Year’s Best Science Fiction, 26th Annual Collection. Gardner Dozois. St. Martins Griffin, 2009


Aiming to travel light (one carry-on bag for each of us) when flying to Budapest for our 25th wedding anniversary last week, I had space for only one book. Consequently I bought the UK edition of this year’s Dozois, which fitted in the rucksack perfectly. And fortunately, the amount of time I had for reading pretty much matched the number of stories in the volume I had not previously read on their initial appearance.

Stephen Baxter. Turing’s Apples.
Originally in : Eclipse Two, ed Jonathan Strahan.

Baxter has produced a number of shorter stories in recent years, memorably looking at a variety of means by which humanity comes to an end in the near future, subtly blending the technical background with its impact on a small group of people.

The story references the potential impact on mathematician Turing on two young boys, who each grow up to be math whizzes. One is very much ahead of the other, albeit slightly further down the autistic spectrum path, and it is he who is able to make the scientific breakthrough to decode the messages from far-distant aliens that are being picked up on the far side of the moon. However, in taking the decision himself to run the program that is being delivered to us, he is opening up Pandora’s Box.

The reason behind the nature of the ‘gift’ being delivered is one that has a truly galactic spanning backdrop.

Michael Swanwick. From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled.
Originally in: Asimovs, February 2008.

When it first appeared, I flagged it up as being top class:

    The opening paragraph is a doozy – it describes the titular city on Europa, and does so quite beautifully across several sentences, and then kicks into a higher gear as the narrator describes herself : a simulation of one of the humans killed in the destruction of the city, and then the story starts with a “Here’s what it was like…” It’s an opening that you could use over the first month of a Science Fiction Writing 101 course, and the rest of the story lives up to that standard. The narrator, Rosamund, is embedded in the hi-tech suit of one of the survivors of the meteorite strike – Carlos, her lover. She has to care for him using the suit’s advanced medical capabilities to get him to the point of being in a state to be brought back to consciousness, and we follow them as she guides him, and one of the strange, definitely non-human race on the planet. In order to escape the armed warriors of his race, Uncle Vanya has to undergo the unkindest cut of all – “The first thing we have to do is castrate you..” is the kind of line you can only come up with after some years in the business. Swanwick takes the unlikely trio through an alien world, effectively getting across the alieness of Uncle Vanya through his speech patterns, and cleverly intertwining the action with backstory.

    And the ending is just terrific – with Rosamund left embedded in the spacesuit, hanging up in a locker. It’s a story that is simply top class.

Paolo Bacigalupi. The Gambler.
Originally in : Fast Forward 2, ed Lou Anders.

When I read it last year I summarised:

    Bacigalupi explores the world of hi-tech internet media, through the eyes of someone working, but somewhat detached, from the hyper-obsessed American culture. One of the stars of his news gathering corporation gets a hot story and generates enough traffic to their site to guarantee bonuses all round. Having left a lot behind in his native Laos, Ong finds himself, instead of writing niche stories with low levels of footfall, he has a chance to hit the big time in being pitched in with a major celebrity from his home country and with, seemingly, a lot in common. However, it turns out that the celebrity has very much embraced the modern culture of the US, and he has to take a gamble on which route to take

It’s a good story, without being a true standout.

Elizabeth Bear. Boojum.
Originally in : Fast Ships, Black Sails, ed Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.

Hartwell/Cramer also selected this in their year’s best collection, and when reading it there a couple of months ago, I wrote :

    From a pirate-themed SF and fantasy anthology, which wouldn’t really have attracted me. I’m not a big fan of themed anthologies, on the basis that the whole reason for reading short SF is to get a lot of different ideas and settings, so a series of stories with a similar theme is defeating the purpose somewhat. Bear and Monette provide an intriguing take, with the main vessel being the star of the show, a biological space-faring creature within which humans ply their trade. The main human character, Black Alice, is fairly new to the game, but is finding a strong link with the ship, and this comes to her aid when brain-thieving pirates hove to. It’s a cracking story, and a setting which could do with further exploration.

Alastair Reynolds. The Six Directions of Space.
Originally in : Galactic Empires (SFBC), ed Gardner Dozois

As it isn’t possible to get the SFBC books here in the UK, I bought the slightly pricey chapbook from Subterranean Press, and enthused about it at length.

Ted Kosmatka. N-Words.
Originally in : Seeds of Change, ed J.J. Adams.

Also collected in Hartwell/Cramer, I summarised:

    Reaction to human cloning using neanderthal DNA is explored, through the funeral of one person created in a test tube in Korea, but who has established themselves as a father, and a husband in the West.

Ian McDonald. An Eligible Boy.
Originally in : Fast Forward 2, ed Lou Anders.

When reading it first time I enthused :

    Another in McDonald’s series about a near-future hi-tech India, and up to the usual standard as we follow a young man who relies on an AI to woo a young woman, with an entirely believable society obsessed with celebrity being the backdrop. Watch out for the forthcoming collection of shorts ‘Cyberabad Days’, and if you haven’t already ready the novel ‘River of Gods’, may I inquire why?

Dominic Green. Shining Armour.
Originally in : The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction: Volume Two, ed George Mann.

When it appeared last year I wrote:

    sees a rural community threatened by big business from the city, and with little in the way of the forces of law and order to help them, they have to rely on their knight in shining armour. Said night is a huge battlemech which stands in the town, and has stood for several decades. Who is the human who has the skills and knowledge to climb into it’s cockpit and get the machine fighting on their side? Rhetorical question, as it’s the old grandfather whom the story starts with.

Karl Schroeder. The Hero.
Originally in : Eclipse Two, ed Jonathan Strahan.

A short story from Schroeder’s ‘Virga’ series, which has seen several novels. The story is an excellent appetiser, with a very imaginative setting, with the only downside being that I finished the story knowing that I would quite like to read more in this setting, but simply don’t have the time so to do until retirements (fractionally over 10 years and counting…)

Mary Robinette Kowal. Evil Robot Monkey.
Originally in : The Solaris Book of Science Fiction: Volume Two, ed George Mann.

When I read it last year I was somewhat underwhelmed:

    very much a story from someone who has yet to breakout of the semipro ranks. A monkey with a digital implant, making it more human than simian, is upset by some schoolchildren who come to visit. Erm, that’s it.

As I recalled my initial reaction, I thought that I would give the story a second chance, and re-read it. But with the same lack of impact.

Robert Reed. Five Thrillers.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 2008.

When it first appeared I was impressed and wrote :

    A very strong story from Reed – it could in fact be mistaken as a Gene Wolfe. The only irritant for me is that the title isn’t going to lodge my mind as being ‘the story in which one man makes some major sacrifices, and sacrifices others, many others, for the greater good, in a story which spans time, what is is to be human, and, in the end, the virtual annhilation of the human race, as he, the last President urges those few remain to keep the light burning to wreak a revenge on those who have brought us to near extinction’.

Jay Lake. The Sky That Wraps the World Round, Past the Blue and Into the Black.
Originally in : Clarkesworld, March 2008.

Effective piece as the narrator describes how he is hiding from his past, from his actions in Deep Space, and yet how even in his solitude (paid for at a high price) he continues to impact on others.

Paul McAuley. Incomers.
Originally in : The Starry Rift, ed Jonathan Strahan.

When it appeared in the Young Adult anthology I wrote :

    Three teen boys on one of Saturn’s moons suspect a neighbour of being more than he seems. A bit of sleuthing confirms it, but they are getting into deeper trouble than they realise, leading to a life and death bit of heroics from the one with a more level-head on his shoulders.

For my money, I’d have picked a couple of other stories in the collection ahead of this one.

Greg Egan. Crystal Nights.
Originally in : Interzone, April 2008.

After a couple of less-sfnal stories in this volume of Interzone, I wrote:

    Back to the SF. Huzzah! It’s Greg Egan, which is good. And it’s Egan and good form, which is even better news. He follows one driven scientist whose discovery of a means of creating computational power previously only dreamt of, enables him to explore the limits of just what can be created inside silicon. He creates powerful simulations, in which the building blocks of life are created, and in which he encourages his creations to develop sentience through setting environmental challenges. The processing power enables him to develop sophisticated creatures quite rapdily, but this does require him to play god with those he creates, discarding those headed into evolutionary dead-ends. Fortunately, he is able to recognise the point at which those which he has created are sentient enough to feel sadness, and then it becomes more of a challenge, encouraging them to grow thorugh direct intervention.

    As his creations develop apace it becomes clear that he has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, although a nightmare unfolds as they are able to make the leap from creatuers living in a computer simulation to ones which can manipulate the world outside.

    Top quality.

Mary Rosenblum. The Egg Man.
Originally in : Asimovs, February 2008.

In a standout issue, I wrote:

    The standard continues with Rosenblum’s near future story set on the US-Mexico border, with global warming and biotech affecting people’s lives, and a reversal of the power relationship between the two countries. Zipakna revisits a remote pharming community, and is disturbed to find that they are growing sunflowers with an added ingredient that is going to get them into trouble – either from the authorities, or from others equally as badass, although not as legal. There’s also the question of his ex-wife, who headed out to the remote area several years ago, and when he comes across a young boy who looks just like her, he realises that despite the huge risks to himself, he can not simply turn his back on the farm, and stands up when it is time to be counted.

Hannu Rajaniemi. His Master’s Voice.
Originally in : Interzone, October 2008.

In a Chris Beckett-led issue, I enthused :

    Rajaniemi impressed with the only other story of his I read – Deus ex Homine in the excellent collection ‘Nova Scotia’. Here he is similarly hi-tech, with a POV character of an enhanced dog which, along with feline support, makes a daring raid to rescue their creator from the lengthy incarceration imposed as a result for his transgressive cloning experiments.

Charles Coleman Finlay. The Political Prisoner.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, August 2008.

I wasn’t taken by this story when it first appeared :

    Finlay’s earlier story ‘The Political Officer’ garnered praise in many quarters, to the extent it was a Hugo nomination, although it didn’t move me greatly. This time Nikomedes is under cover on an alien planet, and there some identity hiding, spy thriller espionage excitement and shootouts, but not really a grabber for me. You can whizz through the story like a knife through butter, which The Da Vinci Code did to great commercial effect, but the speed of it makes it difficult to engage with the characters and their challenges. For me, more suited to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, or Ian Fleming’s Cold War Spy Story Magazine.

James L. Cambias. Balancing Accounts.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 2008

I was taken by this last year :

    A strong SF story to open the issue, and one with an interesting POV character – an AI shuttling salvage and cargo amongst the asteroid belt. With very few humans this far outof the system, most of the trading and dealing is AI to AI. ‘Annie’, autonomous and incentivised, has a range of contacts with whom ‘she’ regularly deals, indentured to The Company. When an opportunity which appears almost too good to be true presents itself, ‘she’ decides, after some thought, to take it. However, before long into her trip carrying a valuable cargo, she finds that of course the deal is too good to be true, and the cargo she is carrying is human, and under threat from another human. There is a dramatic denouement as she uses all her cunning and equipment to protect the cargo, and her ethics.

    It’s a clever idea, and well-handled.

Maureen F. McHugh. Special Economics.
Originally in : The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed Ellen Datlow.

McHugh does for near future hi-tech China what Ian McDonald has done for near future hi-tech India.

She looks at indentured labour, as a young girl takes a job for a hi-tech city firm, only to find that the money she earns doesn’t cover her keep. She uses her street-cunning, and a fortuitously quick bus journey, to take advantage of a government agent, to redress the balance in favour of her fellow employees.

Geoff Ryman. Days of Wonder.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October/November 2008.

When it appeared last year I was impressed :

    A strong story from Ryman, with an intriguing setting, the background to which is gradually explained. The main character is Leveza, a young mare, part of a pack of horses who are migrating, in fear of the predatory big cats who are tracking them. The horses have a number of human traits, and in foaling, Leveza gives birth to a horse which is more human than most. As the migration takes place, Leveza’s infant falls prey to the cats, and there is some complex interplay between her, her companions, and a cat which is captured. We find out the whys and wherefores : humanity, seeming an imminent collapse which they will not survive, encodes elements of humanity in each of the birds and beasts, in the hope that at some points those discrete, embedded elements may be re-combined.

Paul McAuley. City of the Dead.
Originally in : Postscripts #15

Human settlers on another world have ancient civilization ruins to explore, and one eccentric scientist has got very much in tune with the hive rats in one labyrinth. It seems that she is in fact in close communication with alien intelligences, triggering the interest of some heavies who are doing the bidding of another alien race.

The newly-arrived woman who has taken on the role of sherrif to the remote community has the nous and the nuts to best the heavies and the alien.

Gwyneth Jones. The Voyage Out.
Originally in : Periphery : Exotic Lesbian Futures, ed Lynne Jamneck.

A mixed bunch of characters are being prepared for living the rest of their lives a long, long way from Earth. They are to be digitally recorded, and beamed to a far-distant planet, leaving their original bodies, and their original lives behind.

It offers a chance for a new start, and new relationships, but it’s not quite that simple, as the process they undergo messes with their minds, but with a strong will, there is love to be found.

Daryl Gregory. The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm.
Originally in : Eclipse Two, ed Jonathan Strahan.

An innovative setting, that leads into a darker than expected story. There’s a comic-book quality to the start, with a colossal heroic robot being built, in a world with superheroes.

However, rather than being forces for good, the superheroes and the hi-tech battlemechs are used for national and political disputes, and when Lord Grimm is attacked by his enemies, there is some very real suffering as a consequence.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch. G-Men.
Originally in : Sideways in Crime, ed Lou Anders.

An alternate history, in which J. Edgar Hoover is murdered, and Robert Kennedy engages in a struggle with President Lyndon Johnson over his secret files, whilst an FBI agent has to work out whodunnit.

Nancy Kress. The Erdmann Nexus.
Originally in : Asimovs Science Fiction, October/November 2008

In its initial magazine appearance it impressed :

    Kress on top form with a strong story to start the issue. There is an intriguing setup, as an alien vessel far distant reacts to something very unexpected, and we then meet Henry Erdman, an elderly physicist living in an assisted living facilty. Just how can these two events be related – for related they clearly are, and as Henry is setting out to deliver a lecture at his old university, something stops him in his tracks. Has he had a mini-stroke, or some other cerebral event to worry about? The story progresses through Henry and his fellow residents as each of them finds themselves similarly affected, with the alien spaceship homing in on Earth, alarmed that something is happening in an altogether unexpected and alarming manner. As the cerebral events increase in frequency and impact, the residents realise that they are in fact sharing experiences, and what is happening is that the increasing global population of the elderly has caused a switch to be triggered, as the combined experience, wisdom and intelligence is beginning to merge together and to reach out to the rest of the universe. Those affected are offered an opportunity to become one with the greater cosmos, although not all take it, and those left behind are left wondering.

    It’s a clever story, handling the varied elderly protagonists well, and certainly a welcome change to see older people having a more positive role to play in SF than as Alzheimer’s patients, as has been the case recently.

Garth Nix. Old Friends.
Originally in : Dreaming Again, ed Jack Dann.

Rather too fantasy for me than I’d like to see in an SF collection. A man awaits an approaching enemy, an ancient enemy, as he finds that his old friends have succumbed to the ravages of time and of the enemy.

After a dramatic concluding fight, ending in failure, there is a touching finale in which a future awaits the slain hero.

James Alan Garner. The Ray Gun : a Love Story.
Originally in : Asimovs Science Fiction, February 2008

Last year I wrote : Another clever and classy story. The central character is an alien weapon, which finds its way to Earth, and into the hands of a young nerdy guy. We follow him as the forces now at his power guide his development, through first love, through to increasingly obsessive behaviour. However, the weapon has more than simply brute force, and the understates unsettling nature of that very alien power finds a way to protect itself, that sees humanity once again as a small player in a big game.

Gord Sellar. Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moons’ Blues. Originally in : Asimovs Science Fiction, July 2008.

Last year I was impressed :

    With this title and an opening line ‘His first night back on Earth after his gig on the Frogships, Bird showed up at Minton’s cleaner than a broke-dick dog, with a brand new horn and a head full of crazy-people music’, Sellar quickly sets the tone of one of the most individual stories I’ve read for some time. It’s the late 40s, and the war has finished, its course slightly different due to alien intervention. The aliens are cool cats (although more froglike), digging jazz and bebop to the extent that they’re willing to pay top dollar to those musicians to entertain on cruise ships jaunting between the planets. Robbie Coolidge is keen to sign up, despite reservations about those who return being cleaned up, and just slightly different from when they set out. He’s willing to leave his (unfaithful) wife behind, but once on the cruise ship he can see the high price to be paid – the aliens enable the musicians to memorise tunes on first hearing, and to play in a multidimensional manner. However, he decides that he can’t pay the price, as it leads to a lack of inventiveness, and also leaves his new love, to remain true to his real love – jazz.

    It’s a story that rings true, and even entertained this old punk whose preference would have been to see Iggy and the Stooges on a punk tour of the solar system. (Mind you, having said that, Iggy does seem to have an almost supernatural ability to resist the signs of ageing and has a capacity to take an inhuman amount of drugs… hmmm)

Aliette de Bodard. Butterfly, Falling at Dawn.
Originally in : Interzone, December 2008

A third story from Interzone, and of this one I noted :

    de Bodard returns to the milieu of her ‘Obsidian Shards’ in ‘L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Volume XXIII’ [and ‘The Lost Xuyan Bride’ from Interzone #213. I wasn’t greatly struck with the former, and this detective story didn’t quite do it for me. There’s too much detective story and too little SF for the balance to be right for me. The alienation of the detective, a refugee from Mexica, is an issue for her and some of those amongst her, as she unvravels the mystery of a murdered designer. There’s a touch of the Columbo’s about it, with the odd flash of intuition from the detective, who you expect to turn the case with that final ‘and just one last question…’. I’d prefer to see the ‘tec storylines ditched in favour of something that explores the Alternate History element just a little more. Maybe even some Science Fiction, instead of Alternate History, dealing with alienation and loss, separation from loved ones etc etc that SF gives so much opportunity for (but isn’t taken up as often as it should)

Ian McDonald. The Tear.
Originally in : Galactic Empires (SFBC) ed Gardner Dozois

The volume closes with a lengthy, dense and rewarding story of the far future, very much in a Stephen Baxter/Alastair Reynolds.

Humanity has long since left Earth, spreading far and wide, and in a variety of guises. Empires have come and gone, and whilst humanity is now in many guises, we are very much still recognisably human.

The story starts on a waterworld, with a young man approaching his coming of age – one in which he will move from being a singleton, to one who has several seperate facets of himself on which to draw. As he enters this period of change, so does his planet, as the distant cousins who have recently encircled their world, flee an even alien enemy. Through this several stages of development, we track the challenges he faces, and, through is longevity, his perspective on the challenges for the human race.

Conclusion

As ever, a strong collection, with only a few minor quibbles against some of those stories selected. Interestingly, there isn’t that much overlap with the Hartwell/Cramer take on the Year’s Best with stories like Bacigalupi’s ‘Pump Six’, and Chiang’s ‘Exhalations’ being stories I would have expected to see in a Dozois.

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