The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 5 (ed Neil Clarke, Nightshade Books 2020

Last year, following the sad loss of Gardner Dozois, Neil Clarke became the *only* anthologist of a Year’s Best SF volume (exclusing the SF&F anthologies, obviously). This year, Clarke is now *just* the longest-running Year’s Best SF anthologist, as he has reached volume 5, with Jonathan Strahan leaving his SF&F series for an SF-only series from publisher Saga Press. And that leaves just one SF&F volume for 2020 (Rich Horton’s volume).

So, what of this, Clarke’s latest volume? It follows the same presentation as the previous volumes, and of the 11 authors named on the front, I recognise 10 of them. What I will do is start off now (20th Nov 2020, coronavirus having pushed back the publication date this year) with a listing of stories and their sources, and work my way through the book, reading stories and putting reviews/summaries/notes as I go along.

Suzanne Palmer. The Painter of Trees.
Originally published in Clarkesworld Magazine #153, June 2019 and still online

A short, simple but effective vignette from Palmer. Humanity is spreading remorselessly throughout the universe, as the native intelligence life on one planet has found to their cost. There are but a half dozen of them left, in the final, small corner of their planet that has yet to succumb to the terraforming. There is one human who has some regret at the costs, and reflects on the loss of the habitat and its inhabitants, but it’s too little, too late.

Not the most cheering of reads, and I’m glad I read it post-2020 US Election and with news of vaccines, rather than in the middle of 2020! (Also anthologised by Jonathan Strahan in his take on the year’s best SF. [27-Nov-2020]

N.K. Jemisin. Emergency Skin.
Originally published in Amazon Forward Reads, 2019.

A story I really enjoyed reading. The protagonist is on a mission, to return to humanity’s homeworld, Tellus. He has been enclosed in a temporary skin, which will become permanent at the end of his mission and his return, and he has an embedded AI to help him on the mission. It transpires though that the homeworld hasn’t succumbed to environmental collapse, and, indeed those who remained on Earth have flourished *because* rather than *despite* the loss of the rich elite who fled generations ago. Jemisin drip feeds the reader as the story progresses with information about what has happened, which kept this reader engaged as did the perspective being from the embedded AI, and its responses to questions from its host. Admittedly the solution to Earth’s problems is a little simplistic and idealistic, and conservatives will doubtless object but hey, I’d contribute to a kickstarter to help the rich elite flee the Earth. Also anthologised by Jonathan Strahan in his take on the Year’s Best SF. [28-Nov-2020]

Mercurio D. Rivera. In the Stillness Between the Stars.
Originally in Asimovs, September/October 2019.

Winner of the Asimovs Readers Poll in the Novelette Category for 2019. It’s a story of two halves. I liked the first half – the setting (massive spaceship en route to New Earth using alien tech) and the setup (a psychotherapist, with guilt over leaving his young son behind, is brought out of coldsleep to help with another passenger having problems with guilt over an extramarital affair). Instead of the second half being a psychological exploration of guilt in these circumstances, there’s some ‘tommy rot’ (as we call it in the UK) about passing through a gravity wave that enables creatures from another brane universe to pass across and latch onto people’s guilt to substantiate themselves as demonic creatures of the shadows. And the second half becomes a Stephen King-like horror story (apologies for my horror references being some 30 years out of date, I never did get into horror to any extent after a few early King novels). The guilty passenger gets chomped by the monster, but the protagonist faces up to it and survives, but in aborting his trip at a layoff out near Pluto, he chats with an incoming passenger who (as tends to happen in horror stories/films) *also* has guilt over leaving her daughter behind, and who (we see in the final paragraph) is going to have the horrors during her voyage. The protagonist turns his back on them and heads home. Not the sort of ending that you find in SF although the kind of ending you get in horror movies/tv series, setting up more horrors beyond the conclusion of the story. [28-Nov-2020]

Karin Lowachee. Sympathizer.
Originally in : “Do Not Go Quietly : an anthology of Defiance in Victory’ (ed Jason Sizemore and Lesley Connor, Apex 2019.

An interesting story, though missing just that little extra to make it into a Year’s Best, IMHO. The story : the expanding human race have come across an intelligent species who are mining on a planet’s moon, and the commander of the Marines on the human vessel disobeys the overall leader’s order to kill the aliens. She faces off with the captain and has to make a decision between loyalty to the human race, or remaining true to her moral code and refuse to murder. She decides on the latter, and her marines are loyal to her. I was slightly put off by a plethora of similes in a couple of sentences at one point, and in a few cases there were a few breathless paragraphs, which read a little awkward. But overall the story moved along rather too quickly and simply for me, and the dramatic ending felt a little clumsy, and I could easily believe it was taken from a Netflix original tv series or somesuch. Evidently it’s a story from the author’s ‘Warchild’ setting which looks to be a Young Adult novel, and maybe that’s the case with this story and the reason for this Old Adult not really getting enough from it? Maybe a YA who loves the book series will find this story a big treat. [30-Nov-2020]

Marie Vibbert. Knit Three, Save Four.
Originally in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 2019.

A story by an author new to me. The author bio states that she has played both OL and DL for the Cleveland Fusion woman’s tackle football team, so I was liking the cut of her jib already. And the story gave me as much pleasure as watching Aaron Donald knock a QB on their backside. Her story runs smoothly and effortlessly with some good characterisation and dialogue, as a stowaway finds that she might have a way out of the predicament that the ship is in. And it’s not Scientist Fiction where the solution is an obscure scientific or technological thing, it is, as you might guess from the title, knitting that is going to be the solution. And as an aside, knitting was my mum’s thing and she’s been gone some 25 years now and the story gave me an opportunity to dust off some memories and think about that Kaffe Fassett she knitted me back in the day. I try not to think of the knitted woollen balaclavas she knit in the 1960s when I was a young boy, as those itched to high heaven. [30-Nov-2020]

Cixin Liu. Moonlight.
Translated by Ken Liu. Originally in : Broken Stars (ed Ken Liu), 2019.

This short piece had a retro-feel to me, very much the kind of story that was popular in the 1950s. There’s no real ‘story’ as such – a young man gets a phone call from himself from the future, a future where climate change has wreaked havoc. His future self passes on details of a technology which will save the future from the fate. Problem is, having resolved to promote this technology, there’s immediately another call, from another future self, who has to report unintended consequences (of a disastrous nature) of that future tech. This new version of himself in a new future, has his own technology to pass back down to his earlier self, to save the planet. Problem is, that technology is also doomed to unintended consequences. And so on. So the story is a simple idea, with dialogue between the young man and his future selves, some extrapolation of potential ecological solutions and their flip sides, but not a whole lot more. [24-Dec-2020]

Tobias S. Buckell. By the Warmth of Their Calculus.
Originally in : Mission Critical (ed Jonathan Strahan, Solaris Books 2019)

From a collection of stories in which space farers have to overcome a tricky problem to survive. The tricky problem in this story is of a cold equations type. The story very much feels like an Alastair Reynolds story. Far future humanity, post-something, where an organic spaceship from a matriarchal society has to escape some hi-tech hunter killer vessels who are programmed to destroy anything resembling technology. The Mother Superior has to work out how to flee a nearby hunter killer without giving away any evidence of their technology. This leads to some tricky math, especially as there are some male stowaways which skew the math. There is pressure on her from others to initiate a protocol which would have the males on board jettisoned (there is a small crumb of comfort for them – they would be given the opportunity to have a wank before that happens). However, with a bit of biology, rectal thermometers, and restricting activity, there is a window of opportunity. A good story and characterisation and I’d be happy to read more from this setting. [14-Jan-2021]

Elizabeth Bear. Deriving Life.
Originally published on :, January 2019.

If you’re reading this then you clearly like great SF short stories, so make sure to read the story (link above) before reading what I have to say about it.

What I have to say about it is that it is a great, thought-provoking read. It’s near(ish) future, just far enough in the future for The Great Melt to have happened, and climate/carbon to be a major background issue. The protagonist, Marq, is struggling to cope with the imminent death of his primary lover, Tamar, who is in a hospice. It’s a complicated issue for several reasons – the sfnal one being that Tamar is dying early on account of him having chosen earlier in life, to host an alien life, one that lives as a metastatic cancer, and whose growth is finally killing. (But that alien life has given him healthy years, which he wouldn’t otherwise have had). Marq has issues with losing Tamar, who he loves dearly, and is considering losing himself, who he loves much less dearly. The story is neatly structured, and the themes of love, loss, and self are thought-provoking. I took my time reading this to savour it, and also went back to the start halfway through when I realised exactly what was happening. [11-Feb-2021]

Gwyneth Jones. The Little Shepherdess.
Originally in Current Futures

Quite a short story, with no sfnal elements, and a bit of a headscratcher to be honest, as there’s just so little to it. A near future scientist spots some deep ocean floor activity by teeny squids, and she manages to dodge the objections by ocean-mining companies whose work this finding may affect their operations by knocking on someone’s door. Unless I’m missing something! [12-Feb-2021)

Rebecca Campbell. Such Thoughts Are Unproductive.
Originally in : Clarkesworld Magazine #159, December 2019 and still online

A standout story. It’s nearish future, Canada, and in addition to the climate change shit which has to be dealt with, there’s an oppressive surveillance state, with AI helping to analyse vast volumes of digital data to identify those deemed to be a risk to the state. The protagonist is a young woman whose mother has been identified as such, and has been taken away, possibly to a re-education centre. The daughter has contact with her via video-conferencing, but is not even sure whether it is her mother on an AI-controlled deepfake. A visit by a woman who may/may not be her aunt, or a government stooge causes further disorientation, and in a hopeless world the chance of a few minutes with her dad seems to be worth a big price. [22-Feb-21]

Kali Wallace. The River of Blood and Wine.
Originally in : Asimovs Science Fiction, November/December 2019

A young academic returns to his homeworld, some ten years after revealing the guilty secret about the indigenous creatures that the human settlers have been hiding. He has some ghosts to confront, and we find out more about his father and mother as the story develops. An engaging story. [23-Feb-21]

Dominica Phetteplace. One Thousand Beetles in a Jumpsuit.
Originally in Lightspeed Magazine #111 August 2019 – and still online.

A young woman, fed up with her service industry ‘job’ and after a breakup, decided on a fresh start, exploring wilderness near the Mexican border for a megacorp, who are testing out drone and bot supported missions with an eye on Mars. Turns out the bots are more trustworthy than the megacorp, and she finds depth of inner resolve to face the challenges thrown at her and grasp the opportunity proferred. A nice enough story, but not a Year’s Best standard for me. [2-Mar-21]

Alastair Reynolds. Permafrost.
Published by Tor/Forge, March 2019.

88 pages in the volume, athough in the paperback version it’s twice that number! It’s good to have such a substantial story appear in a Year’s Best collection. It’s a clever story, which kept me engaged to the end, wondering how it was going to work out. The story starts in the late 21st century, in a future that is desperate for humanity – ‘The Scourge’ has seen insects vanish from the planet and the knock on effects, and related issues have us down to the last generation (sterilisation is compulsory as there is no future for children, so no point in having them). The protagonist is a teacher, brought into a top secret mission that is attempting to get back into the past to make a change to save the future. We start with her in the middle of the mission, and follow her as she makes a couple of visits and returns to her time, whilst reflecting on her past and joining the mission. Reynolds handles it deftly (just a couple of lengthy infodumps), teasing some issues to be clarified later, with one canine OMG moment, and some braniac quantum theory behind it all. [9-Mar-21]

Tegan Moore. The Work of Wolves.
Originally in Asimovs, July/August 2019.

A story with an enhanced dog as the POV protagonist. Sera is intelligent (virtually human level), and is connected to the web and other services. A search and rescue dog, her main concern is how to win the affection of her handler, who just doesn’t seem to care as much about her as her previous, non-enhanced rescue dog. The pair are called in or an altogether different mission, to chase down domestic terrorists in a nuclear facility. Turns out that the main terrorist is an enhanced rat, and Sera finds out more about the cause for which the rat is fighting, and we find out more about Sera. The story moves along quickly, although TBH the extent to which the dog and the rat had been enhanced did strain my credulity a bit. [10-Mar-21]

A Que. Song Xiuyun. Translated by Emily Jin.
Originally in Clarkesworld Magazine, #157 October 2019, and still online.

Wu Huang lies on her bed in her parent’s house, brain-control helmet enabling her to remotely control her taxi cab. It’s a quiet night, but she picks up an older woman and her adult son, and in driving them to the bus station, hears the mother’s tale. She has been to Beijing to visit her son, and she relates the strange story of his reclusive life in his expensive apartment. He has a couple of secrets hidden from his mother, and something else hidden in the basement… Nice to have a different perspective, feeling similar to the Oscar-winning Parasite movie. [13-Mar-21]

Vandana Singh. Mother Ocean.
Online at The Fiction Project and still online.

I was looking forward to some deep space hard SF from Singh, which she does so well, but in fact this story is earth-bound. Well, not actually earth-bound, as the focus of the story is the ocean, and the strong, but unexplained ties that the protagonist has for it. There’s not a whole lot in the story to mark it out as SF – it’s near future, with just a bit more stupid far-right capitalist planet fucking happening, and a bit of science enabling the protagonist to communicate on a basic level with a blue whale. There is a bit of drama, and the protagonist, an Indian woman, realises just what her link to water is founded on. A nicely told story, but nothing to stick too strongly in the mind (or at least in this mind with more than six decades of stuff already in it). Jonathan Strahan has a different story from Singh in his take on the Year’s Best SF for the year, so twill be interest to compare an contrast the pair. [24-Mar-21]

Karen Osborne. Cratered.
Originally online on Future Science Fiction Digest June 2019, and still online.

There’s some parts of the story I liked, and other parts less so. I liked the softer, human elements – scientists on the moon, working under a devastated Earth hanging above them, each of them suffering terrible loss, and trying, with varying degrees of success, to get over that loss. The protagonist is mourning her lover, but when out on a rock-hunting recce she and a colleague stumble across an incongruous object – a fireplace. Furthermore, it’s both her fireplace from back on Earth, whilst at the same time being the family fireplace of her colleague. There’s a mystery to be solved, and it turns out to be not only incongruous, but deadly so. Turns out it’s augmented reality, but of a very high standard (a bit too high standard for me.) I’d have preferred the story to ease right back on the fireplaces and the risk it generated, and focus on something subtler. It didn’t really feel like a Year’s Best story to me. [7-Apr-2021]

Ann Leckie. The Justified.
Originally in ‘The Mythic Dream’ ed Parisien/Wolfe, Saga Press 2019.

From an anthology of stories retelling mythical tales. There’s a mention of an orbiting spaceship at one point, and the characters are far future descendents of human colonists, which supposably makes in SF, but it’s really fantasy. The extremely powerful protagonist returns from self-imposed exile to wreak revenge on its fellows, who show themselves as not being worthy of the power they wield, which is as nothing compared to them. [21-May-2021]

Annalee Newitz. Old Media.
Originally published online on

A tasty little hors d’oeuvre, evidently from a setting that the author has covered more substantially elsewhere. Had it been expanded into a longer narrative I’d have enjoyed it more. Near-future Canadian immigrant who has escaped enslavement finds companionship, and love (up to a point) with an asexual nonhuman, [21-May-2021]

Alec Nevala-Lee. At the Fall.
Originally in Analog, May-June 2019.

An AI-controlled subterranean drone explores the ocean floor, and we finally find out what has happened to her program, her creator, and humanity. It’s a bit of a dense read. [21-May-2021]

Ray Nayler. The Ocean Between the Leaves.
Originally in : Asimovs, July-August 2019.

Spoilers ahead! I’m glad the confusion I had on reading this wasn’t down to me. If you want a more detailed review with a reading by reading analysis from someone who read the story four times click here. You have to be on your toes when reading it, as the author doesn’t give any clues (ie signalling a flashback/non chronological section). And the clever bit of the story (the dying sister in the hospital bed, and her brother who is working flat out to pay for her medical treatment, are the *same* person) is made a bit trickier by the way the author pops in a page and half, midconversation, from the perspective of the person the protagonist is talking to, and then towards the end has a conversation between two other characters by way of explaining what has been happening. Took me back 40+ years to my A-Level English Literature studies! [21-May-2021]

Aliette de Bodard. Rescue Party.
Originally in : Mission Critical, ed Jonathan Strahan.

A Dai Viet story. In an alternate universe I would have had time to immerse myself in this series of stories, but that hasn’t happened in this one, and so I’m not at all sure whether the characters or setting of the story are ones that will be familiar to those who have read more in this series. The protagonist has no sooner made planetfall than she is summarily ‘preserved’ in ‘The Repository’ – that is, her corporeal self is interred and she joins many others in an AI-controlled virtual reality. She has to use her wits and her persuasiveness to escape, but then again all the others before her have also tried this… [5-Aug-2021]

John Chu. Close Enough for Jazz.
Originally in : The Mythic Dream (ed Parisien/Wolfe)

One of the weaker stories in the volume. Issues with the fundamental premise, the characterisation, the dialogue and contemporary jargon all jarred for me. A couple develop what should be a world-shattering technology that enables rapid body modification, through eating apples (laced with whatever technology). However, rather than becoming instant billionaires they are reduced to pitching to ‘tech bros’ and ‘angels’ (ie investors). We sit through several pitches (initially unsuccesful). [5-Aug-2021]

Carolyn Ives Gilman. On the Shores of Ligeia.
Originally in Lighstpeed Magazine, October 2019.

As with the preceding story, some issues with the story rather prevented me from enjoying it. Clunkiness, basically, with a couple of co-incidences spoiling the story, and some heavy handed pontification on approaches to space exploration at the end. [5-Aug-2021]

Yoon Ha Lee. The Empty Gun.
Originally in : Mission Critical (ed Jonathan Strahan)

An excellent story with strong overtones of Alastair Reynolds. There is revenge to be had, and that revenge is writ large, very large, by the protagonist obtaining an alien tech gun from an arms dealer whose full ability only eventually becomes clear. And it’s a doozy – the gun obtains it’s ammunition from that used in the past… [5-Aug-2021]

Indrapramit Das. Kali_Na.
Originally in : The Mythic Dream (ed Parisien/Wolfe)

A young girl in India, named after the Hindu goddess of the title, finds herself intertwined with the launch of an AI version of that goddess. There is tech and religion and caste and more, as we watch the response from the goddess to being assailed by trolls upon her launch. [5-Aug-2021]

Rich Larson. Painless.
Originally online on and still available

Not one for the weak-stomached. Fortunately, the book version does not have the introductory summary preceding the story which the original web version does : ‘A man who can’t feel pain has been bioengineered to be a killing machine, but he refuses to give in to his fate’. This rather spoils the fun for the reader in working out exactly what is happening. The ending is a doozy, which I didn’t spot. SPOILER ALERT Marsili isn’t actually bioengineers to be a killing machine, but rather than due to his inability to feel pain he has been bioengineered/enhanced to repair very, very quickly, any damage done to his body, giving him a big advantage in the killing stakes. Having pulled out of the way of a big truck at the beginning of the story and suffering major trauma, at the end of the story he is reunited with the version of him that was grown back from the bits that were sheared off him by the truck. Ewwww. A clever twist that makes the preceding ickiness worthwhile. [9-Aug-2021]

A.T. Greenblatt. Give the Family My Love.
Originally online on Clarkesworld Magazine and still online.

The volume closes with the winner of the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 2020. The story is a lengthy voice message from the last human spaceperson, who has been chosen to take up the offer to visit an alien artefact Library far from Earth. First Contact has come for humanity at a very low, climate change, ebb, and the vast resources of that library may have the key to our future. Or not. The story marries well the big picture for humanity with the individual humanity of the narrator. [9-Aug-2021]


A good read, with just a few stories not doing it for me. Just four of these stories appear in Jonathan Strahan’s take on this year’s best, and Rich Horton agreed with Clarke on three stories, even though Horton’s volume was covered by SF & Fantasy, so he had fewer SF stories than Strahan with which to concur with Clarke.

The pick of the stories in this volume, for me :

Tobias S. Buckell. By the Warmth of Their Calculus.
Elizabeth Bear. Deriving Life
Rebecca Campbell. Such Thoughts Are Unproductive.
Alastair Reynolds. Permafrost.

And if you want to cross reference with the other Year’s Best volumes here are the links

Rich Horton’s ‘Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2020’

Jonathan Strahan’s ‘Year’s Best Science Fiction Volume 1

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