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REVIEW: Best Short Novels: 2005 edited by Jonathan Strahan

REVIEW SUMMARY: Some hits, some misses.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of nine novellas and 1 novelette from the year 2004.


PROS: 8 stories ranging from good to excellent

CONS: 2 stories mediocre or worse.

BOTTOM LINE: A good assortment of stories from 2004.

With several other “Best of…” anthologies on the market, it helps that each one sets its own unique goals. For Jonathan Strahan’s Best Short Novels series, available exclusively from the Science Fiction Book Club, the goal is to showcase the best novellas of the previous year in the genres of science fiction and fantasy; Best Short Novels: 2005 collects ten stories published in 2004.

As Strahan notes in the book’s introduction, the goal of this series is much the same as Terry Carr’s ill-fated The Best Science Fiction Novellas of the Year which had a two volumes run in 1979 and 1980. Fortunately for Strahan, he offers more as he is able to publish twice the number stories with his Best Short Novels series. Here’s hoping Strahan has a much longer run; this is a great vehicle for getting quality fiction to the masses. And yes, I say this even after having read stories which did not overwhelm me. Just having the anthology is the prerequisite to reading what some consider the best out there. Just because I may disagree with some of the selections doesn’t mean that the series lacks value. On the contrary, I applaud the efforts put forth by the editor and publisher to put these volumes together. I eagerly await diving into the previous year’s edition (which waits patiently on my to-read pile) and the upcoming edition dues out later this year.

It’s worth noting that Strahan’s definition of “novella” is a bit more lenient than the Science Fiction Writers of America’s definitions. One of the stories contained in this anthology, Judith Berman’s “The Fear Gun”, is listed in the Locus Index as a novelette. (For purposes of my Short-Story-a-Day project, which uses the SFWA definitions, I therefore label it as a novelette.)

Overall, I would classify this anthology as being eclectic in its selection. The stories range from classic sf tropes to romantic fantasy – how much more diverse can you get? Some stories even offered different sub-genres within themselves. The varied selection turned out to be a double-edged sword, though, as some readers (like myself) may find a sub-genre that is not to their tastes. (Romantic fantasy? Bah!) On the other hand, you get exposure into these genres with a “cream of the crop” selection that might change your mind.

I had already read four of the stories contained in this volume; three of which I read last year in Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction #22. This is another side effect both fortunate and unfortunate. It’s fortunate because it lends weight to the perceived quality of the story when two highly regarded editors choose the same story. It’s unfortunate in that the space taken up by those stories could have been used to expose me to more juicy fiction of the unread variety. But that’s just a by-product of one’s own personal reading habits.

Continuing the trend of newer short fiction, half of the stories contained in this volume are available online. That’s good news for those who wish to sample the book’s selections. Interestingly, there are not one, but two stories concerning Medusa, the gorgon who can turn men to stone with just one glance. One of those two stories was very good, the other not so much.

Standouts in this anthology are: “Mayflower II” by Stephen Baxter; “Sergeant Chip” by Bradley Denton; and “Shadow Twin” by Gardner Dozois, George R.R. Martin and Daniel Abraham.

Reviewlettes follow.


  1. Men are Trouble by James Patrick Kelly [2004 novella] (Rating: ) [I read this on 12/04/05. Here’s what I said then.]
    • 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.
    • Award nominations: 2005 Locus Award.
  2. “Mayflower II” by Stephen Baxter [2004 novella] (Rating: ) [I read this on 11/25/05. Here’s what I said then.]
    • 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.
    • Award nominations: 2005 Locus.
    • Award wins: 2005 British SF.
  3. “Sergeant Chip” by Bradley Denton [2004 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 03/17/06]
    • Synopsis: A story of the perils of war as seen through the eyes of Chip, a K-9 unit trained-for-military-combat.
    • Review: The premise sounds hokey, but doggone it, it works. (Sorry; couldn’t resist.) Excellent and very enjoyable story that’s told from the perspective of the dog who, through the help of technology, is able to communicate (after a fashion) with the person who holds the communicator device. In this case, the dog forms a strong bond with Captain Dial. The “dumbed down” perspective of the dog is a great device that is as effective here as it is in Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon”. There’s an entertaining grab bag of fun here: action, plot twists, characterization and drama. The antagonist, Lieutenant Morris, forms some tense anti-K9 moments. If I were forced to pick a down side to this very enjoyable story, it would be the minor nit that it tries a little too hard to tug at your heart strings. Even so, this was a fun read.
    • Award nominations: 2005 Hugo; 2005 Locus.
    • Award wins: 2005 Sturgeon.
  4. “The Garden: A Hwarhath Science Fictional Romance” by Eleanor Arnason [2004 novella] (Rating: ) [I read this on 11/29/05. Here’s what I said then.]
    • 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 as a 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.
    • Award nominations: 2005 Locus.
  5. “Under the Flag of Night” by Ian McDowell [2004 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 03/17/06]
    • Synopsis: Tobias Constantine and Anne Bonny search for Edward Teach’s (Blackbeard the pirate’s) most valuable treasure: God’s Cauldron of Plenty, a close relative to the Holy Grail. Constantine learns of the treasure through the book A General History of the Pyrates (Arrrgh!) by Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe. He enlists the aid of super-tough Irish woman pirate Bonny. Together, and with the help of a mystic suspected of charlatanism, they reanimate the decapitated head of Blackbeard to learn the location of the treasure. But Constantine’s enemy, Edmund Love, is ahead of the game and uses the cauldron’s magic to resurrect Captain Kidd.
    • Review: A swashbuckling tale that mixes history, magic, pirates and…zombies! With its interesting use of historical figures, the story reads more like a medieval fantasy tale, but it does give it a little something extra in the process. I kept expected time travel to enter into the picture. My mistake; this is basically an alternate history fantasy with a splash of well-placed humor.
    • Award nominations: 2005 Locus.
  6. Shadow Twin by Gardner Dozois, George R.R. Martin and Daniel Abraham [2004 novella] (Rating: ) [I read this on 06/25/04. Here’s what I said then.]
    • Synopsis: Ramon Espejo, an angry, unsuccessful prospector on another planet, comes across another alien race hidden within a mountain rich with valuable ore. He is attacked, wakes up and is forced by the aliens to hunt down another human.
    • Review: Excellent story whose only shortcoming is a slow start. Once the action starts, it is relentless. Ramon is tethered to Maneck, one of the aliens, by a wire embedded into his neck. It’s a high-tech leash that, among other things, allows Maneck to inflict serious pain and force Ramon to do his bidding. Ramon learns much about the aliens’ philosophy of life and, in the end, comes to some stark realizations about his own life. Good action that keeps you reading.
    • Note: Also available online at SCI FICTION.
    • Award nominations: 2005 Locus.
  7. The Concrete Jungle by Charles Stross [2004 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 03/23/06]
    • Synopsis: Bob Howard is a computer nerd agent of the British Men-in-Black-like organization known as The Laundry, super-secret handlers of alien (Cthulhu!) horrors. His investigation into the mysterious and sudden destruction of a cow leads him ever-deeper into conspiracy.
    • Review: This is a cool (and unique) mix of sf, Lovecraftian horror and spy thriller, with a little alternate history thrown in. The genre-mixing took a little getting used to; Gorgons and zombies are not the norm in sf. Fortunately, the spy thriller aspect acted as the glue holding the genres together. When Bob reads the top secret reports on the history of how gorgonism came to be studied by scientists we get a nice quick jolt of alternate history. The action scenes were well done and they had a digital age feel as the destructive power of Medusa’s stare is replicated in the ever-prevalent security cameras and webcams. The corporate aspect of the story, while ultimately integral, felt a bit disconnected at first, but this was still a very fun read.
    • Note: Also available online.
    • Note: This is a sequel to Stross’ The Atrocity Archives.
    • Award nominations: 2005 Locus.
    • Award wins: 2005 Hugo.
  8. “The Gorgon in the Cupboard” by Patricia A. McKillip [2004 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 03/25/06]
    • Synopsis: A painter named Harry, madly in love from afar with a contemporary’s wife named Aurora, calls on the Muses to help him find true inspiration for the one great painting. The Muses reply by using a recently finished painting as the embodiment of Medusa, the gorgon who can turn men to stone with her stare. Meanwhile, the destitute former model for Harry, and the basis for his Medusa painting, returns from dire straits to once again become Harry’s model.
    • Review: The warning signs went up when I saw the story’s introduction label it as “romantic fantasy” two genres smashed together to make an unholy third. I have more success with science fiction than I do with fantasy and the romance aspect of the label put me off from the get-go. I was pleased to find it light on the romance side and I was hopeful when Harry’s Medusa painting spoke from the cupboard where he kept it. Alas, I ultimately could not get into this story. There is the notion that Harry (and all the painters with whom he associates) doesn’t see real the person behind the subject. The only thing the painter sees is his Persephone, his Cleopatra, his Aphrodite or whatever he is painting. Jo manages to break the spell that Aurora holds over Harry (beauty that renders him motionless like stone. Get it? Nudge, nudge.) because Harry gets to know the real Jo.
  9. The Fear Gun by Judith Berman [2004 novellette] (Rating: ) [Read 03/25/06]
    • Synopsis: After an alien invasion, small pockets of humanity survive. In the small town of Lewisville, some semblance of civilization survives as the locals fend their town from further alien invasion from the survivors of an alien ship that has crash-landed in the nearby mountains. The townspeople have managed to retrieve a nice collection of weapons from the aliens, but not the dreaded Fear Gun, which instills moribund fear in its victims. When the military arrives looking for the alien secret and tries to gain control of Lewisville, the townspeople have to decide which is the greater evil; aliens or military occupation?
    • Review: Not a bad story, but it lacked the dramatic impact given the tension-filled premise. For example, the opening sequence in which a man maintains constant vigil on his front porch was well done drama, but the subsequent chapters shows us some les-enjoyable political power struggles and too much character melodrama were less so. Each section of the story focuses on a different resident as the story unfolds and the military come to town. The weapon of the story’s title, it seems, is not quite what people think it is, as another well-done action scene in a warehouse shows us.
    • Note: Also available online at the author’s website.
    • Award nominations: 2005 Locus.
  10. Arabian Wine by Gregory Feeley [2004 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 03/26/06]
    • Synopsis: The trials and tribulations of Matteo the merchant as he tries to capitalize of making coffee (the Arabian Wine of the title) the beverage of choice in renaissance Europe.
    • Review: Although this was billed as alternate history in the introduction, this subtlety of the story made it read more like vanilla-flavored historical fiction. Matteo tries like mad to get the coffee market off the ground but meets with resistance every step of the way. Things look good when he has engineers working on the ultimate steam-powered coffee vat, but not so good when the church accuses him of disrupting civil order, apparently through the effects of the caffeine which heretofore were used only for medicinal purposes. Like I said, this reads like a history lesson and was not overly entertaining for the sf-lover in me. That said, Feeley’s writing style is easy to digest and helped move the extra-long novella along.
    • Note: Also available online at Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.
    • Award nominations: 2005 Locus.
About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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