Year’s Best SF 14. ed David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. Eos Books 2009

The 14th volume in this excellent pocket-sized series . I’ll run through, as is the norm, the stories in the order of appearance, many of which I have previously read.

Carolyn Ives Gilman. Arkfall.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 2008.

When I read this in its magazine appearance, I was impressed:

    A substantial story – in many ways. Gilman has put together a believable alien planet, a different human society, and believable, complex characters, and spun an adventure tale that almost matches the setting. The ark Cormorin is a bio-ship, a partly biological sub-marine habitat for humans who live therein, in the dark seas of a very alien planet. Those who live on the arks have a communal life, and are very opposed to confrontation or direct comment, alluding to the actions of others and their preferences, with stilted speech patterns to match. Osaji and her aged grandmother are coming to a subterranean port, Golconda, and Osaji is worried for her grandmother, whose ill-heath and early stages of mental decline are not only painful to witness, but an increasing strain on her.

    Osaji moves in temporarily with her sister in the town, but finds the call of the seas too much for her. She has to decide whether to leave her grandmother in port, or take her with her once more. In the end she decides on the latter, and on the jetty, she comes across an aggressive offworlder, whose behaviour and beliefs are anathema to her.

    Following an undersea eruption, she, her grandmother, and the man are set adrift in an ark, which has to follow the currents. This is indeed the way of her people, but due to the eruption they are flushed out of the enormous volcanic basin which is the only part of the planet they know, into unchartered waters.

    Osaji is Rose Sayer to his Charlie Allnut, and we follow this odd couple as they make the most of their bleak future as the explore the deep seas and find out more about the planet.

    The roughneck offworlder never ceases to stop thinking of ways to get the ark moving in the direction they want, as opposed to blindly following the currents, and in the end succeeds, giving the pair a chance to reflect where they want to go with their lives.

    It’s a page-turner, and one of my picks of the year so far.

Neil Gaiman. Orange.
Originally in : ‘The Starry Rift’ ed Jonathan Strahan.

From a strong collection of YA SF form last year, where I summarised :

    A clever piece : the verbatim reponses to a series of questions, provided without the questions. We piece together that the interviewee is a teen girl, and she is being interviewed about her sister, who has been experimenting with out of this world chemicals, and who has become…

Kathleen Ann Goonan. Memory Dog.
Originally in : Asimovs, April/May 2008

Last year I was impressed :

    The issue opens with a very clever and accomplished story with a strong ending. The protagonist is a dog – or, to be more accurate, a dog with the memory of a man overlaid on it. The man has chosen to live a shorter, canine life primarily as a penance for the death of his young daughter. Knowing that his wife will never forgive him, he returns to the family home in his new guise, where his wife is now living with a political opponent of the repressive government regime. The recent introduction of new drugs have liberated human memory, offering opportunities for good, but also having unintended consequences, exacerbating the societal problems. The new partner is a newspodder – someone who publishes his political observations on the ether, to be picked up by others who choose to receive information in this democratic airborne means. However, having been picked up by the government, he is returned in a damaged state and the couple, and their new dog must flee.

    The story wonderfully evokes the loss of the daughter, the breakup of the marriage, the sheer joy of the father/dog as it returns to the family home, and comes to a powerful conclusion as a solution to the problems of aggression and violence is let loose.

Paolo Bacigalupi. Pump Six.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 2008

In the same issue as the Gilman story above, I was more than impressed (as is invariably the case with Bacigalupi) :

    The lead-out story in Bacigalupi’s collection ‘Pump Six and Other Stories’. Editor GvG warns that the story may not be suitable for younger readers, but I beg to differ as it is exactly they who should be reading it! As in his ‘The Calorie Man’ Bacigalupi creates a believable, original near-future society, and there is a lot of SF whose settings are neither believalbe nor original.

    The story sets out with the reader slightly unsettled – Alvarez walks into the kitchen in the morning to find his girlfriend with her head in the oven, the gas oven, with a lit match. She is trying to work out why it isn’t working, and she takes umbrage, violent umbrage, at his pointing out that what she is doing is not a good idea.

    The couple make up after a big row, and then Alvarez heads to work, to be met by a colleague who alerts him to the fact that the eponymous Pump Six, one of several massive sewage pumps servicing the city, hasn’t been working for some hours. Unfortunately, his colleague hasn’t thought of checking the manuals. We gradually find out more about the urban setting, where the population are regular pill-poppers, the younger generation spend a lot of their time fornicating, and whilst the machines and infrasctructure just about manage to keep going on auto-pilot, there is a diminishment in the overall level of intelligence and motivation in the human population.

    It would appear that we are headed for a morlockisation, bent on pleasure, with little awareness of the wider surroundings, of literature (the closed, and empty library is a symbol of our loss of knowledge and culture).

    It’s a bitterly dark take on where we may be headed. >

Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette. Boojum.
Originally in : ‘Fast Ships, Black Sails’ ed Jeff and Ann Vandermeer.

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.

Ted Chiang. Exhalation.
Originally in : Eclipse 2, ed Jonathan Strahan

As you expect from Chiang, an inventive and expertly crafted tale. He smoothly posits a humanity in which lungs are replaced when empty of air, in a society constrained within a finite dome. What is not finite, in fact, is the oxygen which they breathe, and we follow one scientist as he explores the nature of their reliance on oxygen, and the implications of a supply that will not last much longer. One to be instantly re-read to savour the quality.

M. Rickert. Traitor.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May 2008

When it first appeared, it went down a bomb with me :

    F&SF regular Rickert provides a dark, disturbing tale of a young girl brought up by a mother who is willing to pay a high and personal price for her beliefs. Young Alika follows the path mapped out for her by her mother, who does show some emotion when higher powers indicate the time is right for Alika to make her (unknowing) sacrifice. However, young Alika is a survivor, as the mother finds out to her cost as the clock ticks down to zero.

Cory Doctorow. The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away.
Originally in : Tor.com

Doctorow explores the strange world of computer techies, taking it just one step from reality, and esconcing them in a monastery setting, there to carry out their solitary analytical tasks. Lawrence finds himself required to solve a riddle involve a data anomaly by leaving the reclusive setting, and having to enter the ‘real world’. He struggles to ease himself into the wider world, and is grateful when he once able to return to the safety of his cubicle.

Vandana Singh. Oblivion : a Journey.
Originally in : Clockwork Phoenix ed Mike Allen.

A powerful story, a far-future, post-human setting, but rich with humanity and human myth. It is a story of revenge, but is a story about human desires and actions, and about death.

Robert Reed. The House Left Empty.
Originally in : Asimovs, April/May 2008.

On its original appearance I liked, and noted :

    Near future, and an older guy is sitting on the porch of his house in his self governing community. The US of A is mostly a thing of the past, and whilst some things have been lost, like the Internet and telecoms and central government, they’re not mostly missed as solar power and nanotech enable a comfortable existence. However, a delivery for a neighbour recently departed to live with his daughter brings a bigger perspective – the content is in fact one of a number of small spherical spaceships designed to be sent on their way from an orbiting railgun. Whilst some things that have been lost aren’t missed, we may in fact be missing out on reaching for the skies.

Michael Swanwick. The Scarecrow’s Boy.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October/November 2008

In a strong double issue, I wrote last year:

    A tardis of a story – much bigger on the inside than on the outside. A young boy stumbles, crying, into a field, and the robot acting as a scarecrow could be his once chance of staying alive. But for that to happen, the robot has to justify actions that would go against its programming.

Ted Kosmatka. N-words.
Originally in : Seeds of Change, ed John Joseph Adams.

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.

Alastair Reynolds. Fury.
Originally in : Eclipse 2 ed Jonathan Strahan.

Far future, in which the assassination of the Emperor leads his head of security on a search for the person behind the assassination.

The story turns on sibling rivalry on Mars many centuries in the past (something Reynolds has touched on before), and the moral question to be answered revolves around whether one act of murder can be counterbalanced by future good.

And having seen a pony being used recently be Reynolds as a lever to punish an otherwise impregnable person, this time the koi get it.

Ann Halam. Cheats.
Originally in : The Starry Rift ed Jonathan Strahan.

The second story picked by Hartwell/Cramer from the YA collection, whence I summarised: >

    A teen brother and sister enjoy playing ultra-real immersive adventure games, until their gameplay is interrupted by other gamers playing outside of the rules. In attempting to catch the cheats, the siblings find themselves captured. The story makes some clever twists in the tale, the kind to get the reader really engaged – instead of the final setting for their adventures being a computer game, they are instead neurologically experiencing a planet on the other side of the galaxy. And in the closing paras we find that one of them has a degenerative disease, and this might be their route to escaping the boundares that their body imposes – a ‘Ship Who Sang’ for a new generation.

Jason Sanford. The Ships Like Clouds, Risen by their Rain.
Originally in : Interzone, #217, August 2008.

    As inventive a piece of world-building as you generally see in short SF. Not all is fully explained, but the small community featured has an economy based on the minerals and other effluvia deposited from spaceships in the high stratosphere above them. As this crud rains down on them, over generations, the city grows higher and higher, with buildings losing lower floors to the ever-increasing soil and having to build ever upward. A weather-watcher is charged with warning the village of potentially damaging inundations, and after one colossal storm, she follows a hole which has opened up in her cellar, and is able to pass through rooms she remembers as a child, to find,nestling several floors below, a newly minted ship, ready to reach for the skies and to offer someone a life quite different. It’s passing strange, a David Lynch kind of story : a mashup of ‘Eraserhead’, ‘Dune’, ‘Twin Peaks’, and the story benefits from being chonged. It appears that Sanford has a story due in Analog, which I’ll keep an eye open for, as this is the most un-Analoggy kind of story.

You may well wonder what exactly the ‘chonging’ is which I claimed the story benefits from. Buggered if I know!

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

In a ‘fine issue’ (of which there were many last year) of Asimovs, 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.

Daryl Gregory. Glass.
Originally in : MIT Technology Review.

Short piece in which a drug treatment is having spectacular effects with the psycho/sociopaths on which it is being tested. Now seeing their victims as people and feeling remorse for their actions, for some in the treatment programme the guilt becomes too much.

Jeff VanderMeer. Fixing Hanover.
Originally in : Extraordinary Engines ed Nick Gevers.

In the steampunk anthology, I noted:

    Somewhat less steampunky than most stories in the volume. In a coastal village a man with a hidden history is perturbed when the head of an automaton washes up on the shore. The ex-partner of his lover wants him to fix it, and he is in no position to refuse, even though he suspects that by re-animating the robot he may be jeopardising his new identity and his new life. True enough, the robot is indeed the herald of his undoing, as once operational, it can fulfil its role as a beacon to draw those from whom he has escaped back into their fold.

Rudy Rucker. Message Found in a Gravity Wave.
Originally in : Nature.

Short piece in which a young man just might know a bit more about the future of our planet (or what little remains of it) and has a message for those who will witness our fate.

Karl Schroeder and Tobias S. Buckell. Mitigation.
Originally in : Fast Forward 2, ed Lou Anders.

On reading this last year I wrote:

    Near future science thriller set in a world where climate change has made signficant impact. Chauncie has a chance to earn some money in a high-risk heist of a bio-ark : he has a moral choice to make as to whether he should destroy precious seed specimens in order to extract and store their DNA for the future of humanity, in anticipation of an imminent raid by cyber-terrorists.

OK as far as it goes, but it is ‘just’ a science thriller, and not SF, and there are several other stories in the volume which would have made it ahead of this one, in my pick of the year’s best, although in Hartwell/Cramer’s defence, whilst Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctorow’s ‘True Names’ was the standout for me, it was a very lengthy story for a pocket sized collection such as this.

Sue Burke. Spiders.
Originally in : Asimovs, March 2008.

    A father takes his young son out in the alien forest, guiding him amongst the trees and pointing out the various flora and fauna, some of which are quite dangerous. The story rather pokes into the dark underbrush, rather than getting a flashlight in there and having a thorough examination.

I took the time (not that it took much time as it is short) and re-read the story, and enjoyed the subtlety a bit more second time around. Probably helped by a very mellow reading location by the side of the garden pond on a warm evening!

Conclusion.

As ever, Hartwell and Cramer pick a selection of stories much in line with my taste – really strong, traditional science fiction, which is what you would want from a Year’s Best SF collection. There’s a good mixture of magazine SF (good to see Interzone getting a mention), no surprise not to see any Analog, and a good range of original anthologies represented. The full page author bios and story introductions add to the reading experience.

Bacigalupi, Chiang, Swanwick and Sanford the creme-de-la-creme IMHO. The only real quibble is the inclusion of the Vandermeer and Schroeder stories, which I felt were some way off being the strongest stories in the collections they are taken from.

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