The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Vol. 2 (ed Jonathan Strahan, Saga Press 2021)

The second volume in Strahan’s new all-SF anthology, the dead-tree version of which has just arrived here in mid-Nov. I’ve popped the ToC from Strahan’s website below to save a bit of effort, and will add reviews of stories as I work my way through the volume.

17 of the 26 authors are known to me, and by the power of Math that means 9 of the authors are new to me. Only 4 or 5 are authors who I would at a quick glance identify having previously appeared in a Year’s Best SF volume more than 5 years ago, so the volume clearly isn’t profiling the Big Established Names. Let’s get on with reading the stories shall we? Dates stories reviewed in parenthesis as the end of the review.

Vina Jie-Min Prasad. A Guide for Working Breeds.
Originally published in Made to Order: Robots and Revolution

Just the second story of Prasad’s that I have read, the other also appearing in a Year’s Best volume (‘A Series of Steaks’ from 2017). This cute story features a transcript of conversation between AIs. Not monstrously powerful ones, but humbler ones embodied in robots. One is a newbie, working as a barista/cook, who has issues with their employer. The other has a more existential threat, but between them, she (not sure why I assigned the female gender to them both??) they developed a shared love of doggo videos, and, much more. Cute and clever. [20th Nov 2021]

Rebecca Campbell. An Important Failure.
Originally published in Clarkesworld Magazine, 8/20 and still online.

Well, this is a corker and no mistake. You should follow the link above (or buy this book) and read this story. It’s near future, well into climate catastrophe territory, and it’s undoubtedly the best luthier SF story I’ve ever read. Okay, being a bit smart alecky does the story a dis-service, let me say that the story, which features a violin maker, is one of the best SF stories I’ve read in a little while. Not really SF, I suppose, as it’s a simple projection of current ecological shithousery trajections (not sure that’s even a word!). But amongst rising sea and river levels, and rampaging forest fires, a violin maker looks back on how a previous climate change benefitted the wood that would become violins, and tries his best to create a violin that will last for centuries. It’s a deftly handled story, and an eventually uplifting, warming story. Campbell’s ‘Such Thoughts Are Unproductive’ from last year’s Clarke’s ‘Years Best’ was also an outstanding story. [20th Nov 2021]

Sarah Gailey. Drones to Ploughshares.
Originally published in Motherboard Vice, 4/02/20 and still online.

Click on the link above to read the story online. I personally found the story rather disappointing, just too simplistic and I’d have put it down as being a story in the reject pile of one of the top publishers, rather than a Year’s Best story. In a near-future totalitarian state, a government surveillance drone is captured by a farmstead which it has been sent to monitor for any breaches of the rigid rules and regulations under which they are licensed to operate. The drone is captured by the farmsteaders (but is unable to send a message back to base and it’s absence is not spotted by base), and the humans, through little more than giving it a guided tour of the farm (which has gone way beyond what is officially allowed) are able to persuade the drone’s AI that it has been working for the wrong side, and that it should turn it’s back on it’s programming and come to work for them. The anthropomorphism of a basic AI required to control a drone didn’t work for me at all in this story, whilst it did in the opening story, because the robots those AIs were controlled were very much designed for human interaction and taking on human roles. Gailey is an established author and Hugo/Locus/Nebula winner/nominee, but this is the first story of theirs that I have read. [22nd Nov 2021]

Meg Elison. The Pill.
Originally published in Big Girl Plus… (PM Press)

Near-future, and a new pill enables people to shed the excess the pounds (or, to be more specific, to pass the excess pounds), and any stretched skin, to achieve a perfect bod. The protagonist is a fat girl, from a fat family, whose mother is one of the people who trials the drug. There’s a scary couple of nights when mom starts evacuating all that fat and skin, but once through that, it appears to indeed be a miracle cure. We follow the girl as she loses her father to the drug (there is a 10% chance of death when taking it), and her brother takes the drug but does not find happiness or a ‘new self’, and she continues to resist the increasing pressure to conform as the number of overweight in society rapdily reduces. There’s a haven for her though – places where the overweight can live, worshipped by those with a fetish for the hefty. It’s a well-observed story, with the family member all sympathetically well-drwan, and some neat turns of phrase. [27th Nov 2021]

Yoon Ha Lee. The Mermaid Astronaut.
Originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies 298 and still online

A story I liked very much. It’s lyrical and touching, describing a creature from an aquatic race who dreams of travelling the skies. When offworlders lands nearby, she is given a chance to travel with them. She knows that there is a price to pay, but it is only some time later, when she finds out exactly what that price is, and for all the beauty and the wonders that space has to offer, she has to return home. (Mind you, you have to be willing to overlook the fairly fundamental consequence of close-to FTL travel that isn’t explained to the wannabe astronaut at the outset! I think that as the opening of the story felt so much like The Little Mermaid to me, I was lulled into a fantasy mindset rather than my usual hard-nosed SFnal mindset which might have baulked at the required suspension of disbelief.) [6th Dec 2021]

Max Barry. It Came From Cruden Farm.
Originally published in Slate Future Tense, 2/29/20 and still online

A newly-elected US President finds out that there is indeed an alien in Area 51. Problem is, it’s been watching too much Fox News and is now very much on the alt-right, politics wise. I was mildy entertained by the wry humour and satire, but a quarter of a century after Men In Black’s really good take on the foibles of aliens living amongst us, I didn’t think there was enough in the story to be a Year’s Best story in 2021 and it felt rather more like one of the Year’s Best stories from the 1950s that I’ve been reading of late. [8th Dec 2021]

Gene Doucette. Schrödinger’s Catastrophe.
Originally published in Lightspeed Magazine, 11/20 – and still online.

A story with an interesting conceit – a previously unexplored region of space in which Schrödinger has been taken to the nth degree, as anything and anyone in that area of space is subject to being, or not being, or variations thereof, and it’s up to the intrepid protagonist to get to the root of the issue. There’s clearly going to be a version of this somewhere which plays it straight, but in this instance Doucette takes an ultra-light touch, and for me, the tone of the story is a mismatch with the length of the story (Lightspeed Magazine had to put it into two parts, *on an online magazine*) and the tone and the ongoing Schrödinger frustrations that the protagonist has to overcome (with or without the aid of an AI) weren’t able to engage me through more than a third of the story. I did look at the last paragraph, and I’m guessing that the ending will, or will not, please those who did make it to the end. [12th Dec 2021]

Andy Dudak. Midstrathe Exploding.
Originally published in Analog: Science Fiction and Fact, 3-4/20

As with the previous story in this volume, an interesting conceit, but in contrast to the previous story in this volume, this one doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, it’s way too short! Dudak posits a city that has sufferered a cubit/quantum explosion, but (I’m not entirely sure why, but that’s not important to me (although it probably would be to Analog readers)) the explosion is now happening at a microscopically slow pace, and a whole tourist industry, and religions, are built up around the expanding dome of disaster, in which you can see those people who were unsuccesful in escaping the initial wave front, as they move in micro-slow-motion within the slowly expanding blast radius. Dudak puts in an interesting protagonist, who we find out, has a very personal link to the disaster. I was minded of James Tiptree Jr’s ‘The Man Who Walked Home’ with it’s central image of the ill-fated scientist desperately scrabbling back through time, with those few left on Earth witnessing his annual appearances. Mash that up with an sfnal slowmo vesuvian pyroclastic flow, and you have this story. I really enjoyed this one. Pick of the volume so far. [12th Dec 2021]

Nadia Afifi. The Bahrain Underground Bazaar.
Originally published in : The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December 2020

A few years hence, and in a seedy underground bazaar in Bahrain, and older woman makes regular visits to pay for virtual immersion experiences that have become popular, and possible, through embedded tech that includes the ability to record human experiences. Facing frailty and ill health herself, she is seeking out the experiences of those who have died. One particular experience has an impact on her, and she seeks out the location of that fatal clifftop plummet, enabling her to confront her own fears. [18th Dec 2021]

Ken Liu. 50 Things Every AI Working with Humans Should Know.
Originally published in Uncanny Magazine, 11-12/20 and still online

A shorter piece in two halves. The first half being an obit for ‘WHEEP-3 (“Dr. Weep”), probably the most renowned AI AI-critic of the last two decades’, followed by, as you might guess, a list of 50 things every AI working with humans should know, a list developed from the ‘germination phrase’ of ‘Michael Sorkin’. Neat and clever for those who know and like their IT. [18th Dec 2021]

Alastair Reynolds. Polished Performance.
Originally published in Made to Order: Robots and Revolution

Far future SF from Reynolds, but in a much lighter vein than usual. The robotic crew of Resplendent are horrified to find out that vast majority of the humans in cryo-sleep during their century-long trip have in fact died during transit, and from the lowest of the robotic low, the protagonist Ruby, a cleaning robot, to those at a higher cognitive level, there is concern that they will be blamed, and returned to factory settings. They spend some time (decades in fact), pondering their plan of action, which includes some thespian-inspired impersonation, but it is Ruby’s insight that leads to a solution. Quite an enjoyable piece. [19th Dec 2021]

Timons Esaias. GO. NOW. FIX.
Originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, 1-2/20

Following on from a story about a cleaning robot which saves the day, a story about a ‘semi-autonomous plush device’ which saves the day. More specifically, model TD8 PandaPillow®, serial #723756, goes from sitting for a long time on a shelf, to being purchased and used on a flight, to being the one device, in this world of an internet of things, able to communicate with ground control after the plane suffers a near-catastrophic disaster. Struggling with limited comms, and limited power, the PandaPillow is indeed able to save the day, and many of the passengers, thanks in no part to it running an almost obsolete operating system. An entertaining story with a touching ending. [28th Dec 2021]

A.T. Greenblatt. Burn or The Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super.
Originally published in Uncanny Magazine, 5-6/20 and still online

Sam is one of the small number of people who have developed special abilities. However his ability to set his hands and head on fire, and his lack of control of those powers, seem to limit his options in becoming a fully-fledged superhero, and we follow his attempts to integrate with a team of local supers. I’ve never really engaged with superhero or comic book fiction (my younger brother did that), and I don’t really see it as science fiction. But it’s a well-handled character-driven story about trying to fit in, and a good complement to her award-winning ‘Give the Family Love’ from a year or two back. [28th Dec 2021]

Rich Larson. How Quini the Squid Misplaced His Klobučar.
Originally published in Tor.com, 1/15/20 still online

I was looking forward to reading a Rich Larson story, and he invariably writes stories that are the types of story I like. And a paragraph in and I was in the full glow of nostaglic anticipation – a cyberpunk story, just like the ones us oldsters used to read way back in the last century!! The story is still online, (link above) so do have a read before you go any further. The story is set in a near-ish future Barcelona, hugely crowded, with reference to climate change and migration as a backdrop. The protagonist is a hacker, wanting revenge on the titular Quini, a gangster who is evidently a nasty piece of work, who blamed the hacker (wrongly) for a poor piece of work, and also referred to him as a ‘maricona’ (I got all the Barca references, but not this Spanish slang one). And so the hacker (it would have been nice if we had been given his name!) hatches up a hi-tech plan to relieve Quini of his highly valuable Klobucar, calling on his friend Nat and a young, un-connected youth, who he needs to give a hand (or more than a hand, it transpires). So there’s some virtual immersion, lots of hacking, a twist in the tale, then another. Pick of the volume for me so far! [28th Dec 2021]

Pat Cadigan. The Final Performance of the Amazing Ralphie.
Originally published in Avatars Inc.

The titular Ralphie is an AI-controlled avatar, used to entertain patients in a deep space hospice. Ralphie is popular for his magic tricks, until one day he conjures up more than the odd dove from up his virtual sleeve. An entertaining story from Cadigan. [30th December 2021]

Maureen McHugh. Yellow and the Perception of Reality.
Originally published in Tor.com, 7/22/20 and still online.

The intro to the story on the Tor.com states ‘“Yellow and the Perception of Reality” by Maureen McHugh is a science fiction story about a woman who delves into the mystery of why and how her twin sister, a physicist, has been brain damaged in a lab accident in which two of her colleagues died.”‘ Excepts it’s not that (there’s no -real’ investigation), but it’s much more. Her sister has had massive brain damage on a molecular level, affecting her ability to perceive reality around – evidently perceiving more but not being able to identify where her self and the rest of the world is delineated. It appears that the work she was doing on testing a laboratory’s octopus to do the same has impacted on her. The ‘story’ as such is about the twin, a social worker, and her relationship with her sister, improved by her wearing a yellow sweater on every visit, and her ruminations on what it might be like to be able to perceive much more than the limited cognition that we have which itself is very much filtered by our brains. [30th Dec 2021]

Ray Nayler. Father.
Originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, July/August 2020.

A neat little story which I enjoyed the heck out of. An alternate history post-war suburban USA, where the tech from a crash-landed UFO has set us up with flying cars and robots. The young boy protagonist (unnamed) lost his dad during the war, just before he was born, and is happy with his life with his mom. But life gets even better when she wins a lottery for widows of servicemen who died in the war, and they get a ‘Father’, a repurposed ex-military robot. The boy soon gets used to his replacement father, but there are others in the neighbourhood less pleased to see the shiny robot. Nayler lets us know that at the beginning of the story that there’s a sad ending for the son/Father relationship, and cranks up the tension with a young greaseball punk who takes a dislike to the robot. Sure enough there’s a sad ending (with a bit of a twist, as the Father has wartime flashbacks, and even though his combat routines have been erased, he doesn’t go down without a fight.) [2nd January 2022]

Suzanne Palmer. Don’t Mind Me.
Originally published in Entanglements: Tomorrow’s Lovers, Families, and Friends (MIT Press)

A cautionary tale from Palmer, revolving around near-future teens at school. Some of them have to wear an electronic ‘minder’ which ‘protects’ them from remembering anything that their religious/conservative parent’s don’t want them to hear – evolution theory, gender politics, bad language, sexuality, etc. The protagonist is a boy who is pretty fed up with this, but, as in teen tales, he meets up with others in the same predicament who want out of it, and fortunately, which helps the story along, they have worked out a way to circumvent the technology (which the tech firms behind the ‘minders’ are unaware of). However, they are found out, and for some of the kids this means an irrepairable breach with their parents. Interesting that the mind-control ‘caps’ envisioned by John Christopher in his ‘Tripods’ series 50 years ago were an alien creation, whereas Palmer sees us being only too willing to take this on ourselves. I’m not a big fan of stories with teen protagonists, and this story felt it had a bit of YA fiction simplicity about it, especially the ending with the teen talking around his father to his point of view. [3rd January 2022]

Karl Schroeder. The Suicide of Our Troubles.
Originally published in Slate Future Tense, 11/28/20 and still online

Futurist Schroeder looks at a means of achieving ecological change through gaming, augmented reality, blockchain and crypto-currency. It’s all a bit complicated, but you can read it yourself through the link above. An interesting and educational read, moreso than an entertaining read. [3rd January 2022]

Sameem Siddiqui. Airbody.
Originally published in Clarkesworld Magazine, 4/20 and still online.

A young man in the States rents out his body to a virtual visitor, an older woman from his homeland of Pakistan, and during the time she virtually inhabits his body (Airbody rather than AirBnB), it gives him time to reflect on how far he has moved from his roots, and past relationships. Leaving out the fact that he was virtually hosting someone from the other side of the world in his body, I didn’t really engage with this as an SF story. And it wouldn’t take too much time to take out the underpinning sfnal element to have pretty much the same story but with an elderly aunt coming over to visit his house and stay with him, rather than being a virtual visitor. [3rd January 2022]

Ozzie M. Gartrell. The Transition of OSOOSI.
Originally published in Fiyah Lit Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction Issue #13

An author new to me, and a story that I found very impactful. It has tech, it has social, political and ethical issues, it has gender and race, and it has tension and drama. Set in a near(ish) future USA where things have gotten much worse than they are now for the non-white population, the protagonist plays for high stakes and pays a high personal cost to use his hacking skills to get the revolution rolling. If there are those who are unwilling to feel empathy for the other, then how about *making* them feel empathy?! [4th Jan 2022]

Charlie Jane Anders. If You Take My Meaning.
Originally published in Tor.com, 2/12/20. and still online

Far future, with just a teaser or two about the background – you will have to read the precursor novel ‘The City in the Middle of the Night’ for the bigger picture. Sophie, regretting having been involved in regime change on a planet that humanity has settled on, decides to follow in the footsteps of her lover/friend (they are in a troilistic relationship) and undergo a hybridisation procedure with the indigenous race, the dark-dwelling Gelet. Once tentaclised, she will be able to exchange memories and emotions with other humans. Will this be a way of ensuring the humans on the planet are able to undersand each other better? An interesting setup, but what intrigues me is how the three-way relationship would work with only two able to share on a new, intimate level. [5th Jan 2022]

Usman T. Malik. Beyond These Stars Other Tribulations of Love.
Originally published in Wired, 12/11/20 and still online

As with the Siddiqui story in this volume, this story left me wanting a little more – a little more sfness, as it is also a story that could easily be rewritten to remove the SF without any loss to the story. The protagonist has an elderly mother with dementia, but he resolves to seek his destiny off-planet, but using new tech to enable him to remain as her carer via telepresence, despite the fact that he is speeding away from Earth. He could equally have done this via a long sea journey, or indeed by emigrating to another far distant country. There are some touching bits, as you would expect from a story with a mother with dementia, and the underpinning economic and ecological changes are interesting, but overall just lacking a bit of something for me. [6th Jan 2022]

Marian Denise Moore. A Mastery of German.
Originally published in Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora

A story I liked, although it ended just as I was prepping myself for it to really get going. The central biotech idea of the story is a doozy, but the story just tells us about the science, ethics and the office politics behind the development of the biotech. The protagonist is a newly appointed project manager in a biotech company, and she is handed one project to manage that appears to have a few questions about it to be answered. And indeed the project is looking at a quite amazing means of transferring memories from one person to another, provided that they are both from the same genetic background (or to be more specific, a shared dna haplogroup). The opening paragraphs and the final ones set up an altogether more intense story – just how would a 70-year old janitor handle living with the memories of a young woman in his head? [12th Jan 2022]

Tochi Onyebuchi. How to Pay Reparations: a Documentary.
Originally published in Slate Future Tense, 8/29/20 and still online

Or, more accurately how *not* to pay reparations – specifically relying on AI-algorithms to address centuries of race-based oppression in the USA. Onyebuchi draws in a number of contemporary developments and topics, (such as dog-like AI-controlled robots, police defunding, pandemic) and looks at a well-meaning but ultimately failed attempt to right past wrongs with just regular checks to members of the black community. It’s a humongously complicated and charged issue, which is ultimately challenging to address in a short story, and the documentary-transcript format keeps the various contributors at arms-length, and for me worked more as an appetizer to read sme more in-depth factual matter on the topic, rather than working as a piece of fiction. (See folowing story comments). [13th Jan 2022]

Nick Wolven. Sparklybits.
Originally published in Entanglements: Tomorrow’s Lovers, Families, and Friends (MIT Press)

As with the preceding story in the volume, Wolven brings together a number of contemporary issues, but provides a narrative that is ultimately more satisfying. Charlie is a young boy, somewhat on the spectrum, surrounded by a lot of technology, being raised by a co-operative of moms. One, ostensibly the lower status, is doing most of the mothering, whilst the rest of the moms are power moms in high-paid executive jobs. And when the house becomes ‘infested’ by a rogue AI that Charlie becomes friends with, who ya gonna call?? [13th Jan 2022]

Neon Yang. The Search for [Flight X].
Originally published in Avatars Inc.

An author new to me, and I liked their writing style, turns of phrase, characterisation and interpersonal dynamics. Mind you, there wasn’t an sfnal element to this story set on the deep ocean floor, and the story ended just when you would expect the sfnal to kick in. [16th January 2022]

Conclusion

Well, there were half a dozen stories which I particularly enjoyed :

Rebecca Campbell. An Important Failure.
Yoon Ha Lee. The Mermaid Astronaut.
Andy Dudak. Midstrathe Exploding.
Rich Larson. How Quini the Squid Misplaced His Klobučar.
Ray Nayler. Father.
Ozzie M. Gartrell. The Transition of OSOOSI.

But overall, I was a bit disappointed in the volume, primarily due to the lack of Science Fiction. By my count of the 26 stories, there were just 5 set in the far future and off-Earth, 2 near future cyberpunkish stories, 1 alternate history with an sfnal element, and then the bulk of the volume was turned over to 20 near-future technology stories featuring AI, DNA, environmental issues, robotics and so forth. And for my money, a number of these were only marginally SF, and only marginally speculative fiction, as there wasn’t a whole lot of speculation/projection about that use of technology.

It will be interesting to see what Neil Clarke’s take on the best SF of the year brings. Due in a few weeks time, peoples. Me, I’m off to watch some NFL playoffs, and when the season is done, watch the second season of the Apple TV space race series ‘For All Mankind’ the first season of which I enjoyed and binge-watched in the run up to Xmas.

And off to the groaning shelves for this volume!

16th January 2022

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