REVIEW SUMMARY: 10 standouts + 11 good stories – 7 losers = a very good anthology.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of 28 sf stories from the year 2004.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: 21 stories good or better, 10 of them outstanding.
CONS: 7 stories mediocre or worse.
BOTTOM LINE: Another worthy addition in a consistently very good series. 2004 was another good year for short sf.

This is the twenty-second annual edition of author/editor Gardner Dozois’ picks for the best sf of the year, short form, with the year in question being 2004. The 820-page collection contains twenty eight short stories, novelettes and novellas from that year. As is customary with the series, Dozois also provides a uber-comprehensive summation of the year (although a certain science fiction blog was mysteriously absent from the list of sf websites. :)) and appends an impressive list of honorable mentions.

Overall, this anthology (as the others I’ve read) is a great showcase of talented authors and good-to-great stories. For me, seven of the 28 stories were mediocre or worse (Actually, two of those were slightly better than mediocre, but, pessimist that I am, I’m rounding down). Even so that’s not a bad ratio. Four of the stories contained in this volume I have already read elsewhere, as noted below.

The 10 standout stories were:

  • “Inappropriate Behavior” by Pat Murphy
  • “The Voluntary State” by Christopher Rowe
  • “Shiva in Shadow” by Nancy Kress
  • “The People of Sand and Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • “Synthetic Serendipity” by Vernor Vinge
  • “The Tribes of Bela” by Albert E. Cowdrey
  • “Leviathan Wept” by Daniel Abraham
  • “Mayflower II” by Stephen Baxter
  • “Falling Star” by Brendan Dubois
  • “The Oceans of The Blind” by James L. Cambias

Reviewlettes follow?


STORIES IN THIS ANTHOLOGY:

  1. Inappropriate Behavior by Pat Murphy [2004 short story] (Rating: 5/5) [Read 10/30/05]
    • Synopsis: An anthropologist is stranded on a small Pacific island whose only inhabitant is a mechanical mining machine that is remotely controlled by Annie, a 12 year old autistic girl who is using the machine as a form of therapy.
    • Review: An outstanding story filled with portent and poignancy. The drama builds as the reader is unsure whether Annie will call for help and then as her plea to her doctor is dismissed as the presence of the camera repairman. Very well written and highly entertaining.
    • Note: Available online at SCI FICTION.
  2. “Start the Clock” by Benjamin Rosenbaum [2004 short story] (Rating: 3.5/5) [Read 11/08/05]
    • Synopsis: In a future society where aging can be halted, a group of nine-year-olds go shopping for a home while one of their members, longing to be a grownup “Geezer”, wants to re-start her biological clock.
    • Review: Cool science fictional ideas in a fun story.
    • Note: Available online at Benjamin Rosenbaum’s website.
  3. “The Third Party” by David Moles [2004 novelette] (Rating: 3/5) [Read 10/31/05]
    • Synopsis: On Salome, a colony planet that has been cut off from the rest of humanity for generations, two factions (the socialist Community and the capitalist Marginal, LLC) want to ease the planet back into their own respective societies. The main protagonist, Cicero, has been posing as a political economist professor as part of a Community Outreach mission but has formed a bond with a local and wants to stay even when his mission has been aborted and his life is in danger by the “dealers” of Marginal.
    • Review: I must say that with the amount of politics and economics that pervaded the first half of the story (two of my least favorite subjects in fiction combined into one discipline called “political economy”? Yikes!), I was not expecting to like this at all. However, when the political intrigue picked up and there was a daring mid-air cable car rescue, the story somewhat redeemed itself.
  4. The Voluntary State by Christopher Rowe [2004 novelette] (Rating: 4.5/5) [Read 06/21/05, what follows is what I said then.]
    • Synopsis: Soma, a Nashville painter, is abducted by a band of rebel Kentuckians (yes…people from Kentucky) whose goal is to free the people of Tennessee from the control of an all-powerful AI.
    • Review: Wonderfully weird and challenging; always a half-step ahead of my complete understanding of what was really going on. At times, this was a little frustrating, but mostly it kept me thinking. In the end, I got the same “wanna do that again” reaction after watching The Sixth Sense; once you know what’s really happening, you want to experience it again with that higher level of understanding. Interestingly, the people of Tennessee see themselves as living in Utopia (everyone participates in singing the national anthem – even the environment) when they are actually living in a Dystopia. Fascinating imagery (like the flying Tennessee Highway Patrolmen) and high-concept ideas (like mind-control and sentient cars) made this story seem fresh and filled with a sense of wonder.
    • Note: Hugo Nomination for Best Novelette 2005.
    • Nebula Nomination for Best Novelette 2004.
    • Note: Available online at SCI FICTION.
  5. “Shiva in Shadow” by Nancy Kress [2004 novella] (Rating: 5/5) [Read 11/07/05]
    • Synopsis: Two male scientists (Kane and Ajit) and a woman captain (Tirzah) are on a deep space mission to explore a black hole. Their ship, the Kepler, launches a one-way probe to gather the data – a probe that is controlled by three uploaded analogues of Kane, Ajit and Tirzah.
    • Review: This well-written story was exciting and interesting at the same time. Amidst the scientific theories of dark matter, there is a tense, human drama being played out between the two competitive scientists. It’s up to Tirzah, as Nurturer, to smooth the rough spots. Similar drama is played out on the probe as well. The story alternates between the first-person perspectives of Tirzah and Tirzah-analogue. Well done!
  6. The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi [2004 novelette] (Rating: 5/5) [Read 06/29/05, what follows is what I said then.]
    • Synopsis: A group of miners, bio-enhanced to survive harsh environments through the wonders of “weeviltech”, find a biologically unaltered dog, a creature believed to have been extinct for decades.
    • Review: Interesting was the portrait of how humanity has “evolved” with the aid of technology. They eat sand, are impervious to acid and amputate body parts at the drop of the hat. (By morning, the arm or leg grows back.) In effect, mankind has achieved a form of immortality through science. When they find the unaltered dog, a “lesser” life form, they question their own heritage and what it means to be human. Ultimately they decide that the unaltered species of man was far too vulnerable to lead an enjoyable life. Good stuff.
    • Note: Hugo Nomination for Best Novelette 2005.
    • Note: Also available online at Fantasy & Science Fiction website hosted by SF Site.
  7. The Clapping Hands of God by Michael F. Flynn [2004 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 11/27/05]
    • Synopsis: A reconnaissance team investigates a new planet courtesy of star gate technology. From afar, they observe the native life forms and their relationship with members from another planet. Eventually, the life forms notice the not-quite-unseen Earthlings.
    • Review: An interesting premise, but ultimately boring. Since the team views the native life forms from afar, there is lots of supposition and mostly no contact. Without actual contact with the aliens, it was hard to get engaged with this story. At the end, when there eventually was first contact, it got significantly more exciting. Sadly, it was all too brief and not enough to redeem the ninety percent of snoozing that came before.
    • Note: Available online at Analog.
  8. Tourism by M. John Harrison [2004 short story, novelette, novella] (Rating: 3/5) [Read 06/17/05 as “Tourists”, what follows is what I said then.]
    • Synopsis: A mood piece set in a spaceport bar on the fringes of the mysterious Kefahuchi Tract.
    • Review: Harrison’s literary style is played to good effect in this brief character study of the bar’s despondent occupants. The whole story is set in the bar and the five characters, each with a story, come and go.
    • Note: Set in the same universe as the book Light.
    • Note: Available online at Amazon.com.
  9. Scout’s Honor by Terry Bisson [2004 short story] (Rating: 3.5/5) [Read 11/10/05]
    • Synopsis: A time travel tale where an anthropologist receives email messages seemingly from a man who has traveled back in time and befriended a member of a dwindling band of Neanderthals. The NTs are slowly being wiped out by HS – Homo Sapiens.
    • Review: This reads like a first contact story. Although the ending is somewhat predictable and the “lost emails through time” angle is a bit weak, this was still a good story.
    • Note: Available online at SCI FICTION.
  10. Men Are Trouble by James Patrick Kelly [2004 novella] (Rating: 3.5/5) [Read 12/04/05]
    • Synopsis: A hard-boiled missing-person detective story set in a future where alien “devils” have wiped men from the face of Earth yet “seed” the women for the continued survival of the human race.
    • Review: The first half of this story had me a bit confused because no explanation was given as to the motive of the devils. The pace of the story picked up around the middle and I thought the motive of the devils would be tied to Fay Hardaway’s case, but it didn’t turn out that way. (At one point, I suspected the ending of the story would reveal that the men had been turned into the devils, but nope, wrong again.) Much more interesting to me was the back story of the devils and how the humanity (the women) handled it. In the story, there is the older generation of women who remember men and younger women who do not. Women are paired off and seeded by the Devils so that the Human race may continue. The church of Christers are secretly impregnating women themselves in defiance of the Devils. The economy is shot (everything is super-cheap!) and most of the jobs are done by bots supplied by the devils. All of this makes a really interesting backdrop that I wish was highlighted more. But the writing style was perfect for a detective story and the character of Fay was well done – all of which made this an enjoyable story in the end.
    • Note: Available online at the author’s website.
  11. “Mother Aegypt” [The Company] by Kage Baker [2004 novella] (Rating: 2/5) [Read 11/16/05]
    • Synopsis: In pre-modern Europe, a con man named Golescu hooks up with a mysterious fortune teller (named Amaunet) and her odd, but surprisingly talented, slave (named Emil). Together they travel from fair to fair, trading fortunes for objects of artistic value until the con man, in his ignorance, abuses his lucky fortune.
    • Review: It had an interesting start what with pudgy Golescu on the run and dressed in a clown suit. It should have been obvious that parts of the story would take on humorous undertones, but the finale featuring a giant, monster chicken straight out of an H.G. Wells novel was more than I was ready for. There was also too much background that added little to the story. I liked better the mystery surrounding Amaunet’s rituals and her job as gypsy fortune teller and protector/nursemaid of Emil.
    • Note: Described by Gardner Dozois as a “stealth Company story”, referring to Baker’s series of books and stories about The Company, time-travelers who raid the past for valuable art.
  12. Synthetic Serendipity by Vernor Vinge [2004 short story] (Rating: 4.5/5) [Read 11/26/05]
    • Synopsis: In a future where wearable computers and virtual reality are the norm, a student is enlisted by an unknown benefactor to keep an eye on the adult students in his class.
    • Review: Something about Vinge’s stories make them simultaneously wondrous and human. The futuristic landscape shows the cool potential of the technology; technology which is exhibited through the ultimate VR games and such, but technology that is not quite fully explained. The result is that it feels like you are reading on unsteady ground. (This is the same feeling I get when reading Stross or Doctorow but the unsteadiness here is less pronounced. The father does it better than the kids.) At the same time, there is a strong human element in the characters; here the truant student Mike Villas coming to terms with his place in the world; his teacher, Ms. Chumlig who surprises Mike with her technical know-how; and the adult students Ralston Blount and Dr. Xu, having to re-educate themselves in a world with rapidly changing economics. This same sensawunda/human element was evident in Vinge’s 2003 story “The Cookie Monster“. (Read: if you like that, you’ll like this.) Heady stuff and a fun, mind-expanding read.
    • Trivia: Mike works on some complex design simulations “using the usual stuff from ReynoldsNumbers-R-Us.” Is this a reference to sf writer and astrophysicist Alastair Reynolds?
    • Note: Available online at IEEE Spectrum.
  13. “Skin Deep” by Mary Rosenblum [2004 novelette] (Rating: 3.5/5) [Read 11/01/05]
    • Synopsis: A man whose face is severely disfigured undergoes a radical new skin replacement treatment based on cloned cells. But his doctor may have ulterior motives.
    • Review: Interesting concept even though the ending was predictable. The man’s predicament and people reactions are affecting. It raises some interesting thoughts about beauty in much the same way as Ted Chiang’s “Liking What You See: A Documentary“.
  14. “Delhi” by Vandana Singh [2004 short story] (Rating: 2/5) [Read 11/17/05]
    • Synopsis: Aseem is able to see people from different time periods and looks for a girl who is supposed to be his reason for living.
    • Review: I just couldn?t get in to this one. There were long descriptions of Delhi that just felt unnecessary, like it slowed down the story.
  15. “The Tribes of Bela” by Albert E. Cowdrey [2004 novella] (Rating: 5/5) [Read 11/24/05]
    • Synopsis: Security Forces Colonel Robert Rogers Kohn arrives at a mining colony on the planet Bela to investigate a series of grisly murders.
    • Review: Outstanding story that’s part murder mystery, part adventure and part survival story. The murder mystery reminded me of Asimov’s Robot mysteries in that the alien world was integral to the mystery. (I like to think that I smartly guessed the identity of the murderer, however in my usual fashion of suspecting everyone whenever a clue was dropped, real or misleading, how could I be wrong?) The adventure parts were as page-turning as the survival parts were grim. All told, this story, reminiscent of The Thing or Alien, was wonderfully told, rich and satisfying. Time to look up Cowdrey’s longer works.
  16. “Sitka” by William Sanders [2004 short story] (Rating: 4/5) [Read 11/26/05]
    • Synopsis: In 1898 of an alternate timeline, Vladimir Lenin and Jack London conspire to sink a German ship docked in a Russian port located in Sitka, Alaska. Meanwhile, the pair is watched by a trio of time travelers from the future.
    • Review: Pretty good story considering history is not usually something that I relate with entertainment. Just a few Wikipedia searches and I learned that London did have some race issues – showing the author did his homework and served up a fine little story to boot.
  17. Leviathan Wept by Daniel Abraham [2004 novelette] (Rating: 4.5/5) [Read 11/30/05]
    • Synopsis: An anti-terrorist group of five people, connected via internal optical communication links, learn that there is a bigger force at work in the world than just good guys vs. bad guys.
    • Review: And excellent, immersive story that combined action, emotion and cool technology into a fun read. It was a bit hard for me to keep track of which member was which in the beginning, but eventually it worked itself out by the slightly predictable ending. The idea that there is a greater force at work was a nice touch. (An analogy is drawn with the relationship between “high-level” human beings and the “low-level” cells from which they are built.) There’s also an effective side story about one member’s (Lenz’s) dying wife that adds to the drama.
    • Note: Available online at SCI FICTION
  18. “The Defenders” by Colin P. Davies [2004 short story] (Rating: 2/5) [Read 11/25/05]
    • Synopsis: Elisa and her Grandfather sail to a remote island to survey a recent battle waged between demons and defenders.
    • Review: Meh. Some interesting ideas (the defenders are apparently based on Elisa’s DNA) but they seem half-formed and don’t materialize into anything. Not too surprising at three and a half pages.
  19. “Mayflower II” [Xeelee Sequence] by Stephen Baxter [2004 novella] (Rating: 5/5) [Read 11/25/05]
    • Synopsis: A story of species survival set in the Xeelee universe beginning shortly after mankind’s overthrow of the Qax occupation. Here, one thousand people (out of 50,000) from Port Sol flee the arrival of the Coalition that will kill them because they aided the Qax. One of the five sub-light speed generation ships, Mayflower, is the focus of the narrative; specifically through the eyes of Rusel, who gains immortality along the voyage so that he (and other Elders) may guide the shipboard civilization through their proposed 50,000 year journey.
    • Review: Another engrossing, millennia-spanning tale from Baxter. Beginning with the adventurous and emotional escape from Port Sol, the story jump-skips across years and millennia to broad-stroke how the human society has changed. Wonderful depiction of customs, trends and degradation. Along the way, Baxter leverages a not-small handful of thought-provoking scenarios like natural selection, eugenics, societal manipulation, survival scenarios and more. For a story that kept jumping between stops, it had an amazing you-are-there feel. Outstanding story.
    • Note: Set in Baxter’s Xeelee universe.
  20. “Riding the White Bull” by Caitlin R. Kiernan [2004 short story] (Rating: 2.5/5) [Read 11/27/05]
    • Synopsis: A virus-like alien is brought back to Earth from Europa. Scrubber Dietrich Paine hunts down the deadly infestation trying to stem the epidemic-like flow.
    • Review: Like most stories, an interesting premise. Unlike most stories, the narrative kept jumping back and forth between multiple points in the story line, usually without warning. The result was to take what could have been a first-rate, hardboiled sf detective story and turn it into a hodgepodge of unorganized passages. Too bad, some of the passages contained really powerful images of bio-terrorism.
  21. “Falling Star” by Brendan Dubois [2004 short story] (Rating: 5/5) [Read 07/29/05, what follows is what I said then.]
    • Synopsis: An aging astronaut pines for life before the disaster that caused all technology to become extinct.
    • Review: A quiet and haunting story of life after the fall of technology. People have fled the cities and man’s way of life, including all of its old fears, has regressed back 200 years. An excellent story.
  22. The Dragons of Summer Gulch by Robert Reed [2004 novelette] (Rating: 4/5) [Read 12/05/05]
    • Synopsis: It’s a Western with dragons! Well, not quite. The story concerns the discovery of dragon bones and eggs in the old west and a plan to steal them from the train carrying them and the person who discovered them.
    • Review: This was a very good story. It had a few good plot twists and provided some scientific background information behind Dragons – like their metal organs and their oxygen rich blood which helps them breathe fire. Unfortunately, we never actually see the dragons; only the eggs. Maybe this is first of a series of old west dragon stories? And it was not quite clear to me at all times which of the two main characters was the good guy.
    • Note: Available online at SCI FICTION.
  23. “The Oceans of The Blind” by James L. Cambias [2004 short story] (Rating: 4.5/5) [Read 12/03/05]
    • Synopsis: Two members of an underwater science team located on another planet defy orders to get a closer look at the crustaceous inhabitants. The lobster-like aliens are thought to be blind because of the dark water they live in, but they don’t count on the aliens’ use of sonar to “see”.
    • Review: Excellent tension-filled story. The beginning had me thinking this was going to be a story of the murder of Henri Kerlerec as everyone else has a contest to see who can think of the most methods of killing Henri. The “getting his just desserts” ending was somewhat predictable, but still effective at eliciting a smile of contentment.
  24. “The Garden: A Hwarhath Science Fictional Romance” by Eleanor Arnason [2004 novella] (Rating: 3/5) [Read 11/29/05]
    • Synopsis: The life story of Akuin, a male member of the fur-covered Hwarhath species who foster a matriarchic society on-planet while the adult men work in space to defend against the inevitable and impending attack from humans.
    • Review: As other stories I’ve read in the Hwarhath series, this is a character-driven piece that uses the interesting alien culture asa backdrop. Here, Akuin is a sort of outcast. Firstly, he is considered “ugly” because his fur is not uniformly colored – it has spots. Secondly, he takes a shine to gardening instead of all the other activities considered normal for a young male Hwarhath. The Hwarhath culture is interesting in that suicide is accepted as long as it is approved by others. Also, same-sex relationships are the norm. The story follows Akuin’s education at school, his assignment on a space station, his relationship with a male physicist who thinks a cataclysmic event is just around the corner, and his AWOL seclusion in the mountains – another indication of his not fitting in. The end of the story, which mentions the off-stage end of the war between Hwarhath and humans, features a pair of lovers (one Hwarhath, one human) named Ettin Gwarha and Sanders Nicholas who, I assume, are featured in other Hwarhath stories. (Indeed, Googling the name “Sanders Nicholas” yields some Inside-the-book results from Amazon in Arnason’s Ring of Swords novel.) As a character study this was somewhat interesting, but I found the backdrop to be more appealing.
    • Note:
  25. “Footvote” by Peter F. Hamilton [2004 short story] (Rating: 4/5) [Read 12/02/05]
    • Synopsis: A man creates a gateway to another planet and promises a better life for those he hand picks and who choose to live by his rules
    • Review: What a cool idea. The story – which alternates between two perspectives – centers around a divorced couple with opposing political views; Jannette wants to stay in an hopes of fixing society’s problems, Colin wants to take the kids and his girlfriend to a better world and escape the rapidly decaying society of England. Funny thing is, the gateway is the cause of the rapid societal collapse. By story’s end, it’s a “will-she or won’t-she go story”. There was a tad too much political discussion for my personal tastes, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying this story.
  26. “Sisyphus and the Stranger” by Paul Di Fillipo [2004 short story] (Rating: 2.5/5) [Read 12/04/05]
    • Synopsis: Thanks to the marvelous discovery of N-rays (they make great weapons; they are a power source; they cure cancer!) France has become a global superpower Empire. Government assistant Albert Camus trudges through his job, day after day (like Sisyphus in Greek mythology), until he receives a mysterious note from a stranger offering a life-changing proposition.
    • Review:
    • Note: Some post-reading Googling shows that this story borrows from The Cure song “Killing an Arab“. As much as I love The Cure and as much it makes the story better understood, it still does not alter my reading experience. If you study this background beforehand, add 1 star.
  27. “Ten Sigmas” by Paul Melko [2004 short story] (Rating: 4/5) [Read 11/29/05]
    • Synopsis: A parallel universe story where the worlds diverge with each choice made. One man can simultaneously see all his other selves as he rescues an abducted woman from a truck-driving psycho named Earl. Or not.
    • Review: Parallel worlds have been done before, but I don’t recall one where there was instant understanding between all instances of someone. The feeling the unnamed protagonist had was one of riding a wave with all his other selves dropping by the wayside whenever they made a wrong decision – usually one that got them killed – so that there were fewer and fewer of him left. Head-reeling stuff.
  28. “Investments” [Dread Empire’s Fall] by Walter Jon Williams [2004 novella] (Rating: 2/5) [Read 12/02/05]
    • Synopsis: Lieutenant Severin and Lord Martinez attempt to settle the planet Chee while attempting to discovery the identity of the culprit behind some unscrupulous corporate financial practices.
    • Review: The beginning of this story was interesting in that it provided a glimpse into the background behind Williams’ DREAD EMPIRE’S FALL series, something I had been meaning to look into. (I do wonder, since this is an afterward to the trilogy, if there were any spoilers in there. Oh well. By the time I get around to reading that series, I will have forgotten.) Also, there was a very interesting high-stakes game of “tingo”, the rules of which were only secondary to the drama behind the bidding. But then the story got long, slow and boring while the characters were on their way to the planet Chee and the plot was overly-steeped in political protocol and financial number fudging. I almost gave up reading it but then the pace picked up again when a cosmological disaster threatened characters in the two, alternating story lines. While this part got more and more exciting, it was not enough to overcome the work needed to sludge through the long, drawn-out middle; a recipe that ultimately made this a mediocre reading experience.
    • Note: Set in the same universe as his DREAD EMPIRE series and takes place few years after the events in book 3, Conventions of War.

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