Neil Clarke’s second annual take on the year’s best SF. Reviews below, or links to where I previously reviewed the stories in their initial appearance.
[2021 Update : I read most of the stories shortly after purchase, and put reviews in here. For some reason I read several stories in the middle of the volume but never reviewed them. Four years later I’ve picked up the volume to re-read those stories and put reviews in and tthose newer reviews below can be identified by a 2021 date in parenthesis after the review)]
Ian R. MacLeod. The Visitor from Taured.
Originally in : Asimov’s, September 2016.
Arguably not that much SF in the story I suppose, but as Scientist Fiction goes, it’s a good read. Full review here.
Rich Larson. Extraction Request.
Originally in Clarkesworld Mazine #112, January 2016 and still online.
I didn’t read this story in it’s original publication but read it in this volume and liked it enormously. Full review here. Definitely an author to watch.
Karin Lowachee. A Good Home.
Originally published in Lightspeed Magazine, June 2016 more details.
A subtle story about an android combat Vet in need of a good home. Full review here.
Gord Sellar. Prodigal.
Originally in Analog, December 2016.
A story that I reckon I could have identified as being published in Analog without being told so. Full review here.
Nina Allan. Ten Days.
Originally in : ‘Now We Are Ten’, edited by Ian Whates.
An author I like, but this story which uses a watch with time travel properties to resolve a wrongly hanged murderer in 1920s London didn’t really grab me. The bulk of the story was fine, if you’re into crime/whodunnit thrillers, with the more sfnal elements appearing in just the last few pages.
Lavie Tidhar. Terminal.
Originally online on : Tor.com, April 2016 – and still online)
“..a well written, subtle bit of writing..” I noted in my review when I read it last year.
Madeline Ashby. Panic City.
Originally in : CyberWorld, edited by Jason Heller and Joshua Viola.
A clever, short story from Ashby. The POV is a city AI, who finds cause for concern from above, and whose anxiety levels increase as a maintenance guy heads off to sort out the issue. As the narrative progresses we find out more about the backstory, which leads to a dramatic conclusion.
Sam J. Miller. Last Gods.
Originally in Drowned Worlds, edited by Jonathan Strahan.
Another strong story by a new author I’ve been impressed with. Full review here. You’ll see if you scroll down the page, that Miller gets another story in this volume.
Gregory Norman Bossert. HigherWorks
Originally in Asimov’s, December 2016.
A Strange Loop. T.R. Napper.
Originally in : Interzone, January/February 2016.
I’ve ust picked up this volume four years on, to finish reading and reviewing it – there was a gap in my reviews of stories in the middle of the volume for some reason! This is a darly comic tale from Napper, who had a good run of stories in Interzone at this time (he may well still be having a good run of stories in Interzone, but I haven’t seen a copy for a few years!) in which a man separated from his wife, missing her and his child, goes to lengths to get them back. It turns out he doesn’t realised exactly to just what lengths he has gone, and his income-generation strategy of having his best memories erased from his mind to be sold to someone else, leaves him very much unaware of just how many memories he has sold (over 200). The good news is that he has reached his income target and feels able to meet up with his wife and use his newly acquired wealth to impress her and get her and their daughter back into his life. Sadly, for the deluded, amnesiac guy, the bad news is that she is wise to him, and we find out just how hopeless a case he has been for many years. [4th Sept 2021]
Xia Jia. Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse.
Originally in ‘Invisible Planets’ (edited by Ken Liu).
The dragon-horse is a human construct, but he’s a thinking creature, and after some centuries sleep the rusting dragon-horse awakes and, accompanied by a bat, travels through a world which no longer has humans, just their detritus. They tell each other stories of other mechanical beings, and it appears that humanity’s future is not one we will see, but which will be seen through the humanity embedded in the creatures we have made. In the end the bat and the spirit of the dragon-horse fly high. Poetic and charming. [6th September 2021]
Aliette de Bodard. Pearl. Originally in ‘The Starlit Wood’ (ed Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe).
Set in the author’s Dai Viet universe, and evidently loosely based on an old folk tale. A non-linear narrative, in which we find out straight away that Da Trang’s low-level AI-controlled remora called Pearl has flown off into a nearby sun. The story follows his attempts to find it, alongside how it helped him rise to prominence in the imperial court in the first place. I’m not entirely sure the story benefits from this twin narrative, and the main protagonist isn’t someone you really engage with, as he was gifted Pearl and benefitted from it’s intelligence without any matching input from himself. Maybe there was a moral in the old folk tale/fable and we should read one in this. [9th Sept 2021]
Nick Wolven. The Metal Demimonde.
Originally in : Analog, June 2016
A strong story from Wolven. It’s the early 22nd century and robotics, AI and technology have freed humanity from the yoke of work. Sadly, without work, that consigns a lot of humanity to a pretty miserable existence, and that is where the story is set, on the fringes of society, and, in particular in a travelling carnival, where the AI-controlled rides and robotic staff run things mostly by themselves, with just a few carnie staff on hand to help out. The protagonist is a young girl working on the fair, who meets up with a young man who has strong feelings on the need to fight back against this loss of control. A lot of tech stuff to like and the characters are well drawn.[10th September 2021]
Alastair Reynolds. ‘The Iron Tactician.’
Originally published by Newcon Press, 2016.
Reynolds provides another story featuring his epoch- and galaxy-spanning character Merlin, traversing the aeons-old ‘Waynet’ in an attempt to defeat the alien Huskers who are hellbent on destroying humanity. He does this through finding ‘Merlin’s Gun’ in the third of three original stories, and this one slips in as a prequel to that final instalment, although knowledge of those stories is not required to enjoy this story. Exiting The Waynet, he stumbles across a lone survivor on an otherwise empty spaceship, and she may just have the means of helping him find the aforementioned gun. They have to resolve an inter-system war that has lasted several centuries, a war she, due to being in suspended animation for centuries, she knows more about. It’s not Reynolds’ at his mind-boggingly baroque best, and he keep some cards close to his chest throughout the story, but a length, enjoyable drama. [12th Sept 2021]
Tobias S. Buckell and Karen Lord. The Mighty Slinger.
originally in : Bridging Infinity (edited by Jonathan Strahan.
A story that feels a little sketched out and thin, considering the big issues and the epic timescale it covers, almost like a Reader’s Digest simplified, shortened version of a much longer, more complex work, or maybe more like a YA story. We follow the life of Euclid, a musician whose band spends time in suspended animation whilst travelling through the solar system entertaining work crews. The Earth is not in a good place, and due to the machinations of an Evil Corporation, things are likely to get worse. However, the Good Guys plans to use Euclid’s music and his lyrics to energise the workers, to combat this. Things happen during the band’s 25year deep sleep periods, and in the end Euclid is able to rather too easily persuade the Evil Corporation to help them out, and there’s an out of nowhere ‘And Suddenly’ dramatic moment sprung upon us in the final concert, and without us ever getting engaged with the main character, it just feels rather routine SF rather than standout SF. [14th Sept 2021]
Karl Bunker. They All Have One Breath.
Originally in Asimov’s, December 2016.
Near-future, but a world which is completely changed. AIs have gradually changed the world for the better, eradicating war, poverty, famine, violence and so forth, and providing food, warmth and every other need for humans, for whom employment is no longer necessary. But the AIs carry their work further, deciding the human population is too high and setting out to decrease it by deciding how many babies are born, and who has those babies. And it is this that is the crux of the story, as protagonist James feels the pain of the breakup with his wife, as her response to their not not being allowed to have a baby, compared to his, is a final straw in their different attitude to the AIs. Will we end up in thrall to technology, little more than pets, with nothing to strive for? Bunker gets into the mind of the passive protagonist well, but that passivity doesn’t make for the most thrilling of reads! [14th September 2021]
Sarah Pinsker. Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea”
Orginally in Lightspeed Mazine, February 2016 – online here.
A post-Collapse story – “a look at just how tenuous fame and wealth can be…” I noted in my review when I read it last year.
Margaret Ronald. And Then, One Day, the Air was Full of Voices.
Originally in Clarkesworld Magazine, June 2016 – online here
I was impressed with “..it’s structure, mix of human and societal analysis, and an altogether different type of First Contact..” – Best SF Review.
Lettie Prell. The Three Lives of Sonata James.
Originally on Tor.com, October 2016, and online here.
The intro : “In a cyber-enhanced, futuristic Chicago, Sonata knows near-immortality is achievable through downloading her mind into a cyborg body after death. But this young artist wants to prove that living forever isn’t the same as living a beautiful life.”. The story touches on themes covered aplenty in the past including longevity and resistance to it by those who don’t have it, and the story does indeed refer to Kress’ ‘Beggars in Spain’, which rather pointed out to me that the characters in this story, and this story itself, weren’t really on a par with Kress’s.
An Owomoyela. The Charge and the Storm.
Originally in Asimov’s, February 2016
Complex story which has descendants of a human generation spaceship co-existing (just) with an alien race. The protagonist has been altered in utero by the alien race to enable her to harness the power from the electrical storms on the inhospitable planet to help them expand the human/alien colony. There is backstory, human emotion, politics, non-cis relations and more in the story.
Robert Reed. Parables of Infinity.
Originally in Bridging Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan.
Reed’s ‘Great Ship’ stories date back many years now, and here he adds another piece of the jigsaw, mostly in the form of a conversation between two long-lived residents of the Ship, both of whom have more to their history than might appear to be the case. (I’m a bit rusty with these stories, and even when I was in the full flow of Reed’s output I would have struggled to have spot if the characters have indeed appeared before). Hyperfibre is used in a routine contracting job, but the contract who carries out the job has a tale to tell about their knowledge of this multiversal material, which harks back to the very creation of a similarly enormous vessel.
Suzanne Palmer. Ten Poems for the Mossums, One for the Man.
Originally in : Asimov’s, July 2016.
An excellent story from Palmer, a central conceit that is simple in a way that was common in the 1960s, less so today. The protagonist is a poet, who is seeking his lost muse by taking up a solitary role on a quite alien albeit quite bucolic planet, acting as the sole human observer. There is some strange vegetation, including the titular Mossums, and as he gradually becomes attuned to the planet, he finds out more about the vegetation, and of course, finds out more about himself.
Rich Larson. You Make Pattaya.
Originally in : Interzone, November/December 2016.
Near future hi-tech Thailand is the setting. Dorian is a hustler, who sees a chance to blackmail a celebrity who is visiting the island, incognito, for some sleazy sex. Dorian’s ladyboy hooker companion is his route into this opportunity, but it turns out quite differently, as the tables are turned on him. Larson handles the sleaze well, although there will be a little too much of it in the story for some readers (not for me).
Alex Irvine. Number Nine Moon.
Originally in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January/February 2016.
“..humanity pulling in on itself, a turtle withdrawing it’s head into it’s shell (Irvine’s imagery), and it’s a good read…” – Best SF Review
Sam J. Miller. Things with Beards.
Originally in Clarkesworld Magazine, June 2016, and still online.
“..another strong story from Miller..” Best SF review
Ken Liu. Dispatches from the Cradle: The Hermit—Forty-Eight Hours in the Sea of Massachusetts.
Originally in ‘Drowned Worlds’ (edited by Jonathan Strahan)
From an anthology about Drowned Worlds, this is, perhaps not unsurprisingly, about a post-climate change drowned Earth. Humanity has fled to Venus and Mars and orbiting habitats, but has plans to reduce the Earth’s temperature to make it once again habitable. However, there are some managing to live on the plant, and Liu makes somes ever increasingly salient points through the eyes of a visitor to one woman who is wandering the oceans. Some great imagery of drowned cities. [21-Sept-2021]
Carolyn Ives Gilman. Touring with the Alien.
Originally in Clarkesworld Magazine April 2016, and still online.
“..a tour de force..” Best SF Review
This written some five years after the majority of the stories were read!