The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Three. (ed Neil Clarke, Nightshade Books 2018)

The Amazon delivery guy tried to get this hefty book, in a larger cardboard box, through the freaking letter box, in late April 2018, and came close to damaging it. Anyhoo I’m reading my way through it, and the content below will grow with each story read and reviewed.

Vina Jie-Min Prasad. A Series of Steaks.
Originally in : Clarkesworld #124, January 2017 and still online.

I read this when it appeared last year and noted that the author was new to me and which showed ‘a lot of promise’ with excellent characterisation. My full review : here.

Alastair Reynolds. Holdfast.
Originally in : ‘Extrasolar’ ed Nick Gevers (PS Publishing).

£30UKP for the unsigned hardback anthology from which this story came, wowza! A shorter, tighter story than is oft the case with Reynolds, albeit with his usual boggling galactic backdrop. Far future, and a genmod human soldier and an alien ‘maggot’ warrior face off in inhospitable terrain in the atmosphere of a jovian planet. It’s not going to end well for either of them, but [spoiler alert] in their last moments the two are able to achieve an understanding previously not achieved between their species, thanks to a low level life form in the rock on which they stand.

Nancy Kress. Every Hour of Light and Dark.
Originally in : Omni Winter 2017, Issue 74 Volume 1.

In a small research facility on the moon, circling above an Earth recently desolated by biological warfare, the team are using hi-techery to reach into the past and retrieve (and replace with doppelganger forgeries) …. ancient and historical works of art and museum pieces. The story flits between perspectives – Vermeer, one of whose paintings he realises has been swopped; and one of the tech team, jealous of colleagues with better artistic faker skills, who tries to beat the system. It’s a neat story, Kress as ever, handling the characters well.

Matthew Kressel. The Last Novelist (or a Dead Lizard in the Yard)
Originally published online on Tor.com, where it is still available.

Fortunately I read the story in this volume and not online where I might have been slightly miffed by the editorial introduction “(a)..story about a dying writer who is trying to finish one final novel on the distant planet he settles on for his demise. His encounter with a young girl triggers a last burst of creativity.” There’s depth and warmth in the story, which makes it well worth the read and inclusion in this volume.

Vandana Singh. Shikasta.
Originally in : Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures (Arizona State University, 2017). You can nab the book in a variety of formats from the ASU website.

A good balance of space exploration science, AI musings, global climate change/disaster and societal impacts, and with a non-western setting. A crowdfunded probe/AI is on a planet that would appear to be too close to it’s red dwarf sun, with the planet facing the sun and therefore one side a molten mass, and the other side frozen. In a narrow temperate band, the search for life in the main task of the mission, and the nature of what life actually -is- is considered, with some tribal perspectives, from different members of the young team behind the mission. The story references the movie ‘Interstellar’ although concluding with a different – rather than fucking up this planet and fleeing elsewhere, to remain and to adapt and survive is the preferred option.

Sarah Pinsker. Wind Will Rove.
Originally in : Asimovs, September/October 2017. (And online as a PDF via Pinsker’s website here.)

A generation starship story, which are few and far between these days. Pinsker provides a snapshot of part of the ship’s community mid-flight, using an old folk tune as a complement to the narrative around the nature of history, and looking back on a history of a planet of which increasingly few can remember. The story focusses around an elderly history teacher/fiddler, and her memories of her mother, grandmother, and the time when the ship’s database of old cultural media was wiped by a dissatisfied crew member. All in all a gentle story, no drama, no military bods or scientists, no committee meetings, no real mention of tech.

Gord Sellar. Focus.
Originally in : Analog, May/June 2017. (And online as a PDF on the Analog website here.)

In a near-future Vietnam, a trio of students allergic/immune to the popular, legal performance-enhancing drug of of the title, foment a riot in the city. There are a couple of perspectives, and a dramatic ending, but TBH the story seems a long way short of being a ‘Year’s Best’ – no great sfnal element, basic characterisation and plot, a plot-twist by way of co-incidence, and no real depth, or length, especially compared to the preceding story. I know I have a downer on Analog stories, but I read this and wasn’t particularly taken with it, before finding out where it came from.

Linda Nagata. The Martian Obelisk.

Originally published online on Tor.com, July 2017 and still online

A story I liked a lot, with but one quibble.

Nagata starts her story well : “The end of the world required time to accomplish—and time, Susannah reflected, worked at the task with all the leisurely skill of a master torturer, one who could deliver death either quickly or slowly, but always with excruciating pain.” (n.b. I’d have put time as Time, but that’s not the quibble).

It’s relatively near future, but due to a combination of man made catastrophes (resistance to antibodies, plagues, warfare, climate change etc) and natural disasters, humanity appears to be on it’s way out, not so much with a bang as with a whimper. The protagonist has had her own share of loss, and has committed her remaining years to building the Martian Obelisk of the title. She is using the pre-colonisation kit despatched to Mars, which was not followed by colonists, creating something that will stand for aeons, long after humanity has failed.

Nagata handles the character well, but the story takes a twist when the cameras detect something happening on Mars. And this is QuibbleTimetm as they have spotted a rover from another colony, which had failed, which is heading over to her obelisk. Is it an AI gone awol? For the rover isn’t equipped to sustain a human for such a long journey, and after all, all the colonists are dead. Pre- Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian’ this would have been a great story plot, not entirely original, but post- ‘The Martian’ as a plot device it’s just too samey. I’d have suggested taking a slightly different angle to achieve the outcome – which is (spoiler) that all is evidently not lost, as the protagonist finds out that not only is there life on Mars, the daughter she had believed dead in a quarantined plague-ridden Hawaii, is in fact alive, and there is a flicker of hope both for her and for humanity.

Gregory Benford. Shadows of Eternity.
Originally in : Extrasolar, (PS Publishing, ed Nick Gevers).

A few hundred years hence, and the good news for humanity is that we aren’t alone. Slightly frustratingly, whilst there is a huge amount of data from SETI searches, we are still without FTL and so have to sift that data, and rely on video feeds from probes that do make it to alien worlds, and translating messages from those worlds. One young woman is a student ‘librarian’, charged with sifting data, and trying to make sense of communications from these distant planets.

Whilst in a virtual immersion of a recorded feed, the young woman has a moment of revelation, and is able to identify a much, much bigger picture that has implications for Earth.

There are some great descriptions of alien worlds, and an interesting conclusion, but the story didn’t quite rise to the level of some of Benford’s work. The plotline around the main character reminded me of Clarice Starling at the FBI training academy at Quantico, and the ‘single young scientist discovers something that teams of experienced scientists have so far failed to spot’ story isn’t one that really does it for me.

Rachael K. Jones and Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali. Regarding the Robot Raccoons Attached to the Hull of My Ship.

Originally published in/on Diabolical Plots and still online.

This story comes from quite an out of the way online location. It’s an epistolary story, although in the form of a two-way correspondence. Two estranged sisters are communicating, and they have been at odds with each other for some time, and what we have is in effect an action movie told through lengthy letters between the two main protagonists. They are en route to Mars, one ahead of the other, and the one about to terraform Mars, the other hell bent on stopping her.

You have to push away the major question about *why* they are using lengthy emails to each other rather than shorter tweets, whatsapp, or whatever the micro-messaging system we have in place in a few decades time, and this, along with other issues around two people off doing something major alone, without being part of big times etc., the story feels a little like a Golden Age of SF story.

Obvs the reason for the long emails is that the narrative has to be progressed by lengthy expositions from each sister, going back over a lifetime of rubbing each other up the wrong way and the role of their parents and upbringing. But if you close your eyes to that, it’s a reasonable story although not a standout for me.

Maggie Clark. Belly Up.

Originally in Analog, July/August 2017.

An intriguing story from Clark. Imbra Tem has been released from court custody after murdering a local woman whilst high on drugs. His sentence has been to have been ‘declawed’ – a neural tweak that prevents him from being at the whim of hormonal urges and from feeling emotion. There’s a tense scene to start as some local guys, one the son of his victim, come to mete out a more ‘eye for an eye’ punishment. However after a subsequent run-in Imbra, and the son, Paloma, find themselves off the backwoods planet of Novuni, and closely involved in a battle against the approaching, and pretty much all-conquering ‘Allegiance’. The pair never build up a relationship, but using his native cunning, Imbra designs a trick play in an initial skirmish that sees Paloma strike a blow (EMP pulse, in fact) that gives the enemy pause for thought.

The final third of the story is the intriguing bit. You would expect further cleverness from Imbra that helps his side win the imminent combat, but he realises, from personal experience, that when the odds in a fight are dramatically stacked against you, the only way to avoid defeat is not to accept the fight, and he proposes a plan to this effect. Thus, there is no big concluding battle, and we follow Imbra as he wakes from suspended animation a century later, the Allegiance in control, neural block removed, and having to make peace with himself and needing to find and name ‘all the forms of detachment through which a man might yet go unconquered, though every fiber in his being longed to cry out and give in’.

We never really get that much into Imbra’s mind (other than being high on drugs whilst committing the murder, we don’t find out anything else about that incident), and Paloma serves a purpose throughout without being fully formed, but to counterbalance there are some interesting background detail and a feeling of a planet/community/religion.

Only the second story I’ve read by Clark, (‘A Tower for the Coming World’ reviewed here) and both have impressed and been just a little out of the usual run of the mill.

Greg Egan. Uncanny Valley.

Originally published online on Tor.Com

The story starts particularly well, with Adam turning up to what is in effect his own funeral, as he is a robot with the downloaded brain of the recently deceased. However the other family members are not happy to see this version of their departed elderly relative – issues over inheritance and the like.

The story then moves into an interesting take on the murder mystery. Adam is keen to find out if he murdered an ex-business associate. He’s not entirely sure, as he has gaps in his memory and those gaps were put there by his original self. Whilst interesting, and whilst the story is more than simply a whodunnit, I found the latter part didn’t quite live up to what the opening sections promised.

Kelly Robson. We Who Live in the Heart.

Originally in Clarkesworld Magazine, #128 May 2017

Far future, and humanity has settled on a generally inhospitable gas giant. The story is set amongst a tight-knit crew of hardy souls living aboard a ‘whale’ a semi-sentient floating creature. The protagonist, ‘Doc’ has some issues, and a back story, and is generally loner, who finds himself somewhat taken by a new crew member.

As Ricci thaws him out, he has to unpack some of his emotional baggage and get rid of it, alongside the baggage that they crew has to discard in order to reach fellow ‘whalers’ who are in jeopardy. The conclusion, which doesn’t quite hit a real peak sees Ricci make a decision with consequences for some of the other whalers, but the setting is a doozy, and the characterisation in-depth.

A.C. Wise. A Catalogue of Sunlight at the End of the World..
Originally in : Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation. Upper Rubber Boot, August 2017.

Only the third story by Wise that I’ve read, and like the previous two it’s a good one. (Her website has a list of a whole heap of small press stories going back over a decade).

The protagonist is a widower, about to wave goodbye to his children and grandchildren, who are heading off on a generation starship moored to the top of a nearby Space Elevator. He has decided that what little future he has, he wishes to spend on what little future (climate change) Earth has, staying close to his late wife. The story is his narrative, describing the final days of with his children and his relationships with them, within the framework of descriptions of current and past experiences of sunlight – those past ones relating to key moments in the love story with his wife, which he is to send off after them : generations of descendants who will not know the varying forms that sunlight takes on Earth.

It’s tender and touching, fortunately he has adopted a stray cat – if the final scene was him with an adopted stray dog, that would have had set off the waterworks.

Karin Lowachee. Meridian.
Originally in : Where the Stars Rise (ed Law/Mak, Laksa Media Groups Inc 2017)

A good read, although if you’d asked me after reading it what the theme of the anthology was from which it was taken, ‘Asian SF and Fantasy’ would have been a long, long way down the list of suggestions.

We follow the story of Paris, from his earliest traumatic memories, of being left for dead, his parents and brothers dead beside him, through being picked up and saved, then fostered. The memories of the murderous visit by a dead-eyed ship’s captain and his crew are ones that affect him badly, and his foster parents finally give him up to an altogether riskier future, aboard a barely legal pharmaceutical trading ship. And, still troubled by the ghosts of the past, he finds one ghost very much alive, leaving him to make a choice….

Maybe missing just that little indefinable *something* to make it more than a good read – Paris’ viewpoint is handled well, and there are some interesting settings, but there isn’t that much interplay between characters.

Kathleen Ann Goonan. The Tale of the Alcubierre Horse.
Originally in : Extrasolar (ed Nick Gevers, PS Publishing 2017)

A long and complex read. Set on Moku, an Entertainment, Amusement and R&D Exoplanetary Exploration Ship in orbit around the Earth. It’s intended to be humanity’s first attempt at colonising an exoplanet, but politics, and the absence of a suitable drive has rather delayed that mission. The main protagonist is Pele, over one hundred years old, a scientist slightly on the autistic spectrum. She raised concerns about an influx of autistic children onto the ship, and indeed is quickly proven correct as SPOILER ALERT they work together collectively and brilliantly and suddenly the exoplanet mission is triggered. Not everything goes to plan, and in order to reach the destination, a very major decision has to be made…

The story moves through the gears smoothly, starting as a traditional ship politics story and ramping us the tension and the scale and scope of the story nicely.

Yoon Ha Lee. Extracurricular Activities.

Originally published on Tor.com, February 2017

I’ve read an enjoyed a number of stories by Lee, but this one didn’t quite grab me and I skipped through the latter half. There was stuff I *really* did like – gender fluidity, non-CIS sexuality and flirting, but the undercover spy thing and the generally light tone of the story didn’t work for me. Maybe it was after investing a lot of time and concentration in the preceding story didn’t really make me predisposed to a story of this type.

Aliette de Bodard. In Everlasting Wisdom.
Originally in : Infinity Wars, ed Jonathan Strahan, Solaris Books 2017.

A shorter story that rather whizzes through the plot, helpfully being very clear about what has happened and what is happening, so the ending comes quite quickly and isn’t really a surprise. The central conceit – that a human has had an ‘appeaser’ implanted in her, a creature who emanates words of wisdom from the Emperor, which are picked up by the general population, in order to keep them in control – is an interesting one, and a lengthy novella could have been written just on that. But the backstory is explained, we are told the general population are getting restless, and just as things come to a head, the protagonists meets a women in very much the same dire straits the she was in when she had the appeaser implanted, gives her pause for thought and sets up a decision for her.

Finbarr O’Reilly. The Last Boat-Builder in Ballyvoloon.

Originally in : Clarkesworld Magazine.

A little while back, after I had ditched reading Analog, I was getting print copies of Asimovs and F&SF but they weren’t really doing that much for me, and the one print magazine I looked forward to getting was the monthly Clarkesworld Magazine which I could get via Amazon and their POD service. Sadly that service isn’t available any more.

One of the reasons I looked forward to Clarkesworld Magazine was the gorgeous covers and the general feel of the magazine compared to the flimsier Asimovs/F&SF (whose covers at times were a little sub-par, although perversely, the cover from the issue in which this story appeared isn’t quite as much to my liking as usual). Another reason was the quality of the fiction in Clarkesworld was generally top notch.

And here, O’Reilly, an author new to me, provides some top notchery indeed. Possible the pick of this chunky volume so far, and I am quite far into the volume. I bemoaned the previous story for whizzing through and explaining everything as it went along. Here O’Reilly leaves the reader guessing for just a little while.

SPOILERS AHEAD The setting is near future, but something is amiss in the oceans of the world, and we find out it something to do with squids. Cthulhian monsters from orbit perhaps? But O’Reilly gradually teases out what has happened (genmod creatures we have built to rid the oceans of the plastic we have choked it with, but which have rather gotten out of control). Very well told, and altogether a pleasure to read.

Robert Reed. The Speed of Belief.

Originally in : Asimov, January/February 2017.

Read in : The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Three. (ed Neil Clarke, Nightshade Books 2018)

Reed’s ‘Great Ship’ is the setting for a sprawling series of stories, an he has been writing them for about 20 years now, and there’s no reason as far as the setting goes, for stopping any time now.

One concern I have with the stories is that as some of the characters, typically the Ship’s Captain and other senior officers, are long-lived, or essentially immortal (brains stored in indestructible ceramic frames), it can be difficult to engage with them as fellow humans, and that leads to stories being set across centuries.

In this story one human who has but a normal length of existence, sets out with two of the long-lived variety, in order to visit a planet whose denizens have applied for passage on the Great Ship as it passes by their System. The intriguing element of the story is that these denizens are small in number, but each is actually a river…

However, the central conceit didn’t work for me : in negotiating a deal with the Rivers, the Great Ship has acceded to a request for a human sacrifice to be delivered to the planet, and the story features one ‘normal’ human and two of the long-lived senior crew, with lots of interplay across the three. It just struck me as a rather contrived and somewhat unbelievable way of setting the story up, and I found the story did drag somewhat.

Madeline Ashby. Death on Mars.
Originally in : Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities, Arizona State University, 2017.

The previous story in Clarke’s volume was a lengthy one in Robert Reed’s sprawling Great Ship series. In contrast this is much shorter, much tighter, and much more claustrophobic and up close and personal.

Emotions run high, very high, in an all-female crew orbiting Mars when one reveals a secret she has been keeping for some time. One other crew-member is particularly shaken by her ‘deception’ in keeping them in the dark, and there is little time to resolve her feelings.

A nice, tight story, with the only quibble being a slight lack of focus in and between paragraphs as to who the POV was. Or maybe that was an intentional stylistic method of emphasising the tight-packed and tight-knit nature of the crew?

Rich Larson. An Evening with Severyn Grimes.
Originally in : Asimovs, July/August 20177.

Larson has hit the ground running with his short fiction, and evidently has his first novel out. Hopefully he has an agent who is pimping this story to HBO/Netflix.

It’s a near-future cyberpunky cyber-thriller, with a couple of twists, double crosses, and neat touches. Girasol is able to hack, via drugs and a neural link, into a car carrying a super-rich businessman. He is one of an elite who can leave behind their ageing bodies and upload themselves into neural jacks of people who are willing to let out their bodies. There’s lots of action, but plenty of dialogue and back story to make it a rounded read. I can see this as a setting for a TV series – Joe 90 brought up to date!

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