Year’s Best Science Fiction, 18th Annual Collection. Gardner Dozois. 2001

For the pedants, this is technically a review of ‘The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 14’, edited by Gardner Dozois, and published in the UK by Constable & Robinson. The reason why I am reviewing this UK edition of the venerable annual collection is primarily that it is physically much smaller than the US edition and more able to fit into my briefcase for reading on the commuter train to work. I also have a soft spot for the UK edition, as it was one of the UK editions which I spotted on a high street bookstore more than ten years ago which got me into reading short SF.

One slight concern is that this ‘Mammoth Book of SF’ is part of a whole herd of similarly titled Mammoth books including ‘The Mammoth Book of Comic Fantasy’, ‘The Mammoth Book of Awesome Comic Fantasy’ (wasn’t aware that ‘Awesome Comic Fantasy’ was a recognised genre!), ‘The Mammoth Book of Erotica (New Edition)’ (what happened to the old edition? presumably got dog-eared and fell open at certain pages), ‘The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits’, ‘The Mammoth Book of Legal Thrillers’, ‘The Mammoth Book of Locked-Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes’, ‘The Mammoth Book of Seriously Comic Fantasy’ (a third comic fantasy volume!), ‘The Mammoth Book of Short Erotic Novels’ (well I suppose a long erotic novel would be a waste of time, as … well, let’s not follow that one through shall we?)

Presumably the publishers could put together Stephen Baxter’s ‘Silverhair’ trilogy as ‘The Mammoth Book of Mammoth Fantasy’? But I digress, so back to the volume in hand. For me, this is a particularly interesting edition, as it is the first time I have had an annual collection to read in which I will have already read a substantial number of entries.

Also the first one in which www.bestsf.net gets a mention in Dozois’ summation!

The Juniper Tree. John Kessel.
Originally in Science Fiction Age, January 2000.

First up in this volume is a story set on a colonized moon. Kessel sets up the story neatly with a couple of introductory paragraphs that lead to a startling revelation about the main character and the murder he commits on the colony.

Jack Baldwin and his daughter Rosalind are both struggling to integrate into the female-dominated society which offers sexual and other freedoms to which they are quite unused. Jack is struggling with his relationship with Eva, a senior figure in the colony, and his daughter is trying to work out what her relationship is with Eva’s son, Carey Evasson. The creation of surnames based on the parent’s forename (as is the case in Iceland) is but one indication of how radically different the society is.

Following the accidental death of Carey, which, whilst being accidental will look anything but that to others, father and daughter conspire to hide the evidence of the young man’s death. At this point the story rather leaps a little from an interesting depiction of a quite different society and the complex nature of gender within it, to a rather melodramatic ending in which it transpires that Carey can be resurrected from DNA and a brain scan taken some months ago. This resurrection pitches Jack into a final confrontation with his crime and his future.

n.b. you can buy this story for a dollar or so from FictionWise.

Antibodies. Charles Stross.
Originally in Interzone, July 2000.

I read this in its original magazine appearance, and remarked ‘Excellent Stuff’. I re-read the story, and enjoyed it just as much second time around, if not a little more. The complex story evolves quite smoothly, leading the reader to a full understanding only in the final paragraphs. When the internet makes a step-change to become a true AI, Geoff and one of his colleagues have to make haste to Edinburgh. The nature of their presence on Earth is that of monitoring this time-stream version of Earth for such a leap – and when it happens, getting offplanet as quickly as possible.

Stross appears later in this volume with ‘A Colder War’, and I would also point to his ‘Bear Trap’ in Spectrum SF1 as being (final pun notwithstanding) another excellent piece of short SF he had published in 2000. You can find several of his earlier stories online through the Best SF gateway.

The Birthday of the World. Ursula K. Le Guin.
Originally in Fantasy & Science Fiction, June 2000.

Quality fantasy, as you might expect from UKLG! She creates a world in which godhood is passed down from generation to generation, to sibling couples. The rituals, ceremonies and relationships are lovingly described in engrossing detail, from the perspective of an elderly woman, once destined to be God Herself. The final throes of their belief system is described, as angels descend upon the community, which is tearing itself apart in internecine warfare. Worth a whole shelf of Quest Trilogy Fantasy.

Saviour. Nancy Kress.
Originally in Asimovs, June 2000.

An enigmatic extra-terrestrial object lands on Earth, and appears to do nothing. Surrounded by an irresistable and impenetrable force, its purpose remains a mystery. It remains inscrutable, and often lost from memory, throughout subsequent global catastrophes, which leave humanity struggling to return to civilization.

As I noted in my original review, the story is good enough to echo Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End in its sense of beyond-ken waiting, and also James Tiptree Jr’s The Man Who Walked Home in its description of humanity struggling generation after generation, post-catastrophe.

The ending, in which Fermi’s Paradox is resolved, is chilling.

Reef. Paul J. McAuley.
Originally in Skylife.

I have to admit not really enjoying this story. Set on a habitat carved out of an asteroid, we have a relatively bog-standard tale of political intrigue, and hi-tech : in this case biological descriptions of some complexity. A deep trench in the ocean of the asteroid is the cause of rivalry between two groups, one of which feels that there is evidence of spontaneous evolution to be found, the other of which evidently has some underlying reason to want the trench destroyed. A dramatic shoot out in the depths of the trench at the end of the story doesn’t quite work.

Going after Bobo. Susan Palwick.
Originally in Asimovs, May 2000.

I had read this in Asimovs last year, and wasn’t sufficiently minded to re-read, so I shall repeat my comments from last years: “Accurately, and often painfully observed story of a young boy, living with his mother and older brother, in the emotional turmoil following his father’s death. His elder brother has let his pet cat out of the yard, and the GPS shows the cat at the top of the nearby mountain, evidently frozen to death in the harsh winter. Michael has to wait several days for the weather to clear before he can go after Bobo, during which time a lot of things come into the open. An excellent story, although the SF elements are minimal.”

Crux. Albert E. Cowdrey.
Originally in F&SF, Mar 2000.

I had started to read the sequel to Crux, ‘Mosh’ in F&SF in December 2000, and wasn’t impressed, referring to it as ‘read(ing) like a quick novelisation of a poor Hollywood SF action movie’. Which was a bit of a surprise as some of his fantasy/horror stories have been very enjoyable reads.

And having manfully struggled to read all of Crux I am inclined to feel that I was right with my decision not to finish Crux. The same cardboard characters are manouvered around the plot, none of them being at all likeable, or in fact engaging with the reader at all. The story is a little jerky, moving from scene to scene, in one case building up to but then missing out a scene entirely and reporting it third-hand.

The fundamental plot is the stuff of pulp SF – a wormhole has been created, and some anarchists are planning to go back in time to prevent the war taking place which resulted in the current police-state. A bucolic ex-cop with a drug and a prostitute habit is recruited to go back in time to prevent the anarchists changing the past. And guess what happens – it is in fact the anarchists going back in time which actually results in the present day being like it is. Duh – as if that plot-line hasn’t been done to death!

IMHO a story I would see more in keeping with ‘Analog’ than F&SF, and not really a contender for an entry in a Years Best.

The Cure for Everything. Severna Park.
Originally in www.scifi.com/scifiction, June 2000.

In the forests of Brazil, native Indians are being re-located whilst their forests are being cut down. At one reception camp a truckload of particularly unique individuals in en-route to a different destination.

Cut off from outside contact, this community has a genetic mutation in their genes which offers the prospect of them supplying DNA to cure – absolutely everything. But will they have to make a major sacrifice for the good of all?

An albino scientist is caught personally in the horns of a dilemma as one of the group offers her the chance for normal children.

The Suspect Genome. Peter F. Hamilton.
Originally in Interzone, June 2000.

I wasn’t over-enamoured of this lengthy crossover SF-mystery when I read it last year, and was half-minded to give it another read on account of the acclaim that it garnered in other quarters.

The story starts interestingly with global warming having led the sleeply English county of Rutland (forever in my mind to be associated with post-Monty Python comedy series Rutland TV) to thrive following the influx of refugees from the now-flooded fenland of East Anglia. A property developer receives an intriguing offer from a businessman involving a bit of shady dealing involving an expensive painting.

And at this point I lost interest again with shades of ‘Lovejoy’ (English East Anglian antique dealer TV drama) plaguing me. So I will resort to my brief summary from last year : “Futuristic crime fiction. Not quite a locked room mystery, but who is the murderer, and why is someone else being fitted up for the crime? DNA plays a key role, with a DNA sample used to produce a computer generated picture of the murderer. I’m not much taken by crime fiction, but even I managed to spot the ‘whodunnit’ element! But if you like this kind of thing, and the trilogy which include the futuristic investigator Greg Mandel, then you are doubtless bound to find this extremely lengthy story right up your street.”

As I said in my review of Kate Wilhelm’s ‘Yesterday’s Tomorrow’s’ in F&SF August 2001, regarding suspension of disbelief in crime fiction : “I can willingly disengage credulity for space travel, time travel, galactic empires and so forth, but I have never been able to engage with crime fiction in that I would find my credulity being stretched by the co-incidence and the motivation of characters in much of crime fiction”.

The Raggle-Taggle Gypsy-O. Michael Swanwick.
Originally in Tales of Old Earth

The title suggests you might expect a lyrical fantasy – something akin to ‘The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter’. Not.

The story begins an explicit fellatio scene in a truck cab, as the truck driver and his girl share a moment behind the wheel driving a cargo of … monsters?

When they stop to get fuel the story disorientates the reader as references to the bigger picture unfold. Swanwick manages to leave the reader wanting just a little bit more – more background, more story, more words!

Radiant Green Star. Lucius Shepard.
Originally in Asimovs, August 2000.

An intense, claustrophobic tale very much in the Shepard milieu. Viet Nam in the not too distant future, and a young boy who has been living and working in a circus since the death of his mother is visited by a computer-generated message from his mother. This launches him on a journey of self discovery. As he finds out more about himself, Shepard also slowly reveals with a compelling horror the story of the circus freak Major Martin Boyette, who claims to be a surviving American POW – over a hundred years old and his body a gross obscenity caused by genetic experimentation following his capture. The Major is a most memorable supporting character, the shambling, deranged hulk who has moments of lucidity which enable us to see the man inside (an expansion of the Brando portrayal of the major in Apocalypse Now).

An un-putdownable story, simply leagues ahead of a story like ‘Crux’, and one worth returning to again.

Great Wall of Mars. Alastair Reynolds.
Originally in Spectrum SF1

Reynolds has previously been anthologised by Dozois (his A Spy in Europa is now on-line at InfinityPlus), and has two very chunky novels on the bookshelves at the moment – the first of which, Revelation Space, is a breakneck space opera which I can recommend.

Brothers Warren and Nevil Clavain have dramatically opposing views on how to deal with the Conjoiner faction on Deimos. Warren favours genocide of the post-humans who have a hivelike society and linked minds.

Nevil favours diplomacy, but finds himself plunged dramatically into the Conjoiner community, and personally involved in their struggle to avoid destruction.

Reynolds writes fluid, fast-paced fiction, handles dialogue well, and manages to create three dimensional characters – something that only the best hard SF writers can do.

Milo and Sylvie. Eliot Fintushel.
Originally in Asimovs, March 2000.

Pleasantly diverting. An off-the-wall story, in which the eponymous couple are intriguing characters, neither of them quite what they may seen. Sylvie (like the author) is a puppet-master(mistress/puppeteer?). Milo is, well, what he is, isn’t explained. Taking a drastic route of escape from a doctor’s room in a high-rise office block, his soft landing is witnessed by an intrigued man, who turns out to be Sylvie.

One of those stories where nothing is as it seems.

Snowball in Hell. Brian Stableford.
Originally in Analog, December 2000

Analog finally gets a look in, with a story by British writer Brian Stableford. My review from last year is pretty comprehensive, so I’ll repeat it here: “explores a number of complex moral issues surrounding the new and frightening challenges and opportunities that genetic modification now poses. The British police raid an establishment in the countryside, where they suspect some very illegal experiments have been taking place. One of the experts brought into the team comes face to face with an example of that experimentation, a girl born from a mix of pig genes and human genes. Is she human? Pig? Chimera? She passes as a very mature and moral human, but what would her DNA have her classified as? And what of the actions and morals of those doing the experiments? And of the police, some of whom are pursuing the fleeing experimental subjects with utmost prejudice? Stableford asks a lot of questions, and explores the moral dilemmas, partly through extended conversations and interrogations (this is Analog, after all).”

This story is a parsec better than the weak ‘Old Macdonald’s Farm’ by Mike Resnick in Asimovs, Sept 2001, which has a similar theme.

On the Orion Line. Stephen Baxter.
Originally in Asimovs, October/November 2000.

A junior midshipman finds himself plunged into a dramatic deep space confrontation – very much eyeball to eyeball – with the race (‘Ghosts’) with which humanity is at war. A strong hard SF drama, but not brilliant.

Oracle. Greg Egan.
Originally in Asimovs, July 2000.

Again, I will proffer my original review:

“An interesting (at times fascinating, at times slighly long-winded) Alternate History(ies). Robert Stoney is imprisoned by the forces of the law, by reason of his homosexuality, a most criminal offence in the England of the inter-war years of the 20th century, tormented by the evil policeman Quint, who has the scientist imprisoned in a very small cage.

A mysterious visitor frees Stoney and …. well, as the story is online here – why not read it yourself?

Watch out for a new variation on info-dumping : a verbatim transcript of a televised debate between the two protagonists.

Albeit at times a bit heavy on the descriptions of quantum physics, still an excellent and complex story which is even more rewarding once you spot where the links to real life people begin to surface.”

Obsidian Harvest. Rick Cook and Ernest Hogan.
Originally in Analog, April 2000.

Enjoyable story, difficult to classify. Possibly Alternate History, or a sort of steampunk concept – ancient but up to date Mexican aztec civilization is the background to a story in which religion, belief and power are the background to mysterious sacrificial goings on with the huetlacoatls.

Patient Zero. Tananarive Due.
Originally in F&SF, August 2000.

Due provides a story in the form of a journal kept by a young boy who is being held in isolation. Through the successive entries we find out the reason for his isolation, and move towards a final entry in which the potential for true isolation is chillingly revealed.

A Colder War. Charles Stross.
Originally in Spectrum SF3

Spectrum SF, published in Scotland by Paul Fraser, was launched in 2000 and has produced a number of quality stories. It is now appearing on the shelves of some high street booksellers in the UK, and is deserving of greater awareness.

Stross receives the honour of a second story in this collection – Dozois was obviously impressed with his stories in Interzone and Spectrum and has bought newer stories for Asimovs. Asimovs gain will doubtless be Interzone and Spectrum’s loss!

When appearing in Spectrum, the editoral introduction mentioned the word ‘eldritch’ which gives the game away a little. The main character, Roger Jourgensen, is CIA, and has in his hands some very, very top secret documents, which describe…. eldritch horrors!

Alternate History technically, although the usual pitfalls of AH (over-reliance on known people doing something different with their lives) is avoided. Colonel Oliver North is leading high-level government action to keep a lid on hidden gates to othe planets, through which Cthulhu horrors lurk and occasionally trespass.

The Cold War becomes -extremely- hot, and Jourgensen finds himself off-Earth, reflecting on man’s capacity for destruction. A re-read now, in the events of September 11th and its aftermath, is a chilling experience.

The Real World. Steven Utley.
Originally in www.scifi.com/scifiction

One of the earliest, chronologicall speaking, in Utley’s series of stories in which a link to the Silurian age has been found, and scientists are travelling back and forth. The quantum potential for this link is explored, with the scientist in question back from his visit, but not entirely 100% convinced that he is back in his own time line. 99.9% convinced, but that tiny seed of doubt is lodged in his brain, growing.

The Thing About Benny. M. Shayne Bell.
Originally in Vanishing Acts

A quirkly little tale in which near-autistic adult has the ‘gift’ of being able to trace rare houseplants which may end up providing magic bullet cures, but only whilst listening to ABBA music! But that’s about it!

The Great Goodbye. Robert Charles Wilson.
Originally in Asimovs, August 2000

A short, short – one of the problems with this format is you are pretty much guessing that there is a twist in the tale. Here a grandfather and grandson, one a drastic genmod who is heading for the stars, take leave of each other. Guess the ending?

Tendeleo’s Story. Ian McDonald.
Originally in Tendeleo’s Story

‘Evolution’s Shore’, (Interzone Feb 1996) collected in Dozois’ 14th, described the Chaga – a mysterious alien infestation creeping across Africa.

In that first story a western reporter flies in to view the Chaga. Here McDonald describes (vividly and what to me comes across authentically!) the menace from the perspective of a young African girl. Her father, the local minister, has a huge crisis of faith at the inexorable encroachment of the nanobot infestation. She finds herself morally and physically compromised, not by the chaga, but by her and others response to it and the enforced evacuation. With an echo of the evacuation of Hanoi, Tendeleo manages to flee the country, ending up in Manchester (England) and finding an Irish lover.

Her past catches up with her, as she is herself infected by the chaga, and she is forcibly repatriated.

The ending sees her and her lover facing up to the alien challenge and in fact embracing it, and from their own strength rebuilding that which had been taken from them, building a new, very new!, future for themselves and for humanity.

An excellent story with which to finish the volume.

Discussion

So what is the conclusion on Dozois #18?

In terms of coverage, I can’t be too authoritative as my reading of the magazines during 2000 wasn’t anywhere near complete. As far as awards are concerned Dozois didn’t include the Hugo winner in the novella category, Jack Williamson’s ‘The Ultimate Earth’, but that is fine as this was obviously a sentimental award for the author rather than the story, which was only so-so. Hugo novelette winner ‘The Millennium Babies’ by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, from Asimovs January 2000 would have got the nod from me ahead of some of the stories above. Interestingly, also in the January 2000 standout issue of Asimovs were ‘The True Story of Professor Trabuc and His Remarkable Voyages Aboard the Sonde-Ballon de la Mentalite’ by Jim Cowan, and William Barton’s dark, dark ‘The Heart of Glass’, both of which I would have put ahead of some of the more modest stories Dozois did include – the former for its quirky homage to Verne/Wells, and the latter for its dark, dark view of a (sadly very believable) constrained humanity.

The Hugo winner in the short story, ‘Different Kinds of Darkness’, by David Langford, in F&SF January 2000 would have benefitted the Dozois collection.

And no space for Ted Chiang’s critically acclaimed ’72 Letters’?

Nebula winner ‘Godessess’ by Linda Nagata, from SciFiction in July 2000, was an omission – you can still read it here.

Additionally, I would have liked to have seen space made for Alexander Glass’s ‘The Watcher’s Curse’ from the December 2000 Interzone, as something a bit different from a new author.

So for me the pick of this bunch are Kress’ ‘Savior’, Swanwick’s ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O’, Shepard’s ‘Radiant Green Star’, Egan’s ‘Oracle’, Stross’s ‘A Colder War’, and McDonald’s ‘Tendeleo’s Story’. They stand out for me now, but none of them are ‘classics’ IMHO. But do bear in mind that I am very, very difficult to please and don’t give (or receive) praise too easily.

So, now for Hartwell’s view on 2000.

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