The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year. Volume Four. (ed Jonathan Strahan, Night Shade Books 2010) |

Nicola Griffith. It Takes Two.
Originally in : Eclipse 3, ed Jonathan Strahan.

A young salesperson trying to make the move from sales to VP in a dotnet media company grits their teeth when visiting a lapdancing club as part of entertaining to support the bidding for a huge software contract. However, suddenly being transfixed with lust, and perhaps the other l word, with one of the dancers, throws the salesperson into a spin. And just what help has an ex-colleague provided to help clinch the deal? It’s a different perspective (go on, guess) and the sudden impact of obsession and lust and love is well handled, as is the concluding consideration of what attraction is based on.

Jo Walton. Three Twilight Tales.
Originally in : Firebirds Soaring, ed Sharyn November.

A more traditional fantasy story, or three intertwined stories, featuring a king, a pedlar, a moonshine man, and a variety of people who are more than they appear to be. If you’re not fully attuned to the niceties of fantasy of this sort, as I am, it comes across as nice enough, but little more.

Andy Duncan. The Night Cache.
Originally in : The Night Cache, PS Publishing 2009.

I had a PDF of this sitting on my PC in the office for the best part of the year and never did get around to reading it. Plugged into my iPad with Beethoven’s 6th in my ears, sitting in comfort on the settee got it read. It’s a well written story about a lesbian relationship, a young woman working in a bookstore who finds that rather than the blonde buying the latest The Year’s Best Lesbian Erotica, it is the woman behind her with whom she is to be entwined. It’s a love story for the most part, dealing well with a big event, and finished with a touch of something at the end that I suppose qualifies for inclusion in this anthology, if you’re going to be the broadest of broad ‘fantasy’ church.

Peter Watts. The Island.
Originally in : The New Space Opera 2, ed Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan

I read this earlier this year in a strong collection and was impressed:

    Some ultra-hard sf, ultra-far future, as with the previous story by Wilson. 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.

For the record, the earlier story referred to is Robert Charles Wilson’s ‘Utriusque Cosmi’, which also gets selected for this volume (see below).

Margo Lanagan. Ferryman.
Originally in : Firebirds Soaring.

An achingly affecting story, taking the mythological ferry across the Styx as its setting, with the young daughter of the ferryman very much doting on him. There’s some lovely ‘strilian touches (‘ugly as a sackful of bumholes’), but the raw emotion when ..spoiler.. the ferryman makes a mistake and has to take that journey across the river himself, is handled beautifully.

Ellen Kushner. “A Wild and Wicked Youth”
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, April/May 2009

I wasn’t overwhelmed when I read this last year :

    “If you read ‘Swordspoint : a Melodrama of Manners’ and wondered how Richard St. Vier gained his fluency with the sword, then this is the story for you.

    If you haven’t read the book, but like mannered medieval fantasy with a lighte touche, and would find a story about how a young man gains swordskills that will doubtless set him up for adventures in his later life, then this is the story for you. “

Karen Joy Fowler. The Pelican Bar.
Originally in : Eclipse 3.

When I read it last year I wrote:

    “A rebellious teenager finally pushes her parents beyond the point of no return. Awaking one morning still spaced out on magic mushrooms, she finds herself taken from the family home, her parents wanting her de-programmed from the foul-mouth unco-operative monster that she is. But instead of a boarding school, she ends up some little better than a concentration camp. There’s a touch of the Gene Wolfe’s about the story, as there’s a suspicion that having gone into a drug-induced dream, perhaps she hasn’t come out of it. The regime is so harsh, and the parents willingness not to see her for two years, are such that perhaps something else is happening, and the final scenes, in which the girl, now 18, is released to find herself in the beach bar that has helped her through her ordeal, and that perhaps her captors were not human, but that, indeed humans can be inhuman, brings to an end an unsettling story without a conclusion. One to sleep on perhaps. Perchance to dream….”

Kij Johnson. Spar.
Originally in : Clarkesworld Magazine – and still online here.

I listened to podcast version of this earlier in 2010 and was impressed :

This story won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story last weekend. I hadn’t read it before then (although technically I haven’t read it myself yet). If this applies to you, then stop reading, and head over to the Clarkesworld site to read it now. One word of warning though, if the first sentence puts you off, then you may wish to stop reading. I wouldn’t recommend that course of action, because you will miss out on something special, but fair to say it is likely to be one of the most challenging stories you’ll read.

I haven’t actually read it, as I realised on a long train journey yesterday that I had it on my iTouch as a podcast from Clarkesworld, so I plugged myself into it, and listened to the story. (And click here to listen yourself).

I have to admit to not being much of a fan of stories being read, so don’t listen to that many podcasts. I personally don’t get on with a traditional narrative, with characters and dialogue, being read to me, as such stories are clearly been written to be read, rather than listened to. Where it does work for me though is where the story is in effect a monologue, and internal narrative, so you’re really listening in to someone else’s thought processes.

The Clarkesworld podcast is read by Kate Baker, who does a great job. There’s little point in describing the story, as there’s not a lot to describe, and it’s there for you to read. What the story is though, is intense (which is true of very little SF), appropriately explicit in a very adult manner (ditto), and emotionally draining (ditto again). What it also does is make a lot of xeno-linguistic SF, and human/alien relationship SF looking rather shallow. It’s about 35 years since I read Philip Jose Farmer’s ‘Strange Relations’, a collection of stories that looked at intimate relations been human and alien. Suffice to say that this story is up there with that standard. Perhaps too challenging for some readers, and I hope that we don’t see the floodgates opening for xeno-sexual SF, but Best SF Kudos to Kij Johnson for writing it, Clarkesworld for publishing it, Kate Baker for reading it, Apple for putting together some kit that makes it easy to get to hear it (although getting to read stuff on their kit is just too silly for words)

James Patrick Kelly. Going Deep.
Originally in : Asimovs, June 2009.

When it appeared last year I wrote :

    The 25th consecutive appearance in a June issue of Asimovs, a notable achievement, neatly matching my wife and I celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary on the 15th of this month. I wonder if Kelly has a slight frisson marring his celebration, as for us a Silver Wedding Anniversary is something for old people!

    Doubtless there was a touch of the nostalgia in reaching such an anniversary in providing a story looking back at someone with their whole life ahead of them, and with decisions to be made. Mariska is living on the lunar colony, not a great place for a 13-year old when the stars are calling her. She is approaching her age of majority, which again is not necessarily great, as her ‘foster’-father’s paid contract to care for her will expire. He mother is due back in port, a mother she has never seen, after making a decision that those stars now within reach, were stars she had to reach for, at the expense of being able to bring up her daughter.

    Kelly handles the story carefully – just the right length, and some neat touches, handling everything deftly and with just the right tone. Unlike..

Holly Black. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.
Originally in : The Eternal Kiss

Clearly vampires are zombies are big business these days. I’m not entirely sure what a contemporary vampire story is doing in an SF/Fantasy anthology though, and the story suffers in comparison to Johnson’s ‘Spar’ just a few pages earlier in the volume.

Michael Swanwick and Eileen Gunn. Zeppelin City.
Originally on and still online, so why not read it?

Steampunky romp with a cast of larger than life characters – the aviatrice Amelia Spindizzy who has a crush on her arch-rival, the enigmatic Esterhazy; Radio Jones the feisty engineer who was found a way of using radio to listen in on the Naked Brains who now rule over the world; Rudy the Red : the agitator who wants an end to oppression, and loses his head in the process; Anna Pavlova, the scientist on whose ideas the city is based.

If you like playing Bioshock, you’ll lurve this entertaining yarn.

Alex Irvine. Dragon’s Teeth.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 2009.

Last year I wrote:

    Irvine’s ‘Wizard Six’ in F&SF June 2007 was a strong and dark fantasy story. In a similar vein, he follows Paulus, of the King’s Guard, as he embarks upon a quest to slay a dragon. But it’s not shining armour and chivalry, but human emotion, betrayal, love and fear.

Damien Broderick. This Wind Blowing, and This Tide.
Originally in : Asimovs, April/May 2009

Last year I wrote:

    Broderick starts with a Kipling quote, and goes on to provide an SF story just that bit different. The setting – an alien spaceship covered in flowers, held in stasis on Titan. It has been found through dreams that have been plaguing the protagonist, an overweight clairvoyant. He is battling with some inner demons, following the death of his son in psace service, and the disdain of the crew on the mission which is trying to explore the ship. There’s a further layer added, in his belief that dinosaurs had achieved a much higher level of intelligence. And when he has a vision that the pilot in stasis is of that ilk, he falls even lower in the estimation of his colleagues. However…

Peter S. Beagle. By Moonlight.
Originally in : We Never Talk About My Brother.

A conversation by moonlight and by firelight, as a highwayman listens to a man previously of the cloth, who has spent seven years in the land of the Faery, in the arms of Titania. The sense of longing for that which is now lost is palpable, in a story set a couple of centuries ago in the landscape trodden by my forefathers.

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

    “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. ”

Sara Genge. As Women Fight.
Asimovs, December 2009.

Truth be told, the story didn’t have a big impact on me when I read it in the magazine appearance, but summarised it thus at a later date:

    This story was selected in Rich Horton’s ‘The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2010′, and I had a read of it again, with all distractions removed, to give it full attention this time round. It’s set on a world in which humans are now some generations past those of their forebears who settled on their planet. Some of them, using the tech left over from the settlers ship engage in ritual fighting between husband and wife, and the winner gets to choose which body they will live in until the next fight. Genge uses this to look at gender roles and how trying to break out of predetermined roles can be an issue, whether there are real differences between people regardless of their gender, and also at child abuse and how this can affect relationships. The story is told in the present tense, which works well, and the different perceptions of two married couples are reflected in the story.

Kelly Link. The Cinderella Game.
Originally in : Trolls Eye View.

A teenage boy and his younger newly acquired step-sister (their parents have just got together) are alone for a little while in the house, and a game of Cinderella almost goes badly wrong. It’s nicely observed, but short, and not clear to me as to what Strahan saw in it to pick it for the volume.

Stephen Baxter. Formidable Caress.
Originally in : Analog, Dec 2009.

When it appeared last year, of the few Analog stories to take my fancy, I wrote :

    “Not just another Stephen Baxter story, but one right at the very end of of the XeeLee sequence, according to the official timeline. It’s in the Old Earth sequence, an Earth with stratified timezones, with time passing more quickly at the higher levels, and more slowly at the lower levels. We follow someone from birth to death, as he discovers more about the Earth, and why it is as it is, and becomes a witness to our galaxy spiralling into a collision with Andromeda. And at this final moment, billennia hence, it is once again Michael Poole.

    For someone unfamiliar with the XeeLee sequence, or the Old Earth stories (the last one was in Analog in 2006), the story is going to be an FFS story.”

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

When I read this last year I wrote :

    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.

Pat Cadigan. Truth and Bone.
Originally in : Poe

In an extended family, children often grow up to develop odd abilities. A young girl finds that her ability is to be aware of exactly when people will die, and when she finds out that the school jock is due for an imminent auto accident, decides to find out whether she can cheat fate.

Rachel Swirsky. Eros, Philia, Agape.
Originally in : – and still online here so read the story before going any further!

After a couple of short, contemporary stories by Kelly Link and Pat Cadigan, that don’t really stretch the reader, Swirsky provides much more intense fayre.

There are more interpersonal and interspecies dynamics than you get in most sf novels. A wealthy young woman takes a lover – creates one in fact, a robot that is virtually indistinguishable from human, and one whose brain is plastic – it is able, rather than being restricted to positronic pathways mapped out in the brain, to develop and change at the behest of the human.

They later have a child, another complex piece of a jigsaw that includes a parrot, sisters, and a father who has recently died, but whose shadow hangs over his daughter and the story, but very subtly. The woman, a complex character as seen through the eyes of the robot, gives him the opportunity to take responsibility for his own development, and this freedom has huge implications for the family unit.

John Kessel. The Motor Man’s Coat.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction, June/July 2009

When I first read it, I mentioned in the summary of the issue that Kessel’s wasn’t one of his best, and summarised briefly:

    “Similarly, Kessel draws upon a recent sojourn in Prague for the inspiration and setting for a cautionary tale involving an antiques dealer who comes across a piece whose provenance is almost too good to be true.

    And if things are too good to be true…. “

Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear. Mongoose.
Originally in : Lovecraft Unbound

I enjoyed Monette/Bear’s ‘Boojum’ which appeared in both the Dozois and Hartwell anthologies last year, noting that it was ‘a cracking story, and a setting which could do with further exploration’. That story appeared in a piratically-themed anthology, and this in a Lovecraft anthology.

A space station has a nasty infestation – creatures from another dimension sneaking into ours, oozing tentacally things. Izrael Irizarry has the contract to clean out the space station, but what should be fairly routine is clearly far more complicated due to the extent of the infestation, and the implications of that : the risk that even nastier creatures may be seeking their way on the station. Irizarry has Mongoose with him, itself a strange creature from another dimension, more than a pet.

There’s a climactic confrontation with a breeding alien, and there is politics and backstory to flesh out the action in a story that lives up to its predecessor.

Ellen Klages. Echoes of Aurora.

Originally in : What Remains.

Exquisite love story – a middle aged woman returns to her family home following the death of her father, whom she had been separated from for a long term. The family home was an amusement arcade, back in the day, but times have moved on and the arcade is faded and dusty. Her memories of childhood there are similarly faded, but there is magic in the dust, as on old friend comes back to form a relationship with her, and it’s a summer of love, and an autumn of loss.

Robert Reed. Before My Last Breath.
Originally in : Asimovs, October/November 2009.

When I read it last year I wrote :

    “I have to take issue with editor Sheila Williams with her introduction to the story, which for me detracts from the story to a greater degree than I would like. Regular readers of Asimovs and F&SF will know that Reed is capable of drawing on any number of events in ‘real life’ to make a strong SF story.

    This is a perfect case in question. Williams lets us into the inspiration : reading about the finding of graves of early Viking settlers in Greenland, where the more recent graves, in contrast to the older ones, show how those who had travelled far to Greenland became progressively in reduced circumstances, both societally and physically, as the depredations of the environment gradually took their toll.

    Having read this introduction, my mind was immediately set rolling on this story, wanting to know more, and imagining the heroic efforts to travel to a far land, the struggles to establish a foothold, and how the generations ahead struggled to maintain what had been created before.

    With this in mind, it wasn’t as easy as it should have been to engage with Reed’s story of the finding of a huge alien graveyard, and how those excavating the graveyard realise the newer graves at the top of the dig are a shadow of those buried earlier.

    Reed takes the story forward through episodes glimpsed through different characters, which works well, and wraps it up with a sad vision of the culture behind those in the graves.

    An excellent story, but any Year’s Best anthologists – please don’t give the game away in the intro!”

Dianne Wynne-Jones. Joboy.
Originally in : The Dragon Book.

Contemporary story in which a young boy struggles with his inner dragon. Meh.

Robert Charles Wilson. Utriusque Cosmi.
Originally in : New Space Opera 2.

When I read it last year I enthused :

    “The first New Space Opera in 2007 was a classy anthology, and this new volume starts with a doozy.

    Carlotta, once human, a long, long time ago, is revisiting her earlier self – the young girl is in a trailer, living out a mean life on an Earth with bear hours left.

    There is an urgency in Carlotta’s visit, as she recalls the nocturnal visit from a ghostly figure which urged her earlier self to leave the trailer, and to take the opportunity to join the rapture that will be offered later.

    It’s a plot device that gives an added layer to the story, as we hear of the long, long journey that Carlotta has undertaken/will undertake, but with the young Carlotta not waking before her drug-addict mother’s latest, violent, partner finds his cash stash raided by her.

    Carlotta’s journey is one to the end of the universe, and beyond, as the nature of those who will destroy Earth, and their reasons for doing so, are unveiled with a twist at the end of story, matching the twist in the urging to flee that the young Carlotta receives.

    It’s a powerful and human story from someone at the top of their form. “

Catherynne M. Valente. A Delicate Architecture.
Originally in : A Troll’s Eye View.

A young girl, daughter of a confectioner, gets her wishes and visits the Court with her father, who was once welcome there. She finds out much more about herself than she ever wanted to, and as in the best fairy stories, there is a darkness to her fate. Having become a wizened old thing through many years service in the kitchens, she makes good her escape and is able to find a remote part of the woods to build her own little house. Made of confectionary….

Kij Johnson. The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles.
Originally : on – and still online

The online version benefits from illustrations which give the story a stronger sense of place than does the reprint in this volume. The online comments ‘lovely’ and ‘charming’ will give you a feel for what the story has to offer, but ‘Spar’ was very much more my cup of tea.


An excellent collection, with that part of the volume covering fantasy stories not leaving me too far adrift – just the odd couple of stories featuring dragons and cats that didn’t engage me. Some top quality SF from the usual magazine sources, and a couple of the year’s strong anthologies (which Strahan himself had a hand in!)

Now, with next year’s anthology contents already in the public domain, I am so going to get next year’s volume reviewed well before 31st December 2011!

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