Year’s Best Science Fiction, 21st Annual Collection. Gardner Dozois. St. Martins Griffin, 2004

William Barton. Off on a Starship.
Originally in : Asimovs, September 2003.

When I read this in its original magazine appearance I wrote:

    Barton doesn’t write a huge amount – or at least not much in the major US markets, but what he writes is invariably very well worth reading – most notably in recent years ‘The Engine of Desire’ (Asimovs Aug 02) and ‘Heart of Glass’ (Asimvos Jan 00). Those were dark stories of a humanity constrained to the solar system, whereas ‘Off on a Starship’ is his story of what SF was like before the darker side of life is revealed to the teenage SF reader.

    The mid 1960s, and Wally is in his early teens. Family problems at home, and only the stars to look up at, and SF magazines and novels to read. Doubtless many readers will engage with the young hero. Wally chooses to take a big risk – stepping into the flying saucer that he finds in the woods close to home. He is whisked away on a journey that takes him to several planets, as the robot vessel and its little mechanic explorers collect specimens from a number of distant planets. Wally compares his experiences to those of the stories he has read, giving the reader a nostalgic run through from Asimovs to Zelazny. (Actually, I don’t think he mentions Zelazny, but the A to Zee was too good an opportunity).

    The sexual content is treated in a way that is both adult and yet adolescent, as Wally, stranded on a planet, finds company in a robotic companion. Said robot becomes to offer more than companionship, and what is probably one of the strangest ‘love’ stories unfolds.

    Finding himself leaving his childhood behind, Wally’s return to Earth sees him uses godlike powers to scatter the seed of humanity throughout the galaxy, to repopulate the barren planets.

    An excellent story, which manages to explore new ground whilst paying homage to the past.

John Kessel. It’s All True.
Originally published on line on SCI FICTION, November 2003

Kessel uses a plot device which has been used before : people from the future coming back to ‘recruit’ celebrities, to take them back to their time. I wasn’t altogether enthused with the device, probably for the same reasons that I haven’t taken to Kage Baker’s ‘The Company’ stories (one of which later), in that they tend to be historical stories rather than SF. What Kessel manages though is the vivid portrayal of Orson Welles, who point blank refuses to take the offer made to him. This means that there’s none of the silliness involved in Mr Welles visiting the future and marvelling at ‘automobiles that fly’ etc.

Charles Stross. Rogue Farm.
Originally in : Live Without a Net, ed Lou Anders 2003

When I read this excellent anthology last year, I reviewed this story thus:

    As one would except from Stross, a challenging vision of a relatively near-future. A farmer finds his farm, and his marriage, continually under threat. His wife has had a breakdown in the past, forcing him to reload her backup tapes. The talking farm dog is getting on, and, worst of all, he is under threat from a farm collective. Not a combine of farmers as we know it, but one in which a group of individuals have combined into a single biological entity, with the intention of travelling to Jupiter.Joe’s wife finds the call of the collective too much to bear, and enjoins with the creature, leaving her husband with a choice to make.

    Stross invariably provides value for money, and here the rural setting gives him plenty of rein for furnishing more invention than you can reasonably expect in such a small space.

Steven Popkes. The Ice.
Originally in : Asimovs, January 2003

When reviewing it in its orginal magazine appearance I wrote:

  • A cloning story with a twist. The twist is that the story is almost entirely story, rather than a lot of techie-stuff about DNA cloning. A young man finds out that he is a clone of a famous ice hockey player, which is particularly worrying to him as he is an excellent ice hockey player himself. Is he no more than a duplicate of his biological father, as opposed to a person in his own right. The story takes us through a couple of decades as he struggles to answer that question.

Nancy Kress. Ej-es.
Originally in : Stars, ed Janis Ian and Mike Resnick.

I read this in Hartwell/Cramer’s Years Best SF #9 and said:

  • A story from a collection built around the songs of one Janis Ian – a name which means nothing to me, and I may be missing something with regard to how the story relates to the song in question (if there is anything beyond Ej-Es = Jessie).An elderly member of a team of medics lands on a colony planet to find the colonists in what appears to be a terrible state – suffering seizures during which they see wonderful visions. There is a dilemma with regard to what to do in this situation, which is made more dramatic when the nature of the seizures, a virus which attacks the brain, infects the medical team.

    The protagonist makes a decision – to dedicate what is rest of her life to help the colonists, rather than to leave them to their fate. The final sentence is one which is quite clearly a unique one in the entire SF pantheon (unless you know of a story which ends “Ej-es! O, Ej-es! Ej-es, Esefeb eket! Ej-es – etef efef! O, etej efef!”)

I have to beg to differ on my opinion of the story with Dozois/Hartwell, as the story didn’t really grab em.

John Varley. The Bellman.
Originally in : Asimovs, June 2003

When it first appeared I summarized :

  • The reduction in the volume of Varley’s short SF output has been a disappointment to me. For a decade (1974-1984) he put together a very strong collection of stories, that prolific period being bookmarked at the end with the Hugo and Nebula winning ‘Press Enter’. In this story, the lunar cop Anna-Louise Bach, returns to our pages. She featured in the notable ‘Barbie Murders’ from 1978, which was collected in Terry Carr’s Year’s Best Science Fiction of the Year #8, notable for its use of a merkin (look it up) as a plot device.

    Varley sets the story off which a pregnant woman fleeing a pursuer, and by mistake ending up in in airlock and ending up being exposed to the vacuum of the moon and dying.

    The claustrophobic lunar society, bustling with pregnant women (of whom Bach is one) is vividly drawn. The plot – pregnant women are going missing, to be found dead, their fetus removed. Bach is sent out to act as bait for the serial murderer, and she hangs out in a nudie-freesex bar.

    Sure enough, Bach is successful in her role as bait – but rather too successful as she is captured and whisked away. The dramatic denouement takes place in a domed cornfield, with Bach, now in labour, fleeing for her life, and the life of her child. She manages to turn the tables on her pursuers, who it transpires have been ‘harvesting’ the unborn babies to meet the demand for those remaining carnivores who have found even veal no long satisfies their needs.

    Varley has spent a lot of time in Hollywood, I understand, and the story reads quite like a SF thriller movie. Not a bad story, for its type, but not a Varley classic.

Judith Moffett. The Bear’s Baby.
Originally in : F and SF October 2003.

When it appeared in its magazine appearance I mused thusly:

  • Moffett has written a couple of novels featuring the Hefn, an alien race who are benignly running the Earth. Here, in the remote American wilderness, a scientist studying bears in the wild is piqued to be re-located to study elsewhere. Such is his strength of feeling that he risks all to remain with the bears. In doing so he stumbles across a secret that his re-location was meant to keep from his, and humanity’s, prying eyes. The nature of the Hefn’s presence on Earth is thus revealed.

    Works well as a singleton, although familiarity with the novels will give added value.

Howard Waldrop. Calling Your Name.
Originally in : Stars, ed Janis Ian/Howard Waldrop.

This story was anthologised in this year’s ‘Science Fiction: The best of 2003’ and when reading this story in that Haber/Strahan volume I noted:

  • Janis Ian? Never heard of her. But it transpires that the reason behind a collection of stories based on her songs was that she was a big hit at the 2001 Worldcon. Anyhow, Waldrop conjures up a doozy in which an elderly widower gets an electric shock from a power tool in his workshop. Mind you, that shock is nothing compared to the one he gets when he gets back into his house, to find that the world he is living in is just a little different to the one he was used to. Whilst the changes are of the more obvious ones (slightly different wars, politicians, rock bands), it is the subtle changes in his family that effect him the most. A further electrical problem with his powertool evidently returns him home. But in a heartwarming twist which brought the tears to this soppy sentimentalist’s eyes, he is called back into the house by his most definitely alive wife. Dangnabit.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch. June Sixteenth at Anna’s.
Originally in : Asimovs, April 2003.

When I read this last year I said:

  • A beautifully handled bitter-sweet story. Recently bereaved, the elderly husband of Anna finally views the many holographic videos taken of one afternoon in a restaurant many, many years ago. Whilst time-travel is beyond us, it has proven possible to capture events of the past in sufficiently immersive detail for VR, and he is able to look back at his wife, before they met, and to finally come to terms with what he has lost.

Walter Jon Williams. The Green Leopard Plague.
Originally in : Asimovs, October/November 2003

When it first appeared I wrote :

  • A very skilfully crafted short story. Set in the same future as his well-received ‘Lethe’, this is of an equally high standard. Williams intertwines two, or in fact three stories, tying them together in a powerful ending.

    We start in the warm waters of the Philippine sea – literally so, as Michelle is a mermaid, and we follow her on a fishing trip. She is not quite a mermaid – but a human currently occupying a genmod body. She is given a job by an aged scientist by the name of Davout – the job: to research a gap in the life of Jonathan Terzian, a scientist whose Cornucopia Theory literally changed the world.

    Michelle’s research is made possible by the vast amount of material archived in digital form (photographs, news clips, financial records etc.), and she soon makes progress. As her research identifies key data we then join Terzian himself, as he finds himself quickly embroiled in espionage, murder, and a scientific breakthrough which can virtually eradicate starvation.

    The stories gradually unfold, with Terzian’s bravery offering the world a chance to redeem itself. Where a less impressive story would end here, Williams then ups the ante by showing, via Michelle, that the scientific breakthrough for which many died was in fact not a success – almost the opposite. And Michelle’s lover, who has been trying to find her since his last death (people can upload their memories to ensure that any fatal accidents are easily recovered from) finds that there is something she knows about him that she is not about to forgive.


Paolo Bacigalupi. The Fluted Girl.
Originally in : F&SF June 2003.

On its first appearance I wrote:

  • After several wry stories (in F&SF June 2003), a proper lengthy SF/fantasy story. And a cracker it is too. A setting out of fairy-tale mythology, with a dark castle, a young, frightened girl, Lidia, and nasty adults.

    The Fluted Girl is a strange, fragile creature, the exact nature of which we only find out towards the end of the story – she has been forced to have many surgeries and treatment that have indeed made her a human flute. The music from her, and from her sister, is a music to die for, created through an incestuous sapphic performance fit for a queen.

    And the Queen is a wicked one, of course, and the young man who had loved Lidia and plotted the Queen’s downfall, but failed in its execution, is himself executed and served for dinner.

    But, as with most fairy tales, there is a happy(ish) ending, and Lidia turns the tables on the evil Queen.

Jack Skillingstead. Dead Worlds.
Originally in : Asimovs June 2003

This appared last year, in the same issue as the Varley story above, to which my summary at the time referred:

  • Actually, this story reads more like a Varley classic, which is no mean praise for a budding author. Robert is an ‘Eye’ – some who connects to a tachyon stream whilst in a total immersion chamber, controlling equipment in deep, deep space, seeking life on other planets.

    His job is one that carries a heavy emotional and psychological price, in that he is reliant on drugs to be able to engage with the ‘real world’. He is struggling to find his true self having ‘returned’ from his last trip, trying to avoid taking the drugs. Whilst out driving he meets a woman, widowed a couple of years ago, who is similarly trying to recover her true self.

    The two find that between them they might be able to begin to meet their individual needs, although a final challenge awaits them before this can happen.

    An excellent story.

Michael Swanwick. King Dragon.
Originally in : The Dragon Quintet, SFBC

A Science Fiction Book Club original, set, Dozois informs us, in the author’s ‘Iron Dragon’s Daughter’ milieu. A melange of fantasy and SF, in which a near future, previously hi-tech Earth is somehow (this is not explained) also a setting for ancient magicke. In this story a steampunkish dragon made of metal crashes to Earth in the middle of a village, where it exercises its authority as best it can – necessitating the use of a young village boy as its mouthpiece and enforcer.

The story twists and keeps up a strong story in an imaginative setting.

Paul Melko. Singletons in Love.
Originally in : Live Without a Net (ed Lou Anders)

When I read this last year I wrote:

  • A group of children, a ‘cluster’ who share their lives and thoughts, come across a singleton living nearby. He was left behind when the rest of the non-cluster humans fled the Earth. The cluster of children is threatened with breakup as one of them finds herself attracted to him. She is tempted to leave with him, for a life with him, but the pull of her siblings is too strong. The ‘cluster’ of cloned children is an intriguing one, and the singleton throws into relief that complex relationship, to provide a thoughtful story.

M. Shayne Bell. Anomalous Structures of My Dreams.
Originally in : F&SF January 2003

In its original magazine appearance I wrote :

  • When the protagonist finds himself in a Medicare-funded shared hospital room suffering from an AIDS-related bout of pneumonia, things seems pretty low – he is lonely and cut off from friends and family. Things quickly go from bad to worse, as the person he is sharing the room with begins to cause concern. Mr.Schumberg has a similar infection, which should be neither infectious, nor serious. Wrong on both counts. Schumberg has unwittingly been infected by some very, very unpleasant nano-tech, which is evidenly dismantling his lung to create – something else.

    Schumberg dies, and as his infection spreads, including to the protagonist, it transpires that the infection has quite chilling potential to spread. Only a nuclear or radioactive intervention can kill the nano. As the town is sealed off, and a bomb drop appears quite likely, radiotherapy is found to be one solution.

    What could be a fairly routine story about a nasty tech-plague is much more, thanks partly to the quality of the characterisation, and the final scenes, in which some of the nano which escaped provides a very alien landscape compared to the human landscape which the story had features.

Vernor Vinge. The Cookie Monster.
Originally in : Analog, October 2003

This story was also collected in Haber/Strahan’s best of 2003, but is a story about which I beg to differ with them, Dozois, and many others (it won a Hugo)!

  • Dixie Mae is pleased with her new job with a hi-tech company. However, a strange e-mail jolts her out of this situation. Something very strange is going on. Very strange. Dixie Mae and her colleagues set out to solve the mystery. It transpires that Dixie Mae is in fact an upload, and she and her colleagues are being run in a computer simulation. Time and time again.

    Vinge posits massive hardware and very clever software, and has an interesting idea, but the story comes across as being just a tad pedestrian – not least in that most of the action is in the form of the characters walking between office buildings!

    There’s a palpable lack of emotion as the characters find out that they are just uploads, and in one case a character come face to face with another instance of themselves, but takes it in her stride. Hark back to ‘For I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream..’ for a group of people memorably uploaded into a computer and the human reaction to that circumstance – written some 40 years ago?

    And there’s an awful lot of dialogue and tech discussion between the characters, which tends to get in the way of a story developing, and the ending is somewhat anti-climactic – the characters have worked out pretty much what is happening, but resolving it is the challenge on which the story ends.

    But having said that, I did finish the story thinking I was holding a copy of Asimovs in my hand, which puts the story some way ahead of the average Analog story.

Harry Turtledove. Joe Steele.
Originally in : Stars, ed Janis Ian and Mike Resnick.

An Alternate History – one in which following the Great Depression in the US, a very left of centre politican is elected (in real life at this time there were still socialists and communists were standing for the presidency). And whilst Trotsky has survied in the USSR and Joe Stalin does not come to power, Joe Steele is responsible for a lot of oppression in the name of communism.

I found the story intriguing in the early parts, as the dynamics by which such a person could have come to power are explored, although to my mind the story tails off with the routine ‘what ifs..’ of Alternate History are explored.

Geoff Ryman. Birth Days.
Originally in : Interzone, April 2003

When I read this originally I wrote :

  • Ryman rarely fails to impress with his short fiction. Here we follow a gay man from his sixteenth birthday, when he is accidentally outed to his mother, through key periods in his life. His mother is a NeoChristian, and the tide is turning against homosexuals now that parents can effectively screen the gay gene out of embryos. We follow him through the major love affair of his life, into his actually carrying a baby. The technology has enabled men to carry foetuses in the small bowel – not without risk, but certainly without women. The story ends with a rapid mention of the myth of male pregnancy going back into history, which seems a bit unnecessary.I’m not the greatest fan of stories which leap a decade at a time – it feels as if the author has cheated a little and taken the easy option, rather than trying to build a coherent and chronologically contained narrative, with the use of flashback as (and if) necessary.

    An interesting story, but it did feel as if it could have been worked on more.

John C. Wright. Awake in the Night.
Originally in : William Hope Hogdson’s Night Lands, Vol 1 : Eternal Love.

A story set in Hope Hodgson’s ‘Night Lands’, a relatively little known Victorian novel. I haven’t read the original, but did read one published in Interzone in recent years. The impression that I got from reading that short story, and having a quick look at this one, is that familiarity with the original will immeasurably improve the reading of these tributes/sharecrops.

James van Pelt. The Long Way Home.
Originally in : Asimovs, September 2003

On its original appearance I wrote :

  • Very reminiscent of ‘James Tiptree Jr’s’ ‘The Man Who Walked Home’. In that classis short from the 70s the story of Earth’s recovery from nuclear winter is intertwined with the time-travelling scientists who triggered the nuclear event trying to struggle back to his own time.Here van Pelt sets up the story with an unusually downbeat section. With nuclear armageddon underway a team at Mission Control are desperate to live those few minutes more to see the space Advent make the leap from our space to another space. Can humanity make that leap and survive? Sadly the final moments of those at Mission Control see the experimental spaceship fail disastrously, with the ship making the jump but those on board evidently left floating in deep space.

    There can’t be many more downbeat beginnings to a story!

    There are then a couple of scenes, generation by generation, in which humanity’s recovery from the nuclear winter is seen. Once the stars can be seen again we have something to aim for. But will we be a backward looking race, or one which looks to the future.

    Intertwined with those scenes are intriguing glimpses of a consensual consciousness formed from those on the Advent, whose noncorporeal intelligence is able to penetrate deep into space before returning.

    And as with the aforementioned Tiptree, the reader is left wanting more.

Geoffrey A. Landis. The Eyes of America.
Originally in : SCI FICTION

Too close in many ways to the Joe Steele short story for comfort, as far as this anthology is concerned. We are taken back to an Alternate USA at the very beginning of the 20th Century. Landis has great fun with Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), Thomas Edison and his invention rival Nikolas Tesla, and Miss Sarah Bernhardt. The inventors are head to head supporting different candidatures for the US Presidency, each coming up with technological marvels just a degree or two different from those that were invented, and we see the age of the media and the media soundbite coming somewhat earlier than it did. The story manages to keep its head over the more average Alternate History through some clever inventions and the main Samual Clemens character, but for me I would have used either the Turtledove Joe Steele story, or this one, but not both.

Kage Baker. Welcome to Olympus, Mr Hearst.
Originally in : Asimovs, October/November 2003

This issue of Asimovs in which this appeared was a ‘doozy’ as I wrote at the time, although this ‘Company’ story didn’t engage me:

  • One of ‘The Company’ stories, in which Randolph Hearst himself is offered a chance to extend his life.

As per the discussion above, with regard to Kessell’s ‘It’s All True’, whilst there is an sfnal device to get to the setting, what you have is largely historical fiction to my mind.

Robert Reed. Night of Time.
Originally in : Silver Gryphon

This was anthologized in Hartwell’s take on the best of 2003, and when I read this story I wrote :

  • Such is the quality and quantity of Reed’s short SF output, the guy needs a Year’s Best SF anthology of his own. However, I think this is probably the weakest of his stories from 2003! Set in his ‘Marrow’ environment, we meet once again Ash, who appared in ‘The Remoras’ in Fantasy & Science Fiction, May 1994, (collected in Dozois’ 12th), and more recently with Quee Lee in ‘River of the Queen’ in F&SF, Feb 2004. This latter was also slightly sub-par IHMO. Here we have a short vignette in which Ash is visited by two aliens, whom he is able to help, but whose secret he is also able to spot.

I have to say that to my mind there are several stronger Reed stories from the year.

William Shunn. Strong Medicine.
Originally in : Salon, Nov 2003

A very short and effective piece, which manages to show the impact of society and technological changes on a personal and a global level. An MD whose life is professionally much poorer, due to nanotech medicine having made this skills redundant, is about to take his live. However, the good news for him is that a huge terrorist strike in the neighbourhood means that his skills are once more much in demand.

Dominic Green. Send Me a Mentagram.
Originally in : Interzone November 2003

Good to see Dozois seeking out an Interzone story, although it wasn’t a good year for the British magazine in terms of number of issues, nor content-wise. When this issue came out I wrote of this story:

  • A science thriller from Green in which a ravenous bug, far worse than necrotising fascitis, is wreaking havic on scientific and military personnel in the Antartic. Meteorites from Mars are at the top of the list of suspects. Have those meteorites, long buried in ice, introduced this flesh-eating horror. Or is the answer closer at home? In true X-Files fashion, the protagonist is in a race against time to find the ans

Paul di Filippo. And the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon.
Originally in : SCI FICTION

Di Filippo covers the same territory as Doctorow/Stross did in Flowers from Alice, collected by Haber/Strahan this year, only Di Filippo goes just that little bit ‘further’, as is his usual wont.

Di Filippo’s hapless protagonist has lost his girl. Nothing unusual in that per se, but rather unusual is the fact that she has been lost to his vacuum cleaner, quilt, iPod, and massage chair. Said appliances have used their computational power and RFID communications to offer his girlfriend, how shall I put this?, a degree of ‘satisfaction’ he has been unable to provide. In fact they have been able to bring her satisfaction several times one afternoon.

The combination of hi-tech equipment, however, is easy going and offers him a piece of the action (presumably because the vacuum can suck as well as blow?)

Clever and entertaining.

Terry Dowling. Flashmen.
Originally in : Oceans of the Mind X

Antipodean SF (oh for the days when Greg Egan stories used to appear in this volume!) set in a near-future Australia, in which strange alien incursions are blighting the planet, and hard decisions have to be made – in order to save the many, a few must be sacrificed.

A tricky story to negotiate, as Dowling pitches the reader in and gives little in the way of explanation, with language, setting and names conspiring to create a confusing senario.

Nick DiChario. Dragonhead.
Originally in : F&SF, July 2003.

When it first appeared I wrote :

  • A short-short in which the potential horrors of digital addiction are revealed – a young man in virtually a PVS, his mind full of digital, VR, media images and info-glut.

Terry Bisson. Dear Abbey.
Originally in : Dear Abbey, PS Publishing.

I gave this a ‘resounding recommendation’ last year, and reviewed it at length, which I will direct you to in its entirety rather than insert it here. Fortunately for those unlikely to get to see the PS Publishing chapbooks, Dozois’ volume is sufficentialy large to enable the inclusion of lengthy stories, and this story finishes this volume with chutzpah.


21 years and still going strong – both the volume and the editor! As to the content, Asimovs and SCI FICTION feature strongly. The only Analog story is one which in reviewing originally I mentioned read more like an Asimovs story than an Analog story. F&SF and Interzone also make a small contribution. Two original anthologies, Live Without A Net, and Stars, provide a clutch of stories.

The reason why is here is down to two major factors : my picking up an early volume in this series about 15years ago and having my enthusiasm for SF re-ignited, and my having a memory like a sieve, and so making short notes on the stories I was reading as an aide-memoire. As such I will jot down a few stories here which I would flag up as being notable ones from the year (not as long as the Honorable Mentions in the Dozois volume, as I would suggest that list is just too long to be useful)

  • Simons Ings. Elephant. Asimovs Feb 2003.
  • Lucius Shepard. Only Partley Here. Asimovs March 2003.
  • Alexander Glass. From the Corner of My Eye. Asimovs August 2003. (I said in my review that you would be seeing it in Dozois 21st unless I was very much mistaken. Well you didn’t, and I was was)
  • Bret Bertholf. Alfred Bester Is Alive and Well and Living in Winterset, Iowa. F&SF Sept 2003.
  • Alex Irvine. Pictures from an Expedition. F&SF Sept 2003.
  • Terry Bisson. Almost Home. F&SF Oct/Nov 2003.
  • A.R. Morlan’s Robin Williams, Speaking Spanish. Challenging Destiny #17, Dec 2003

One thought on “Year’s Best Science Fiction, 21st Annual Collection. Gardner Dozois. St. Martins Griffin, 2004

  1. Re: Judith Moffett. The third and final volume in the Hefn trilogy — The Bird Shaman — was published in 2008. Moffett now refers to the three books as the “Holy Ground Trilogy.”

    Enjoying your recaps of the Year’s Best volumes.

    – marty

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