Year’s Best Science Fiction, 24th Annual Collection. Gardner Dozois. St. Martins Griffin, 2007


It’s taken me some time to get round to reviewing the 24th Annual Collection. I did read it last summer, but didn’t get round to writing it up. One good thing about the delay is that those stories I read for the first time last year, I’ve had to re-read for the purposes of writing the reviews! So, what of #24???

Cory Doctorow. I, Row-Boat.
Originally in : Flurb 1, Fall 2006.

When I read it in Strahan’s take on the best of the year, I wrote:

    Don’t let the wincing pun put you off – this is a clever little tale of a boat who has, like many previously inanimate objects, achieved sentience in a world suddenly much emptier since large numbers of humans achieved a personal virtual rapture. For the record, it’s the second consecutive year a story by Doctor(ow), riffing on The Good Doctor’s I Robot has been chosen by Strahan.

Robert Charles Wilson. Julian : a Christmas Story.
Originally in : Julian: a Christmas Story, PS Publishing 2006.

Set in 2172 in an America much changed, many years after the Years of Vice and Profligacy which saw oil run reserves run out, and which led to the Days of False Tribulation, when war, famine and the consequent depopulation suggested that the day of judgment was at hand.

The narrator, Adam, is looking back many years, in providing the story of himself and Julian at age 17, and the references to future events and previous events gives a robuts three-dimensionality to it, in contrast to many stories which simple relate the specific incidents which happen during the course of the events described. The secular society of the 20th and 21st centuries has been replaced by a religious one in which the Dominion certifies churches of all christian denomination, including the Catholic Church of America, which has forsworn its fealty to Rome. It is a conservative world, harking back to the simpler times of the 19th Century. There is a strict class stratification : with aristos, the leasing class, and indentured labourers. Adam, is from the leasing class, but is the companion of the aristo Julian, whose father, brother to the President, has been hung for treachery – although it appears that he was deemed a threat by a fratricidal President.

The story begins with a visit to the Tip – the place were material scavenged from the old cities are brought, and Adam picks up a book, which are in short supply, especially those without the seal of approval of The Dominion. The book he picks up is a history of mankind in space, but in the world he lives such suggestions, along with Darwinism, and philosophy are not tolerated. With war looming, conscription is rearing its ugly head, and young Julian fears that his uncle may see this as a way to rid himself of another threat.

It’s a subtle, very well rounded story, clearly part of a bigger work.

Michael Swanwick. Tin Marsh.
Originally in : Asimov’s Science Fiction, August 2006.

When it appeared in its original magazine appearance I wrote:

    A more straightforward SF story than we normally get from Swanwick – in fact, almost Analog-esque. But only almost! A two-person team working on the very inhospitable surface of Venus have a very strained relationship – only the neural implants they have which constrain any acts or thoughts that would cause damage to Company property or each other prevent themselves from visiting physical violence upon each other. Or, more pertinently, prevent the man from using his hands on the woman, who has had him on the end of her sharp tongue for a long time. When an accident puts his implant out of commission, all bets are off, and she has to pit her cunning against his capacity, and desire, to do her serious harm. Under the unforgiving sun, we learn more about the couple, with the extent of the bitchiness of the woman throwing the actions of the man into a better light. Can she talk her way out of this one?

    Or, which makes the story work well, can she find some way out of the situation for them both? Unfortunately a maguffin appears, which saves the day, rather than her intrinsic cleverness, which slightly spoils the denoument.

Also collected by Hartwell/Cramer in their taken on the best of 2006.

Ian McDonald. The Djinn’s Wife.
Originally in : Asimov’s Science Fiction, July 2006

When reading it originally I wrote:

    Set in the same near-future AI-heavy Indian milieu of ‘The Little Goddess’ (Asimovs June 2005), and the novel ‘River of Gods’, and equally outstanding. McDonald explores the unlikely relationship between an AI, A.J. Rao (who appeared in the novel), and a dancing girl. The AI has fallen for her, and she is flattered to receive the attentions of one such as he. But can true love really happen between woman and AI? It appears that it can, with the pair relating both emotionally and, surprisingly, physically. But he is an AI who can incorporate many instances of himself, the better to multi-task, and of course a woman can not share a man with others in this way. For her it is all or nothing, and as the rules are changed to make such powerful AI’s as he illegal, she has to choose between him and the Krishna cop who wishes to turn him off.

Again, also chosed by Strahan this year.

Benjamin Rosenbaum. The House Beyond Your Sky.
Originally in : Strange Horizons, 4 Sept 2006. and still online

Collected not only by Dozois, but also by Strahan and Horton, and in my first reading of this story in the Horton anthology I wrote:

    Horton does in his intro make clear that he has an intention to showcase new writers, and Rosenbaum is one such who has made a strong start to his writing career. This is a clever story, which shows a willingness to open up a story to some big concepts, but not to go too far. You can read it online (follow the link above) – it’s a short story, and well worth it, although it’s a thoughtful piece rather than offering a dramatic narrative. And there’s a mini discussion on Strange Horizons in which the story is discussed, with a contribution by Rosenbaum. And for those who like your written science fiction squirted into your brain via the earhole, it is also available as a podcast. Having been made available in written and spoken form on a digital basis, it’s good to see it on slices of dead-tree and put into Bio Optic Organised Knowledge Source and thus brought to a larger audience

Kage Baker. Where the Golden Apples Grow.
Originally in : Escape from the Earth (SFBC)

Two young boys on Mars get a chance to see an alternative to their life : one, feeling claustrophobic in the narrow agricultural confines of the Collective; the other for whom the wide open spaces of the Martian surface in the cab of his father’s hauler offer little to him. The two come together and there is a dramatic life or death denouement.

OK as far as it goes, but without anything leaping out at this reader as being substantially different from a lot of similar stories over several decades.

Bruce McAllister. Kin.
Originally in : Asimov’s Science Fiction, February 2006.

On its original appearance I wrote:

    A young boy does not want his mother’s pregnancy to be terminated, which the rules of their colony dictate. His solution : to call upon an alien Antalou to carry out a hit on the bureaucrat working on the case. The Antalou are fearsome killers, but they charge much more than the boy can afford to pay. However, he has researched the Antalou well, as is able to use the ties of kinship, strong in the Antalou, to get the alien on his side. The boy’s wishes are granted, although the Antalou has only to threaten the civil servant, and the link between the boy and the Antalou proves to be a strong ones.

Alastair Reynolds. Signal to Noise.
Originally in : Zima Blue and Other Stories.

This story was a new one in a collection of Reynold’s published last year, and upon reading it then I wrote:

    jumps quickly into a setup that is just a bit too convenient : at the moment his colleague is about to take the first steps into an alternate/quantum Earth, Mick Leighton’s wife is killed whilst crossing the road. But in the alternate Earth his wife has escaped with only scratches : he is able to take his colleagues place in the other Earth, albeit for only a few days, in a situation which is complicated by the fact that in both realities the couple had recently separated, and in his gradually losing the bandwidth through which he is immersed in the alternate Earth. Having read a thick collection of space opera from Reynolds, and with the first two stories in this volume being of that ilk, this is a big change of pace and tone, and it rather feels a little lacking in something – but that is probably just sfnal elements, and the Big Picture, being a close and intimate portrayal of a relationship. Probably a difficult story to get placed in an SF magazine!

Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold. The Big Ice.
Originally in : Jim Baen’s Universe, no 4, December 2006.

Two planetologists on Hutchinson’s World, one of over three hundred planets on which Core has moved humanity, should be of little concern to the political plotting and coups – except that one of them is the sister of a leading player in one of the political famillies.

The Big Ice is a huge remnant impact crater, which should by rights have destroyed the planet. The crater is ice-bound, and deep in the icy depths are biologicals that sould not be present, which do not appear to tie in with the panspermic biology on other planets. Alicia finds out just how strange the biology is when, having been left for dead by her brother, her own hi-tech inbuilt survival mechanisms sees her take on that biology to survive. The result is a fearsome killing creature.

It’s an interesting setup, a sort of Dune on ice, and craves a much bigger canvas – imagine Herbert’s Dune finishing after just a half dozen pages!

Gregory Benford. Bow Shock.
Originally in : Jim Baen’s Universe, no. 1, June 2006.

I tend to find the scientist fiction that appears in Analog leaves me cold, whereas Benford’s scientist fiction generally grabs, and this is the case here. Very much in the Diagrams Supplied mode, we follow a young scientist struggling to get tenure, an old student friend getting the headlines, and coming close to stealing some of his ideas.

The nature of the runaway neturon star he and his rival scientist have been studying comes under scrutiny, and in the final paragaphs we find out exactly what the hypothesis is – the data and the representation of that data point to us being witness to the death throes of an interplanetary spaceship.

Justin Stanchfield. In the River.
Originally in : Interzone, August 2006.

When it appeared in its original magazine publication, which had until then not had a whole lot of SF int he issue, I wrote:

    Ah, some Science Fiction, and good take on First Contact, in which the crew of a spaceship are able to communicate with aliens which have appeared on the outskirts of our Solar System by submerging themselves into the aliens’ aquatic vessel. Jenna Ree is pulled back into the human spaceship, barely human, so far has she got to know and commune with the aliens. Her disorientation is compounded by the fact that her partner has been unfaithful whilst she has been studying and living with the very alien aliens, but in the end she chooses to remain with the humans rather than leaving with the aliens with whom she has so closely bonded.

Walter Jon Williams. Incarnation Day.
Originally in : Escape from Earth, SFBC 2006.

Also collected by both Horton and Strahan, I wrote of this :

    A strong story from Williams, as tends to be the case. He posits an intriguing background – a society in which many parents choose to raise their children as virtual ones – a sort of tamagochi – until such time as they, in their mid-teens, are ready to be encoded into a living, vat-grown, teen body. As virtual constructs, the children are able to develop virtually 24/7, and have their coded selves squirted across space. We follow a group of virtual sibs, a cadre, who are approaching their Incarnation Day, and what appears initially to be an adventure story surrounding them, becomes much darker as the strains between one young woman and her mother develop into a life-threatening situation, as the parents have the right to return their virtual children to a zero state, and start again.

Greg Van Eekhout. Far as You can Go.
Originally in : Show and Tell and Other Stories.

A young boy living very much on the wrong side of the tracks has a beat-up robot as a companion, and having caught a momentary whiff of the distant, fresh sea, the boy finds Beeman willing to show him the way out of the scavenging life he has.

Robert Reed. Good Mountain.
Originally in : One Million AD (SFBC)

When it appeared in the Dozois edited far-future anthology (which boggled me less than I had been hoping) I wrote:

    First up is the prolific Reed, who has well over 100 short stories listed at ISFdb, and a staggering 88 references on Best SF, and has taken on the mantle, from Robert Silverberg, as the best high-output short SF writer. He kicks his story off inside the belly of a huge worm, the preferred form of transport for a group of travellers, whose route takes them through places such as Hammer, Mister Low, World’s Edge, and Port of Krauss. The world is a strange one, massive islands and continents of wood, floating across the great oceans, those lands riven with earthquakes and at the mercy of tradewinds.

    Young Jopale is one of the travellers, and he is a sole survivor of a catastrophic geyser which poisoned his fellow villagers and flooded the valley in which they live. But this small disaster is overshadowed by a greater menance, as the whole continent is faced with an out of control fire which is consuming the very wood on which they live.

    One of his travelling companions, Do-Ane shared a secret with him, and as they flee the world-ravaging fires, we find out more about what passes for history and mythology in this far future Earth, and that the Good Mountain of the title may not indeed by a route off the world, but just a name, a name given meaning by humans.

David D. Levine. I Hold My Father’s Paws.
Originally in : Albedo One, no 31, June 2006.

The latest craze is for people to have surgery to change their species, and when a young man finds out that his estranged father is to go under the surgeon’s knife, he visits in order to understand why his father wants to become a canine, and why he left the family years ago. It transpires that the two are linked – the father feels unable to give unconditional love as a human and believes as a dog he can.

It’s one of the weaker stories in the volume, built on a rather unbelievable premise.

Paul J. McAuley. Dead Men Walking.
Originally in : Asimov’s Science Fiction, March 2006.

Also picked by Hartwell/Cramer, and when it first I appeared my musings were thus :

    This story is set on Ariel, Uranus’s fourth largest moon, and is the last testament of a genmod killer, who has been lying low on this out of the way moon for some time. A spate of vicious murders have raised his suspicions, and he realises that one of his kind has recently arrived, and will draw unwelcome attention which will undoubtedly blow his cover. He has to identify and confront his fellow killer, and it is this short, explosive and vicious encounter which has led him to his lonely, slow death. A good addition to an excellent series of stories.

Mary Rosenblum. Home Movies.
Originally in : Asimov’s Science Fiction, April/May 2006.

When it first appeared I wroted :

    Kayle uses nano-tech to rent herself out as a vehicle for rich people to vicariously experience events without being there physically. At a remote wedding, Kayla finds herself fighting for her life with a handsome wedding guest, but begins to suspect that there is more than chance playing a part in events, as her employer hasn’t told her everything. She gets one over on her employer, destroying her memories to prevent them getting into her employer’s hands (or brain), but in doing so, damages here memories (and feelings) for her co-escapee

Also chosen by Hartwell/Cramer this year.

Daryl Gregory. Damascus.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 2006.

Also Hartwell/Cramered this year, and on its first appearance I wrote:

    Gregory’s stories have pretty much fallen into two categories for me – those which impressed, and those which did little if anything for me. This story joins ‘Second Person, First Tense’ and ‘The Continuing Adventures of Rocket Boy’ in the former of these categories. It’s a strong story, starting with a ER visit from a woman who is accompanied by a man whom only she can see. We find out, gradually, just how and why her Christ-like companion has entered her life. Has she truly been the recipient of a revelation whilst on her own road to Damascus? Or is it catching, and is a variant-CJD causing temporal lobe epilepsy and sensations of euphoria and being in the presence of godhood. Gregory gets the reader into the head of the woman, who rues ever breaking bread with the women over the road, as the macabre details are revealed.

Jack Skillingstead. Life on the Preservation.
Originally in : Asimov’s Science Fiction, June 2006.

Also Hortoned this year, and when it appeared in ‘mov’s I wrote:

    A young woman is on a mission to undo the work of aliens, who have left Earth in post-apocalyptic meltdown, save for a domed city in which whose residents are ‘doomed’ to cycle through the same 24 hours. Kylie arrives with the means to destroy the city, but finds herself sucked into the intense life in the city, and finds she has a taste for a lot that is on offer. And she has to make a choice as the final minutes of this day end, and the same day will restart at midnight. The story flows very quickly, with the short staccato sentences driving the plot along quickly (perhaps a little too quickly), and gives a lot in a short space.

Paolo Bacigalupi. Yellow Card Man.
Originally in : Asimov’s December 2006.

Also chosen by Strahan, in its magazine appearance I was impressed :

    Bacigalupi’s ‘The Calorie Man’ appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction’s Oct/Nov 2005 volume, and was widely, and rightly applauded. It was one of the strongest stories of the year for my money, from a new author whose initial output has been notable. This story is set in the milieu of ‘The Calorie Man’, and if not quite up to the heights of the original story, that’s more a reflection of just how good ‘The Calorie Man’ was. The future Bacigalupi posits is a relatively near future Earth which has suffered a lot of societal changes wreaked by multinational agribusinesses and bio-engineered plagues ravaging food crops.

    This story opens claustrophobically and intensely, with a nightmare of machetes and blood waking Tranh, who has been sleeping with hundreds of other Chinese, refugees from Malay, in a rundown high-rise in Bangkok. Previously a wealthy businessman in Malay, he had not been quick enough to see the politics and the nationalism that would lead to the rivers of blood which have washed him and his fellow Chinese to such a state of depredation as refugees in yet another country. With only a thin suit, the only reminder of his past he has held onto, to mark him from the thousands like him who are looking for a step on the ladder, he has only his skills and knowledge to help him avoid starvation.

    He has to face not only his compatriots in the same situation he is in, but an ex-employee who has managed to do well for himself, and who has obtained the beyond-price Yellow Card which marks him out as not a refugee, but a bona fide citizen of Thailand.

    The story follows Tranh through a failed attempt to gain employment to a chance further encounter with his ex-employee, via a scarily dark clockwork prostitute. Bacigalupi gets under Tranh’s skin throughout, and you can feel his hunger, and desperation and follow his mental turmoil as he struggles to avoid drowning in the sea of starving humanity.

    Following hard on the heels of ‘Pop Squad’ (F&SF Oct/Nov 2006), a brace of stories of top quality.

Greg Egan. Riding the Crocodile.
Originally in : One Million A.D. (SFBC)

The second inclusion from the Dozois-edited boggleLITE collection, of which I wrote:

    A couple who have been married some 10,000 years are feeling somewhat jaded and ponder whether it isn’t time to call an end to it all. But instead of choosing a joint suicide, they decide to concentrate on one of the great mysteries, who (or what) is on the other side of a barrier in the galactic centre : humanity’s attempts to approach have been continually rebuffed by someone, or something. The couple knuckle down to the task, travelling vast distances, uploading and downloading into freshly minted bodies, and drawing on help from the various intelligences en route, including, memorably, a snakelike hivemind. In the end it is Leila who is the most committed, and in making the transition through the previously impermeable barrier, gets a tantalising glimpse of what lies beyond, one which she does not share.

For me, the Charles Stross was the most memorable of the stories in the original collection.

Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette. The Ile of Dogges.
Originally in : Aeon Seven, August 2006.

Short piece in which a time traveller returns to Elizabethan England to rescue a play lost to history.

Ken MacLeod. The Highway Men.
Originally in : The Highway Men (Sandstone Press)

I gave this one a lengthy, glowing review on its original publication.

Stephen Baxter. The Pacific Mystery.
Originally in : The Mammoth Book of Extreme SF

Assured Alternate History from Baxter, who postulates a post-Second World War, with the Allies working with the Nazis on a mission – to circumnavigate the globe. This is a feat yet to be achieved, as the Pacific has yet to be crossed. We follow the diaries written by notes aviatrix Bliss Stirling abord the monstrously large, nuclear-powered battleship Reichsmarschall des Grossdeutschen Reices Hermann Goering as it heads East. And further East. And further still….

Carolyn Ives Gilman. Okanoggan Falls.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, August 2006.

Noting in the conclusion to the issue of the magazine in which it appeared, that Gilman had provided something ‘that bit special’ (and Horton also anthologised it), I wrote:

    Humanity has been invaded by powerful aliens – a mostly peaceful affair, and in Okanoggan Falls the aliens are largely things to be seen on television, as rural life goes on. However, it transpires that Okanoggan Falls is sited on some real estate the aliens have taken a fancy to, and forceable relocation is going to happen. Resistance is futile, according to the aliens (not in those cliched words), and there is debate in the town council as to just how to react. Some politics are played out, and a local housewife tries a very subtle form of resistance. She welcomes the alien in charge of arranging the relocation of the townspeople, and the pair get to understand each other very well. As the rock-like alien gradually becomes more human (quite literally!) the bond threatens to become a stronger one.

    However, the potential love affair is of course doomed, as is Okanoggan Falls. But whilst the townspeople may lose their homes, humanity has perhaps made a small step, and whilst it may not be the end, or even the beginning of the end, it may be the end of the beginning. (Thinks : I’m sure I’ve heard that before…)

John Barnes. Every Hole is Outlined.
Originally in : Jim Baen’s Universe, no. 2, August 2006.

One of the stronger stories in the volume. In a far future, and across vast distances and timescales, Barnes paints a surprisingly tender and touching tale of love across many years. When the senior mathematician of the small eight-person crew loses his partner, the decision is made to recruit a replacement, and young Xhrina is chosen to be Mtepic’s partner and junior-mathematician. We follow the pair as he grows older, and the pair witness visitations from ghosts amongst the stars. After his death Xhrina rises to be the ship’s captain, and in her dotage she and Mtepic are reunited.

A.M. Dellamonica. The Town on Blighted Sea.
Originally in : Strange Horizons, August 28, 2006.

Alien intervention in the civil war on Earth has led to humanity being despatched to other planets, and in one city, a young human has killed one of the aliens, and needs help from his family and the underground to cover up the deed and to fight another day.

Alastair Reynolds. Nightingale.
Originally in : Galactic North

Reynolds publishes two anthologies last year, and Dozois has picked a story from each. Of this one I said:

    ..another new story, which goes one step further than the previous story in describing exactly what body modifications are imparted on an unfortunate team of mercenaries who find out that they are out of their depth when attempting to capture a war criminal – Colonal Brandon Jax. Readers with a far better memory than I have will doubtless remember his role in one of the Revelation Space novels, but I’ll buggered if I can remember him! The team’s insertion into a purportedly off-line space hulk, which responds to their presence, and whose AI proves to be particuarly smart, provides an atmospheric setting, and the ending is macabre.

Conclusion

As ever, only a couple of stories I would quibble with, and as ever, reason to be grateful that St Martin’s Press continue to support the field with a volume of this size.

As a record of the best in short SF in the year, Dozois could stand alone, but also covering this year were Rich Horton’s Science Fiction The Best of the Year 2007 Edition, David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer’s Year’s Best SF #12, and Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume One. Put the four together and that’s a lot to be proud of!

Now then, where is Amazon with this year’s volumes….

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