With 2019 being the first year for four decades without a Gardner Dozois take on the Year’s Best SF, this is the only pure SF annual best volume this year!
I’ll slowly work my way through the volume, reviewing stories and putting summaries of those reviews below, with links to the fuller reviews, where available.
In a homage to the recently departed Dozois, Clarke opens his volume with a mini-summation of the type that Dozois so diligently supplied in his long-running series (and the final volumes of the earlier series initially edited by Lester Del Rey, which Dozois took on editing). Then Clarke gets on with his take on the best SF of the year.
Simone Heller. When We Were Starless.
Originally published online on Clarkesworld Magazine, and still online there.
Clarke opens the anthology with a strong story from his own publication. In my review of the story when it appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine I noted “Heller is an author new to me, but a name I would be looking out for now if I was still in the habit of reading a lot of short SF in it’s original appearance.” Read the Full Best SF Review here.
Kelly Robson. Intervention.
Originally in : Infinity’s End (ed Strahan, 2018)
I read this in it’s original appearance, and remember that I wasn’t really grabbed by the story of a spacer who turns her back on her team to become a creche leader. However, both Strahan and Clarke included it in their year’s best SF&F volumes, so clearly it ticked several of these three august editors.
The story is online on the Fireside Fiction website. A near future story set in South Korea. Ruriko hides herself behind a mask and her new name, but spends her time and money visiting and re-visiting the deceased colleagues of the all-girl band of which she was the surviving member. They are housed in what amounts to a brothel populated by replicas of famous pop stars and other celebrities, identical to the real thing, and containing downloads from brain backups from the real people. Ruriko visits Yume the most, her ex-lover, try to get her head around the bust up they had shortly before the accident that killed all but Ruriko. Wong gets into the head of the traumatised girl as she tries to find a resolution to her feelings of guilt. [28th March 2020]
Madeline Ashby. Domestic Violence.
Originally in : Slate (and still online there).
Written as part of a series of stories looking at how science and technology will change our lives, ‘futurist’ Ashby doesn’t look too far into the future, as the technology in question is virtually in place now. The title of the story is a giveaway, as the theme is domestic violence, and the technology is a home security system which has been hacked by a controlling/abusive husband to constrain his wife’s movements. The protagonist is a HR manager, with her own history of abuse, who keeps a lid on her memories – until one of her reports is late for work due to being unable to leave the house. There’s a Hitchcockian dimension to the story, which is well related, with some nice touches in terms of other minor tech developments, but it wasn’t a story that really grabbed me as a standout. 29th March 2020]
A few pages in which a crew member on an eventually ill-fated mission to Mars spends his time painting the Martian landscape surrounding them. He uses a gloved finger and a tablet, and records a variety of impressionistic paintings, drawing inspiration from great painters through history. Short but affecting. [30th March 2020]
A story that could easily have been fleshed out to novella length, and a setting that could support a fat trilogy. It’s far-future, but humanity is evidently constrained to our solar system. There has been a costly civil war – humanity had embraced AIs, and allowed ‘The Engineer’ to take us under it’s/their wings and to take a lot of control over our lives. It proved to be *too much* control and humanity rebelled. The protagonist, Luca, had a part to play in a massacre, and struggled to live with that, but they also have a small fragment of The Engineer, who whispers into Luca’s ear, directing the to seek other fragments. The story has a retro feel to me – almost like an Asimov story in some ways : partly on account of the characterisation and dialogue feeling somewhat two-dimensional as Asimov often does. There were some nice touches, but I would have preferred a bit more depth (as Kritzer provided in space in her ‘Waiting Out the End of the World in Patty’s Place Cafe’ a couple of years back). If it hadn’t been in an adult anthology, I would probably have thought it a ‘juvenile/YA’ story. [31st March 2020]
Vanessa Fogg. Traces of Us.
Originally online on GigaNotoSaurus and still online
I’m a soppy sentimental old fool, and the ending of James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’ gets me very time, even though I know how the movie is going to end. And this story makes it clear from the outset what the ending is going to be, and yup it still got to me. It’s still online, so follow the link above and read it, as there are spoilers ahead. There are two storylines that run parallel through the story, one very far in the future. Although in fact they are the same storyline, but threaded non-chronologically to give the desired effect. Two scientists find each other and fall in love, but their life together is to be short-lived. The wife, with terminal brain cancer, decides on an experimental (but destructive) brain upload, on the microscopic chance that somehow she and her husband will be reunited. The story is a successful mix of science and human behaviour and emotions. [31st March 2020]
Bit of an odd one for a Best SF volume. Firstly, it reads pretty much as a fantasy adventure. There *may* be a technological underpinning to what is happening, but that’s not clear. Secondly, it doesn’t work as a standalone story – it feels very much like part of a longer work. In fact it features a character from, and is set in, the same world as the author’s 2004 book ‘Memory’. And thing 3 the third is that it’s not that special a story. [31st March 2020]
Nick Wolven. Lab B-15
Originally in : Analog Science Fiction and Fact, March/April 2018.
Scientist fiction in which there is a mystery about Lab B-15 which the protagonist has to solve, not aided by his aloof, non-communicative personality. A bit slow for me and I baled out well before the end.[20th Oct 2019]
I’ve enjoyed a lot if Singh’s short stories – a lot have been far-future, space opera, but with a strong element of humanity. This story, taken from her second collection of stories, if very much closer to home, in terms of the setting, and very close to her as a writer in terms of her professional work on climate change, and recent experience in the Arctic. For me the story suffers from being read close to watching two very good BBC documentaries which visited the Arctic and included a strong Inuit perspective. At times the story feels like a documentary, a short visit to an Arctic research station – you probably wouldn’t have to do too much work to turn it into a narrative about a documentary film-maker’s trip. Having said that, it’s powerful in it’s perspective on dealing with grief and loss, and you do get a strong sense of the shiver that runs down the character’s spine when she firsts locks eyes with a whale, but I think I would have preferred a more sfnal story from her collection. [2nd April 2020]
Erin Roberts. Sour Milk Girls.
Originally in Clarkesworld #136, January 2018 and still online.
A story from an author new two me. Set in the near future in a residential establishment run by the Agency for the Care of Unassociated Female Minors. It’s a grim place for the teens living on the third floor – as yet un-fostered and with the prospect of a placement in a family dwindling. To make matters worse, on arrival they had their memories removed, to be returned to them at the age of 18, when they will be better placed to deal with them. There’s a touch of the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with a scary matron and punishment doled out for minor infringements. A new arrival is welcomed by the group of four girls on the third floor, but the fact that she appears to have her memories becomes an issues. A neat little story. [3rd April 2020]
A couple of decades hence and Earth is struggling with overpopulation, and the titular Singles Day is an annual online shopping event for singles, aimed at keeping the population down. In addition to extrapolating Black Monday, Murray also neatly extrapolates around increased social isolation, use of VR, online shopping. She gives us four protagonists in the story, interweaving their stories around each getting lucky in the global draw for a few random places on the fourth starship heading off to a recently found Earth-like planet. The four all have some big personal issues weighing them down, which have to be addressed, and this psychological angle, along with the fact that the four are from different parts of the world, give the story an added dimension. [6th April 2020]
Daryl Gregory. Nine Last Days on Planet Earth.
Originally online on Tor.com and still online
Do follow the link above and read the story first as spoilers await. Gregory provides nine glimpses into the life of someone who has lived through interesting times on Earth. Starting in 1975, as a ten year old boy, young LT witnesses a meteor storm that will change Earth’s future. At first it is an impressive sight, but once the meteorite start to bombard Earth, it’s a different matter. The meteorites are in fact alien artefacts, seed pods which split open, and Earth is to face decades of challenges in dealing with the wide variety of alien plant life which threaten to overwhelm the native flora and fauna. We follow LT through his life, seeing through his eyes how this alien infestation affects us. We see him grow and mature, marry and adopt, see how his pet alien plant gets on (-groot-) and into his nineties as his mind begins to wander. A great idea, well handled. [6th April 2020]
Lavie Tidhar. The Buried Giant.
Originally in : Robots vs Fairies (ed Dominik Parisien/Navah Wolfe, Simon & Schuster, 2018)
A clever tale within a tale (within a tale), from an author who invariably delivers. The protagonist looks back to the bucolic days of his childhood when he and young friend wandered the fields. It’s a post-something landscape, although that isn’t detailed too much. He recalls a fairy tale that was told to them by a couple of older people n the community, of a young boy who realises that he is quite unlike anyone else in his community (in fact the entire community is robotic, and is there to look after him). He runs away and falls into bad company (and it took me a while to realise it as a parable very similar to Pinocchio). Lovely writing. [20th April 2019]
R.S.A. Garcia. The Anchorite Wakes.
Originally in Clarkesworld Magazine #143 August 2018, and still online.
An intriguing story from an author new to me. Sister Nadine is an anchorite, has given her life to staying in the confines of the church, dedicated to prayer. As the story progresses we get glimpses of some kind of sfnal background, but it’s only in the last couple of pages that a lot is revealed and the full sfnal chops revealed. A great little story. [21st April 2019]
Sofia Samatar. Hard Mary.
Originally in Lightspeed Magazine #100, September 2018.
The first story I’ve read by Samatar who has been writing and getting published and props for several years now. A setting and a story that intrigues, with excellent characterisation of the several female protagonists. The Hard Mary of the title is in fact an android, which several late-teen girls stumble upon one night whilst tramping around a barn several times, as their lore suggests this is one way to identify your future husband. It’s a curious remote, rural community but the girls/young women are happy in it. The android is clearly from a nearby hi-tech research centre, but even though this hi tech is anathema to their community, they decide to invest their time, and friendship, is making the android one of them. The story unfolds though the protagonist, Lyddie, looking back on their time with Hard Mary, which enables us to see her evolving relationships with her friends over a period of time, and the android, although it’s a non-speaking part, is also a strong character. [24th June 2020]
L.X. Beckett. Freezing Rain, a Chance of Falling.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2018.
I had a couple of attempts at this super long story, but just couldn’t engage with it. A core element to it is the modern fad for daily life to be heavily influenced/dependent upon gratification derived from social media, although to a much greater degree.
Elizabeth Bear. Okay, Glory.
Originally published in Twelve Tomorrows and reprinted online on Lightspeed Magazine and still online.
A daily diary from a reclusive CEO of a tech firm who finds himself under lockdown at home, with his AI refusing to let him connect to (or access) the outside world.
A.T. Greenblatt. Heavy Lifting.
Originally online on Uncanny Magazine and still online.
In a near-future somewhat-fucked-up world, a young programmer with mobility issues has to work out (and super-quick!*) just who is hacking the 4m high humanoid robots in the factory in which she works. (Rather unbelievably, the hacker is one of the senior company tech people who is in a big hole in a forest, whose *only* way out is to use her otherwise unusable tablet to try and hack the robots to come and rescue her). It’s an ok story as far as it goes, but I wouldn’t rate it as a Year’s Best story, as it doesn’t go anywhere as near as far as some of the other stories in this volume. (And BTW I’m halfway or more through reading ‘Cloud Atlas’, so my grey matter is tuned to a highest possible standard of writing and ideas). *we have ‘super-this’ and ‘super-that’ in the story, rather than ‘very’, so we definitely get it that the young woman is of a certain generation. [1st October 2020]
Hannu Rajaniemi. Lions and Gazelles.
Originally published on line on Slate magazine and still there
A bit of disappointment, similar to that with the Reynolds story which follows, but which was a story I sat down and read shortly after getting the book, anticipating some far future galactic-spanning drama. Similar to Reynolds, Rajaniemi reins in the imagination which I associate with the stories of his I’ve read to date, with another near future story with some relatively minor sfnal elements. He postulates hi-tech types who have genmodded themselves to improve their running, who are competing in a competitive road race, the winner of which wins an opportunity to get their hi-tech business funded. The protagonist wasn’t particularly appealing, and the story felt OK, but more of an Analog scientist fiction type of story. [23rd October 2020]
Alastair Reynolds. Different Seas.
Originally in : Twelve Tomorrows 5, MIT Press 2018.
Trying to re-engage my brain with reading SF, I checked the contents list and headed for this story first, looking forward to a lengthy galactic-spanning yarn from an author who invariably delivers the SF goods. However this is much more tightly focussed story and is tethered to Earth. Lilith is onboard an otherwise unmanned oceangoing cargo ship when a major auroral storm damages her vessel. Such has been the global impact of this storm that rescue or repair is not going to happen quickly enough for her, and her vessel and it’s cargo, and Lilith herself are in grave danger. However, help is provided, through a maintenance ‘bot controlled through telepresence from a woman whose life, unlike Lilith’s, is up and out amongst the planets. In the short time her saviour is with her, Lilith’s life is not only saved, but energised for a starrier future by her unseen saviour, who is not to be rescued from her predicament but used here final hours and minutes to save Lilith. [20th Oct 2019]
Aliette de Bodard. Among the Water Buffaloes, a Tiger’s Steps
Originally in : Mechanical Animals ed. Selena Chambers and Jason Heller, Hex Publishers, Nov 2018
AdeB also stays on Earth, but pushes her story further forward in time, and into a Post-Catastrophe world. A group of humanoid mechs are eking out a living on the somewhat blasted Earth, with echoes of generations-past embedded in them. Amongst them comes a Sleeper, someone from pre-Catastrophe, from the people who partially caused it, and, like the titutar Tiger amongst the Water Buffaloes, is likely to run to type. But one of the mechs establishes a relationship – can love prevail? It’s a short story and I would have welcomed more of it.
Ken Liu. Byzantine Empathy.
Originally in : Twelve Tomorrows 5, MIT Press 2018.
I baled out of this story after a few attempts to read it. It’s near future, and looks at issues of empathy and reasons against a background of politics, the work of NGOs, and new tech. I found it just a little heavy handed. It opens with a stomach-turning VR sequence in which one of the protagonists gets fully immersed in the horrors of refugees fleeing persecution. Then we get into a back and forth between her and a college friend, interspersed with detailed conversations from a Board of Governors meeting, which gives the protagonist/author a chance to spell out in w-a-y too much detail the finer points of blockchain technology. I skipped to the end which appeared to be three of four pages of dialogue between the two main characters. There’s probably a useful introduction to tech article, and an article on the ethics around issues of politics and support and intervention from overseas governments and agencies in the story.[16th November 2020]
Rich Larson. Meat and Salt and Sparks.
Originally published online on Tor.com and still online
A near-future detective whodunnit but with a twist, of course. The woman who pulled the trigger is on video and in custody, but who has been whispering into her ear 24/7 for some months, on account of her renting out herself to a third party who has been vicariously controlling her. The main detective is a little out of the ordinary – an uplifted chimp. It turns out though that the mystery of whodunnit isn’t really the point of the story, which is to look at the alienation amongst humans, as seen through the eyes of the chimp, and the killer, who is….. (ok, probably not quite so much of a surprise as it might have been, but a story that I enjoyed) [16th November 2020]
Carolyn Ives Gilman. Umbernight.
Originally in : Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue #138, February 2018 and still online
The collection closes with an excellent lengthy novella set in the far future on an alien planet (somewhat old school eh??). A small group of humans are ekeing out a living on planet which was settled a couple of generations before them. Their parents were keen to leave Earth, to make a home based on rationality and science, but in their haste did not do enough research on their destination planet, and found out that the remote second star in the system had a nasty surprise for them – bathing the planet in UV and x-rays that are detrimental to human life. This happens once a year (there are long years on the planet) and so when the time arrives, the settlers scurry deep into caves. The protagonist is one of the few who travels far from the base, and he is called upon to lead a small team of younger settlers to meet a cargo vessel which has been slowly making its way by lightsail, having been launched before the original settlers set out in faster vessels. What goodies will be found? The problem though is that Umbernight is about to fall, and its almost time for the long months of hiding underground. There are tensions, both in the community and within the team that heads out to retrieve the cargo. However, as they finally get to the cargo, Umbernight falls, and it transpires that the UV and x-rays turn the planet into an altogether different and very, very dangerous place, leading to an attritional journey back to the caverns. Inventive setting, good characterisation and enjoyable. [17th November 2020]