Year’s Best SF 15. (eds Hartwell/Cramer, Eos Books, 2010).

The fifteenth volume – and I so clearly remember getting the first!

As is now usual, I will go through the volume from beginning to end, inserting reviews of stories previously read, and putting reviews of stories new to me as individual reviews, and incorporating into this review on an incremental basis. There may be some spoilers in here. I’ll try my best to limit them, and flag them up where it’s going to happen. But generally speaking, with these volumes, the quality is so high, you should be buying them without having to read reviews, especially this volume, which is the cheapest of the four year’s best anthologies currently on the market.

amazon.co.uk | amazon.com

Vandana Singh. Infinities.
Originally in: The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet

The 15th Hartwell/Cramer anthology starts off with another classy story from Singh. She portrays several worlds quite alien to me – the world of India, the world of religion, the world of mathematics : and, indeed, a multiverse of worlds accessible by a combination of these world. A man obsessed with mathematics, or more accurately, the mathematics of infinity, is …spoiler… finally given a chance to glimpse what lies beyond our ken, and an understanding that the reason that is is beyond our ken, is that is simply too great for such humble creatures as us to being to grasp.

What could be a worthy, but dull story is avoided by creating, as Singh has done before, believable characters with human frailties in a sadly believable environment devasted by the impact of those frailties.

Robert Charles Wilson. This Peaceable Land : or The Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Originally in : Alternate Earths, ed Nick Gevers.

The individual review of this story is quite a long one, befitting a top quality story, and rather than embedding it into this meta-review, I’ll give you a link to it. When you’re done reading that review, remember to back button to return to this page! Here’s the link

Yoon Ha Lee. The Unstrung Zither.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, March 2009.

When I read it last year, I wasn’t bowled over :

    “A young woman is suprised to find that her musical talents are required to get into the minds of those who have attacked the Empire. These pilots of metal dragons have come offplanet, resisting the yoke of Imperial oppression; and there is a game to be played which mirrors the war between Empire and resistant territories.

    The story tries to fit in a lot into it’s short space, including familial, political, symbolic and societal background, and music. All these contribute to the protagonist going from loyal subject of the Empire to someone willing to overthrow it and in doing so travel to another world. This radical volte-face is a rapid one, of the type that leaves the reader feeling that perhaps a couple of pages have been inadvertently skipped. Chris Roberson’s got there first, and to better effect, with his ‘Celestical Empire’ series of stories.”

Bruce Sterling. Black Swan.
Originally in : Interzone #221, March/April 2009.

When it appeared last year I liked it :

    “Classy story from Sterling which blends contemporary politics with hi-tech (zero point energy MEMS chips seeing as how you ask) and quantum Earths, in a slightly out of the usual setting : an Italian restaurant.

    An Italian tech journalist is meeting with one of his regular sources, a shadowy figure, who this time provides some extremely mind-bogglingly out there tech specs on him. This is clearly out of the usual realm of tech espionage, and indeed is from an entirely different realm. The journalist finds out about the other Earths, and the other Italy’s, and the other versions of himself. President Sarkozy and Carla Bruni are key players in both this world, and the one that he follows the journalist to.

    Possibly frustratingly for editor Andy Cox, who has been featuring newer writers for the most part, this story from a very well-established writer is likely to be the one that gets Interzone into the Year’s Bests anthologies. ”

Nancy Kress. Exegesis.
Originally in : Asimovs, April/May 2009

When it appeared I tipped it for the top :

    “A very clever piece, which will be in at least one of the Year’s Bests next year. Kress takes Rhett Butler’s closing line from ‘Gone with the Wind’ and follows the (mis)understanding of ‘Frankly My Dear’ through the centuries, as the understanding of the saying gets progressively blurred. ”

Ian Creasey. Erosion.
Originally in : Asimovs, October/November 2009

When it first appeared, I wrote:

    “A bizarre juxtaposition for me – moving from a far future story to one set in Scarborough on the North East coast of England, which has two deeply embedded memories for me : a family holiday in 1976, and an (ahem) week’s holiday with my then girlfriend of a couple of months, who is now my wife of over 25 years.

    The themes of the story are strong ones – a man who has chosen to leave behind his old life to seek out a new life away from Earth, having to leave behind his lover, having to leave behind some degree of humanity as he is transformed for his new environment. And you wouldn’t believe you could feel emotion for a wooden bench, but the memorial bench sitting near a church overlooking the sea contains a mini-upload of the person whom it commemorates, and she is waiting for the sea to reclaim the coast, and for her to be reunited with her drown-dead husband.

    Subtle and satisfying.”

Gwyneth Jones. Collision.
Originally in : When It Changed, ed Geoff Ryman.

It’s been a good few weeks since I’d picked up one of the year’s best anthologies to read a story, and have consequently been reading a lot of stories in anthologies/magazines, the majority of which won’t be appearing in a year’s best next year.

Comparing this story with the previous story read/reviewed, Eric Brown’s ‘Dissimulation Procedure’ from Conflicts, highlights why a story gets into a year’s best anthology. Brown’s story didn’t really stretch the imagination – a fairly bog-standard spaceport setting, a young girl fleeing something and a somewhat weary spacer deciding whether to help or not, and some routine action. Jones in contract gets really stuck in, creating a story which addresses gender identity through characters who change and choose gender (and in one bearded case, choose crossover identities); a story with some back history; a story with some politics; a lot of technology; characters with their own agendas, and characters who change opinions of other characters; some star spanning action; and plenty to boggle your mind

Gene Wolfe. Donovan Sent Us.
Originally in : Other Earths.

I had been looking forward to reading a Gene Wolfe story in this volume, but in the end was rather let-down.

It’s a Second World War alternate history – what if the USA didn’t join in, and the Germans won. The political setting in America is also different, as Eisenhower isn’t president anymore, but a President Kuhn, of the German-American Bund. Having read the story on the train, with no Google on hand, I had to wait to get home to find out about this anti-semitic, anti-communist, pro-Hitler piece of 1930s American History. I struggled to engage with the story – an American parachuted into occupied Britain to rescue a VIP. The American is fluent in German, but in speaking English in the guise of the German, he speaks in a terrible cod-German not very far off ‘ve haff vays of making you talk’. He infiltrates a bunker quite easily, and co-incidentally stumbles across the VIP, whom he rescues. Pondering next steps over a fine cigar (there’s your clue as to the identity of the VIP), the perceived potential threat to world peace of the VIP leads to an unexpected denouement.

I wouldn’t have identified this as a Gene Wolfe story, and it comes from the same anthology as Robert Charles Wilson’s ‘”This Peaceable Land, or, The Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beacher Stowe”‘, which I enthused about at length, and which is a country mile ahead of this story in terms of quality. Unless of course Wolfe is being very, very clever, and there’s a clue in there that I’ve missed that gives fuller richness to his story.

Marissa K. Lingen. The Calculus Plague.
Originally in : Analog, July/August 2009

I wasn’t immediately grabbed when reading this last year :

    “Very short piece which ponders whether it is a good idea to eschew scientific ethical frameworks in the name of progress. Answers on a postcard to… “

Peter Watts. The Island.
Originally in : New Space Opera 2.

When I read it I was impressed :

    “Some ultra-hard sf, ultra-far future, as with the previous story by Wilson (Ultriusque Cosmi). However, Watts’ is slightly less successful in taking on the challenge of presenting the story from a female protagonist, not quite getting an emotional depth of character.

    Earth is long-dead, but humanity lives on, albeit in the service of those less than but more than human, constantly expanding the sphere of galactic conquest by building wormholes. Having created a wormhole, the humans have to flee to avoid being caught up by those hard on their heels.

    As in the Wilson story, the humans achieve longevity by spreading their lives across centuries by living in short bursts – both authors using the term ’saccade’. Whilst Wilson’s protagonist is uploaded (but is able to retain and sustain emotional needs), Watts’ protagonist has physical needs which she is able to satisfy both by herself (having her ‘jill off’ comes across very strongly as a female character written by a male) and with her son.

    The son is only partly such, a creation of ‘the chimp’, the AI which controls the construction ship. There’s an interesting troilistic relationship here, with the chimp directly linked to the son, who has been created in order to spy on his mother.

    The drama is set up when the system in which the latest wormhole to be built has a very, very anomolous entity. So anomolous that it is beyond the AI’s coding to incorporate into its decision making, and the mother has to find ways to persuade it not to start a destructive build near a colossal, biological, sentient creature – less an Island but more a Dyson Sphere. “

Paul Cornell. One of Our Bastards is Missing.
Originally in : The Solaris Book of Science Fiction 3.

When reading it previously I noted :

    “..does have more than a feel of a Dr. Who episode (Cornell writes Dr. Who novels amongst other things). Indeed, the story could easily be turned into an episode. In an alternate Earth, Victorian England-ish, a young Princess and her betrothed are hosting a ball when an Austrian guest close to her suddenly disappears into thin air. This isn’t as unusual as it might be, as the control of such things is fairly commonplace, although the palace security should have stopped it happening. It turns out in fact that there has been a double-bluff as not only has the Austrian disappeared into a local time anomaly, but he has taken the Princess with him, and put a doppelganger in her place. Palace security has to get the Princess back. “

Sarah L. Edwards. Lady of the White-Spired City.
Originally in : Interzone 222, June 2009.

When reading it last year I merely summarised the plot, generally suggestive of their not being anything that I felt it worthy to comment on other than that :

    “An elderly, high-status emissary from afar visits a small village on an out of the way planet. She is in fact visiting her homeworld, and is eager to trace what has happened to those she left behind many, many years ago in her timeline, and centuries of planetary time.

    Whilst not finding out everything that she wants to, she is able to come to an accommodation with what she left behind, and to begin this final phase of her life once more in the village.”

Brian Stableford. The Highway Code.
Originally in : We Think, Therefore We Are.

Last year I noted :

    “A story seen through the eyes (or should that be the headlights?) of an AI which has been birthed to drive long-haul freight on the roads. Stableford has fun with Asimov’s three laws, in having the AI proscribed through the three main principles of the Highway Code. And this very much self-aware AI finds than in acting instantly to an imminent disaster that he may well have broken those principles. However, he is assured that the did indeed act for the greater good, a morally satisfactory action. However, his career is over, and the only saving grace, if that is really the case, is that instead of the breaker’s yard, he is left to ponder matters on the sea bed, whence he ended up as a result of his actions. “

Peter M. Ball. On the Destruction of Copenhagen by the War-Machines of the Merfolk.
Originally on : Strange Horizons (and, by golly, still online – click here to read it

The invasion of Copenhagen from sea of enormous mechanical war machines is viewed from a slightly detached perspective by a couple who have found each other on the internet, and are trying to find something in a hotel room to draw them together. The invasion flounders, as does their relationship, and in this world of instant communication, and a world wide web of all things being possible, a distance between people, and between people and events is apparent.

Alastair Reynolds. The Fixation.
Originally in : The Solaris Book of Science Fiction, Volume 3.

When I read it last year I wrote:

    “.. which steps up the quality. A young researcher in an Earth just slightly different from ours – a Persian dominated world. She is working on an ancient artefact, a somewhat anomalous geared mechanism. There is a bigger project afoot elsewhere, where the artefact will be put into some hi-tech kit than can use ‘entropy exchange’ to link with other instances of the artefact in other quantum Earth’s. By in effect pinching a few atoms from each other instance, the artefact can be brought to a more complete state.

    However, there are dangers inherent in this, and the true cost of trying to pinch from another reality are brought home. “

Brenda Cooper. In Their Garden.
Originally in : Asimovs, September 2009.

When it first appeared I wrote:

    “A young girl rails against the walls that keep her from the outside. Her elders, and putative betters, have been insisting that she remains within the walls, for that which is outside can only hurt her. However, the situation is at an impasse, as she can no longer accept the constraints under which she lives, and they have to choose whether she must be let to decide her own destiny. A situation every parent has to face in due course. It’s not a hugely original idea, and is ok as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go that far”

Geoff Ryman. Blocked.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 2009

When it appeared, I was impressed :

    “Ryman memorably took us further East than SF/fantasy normally gets, in his excellent ‘Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)’, and this follows suit.

    Humanity has ceased reaching for the stars, a theme addresses regularly in SF in recent years, often in the alternate history mode. Here he takes a close look on its impact on society at large, and a small family. A mother, abandoned by her husband, had fled with her children, and the new head of the family is somewhat bemused to find himself in that role. He struggles with the relationships, and the motivations of his wife and her children – is she just interested in him as a route to safety from the purported dual threat of cometsrike and alien attack.

    No longer reaching outward, humanity is closing in on itself, and is seeking refuge deep underground. The hermetic nature of a future, entombed but with a virtual reality, work for him and his family. Surprisingly, the semi-autistic/catatonic child who has struggled with life above ground, finds the new life one that suits her. And he has to struggle to find an accommodation with his new accommodation. Excellent. “

Michael Cassutt. The Last Apostle.
Originally in : Asimovs, July 2009

When it appeared last year I wrote:

    “A story with several elements in it, which work to varying degrees. The Last Apostle of the title is the last man left alive from the select group who walked on the moon. As he approaches his final years, he reflects on his colleagues who were given the collective noun by a journalist, and the personalities of each.

    There’s an element of alternate history to the story, in that there have been twelve men who have walked on the moon. The reason for this could be to get a dozen to match the apostles for the title to work, or to avoid the story having to refer to the actual astronauts who have worked on the moon. It’s not clear though why the last astronaut’s mission was Apollo 506, and the space program is largely the same as has actually happened.

    There is one secret the astronauts have been keeping to themselves – the finding of some artefacts suggesting an alien civilization, or much, much earlier visit by humans. It’s a bit difficult to accept a discovery of such huge importance would be kept secret by the astronauts. In deciding to bring this finally to the attention of humanity, the last astronaut unwittingly identifies an evidently even bigger find : water ice.

    The interpersonal relationships of the astronauts are the highlights of the story, the ageing astronaut looking back on his mission and the lead up to it also work, but the rest to lesser effect. “

Charles Oberndorf. Another Life.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 2009

When it appeared last year I was impressed:

    “Engrossed in this SF story, I was under the misapprehension that I was reading a Haldeman story (F&SF print only the story title, and not the author name, on pages other than the first one). I was thinking that Haldeman was returning to some of the themes in his ‘Forever War’ milieu, and doing it to the same standard.

    It’s a cleverly constructed story, set during a visit to an ex-lover who has eschewed the opportunity to be reborn against as a young person, and who is now aged and wrinkled. The young (in body) visitor talks about a former love, a short affair during combat R&R. He remembers how we woke up after being ‘reborn’, his old mind in a new body, but unable to remember the events leading up to his death in combat. Disturbed by this, he refuses the chance to head back home, and waits for the return of his lover. Whilst doing so, he moves in with a prostitute who is working the base, who swings both ways and who has the necessary wherewithal to be fully active in both modes.

    The characters are well drawn, and we follow the protagonist as he deals with the loss of his life, his career, his memory, and his lover, until he finds out the reason behind those losses, and how he came to come to an accommodation with those events, as he has to do with the now-elderly ex-lover he must leave again.

    It’s not by Haldeman, but could easily be. “

Mary Robinette Kowal. The Consciousness Problem.
Originally in : Asimovs, August 2009

In a strong issue I noted last year :

    “A close look at the psychological issues relating to cloning. Suffering the after-effects of a car crash, Elise is reluctant to leave the house, suffering flashback and absences. Her husband, Mung, is working on a cloning project, and in creating a clone of himself he unwittingly creates a virtual menage-a-trois. His cloned self, confined to the lab, is a perfect copy and fully self-aware, and of course misses terribly what his memory tells him is his wife. In the short piece, Kowal explores the clone’s reaction to his circumstances, and how this alternate husband, suffering the horrible pangs of separation, in effect feels a greater love for his wife than does the ‘real’ husband. Is suicide the only way out for the clone? “

Stephen Baxter. Tempest 43.
Originally in : We Think, Therefore We Are

When it appeared last year, I wrote :

    “I’ve seen fewer Baxter short stories of late, which is a worry. Here he takes us a few centuries hence, with Earth reaping what we are currently sowing in terms of climate change. An AI-controlled orbiting weather station tasked with preventing hurricanes devastating the US coast (by beaming down microwave energy in such a way as to dissiapte the energy in the hurricane) has notably failed in its task. Baxter cleverly mixes some historical backstory to create a more rounded story as the actions of previous corporations, and invididuals, are part of the mix. There is a human on board, and the ship’s AI has fractured into three parts, one of which is now esconced as a virtual companion to him. A strong start to the collection. “

Genevieve Valentine. Bespoke.
Originally on : Strange Horizons (and still online

Nicely handled time travel story through the eyes of a coutourier. Time travel is the prerogative of the rich, and they are more than happy to spend lots of money to ensure that their costumes are a perfect match for the era to which they head. The fact that in doing so they are destroying their own world bit by bit (the butterfly effect – which in this world is removing all flora and fauna, with a subsequent plague of butterflies. There are some nice background details, and the story revolves around a junior seamstress who is able to observe the foibles of the wealthy elite.

Eric James Stone. Attitude Adjustment.
Originally in : Analog, September 2009.

When I read it last year, I noted :

    “Short piece in which a small spaceship orbiting the Moon finds itself on course to hit the moon, courtesy of sabotage. There appears to be no way to make the ship change course.

    Head-scratching ensues as varies ideas are hatched and discounted, including some courtesy of an SF reader who is able to recall stories he had read with similar conundrums (probably an Analog reader). Can those on board come up with a bit of lateral thinking to save the day? “

Chris Roberson. Edison’s Frankenstein.
Originally in : Postscripts 20/21.

A frustrating story, but only in the sense that you’re frustrated at wanting more. It’s ponders the effect of the finding of another source of energy at the same time as Edison and Tesla’s work on electricity, one that made their experimentation with electricity redundant and put them into the category of eccentrics, rather than visionaries who would create the world we live in.

Roberson puts some subtle characterisations and touches to his story, where many would have left a fairly blank or cod-steampunky background. He sets the story in Chicago around the time of a World’s Fair, with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World drawing business away from the other attractions. The protagonist is Algerian, with a layer of racism added to the story, and reference to the American South. The story, as such, revolves around the finding of a naked man, unaware of who or where he is, at the same time as Edison meeting a grisly end at his carnival sideshow. The only bum note for me, which can be a failing of Alternate History, is in having the protagonist ponder what the world would be like if the world was powered by electricity, which rather breaks the conceit that the reader is engaged in whilst reading the story.

Conclusion.

As ever, a strong collection of stories, albeit fairly ‘safe’ in terms of a relatively narrow range of sources. If you read the main SF magazines and got a couple of the obvious top quality anthologies in 2009 (as I did) you wont get -that- much value. By my count of the 24 stories, I’d read 17 first time around, leaving only 7 new to me. But of those 7 new, the Singh and Wilson stories which opened the anthology of worth the cover price alone.

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