Year’s Best SF 16. (ed David G. Hartwell, Kathryn Cramer. Harper Voyager, 2011.)

The most pocket sized of the annual anthologies. Here are the stories in the volume in the order in which they appeared, which will have been read recently in this volume, or which were read on their initial publication.

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Joe Haldeman. Sleeping Dogs.

Originally in Gateways (ed Elizabeth Ann Hull).

Haldeman’s ‘Forever War’ was a classic series of stories brought together for a novel, and here he looks at some of the (sadly all too familiar) ethics behind conflict. A soldier returns to a planet where he saw service. This is what he knows : he lost a finger whilst on the planet, the indigenous civilians lost a lot more, his memories were covered up by the armed forces. With drugs on the market that can help to restore the memories, he is intent on finding out what he doesn’t know : what he did in the ‘war’. The story is nicely told, the dialogue flowing particularly well.

Kay Kenyon. Castoff World.
Originally in : Shine (ed Jetse de Vries)

One of the better stories in an anthology that didn’t quite live up to the editor’s e-hype, I wrote:

    The strongest story in the volume so far. Kenyon has a tight focus on how global climate changes can affect individuals. There are essentially three characters – the young girl through whose eyes the story unfolds; her grandfather through whom we find out just how much of the society we are familiar with has been lost; and Nora, the nano-bot controlled floating recycling facility, drifting in the sea, on whom they live and on whom they very much rely.

    In contrast to the previous story, which I read with a somewhat dismayed feeling that the number of pages yet to be read just didn’t seem to be reducing, this was one of those stories where the ending came all too quickly. It’s a story that could have been longer, and perhaps have seen a bit more human invention and challenge to get to the end, rather than being a largely passive passenger, but a tip for inclusion in one of next year’s annual collections.

Benjamin Crowell. Petopia.
Originally in : Asimovs, June 2010.

Last year I wrote:

    A cuddly toy with an AI chip finds itself a long way from home, and rather than being a pet for a rich Western child, it offers a young girl ekeing out a living in a far less affluent community a chance to improve her life chances – at the expense of those affluent westerners.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Futures in the Memories Market.

Originally in : Clarkesworld Magazine, #45, June 2010 (and still online) – so read it!

A nice little story that looks at the cost of giving up one’s memories – Geeta Tilrassen gives up her daily memory for the benefit of those who cherish her hyper-sensitivity which they themselves can experience through commercial memods. The story is told through one of her close companions, a bodyguard who has the opportunity to help her gain some measure of a sense of self in the face of her uncaring face of the company with whom she is under contract. But does he take that opportunity?

Vernor Vinge. A Preliminary Assessment of the Drake Equation : Being an Excerpt from the Memoirs of Star Captain Y.-T. Lee.
Originally in : Gateways

A clever story by Vernon ‘Singularity’ Vinge, set on the inappropriately-named planet ‘Paradise’. It’s the second mission there, and the titular captain is on like a cat on a hot tin roof, on account of the only part of the planet being above sea level is a tectonically hyperactive volcano. In addition to the tectonic forces there are human forces at play – scientific and commercial – and he has to balance those. There’s plenty of discussion of the Drake Equation there, which doesn’t descend into infodumping, as Vinge posits a potential future for humanity that doesn’t involve the singularity, neither a huge galactic community of intelligent species.

Terry Bisson. About It.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept/Oct 2010

Surprisingly affecting short. A janitor in a scientific establishment recounts the time he spent with one of the creations the lab guys allowed him to take home with him – “..they could save the autopsy ritual as they call it, plus the paperwork..”

The creature which has limited time left, is something hominid, and the janitor relates how, despite its lack of language, and limited interaction with him and the neighbourhood children, it quietly became very much part of their lives.

The narration reads true, and the subtle understatement of its telling gets across the dignity of the creature, and the final paragraphs as the DNA used in its creation finally falls apart, is quite heartrending.

Vandana Singh. Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra.
Originally in : Strange Horizons, 29th March 2010 – and still online

So, have a read of the story. It’s a clever one – a very clever one, blending the future with historical sensibilities, and story within a story, or rather, a meta-story.

Damien Broderick. Under the Moons of Venus.
Originally in : Subterranean Online, Spring 2010, and still online.

Also collected in Strahan’s take on the Year’s Best, where I read it and said :

    If you haz not read the story yet, follow the link above.

    It’s a complex story, as you’d expected (and demand) from Broderick, that starts off feeling like one kind of story – a sort of mix of JGB and ERB, with Blackett mourning the Venus that he has lost, to which almost all humanity have been instantly, unexplainedly, transported, along with our moon. Has that happened, or is he delusional?

    There is interesting character-driven interplay between himself, a female neighbour who is offering psychological support (or not), and a bed-ridden neighbour, but then some science starts to creep in, and there is math to support a very strange explanation….

    Excellent.

Cat Sparks. All the Love in the World.
Originally in : Sprawl.

A post-apocalyptic Australia, with a community hunkering down to resist the potential threat from outside. There are interpersonal dynamics at work, as our protagonist finds herself no longer the object of her lovers’ affections. When a crisis needs someone to brave the dangerous lands outside of their small community, she follows, and finds out things are not quite as she had expected. Nicely observed characterisations.

Alastair Reynolds. At Budokan.
Originally in : Shine

When it appeared last year in the anthology that focussed on optimistic SF I pondered :

    Getting Alastair Reynolds’ name on a book cover is of course a Good Thing. However, I’m not so sure though that getting him to write a Near Future Optimistic story is a Good Thing, as his strengths are far future, galactic-spanning stories. And whilst it’s Near Future, I’m not so sure about the Optimistic – after all it’s a world in which Heavy Metal music still holds sway…

    And if you think (like I do) that the likes of Kiss are the nadir of humanity, then a future in which Monsters of Rock are indeed just that, with the might Tyrannosaurus Rex re-created to serve up high octane rock, is hardly going to be an optimistic one. But Reynolds has his tongue firmly in his cheek as he looks at the lengths the rock industry will go to please their audience.

David Langford. Graffiti in the Library of Babel.
Originally in : Is Anybody Out There?

When it appeared last year I wrote:

    I was pleased to see David Langford in the volume – he doesn’t write much, but what he does write is invariably worth reading, as is the case here. He posits an interesting means by which intelligent life could choose to get in touch with us – especially interesting due to his hearing impairment – as the means is by embedding slightly obtuse messages within the texts of classical literature. It’s a clever conceit, and Langford doesn’t rest on that, upping the ante as the messages are decoded and the implications dawn on humanity.

Michael Swanwick. Steadfast Castle.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept/Oct 2010.

When I read it last year, it wasn’t one of the strong stories in the issue, but I noted :

    A police officer arrives at 1241 Glenwood Avenue, the residence of James Albert Garretson, who has disappeared. The House AI is initially unco-operative, and when the full force of the law is threatened, grudgingly provides as little information as possible.

    The story follows the conversation between the two, as the policeman puts together a picture as to what has happened through speaking to the AI, and from observations of the house, and the application of good old-fashioned sleuthing. It transpires that the relationship between master and AI has been quite an intimate one, and when a third party joined the equation something had to give. And in a neat twist, the policeman finds the tables turned on him.

Catherynne M. Valente. How to Become a Mars Overlord.

Originally in : Lightspeed Magazine, August 2010, and still online.

Neat post-modern reflection on Mars(es) past(s) and present(s) and other(s). Don’t let me spoil it – have a read of it!

Karl Schroeder. To Hie from Far Cilenia.
Originally : in ‘Metatropolis’.

Originally in a Scalzi edited audio collection, good work from Hartwell and Cramer to get this to a wider audience. One the one hand a near-future science thriller about tracking some stolen plutonium, on the other hand a fascinating exploration of where current fascination with online RPG, avatars, MMORPG, cosplay, and augmented reality could lead, as the investigation quickly leads into a ‘game’ which is a combination of these, and then, into a game within a game.

Some interesting issues are raised, but moral dilemmas remain.

Brenda Cooper. The Hebras and the Demons and the Damned.
Originally in : Analog, 2010.

An increasingly rare occurrence – a story from Analog in a Year’s Best volume. The editors point out that Analog had a better year with SF on account of the increasing amount of fantasy in the other mags.

The story is set on the planet Fremon, the location of Cooper’s first novel. As with a number of Analog stories, it is about human settlers on an alien planet struggling to understand the flora and fauna, and making some kind of accommodation in order for humanity to survive. Unlike a number of Analog stories of this ilk, it is quite well written, but didn’t really do that much for me – it could just as easily have been any settlers from any historical period on Earth struggling with the unknown.

Gregory Benford. Penumbra.
Originally in : Nature.

One of the regular short-shorts that have appeared in Nature magazine in recent years and featured in the Hartwell/Cramer anthologies. Something dramatic has happened on Earth, which is a state of frazzlement (my word, not Benford’s!) Exactly what has happened is somewhat moot, but why some have survived is the nub of this nubbin of a tale (and the answer is in the title).

Robert Reed. The Good Hand.
Originally in : Asimovs, January 2010

When I read it last year I wrote :

    Clever reflection on the current issues with the Iranian nuclear bomb-building programme.

    Reed postulates a world in which the USA keeps a very firm stranglehold on its nuclear bomb technology after the end of the second world war, willing to take the ultimate step in ensuring that no other nation get their own nuclear capability.

    A businessman is heading over to France to conclude some business, and there is a huge tension with the French people he meets, for whom the Americans are beyond the pale. Whilst the Americans believe that their global dominance is a price worth paying for peace, other countries have different views. The subtle differences back in the States is shown through clever reference to Hollywood.

    The tension rises when the Americans show that they are still willing to take drastic action to retain the status quo, and the businessmen finds himself threatened with being part of a human shield put in place to protect the just-discovered French space programme.

    Reed, as ever, gets the characterisation and detail right, and doesn’t make the mistake of making the jet-lagged businessman embracing those who he has been previously at odds with.

Jack McDevitt. The Cassandra Project.
Originally in : Lightspeed Magazine, and still there here.

Another reflective piece on what the 1960s/1970s ‘space race’ and Apollo missions might have led to in alternate histories, with a pinch of tabloid newspaper sensationalism, as some long buried secrets come to light…

Steven Popkes. Jackie’s-Boy.
Originally in : Asimovs, April/May 2010.

Last year I noted :

    The double-issue closes with humanity’s dominion over the planet removed, with only a handful of people surviving natural disaster, bio-terrorism, and plague. Michael is one of those survivors, orphaned, and now without even his uncle’s helping hand. Risking death to sneak into the heavily fortified local zoo, he befriends the sole remaining elephant, and we follow them on an epic journey to the south, in search of other elephants. It works well, avoiding the trap of falling into Disneyesque mawkishness, (an ‘Incredible Journey’ for the new millenium), with strong imagery around humanity’s concrete and metal structures falling to the power of earthquake, flood and vegetation, and with the flora and fauna taking over, with the future for humanity looking bleak.

Sean McMullen. Eight Miles.
Originally in : Analog, September 2011.

When I read it last year, I wrote :

    The pick of the issue for me, in a story with more than a nod to Jules Verne, in which a hot air balloon pioneer in 1840 is contracted to take a paying passenger and his strange companion to great heights, to prove the nature of that companion. Just how high is the crux of the matter.

Paul Park. Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance (The Parke Family Scrapbook Number IV).
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan/Feb 2010.

Reading this last year, coloured impressed was I :

    A complex, substantial novella from Park, of the type that F&SF has done well over the years. It’s a tale within a tale, a fiction within a fiction, part-family history.

    The narrator relates his family history from both lines, going back several generations, utilising extracts from other publications, military tribunals, and novels written by his forebears. An unreliable narrator, we follow his imagined relationships, and those relationships that take place in the online world of Second Life, as all this is seen through the magnifying lens of his own life. In addition to the richly created backgrounds to his forebears and
    their history, there is the repeated occurrence of children born with cauls (of which he was one). And as he probes deeper, the repeated occurrence of strange visitations, and his family’s role in rebutted those who would seek to enter our world, is clarified.

    To add further depth, the near-future USA has suffered, politically and environmentally. The story draws to a dramatic conclusion as the narrator finds himself inexorably, albeit unwittingly, eventually called to take up his place in the historic stand.

    It’s a story that requires, and rewards. the reader’s close attention.

Conclusion

As ever, a good anthology full of strong SF from the big name SF magazines and online sources, with three of the most welll-received major anthologies (Shine, Gateways, Is Anybody Out There?) represented.

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