Year’s Best SF 9. David G. Hartwell, Kathryn Cramer. Eos, 2004

The second of the three annual collections to be published.

Octavia E. Butler. Amnesty.
Originally in : SCI FICTION and still online here

When I first reviewed the story I wrote:

    Earth has been visited by very alien beings, who have set up habitats in desert regions across our planet. After abducting a number of humans and using them as guinea-pigs in determining how communication could be established, there are now individual humans acting as Translators. Noah is both an abductee and a Translator, and it is her task to educate other humans (and readers!) about the need to communicate and engage with those with whom such engagement would seem impossible. A return in some respects to Bloodchild, in that a symbiotic relationship between the aliens and the Translators has developed.

And to that I can add, having re-read it, that it is a might fine story which gets under the skin of human fears and needs in a compelling way.

Geoff Ryman. Birthdays.
Originally in : Interzone, April 2003.

When it appeared in this British SF mag, I wrote:

    Ryman rarely fails to impress with his short fiction. Here we follow a gay man from his sixteenth birthday, when he is accidentally outed to his mother, through key periods in his life. His mother is a NeoChristian, and the tide is turning against homosexuals now that parents can effectively screen the gay gene out of embryos. We follow him through the major love affair of his life, into his actually carrying a baby. The technology has enabled men to carry foetuses in the small bowel – not without risk, but certainly without women. The story ends with a rapid mention of the myth of male pregnancy going back into history, which seems a bit unnecessary. I’m not the greatest fan of stories which leap a decade at a time – it feels as if the author has cheated a little and taken the easy option, rather than trying to build a coherent and chronologically contained narrative, with the use of flashback as (and if) necessary.

    An interesting story, but it did feel as if it could have been worked on more.

Tony Ballantyne. The Waters of Meribah.
Originally in : Interzone, May/June 2003

In the dying months of Interzone under David Pringle’s editorialship, this issue was one of the finest for some time, and of this story I wrote

    A weirdly off-the-wall story, that also catches the imagination. Ballantyne launches into a story in which a convicted rapist is having a pair of alien feet in effect transplanted over his own. The very strange, constrained setting, with humanity evidently limited to a number of floors of a city-sze building, is an inventive one. The lack of sympathy for the protagonist, Buddy Joe (white trash) is of course limited. However, as the story unfolds, and Buddy Joe’s alienation increases (literally!) we find out more – his crime was a mental rape : challenging someone with questions and ideas!

I took the time to re-read it, and didn’t regret so doing.

Nancy Kress. Ej-es.
Originally in : ‘Stars’ ed Janis Ian, Mike Resnick.

A story from a collection built around the songs of one Janis Ian – a name which means nothing to me, and I may be missing something with regard to how the story relates to the song in question (if there is anything beyond Ej-Es = Jessie).

An elderly member of a team of medics lands on a colony planet to find the colonists in what appears to be a terrible state – suffering seizures during which they see wonderful visions. There is a dilemma with regard to what to do in this situation, which is made more dramatic when the nature of the seizures, a virus which attacks the brain, infects the medical team.

The protagonist makes a decision – to dedicate what is rest of her life to help the colonists, rather than to leave them to their fate. The final sentence is one which is quite clearly a unique one in the entire SF pantheon (unless you know of a story which ends “Ej-es! O, Ej-es! Ej-es, Esefeb eket! Ej-es – etef efef! O, etej efef!”)

Joe Haldeman. Four Short Novels.
Originally in : F&SF, Oct/Nov 2003

When it first appeared I was brief in my comment:

    Four short takes on what benefits immortality may, or may not, bring to humanity/

To which I should add that the four short stories are entitled after classic 19thC novels.

Charles Stross. Rogue Farm.
Originally in : Without a Net, ed Lou Anders, Roc 2003.

When it appeared in this anthology of stories, set (to varying degrees) in worlds with no Internet, I wrote:

    As one would except from Stross, a challenging vision of a relatively near-future. A farmer finds his farm, and his marriage, continually under threat. His wife has had a breakdown in the past, forcing him to reload her backup tapes. The talking farm dog is getting on, and, worst of all, he is under threat from a farm collective. Not a combine of farmers as we know it, but one in which a group of individuals have combined into a single biological entity, with the intention of travelling to Jupiter. Joe’s wife finds the call of the collective too much to bear, and enjoins with the creature, leaving her husband with a choice to make.

    Stross invariably provides value for money, and here the rural setting gives him plenty of rein for furnishing more invention than you can reasonably expect in such a small space.

Angelica Gorodischer. The Violet’s Embryos.
Originally in : Cosmos Latinos

First published some two decades ago, this story from a leading Argentian SF writer appears in a 2003 collection by dint of its translation into English last year. Reading it you would place it firmly in the 1960s New Wave, as it far away from mainstream short (SF).

Michael Swanwick. Coyote at the End of History
Originally in : Asimovs, Oct/Nov 2003.

When it first appeared I wrote :

    A story of Aesopian delight, in which through his eyes we see many of the failings of the human race.

John Varley. In Facing Suns and Dying Moons
Originally in : Stars ed Janis Ian and Mike Resnick.

The intro likens this story to Arthur C Clarke’s ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’, although to my mind the more appropriate comparison is with ‘Childhood’s End’. Varley starts off with the Big Picture, and you know that things aren’t likely to end up too happily for humanity in the face of such awesome power. The irresistible wave of butterfly-collecting aliens sweeping across continents is a memorable image, and as the title of the story suggests, the ending is not a happy ever after.

Gene Wolfe. Castaway.
Originally in SCI FICTION.

When it first appeared I wrote:

    A short, melancholy vignette, in which the loneliness and sterility of life in space is shown through a castaway picked up on a remote planet. The castaway has bird-song, and multi-coloured tree leaves and colour inside him, in stark contrast to the antiseptic and sterile life of his rescuers.

Gregory Benford. The Hydrogen Wall.
Originally in : Asimovs, Oct/Nov 2003.

When it first appeared I wrote :

    With Benford you generally get some top quality science (about which I am in no position to comment) and top quality fiction, and here he does it again. Young Ruth is a trainee librarian in the far future, who has the chutzpah to take on a major challenge in her first professional task – to take on the study of the ‘Sagittarius Architecture’, which many before have studied.

    She feels she can bring a fresh perspective, and, true enough, her conversation with the complex alien AI is indeed more successful, and she ekes out from the AI some snippets that are to prove to be the saving of the human race.

From the same issue of Asimov’s as the Swanwick story above, and also Walter Jon William’s well-regarded ‘The Green Leopard Plague, and excellent stories by luminaries such as Jack Williamson, Brian Aldiss and Lucius Shepard. This was the issue I referred to as the ‘Who’s Your Daddy?’ issue.

Richard de la Casa and Pedro Jorge Romero. The Day We Went Through the Transition. Originally in :

Credit to the authors for including another foreign language story. Unfortunately there are two problems i) it’s an Alternate History story set in Spain and so 99.9% of the readers will not enjoy the story to the fullest extent ii) it’s actually not that great. There is an interesting variation on the quantum worlds conceit, but the story itself is somewhat routine.

Cory Doctorow. Nimby and the Dimension Hoppers.
Originally in : Asimovs, June 2003.

When it first appeared I wrote:

    A great little piece of zany nonsense from Doctorow. Gun-toting alien dimension hoppers have lowered the tone of the neighbourhood, making themselves a pain in the ass, upsetting the houses, and all manner of stuff.Anyhow, one dimension hopper gets captured by a couple of neighbours, who decide to meet the threat head on, and have great dimensional hopping fun before they finally make the neighbourhood a safer place.

Robert Reed. Night of Time.
Originally in : Silver Gryphon,

Such is the quality and quantity of Reed’s short SF output, the guy needs a Year’s Best SF anthology of his own. However, I think this is probably the weakest of his stories from 2003! Set in his ‘Marrow’ environment, we meet once again Ash, who appared in ‘The Remoras’ in Fantasy & Science Fiction, May 1994, (collected in Dozois’ 12th), and more recently with Quee Lee in ‘River of the Queen’ in F&SF, Feb 2004. This latter was also slightly sub-par IHMO. Here we have a short vignette in which Ash is visited by two aliens, whom he is able to help, but whose secret he is also able to spot.

Kage Baker. A Night on the Barbary Coast.
originally in :

I’ve stated before that Baker is an author who rarely delivers SF which I like. This Company story is like most of those that she writes – fine as a bit of entertaining fiction, but not really SF. OK the two main characters are cyborgs from the future, but the story doesn’t need them to be that, and what story there is involves a bit of a chase through 19th frontier San Francisco.

Nigel Brown. Annuity Clinic.
Originally in : Interzone, April 2003.

When it first appeared I wrote:

    An all too-believable near future. A group of elders in a less than wonderful care home have the added burden of having to pay their fees through the harvesting of any bits of their anatomy that have any kind of market value. Eloise is faced with giving up her hi-tech Internet-connected good eye, and is resigned to a much less visually rich life. However, whilst visiting the clinic where the op will take place she meets a robot clerk who has at the heart of its AI the chip that powered the dolly she had as a child. The story manages to avoid being too sentimental, partly due to the very, very black nature of the story. Eloise hatches a plan with the robot to make her escape. There is some nail-biting tension as the aged Eloise, carrying the doll which she has saved, with the AI re-inserted in its original home, trying to get onto the local bus that will whisk her away to a better future.

Allen M. Steele. The Madwoman of Shuttlefield.
Originally in : Asimovs, May 2003.

I really, really don’t ‘get’ the Coyote series at all. When this installment appeared in Asimovs, I wrote

    A new series of the author’s Coyote stories, which have increasingly left me unmoved. Here we have a High Chapparal in space. A young single homesteader is befriended, by a mentally deranged mother and her son. The mother and her son were original settlers, but have stayed behind. They still blame the loss of their other son/brother at the hands of the young man who was out boating with him at the time. A celebration which sees a hollerin’ and high-jinks taking place on the main street provides cover for that young man to revisit. Except instead of being set in the West, it’s set in space.

M Rickert. Bread and Bombs.
Originally in : F&SF April 2003

When first it appeared I wrote :

    Recollections of a childhood summer against a backdrop of war, in which a refugee family impact on the highly strung local community, and what has been lost becomes painfully real.

Stephen Baxter. The Great Game.
Originally in : Asimovs, March 2003

When it appeared I wrote :

    Baxter must be there, word-count wise, with the likes of Asimov and Silverberg at their pomp.This is one of many short stories in his XeeLee sequence, a milieu which he could draw upon for decades to come. The danger though, is that some stories don’t quite live up to the high standards he can produce. I read his novel ‘Raft’ recently, as it was supposedly the first in the Xeelee sequence. It isn’t really, as it simply shares some technical background. That novel, however, does offer some really inventive world-building.

    ‘The Great Game’ is OK as far as it goes. It fills in a bit of the Future History, but doesn’t really set up any great action.

Further to that I should add, for my personal aide-memoire requirements, that this story involves rescuing colonists on a distant planet in which we see higlighted i) the nature of human society in the Xeelee sequence, in which a ‘family’ is something quite scary, with humans brought up in ‘cadre sibling’ groups and ii) the nature of humanity, in which the existence of an army requires there to be war (contemporary relevance!)

Rick Moody. The Albertine Notes.
Originally in : McSweeney’s Thrilling Tales

The intro points out that this a story by an essentially non-genre writer, and it is a bit of a wake-up call to a lot of genre writers in that such a dense, compelling story of high literary quality comes from ‘outside’ the genre. A nuclear-ravaged city, its inhabitants living far more basic lives than the case in the past (no weekend trips to the organic farmers market!), who are finding solace in a drug of dubious provenance which enables absolutely perfect recall of happier moments. Setting out to report on the drug, our reporter finds himself being sucked deeper into the disturbing clutches of the drug.

Discussion

With twice as many stories as the Haber/Strahan ‘Science Fiction The Best of 2003’, Hartwell/Cramer are able to put together a stronger volume, and the informative and entertaining editorial introductions highlight just what a bad decision it was by ibooks to withdraw the intros form the Haber/Strahan volume. Interestingly there is no overlap between the two, especially as different stories from the same issue of certain magazines have been chosen.

Hartwell/Cramer have been enabled to stick firmly to SF, due to their doing a companion fantasy volume, and so for pure SF, this is an excellent pocket size volume.

Put this and the Haber/Strahan volumes together and you will get closer to what Dozois is able to put together in his mammoth annual collection. My copy of which has just arrived courtesy of Amazon…..

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