The Year’s Best Science Fiction. 29th Annual Collection. (ed Gardner Dozois, St. Martin’s Press, 2012).

The 29th edition, and the second in its slimmer, but still 300,000+ word size. As ever, the biggest and best SF anthology of the year, so why not buy one : amazon.com | amazon.co.uk.

The stories in the volume are listed below, with summaries of those (a high proportion) which I read in their original magazine/anthology/online appearance identified and embedded, alongside the stories I read in this volume/

Paul McAuley. The Choice.
Originally in : Asimov’s Science Fiction, February 2011.

When I read it last year I noted :

    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.

    (If you want to check out an example of the Jackaroo series – Crimes and Glory is online on Subterranean, and worth the read.

David Moles. A Soldier of the City.
Originally in : Engineering Infinity.

When I read it last year I noted :

    A complex, layered story. It starts, intriguingly, with a couple of section which enable us to have the scene set, introductions made, but kept slightly detached, through the perspective of scenes viewed on security type cameras.

    It’s far future, and the story starts with a feast day, in which the living goddess, is very publicly and very massively killed. The protagonist, Ish, is a soldier in her service, on leave, witness her destruction writ large on the sky, but with her final moments having her seemingly make eye contact. The nature of his love for her is that he has no thoughts about leaving his wife and child to seek the enemy in their asteroid belt hidey-hole.

    There’s an excellent sequence when he comes face to face with the living god, the now widower partner of Ish’s beloved goddess. When the god asks Ish if he loved his now dead goddess, Ish replies in the negative – a virtually treasonable and punishable by death response. But he expands – “I still love her”, is his explanation.

    There’s a lot of hard SF in the detail of the genmod Ish undergoes to meet the enemy, but at the moment of combat, Moles slides the rug out from under the reader, and the story becomes thoughtful and reflective.

Damien Broderick. The Beancounter’s Cat.
Originally in : Eclipse Four (ed Strahan).

A story that packs a lot into a few pages, introducing a character you want to know more about, offering a glimpse of a facinating setting that is left behind way too quickly, and leaving you with a tantalising glimpse of what is to come, but only that.

Elizabeth Bear. Dolly.
Originally in : Asimov’s Science Fiction, January 2011.

When I read it last year I noted :

    A beautiful robot, but one with no sense of self, and consequently closer to a sex toy, is found over the body of her owner. She is clearly responsible – but was she a weapon, an accessory or witness, or the murderer? It’s a short story, going over ground long since trampled over by the footsteps of other writers, but manages to have some impact, primarily through the chief investigator, who isn’t a hard-drinking guy with problem with dames, but an altogether more rounded figure.

John Barnes. Martian Heart.
Originally in : Life on Mars : Tales from the New Frontier.

Originally in a YA anthology, this is an effective story of love and loss on Mars, with a clever background of the challenges, and risks, involved in getting to Mars. The narrative is in the shape of a reflective interview by a succesful Martian. You know it’s not going to have a happy ending from the outset, but it still has an impact at the end – especially if you’re a sentimental old sod! – and would be a good introduction to the genre to a person of restricted age.

Ken MacLeod. Earth Hour.
Originally on : Tor.com, June 2011.

When I read it last year I noted :

    Online : here, so read the story first!

    A tight near-future thriller, set in Australia, and with a strong tech/political background. At first the story appears to be simply about an assassin waiting for the moment to strike his target, but the story develops much more depth as the background is revealed.

Karl Schroeder. Laika’s Ghost.
Originally in : Engineering Infinity.

When I read it last year I noted :

    A clever science thriller/SF story that you could see easily making a good mainstream science thriller/SF movie.

    Kazakhstan doesn’t appear often in western SF, and one of the pleasures of the story is that whilst there is an American co-lead to the story, and the West, alongside global bodies such as the UN and Google, the story features Russian perspectives.

    There’s a mystery to be solved, around why the young American guy, who won the chance to pilot an old Mars Rover, is wanted, and by whom, and why. There’s depth as he, as do the other characters, have long-standing motivations and desires. As the story comes to a conclusion and the pieces drop into place, the science thriller becomes more SF, and delivers a rewarding read.

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

Also collected by Strahan this year, where I read it and noted :

    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.

Peter S. Beagle. The Way It Works Out and All.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2011

When I read it last year I wrote:

    Nice homage to Avram Davidson, SF writer and editor of F&SF back in the early 1960s. Beagle relates an adventure with Davidson, which starts with receiving some of his idiosyncratic postcards from him on subsequent days, but from locations across the globe. The answer to this conundrum is a dark and dramatic one, which complements the lovingly described charming nature of Davidson.

Carolyn Ives Gilman. The Ice Owl.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December 2011

When I read it last year I wrote :

    A story in the same universe as Gilman’s ‘Arkfall’ from F&SF September 2009, which I enthused about, and which was a Nebula nominee.

    Checking back on that earlier story, I noted then that ‘Gilman has put together a believable alien planet, a different human society, and believable, complex characters, and spun an adventure tale that almost matches the setting’ and that is exactly the same conclusion I had come to with this story.

    Here the setting is the city of ‘Glory to God’, a quite vividly described city of metal based in an enormous crater over which a dome has been built. Living in the bottom tier of the city, and of society, is Thorn, the adolescent female protagonist. There is a depth to the society and the politics of the city in which she lives, and in the bigger universe, which we find out through her relationship with an aged teacher, her mother and her mother’s boyfriend.

    Stories with an adolescent protagonist tend not to be a favourite of mind, as you get a naive perspective on issues which is great for the author, but for me to be fully rich, the story would have followed one of the adults, and to addresses the challenges they face in the light of their backstory. This is partly covered through the teacher, but only delivered through a monologue relating to his history, which prevents any emotional resonance coming through.

    But these are minor issues, as the characters are complex and varied, as are the politics and the society, and I’d have put this forward for a potential Year’s Best collectee, if it wasn’t for the fact that Garden Dozois has announced his collection for next year, and this one -is- in it.

Paul Cornell. The Copenhagen Interpretation.
Originally in : Asimov’s Science Fiction, July 2011.

When I read this last year I wrote :

    Cornell’s ‘One of Our Bastards Is Missing’ was well-received a couple of years ago, and was Hartwell/Cramered and Dozoised.

    This features further adventures of his protagonist, a secret service employee of the Crown, in an alternate-ish history with the balance between warring monarchies very much a matter of concern. Cornell fleshes out the political and scientific background, with a neat take on what that falling apple might have suggested to Newtown, and has a much more far flung drama as a result.

    The ability to create ‘folds’ in time and space is a more than useful plot device, akin to Dr. Who’s Tardis (Cornell is a Dr. Who novel writer) which does require a suspension of disbelief, and the evil brothers do slip into bwahahaha Let Me Explain The Plot To You mode. But I forgive them this for their multi-dimensional gravitic testicular torture.

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

When I read it last year 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 investigatged.

Ian McDonald. Digging.
Originally in : Life on Mars : Tales from the New Frontier.

Originally in : Life on Mars – Tales from the New Frontier (ed Strahan).

From Strahan’s YA anthology last year. Some excellent writing, clever setting and believable characterisation. The only problem is that any YA person who reads this might be disappointed to read more SF and realise it’s not all as good as this!! How’s this for an opening :

    Tash was wise to the ways of the wind. She knew its many musics: sometimes like a flute across the pipes and the tubes; sometimes a snare-drum rattle in the guy-lines and cable stays or again, a death drone-moan from the turbine gantries and a scream of sand past the irised-shut windows when the equinox dust storms blew for weeks on end.”

The central conceit is a doozy : to terraform Mars, a homongous excavation is underway, four generations underway, to create a valley so deep that what little, thin atmosphere there is on Mars will rush downhill into it, to create the basis on which to create a breathable atmosphere. The mental image of four exacavator cities slowly, but relentlessly, chewing their way deeper into the crust, excavated spoil carried up to create a mountain range rim around the hole, is a vivid one. And there’s the society that has been set up, by necessity, to ensure a viable community with a limited gene pool.

We get into young Tash’s mind most effectively (you would guess McDonald has teenage daughters!), and there’s drama at the end, which could almost be the one true minor quibble, as it detracts from the focus on the political twist at the end, which is a real welcome to the world of adults, YAs.

Alastair Reynolds. Ascension Day.
Originally in : Voices from the Past

From an anthology of which 100% of the proceeds go to the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, and which is priced at less than a pint of beer (so buy it!)

The anthology was pitched as ‘flash’ fiction but this is a few pages long, which is much more that flash. And Reynolds packs a huge amount into it. The crux of the story is the departure of a trading spaceship. On the planet’s surface, the ship has been on the planet for decades, with tens of thousands of people now living on scaffolding around the ship. Whilst the ship has been there for decades, this is but a small time for the pilot, who takes the departure in his stride. There’s a lot to enjoy in just a few pages – glad to see Reynolds’ big Gollancz deal, but short SF editors need to keep on his millionaire ass to produce stuff like this ;-)

In terms of the £2.99 for the e-book anthology, this story alone is worth the cover price.

Maureen McHugh. After the Apocalypse.
Originally in : After the Apocalypse

Last year McHugh’s ‘The Naturalist’ (Best SF Review) provided a memorable story of a post-zombie apocalypse, noted for its male protagonist, who took a rigorous scientific interest in zombification (without any ethics committee to worry about).

This story doesn’t feature zombies, but is more scary as the apocalypse is much more subtle and much more likely. Things have essentially just gone to pot – nothing at all unbelievable – and humanity is on the march. It’s like The Grapes of Wrath, with whole populations on the move. And the main protagonist is a mother with a teenage daughter, but the mother isn’t a Ma Joad, the matriach keeping everything hanging together. She’s a believable, but ultimately (!) unlikeable character.

Catherynne M. Valente. Silently and Very Fast.
Originally in : Silently and Very Fast.

Jay Lake. A Long Walk Home.
Originally in : Subterranean Magazine, Winter 2011 (and still online).

A thoughtful piece that sees one of Lake’s ‘Howards’, genetically and surgically enhanced humans with extreme longevity, finding himself alone on a planet. Indeed, having returned to the surface having spent months in deep caves, not only have all the humans disappeared from the planet, in the long, long decades/centuries that follow, as he walks his way around the planet, the suspicion is that there are no humans left anywhere in the universe. Has he missed the Rapture?

The sense of loneliness is palpable, madness due to solitude does appear, but only briefly, and the ending leaves you wondering just was is going to happen next.

Dave Hutchinson. The Incredible Exploding Man.
Originally in : Solaris Rising

When I read it last year I wrote :

    Something quite strange has happened at a particle collider in the States. We don’t find out exactly what to start with, as the story starts with a vivid image of roiling clouds contained above a Point Zero, and a protagonist who is able to move between ‘places’. The story and the explanation unfold nicely, with some strong human characters in it, and the tension ramps as the impact on the two primary characters is explored.

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

When I read it 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.

Tom Purdom. A Response from EST17.
Originally in : Asimov’s Science Fiction, April/May 2011.

When I read it last year I wrote :

    A not particularly memorable story. Two exploration vessels have arrived on an alien planet from Earth. Both are controlled by AIs, but they are from different factions on Earth. Co-incidentally, each engages with a different alien faction on the planet.

    The story has potential, in terms of the AIs, and the politics, but doesn’t really deliver – it’s routine rather than inspiring. The aliens aren’t particularly alien (humans with feathers rather than fur, duh), and the final conflict is delivered with the dramatic impact of someone describing a real-time strategy computer game.

Ian R. MacLeod. The Cold Step Beyond.
Originally in : Asimov’s Science Fiction, June 2011.

When it appeared last year I wrote :

    MacLeod returns to the setting of his story ‘Breathmoss’ from Asimovs back in May 2002, to explore the strange relationship of a very odd couple. Bess is a fighting machine, an orphaned child raised to take on a role that is simply to kill. Ellie is an altogether more ethereal child. Their futures are inexorably intertwined, and MacLeod gets the meeting of the two just right, as he does with the backstory and the background to the story, making a three-dimensional read. Or four.

David Klecha and Tobias S. Buckell. A Militant Peace.
Originally : Clarkesworld, November 2011.

When I read it last year I wrote :

    Online here, so read it before you read the following!

    An excellent collaboration by Klecka and Buckell which looks at the near-future options for a technologically advanced, non-violent incursion force to achieve regime change. North Korea is the target, as UN troops, with a lot of backing from private companies in the form of sponsorship, and with more than one eye on the media coverage and consequent public opinion, as a city is built in double-quick time to provide a home for civilians wishing to flee the current regime.

    Nong Mai Thuy is a Vietnamese Sergeant, with family history tied in to previous conflicts in the region, and the advanced armour she and her colleagues work make the story a Starship Troopers for the 21st century. But the ethical issues and the politics make it a far more subtle and complex scenario than shooting skinnies and bugs on alien planets!

Robert Reed. The Ants of Flanders.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2011.

When I read it last year I wrote :

    Reed on top form (and with a great cover image to illustrate the story).

    The titular Ants of Flanders refers to what the ants of that region felt when the opposing forces used their land to wage The Great War. No guessing who the ants are in this story! The story starts with the typical Reed touch – starting long, long ago, and far, far away. But the comet that has been wending its way across the universe for aeons has been in stealth mode, and it has a microscopic package that will be the seed for one of the warring factions. The story continues with the reader put slightly off-guard, as a young student gets up close to the alien creature desperate to get hold of the resources it needs to carry on its task. But rather than a cutesy ET relationship, the extent of what is about to happen gradually dawns, and an epic battle for humanity unfolds, with Reed cleverly focussing on the individual human issues as well as the bigger picture, as he does so well.

    A shoo-in for a couple of next year’s Year’s Bests.

Gwyneth Jones. The Vicar of Mars.
Originally in : Eclipse Four

A neat little Martian horror story, with a pleasantly different protagonist – The Reverend Boaaz Hanaahaahn, High Priest of the Mighty Void – a massive Shet, covered in folds of grey skin. He’s on Old Station, Butterscotch, trying to ease into a looming retirement with some quiet work in the colony. However, a call from social services to check up on one Isabel Jewel leads him into some dark recesses of his mind – or, rather, lets something into the dark recesses of his mind. Scary, and just that bit different.

Lavie Tidhar. The Smell of Orange Groves.
Originally in : Clarkesworld Magazine #62, November 2011 and still online.

Having just finished reading Tidhar’s Strigo in Interzone #242 Sept/Oct 2012(reviewed here), which followed on from ‘The Indignity of Rain’ from Interzone #240 (reviewed here), both good reads, I realised I had this story to read in the latest Dozois and promptly read it.

This story is, like the two Interzone stories, part of Tidhar’s ‘Central Station’ sequence, and indeed, ‘The Smell of Orange Groves’ finishes with a meeting which is subsequently replayed, but from the other protagonist’s perspective, in ‘The Indignity of Rain’.

As a standalone story though, this story if fine enough, looking at Boris Weiei, and how the memories of his grandfather are echoing down the generations. The society that is painted in Tel Aviv/Jaffa, the various religions, the daily lives, and above all the sensual believability of the city give the story a richness.

Excellent stuff. Have a read of the story in Clarkesworld, then get yourself copies of Interzone – either the sleek, new smaller format magazine, or an e-version, and read the subsequent stories.

Michael F. Flynn. The Iron Shirts.
Originally on : Tor.com

An Alternate History, site in medieval Ireland, but with the saving grace that it’s not the type that puts forward a simplistic what-would-have-happened-if scenario. However, it’s the kind of Alternate History that you get much more from if you know about the period itself and are willing to make the effort to work out just how clever the author has been. Whilst nicely enough told, The Watson Himself doesn’t classify this kind of thing as science fiction.

Pat Cadigan. Cody.
Originally in : trsf : The Best New Science Fiction

When this appeared last year I wrote :

    Cadigan has a much longer story than the others in the volume, and makes the most of it. It’s sort of cyberpunk as it might happen now, as opposed to the cyberpunk as we imagined it in the 80s.

    It’s grim and realistic, as we follow Cody, who is a courier. Thing is, he’s carrying data in his brain, which has had memories removed to make space for that package. Unfortunately for him, there are people other than the intended recipient who are interested in getting hold of that data, which opens up a world of pain for him. It’s gritty and noiry and an engrossing read.

Michael Swanwick. For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I’ll Not Be Back Again.
Originally in : Asimov’s Science Fiction, August 2011

When it appeared last year I wrote :

    Clever story of alien oppression and response to it, cunningly done by setting the story in Ireland, a place with a long history of having to deal with forces of occupation and oppression. An American who is on the emerald isle as the last leg of a world tour prior to taking the opportunity to leave the planet, finds that his is a journey that has been done before, as there is a diaspora of those who have left, never to to return. It looks at the emotional impact of dealing with/living with the alien, whereas most SF of this type will deal with violent revolt and overthrow.

Yoon Ha Lee. Ghostweight.
Originally in : Clarkesworld, January 2011

When I read it last year I wrote :

    After a very successful 2010, this is Clarkesworld Magazine’s ‘first story for 2001 and it is online here.

    It’s a lovingly crafted story, an intriguing contrast with the action of the story – full-blooded mayhem on a large, if impersonal scale. The plot summary does no justice : a young soldier flees her ravaged homeworld on an alien war vessel, wreaking revenge on a colossal scale, until she in confronted by what she has become.

    What marks the story out is the subtle crafting of the main character, the intriguing ‘ghost’ that accompanies her, the backstory and the politics, and the effort that Yoon Ha Lee has put in throughout – the alien vessel’s control room comes across as alien, with tapestries and control systems quite unique. It’s an excellent story of shadows, origami folding weapons and vessels, smoke and hidden and unknown identities, desires but also duties.

Jim Hawkins. Digital Rites.
Originally in : Interzone #237

When it appeared last year I wrote (noting it some way behind other stories in the issue) :

    Lengthy, staccato, fast-paced science thriller which starts with the simultaneous deaths of several actors, who are part of a very high-tech film industry. The filmic writing style didn’t really work for me – I’d much rather read a narrative than a form of screenplay.

Alec Nevala-Lee. The Boneless One.
Originally in : Analog, November 2011.

I was more than a little surprised to see a story from Analog in the volume, and was anticipating something out of the usual run of the mill scientist fiction from that magazine. However, no such luck.

A journalist is on a yacht, to report on the work of the billionaire scientist owner. It’s written in a fairly routine manner, with some basic characterisation, and there’s a scientific conundrum to be resolved, but it feels somewhat out of place alongside the rest of the stories in the volume. Maybe Gardner has a thing for octopii?

Peter M. Ball. Dying Young.
Originally in : Eclipse Four.

One of several very strong stories taken by the various Year’s Best anthologists from Jonathan Strahan’s ‘Eclipse Four’ anthology last year. Dangnabbit I’d got the first three in that series, but not the fourth. Might have to rectify that for the sake of completeness. There won’t by an Eclipse Five BTW as the series has now gone virtual – Christopher Rowe’s ‘The Contrary Gardener’ is keeping up the standard in the print volumes in one of the early stories.

So what of this story? Well, it’s a sort of spaghetti Western cum Yul Brynner Westworld yarn, but with dragons. What’s not to like!

Chris Lawson. Canterbury Hollow.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, January/February 2011

When it first appeared I wrote :

    A beautiful little SF love story. Strong SF setting, and gorgeously written by Lawson with a deft touch that stops the story slipping into mawkishness

Ken MacLeod. The Vorkuta Event.
Originally in : The New and Perfect Man: Postscripts 24/25.

A story originally written for a Cthulhuian/Singularity anthology ‘The Cthulhuian Singularity’, a themed anthology inspired by Charles Stross’ story ‘A Colder War’ from a decade or more back, a story which I gave the near-ultimate ‘lavatory status’ (click here for more details)

This story is well-written, in an academic style, a post-war/Cold War setting (with an nod to Kim Philby) in which a student has related to him a story of Quatermassian horrors that foretell a far future conflict. With the arrogance of youth, the student dismisses the story, and sets out on a career that will fulfill that future.

Kij Johnson. The Man Who Bridged the Mist.
Originally in : Asimov’s Science Fiction, 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.

Conclusion

A large number of stories from the magazines (even from Analog!) and printed anthologies, but fewer from online sources than one might expect. A few stories that don’t quite do it for me, but otherwise a great read. I may take the time to review this volume alongside Strahah, Horton and Hartwell/Cramer’s take on the best of the year, seeing as how I’ve finished this volume in the year it was published, the first time for a couple of years!

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