Year’s Best Science Fiction, 20th Annual Collection. Gardner Dozois. St. Martins Griffin, 2003

Ian R. MacLeod. Breathmoss.
Originally in Asimovs, May 2002

    This novella carries on generations after the ‘Isabel of the Fall’ story (Interzone #169, July 2001) which was well received. My slight concern is that this story does not quite reach the heights of that earlier story – I would urge readers to make a point of seeking that one out (a Dozois collectee this year perhaps?)

    With more than a touch of the Ursula K Le Guin’s, we follow young Jalila from her home in the cold, high mountains which seem to be part of the stars, down to the coast. In shedding the breathmoss which helped her lungs cope at the higher altitude, the young girl finds her horizons expanded by the colourful community, the meeting up with a boy (one of only two males in the community), and a wizened old lady who has travelled the great distances between the stars.

    Without the lyrical touches and sheer strangeness of the first story, this current provides an intriguing view of a female society, although the lesbian love interest was to me just a bit too by the numbers in this kind of story. However, it is one of the better stories this year

Nancy Kress. The Most Famous Little Girl in the World.
Originally in SCI FICTION – and you can read it here

In many ways a return to the themes behind Kress’ story ‘Savior’ from Asimovs June 2000, which was collected in Dozois 18th.

More frustrating perhaps, than wondering why we have yet to be visited, would be being visited enigmatically. And as in ‘Savior’ we see through the eyes of an envious sib the life of a woman who as a young girl was abducted by aliens. And whilst ‘Savior’ went through generations, here we have a series of events through which the distance between the sisters, and the distance between ourselves and our enigmatic visitors, is revealed.

Paul McAuley. The Passenger.
Originally in Asimovs, March 2002

    Mouth-watering hard SF.

    Wrecking crews are harvesting metals and other resources from a space junkyard of ships, many crippled following the ‘Quiet War’. Humanity is contained within the solar system, and whilst their is post-humanity in the form of genmod humans, there is still greed and aggression and injustice.

    The foreperson of wrecking gang #3, Maris Delgado, is struggling to get her small team of ne’er do wells to keep on schedule with a small shuttle which they are stripping. Her team are concerned that there are some pieces of kit missing, and one body unaccounted for. She is keen to brush aside their concerns in order to avoid financial penalties for finishing the job late.

    However, the missing body is found, although the body is far from dead and is in fact a genmod human developed by one of the leading scientists in the losing faction of the recent war. As this find comes to the attention of those higher up in the corporation a struggle over the young girl and her precious cargo takes place.

    An excellent story.

So I think Dozois and are entirely in agreement here, although I would point out that the same issue of Asimovs contained Ian Watson’s ‘Speaker for the Wooden Sea’, which I would have included in a Years Best collection

Charles Coleman Finlay. The Political Officer.
Originally in F&SF April 2002

    A throw back in tone to the Golden Age. An all-male (with one exception) crew is heading out in a military ship on a risky reconaissance mission against the alien threat to humanity. However, humanity is doing a fine job of threatening itself, and a Maoist-type regime is in place. On board the ship the loyalties of the crew are tried and tested. Is the Political Officer alone, or can he find help from someone?

Molly Gloss. Lambing Season.
Originally in Asimovs, July 2002

    Similar in feel to the preceding story (in Asimovs), in its thoughtfulness and depth of empathy portrayed. A female shepherd (I’ll refrain from referring to her as a sheperdess would bring up Little Bo Peep images) spends several seasons looking after her charges. She is happy in her own company, and when she meets on several occasions an alien who is evidently surveying the remote wilderness, she does not engage with it directly, but on a very ‘human’ emotional level does achieve an understanding and a connection.

Robert Reed. Coelecanths.
Originally in F&SF March 2002

    In the Dec 2001 issue of F&SF, Reed’s ‘Raven Dream’ brought us a strange story told as if through a distorting lens. This story is similarly unsettling, with a variety of perspectives on what are somehow linked events.

    A strutting far future man, at once proudly erect and aware of humanity’s greatness, yet at the same time aware that the future will bring by constrast even higher achievement. A microscopic being, young children, and small humans living to a different time cycle (with echoes of the setting of ‘Raven Dream’).

    A range of far and post-humanities are described in loving detail, although the big picture remains difficult to grasp!

Maureen F. McHugh. Presence.
Originally in F&SF March 2002

    Alzheimer’s Disease has been featured in a number of stories of late. The editor suggests that this story is sufficiently different to others, but I’m not convinced. A wife reluctantly invests in leading edge medical intervention to rebuild her husband’s brain, in the knowledge that whilst he may return to functionality, he will in effect be another person.

    The story ends at the interesting bit – the treatment is appearing to work. How will the couple build a new relationship?

Charles Stross. Halo.
Originally in Asimovs, June 2002

Reviewing it in Asimov’s, following an installment in Allen Steele’s Coyote series I wrote:

    Now this is what I call Science Fiction.

    Halo continues the story of hi-tech semi-anarchistic Manfred Macx, although through the viewpoint of his daughter, whose conception was one of the more remarkable episodes in recent short SF. (hem hem).

    Humanity is now in space, joining the lobsters (you’ll just have to read the back stories to catch up, dude), out as far as Jupiter, nearer to the teasing undecipherable message from outside the solar system which has been an underpinning if submerged background to the stories to date. Amber, a generation beyond Mafred, is even more wired-up to the processing power which is available. She is out in space thanks to a plan whose cunning was worth of her father (in fact it came via her father and his French partner). Liberating from her domineering mother, or so she thinks, Amber’s freedom is threatened by her mum taking the drastic step of becoming a muslim. Is the young woman about to fall under the jurisprudence of muslim law?

    Naturally she finds a way out of a sticky situation, and (rather too quickly for my liking) we have an excellent denouement which, and this is difficult to believe if you have read the previous stories, takes the story forward by a quantum leap. More!

Bruce Sterling. In Paradise.
Originally in F&SF September 2002

    An all-too-rare story from Sterling, and one which highlights just what we have been missing.

    A touch of near-future technology, but it is the circumventing of the darker side of that technology, in its capacity to monitor and inform, upon which the story hinges. A love story, would you believe, in which East meets West and love is seen to be possible at first sight. And an evocative one at that. Top quality.

Ian McDonald. The Old Cosmonaut and the Construction Worker Dream of Mars.
Originally in Mars Probes, (ed Peter Crowther)

A finely wrought story, intertwining two different alternate histories/quantum Earths to throw light onto the frustrations of the current non-status of humanity’s attempts to extend our presence beyound planet Earth.

Antti Selkokari is an ageing Russian Cosmonaut, living out his years frustrated at the politicking that once held out the prospect of a mission to Mars but which pulled back that prize at the last minute. His scientist son visits, bringing a quantum computer which can explore the ‘what might have beens’ and which, like Pandora’s box, might best not be opened.

Selkokari finds himself talking to someone who has made it to Mars (in a virtual sense), and we see a radically different vision of humanity on the red planet.

Top quality.

John Kessel. Stories for Men.
Originally in Asimovs, Oct/Nov 2002

    A follow-up to ‘The Juniper Tree’ (Science Fiction Age 2000, collected in Dozois 18th Annual Collection),a story I enjoyed ([read my review and/or buy from FictionWise]).

    This one wasn’t quite up to the same standard, to my mind. The first story was well-plotted and quite tight, whereas this one wanders about a bit unsure of itself.

    The background: a domed lunar colony, with a matriarchal society – a sort of reversal of Victorian society: women in the breadwinning role, men a very much second-class citizen. Most men, cosseted and used for sex, are only too happy with their lot in life. A minority, the equivalent of the suffragettes, want more.

    A young man is caught up in the rabble-rousing of an ‘alternative comic’, a somewhat cardboad cutout of a figure with a sense of theatre and the skills to match – the cover of the issue shows the slogan he dramatically renders on the dome (although the cover shows the slogan facing out, instead of in).

    The dramatic ending is a bit of a let down, and the story ends with a bit of a whimper after the bang of the domal graffiti incident.

This story has been very well received in many quarters, but for me I think it doesn’t hold up to the previous story – McDonald gets under the skin, and explores some quite different paths humanity could have taken, wherease for me, Kessel’s story is just a little too simplistic.

Chris Beckett. To Become a Warrior.
Originally in Interzone, June/July 2002

    Another UK stalwart, with Interzone regular Beckett returning us once more to Thurston Fields estate in his near future welfare state series. A thoroughly unlikeable working class sort (so unlikeable as to put you off the story!) has the chance of attaining a manly godhood (me, I’d prefer a godly manhood) and all he has to do is despatch the now-retired social worker Cyril Burkitt whom has featured in previous stories.

Nice to see Dozois keeping an eye on Interzone, even in a year which was not a standout one for the magazine

Gregory Benford. The Clear Blue Seas of Luna.
Originally in Asimovs, Oct/Nov 2002

    Earlier this year Benford dazzled with ‘Around the Curve of a Cosmos’ ([freely available at SCI FICTION]).

    This is another rollercoaster, as we share the disorientation of one of the key scientists who has terraformed the moon. Brought back to ‘reality’, his AI/self is challenged by controlling interest of the moon going to a multinational, and he must fight for what he has created, and what he might lost (and that he has already lost). Top notch.

For me, the aforementioned SCI FICTION story would have shaded the one chosen by Dozois from Asimovs.

Geoff Ryman. V.A.O.
Originally in – a PS Publishing chapbook of the same name

    Ryman continues PS Publishing’s run of high quality novellas, as you might expect from an author whose short story output is limited in volume but almost invariably of the highest quality. VAO is one of the shorter of the stories, but Ryman fits a lot of ideas into a neat little story.

    VAO is Victim Activated Ordinance – near-future electronic equivalents of land-mines are being used as security measures. As has been postulated before, in the near future the elderly are becoming, or seen to becoming, a burden on society. The older people in Ryman’s stories are our contemporaries, some decades hence. With the threat of Alzheimers Disease still a major problem, life can be pretty cruddy.

    The protagonist, Brewster, is an ex-security systems IT geek, now keeping his hacking skills alive despite the surveillance in his retirement flat – a geriatric version of Charles Stross’ Manfred Mancx.

    He is brought up to date with news of the self-titled Silhouette, a leader of a gang of senile delinquents who are fighting back. They would be like Robin Hood, except that they hurt and maim indiscriminately.

    Brewster is suspected of being the Silhouette, and after secreting his digital hacking evidence in a most unusual place (-wince-), he and his friends attempt to find out the leader of this gang of criminals. The answer is surprisingly close to hand.

    The story is packed with ideas (toilet bowls analysing urine streams and making spot-diagnoses, etc.), in a most believable setting, and with a small case of interesting characters the story could well have been longer than it was.

Steven Popkes. Winters are Hard.
Originally in SCI FICTION Nov 2002read it here

    A man undergoes major genetic modification to enable him to live as one with the wolves in one of the few wildernesses left in the USA. A documentary-maker visits and films him, and his unique story captures the imagination in the media-obsessed society.

    Sadly, the documentary causes a little too much interest, which finally leaves the wolf-person in a situation where he has to kill to defend his lupine family.

    The story didn’t quite do it for me – it didn’t really go anywhere which hasn’t been explored previously.

Richard Wadholm. At the Money.
Originally in Asimovs, April 2002

    I was looking forward to this hugely. A ‘companion piece’ to “Green Tea” from a couple of years back, which I greatly enjoyed, as I did “From Here You Can See the Sunquists”.

    However, I have to admit to being a tad disappointed, as this didn’t really reach those heights. Some complex commodities trading shenanigens somewhat obfuscates the plot. As in “Green Tea” the use of near-light speed ships to transform base metals and chemicals into higher value states is the underlying science, and the wreck of one ship and the death of the crew offer a chance for the unscrupulous to make lots of money – provide they gamble right.

    Of course, justice is seen to be done, finally (although not unequivocally). For me rather too much attention was placed on the trading and the science, at the expense of what was an interesting although relatively underdone human element.

Alex Irvine. Agent Provocateur.
Originally in Strange Horizons – and you can still read it here

An old man looks back to a baseball game he watched with his pop in Detroit, 1939. Catching a home run from a player destined to play a key role in the coming war, the man who will choose whether the scientist Heisenberg will live or die. The baseball, and many futures, are in Avery’s hands, and the choice he makes will send out ripples across the world.

Greg Egan. Singleton.
Originally in Interzone, Feb 2002

    I have to admit disappointment with this story. I approached it with egaer anticipation – a lengthy story (which Interzone provide only too rarely) and one from Greg Egan at that!

    Egan looks at the quantum nature of life from a slightly different perspective – that of choices made, and actions taken or not taken. A young Australian decides to defend a stranger being beaten up, and in doing so sets his life off onto a different path to that which he was taking, due to now being confident enough to approach an attractive colleague.

    The story, which is episodic, jumps a decade. Returning from a project which is attempting to cleanse radioactive contaminated desert in Iraq to find his wife is pregnant. The bad news: she miscarries. During this segment the issue of Many Worlds is raised, and an one too subtle dig in the ribs of cheesy Alternate History stories is made.

    Eight years on: some technicals tuff about quantum effects playing a role in consciousness is provided, as the protagonist begins his work on the Qusp – a quantum singleton processor. This gets a little Schrodinger Cat-ty for me – a debate about whether a computer can run in parallel different programs without knowing about it blah blah. Alongside this the couple consider raising an AI child.

    Nine years on: the QUSP research has moved on, to encompass white mice (meeses), anbd the decision is made.

    Two years on: the child is ‘delivered’. Somewhat bizarrely the AI is placed in a babies body, as opposed to being a purely software construct.

    Ten years on: the child is now 10 and public opposition to such children is mounting.

    Nine years on: the daughter is now a young woman but has run away from home. In searching for her the parents are tracking fetishists who have a ‘thing’ about having sex with such AI/prosthetic ‘humans’ (they appear to all intents and purposes human, so I’m not sure what the attraction would be!) The abscondee is found and returned to the family bosom.

    A curious story IMHO – it felt almost like work done towards a novel, with the structure and key passages done. The several episodes didn’t really work for me, and an author as good as Egan could have found some mechanism for handling the concepts in something other than strictly chronological.

Michael Swanwick. Slow Life.
Originally in Analog, Dec 2002

    Standard Analog fayre from an author whom you wouldn’t immediately associate with Analog.

    Lizzie O’Brien is part of an expedition on Titan, hamstrung slightly by media fascination and online chats with members of the public back home. Whilst a turbot-cam (and, yes, that is right – a turbot-cam as opposed to a turbo-cam) navigates a methane-ammonia sea, Lizzie takes to the skies in a balloon. And as you might expect, a problem occurs: her harness jams, threating to float her off to a lengthy airborne death. A dream which she had prior to the harness jamming returns, in greater detail. Is she communicating with some form of native intelligence, or is she cracking up under the strain of her imminent demise?

    Whilst Lizzie feels herself as being increasingly alone, the intelligence she is communicating with is finding the shock of being not alone as threatening its existence. Lizzie plunges into the sea, to be rescued by turbot-cam.

James Van Pelt. A Flock of Birds.
Originally in SCI FICTION August 2002 – you can read it here

A short, affecting piece, in which one of the few survivors of a decimating plague ponders where it all went wrong and where the future lies for humanity.

Eleanor Arnason. The Potter of Bones.
Originally in Asimovs Sept 2002

    • ‘Moby Quilt’ [Asimovs May 2001] – “formulaic”, with a very 20thcentury hotel, and a character who showers six times during the story
    • ‘Lifeline’ [Asimovs Feb 2001]- featuring 20thC decaff espresso, folding beach chairs, a video camera which needs to have the exposure and focus adjusted, and duct tape
  • I should own up to the fact that I much prefer SF to fantasy (this is Best SF, and not Best SFFH), and personally have never found myself engaging with Arnason’s stories. Her ‘Lydia Duluth’ stories have generally failed to impress me :

    I did find her ‘Knapsack Poems’ [Asimovs, May 2002] more to my taste on account of being somewhat more inventive.

    ‘The Potter of Bones’ links to “Dapple: a Hwarhath historial romance” which I damned with faint praise : “Le Guinian fantasy – bit of gender role swapping, young girl wanting something which is denied women (in this case, acting) etc.” And this story suffers the same failings, IMHO. Whilst Le Guin can at her best create radically different cultures and societies in her stories, here we have a recognisable cod-fantasy mediaeval setting. The race we are introduced differ from humans in that they have different coloured fur, which doesn’t really push the boundaries! And we have a dominant female society with sapphic sex, and a few males lurking in the background.

    Leaving that aside, the story didn’t do anything for me. A child who is inquisitive beyond the norm is fascinated by bones she finds when digging for clay for her pots is sufficiently engaged to ponder these findings, and ‘invents’ archeology and evolution. Not bad for a young girl.

    She meets up with the actor-ess Dapple from the previous story, they fiddle with each others bits, and they live happily ever after.

John Meaney. A Whisper of Disks.
Originally in Interzone, 183 October 2002.

When I reviewed this story in its magazine appearance, I spaketh thus:

    A well written and evocative piece, of longer length, which the story deserves.The final days of a very elderly, wealthy and successful IT businesswomen are interspersed with memories of her life, and also with a forebear – for she is a descendant of Ada, Lady Lovelace, she of the laudanum, computing expertise, and Byronic tendencies.

    The young Augusta Medora de Lauron was a mathematical and scientific prodigy, and despite her difficult upbringing, she is able to play a leading role in developing technologies that will finally offer humanity the chance to escape our shackles. Deserving of a larger audience.

An verily it came to pass.

Kage Baker. The Hotel at Harlan’s Landing.
Originally in

One of Baker’s ‘The Company’ stories, not all of which I have cared for. This one is shorter than some, and Baker sets up a dramatic confrontation between the opposing sides in the future conflict which is impacting on our present world.

Well written and atmospheric.

Walter Jon Williams. The Millennial Party.
Originally in The Infinite Matrix – you can read it here.

The shortest of short stories (they rarely feature in Dozois’ collections). An anniversary – a 1000th wedding anniversary no less. The partners in question are able to maximise their pleasure, and their memories, by ring-fencing all the good times into a discrete brain.

Alastair Reynolds. Turquoise Days.
Originally in chapbook of the same name

I reviewed this story in its appearance in a Gollancz hard-back, which twinned it with Reynolds ‘Diamond Dogs’ novella:

    Turquoise Days is a slightly shorter story. One of Reynolds’ techniques is to gradually unfold the background as the story develops, which he uses to good effect here.

    The first chapter sees sisters Naqi and Mina studying the enigmatic information-processing life form, the Pattern Jugglers, in an aquatic environment. The planetary setting is one which you hope Reynolds will return to, as it is genuinely inventive and original (the cataclysmatic ending need not be an obstacle, as Reynolds has handled this trick before). The planet Turquoise was settled by one colony ship, which was broken up to create a number of floating cities which move around the planet (from time to time marrying and divorcing). The fecund aquatic planet causes decay to inanimate objects, and fungal infections on the population (somewhat more attractive than athlete’s foot).

    As news of the first visting spaceship for a century arrives, the sisters have the chance to commune with the Pattern Jugglers, and the pair submerge and become as one with the Jugglers. Only Naqi returns.

    Two years later, the spaceship arrives – an Ultra ship, led by Captain Moreau. The ship carries passengers interested in the Pattern Jugglers, and who take an interest in Naqi’s work on isolating Juggler nodes.

    As with Reynolds stories, nothing is quite as it seems, and when one passenger appears to be intent on destroying the Jugglers, a more complicated history is revealed (including a passing reference to the tower from ‘Diamond Dogs’.)

    A story which, as part of the wide Revelation Space series is particularly interesting, although as a singleton somewhat less powerful than Diamond Dogs.

    Still, nice to see two shorter stories being given high-street shelf space by a mainstream publisher, and the PS Publishing/Gollancz link, which has two annual collections of the PS Publishing chapbooks similarly presented, is to be welcomed.

Conclusion.

Another excellent anthology, satisfying both in terms of quality and quantity. I found I agreed with most of the choices in the Silverberg anthology, but Hartwell’s collection there mostly left me cold. I agreed with most of the Dozois choices, although there are two or three stories which I would have left out. In terms of omissions from the Dozois collection, the fellowing are stories which I put in my list of the best of 2002 which I put together early in 2003:

  • Geoffrey Landis – ‘At Dourado’ (in Hartwell #8),’The Long Chase’ (in Silverberg 2002) or ‘Falling onto Mars’ (Hugo Winner!) : three top quality stories, and Landis can be justified in feeling somewhat neglected this year. The latter of these was one of the very few Analog stories I felt was worthy of a Year’s Best status – a very poor 2002 for them
  • J. R. Dunn. The Names of All the Spirits (in Hartwell #8)
  • Benjamin Rosenbaum. Droplet (in Silverberg 2002)
  • Rajnar Vajra. The Great Prayer Wheel.
  • Jack Williamson. Afterlife. (Hartwell #8) >
  • The Passenger. Paul McAuley.
  • Ian Watson. A Speaker for the Wooden Sea.>
  • Liz Williams. The Banquet of the Lords of Light.>
  • Ian MacDonald. The Hidden Place.
  • Robert Reed. The Majesty of Angels.
  • Lucius Shepard. Over Yonder / Gregory Benford. Around the Curve of a Cosmos / Paul Di Filippo. Shipbreaker / Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow. Jury Service – all these three from SCI FICTION, which, including the stories Dozois chose from this source, had a triffic 2002. For me one of Dozois’ SCI FICTION choices (Popkes) was one of the weaker stories in the volume and way behind these four.
  • Sarah Singleton. The White Devil.
  • Paul Di Filippo. A Year in the Linear City

Interesting that none of the three annual anthologies included Nebula Winners ‘Bronte’s Egg’ by Richard Chwedyk, or ‘Creatures’ by Carol Emshwiller – and rightly so IMHO!

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