The sixth volume in what is now the longest-running current Year’s Best SF anthology. Due out in deadtree format just before Christmas Day – that’s one of *my* christmas presents sorted out then! (Nov 5th Update : publication date now mid-Feb 2022!) Strahan has published the ToC online, and I’ll put this here for the moment.
21 out of 32 author names ‘ring a bell/sound a gong’ with me. I’d guess that 11 of the 32 have had stories in Year’s Best volumes more than 5 years ago. I did a similar quick and dirty check with Jonathan Strahan’s volume and which scored 17 out of 26 on the bell/gong, and 4or5/26 on the 5-year thing. And that’s all I have to say about that!
30th April 2022 and I realised that I had not in fact got this volume pre-ordered, and so it finally got handed over by the Amazon delivery man today. Of course it’s publication date is 2022, rather than 2021 as it should have been, so just to clear, Volume 5 published in 2020 and Volume 6 published in 2022 does not mean that there is a year whose stories have been missed out, simply that the volume for stories published in 2020 did not appear in 2021 but in 2022.
Tobias S. Buckell. Scar Tissue.
First published in Future Tense Fiction, May 30, 2020 – and still online
A nice start to the volume. Near future, and a veteran who has two artificial limbs and is generally down on his luck, decides to take on the role of ‘parenting’ a humanoid robot. This involves an unboxing at home of a full-size but intellectually and socially undeveloped personality and raising it pretty much as one would do with an infant. It’s a clever conceit, and Buckell handles it well without getting too mawkish, as the adoptive father learns about himself through this process. [30th April 2022]
Ray Nayler. Eyes of the Forest.
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2020
Nayler goes far-future and off planet, which pleased me. The first story in this volume was near future, on Earth, and robotic/AI, and I had been disappointed with Jonathan Strahan’s take on the Year’s Best being very heavily weighted in favour of stories of that ilk. Nayler’s setting is very redolent of the planets in Harry Harrison’s ‘Deathworld’ series (of which I have very fond memories of reading in the 70s) with the flora and fauna of the alien planet all too capable of killing humans. We follow a young trainee Wayfinder – one of a select group of humans who traverse the surface of the planet, linking communities of humans who have mostly gone subterranean. As you might guess, she is quickly faced with a challenge, and we have to see if she is up to it. Will it be the making of her? Some nice touches in the story (female protagonists) and the story hits the spot nicely.[4th April 2022]
Carrie Vaughn. Sinew and Steel and What They Told.
Tor.com, February 26, 2020 – and still online
A second far future and off-Earth story, and we’re only three stories into the volume! I enjoyed it thoroughly and you should read it online. But skip over the editorial intro before you read the story. The editorial intro says “..Graff has been keeping a big secret from his closest friends, the captain and crew of a pirate-hunting starship. He expected to die before they ever discovered what he really is. But he’s not dead, and now he has to explain…” So that tells you exactly what the story is about. What I liked about it was the nonCIS relationship, under a lot of strain due to the deceit, the nature of what is being kept secret, and the resolution. It reminded me very much of Jay Lake from bygone days. Eight years since he died, how is that even possible? And WTF about his website?? [8th May 2022]
Rebecca Campbell. An Important Failure.
Clarkesworld Magazine, August 2020, and still online
Also chosen by Jonathan Strahan in his take on the Year’s Best SF, which was published some months before this volume, and I loved the story when I read it there and noted “.. this is a corker and no mistake.” Click here to read my review.
Julie Novakova. The Long Iapetan Night.
Asimov’s Science Fiction, November/December 2020
Set on one of the Saturnian moons that has featured less in SF than some of it’s bigger siblings. There are two narratives entwined. One is from an earlier mission to Iapetus, whose crew had only just started to build their base when things got really bad on Earth due to an unfortunate coincidence of a very large volcanic eruption and a very large solar flare. We follow the transcript of one of their crew as she responds to the crisis and reflects on the responses of her colleagues. And the main narrative is from a second mission, sent some decades later, who are trying to find out what exactly happened to the earlier mission. There’s a creepy exploration of the deserted habitat of the first crew, which seems set on killing the second mission crew. There’s also evidence of some form of alien life (although that is left unresolved). A good enough story for me, but it left me wanting just a bit more. It’s just such a routine story, how it gets into a Year’s Best is beyond me. [9th May 2022]
Sameem Siddiqui. AirBody.
Clarkesworld Magazine, April 2020 and still online
Also chosen by Strahan in his take on the Year’s Best, where I read it and noted I wasn’t blown away by it – full review here.
Nadia Afifi. The Bahrain Underground Bazaar.
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December 2020
Also chosen by Jonathan Strahan in his take on the Year’s Best SF, which was published some months before this volume, and I loved the story when I read it there. Click here to read my comments on the story in that book review.
Arula Ratnakar. Lone Puppeteer of a Sleeping City.
Clarkesworld Magazine, September 2020 and still online
I did struggle with this one quite a bit, finding it difficult to engage with, and tbh I skimmed the last few pages, by which time I had lost complete grip of exackerly wtf was going on. There’s some clever stuff in there, and an interesting setting, but I found it a labourious read to start, and never really got past the initial struggle to overcome a heavy dose of opening infodumping as the underpinning science and technology is spelt out in too much detail. And there was one bit of writing straight from 1950s B-movie SF viz.:
“But that means…”
“Yes. It does. It means that in slightly less than a decade, I am going to die.”
But the one minor stylistic faux pas can be forgiven due to the world building and complex thinking that has gone into the story. [10th May 2022]
James Patrick Kelly. Your Boyfriend Experience.
Entanglements: Tomorrow’s Lovers, Families, and Friends, edited by Sheila Williams
Nice to see Kelly in a Year’s Best again. I’ve got fond memories of my early days reading for Best SF when he was a regular in the likes of Asimovs. Here he takes us to the near future, and a ‘playbot’ which is being tested for the market. The protagonist isn’t all to keen on going on a trial date with ultra-realistic creation, but said creation is his boyfriend’s pet project at his very important job, so he feels he has to do his bit. We follow him on his date, with ‘Partner Tate’ who has boyfriend has designed to look unnervingly like him. There’s a lot of character background and depth in the story, and there’s a bit of a twist at the end, as the true nature of exactly who the playbot is intended to help. [16th May 2022]
Mercurio D. Rivera. Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars.
Asimov’s Science Fiction, March/April 2020
A very strong, clever story from Rivera. Spoilers ahead. It starts intriguingly with an extract from a history written by a non human race who are living on Earth and are facing climate change. Very similar to us, but not us. We soon find out why – these creatures are living in a simulation of Earth, being fast forwarded through multiple iterations, as they have proved to be far more resilient to dealing with challenges that they face that the homo sapiens were able to. And they are being made to do this in order to get them to identify tech and approaches to problems to help us in the real world. But as problem after problem are given to them, this race start to wonder whether there is a capricious God behind this. Or something, or somebody else. Excellent. [16th May 2022]
Bogi Takács. The 1st Interspecies Solidarity Fair and Parade.
Rebuilding Tomorrow, edited by Tsana Dolichva.
An enjoyable story from an author new to me. It’s from an anthology that focusses on rebuilding after apocalypses (apocalyptii?). Bogi sets up an interesting setting – what was eastern Europe, and after three waves of alien invasion. The first two waves have wreaked havoc across Earth, and humanity and society and individuals are struggling to survive. The aliens, from various worlds, who have formed the third wave have actually come in peace, but we aren’t really in much of a mood to welcome them with open arms. The protagonist is struggling to recruit people to work with the aliens in joint projects, and ends up in a community that appears to be doing a bit better than most. There’s a neat twist in the way that the community is enthused to work alongside the aliens, in the form of a rebooted LGTB+ fair and parade. [25th May 2022]
Adrian Tchaikovsky. Oannes, From The Flood.
Avatars, Inc., edited by Ann VanderMeer
A good read from a prolific British author who I really need to catch up on. This is near-future, and post-climate change in the shape of rising sea levels which have inundated great swathes of coastal territory. The technology element (there’s no SF) is enhanced AI-supported virtual/teledildonic (my words) drones that are making their way through flooded cellars in a mansion owned by a billionaire collector of ancient artefacts. There is a team of archaeologists controlling the drones, seeking Sumerian scrolls. Tchaikovsky neatly ties in the current floods with those from times past. There’s tension due to the threat of collapse in the cellar, and there’s a moral dilemma at the end. [25th May 2022]
Maureen McHugh. Yellow and the Perception of Reality.
Tor.com, July 22, 2020 and still online
Also chosen by Strahan in his take on the Year’s Best, where I read it – review here
Carolyn Ives Gilman. Exile’s End.
Tor.com, August 12, 2020 and still online
If you follow the link above to the story, skips the editorial introduction as it gives a plot summary which ideally you’re better finding out yourself by reading the story. I’m going to reprint their summary here, as to spend my time crafting one when there’s an extant one in existence would seem to be a bit of a waste of time. There intro says : “Exile’s End is a complex, sometimes uncomfortable examination of artifact repatriation and cultural appropriation. An artifact of indescribable and irreplaceable beauty created by an “extinct” culture has been the basis of another culture’s origin stories. The race who created the artifact has survived on a distant world and has sent a representative to reclaim it, throwing everything into question.” The story doesn’t quite deliver any real drama – at one point I was bracing myself for a courtroom drama, but that didn’t happen. A good read, and a worthy story, but I felt it was missing just that little extra to make it a really special story. [29th May 2022]
Nancy Kress. Invisible People.
Entanglements: Tomorrow’s Lovers, Families, and Friends, edited by Sheila Williams
A good story, strong on characterisation. A contemporary science story, rather than science fiction. The science is in utero gene modification. Something that a young couple with an adopted daughter suddenly find themselves experts on, when the FBI tell them that their daughter was subject to this. It transpires that some shadowy group has been doing this with babies of girls in poverty whom they have recruited in order to get their fetuses modified, babies born and babies adopted. Just what exactly are the genes being altered, and to what purpose?? ANSWER(a surprising one)/SPOILER : the shadowy group are wanting to get a gene for selfless altruism out there in the world. Might that be the answer to our ongoing issues? Well told, although the story resolves around a single conceit and seeing as how it was Kress herself who set the bar so high with a similar story in Beggars in Spain some thirty years ago, she has only herself to blame for not quite hitting that height. [13th June 2022]
Dilman Dila. Red_Bati
Originally in : Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora, edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.
A neat little story, somewhat confusing opening paragraph notwithstanding. Red_Bati was once a pet robot in the shape of a dog, AI slightly tweaked by his elderly owner’s grandson, a mod undetected by his new owner’s, who have repurposed him as robot on an unmanned mining vessel in deep space. An accident has left him without one arm, and he is on a shelf in a storeroom, battery running down, which will be the end of his AI enhancements. Does Red_Bati have the wherewithal to get himself out of the tricky situation he is in? It’s a story that could be been told at greater length and to greater depth, but nice enough as it is.[30th June 2022]
S.B. Divya. Textbooks in the Attic
Rebuilding Tomorrow, edited by Tsana Dolichva
A well handled piece of near-future post-climate change scientist fiction. The protagonist is part of a community living on a co-operative basis on the top floors of high-rise buildings, with the lower levels of the city flooded. It’s not a bad life, thought not as good as that of those living higher up the hills, who don’t have the issue with the higher water levels, and have basically walled themselves in to create their own community. Tensions come to a head with then protagonist’s son gets an infected cut, and there isn’t any penicillin to be had, even from the walled community. Fortunately, the protagonist has enough of a scientific background to research the making of penicillin, and rolls her sleeves us and does just that, thus saving her child, and helping her community out. The story itself is a little basic, and of it’s type, but the background, characterisation (strong female characters) and setting gives the story more than you tend to get with this type. [20th July 2022]
M. L. Clark. Seeding the Mountain.
Originally in : Analog Science Fiction & Fact, September/October 2020
A bit frustrating that the editor puts one Analog-y scientist fiction story set in a near future climate change setting with a strong female character alongside an Analog scientist fiction story set in a near future climate change setting with a strong female character. Here we see a South American setting, where illegal mining has caused terrible damage to local mountains, which has affected the supply of water to the local people. There’s a lot of local and regional background, cultural and political, some neat ideas (nanobots going rogue and totally dismantling whole freaking cities) and more. But as in this type of story, the scientist is able to come up with a scientific solution, and fix the problem (in this case, seeding the mountain with other nano, which will quickly spread and knit together the mountain). [20th July 2022]
Rati Mehrotra. Knock, Knock Said the Ship.
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2020
Well, I’ve recently read Arkady Martine’s ‘A Memory Called Empire’ and it’s sequel ‘A Desolation Called Peace’, both Hugo Award winners for Best Novel. They’re lengthy, very complex, very layered, with strong characterisation and a whole heap more. Which is a bit unfair or Rati Mehrotra, as their SF story set in space is, due to it’s length, not at all able to be any of those things! Even without Martine’s work to overshadow it, this is a fairly lightweight story, that fairly zips through the narrative at an extremely fast pace, with the background quickly sketched in – to the extent that I don’t think it would be possible to do it any faster. Well, maybe you could remove the ship’s AI making the ‘Knock, Knock’ jokes to which the title refers. It doesn’t reallly feel like a Year’s Best story tbh. [15th Oct 2022]
Matthew Kressel. Still You Linger, Like Soot in the Air.
Lightspeed Magazine, August 2020. and still online
Kressel gets deep inside the human mind and out into deep, deep space where the truly alien lies. The protagonist, in a reasonably far future, lives an ascetic life, using a herbal means to become at one with immense alien intelligences that are otherwise beyond our ken and on another plane. However, his one strong link to humanity, his lover, an initiate, has been taken from him, and when another young person turns up to take their place and to reach for the stars, he reflects on his loss. Well done.[18th Oct 2022]
Eleanor Arnason. Tunnels.
Asimov’s Science Fiction, May/June 2020
I do rather differ in my reaction to Eleanor Arnason’s stories to other reviewers/editors. I found this story overlong, tedious, with too much dialog, and an altogether silly premise, and the kind of ‘drama’ that you would get in bad TV shows from the 70s/80s. It’s a Lydia Duluth series story, and it is predicated upon an Evil Corporation wanting to get revenge on her, not by killing her, but by infecting her with a genmod virus that causes her to descend into deep tunnels uner the planet she is visiting, but which prevents her from ascending from them. (Yes, really). In said tunnels she meets a motley crew of people who have been in the tunnels due to the virus for quite some time. They eat by bartering with ne’e’r-do-wells who come down to the deep tunnels to trade but who won’t alert the authorities to their plight. But Lydia, unlike all the other victims, of course has the wherewithal to escape, and then there’s some nonsense about getting their own back on the Evil Corp (I did skim the latter half of the story.) The Evil Corp would have got away with it if it wasn’t for that pesky Boxhat!! [19th Oct 2022]
Peter Watts. Test 4 Echo.
Made to Order, edited by Jonathan Strahan
Enjoyed this one. The protagonist is based on the moon, remote operating an undersea exploration drone on Enceladus. The program is coming to a close, unless they can find something of interest. Which appears to happen, but the story deviates from a routine SF story into a more complex one, as the drone’s AI appears to have (or at least part of it!) become sentient, which is both a Big Thing and a No No. And there’s an extra layer of complexity. Clever stuff. [25th October 2022]
Ken Liu. Uma.
Avatars, Inc., edited by Ann VanderMeer
A bit of a disappointment TBH, as it reads more of an Analog story than a Liu story. (And at one point in the middle I thought that a chunk of the story had not been printed!) An employee operating an environmental robot by telepresence in an area being devastated by wildfire is about to finish her task of moving equipment to a fire shelter when she spots a house with residents still in it, threated by the encroaching fire. It’s absolutely not what she is supposed to do, but she goes against her supervisor’s advice and rescues the family, only to find that in this day and age of litigation, rather than being thankful, the family take up the offer of seeking a big sum of money from her employer for failing to do a good enough job. However, whilst administrative leave is threatening, the opportunity to use of her skills to operate rescue robots following an earthquake turns up. There’s not really much more you’ll get from reading the story than you will have got(ten) from reading this paragraph, which is unusual for this author. [25th October 2022]
Usman T. Malik. Beyond These Stars Other Tribulations of Love.
Wired, December 11, 2020
Also chosen by Strahan in his take on the Year’s Best, where I read it, and it left me wanting just a little more – review here
Vajra Chandrasekera. The Translator, at Low Tide
Clarkesworld Magazine, May 2020 and still online
A story I really enjoyed, and still online via the link above, so do yourself a favour and read the story rather than the next paragraph.
Chandrasekera paints a vivid, almost Ballardian, post-climate change vision, in which the protagonist is ekeing out
a life in a ruined apartment block, in a ruined town, and a pretty much ruined world. Some people in the northern climes still have a relatively recognisable standard of living, the rest very much less so, and in her city, the feral young children are becoming increasingly predatory, moving from setting fires in the nearby rusted playground to burning people in those fires. It’s well written and effective. [31st Oct 2022]
Sofia Samatar. Fairy Tales for Robots
Made to Order, edited by Jonathan Strahan
No story per se, other than the narrator given glimpses into her life as she prepares her robot for life by providing it with, as the story titles suggests, some fairy tales, from which she draws various lessons that will help the robot on she starts it up. Clever stuff and a good read. [31st Oct 2022]
M. Rickert. This World is Made for Monsters.
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September/October 2020
Rickert has written a number of stories over the years which I have enjoyed. Well, in the case of ‘Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment : One Daughter’s Personal Account’ maybe ‘enjoyment’ isn’t the word, but her story about a USA where the population has somewhat gleefully embraced The Right to Life and it’s enforcement, is now scarily prescient.
But back to this story, which is an altogether lighter touch. An oldster talks to his grand-daughter, recalling fondly the day when he was a child when the aliens turned up at a nearby farm. That was a l-o-n-g time ago though, and the events have passed into legend. [31st Oct 2022]
James S. A. Corey. Elsewhere.
Avatars, Inc., edited by Ann VanderMeer
An impactful story from ‘James S.A. Corey’, featuring a daughter, paralysed in youth, now living a long way home, thanks to tech assistance, visiting her dying father via telepresence, who reflects on their relationship and her struggles as she ‘sits’ beside his bedside. [9th Nov]
Andy Dudak. Salvage.
Interzone, January/February 2020
In Jonathan Strahan’s take on the Year’s Best Science Fiction for the same year as this volume, Andy Dudak’s ‘Midstrathe Exploding’ was one of my favourite stories, and he has done it with another story, in this volume. As with that other story, there’s a memorable central image which will stick in the mind. Here there’s a rural town setting, with an echo of Pompeii, in that the citizens of the town are frozen in time. Or at least, what were once their bodies are now frozen, as the town has been taken over by the nearby forest. Their ‘bodies’ now host each person’s very own personal rapture – a digital substantiation of themselves in their very own virtual reality : each living their own personal future in their village. There’s an external force behind this (not godhood, but in fact aliens who see the need for us to become inward focussed rather than observing outwards, for the sake of the whole of the galaxy!) The protagonist is making her way from villager to villager, accessing them, talking to them, and giving them options. But there’s a further dimension, and an excellent conclusion, in which the despotic leader of the region has become… It’s a story well worth seekng out.[9th Nov 2022]
Aliette de Bodard. The Long Tail.
Originally in Wired, November 30, 2020 – and still online
A follow up story (there may well have been others in between!) to the equally well received and Year’s Best anthoogised story, which I read and enjoyed, ‘A Salvaging of Ghosts’. Once again a crew are exploring an abandoned space ship, with reality being distorted due to weapons used in a recent war, seeking salvage. The protagonist can draw on memories, long and recent (as in, the last shift!) to help her, and she needs all this help, along with her own smarts, to get through to the end of her shift. A taut and engaging story. [15th Nov 2022]
Fran Wilde. Rhizome, by Starlight.
Rebuilding Tomorrow, edited by Tsana Dolichva.
I enjoyed Wilde’s ‘A Catalog of Storms’ (a href=”https://bestsf.net/the-years-best-science-fiction-vol-1-ed-jonathan-strahan-saga-press-2020/#wilde”>review here which was included in two of the year’s best anthologies a couple of years back. This story is similarly WUSGO(tm)* rather than SF, and set on Earth. The protagonist is living on a remote island, defending a seed bank from an encroaching Triffid-like threat. And she has been doing this for some time, and (like de Bodard’s previous story) she is able to draw on past generations. Only, rather than a technological implant…. [15th Nov 2022]
*Weird Unexplained Shit Going On
Rich Larson. How Quini the Squid Misplaced His Klobučar.
Tor.com, January 15, 2020 and still online
Also chosen by Strahan in his take on the Year’s Best, where I read it and thoroughly enjoyed it – review here
A very strong collection from Neil Clarke, overall the pick of the two Year’s Best SF anthologies this year.