Year’s Best Science Fiction, 25th Annual Collection. Gardner Dozois. St. Martins Griffin, 2008


There may be credit crunches, there may be global warming, but as long as there is a Dozois anthology, things can’t be all that bad! In what I can now genuinely say is time-honoured tradition (heck, it’s a time-honoured tradition in this household!), I shall proceed serenely through the heavy tome pulling out reviews of those stories collected by Dozois that I have already read and reviewed, interspersed with the smaller number of stories new to me (o! for the halcyon days whence all the stories were new to me).

David Moles. Finisterra.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 2007.

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

    A cracking piece of visualisation – a gas giant, but with a breathable atmostphere, high in which fly large, gas-filled creatures which join together to form huge floating islands. The story sees a young woman, struggling in a society which appears set against her, to support herself. She uses her skills and knowledge of aircraft manufacturing, built on those of the family business, to head to the planet Sky. It transpires, however, that the job she has taken on is far from what she expected, and she is working for a group of men who are happy to kill to ensure that they plunder the riches from the bodies of the creatures that make up the floating islands. She has to find a way to save her own life, and also the many hundreds of thousands of people eking out a living on these islands, who those she is working for are putting in mortal risk.

    The setting is a doozy, but the story doesn’t quite match the same standard.

Ken MacLeod. Lighting Out.
Originally in : disLocations

One of the stronger SF stories in a small press anthology which impressed, and which I noted briefly :

    ..closes the collection with a more traditional sf story which looks at the displacement of humans in a fast burn scenario : the short five years after AIs take over and which will see the end of humanity.

John Barnes. An Ocean Is a Snowflake, Four Billion Miles Away.
Originally in : Jim Baen’s Universe

Three centuries into being terraformed, the next step in Mars’ re-evolution is to have a large asteroid dropped into an orbit which will see it sublimate its water into the red planet’s atmosphere.

Two rival documentary makers rendevous in the dusty wilderness to capture the moment when the asteroid first impacts on the atmosphere, and in anticipation of this dramatic impact event, there is drama as the two, who have radically different views on the changes being made to Mars, warily debate with each other. A premature impact occurs just as one of the documakers attempts to win the argument by foul means rather than fair, but it is she who needs to be rescued from the dangerous sands.

The story explores the differing views of the opposing characters, who care captured in three dimensions, and it is an interesting character study of both the two humans, and of the planet which is about to enter a new blooming phase.

Gwyneth Jones. Saving Tiamaat.
Originally in : The New Space Opera

A standout collection last year from Dozois/Strahan, most stories from which could be selected for the volument in hand. Of this story I wrote :

    A clever piece weaving together politics, both large-scale and sexual, against a backdrop of a galaxy with a human diaspora. Warring factions from a relatively newly discovered planet are seen through representatives of two of the races, and as deep-seated urges come to the surface, the humans charged with the care of the two representatives come to find that overlaying their own cultural and sexual stereotypes can of course be problematic. It’s a subtle and believable piece, so far ahead of the mostly run of the mill xenolinguistic tripe that often appears in even the august SF mags.

James Van Pelt. Of Late I Dreamt of Venus.
Originally in : Visual Journeys : a Tribute to Space Artists (ed Eric T. Reynolds)

It’s Venus’ turn to be terraformed, and the person driving the task is a businesswomen with virtually limitless weath and influence. Determined to see the millenia-long task to the end, she enters longsleep, periodically reviving to review progress.

Her companion in this is a male colleague – but not a constant companion, as he spends slightly less time on each longsleep, thus gaining years on her. Originally ten years younger than her, by the end of the task he is two decades older. And whilst Venus is terraformed, in the end it does not match her vision. And neither does he, for despite her serruptitious attempts to modify the physical faults she perceives in him, which are successful, the love he once had for her is lost.

The story ends with the pair witnessing, together for the first time, the new Venus sunset, and wondering just what is in store for them, and for the planet.

Ian McDonald. Verthandi’s Ring.
Originally in : The New Space Opera (ed Dozois/Strahan)

    If you’re given an opportunity to do space opera, and to eschew mundane SF, then one option is to give full rein to the imagination, and McDonald does just that, describing humanity’s various waves of expansation and colonisation, and at a more human level, reactions of some humans when faced with the loss of one of theirs and the appearance after all those millenia, of Another.

Una McCormack. Sea Change.
Originally in : Foundation 100 : The Anthology (ed Farah Mendelsohn and Graham Sleight)

Subtle story in which we see the insidious wedges driven between individuals and society where the difference between being a have or a have not are greater than they are now. We see this through two teenage girls, from wealthy backgrounds, rebelling against the straightjacket put upon them, who, despite their being financially secure, are insecure in their patchy relationships with arms-length families.

There is hope though, as one wealthy girl, turning 16, comes into her money and is able to make a difference for her personal tutor, who had been facing a long period paying off her education.

Chris Roberson. The Sky Is Large and the Earth Is Small.
Originally in : Asimovs, July 2007

When this appeared last year I wrote :

    Part of the author’s ‘Celestial Empire’ sequence, an alternate history which has a globally dominant China. Cao Wen, a junior civil servant, has the difficult task of extricating from a very stubborn elderly political prisoner some details which it is believe will help the State. The young man learns a lot from the elder, but whilst not that which he seeks for his job, it is a lot more than he had anticipated. Roberson handles the nuances of the relationship well, and paces the story well as it builds up to an ending, whilst not a climactic one, a subtly big one.

Greg Egan. Glory.
Originally in : The New Space Opera (ed Dozois/Strahan)

When I read this last year I wrote :

    The opening pages describes a mind-bogglingly hi-tech means of interstellar travel, which results in two humans being downloaded into freshly minted bodies the better to communicate with the indigineous inhabitants of a far distant planet. The two lands in the territory of opposing factions, and have to overcome suspicions about who they are before the can endeavour to explore the scientific conundrum on the planet.

Robert Silverberg. Against the Current.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, October/November 2007

Last year, I wrote :

    A car salesman leaves work early after a sudden but short-lived migraine. As he makes his journey home he notices increasingly incongruous changes to the road and the neighbourhoods he drives through, until it becomes clear that he is in fact travelling through time. We follow his journey, as with Matheson’s Incredible Shrinking Man, as the salesman finds himself heading backward in time in ever increasing speed. He makes attempts to communicate with people he knew in times past, but this proves frustratingly problematic. We leave him facing an uncertain future – or should that be an uncertain past? It’s an elegant tale, and is less a time travel story, as more a personal testament to the nature of change. The stabbing pain between the eyes could almost be a stroke, and it is as if the salesman is headed on an Alzheimer’s journey, having to leave behind those he currently loves and his current memories, for those older ones.

    I don’t know if Silverberg is writing his memoirs, but this would be a pretty clever way of addressing such a task.

Neal Asher. Alien Archeology.
Originally in : Asimovs, June 2007

Last year I wrote :

    Fitting into Asher’s Polity sequence, this story provides more, much more on the creatures featured in ‘Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck’ (Asimovs, August 2005), and ‘The Gabble’ (Asimovs, March 2006). There’s some fast paced drama, as xeno-archaelogist Alexion Smith (who is not all he seems) has the misfortune to be left for dead by the hit-woman Jael, who takes from him an Atheter artefact. Her misfortune is to leave him for dead, but not quite dead, and he is able to follow her trail. The exact nature of the artefact, and the Gabbleduck is revealed in a dramatic finale.

Ted Chiang. The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 2007

    From one extrement to another : from Reed, one of the most (probably the) most prolific short SF writers, to one who publishes only rarely, albeit to invariably excellent effect. And Chiang comes up with the goods again. This story score on several fronts. He’s taken time travel and used it to such good effect it’s likely to put others off writing on this topic for a while. What he does, which other’s don’t, or can’t, or won’t, is to weave it into a story that is just so subtle and clever.

    Set in Iraq in bygone days (when Baghdad was ‘City of Peace’), it is a tale as if from 1001 Arabian Nights. The traveller is entertaining the mightly Caliph with a tale, but it is a tale within a tale. He relates his experience upon finding an Alchemist who has a portal which enables travel back in time. There are constraints on the travel, for there must be a matching portal at the destination. The Merchant is a man whose heart has long been full of sorrow and remorse, having lost his young wife many years in the past.

    Can he go back and change events? He understands from the Alchemist that whilst travel to the past is possible, whilst it can be observed, and interacted with, the past cannot be changed. However, in his journeys to the past, the Merchant finds out more about his wife’s death, and finds that whilst he cannot change the past, he himself can be changed by seeing the past, to good effect.

    Chiang creates a believable setting, and addresses human emotions and motivations, and produces a story of the highest standard.

Justin Stanchfield. Beyond the Wall.
Originally in : Ruins Extraterrestrial (ed)

A touch of the Lovecraftian ‘Mountains of Madness’. On the moon Titan, a UN crew chase a vessel which is breaking the embargo on visiting the alien artefact found a decade ago.

The mystery and the horrors start straight away. The land next to the vessel they are chasing and find it looking as if it has been there for many years. Of the crew there is only one they can find – who is long dead and frozen, but wearing the spacesuit of their pilot. How can it be her?

Out of comm with their orbiting colleagues, the mystery has to be solved. However, all is not as it seems, and the alien artefact has a disturbing effect on reality, leaving the pilot, Jenine, to be tested to her mental limits in determining what is real and what is now, and resisting that which the artefact offers.

Bruce Sterling. Kiosk.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 2007

This didn’t really grab me last year :

    Sterling suffers to some extent by having set himself such a high standard in his early fiction, which has two interrelated problems : continuing to write at that level; and trying to write at that level whilst being feted as a cyber-guru and having people pay you for reams of non-fiction and spending time garnering honorary doctorates and teaching at the European Graduate School in Switzerland (as we are told in the intro). Kidnap the bugger and lock him up in a garret with bread and water, I say, to get him concentrating on writing. And certainly don’t let him near Europe, else he gets subsumed in the slightly off-kilter sensibilities of that continent. This is a sort of Eastern European KyberPunk, with the means of nanoproduction put in the hands of the proletariat, as Borislav’s basic life as a purveyor of various necessities and little luxurious through his street koisk is changed completely by the nano Fabrikator offered to him by a shady third-rate villain. However, rather than being approached by sunglass-wearing Japanese cyber-villains, as would have happened in capitalist cyberpunk, here an official from the European Union gets involved, as Sterling looks at how a different political and societal system would respond to nanotech.

Stephen Baxter. Last Contact.
Originally in : The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction (ed George Mann)

One of the stronger stories in a new British anthology:

    Stephen Baxter’s ‘Last Contact’ is a very strong story, although it could be argued that it pulls the heart-strings a little too obviously. But the final scene is a memorable one in which a mother and daughter sit in a garden watching the end of the world, as newly found fellow races say hello and wave goodbye as the darkness rushes towards us all like a tsunami. Worryingly, Baxter’s scientific background makes it all too believable. But it has to be said, that Baxter, Arthur C Clarke’s heir apparent, has produced a short beauty of a story which is redolent of Clarke at his best.

Alastair Reynolds. The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter.
Originally in : Interzone #209 April 2007

When it came out last year, did I like it? Why aye, man!

    A more traditional narrative, in which Reynolds takes a more down to Earth approach than is his usual wont, and to good effect. The setting is the River Tyne in the North East of England, a few centuries hence, when many years of cold weather is gradually being replaced by a warmer weather. This is bad for the sledge-maker, as we follow his young daughter as she makes a long journey on foot along the river to deliver two hogs heads to an old woman reputed to be a witch. Reynolds tips several winks to the read in the mention of the folklore of times past, which hark back to our times – a lot of readers will doubtless miss many of them, and be bemused at references to ‘sickly sausage rolls’ : but I’m of the same age as Reynolds, and am from that part of England, so I spotted them all :-)

    As the story progresses, rather than being a Catherine Cookson story, the SF background is gradually, and enticingly revealed, providing an intriguing backdrop which could be explored at greater depth.

Ian McDonald. Sanjeev and Robotwallah.
Originally in : Fast Forward 1 (ed Anders)

Also collected in this year’s Hartwell, whence I reported:

    McDonald revisits his near future India, memorably covered in novels and short stories reviewed on Best SF, in describing a group of young Indian men who remote control armored military mechs. A young boy gets a chance to help out with the crew of cyberwarriors who seem so heroic and glamourous.

Michael Swanwick. The Skysailor’s Tale.
Originally in : ‘The Dog Said Bow-Wow'(Tachyon)

The cynic in me would believe that new stories written to add to a collection of previously published stories in a single author collection would likely be a bit of a make-weight to make such a collection attractive to those who might otherwise eschew a collection of previously read stories.

Not so in this case, as Swanwick provides a story out of the top drawer rather than the bottom of the trunk.

It’s a story of depth and richness and resonance that only a really good storyteller, on the top of his form, can provide. An older man reflects, in speaking to his son, of his life. The opening line has a subtle resonance to it (‘Of all the many things that this life has stolen form me, the one which bothers me most is that I cannot remember burying my father’), and it has a solidity to the world it describes. It is set in a slightly different world to ours, but rather than shouting out AH, it does so subtly and tantalisingly, and the way the narrative pops back and forth and unfolds gives added benefit. And notably, to get a poetical lyricism out of the protagonist getting a reacharound from a fellow skysailor, is testament to the quality of the tale.

Vandana Singh. Of Love and Other Monsters.
Originally in : ‘Of Love and Other Monsters’ (Aqueduct Press)

Another lengthier story from a single author collection, although this time from an author at the beginning of a career. And Vandana Singh keeps up the quality in tale of alienation and loneliness, and love (unrequited and requited) which starts out, and ends in India. Again, there is a lyrical quality in the telling of the story, that you just don’t get as often enough as we should. The protagonist survives a fire, and starts life afresh with no memory of his past. He has a talent for, not quite reading minds, but sensing and manipulating them. But there is one of his type with a stronger power than his, and he is after him. We find out just what exactly this type is, as the protagonist has to challenge himself and his ally/enemy to come through another fire.

Greg Egan. Steve Fever.
Originally in : MIT Technology Review, Nov/Dec 2007

A clever little piece that explores one of the myriad potential threats that face us in the near future. A young boy working on the family farm begins to get an urge to run away to the big city – nothing sfnal in that, except that the urges, and detail of how to do it, are down to his having contracted a nanovirus that has been loosed onto the world. The nanovirus was originally medicinal, but it’s inventor, the titular Steve, in facing a terminal illness himself, gave the nanovirus just too much intelligence, and in thinking for themselves, they are recruiting unwilling humans to help out with their plans and their need to understand humanity.

He is helped to carry out the bidding of the nanovirus by his family, and in spending some time at a motel with others called to the same location, we see the steps being taken to gather than understanding.

Kage Baker. Hellfire at Twilight.
Originally in : Gods and Pawns (Tor)

Another ‘Company’ story of time-travelling cyborg collectors of otherwise-to-be-perished antiquities.

Brian Stableford. The Immortals of Atlantis.
Originally in : disLocations ed Ian Whates

When I reviewed the collection last year, it wasn’t one of the highlights of the volume for me, whence I noted:

    ..sees a middle aged women in a somewhat unsalubrious council flat visited by a man who believes her to be of somewhat higher, and older pedigree. He begins to, having tied her to a chair, administer various concotions to restore her to her rightful place.

Pat Cadigan. Nothing Personal.
Originally in : Alien Crimes (SFBC) ed Resnick

Frustratingly, it’s not possible to get the US SFBC books over here in the UK. Cadigan provides a very classy story, initially taking us throught the midlife crisis of a female homicide cop whose partner has retired, who is having a very palpable case of the dreads as she reviews her past life and her future. A new case, and a new partner change things, and what is initially a suspicious death of a young girl gets into some very strange territory. Identity theft it seems, but of an sfnal kind, as people are hopping between alternate timelines to find versions of themselves when things are different (such as losing a daughter to an aneurysm).

The new cop is in fact part of a team tracking and dealing with those who attempt to cross the realities, and it is the female cops sensitivity to these breaches which has been causing her physical symptoms.

Elizabeth Bear. Tideline.
Originally in : Asimovs June 2007

when it appeared last year I wrote:

    Bear manages to stay just the right side of mawkishness in a story featuring a battle-damaged mech, ekeing out its final power reserves whilst stranded on a beach, the steep cliffs to which she is unable to climb. She is dedicating her final days to making memorials for the humans at whose side she fought, and who died at her side. When befriended by a youngster, she tries to set him on the right tracks at the same time as ensuring that her memorials for fallen colleagues are finished.

Keith Brooke. The Accord.
Originally in : The Solaris Book of Science Fiction Vol 1 (ed George Mann)

In a volume which slightly disappointed, of this I wrote:

    ..an effective piece, following the affect a visit by a hunted post-human has on a small coastal community. The relationship between him and the inn-keeper’s wife, and the cliff-set village, are both handled well.

Nancy Kress. Laws of Survival.
Originally in : Jim Baen’s Universe

An interesting close-up an alien invasion following humanity making a pretty big fuckup of things. A woman is scavenging around a dump which is next to one of the unfathomable alien domes that now pepper the landscape. She comes across a puppy in the dump – a source of meat to her, but evidently of interest to a robot which appears from the dome. She finds herself in the dome, trying to understand the alien mentality through the spherical robots, who are simply focussed on getting her to train several dogs (some untrainable) to behave ‘properly’. In a battle of wits with the dogs, and the alien robots, the woman manages to come out on top, but when the aliens evidently come to the conclusion that humanity is not working properly, she has to choose between staying on Earth or heading off to a very alien future.

Tom Purdom. The Mists of Time.
Originally in : Asimovs, August 2007

This was one of several strong issues of Asimovs in the year, although I’d have chosen three other stories ahead of this one for inclusion in this anthology :

    A historical nautical tale in which a crew of a British vessel face the odds to capture a larger ship carrying slaves from Africa to the West Indies. The sfnal element : they are observed by the descendant of the ship’s captain, who has travelled back in time with a film-maker to capture the dramatic scene.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Craters.
Originally in : Future Weapons of War, (ed Haldeman/Greenberg) Baen Books, 2007.

Krusch attempts to get her head around the issue of suicide bombers, and the sacrifices people will make to achieve their ends. There was a plethora of post-911 stories that similarly attempted to make sense of what is, IMHO, something that is almost unknowable.

A hardened war correspondent (very hardened, although we see the cracks in the hardness that threaten to shatter her) investigates the latest horror : children used as walking bombs aimed at soft targets (it’s the French people’s turn when the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre get blown up). As with the 911 stories there are three options : a) an understanding is reached by the observer b) the ‘terrorists’ are brought face to face with the ‘crimes’ they have been ‘committing’ or c) there is no revelation on either side. Rusch opts for c (the right answer).

Ted Kosmatka. The Prophet of Flores.
Originally in : Asimovs, September 2007

Last year I wrote :

    Kosmatka posits an alternate Earth where those who believe that the Creationists who believe that the Earth is but a few thousand years old have evidently (although possibly fraudently) evidenced the truth of their belief, and we follow a young boy through his childhood and his scientific experiments which a particularly unpleasant father objects to, and to adulthood when further scientific experimentation is objected to by the authorities. For me, I’d rather have seen the issues covered outside of the alternate history milieu, which for me puts a hazy veil over the issues, rather than throwing them into relief. In this world there are plenty of father’s with fundamentalist views, School Boards, and research institutes, and governments against whom it is possible to come into conflict on these issues, with plenty of mileage for fiction.

Benjamin Rosenbaum and David Ackert. Stray.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 2007

Last year I was impressed :

    Subtle story in which we follow an immortal, no less than a prince of the immortals, who fetches up in midwest America in the depression. He is taken in by the daughter of a black doctor, who at first thinks he is white. There is little detail of the past that he has left, or how he has arrived, and it is more a story of integration and becoming part of a community. Ivan marries her, and there are subtle lines to be trod, and relationships and acquaintances to be established, and he finally has to decide whether to eschew his powers and fully integrate into this life.

Robert Reed. Roxie.
Originally in : Asimovs, July 2007

Last year I noted :

    Reed’s fiction of late has been getting quite personal, in terms of his using life events and personal experience more than is the norm, and there is also in many of his stories an almost palpable sense of looking back whilst looking forward. Here he follows a man and his faithful companion, both getting on in years, as they face up to the ageing process, and the threat of a potential asteroid strike on Earth. As the odds get shorter on a strike and the devastating consequences, the character/Reed becomes more than resigned to the future, in accepting that whilst shit may happen, life has also happened, and in the scheme of things, that is something of which to be proud and to cherish, without overly mourning its passing.

Gregory Benford. Dark Heaven.
Originally in : Alien Crimes (SFBC) ed Mike Resnick.

A second cop story (minor quibble : I’d have put the two stories further apart in this anthology). Here Benford gets into the mindset of a hardened cop who is determined to get to the cause of death of two fisherman who wash up on the coast, with mysterious markings on their body. It’s not so much a whodunnit, as the reader is clearly aware that the recently encountered amphibian aliens who have a government-supported encampment on the coast, are the likely culprits.

But the feds are involved, covering up, and whilst it transpires that yes indeed the aliens are at ‘fault’, the Big Physics is rolled out by Benford in providing one answer for the riddle over dark matter, and in providing the reader with a closing vista of a very big universe of which we know only a little, and from a very singular perspective, which is challenged to the core by the beliefs and perspectives of those different to us. Which is of course what SF at its best should do, and which writers like Benford who have the physics knowledge, the ability to write a good story, and the big ideas, comes up trumps at the end. (And there are a lot of scientists out there who know the physics, but can’t quite handle the story-telling as well, and can’t really do the big picture).

Conclusion

As ever, chock full of high quality SF, with the annual summation providing SF with an ongoing reference and reading tome which we should not take for granted. Here’s to the next 25 years!

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