The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 7 (ed Neil Clarke), Nightshade Books 2023

This volume was finally delivered by Amazon UK in late November 2023, some months after the initial publication date that was quoted. It’s a year out of date, as it were, as it covers stories published in 2021, and would ‘normally’ (i.e. pre-COVID and pre-Shit and Stufftm have been published in late 2022. I’d best get cracking as volume 8 is currently showing as heading my way in March 2024 (I’m guessing a bit later (update : now Nov 2024)). (My ZX Spectrum Next has evidently just arrived in the UK in a container alls the way from China, two (or is it three?) years late due to chip shortage.) This is the only Year’s Best SF volume these days (sigh).

Clarke has taken over the late Dozois’ task in providing a substantial summary of the year in SF to get the ball rolling. Then into the fiction, which I’ll read from front to back and pop each story in after I’ve read it :

Ray Nayler. Muallim.
Originally in Asimovs, January/February 2021.

Nayler is one new(ish) author whose name I watch out for, and he’s got two stories in this volume. This is a neat little story, but I do miss the days when a story would have been set off world, to give it an additional sfnal dimension. Here the SF element is relatively minor, inasmuch the idea of an intelligent humanoid robot (the Muallim of the title) that is capable of teaching children, is not so much of a thing of the future as it was when I started reading SF more than 50 years ago. The setting is still, however, a strange one to those of us who, unlike Nayler, haven’t travelled to the more remote parts of our world, in this case a remote village in Azerbaijan (tbh not too dissimilar to Tattooine). There are two female protagonists. One is a local female blacksmith, who we see attempting to fix dents in the robot. Another is a female international NGO staffer who is dropped into the village for a few days to evaluate the impact of the robotic teacher who was supplied by another NGO. Turns out that it’s not much of an evaluation as there are only 5 children at the school, not 25 as they had been told, and they don’t go to school on Fridays. It seems the robot teacher initiative, like others before it, has come up against corruption, local issues and so forth. And when the robot is evidently destroyed by local youths, she flies out to take on her next assignment. Except that the locals have in fact pulled a fast one on her and the NGO (the robot hasn’t been destroyed, and so when she leaves and the robot is written off, they are able to keep it to meet their needs). An nice start to the volume, without being a standout. [29th Nov 2023]

Alice Towey. Dark Waters Still Flow.
Originally in : Clarkesworld November 2021 – and still online

A story from an author new to me, and one of two from her in this volume, and she was given her own special mention in the editorial introduction as an author to watch. The protagonist is NEWT – Nutrition Extraction and Water Treatment System – an AI which has been running a municipal facility for many years on a planet with two suns. The boss is Nixil, the third generation of his family to be a Water Sage, and NEWT is particularly fond of Jerafina, a young refugee girl who has a junior role, and with whom the AI shares an interest in poetry. Things start to go wrong in the plant, causing NEWT some concern, and it transpires that Nixil is planning sabotage, and is planning to pin the blame on Jerafina. Drama ensues…. Another neat little story to start the volume. [30th Nov 2023]

Jose Pablo Iriarte. Proof by Induction.
Originally in Uncanny May/June 2021

Near-future and a young tenure-seeking mathematician has to come to terms with a double whammy : his father’s death, and the fact that he and his father haven’t succeeded in their joint endeavour to prove the Perelman Hypothesis, and with his father’s death that appears to also sound the death knell for his tenure application. However, there is the ‘Coda’ – the snapshot of the brain that is taken close to death, that he is able to use to communicate with his father in VR. This gives him the chance to use the Code to a) continue to work on the Perelman Theorem with his dad, and b) try to build a closer relationship with his now dead dad than he was able to do in life. In terms of this story a+b = the best outcome, but sadly he doesn’t achieve that. He does achieve tenure though, so I’m sure you can work out, without needing pencil and paper, whether he achieved a or b. It’s a third neat little story to open the volume, but two niggles for me : 1 – the protagonist is evidently the first person to think of using a CODA-captured intelligence in this way, which seems a bit unlikely and 2 – it’s almost 25 years since David Marusek’s ‘The Wedding Album’, which stunningly explored a snapshot-captured simulacrum and this story doesn’t quite live up to that earlier one. [12th Dec 2023]

Robert Reed. Integral Nothings.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Strange forces are at work on planet Earth, microscopic changes that are repairing the damage done by humanity, and indeed preventing humanity from doing damage through nuclear weapons. It becomes clear that those responsible or not of this planet, the question is whether The Blessings are benign and are being delivering are for humanity’s benefit, or not. Answer : not, as becomes clear when human reproduction ceases to be possible. The ‘story’ as such is seen from the perspective of several humans, the last of human finds out that those responsible are not, indeed gods, but merely entities working for unseen, unfathomable gods. We are really that insignificant, but as the ants in the soil of buildings sites are to us. Reed, who has spent decades putting humanity out into deep space, gives us a bleak look in the mirror. [14th Feb 2024]

Karl Schroeder. The Price of Attention.
Originally in : Make Shift: Dispatches from the Post-Pandemic Future’ edited by Gideon Lichfield, The MIT Press 2021

A tight little near-future cop drama, that could easily have been much much longer. The protagonist, Remy Reardon, is well along the autistic spectrum, but is managing to live a better life of late due to his clever hi-tech augmented reality glasses, which enable him to dial back/tune out a lot of the external stimuli which would otherwise send him into a rocking back and forth spin (can you have such a thing? but I’m sure you get the idea). And this enables him to see some things that the rest of us can’t, and he is called in by the cops to assess a crime scene. Sho nuff, Remy is able to pick something up, and he joins a few dots in this covid-challenged near future. It’s a nice, quick read, and I could see a novel or a tv show coming out of the setting and character. To think, the story was published in 2021 and would you have thought that in 2024 you would be looking back fondly at 2021 – vaccines getting on top of covid, the Orange Menace consigned to history (!), and no Russia/Ukraine, Hamas/Israel…. [6th March 2024]

Anil Menon. Paley’s Watch.
Originally in : The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, Volume 2 (Editor: Tarun K. Saint)

Well, tyro writers take note, I first read an Anil Menon story in small press mag ‘Albedo One’ #33 way back in 2008, and this is his second story in a ‘Year’s Best’ in the last couple of years. It’s hard SF matched nicely with some good characterisation, something that hard SF often fails to do. The hard SF is the titular watch, which isn’t a watch, but is a pseudosphere, in Dini’s Surface,, which, as any fule know, is ‘a surface with constant negative curvature that can be created by twisting a pseudosphere’. Young boffin Tommy is on the fishing vessel which pulls it up from the sea, and his life (what there is left of it) is linked to this almost unknowable item. Sadly, young Tommy who has the whole world in his hands, treats a colleague with problems with a total lack of empathy, and he goes from having the whole world in his hands, to very much not having anything. A good read. [26th March 2024]

Mary Anne Mohanraj. Among the Marithei.
Originally in : Asimovs Science Fiction May/June 2021, and subsequently in Lightspeed Magazine #147 August 2022 – and still online

An excellent miniature from Mohanraj, albeit somewhat depressing in it’s look at humanity out amongst the stars and amongst alien races, and the fear of many humans of the other. We’re still killing each other and killing other races, but on an optimistic note the protagonist Sergey has come through a traumatic childhood to be living, as the title says, Among the Marithei. It’s a quiet, gentle, emotional story, at least until a last paragraph that turns everything upside down. It’s evidently part of the author’s ‘Jump Space Universe’ series, and well worth the read (link above). [27th March 2024]

Vandana Singh. A Different Sea.
Originally in : The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, Volume 2

Singh is an author whose stories I particularly look forward to getting my hands on, and this one does not disappoint. It’s a story of searching for home. The protagonist is alone, two failed relationships behind her, still feeling an alien in the small coastal village she has settled in. Her daughter is off on a gap year, travelling the oceans, trying to find herself. And there is a very alien alien in her house, which is clearly pining for it’s home. The alien appears to be losing the will to live, but in the end it does find the wherewithal to get home, and the protagonist finds that she herself has in turn settled into what is now her new home. Understated and top notch. [8th May 2024]

Meg Elison. The Pizza Boy.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March-April 2021

Just the second story I’ve read from Elison, and another good one (the first was ‘The Pill’, collected in The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Vol. 2 (ed Jonathan Strahan, Saga Press 2021). As with that story, this is is nicely observed, the protagonist cooking and delivering pizzas amongst the stars. It turns out though that the pizza boy is deep in a combat zone, and it’s a risky business, what with collecting mushrooms and keeping his dad’s secret tomato sauce recipe alive. And in a neat reveal towards the end, after a confrontation with marines from the Queen’s Armada, it turns out the pizzas, and the mushrooms and the tomatoes, are supporting the resistance. An intriguing setting which you wouldn’t want wasted on just one story, even if it is a worthy year’s best story. [8th May 2024]

Erica Barbeau. Ice Fishing on Europa.
Originally in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept/Oct 2021

A story from an author new to me, which is no surprise as it’s their first pro sale. Onwards and upwards! The protagonist is working alone on Europa, in her science shack on the ice, exploring the depths below through remote submersible bots. She’s a long way from home on account of it feeling like a good place for her to be, due to her not feeling at home at home, as it were, because of her transness. And to make her life more difficult, she suffers from depression. And when a resupply vessel, with food and her meds, which she has run out of, crashes on the other side of the moon, and the ice under her breaks, she resigns herself to her lonely fate. All well and good up to this point. However, help is at hand, in the form of a native life form with whom she is able to communicate with easily, and with whom she has some shared points of reference. And which has the wherewithal to help her retrieve her much needed supplies. This was a bit too much of a stretch for me tbh (i.e. the sudden appearance of a magical creature that resolves her problems and with whom she can engage with), but the characterisation and the storytelling bode well for future stories from this author. [9th May 2024]

Hannu Rajaniemi. Vaccine Season.
Originally in Make Shift: Dispatches from the Post-Pandemic Future, edited by Gideon Lichfield, MIT Press.

Humanity has survived not only COVID-19, but a coronal mass ejection that wiped out electronics for six months, but further pandemics, and come out the other side fighting. Big time. Vaccines have come on leaps and bounds, to the extent that we now have mastery over dementia and cancer and the like, and we now have ageing in our sights. The story features a young boy visiting his elderly grandfather, who is resisting the opportunity to extend his life through having the vaccine passed on to him – even if this means avoiding physical contact with those carrying the vaccine who can pass it on. The young boy takes a risk, and sees for himself just what the future offers humanity, and in doing so, brings his grandfather over to his side. Neat story. [10th May 2024]

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