on September 8, 2009
The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection. Edited by Gardner Dozois.
As usual, Dozois has rounded up mostly excellent stories, whether or not one can ever objectively define "best" (average story quality, in my judgment, comes out to 4.13 out of 5, in this anthology). Also, as in previous years, the huge Summation at the beginning lays out the current condition of science fiction in exquisite detail. For that, I'm adding a bonus to the 4.13 story-average, bringing the final rating up to 5 out of 5.
++ = Excellent story, would unhesitatingly include it in my own "year's best"... if I had one.
+ = Thought it was good, certainly worth reading, maybe not a definite pick for my own "year's best"...
o = Not bad, but had little effect on me.
- = Actively disliked it.
-- = Wish I hadn't read it!
"Turing's Apples." Stephen Baxter. Sibling rivalry and first contact. One of Baxter's best so far. ++
"From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled." Michael Swanwick. A man among bug-eyed aliens who deal in trust. Typically Swanwick: full of irony and a boatload of postmodern literary tricks. Quite entertaining, though. +
"The Gambler." Paolo Bacigalupi. News reporter takes big gamble on writing social-justice piece in hyper-capitalized information economy. Good character piece, less of a downer than the usual Bacigalupi. +
"Boojum." Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette. Seat-of-your-pants swashbuckler on living pirate ship in outer space! Complete with a plucky heroine and a ship weirder than anything in Pirates of the Caribbean. +
"The Six Directions of Space." Alastair Reynolds. Space-faring, multiverse-exploring Mongol Empire! Reynolds does it again: mind-blowing vastness of space and time, awesome scientific speculation, fine and subtle characterization. ++
"N-Words." Ted Kosmatka. Neanderthal clones suffer racist slurs. Kosmatka is a fine writer, but this one tries too hard to win my pity for the Neanderthals. o
"An Eligible Boy." Ian McDonald. Jane Austen for guys in near-future India. Another fine writer turns to boring (though occasionally funny) social commentary. o
"Shining Armour." Dominic Green. Boonie village has one huge secret weapon. I found myself cheering at the end. ++
"The Hero." Karl Schroeder. Young man goes on quest to save the world(s). Eye-popping descriptions and skilful plotting keep this one moving to an explosive finale. Adventure space-opera at its absolute best. ++
"Evil Robot Monkey." Mary Robinette Kowal. Evil Robot Monkey throws around... The End. -
"Five Thrillers." Robert Reed. A thrilling story full of wonder and excitement, in five parts. The protagonist is bad-ass x5. Robert Reed is too: this guy gets a story published every two weeks (on average), including this rather long novella, and they're all either good or great. ++
"The Sky That Wraps the World Round, Past the Blue and Into the Black." Jay Lake. Yeah.. the title makes more sense than the story. Lake is usually good, and maybe this is "good," but I couldn't wrap my head around it. -
"Incomers." Paul McAuley. Bildungsroman on a moon of Saturn. Fast-paced, but affords plenty of room for thought: in other words, an average McAuley story. +
"Crystal Nights." Greg Egan. Billionaire creates virtual species, but he's no god. To quote Paul Di Filippo, Egan writes "quantum poetry." Beautiful story. +
"The Egg Man." Mary Rosenblum. Dude smuggles eggs into Mexican village in climate-changed future, but witnesses his old friends' sad decline. As always, Rosenblum succeeds in creating more atmosphere than a Ridley Scott film; and her characters really get to you. +
"His Master's Voice." Hannu Rajaniemi. Dog and cat team up to be man's best friends. Excellent writing and charming story make this entry from new writer Rajaniemi one of the best in this volume. ++
"The Political Prisoner." Charles Coleman Finlay. Political officer ends up in prison on Soviet-inspired isolationist colony world. Finlay has a knack for interesting characters; this a fine example. ++
"Balancing Accounts." James L. Cambias. Robots! In Space! I've never seen robots more convincingly rendered (that includes you, WALL-E). ++
"Special Economics." Maureen McHugh. Chinese girl gets job at evil corporation: the kind you can't really quit. McHugh creates an unlikeable character, but somehow kept my attention. +
"Days of Wonder." Geoff Ryman. A Million Years From Now: equine matriarchs roam the plains. Like most stuff Ryman writes: so much unthinking emotion that I stopped caring pretty soon. o
"City of the Dead." Paul McAuley. Crazy old biologist has strange bond with mutant ferrets. Surprisingly good combo of the modern western (think "The Three Burials of Melquiadas Estrada") and hard sci-fi. ++
"The Voyage Out." Gwyneth Jones. Woman on mysterious space voyage discovers some unsettling secrets about herself and her lover. Lyrical and intimate, and ultimately quite chilling. Very effective. +
"The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm." Daryl Gregory. Iron Men rule the skies in alternate-world Baltic lands. Rip-roaring war story with a kind-of superhero ethos hanging around the edges but affecting everyone. +
"G-Men." Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Alternate-history mystery starring J. Edgar Hoover, RFK, and LBJ! Never saw a more crooked bunch... an entertaining who-dunit. +
"The Erdmann Nexus." Nancy Kress. Ageing physicist faces psycho mystery. The idea feels at least 60 years old, but it gives steady proof of Kress's never-faltering quality. ++
"Old Friends." Garth Nix. Arborial samurai! Simultaneously depressing and entertaining story from an author I'd never read before. +
"The Ray Gun: A Love Story." James Alan Gardner. Boy meets Ray Gun, etc. Truly astounding coming-of-age tale; probably THE best of the year. ++
"Lester Young and the Jupiter's Moons' Blues." Gord Sellar. Who knew aliens would like jazz? This is a toe-tappin' good read and a convincing argument for the appreciation of jazz (yes, I said it...). +
"Butterfly, Falling at Dawn." Aliette de Bodard. Another alternate-history mystery: a "Mexica" magistrate searches for both a murderer and her own soul in Fenliu (=Los Angeles, I think). An unexpectedly moving story; I *really* hope this French writer shows up more often in English-language publications. +
"The Tear." Ian McDonald. Manifold personality on a literally cosmic scale. McDonald never does anything small, does he? This story is almost too rich, too dense for the human mind to encompass. A work of genius, nonetheless. +
For this collection Gardner Dozois selected SF stories which he considered as best amongst those published in 2008. The one from previous year was very honest and this one is mostly on the same high level of quality, in fact even slightly better as there is a lesser number of weak stories.
As in earlier anthologies, for this one Gardner Dozois selected stories which he considered as the best or most important of the given year. This collection includes also an overview of what happened in SF (largely understood) in 2008 and at the end there is also the very useful section of "honourable mentions" - stories which couldn't be selected for this collection because of lack of space (and this is already a HUGE book!), but which were also of good quality.
Most stories are good, honest, solid stuff, with six being VERY GOOD: "Boojum", "Crystal nights", "Balancing accounts", "Days of wonder", "City of the dead", "The Ray Gun: a love story".
On another hand for my personal taste there were only three stinkers: "The political prisoner", "The voyage out" and "The tear".
The remaining stories range from "good" to "readable".
That being said, as for the 2007 anthology, I cannot rate this collection five stars, mostly because of a generally depressed and pessimistic mood in most of those stories. There is not even one amongst them in which we could find at least an ounce of exhilarating joy that is usually associated (at least for me) with the exploration of new possibilities, new horizons, new discoveries, new knowledge; in fact there is virtually no joy associated with anything. It sounds almost as all modern SF was written by a bunch of terminal cancer patients for a public made of masochists enjoying chronic depression
Linked to the previous point, there is also an almost absolute lack of humour in those series; only in ""The Ray Gun: a love story" we may find some lighter moments.
Below, more of my impressions about every story, with some limited SPOILERS:
"Turing's Apples" by Stephen Baxter – two estranged brothers join forces to decode the first signal received from an extra-terrestrial intelligent race; as one of them is a total @hole, this will be a bumpy ride… A honest, GOOD, original story.
"From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled" by Michael Swanwick – on an alien planet a human ambassador becomes an involuntary witness to a horrible war between two local alien nations… As always with this writer, the story has many weird elements (I wouldn't try to learn economy or sociology from it) but here this factor is at least kept under some control. An interesting and quite clever description of local (VERY alien) ecosystem and of aliens themselves add extra value to it. A honest, GOOD, original story.
"The Gambler" by Paolo Bacigalupi – a Laotian emigrant working in USA as internet journalist muses over his past and tries to make a living when remaining faithful to his father's legacy; a very, very well written story, but which rubbed me in the wrong way for three reasons: 1) it terminally panders to global warming hysteria 2) the ending is abysmally idiotic 3) in this story Laos is ruled by a totalitarian regime which is a restored monarchy and the exiles are nostalgic of "happy times" of Laos Democratic Popular Republic – the only problem is that in REAL world, right now, Laos Democratic Popular Republic is an abject, totalitarian, violent, ruthless, corrupt communist regime and the whole Lao royal family and most of aristocracy were mercilessly exterminated soon after Vietnamese Army tanks brought Lao communists to power in 1975… Why not make the main character a political refugee running from the very real communist dictatorship? Was author afraid that it will mark him as not "progressive" enough? Still all this notwithstanding, a GOOD story,
"Boojum" by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette – in a distant future a crew of bloodthirsty, murderous space pirates roams the far reaches of Solar System on board of their carnivorous space ship…; this is a very original, clever, well written, EXCELLENT, BRILLIANT story, combining very well the traditional pirate lore (and all its clichés) with space opera and even a very well done tribute to H.P. Lovecraft! TO READ ABSOLUTELY!
"The Six Directions of Space" by Alastair Reynolds – a long, well written novella about a space empire centred around Earth which is ruled since XV century by Mongol Empire…))) One day, travellers from alternate time line appear… A GOOD, honest story, but of course deep fried in political correctness – in the alternate reality there is an enlightened, benevolent, highly civilized Islamic caliphate and extremely vicious, murderous Christian empire…
"N-Words" by Ted Kosmatka – one day Neanderthalians were cloned and therefore brought back from extinction. Surprisingly, it appears quickly they are superior to us in absolutely every single aspect and that finally creates tensions… Although this story mixes political correctness with vicious racism and also by moments sounds like a far left pamphlet against American religious right, it is well written and is definitely a GOOD, honest thing – it also certainly leaves a dent in the reader's psyche… One thing however I didn't buy at all, which was the explanation why those Palaeolithic "Übermenschen", so infinitely stronger and more intelligent than our ancestors, got extinct when "Homo sapiens sapiens" endured (author gives an explanation, but it is totally ludicrous…)
"An Eligible Boy" by Ian McDonald – another story in authors long running series about future high-tech India (this cycle began with the excellent "Little goddess" three years earlier); in this one a young, successful, hardworking, well looking man, searches more and more desperately for a wife, in a society in which there is one marriageable woman for four eligible bachelors… A GOOD, interesting story.
"Shining Armour" by Dominic Green – this actually is a kind of science fiction western, in which in a distant future a small human village on a distant planet is threatened by some unsavoury characters – and as the rule of law collapsed long time ago it is up to a lonely hero to save the day…))) A GOOD, solid story.
"The Hero" by Karl Schroeder – this story is part of the Virga cycle (Virga being an artificial planet inside which lives a huge human population) and is about a rather average guy (with huge daddy issues) who wants to save the world – and is actually one of the very few people aware how much this particular world needs saving…; A GOOD, solid, original story.
"Evil Robot Monkey" by Mary Robinette Kowal – very short but well written and quite emotional story about an "upgraded" chimp and his human handler. A GOOD, solid story.
"Five Thrillers" by Robert Reed – in a distant future a very ambitious, brilliant and handsome but also very unpleasant sociopath goes through life like a hot knife cuts through butter; interesting, disturbing and also thought provoking… A GOOD, solid story.
"The Sky That Wraps the World Round, Past the Blue and Into the Black" by Jay Lake – a story as freakishly weird as its title suggests, about a guy who once committed a great sin and now pays for it; READABLE, but nothing more.
"Incomers" by Paul McAuley – in a distant future, after a war ravaged most of the Solar System, a bunch of teenagers living on a settlement on Rhea (one of Saturn's moons) start to suspect that one of their neighbours is either a spy or a war criminal in hiding… A READABLE story, although probably targeting mostly teenage readers.
"Crystal Nights" by Greg Egan – a multi-billionaire genius creates an artificial universe in order to develop by evolution the first real AI… Although I don't usually like this author's texts, this story I actually found VERY GOOD! A recommended reading.
"The Egg Man" by Mary Rosenblum – this is one of those stories which ride the global warming hysteria; in a near future, a very special relief worker from Mexico visits isolated human enclaves in southern parts of USA, a country completely devastated by climate change… A READABLE thing, nothing more.
"His Master's Voice" by Hannu Rajaniemi – an "upgraded" dog and an "upgraded " cat have to work as team to save their beloved human master, who was kidnapped by some rather generic villains… An original, READABLE thing.
"The Political Prisoner" by Charles Coleman Finlay – "progressist" SF writers never tried to denounce Soviet Union and especially always avoided any mention of its concentration camps and its use of slave labour; but now that Soviet Union is dead this author decided finally to describe a Soviet style "gulag" – created and run on another planet by American Christian right wingers who escaped from Earth… Although counting only 45 pages this is a long-winded, boring, seemingly unending novella piling secret plots and manipulations one after another until it all turns into a completely absurd mess. I didn't like that one at all. AVOID!
"Balancing Accounts" by James L. Cambias – a hardworking, very honest robot space ship, just trying to make a buck for its owners, receives an unusual business proposal – trouble will follow… This is an EXCELLENT, very well written, very original "old style" SF story – and I LOVED it! Enjoy!
"Special Economics" by Maureen McHugh – a not entirely successful attempt at describing the rapid transformation of China, as seen by a dirt poor female migrant worker; as usual with this very gifted writer the story is well written – but it is hardly SF at all, the plot is rather ridiculous and there doesn't seem to be any point in the whole story… I usually like Maureen McHugh's writings but here, exceptionally, I must rate this story only as READABLE, nothing more.
"Days of Wonder" by Geoff Ryman – in a distant future humans are no more and Earth was inherited by their profoundly transformed descendants, whom we would mostly have problems to recognize… This is the story of Leveza, an intelligent and unusually curious female of one of those Successor species, and of her quest for Old Knowledge. I was very IMPRESSED by this extremely original and BRILLIANT story! A RECOMMENDED READING!
"City of the Dead" by Paul McAuley – another space western – and this one is even better than "Shining Armor"; on a distant planet, in a remote human settlement a retired woman soldier accepts the job of town sheriff; of course soon after that she will have to face some extremely unpleasant, gun wielding goons, who came to her town with evil intentions – and one of those is actually an old acquaintance of hers… A VERY GOOD, very original and quite surprising thing. ENJOY!
"The Voyage Out" by Gwyneth Jones – in some distant future people considered as "criminal elements" by totalitarian dictatorship ruling Earth are send as colonists to distant worlds using some extremely weird way of travelling (I am not certain if I understood how it works); the narrator is a lesbian and for that reason was sentenced to death – a sentence which was changed into permanent exile… At least if I understood it correctly. In this chaotic and unpleasant story virtually nothing makes sense and nothing is explained to the end – for my personal taste this is the SECOND WORST story in the collection. AVOID!
"The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm" by Daryl Gregory – a strange but certainly original story showing the suffering of common people trapped in the middle of confrontation between "super heroes" and "super villains"… A GOOD, honest story.
"G-Men" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch – an alternate history tale in which, sometime after JFK assassination, RFK and LBJ face an unprecedented crisis – and the gigantic, threatening shadow of J. Edgar Hoover and especially of his "personal" archives hovers over them… A GOOD, solid, well written story.
"The Erdmann Nexus" by Nancy Kress – a good, long novella about some very old people who start experiencing something really strange, powerful and dangerous – but also marvellous…; this one is somehow lesser than the usually excellent stories by this author, but still it is a GOOD, solid story. An extremely rare thing to signal here, highly unusual both for Gardner Dozois collections and Nancy Kress stories – in this story appears a really clever and likeable police detective and not only that, but he is a white heterosexual male (a creature more usually designed as cause of everything that is wrong with the world…)…
"Old Friends" by Garth Nix – a strange and somehow unclear story about a man (creature?) on the run, chased by some extremely unpleasant supernatural enemies… A READABLE thing.
"The Ray Gun: A Love Story" by James Alan Gardner – a BRILLIANT story about an alien weapon which fell on earth and everything that followed; an EXCELLENT, intelligent story, extremely well written and with a perfect ending. ENJOY!
"Lester Young and the Jupiter's Moons' Blues" by Gord Sellar – world's best jazzmen, all Black, are invited by aliens to perform on board of their spaceships… The gig pays well, you can see the whole Solar System and there are even some White women provided… But of course, there is always a catch… An interesting, well written story – but with quite a lot of completely unrepentant anti-White racism… Nevertheless, this is a GOOD, honest story.
"Butterfly, Falling at Dawn" by Aliette de Bodard – in an alternate history world part of China separated from the rest of the Empire and then welcomed some Aztec refugees after Mexica Empire was destroyed by a horrible civil war; those refugees have many problems to adapt, even when, like the female narrator of the story, they managed to find prestigious, highly paid jobs in public administrations… A promising Aztec artist was murdered and the narrator of the story is charged with investigation. She will not like what she finds… A GOOD, honest story.
"The Tear" by Ian McDonald – on a distant alien planet people who colonized it had to adapt and as result they developed a culture so freakishly weird and complicated that I couldn't understand anything from it, for want of a dictionary of alien terms and some chronology of local history; this 42 pages thing is the WORST story in the collection, as author created a universe so complex that he is the only one who can fully understand its rules… Throw in some obscene language and quasi-pornographic masturbatory fantasies and you get the picture… I got so lost in the middle that I finally surrendered before the end and therefore this is the only story in the collection I couldn't finish. AVOID AT ALL PRICE this boring pile of nonsense!
CONCLUSION: a 4.5 stars collection, on a good, solid, honest level of quality. ENJOY!