Year’s Best SF 17. (ed David G. Hartwell, Kathryn Cramer. Harper Voyager, 2012.)

The one pocket-sized SF anthology of the year. Here’s a run through of the content, with reviews of those stories I read in their initial appearance.

Ken MacLeod. The Best Science Fiction of the Year Three.
Originally in : Solaris Rising – The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction.

When I read it last year I noted:

    You always get some thought-provoking politics with MacLeod, and here he pops in some near-future background to give depth to a story involving an SF writer and an anthologist. The French have had another of their left-wing revolutions, and America has retreated further into their right-wing fascist state, and the protagonists are on either side of the divide. There’s a scientific demonstration at the end – but what it demonstrates is not what it appears to do. Hopefully we’ll see ‘The Best Science Fiction of the Year Three’ in next year’s ‘Year’s Best SF 17′, which would appeal to my perverse sense of humour.

Elizabeth Bear. Dolly.
Originally in : Asimovs, January 2011.

When it appeared last year I wrote :

    A beautiful robot, but one with no sense of self, and consequently closer to a sex toy, is found over the body of her owner. She is clearly responsible – but was she a weapon, an accessory or witness, or the murderer? It’s a short story, going over ground long since trampled over by the footsteps of other writers, but manages to have some impact, primarily through the chief investigator, who isn’t a hard-drinking guy with problem with dames, but an altogether more rounded figure.

Ken Liu. Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2012.

When I read it in its magazine appearance last year I wrote :

    In the far future, teen angst still prevails, as does homework, even if that homework takes place in a bedroom that is a multi-dimensional Klein bottle. Young Renee Tae-o Fayette, like all children of her generation has the world(s) at the tip of their fingers, as there is little that is not possible.

    However, her mother is an anachonism, someone from before the Singularity, someone who believes that the touch of something real is to be cherished over a virtual life. And she has chosen a path that will take her a long, long way from her daughter. It’s a touching story, as the pair spend a final day together, a day that they will both cherish

Mercurio D. Rivera. Tethered.
Originally in : Interzone #236, Sept/Oct 2012.

When I read it last year, it didn’t really grab me :

    Another in Rivera’s sequence of stories which explore the complex relationship between humans, and the Wergens, a race who find have an automatic loving response to humans, and for whom their own relationships are a tethering of two, the dominant of which survives.

    Here we follow Cara, a young girl and the young Wergen who has that automatic loving response to her, a relationship threatened by Cara’s falling in love with a boy, and the Wergen entering into its own tethering relationship, which takes the story arc a small step forward.

Nnedi Okorafor. Wahala.
Originally in : Living on Mars.

I didn’t seek out the Young Adult anthology ‘Living on Mars’ that came out last year, whereas I would normally seek out any Strahan anthology. Reason being that I don’t really enjoy reading YA stories, for the same reason I didn’t get beyond p2 of the Harry Potter series – I struggle to engage with stories with young protagonists, addressing issues that tend to revolve around their age (ie issues with parents), and the depth of the stories is perforce not as great as in ‘adult’ fiction. (Leaving aside the issue that I would be expecting young adults to be reading ‘proper science fiction’ not something written down/specially for them, as I was reading Asimov/AC Clark in my early teens).

This story illustrates these issues – an easy enough read, with a plucky teenage in a post-something Earth which has given a small percentage of the population special powers (god save SF from the superhero nonsense the current generation of young adults have had forced on them), and the young female Nigerian protagonist has to use those powers in dealing with a visiting spaceship from Mars.

Having said that, the story is far better than the godawful Prometheus, whose story seemed to be written by someone whose research was getting the scripts from all the past SF films, and who decided in the end to just throw the pages up in the air, assemble them in random order and present that to an undiscerning director. My aunties lived in the same neighbourhood as Ridley Scott in their childhoods, and refer to him affectionately as ‘our Ridley’, although sadly their lives have diverged somewhat since those days in north east England. If they hadn’t I’d have got them to get in touch and giving him a right royal telling off for that shambles of a fillum.

Karl Schroeder. Laika’s Ghost.
Originally in : Engineering Infinity.

When I read it in the strong anthology from Jonathan Strahan I wrote :

    A clever science thriller/SF story that you could see easily making a good mainstream science thriller/SF movie.

    Kazakhstan doesn’t appear often in western SF, and one of the pleasures of the story is that whilst there is an American co-lead to the story, and the West, alongside global bodies such as the UN and Google, the story features Russian perspectives.

    There’s a mystery to be solved, around why the young American guy, who won the chance to pilot an old Mars Rover, is wanted, and by whom, and why. There’s depth as he, as do the other characters, have long-standing motivations and desires. As the story comes to a conclusion and the pieces drop into place, the science thriller becomes more SF, and delivers a rewarding read.

Paul Park. Ragnarok.
Originally online and still there : Tor.com

An epic poem.

Charlie Jane Anders. Six Months, Three Days.
Originally online and still there : Tor.com

A clever idea, handled well – a relationship between a couple, one of whom sees a variety of outcomes following her decisions and actions across her life, and a man who has detailed memories of that which is yet to happen. We follow their relationship to see what might be/what has happened plays out…

Neil Gaiman. “And Weep Like Alexander”.
Originally in : Fables from the Fountain (ed Ian Whates).

Part of an anthology published in homage to the Arthur C. Clarke ‘Tales from the White Hart’ milieu. In this story, a visitor to The Fountain public house relates just how he has had an impact on the world around us. Just a couple pages, and a single conceit, but nicely told. To say more here would be the ultimate spoiler of that central conceit

Judith Moffett. The Middle of Somewhere.
Originally in : Welcome to the Greenhouse

From the climate-change anthology, a gentle story in which a tornado causes havoc to a remote farmhouse, but with the real focus the relationship between a schoolgirl, all hi-tech and social media connected, and the older woman who she is helping out, two equally strong and lovingly drawn people.

Gregory Benford. Mercies.
Originally in : Engineering Infinity

When I read it last year I wrote:

    Rather than giving full rein to his imagination, Benford gives us a story based on a Heisenberger principle – not the famous uncertainty principle, but the one that states that all scientific work is based on some conscious or subsconscious philosophical attitude.

    Benford’s protagonist is a wholly unlikeable character – just how unlikeable we find throughout the course of the story. He is at first an avenging angel, using his vast wealth and scientific intellect to travel back in time to do away with those who would become serial killers. A laudable aim, and done as close as possible to the murders happening, to avoid any butterly wing consequences in the time line to which he has travelled.

    As he takes on increasingly infamous killer, we find out what drove him to his actions, and there’s a chilling denouement – but I won’t say with whom, or what exactly happens

Madeleine Ashby. The Education of Junior Number 12.
Originally online and still there : angryrobots.com

Ashby makes self-replicating Von Neumann machines pretty much as exciting as they are going to get. Just think of Number Five from Short Circuit, except with more attitude and the equipment to (ahem) interface with humanity. If you only read one online SF story today, make it this one.

Robert Reed. Our Candidate.
Originally online and still there : Tor.com:

Short, dark look at politics, in a near-future in which a ‘voice of reason’ might, just might be able to head off the catastrophe into which the world appears to be heading.

Karen Heuler. Thick Water.
Originally in : Albedo One

Sort of a mash-up of Prometheus and The Thing. All but one of a scientific party of humans find the alien environment in which they live becomes very much part of them.

It’s ok, but perhaps just needing that little extra something to be a standout story.

Tony Ballantyne. The War Artist.
Originally in : Further Conflicts

When it appeared last year I wrote:

    A clever take on what the role of the war artist might (has?) become in the 21st century. We follow a war artist, using modern technology but still trying to capture the emotion and the feeling rather than just an image, as he is embedded in a crack team of troops being ‘coptered in to protect the community from rioters.

    Except that it’s not quite as simple as that, and the hi-tech nature of the attack on the infrastructure of the country (Denial of Service) is a neat angle. Nice to see a story from Ballantyne after somewhat of a gap.

Bruce Sterling. The Master of the Aviary.
Originally in : Welcome to the Greenhouse

Very classy, deep and rich story from a master of the genre (for those stories that I say are missing a certain something to be a standout, that certain something can be found in this story).

A clever story arc, whereas would have a simple linear storyline, subtle issues explored, and ethics, politics, and a number of other human emotions playing a key part in taking the story forward.

Pat MacEwen. Home Sweet Bi’Ome.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan/Feb 2011

Last year I summarised :

    A gently humorous story with a very strong female protagonist and viewpoint. She suffers terribly from allergies, and has retreated to her own house in the quiet countryside, a house grown from her own DNA. It’s totally biological, non-synthetic, and attuned to her and her needs (and the soft furnishings and carpeting are … interesting).

    However, MacEwen posits a fly in this ointment, as the house is at risk of infection as are the rest of us, as the house owner finds out. Help is at hand, although the techie who comes to diagnose the problem is a man who is not quite in tune with her worldview. However….

Michael Swanwick. For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I’ll Not Be Back Again.
Originally in : Asimovs, August 2011.

When I read it last year I wrote :

    Clever story of alien oppression and response to it, cunningly done by setting the story in Ireland, a place with a long history of having to deal with forces of occupation and oppression. An American who is on the emerald isle as the last leg of a world tour prior to taking the opportunity to leave the planet, finds that his is a journey that has been done before, as there is a diaspora of those who have left, never to to return. It looks at the emotional impact of dealing with/living with the alien, whereas most SF of this type will deal with violent revolt and overthrow.

Gwyneth Jones. The Ki-anna.
Originally in : Engineering Infinity

Last year I wrote:

    A human from Mars has made the unsettling jump to a distant planet to try and find out what happened to his twin sister, reported dead.

    It’s not a traditional whodunnit in space. Whilst the story begins, in third person, from his perspective, it shifts to each of the pair of bipedal sentients whom he has to get on his side to see the crime scene, and back to him, throughout. There’s also the An-he, the ruling prince of the community, and his unseen sister/bride, as another relationship. And also the fundamental symbiotic-ish (won’t give the game away) of the indigineous race(s), and there’s a chilling end as we find out just what has happened.

    The shift in perspective is a touch unsettling, which makes for a more interesting reading experience.

Nancy Kress. Eliot Wrote.
Originally online and still there at Lightspeed Magazine

A teenage boy struggles to complete a school essay on metaphor following his father’s psychiatric admission after his response to seeing Zeus in a pop-up breakfast toastie. The story looks at memory, and metaphor in a gentle way.

Genevieve Valentine. The Nearest Thing.
Originally online and still there at Lightspeed Magazine

If a Blade Runner 2 is in the works, one would hope it would be as clever as this look at just how close you can get to creating a ‘real’ human.

Yoon Ha Lee. A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel.
Originally online and still there at Tor.com

Several perspectives on the driving forces behind interstellar travel.

Carolyn Ives Gilman. The Ice Owl.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December 2011.

When I read it relatively recently I wrote:

    A story in the same universe as Gilman’s ‘Arkfall’ from F&SF September 2009, which I enthused about, and which was a Nebula nominee.

    Checking back on that earlier story, I noted then that ‘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’ and that is exactly the same conclusion I had come to with this story.

    Here the setting is the city of ‘Glory to God’, a quite vividly described city of metal based in an enormous crater over which a dome has been built. Living in the bottom tier of the city, and of society, is Thorn, the adolescent female protagonist. There is a depth to the society and the politics of the city in which she lives, and in the bigger universe, which we find out through her relationship with an aged teacher, her mother and her mother’s boyfriend.

    Stories with an adolescent protagonist tend not to be a favourite of mind, as you get a naive perspective on issues which is great for the author, but for me to be fully rich, the story would have followed one of the adults, and to addresses the challenges they face in the light of their backstory. This is partly covered through the teacher, but only delivered through a monologue relating to his history, which prevents any emotional resonance coming through.

    But these are minor issues, as the characters are complex and varied, as are the politics and the society, and I’d have put this forward for a potential Year’s Best collectee, if it wasn’t for the fact that Garden Dozois has announced his collection for next year, and this one -is- in it.

Conclusion

A good range of sources covered, with three of the four major magazines getting a look in (no Analog), a couple of anthologies, and a range of online sources. Of the stories that I’d read last year, I’d agree with the inclusion of most of them, and the stories I read first time in this volume also impressed. Now to shuffle some books around to squeeze this little beauty next to #16.

amazon.com : book | kindle amazon.co.uk : book | kindle

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