|Submitted by Soon Lee |
(Nov 30, 2003)
Gardner Dozois is the editor of Asimov's Science Fiction and is responsible for the book being reviewed, now in its twentieth edition. These annual compilations represent a snapshot of the state of the art of science fiction writing, the shorter form being more conducive to experimentation is the bleeding edge.
These books are an invaluable way of accessing recent best writing, often only available if you subscribe to SF magazines. The latest (twentieth) edition serves to add weight to that assertion, containing stories written by well-known writers such as Bruce Sterling, Greg Egan and Alastair Reynolds. A new writer will often get their break with short stories. An anthology like this is also an invaluable pointer to up-and-coming writers.
The book begins with a summary of the year and will be of interest to readers of the genre. The summations invariably touch on the hoary old chestnut of 'the death of SF' and the usual conclusion (backed up by numbers) is that rumors of its death are premature. Also included are links to various SF magazines, semi-prozines and places of interest to SF readers, e.g. online sources of stories. But the meat of this book is not the summary, but the stories:
"Breathmoss" by R. A. MacLeod opens the anthology and is a story about Jibala, a young girl in a world where men are a rarity and growing up is a bittersweet experience. It's an evocative story set in the far future, written in delicate prose that draws the reader into its universe.
"Most Famous Little Girl in the World" by Nancy Kress starts with an 'alien abduction' as related by the cousin of the 'abductee', then follows their lives as their world changes. I found this to be barely SF as its main theme follows the cousins and it's about the impact of unwanted fame and familial relationships. Any SFnal elements are mainly window dressing. There are better Kress stories, not that this is bad; it fails to reach her high standards.
In "The Passenger" by Paul McAuley, a space salvage crew finds a refugee from the newly concluded war and are faced with an ethical dilemma. It's a taut story that reminded me of Bruce Sterling's 'Bicycle Repairman' in the way it shows everyday folk in the future trying to get by.
"The Political Officer" of Charles Coleman Finlay's story finds himself in a spaceship on a secret mission faced with difficult decisions and echoes the similarities between spaceships and submarines; the isolation, cramped quarters and claustrophobia.
In Molly Gloss' "Lambing Season", a shepherd in an isolated region is the only witness to seasonal visits by a UFO. One day, the UFO crashes.
Robert Reed's "Coelacanths" is a disturbing tale of version 1.0 humans living in a future populated by godlike future humans, where we are to them as rats and other vermin are to us.
"Presence" by Maureen F. McHugh explores an Alzheimer's cure that initiates new neuron growth resulting in changes to the patient's personality. The patient becomes effectively someone else and to their loved ones, it may be a cure worse than death.
"Halo" by Charles Stross is part of a series of linked short stories that examines a possible outcome of a Vingean Singularity where emergence of AI alters humanity in ways we cannot foresee. Stross writes in an info-dense style at a million miles an hour that reflects the 'you snooze, you lose' attitude of his stories.
Bruce Sterling's "In Paradise" is a story about technology and love. Lovers who speak different languages can only understand each other using their cell phones' translation programs. Can love still exist when the technology for communication removed? This story continues Sterling's further explorations into the impact of technology on society.
In "The Old Cosmonaut and the Construction Worker Dream of Mars" by Ian McDonald, the title characters are from different alternate realities but share the same dreams. Difficult to describe, it is a story about hope.
The engineered Lunar society of John Kessel's "Stories for Men" is matriarchal, where men are regarded as a necessary evil; the women perform important work while men are artistes and dreamers, women fill important positions while men are not trusted with responsibility. Tyler Durden, a poet, begins to stir up trouble.
Chris Beckett's "To Become a Warrior" is set in a multiverse where one may travel between realities by swallowing 'seeds'. A no-hoper is offered the chance to join a gang of reality hoppers but the price may be too high.
"The Clear Blue Seas of Luna" by Gregory Benford contains uploaded personalities, nanotech and terraforming the moon; the lunar seas are no longer dusty craters. A hungry overpopulated Earth covets the prime real estate that the moon has become.
In "V.A.O." by Geoff Ryman, senior citizens live in retirement homes protected by Victim Activated Ordnance, offensive weaponry designed to protect the potential victim. A crime epidemic perpetrated by senior hacker citizens, using VAO, shows that it doesn't pay to underestimate the oldsters.
"Winters are Hard" by Steven Popkes follows a journalist as he attempts to interview a man who has had himself modified in order to live among wolves. It is possible to get too close to nature.
A futures market in transuranic elements and the isotopes into which they can decay is the basis for "At the Money" by Richard Wadholm. Fortunes are made and lost and big money can be had if one is lucky or daring enough.
In Alexander Irvine's "Agent Provocateur", a boy who has to decide which path history takes, with potentially dire consequences for our future.
Greg Egan's "Singleton" is another story exploring multiple realities, contains quantum and makes my brain hurt. For every version of you that succeeds, there is one who fails. What if it was possible to collapse all those realities down to one, would that be a good thing?
"Slow Life" by Michael Swanwick examines the possibilities of life on Titan which is necessarily slower due to lower temperatures and how a first-contact situation might be negotiated.
"A Flock of Birds" in James van Pelt's post-apocalyptic story has a twist in the end.
"The Potter of Bones" by Eleanor Arnason is an evocative story set on an alien world showing the beginnings of the Scientific Method in the imaginings of a young potter as she studies rock strata fossils. It is an intimate look into the life of a dreamer.
In "The Whisper of Disks", John Meaney takes us to the future and the past in a story about Babbage, Lovelace, Byron and FTL travel.
Kage Baker's "The Hotel at Harlan's Landing" is set in her 'Company' universe where immortal cyborgs are used by the Company to loot treasures from the past. You can't hide forever, not when your pursuers are immortal.
"The Millennium Party" by Walter John Williams is set in a world where memories can be edited, no need to remember the sad times, everyone can be happy. The implied question being: Is this a good thing?
"Turquoise Days" by Alastair Reynolds is a return to his Revelation Space universe. Here, a research group at the Pattern Juggler world Turquoise where the oceans are a complex semi-sentient library comprising of sealife, where a dip in the water can result in loss of identity as elements of the library meld with you. Naqi Okpik lost her sister to the Pattern Jugglers two years ago. Now a lighthugger ship travelling at relativistic speeds arrives bringing uncertainty to Turquoise.
This book represents excellent value for money and is essential to those wanting to keep up with the genre, collecting in one place the year's stories that excited interest. The highpoints for me were the MacLeod, the Coleman Finlay, the McHugh, the Popkes, the Irvine, the Reed and the Arnason.
As a 'best of' collection selected by one person, it is necessarily biased. But it is hard to argue with Dozois' track record of 14 Hugos (so far) as 'Best Editor'. Sure, you could argue if some of these stories really deserve to be in the 'best of' of the year, but then, isn't that another purpose of such an anthology, to spark discussion?
With doomsayers prophesying the death of SF, it is important to realize that the genre is still producing 'good stuff' and although the stories are not what one would expect of an Asimov, Clarke or Heinlein, this is not a bad thing; rather than rehashing old ground, the current writers are finding their own voices as the genre evolves. Whether you are a casual or serious reader of SF, you owe it to yourself to at least have a look at this book.