The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Vol. 1 (ed Jonathan Strahan, Saga Press 2020)

Strahan racked up #13 volumes of his Best SF&F of the Year anthology, initially published by Nightshade Books, and latterly by Solaris Books. It would appear that Solaris Books is now in ‘reduced circumstances’ and is now an imprint of another publisher who has a target audience isn’t really up for a hefty Year’s Best collection of short stories. This volume is SF only, from Saga Press, a publisher whose name raises a smile over her in the UK as Saga is a Big Name in providing services and holidays for retired people.

Anyhoo, this volume arrived on the doorstep very soon after Neil Clarke’s ‘competing’ volume, so that’s two anthologies to read in less than 12 months, which is a bit of an ask for me these days! As per Clarke’s volume, I’ll note the contents here and fill in reviews/summaries/notes as I work my way through the volume. The book cover has a text-only approach, with a front cover that isn’t full width, revealing a yellow strip of the page underneath. Is Saga staffed by crazy mofos or what??

It looks like there are only half a dozen stories which appear in both Strahan’s and Clarke’s take on what constitutes the Year’s Best, so lots of reading!

Charlie Jane Anders. The Bookstore at the End of America.
First published in ‘A People’s Future of the United States’, (One World, 2019)

The future of the United States that Anders puts forward is a cautionary (and sadly all-too believable), near-future one, with shades of The Handmaid’s Tale. California has seceded from the United States, and against a backdrop of water shortage, the leftie liberals in California are close to being at war with their religious right neighbours. One beacon of hope if the titular bookstore. It’s at ‘the end of America’ in the sense of their being a palpalbe sense of end times, but it actually straddles the border, and, indeed has a separate entrance for each country. And it’s one of the few places where the border can be crossed without going through a checkpoint. Anders uses the single mom who owns the store and her teen daughter to give us a human perspective on this, and as a flashpoint arrives, perhaps it is the youth, and the books, that can save the day…. [25 July 2021]

Tobias S. Buckell. The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex.
Originally in : New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color (ed Nisi Shawl, Solaris Books 2019)

An enjoyable story – nothing too deep, think Korben Dallas from The Fifth Element cabbying in a near future Men In Black setting, where First Contact has led to multiple contact, and those multiple contacts are now heavily into visiting Earth as tourists. [9-Aug-2021]

Indrapramit Das. Kali_Na.
Originally in : The Mythic Dream (ed Parisien/Wolfe)

Also selected by Neil Clarke in his the year’s best, where I noted ‘A young girl in India, named after the Hindu goddess of the title, finds herself intertwined with the launch of an AI version of that goddess. There is tech and religion and caste and more, as we watch the response from the goddess to being assailed by trolls upon her launch.’

Saleem Haddad. Song of the Birds.
Originally in : Palestine+100, (Comma Press, 2019)

Aya is on the beach in Gaza, a lovely summer’s day, a crowded beach lined with hotels and buildings. But all is not right with Aya’s world. Her brother took his own life recently, and her mother has withdrawn. After a traumatic vision on the beach, Aya finds out, from her brother, that all is not what it seems, an all is far from right in Aya’s world. And the reason for that is a doozy… (She is in fact ‘living’ in a idealised Palestine, one that can’t exist in a real world, one created by the enemies of the state). [9th August 2021]

Suzanne Palmer. The Painter of Trees.
Originally published in Clarkesworld Magazine #153, June 2019 and still online

Also in the Neil Clarke take on the year’s best, where I read it and noted : “A short, simple but effective vignette from Palmer. Humanity is spreading remorselessly throughout the universe, as the native intelligence life on one planet has found to their cost. There are but a half dozen of them left, in the final, small corner of their planet that has yet to succumb to the terraforming. There is one human who has some regret at the costs, and reflects on the loss of the habitat and its inhabitants, but it’s too little, too late.”

Karin Tidbeck. The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir.
Originally online on Tor.com and still available there

A nice little story from Tidbeck. Post-First Contact, and the race nicknamed ‘the crabs’ have enabled humanity to travel the stars. In fact, the crabs embed themselves in spaceships to make this happen.  Saga is a young caretaker on one of these ships, her job mostly fixing the electrics, plumbing and taping things back together. However, she finds out that the alien crab has grown too large for the ship. Is it the breaker’s yard for the ship, or can Saga and Novik the engineer foil the Captain’s plan to consign the Skidbladnir to history? The reference in the story to non-flat screen TVs, telephones and video tapes were a bit anachronistic – you could smuggle this story into a 1980s anthology without any problem. [10-Aug-2021]

Malka Older. Sturdy Lanterns and Ladders.
Originally in : Current Futures, A Sci-Fi Ocean Anthology.

A marine behaviour researcher has some reservations about the kind of work she ends up doing with octopusses, and bales out of her current project which ends up with her being able to see through the eyes of the octopus she is working with. It transpires that repairing coral reef with help from the memories of the octopuses is what is happening, and after dealing with some trauma were are told about, she returns to the project. It’s all a bit basic and sketchy, dialogue and interactions a bit awkward, and it feels rather like an average story in an issue of Analog, than a Year’s Best story, and just some way behind other octopus/dolphin/whale stories in SF over the years. [10-Aug-2021]

Ted Chiang. It’s 2059 and the Rich Kids are Still Winning.
Originally in the New York Times, and still there.

It’s 30 years since Chiang’s first published story, and he doesn’t write many of them, so I was looking forward to reading this one. D’oh! Firstly, it’s just a three-pager. And secondly, it’s an op-ed, not a piece of fiction. OK, the conceit is that it’s an op-ed from the future, commenting on the results of some sfnal dna-tweaking, but essentially it’s a simple op-ed confirming what we know – achievement isn’t just down to an individual’s IQ rating, there are a whole raft of issues that impact on ability to succeed in life. There’s been a whole heap of SF about DNA and genetic tweaking over the years – I remember reading Nancy Kress’s ‘Beggars in Spain’ and Greg Bear’s ‘Blood Music’ in Year’s Best SF volumes back in the day, and it would have been nice of Chiang could have written a proper story around the topic of this piece. [10th Aug 2021]

Rich Larson. Contagion’s Eve at the House Noctambulous.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2019.

Larson has been an author whose work has consistently impressed me. His dark, challenging story ‘Painless’ was chosen by Neil Clarke in his take of the Year’s Best this year. This story had the honour of being the story which was featured for the cover art in the issue of F&SF in which it appeared. TBH that artwork would have put me right off reading the story! This is a cracking read, with Larson grabbing the attention with an opening paragraph that left this reader intrigued as to WTF was going on. “Burgewick was playing spitters with Gib on the lawn of the House Noctambulous as dusk turned the sky inkyblack. The spitters were a gift from Burgewick’s favorite uncle, who had arrived earlier that day by crawling carriage. Uncle Bellepheron dabbled in gene art, and so always brought interresting gifts for Contagion’s Eve.” Steampunk perhaps? Far-future perhaps? The story progresses, introducing us to young Burgewick and his playmate Gib. Burgewick is the son of a rich and high status elite family (Gib is a servant), and a run in with his older brother provides the tension in the story, which is played out to the very final shattering scenes. And we find out that it’s not steampunk, and it’s not far-future, it’s near-future, the wealthy elite families being the 1%ers of our time who took to subterranean vaults and let a contagion loose on the fucked up world above, emerging a century later to essentially enslave the small number of humans left. It’s good story, well told, and inventive throughout. There’s a lot of invention in this story to like, plenty enough for the author to revisit in other stories. [12th August 2021]

Han Song. Submarine.
Originally in : Broken Stars : Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation (ed Ken Liu)

A short piece from Song, in which ‘peasant’ manual workers have been forced out of their very low-cost living accommodation and now live in hand-made submarines on the Yangtze River. It’s all very low key, with the workers becoming self-contained in the homes, and the children of the workers even more fully embracing an aquatic life.. [16th August 2021]

S.I. Huang. As the Last I May Know.
Published online on Tor.com and still online.

Winner of 2020 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. A slightly retro feel for me, presenting a simplistic moral dilemma : what if the codes for nuclear weapons were embedded in a child, and in order to use them, the President had to kill the child to get at them? Would this very personal death prove to be more of an obstacle to using those weapons than the unseen death of millions? We follow one child who has taken on that role, as the war goes wrong and the Prez has to choose what to do. (For my money, I’d have preferred to see the girl have lost lots of family and be demanding the President use his ultimate weapon…)[17th August 2021]

Fran Wilde. A Catalog of Storms.
Originally in Uncanny Magazine #26, and still online.

A story which was a Hugo, Nebula and Locus finalist. I’m not sure what it’s doing in a SF volume though, as it is firmly in WUSGOtm(Weird Unexplained Shit Going On) territory, and has so sfnal elements. The WUSGO is that a coastal community are being threatened by the weather. Not the usual threats, nor those we are beginning to see due to climate change, but really weird in that these weather events are literally taking away residents, and some of those residents left are becoming Weathermen, able to foresee and forestall the weather, but at a price – they eventually become one with the weather. As has been the case of late, having non-narrative sections are employed, which, as the title suggests, sees some cataloguing of the storms. I don’t recall seeing any references in the story to give the setting a place and a time. The story revolves around a family who have lost an aunt and a daughter to the role of Weatherman. It’s atmospheric, and literary. [17th August 2021]

Anil Menon. The Robots of Eden.
Originally in ‘New Suns’ (ed Nisi Shawl, Solaris Books, 2019)

Near-future, and the wealthy elite have implants that interface with their brains, the main benefit of which being that they can control emotion and remain rational. The story revolves around the protagonist/narrator, who has in effect consciously decoupled with his wife, who is now living with another. He is very mellow about this, and future events, as his implant suppresses his emotions. The caregiver who looks after his elderly mother does not have an implant, and through her response to events, we see just how neutered the implanted have become. It took me two reads of the first few pages to get the hang of who was who, and what was happening! The story does drag a bit with lengthy consideration of the nature of fiction, albeit this leads up to a nice meta-fiction closing sentence. [28th August 2021]

Alice Sola Kim. Now Wait for This Week.
Originally online on ‘The Cut’ still online

Bonnie is having a Groundhog Week, forced to relive the same week over and over. It’s her birthday week, but that doesn’t really help. The narrative comes through the eyes of her friend and room-mate, rather than hers, who is of course blissfully unaware of what is happening on repeat, but through whose perspective we see, even if she doens’t, the trauma that Bonnie is going through, as the birthday celebrations are reported. The narrative is complemented by addressing the issue of male misogyny and sexual predation through the women’s experiences. The story is as much SF as is the film ‘Groundhog Day’ (i.e. it’s not), and for me the ending was a little frustrating as Bonnie, resolves the issue by realising that for the future to happen, she has to ‘stay in the past’, which I found a bit confusing as everyone was staying in the past, so what exackerly did she do to ‘stay in the past’. However, once she is out of the frame, Bonnie’s friend is empowered to confront one of the males in her backstory. But it’s a well-told, darkly comic story. [28th August 2021]

Peter Watts. Cyclopterus.
Originally in : ‘Mission Critical’ (ed Jonathan Strahan, Solaris Books, 2019).

I invariably enjoy Watts’ stories, but, gosh, this one is dark. The story is from an anthology evidently based on stories where, as you might guess from the title of the book, there is a mission critical element to them. Here the mission is obfuscated by the author, as we aren’t given the full picture of the protagonist. It’s (sadly) near-future, with our planet having gone over the eco-tipping point, with a permanent hurricane ravaging the planet, and everything, and almost everyone, going to hell in a handcart. It’s the lucky ultra-rich who are trying their best to avoid the catastrophe, which is being exacerbated by greedy corporations continuing to exploit the earth, and the ocean depths. And in the ocean depths the protagonist and the woman piloting the microsub down deep, discuss at length the current situation and the moral reponse to militants who aren’t going to let the guilty ones get away scot-free, despite any such revenge being too little too late. Watts’ handles the science and technology well, as he invariably does, and the tension builds to an even darker ending as we finally find out about the protagonist and his mission. [29th Aug 2021]

Suyi Davies Okungbowa. Dune Song. Originally in Apex Magazine, May 2019.

Another near-future post-eco-disaster story. From an afrofuturism issue of Apex Magazine (recently exceeding it’s Kickstarter target by 2.6x what they had asked for), it features a small community battling against the shifting sands, encroaching dunes and whirlwinds of their now-desertified environment. Nata’s mother has defied the community laws, left her child, and escaped the community, and Nata is determined to follow in her footsteps. Trying and failing once before, she was saved by the village chief’s son, and now she makes a second attempt with him alongside her. Lyrical in tone, and a good read. [29th August 2021]

Tegan Moore. The Work of Wolves.
Originally in Asimovs, July/August 2019.

Also collected by Neil Clarke in his take on the Year’s Best, where I read it but wasn’t blown away as I would expect from a story selected in two of the year’s best volumes.

Elizabeth Bear. Soft Edges. Originally in : ‘Current Futures : a sci-fi anthology’.

Hmm. A bit of a disappointment, this one. Bear sets up a dilemma for her protagonist who is almost willing to *not* identify a murderer on account of her moral objection to the criminal justice system and incarceration, and has a lengthy conversation with a cop around the moral dilemma she faces, and the reasons for her objections. Some nice characterisation of her and the cop, but just too heavy on the moral discussions to satisfy this reader (a he/him liberal fwiw). [30th August 2021]

N.K. Jemisin. Emergency Skin.
Originally published in Amazon Forward Reads, 2019.

Also anthologised by Neil Clarke, where I noted : A story I really enjoyed reading. The protagonist is on a mission, to return to humanity’s homeworld, Tellus. He has been enclosed in a temporary skin, which will become permanent at the end of his mission and his return, and he has an embedded AI to help him on the mission. It transpires though that the homeworld hasn’t succumbed to environmental collapse, and, indeed those who remained on Earth have flourished *because* rather than *despite* the loss of the rich elite who fled generations ago. Jemisin drip feeds the reader as the story progresses with information about what has happened, which kept this reader engaged. Admittedly the solution to Earth’s problems is a little simplistic and idealistic, and conservatives will doubtless object but hey, I’d contribute to a Kickstarter to help the rich elite flee the Earth. [28-Nov-2020]

Ken Liu. Thoughts and Prayers.
Originally published online in Slate and still online.

Near-future, with just a few technological and social media developments to take us past where we are now. But the story is one that could take place today – after her killing in a mass shooting (in the USA obvs) a mother makes a misguided decision to accept a request from a company to user her daughter’s image in a gun-control campaign. All hell breaks loose.. As if it isn’t bad enough reading how the mother, father and sister are shattered by the trolls’ responses, we get to hear a troll’s perspective on why the family deserve what they are getting. Thoroughly depressing. [31st August 2021]

Alec Nevala-Lee. At the Fall.
Originally in Analog, May/June 2019.

Also chosen by Horton and Clarke in each of their takes on the Year’s Best SF. I read it in Clarke and you can read my thoughts here.

Vandana Singh. Reunion.
Originally in ‘The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction’.

Another near-future post-climate catastrophe story. Fortunately it’s much more upbeat than other stories in this volume, and there’s a lot to like in the story. We accompany Mahua, elderly engineer/scientist, living in a water-inundated Mumbai, as she reflects on her long life, which led to her developing technologies to enable communities to begin to reset Earth’s ecosphere. The story has culture, technology, growing pains, love, loss and much more, and with a non-Western perspective, and beautifully told. [31st August 2021]

E Lily Yu. Green Glass : a Love Story.
Originally in : ‘If This Goes On’ (ed Cat Rambo, Parvus 2019)

A counterpoint to the previous story in the volume. Here, Yu provides a blackly satirical love story of two of the super-wealthy in a world that is going/has gone to hell in a handbasket. As we see how unlimited wealth can overcome any obstacle (in wedding planning that is – such as sourcing fresh, drinkable milk) the background to the story shows just how bad things have got. But if you have money, you can rise above these issues (quite literally in the case of living well above the rising water levels). [1st Sept 2021]

Sophia Rhei. Secrets Stories of Doors. Originally in : ‘Everything Is Made Of Letters’ (Rhei, Aqueduct Press, 2019).

From the author’s own collection of stories, originally written in Spanish, although you would never guess it was a translated work. And it’s a very, very clever story and well worth seeking out. Spoilers ahead : it’s an alternate history set in the 1970s, with a global government and oppressive surveillance state. The protagonist works for the World Encylopedia, which is based in Barcelona. The government had tight control on what is written, and he is able to gain some measure of pleasure by creating entries about authors and their works that he has entirely made up. At first the reasons for the alternate history aren’t explained, but the reveals at the end are a doozy : Orson Welles’ famous radio broadcast was not of Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’ but of ‘Shape of Things to Come’ and the broadcast brought not only panic, but global regime change, using the original book as a template, and the rise of authoritarianism and control by the wealthy. How fortunate are we than fake news of this kind could never lead to the rise of authoritarianism led by the rich and powerful! [2nd September 2021]

Greg Egan. This Is Not The Way Home.
Originally in : ‘Mission Critical’ (ed Strahan, Solaris Books 2019).

Knowing that there was a Greg Egan story towards the end of this anthology had me looking forward to reading it, as I’ve enjoyed Egan’s stories for almost four decades now. Sadly I felt rather let down. It’s a fairly routine scientist fiction story of the kind that Analog regularly published, and is quite old school. And, worserer, there are just too many issues with the plot to pick at, with the fundamental premise just way too unfeasible for this kind of a story. Namely, that having being stranded on a lunar base with only her nursing child for company, the now not so lucky winner of a trip to the moon hatches a plan to return to an earth she is no longer in contact with, through some silliness involving getting a skyhook to bend down and slingshot her and her baby (her baby inside *her* spacesuit, and she in little more than a lunar buggy) from the moon’s surface to Earth, and by dint of a (basically magic) material which will enable her makeshift spaceship to avoid the heat of re-entry and parachute down to Earth. Obviously Strahan liked this enough for inclusion in his original anthology and also in this one, but I remain to be convinced. [2nd September 2021]

Chinelo Onwualu. What The Dead Man Said.
Originally in Slate Magazine, and online.

There are a couple of things to like about this one – a non-western female perspective, with an eco-catastrophe enabling a new Biafra to rise from the ruins of Nigeria, with those of the Igbo diaspora recalled home to rebuild their community. There’s a whole heap that could be done with that setting. However the plot is one that has no need for an sfnal background – a daughter who has remained in the West returns to attend her father’s funeral, to confront his failing that scarred her youth and come to some closure. I’ve no idea of how much input editors/curators have these days, I do know that ‘back in the day’ magazine editors were often only to happy to request multiple re-writes. Me, I’d have encouraged the author to focus a bit more on the sfnal opportunities that she had set up for herself but not made the most of, to give added sfnal depth to the story. Also, the final ‘confrontation’ with the father, basically her imagining a conversation, could have been handled with an sfnal element. [2nd September 2021]

Fonda Lee. I (28M) created a deepfake girlfriend and now my parents think we’re getting married.
Originally in Technology Review, December 2019.

A story about a young man who creates a deepfake girlfriend and whose parents think he’s getting married. But you don’t need me to tell you that, do you? What you do need me to tell you is that I really enjoyed the story. Lee takes a number of current technologies – dating apps, deepfakes, AI etc – and projects them forward a little, and has the young man in question relate how an initially harmless subterfuge becomes more and more complicated, in a dryly amusing manner. It could be a ‘When Harry Met Sally’ movie for the 2020s. [3rd September 2021]

Caroline M. Yoachim. The Archronology of Love.
Originally in Lightspeed Magazine where it is still online.

The New Mars colony has failed – worse than that, the colonists have disappeared following an alien plague which spread through the colony. Arriving in orbit to investigate what has happened, Dr. Saki Jones has lost her lifepartner, who was one of the scientists on the planet. She has his letters and vids, but there is a hope for her – there is an alien construct, The Chronicle, which enables the immersive observation of times and places past. This (plot) device gives her the faint opportunity of seeing her lifepartner again, and indeed, her observations enable her to eventually identify what has happened, and, in going forward, rather than going back, she has one last fleeting encounter. Also chosen by Rich Horton in his take on the Year’s Best SF. For me it was just missing a little something to be a classic, possibly the fact that we never see the couple together until the very final page, so have no emotional attachment to them as a couple. [3rd September 2021]

Conclusion

Well, first up, being entirely selfish, I’m pleased to see an entirely SF collection rather than an SF&F collection. Not as hefty as Dozois’ annual volumes, but I suppose that as there isn’t too much overlap in the stories with Neil Clarke’s take on the best SF of this year, you could put the two volumes together for a true Dozois comparison. Strahan cast his net slightly wider than Clarke, but for me, looking back through my reviews of the two volumes, for this first nose-to-nose year between these anthologist, Clarke just edges it in terms of the collection of stories that I enjoyed most. And for the record, the stories I enjoyed most in this volume :

Charlie Jane Anders. The Bookstore at the End of America.
Rich Larson. Contagion’s Eve at the House Noctambulous.
Alice Sola Kim. Now Wait for This Week.
Sophia Rhei. Secrets Stories of Doors.

And if you want to cross reference with the other Year’s Best volumes here are the links

Neil Clarke’s ‘Best Science Fiction of the Year Volume 5’

Rich Horton’s ‘Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2020’

Roll on the next volume (due in several weeks!)

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