from her in this volume, and she was given her own special mention in the editorial introduction as an author to watch. The protagonist is NEWT – Nutrition Extraction and Water Treatment System – an AI which has been running a municipal facility for many years on a planet with two suns. The boss is Nixil, the third generation of his family to be a Water Sage, and NEWT is particularly fond of Jerafina, a young refugee girl who has a junior role, and with whom the AI shares an interest in poetry. Things start to go wrong in the plant, causing NEWT some concern, and it transpires that Nixil is planning sabotage, and is planning to pin the blame on Jerafina. Drama ensues…. Another neat little story to start the volume. [30th Nov 2023]

Jose Pablo Iriarte. Proof by Induction.
Originally in Uncanny May/June 2021

Near-future and a young tenure-seeking mathematician has to come to terms with a double whammy : his father’s death, and the fact that he and his father haven’t succeeded in their joint endeavour to prove the Perelman Hypothesis, and with his father’s death that appears to also sound the death knell for his tenure application. However, there is the ‘Coda’ – the snapshot of the brain that is taken close to death, that he is able to use to communicate with his father in VR. This gives him the chance to use the Code to a) continue to work on the Perelman Theorem with his dad, and b) try to build a closer relationship with his now dead dad than he was able to do in life. In terms of this story a+b = the best outcome, but sadly he doesn’t achieve that. He does achieve tenure though, so I’m sure you can work out, without needing pencil and paper, whether he achieved a or b. It’s a third neat little story to open the volume, but two niggles for me : 1 – the protagonist is evidently the first person to think of using a CODA-captured intelligence in this way, which seems a bit unlikely and 2 – it’s almost 25 years since David Marusek’s ‘The Wedding Album’, which stunningly explored a snapshot-captured simulacrum and this story doesn’t quite live up to that earlier one. [12th Dec 2023]

Robert Reed. Integral Nothings.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Strange forces are at work on planet Earth, microscopic changes that are repairing the damage done by humanity, and indeed preventing humanity from doing damage through nuclear weapons. It becomes clear that those responsible or not of this planet, the question is whether The Blessings are benign and are being delivering are for humanity’s benefit, or not. Answer : not, as becomes clear when human reproduction ceases to be possible. The ‘story’ as such is seen from the perspective of several humans, the last of human finds out that those responsible are not, indeed gods, but merely entities working for unseen, unfathomable gods. We are really that insignificant, but as the ants in the soil of buildings sites are to us. Reed, who has spent decades putting humanity out into deep space, gives us a bleak look in the mirror. [14th Feb 2024]

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