Year’s Best SF 13. ed David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. Eos Books 2008

Johanna Sinisalo. Baby Doll.
Originally in : The SFWA European Hall of Fame, ed James Morrow and Kathryn Morrow.

A very dark piece of near future speculation from Finland. Annette, like many young girls, has pressure from many sides to look attractive, to be in with the in crowd, to get a boyfriend and so forth. To make matters worse, her older sister is a glamour model, whose provocative come hither visage is to plastered on billboards around the town. However what makes it so very dark is the revalation as to just how young the children are – rather than being a midteen, Annette has some years to go before actually becoming any kind of teen.

Tony Ballantyne. Aristotle OS.
Originally in : Fast Forward 1, ed Lou Anders.

If you think Windows Vista is bad…. Ballantyne postulates computer operating systems that are able to do more than simply respond to input, but rather shape the environment from which that input comes, to best suit its philosophical underpinnings and worldview.

John Kessel. The Last American.
Originally in : Foundation 100, ed Farah Mendlesohn and Graham Sleight, Science Fiction Foundation Summer 2007

Also published in Asimovs, February 2008 in which I wrote:

    Being an interactive biography of one Andrew Steele, who rises to become the President of what was once called The United States of America. Kessel brings several perspectives on the lifes and times of a man who is driven and who is willing to make big decisions that cost a lot of lives, in order to achieve his aims. There are some clever touches in the story, such as American Airlines Flight 11 including amongst the trrists, one unshaven, baseball-cap wearing guy called Moore. Hey, it’s going to get much worse before it gets much better/different.

It’s an OK story, but by my reckoning, not only does it not get into my Asimovs Top 3 for 2008, it doesn’t get into my Asimovs Top 3 for February 2008!

Gene Wolfe. Memorare.
Originally in F&SF, April 2007 No quibbles on this one, a standout story from 2007

    This special Gene Wolfe issue leads off with an SF story which confirms just how good Wolfe can be. On the surface it’s a story of a well-established type : a curmudgeonly longer out in the solar system is investigating some very strange artefacts which prove to be qutie dangerous, and has to use his cunning to survive. But it’s must more complex than that, which some very well observed and well-rounded characters, and the underlying shifting sands on which the story is based – with Wolfe there’s always another dimension, or some subtle effects of which to be aware.

    The setting is an intriguing one. March Wildspring is exploring, and filming for a documentary he plans to pitch to the studios, memorials placed in space. Not mere gravestones, these are complex structures, some of which threaten those who explore them, seeking to honour those whose memory they mark with further souls.

    The story begins with Wildspring, aka Windy, aka Marchy, managing to extricate himself from a near-fatal memorial, and receiving a message from Kit, a front-of-camera TV personality, with whom Windy is madly in love, but feels that his lack of looks and rough and ready charms are a barrier to a partnership. She is en route to him, with a female friend, Robin Redd, who is running from her violent partner. However, when the pair turn up it transpires that Robin Redd is a name now being used by Windy’s ex-wife, Sue, with whom he had a tempestuous relationship and a vicious divorce.

    To make matters worse, Robin’s current husbant, James Redd, turns up, looking for her. Amongst the complex interpersonal interplay, the drama unfolds as Robin flees to a neighbouring memorial, and the others follow in pursuit. They find themselves in a very large environment, peopled with hundreds of acolytes who are labouring under a VR misapprehension that they are living in a paradise, when the reality is altogether different.

    In fleeing the habitat, Kit is killed, and Windy is left with the option of leaving Robin/Sue behind, or risking all to go back to save her. All is revealed in the closing credits.

    It’s an engrossing story, with the complex swirl of current and ex-relationships, personalities, and motivations all swirling around each other. Windy loses the love of his life, but mysoginist that he appears to be, he is able to refocus his attentions on his ex-wife, choosing what to believe in and what to see being part of the underlying elements of the story.

Kage Baker. Plotters and Shooters.
Originally in : Fast Forward 1, ed. Lou Anders

Plotters being young guy gamers recruited to work in space identifying incoming meteorites on paths likely to cause havoc, and Shooters being their companions of a much higher rank who are skilled and priveleged enough to be in charge of shooting said meteorites down. It’s not a healthy environment, all those geeky young guys encamped in a small spaceship, and the Shooters make is worse by dressing up as manga/comic book type heroes, and getting the lower ranks to act as fags as in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. One new recruit bucks the system, as tends to happen in this kind of story. It doesn’t quite have the depth that I’d like to see in a Year’s Best story, and reads more like juvenile SF – as compared, say, to Ian MacDonald’s story below.

Peter Watts. Repeating the Past.
Originally in : Nature

A youngster desecrates his uncle’s grave with a swastika, clearly unheeding of the pain caused by the holocaust a century past. So what better way to get through the reality of the suffering of those days but through the youngster’s virtual reality gaming sytem?

Stephen Baxter. No More Stories.
Originally in : Fast Forward 1, ed. Lou Anders

A strong complement to Baxter’s ‘Last Contact’ (collected in Strahan’s annual collection), and with a similar fin-de-siecle theme. Here a man visits his widowed, dying mother in her last days, and finds himself being drawn in, literally, to her belief that things come to an end for her have implications for those around her.

Robin Hitchock. They Came From the Future.
Originally in : Fast Forward 1, ed. Lou Anders

A pome.

Gwyneth Jones. The Tomb Wife.
Originally in F&SF, August 2007

When it first appeared I wrote

    The issue picks up at the death with a story which fits a lot into a small space. It’s not a straightforward read, but rather a complex look at relationships and the nature of relativity.

which isn’t particularly informative!

Marc Laidlaw. An Evening’s Honest Peril.
Originally in : Flurb #3, Spring/Summer 2007, ed Rudy Rucker

The story follows a seasoned campaigner hand-holding a novice gamer in a ‘Diablo’ type hack and slash fantasy adventure game, and relates, in rather too much detail, how the pair descend the dungeons, fighting off the denizens and garnering treasure and experience points.

Nancy Kress. End Game.
Originally in : Asimovs, April/May 2007

    Short effective piece in which a scientist finds a way of enabling people to clear their minds of distractions, to let them concentrate on one thing to a much greater extent. But this leads to autistic-savant type focus, and when it begins to spread…

Greg Egan. Induction.
Originally in : Foundation 100, ed Farah Mendlesohn and Graham Sleight, Science Fiction Foundation, Summer 2007

Treads some of the same regolith as his ‘Glory’ from Strahan/Dozois’ ‘The New Space Opera’ and which was collected in Strahan’s take on the best of 2007. It uses the same, very clever, very innovative means of colonising planets – using a railgun to whizz out micro-pellets of nano-tech of various kinds, which combine at journey’s end to build ever more sophisticated equipment, resulting in taking delivery of code from which humans can be assembled. We follow one of the first two colonists, who returns to the early work of her youth and is able to walk the surface of another planet. Once there, even further vistas are opened to her.

Palle Juul Holm. A Blue and Cloudless Sky.
Originally in : The SFWA European Hall of Fame, ed James Morrow and Kathryn Morrow

A translation from the Danish, and it does seem that whether it is down to the translation, or whether to a different tradition of sf in the country in question, such stories often have the added advantage of coming across ever so slightly ‘different’. In this story there is an intriguing time travel paradox, with a man wondering whether he is indeed the person of legend from the future and from afar. There is something not quite right, though, in that the icy world he is on is in imminent danger of total global catastrophe : so how can the descendants/forebears survive to set up the colony?

A story which I’ve tagged mentally to re-read again.

Gregory Benford. Reasons not to Publish.
Originally in : Nature

Another short story from Nature, a little something to clear the palate between courses, as it were. Whilst out hiking in a remote region, the protagonist is alarmed to find evidence that this part of the world is evidently less well detailed – and we must therefore be living in a simulation, with the fine detail in remote places only sketched in by the designers, to save on resources. Surely he must make his findings public? Or not?

William Shunn. Objective Impermeability in a Closed System.
Originally in : An Alternate History of the 21st Century, William Shunn

A neat story, with touches of Kate Wilhelm’s classic ‘Forever Yours, Anna’ (well, it’s a classic as far as I’m concerned) in terms of a love story entwined with time travel. Shunn blends the principles on which time travel is based as complementary to the personal issues between a couple, who drift apart, but for whom bizarrely the wife giving birth to a daughter he could not possibly have fathered is seen as something which will bring the pair back together. After his wife’s death, the father/daughter relationship is an estranged, strained one, until the illogical nature of his wife’s belief in his love for the child, is resolved.

Karen Joy Fowler. Always.
Originally in : Asimov’s Science Fiction, April/May

When it appeared last year, I wrote:

    Another shorter story, which is a bit of a downer, as with the previous story, as the length enables an idea to be described, but not much more. Here, a commune appears to offer longevity to those who enter its doors. But as you might expect, this shangri-la has its problems.

Ken MacLeod. Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?
Originally in : The New Space Opera, ed Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan

When it appeared last year I wrote :

    A slightly more light-hearted story as a young man caught in flagrante finds himself with no option but to accept a mission to Wolf 359. He is required to report back on the inhabitants, and such is their society that the ultimate sanction is likely to be levied against them. However, in the time it will take for a decision to be made and enacted, he has a window of opportunity…

although, of the stories in the volume, I’d have put this some way behind the best in the volume, albeit a very strong volume.

Tim Pratt. Artifice and Intelligence.
Originally in : Strange Horizons

Wry humour as a programmer eschews the traditional methods of attempting to develop AIs, by using the darker arts. However, having opened Pandora’s box, if I may mix my metaphors, the shit hits the fan.

Terry Bisson. Pirates of the Somali Coast.
Originally in : Subterranean 7, ed Ellen Datlow

Altogether darker humour, and with zero sf – emails from a youngster on a cruise trip with his aunt and uncle describes an ever more desperate situation when the cruise ship is hijacked by pirates. It all gets very, very nasty, although the youngster is so inured to violence and unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy, that his emails enthusiastically describe the bloodcurdling events taking place.

Ian McDonald. Sanjeeve and Robotwallah.
Originally in : Fast Forward 1, ed Lou Anders

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.

Tony Ballantyne. Third Person.
Originally in : The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, ed. George Mann

One of the better stories from a so-so anthology, in which I wrote:

    … a better piece, which has the reader scratching their head at the start, to understand just what is happening, as holidaymakers are instantly co-opted into the armed forces in a European conflict. All (well not all) is revealed as the story progresses to a full stop.

Kathleen Ann Goonan. The Bridge.
Originally in : Asimov’s Science Fiction, August 2007

When it first appeared I wrote:

    After two such strong stories, a bit of a dip (albeit a relative one) in a private eye story in which the down on his luck (as ever) dick gets a potentially lucractive case (as ever) from a glamorous babe (as ever). The plot feels just a little too contrived, as the investigator has to work out, just who might have been murdered (as is oft the case in sfanl mystery stories).

For the record one of the preceding stories in the issue was Daryl Gregory’s ‘Dead Horse Point’, collected by Strahan in his collection, which is so far ahead of Goonan’s story IMHO.

John Hemry. As You Know, Bob.
Originally in : Analog, April 2007

As regular readers will have note, my shrift with Analog has being getting increasingly short of late, as the standard of stories has been some way below what I (and many others) would classify as being ‘best’, but when this appeared I wrote:

    One of the better stories in Analog for some time. We see the opening paragraphs of an SF novel as it undergoes rewrites at the urging of an agent. Initially the story is good old-fashioned Analog scientist fiction, but the agent urges more SF. The story mutates into a story of the type more typically seen in Asimovs, full of nanotech and Singularities. A third revision sees is becoming even more cutting edge and quantum. And finally, it becomes codpiece fantasy. You takes your pick and you takes your chances.

Bruce Sterling. The Lustration.
Originally in : Eclipse 1, ed Jonathan Strahan

An intriguing story from Sterling, with a proper sfnal setting : alien creatures, strange society; whopping imaginative central conceit: a globe-spanning wooden computational system with the population maintaining the gates and rails and balls which perform the operations; and a philosophic debate between opposing sides in which the nature of their race, the planet, the computer are all debated. All this packed into a few pages. Huzzah.

James Van Pelt. How Music Begins.
Originally in : Asimovs, September 2007

When it first appeared I summarized the plot:

    A high school orchestra are struggling to get just right a special piece of music, and there are interpersonal and group dynamics to be sorted out. The performance is an important one for they are (for reasons unexplained) seemingly being ‘held’ captive by some presumably alien force, presumably seeking something from their music. Perhaps the perfect rendition will set them free? But in order to make that perfection, there is a price to be paid.

and looking back on the contents of the issue, again, as above, I’d have put several of the other stories in the issue some way ahead of this one.

Conclusion.

A double-dozen of stories, just over half from magazines, but only half of those from the Big 3 mags, and just 4 from Asimovs, as opposed to 10 from that source in last year’s volume. Fewer short shorts from Nature than previous years, which is to be welcomed. With their usual strong collection of stories, the six from Asimovs and F&SF were a reasonable selection, but a couple were ones which I wouldn’t have expected to appear as being the best from the year.

Ten stories were drawn from six books, four stories coming from ‘Fast Forward’. For my money, I’d prefer not to see so many stories from one source, but I will excuse Hartwell/Cramer this (very gracious of you, I hear you say) for their going to the SFWA European volume, to give the flavour of a global representation – the absence of which I had noted last year.

There are a couple of standout stories in the volume, the majority will appeal to those of you whose preference is for a good dollop of science in their science fiction, but not at the expense of the fiction. So whereas the Strahan volume reviewed a few days ago edges it for me in terms of collection where the fiction slightly edges it over the science, the Hartwell/Cramer (at least for this year) suffers slightly (but only slightly) in contrast on that basis.

But, having said that, if you are after a volume to slip into your pocket, and unless you are a particularly voracious reader of short SF from a wide range of magazines and books, you will find a lot of good SF new to you in this volume.

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