REVIEW SUMMARY: Lots of gems, only a few misses.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of thirty one science fiction stories that first appeared in 2005.
PROS: Twenty seven stories that are good or better; eight of those are exceptionally well done.
CONS: Four stories mediocre or worse; a bit heavy on the posthumanism theme.
BOTTOM LINE: A fine collection bursting with lots of cool science fiction ideas.
David G. Hartwell’s and Kathryn Cramer’s annual Year’s Best SF series makes it to number eleven this year. While other annuals play with the definition of the genre, this series strives to collect stories that clearly lie within the science fiction domain. Thus, science fiction fans will not feel cheated that this series offers a diluted selection. Instead, all the stories are clearly sf.
The only factor that could possibly limit the series’ range is that it is constrained to the mass-market paperback format. (I think that hardback editions eventually appear later through the Science Fiction Book Club, but the target format is MMP.) Because of the smaller form factor, you won’t find the 60+ pages of introduction that you would find in the Dozois anthologies. Nor will you find a large number of novella-sized short fiction. In fact, the story length tally for Year’s Best SF 11 comes in at zero novellas, 9 novelettes, 12 short stories and 10 vignettes. That’s a whopping 31 stories of varying length. That’s a fairly decent story count.
There was one noticeably recurring theme throughout the anthology: posthumanism. (Oddly, there were also a couple of stories where rats played a prominent role.) Before I read this anthology, I had no idea that posthumanism was so prominent in 2005. Actually, it almost got to the level of annoyance as it put a slight damper on the variety that I look for in an anthology. While it’s true that even the posthuman-themed stories provided some diversity amongst themselves, perhaps the story selection could have been chosen to provide more variety overall. Just my 2 cents.
As expected in any anthology, the quality of the stories is not entirely consistent. A small handful of the stories failed to entertain. But the good news is that the large majority of the stories were good or better.
Standout stories in Year’s Best SF 11 are “Second Person, Present Tense” by Daryl Gregory, “Mason’s Rats” by Neal Asher, “The Forever Kitten” by Peter F. Hamilton, “City of Reason” by Matthew Jarpe, “What’s Expected of Us” by Ted Chiang, “Bright Red Star” by Bud Sparhawk, “Beyond the Aquila Rift” by Alastair Reynolds and “I, Robot” by Cory Doctorow.
STORIES IN THIS ANTHOLOGY:
- “New Hope for the Dead” by David Langford (2005 vignette)
- Synopsis: Mr. Hormel, a posthuman in a digital afterlife, receives some disturbing news about the funds used to maintain him.
- Review: A short, humorous piece that’s very effective with its just-desserts solution to Mr. Hormel’s money problems.
- “Deus Ex Homine” by Hannu Rajaniemi (2005 short story)
- Synopsis: A home front story during a war against rogue AI’s that turn people into gods. Jukka, an ex-god, meets his former lover Aileen, who is now a soldier in the war.
- Review: This one read like a Charles Stross story with its cutting edge extrapolations and just-out-of-reach portrayal of technology. Although the ideas were awesome, they are not properly fleshed out to give the story the support it deserves. We never quite know the details of the plague.
- “When the Great Days Came” by Gardner Dozois (2005 short story)
- Synopsis: A rat witnesses the end of the world.
- Review: An interesting take from the rat’s point of view. The bulk of the piece is spent on a day in the life of the rat. The sf? Not so much.
- “Second Person, Present Tense” by Daryl Gregory (2005 novelette)
- Synopsis: After a young girl loses her sense of self from a designer drug overdose, she must deal with her parents’ attempts to reacquaint her with her previous life.
- Review: Well done! The designer drug, called Zombie or Zen, increases the time between action and thought, with thought coming much later, similar to conscious blackouts. An overdose essentially purges the victim’s identity. They have memory of their previous lives, but they don’t have the feeling of experience. Therese, who now wants to be called Terry, struggles with the person she is being made to become. The situation offers some thought-provoking moments about identity and human rights. Terry is a sympathetic character, as are her struggling parents. Amidst all this contemplation, the story also holds a surprise or two.
- “Dreadnought” by Justina Robson (2005 vignette)
- Synopsis: A militaristic team of entities ride a ship that has been struck with an EMP pulse.
- Review: I’m not entirely sure I got this one. Are the entities AI’s? Posthuman? There is the notion that they use hosts. Human hosts? Bah! Too many questions and not enough answers.
- “A Case of Consilience” by Ken MacLeod (2005 short story)
- Synopsis: A Scottish Presbyterian named Donald McIntyre tries to bring the word of God to an alien fungus.
- Review: A bit preachy (as could be expected) and borderline uninteresting until McIntyre slips and falls in the quicksand that is home to alien.
- Note: The title and plot are nods to James Blish’s Hugo-winning novel A Case on Conscience.
- “Toy Planes” by Tobias S. Buckell (2005 vignette)
- Synopsis: The first Caribbean astronaut prepares for takeoff.
- Review: And interesting premise; a Caribbean island joins the space program on a shoestring budget while domestic affairs lose out. Like Buckell’s Crystal Rain, this had a welcome Caribbean feel to it.
- “Mason’s Rats” by Neal Asher (2005 short story)
- Synopsis: Farmer Mason’s farm is populated with vicious, armed rats.
- Review: This was a fun story. Mason’s not sure who to dislike more: the rats or the Traptech salesman, especially when one of the barn lasers malfunctions. Overall, the story read like a cross between H.G. Wells and the movie Ben.
- “A Modest Proposal for the Perfection of Nature“ by Vonda N. McIntyre (2005 vignette)
- Synopsis: A story about what can happen when we learn to completely control nature.
- Review: There’s a really good science fiction idea at the core of this vignette, but it needed more plot.
- “Guadalupe and Hieronymus Bosch“ by Rudy Rucker (2005 short story)
- Synopsis: Guadalupe “Glenda” Gomez gets some help from a time-traveler named Harna to abduct 15th century Dutch artists Hieronymus Bosch for her lustful pursuits.
- Review: A light-hearted sf romp with a certain wild, imaginative flair. Rucker, a mathematician himself, uses mathematical elements in the story when the perspective of a painting affects the reality seen by Glenda as chases Harna in an attempt to stop her from capturing the universe as one of her collectibles.
- “The Forever Kitten” by Peter F. Hamilton (2005 vignette)
- Synopsis: A venture capitalist provides bail for a doctor who was incarcerated for illegal rejuvenation techniques.
- Review: It’s hard to really get a good sf buzz from a story of the vignette size, but this one does the job quite nicely, thank you.
- “City of Reason” by Matthew Jarpe (2005 novelette)
- Synopsis: An ex-pirate stumbles upon a ship that’s manned by a pair of teenage assassins – a teenage boy and a posthuman girl – on a mission to destroy the City of Reason with a nuclear device.
- Review: Fun, action-packed space opera with a relatively complex plot involving politics, betrayal and lies. As an ex-pirate, the narrator gets to use his past skills to useful effect. Drama builds as the teenager, Jesse, comes to realize the true nature of his pretty cohort, Shaunasie, and the reader discovers plans within plans. Nicely done.
- “Ivory Tower” by Bruce Sterling (2005 vignette)
- Synopsis: Ten thousand self-educated physicists establish a commune in the 2050’s.
- Review: Not a story so much as it is a high-level proposal of how this could work using the Internet and other cutting edge technology.
- “Sheila” by Lauren McLaughlin (2005 short story)
- Synopsis: Two web-based AIs learn of a third AI named Sheila who has nefarious plans for the “meats” that created her.
- Review: Interesting concepts here. Sheila plans to copy human DNA to the web, purportedly to better communications with them. We don’t really get to see the takeover, though.
- “Rats of the System” by Paul J. McAuley (2005 novelette)
- Synopsis: A two person ship – manned by its captain and a scientist – try to escape an alien ship of the Transcendent.
- Review: Very good mini-space-opera with lots of action, narrow-escapes and grand ideas. The alien backdrop concerns the Transcendent (AIs that have achieved a higher state of being) and their plan to maneuver stars for some grander (yet unrevealed) scheme as well as the Fanatics who worship them. As per a mid-story analogy, the “rats” of the title are the humans who, like the rodents, have the propensity to survive.
- “I Love Liver: A Romance” by Larissa Lai (2005 vignette)
- Synopsis: A romance story between an electronic design for a human liver and its designer.
- Review: This gets points for being daring and unconventional, but the story needed more substance.
- “The Edge of Nowhere” by James Patrick Kelly (2005 novelette)
- Synopsis: In a town called Nowhere that exists in the middle of a mysterious and unknown void known as the cognisphere, a woman named Rain is approached by three talking dogs who are looking for a specific book.
- Review: I’m not sure what to make of this one as I was not completely sure what was going on. The cognisphere is apparently populated by all-knowing posthuman entities that provide things to the townspeople of Nowhere. The people from Nowhere have either been plucked from different years in Earth’s past, or have died and gone to this strange afterlife. Speculation is that the town is an experiment by those in the cognisphere. But then, why are their agents (the hat-wearing talking dogs) asking about some book they should already know about? Rain, who runs the Very Memorial Library out of a bakery, has a friend named Will who is in the midst of writing the book. This is noteworthy because the book is the first item whose existence is unknown by the watchers in the cognisphere. This somehow makes Will special, but alas, he is thinking of taking that fateful step off the Edge of Nowhere. While there are many intriguing ideas, too many questions are left unanswered. Perhaps, as Hartwell and Cramer suggest, the cognisphere mentioned alludes to Michael Swanwick’s Darger stories which I have yet to read.
- “What’s Expected of Us“ by Ted Chiang (2005 vignette)
- Synopsis: A warning for users of the Predictor, a single-button device that blinks 1 second before you use it.
- Review: Cool idea that proves there is no such thing as free will. No matter how much you try to beat the system, it fails. The device uses a negative time circuit to blink an LED before you press the button. Cool!
- “Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play” [Surplus & Darger] by Michael Swanwick (2005 novelette)
- Synopsis: An African (and post-human, the intro says) scientist uses biotechnology to recreate three Greek gods (Dionysus, Eris and Thanatos) in order to control society via their very powerful pheromones.
- Review: I haven’t read any of the other Surplus and Darger stories, but they are interesting adventurers who make a good Sherlock/Watson-like team. (Darger even pulls out his pipe at one point.) The pair pose as British government officials looking to recover lost treasure from Greece; a convenient setting for the use of Greek God analogues. The Gods utilized their respective power to affect society as part of some experiment by the scientist. Parts of the story reminded me of Frankenstein like when the villagers were chasing the bio-engineered Gods with torches and pitchforks.
- Note: This is the third story in Swanwick’s Surplus & Darger stories after “The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport” and “The Dog Said Bow-Wow“.
- “Lakes of Light” [Xeelee] by Stephen Baxter (2005 short story)
- Synopsis: Pala, a new missionary from the Commission for Historical Truth in the Office of Cultural Rehabilitation, is assigned to assimilate a culture that lives on a massive Xeelee artifact that surrounds a star
- Review: After a somewhat slow trek to get to any decent conflict, the story starts revealing wonder after wonder about the artifact’s construction. It’s basically a shell that surrounds a star that uses the star’s energy to provide power and light to the Third Expansion humans that live a peaceful – if somewhat naive – existence. The efforts of Pala and her virtual mentor Dano are not welcomed by Sool and Bicansa, the inhabitants they meet. When Pala inexplicably decides to follow Bicansa to the sphere’s higher gravity regions – inexplicable because Bicansa is a virtual that could easily reappear at her destination – Pala and Dano discover the true nature of the sphere whose transparent regions look like lakes of light from the sky. It is then that Pala must decide how to reconcile her mission with the wishes of the sphere’s inhabitants.
- “The Albian Message” by Oliver Morton (2005 vignette)
- Synopsis: A letter from a scientist resetting the expectation over an alien artifact.
- Review: This story had the interesting ideas of encoding an alien message in human DNA.
- “Bright Red Star” by Bud Sparhawk (2005 short story)
- Synopsis: Amidst a war with the ferocious, unseen aliens known as the Shardies, a group of soldiers must deal with a small group of people who refuse to leave their planet before the Shardies show up to harvest them.
- Review: Nice, tightly-delivered and emotional military sf story that expertly shows the harshness of this bleak future. The story’s intro notes that Sparhawk wrote this in response to the tragic events of 9/11 and the parallels are easy to see; but that transparency gives it no less impact. Great stuff.
- “Third Day Lights” by Alaya Dawn Johnson (2005 novelette)
- Synopsis: A (posthuman) man enters another universe to pass a test by the shape-changing demon princess who has the hots for him.
- Review: I just couldn’t get into this one. The plot and setting was way too weird and hard to get a handle on. The demon princess longs for the visitor, but tries to make him fail the tests that would make them be together. The visitor (Is he posthuman? Is she?) is partly looking for his wife, partly trying to rescue entities from universes before his kind destroy them to use the resulting energy for their own purposes.
- “Ram Shift Phase 2″ by Greg Bear (2005 vignette)
- Synopsis: A book review by a robot of a locked-room mystery book written by another robot.
- Review: Humorous and mostly effective. The locked room mystery gets turned sideways when wireless technology is involved.
- “On the Brane” by Gregory Benford (2005 short story)
- Synopsis: Two astronauts track a gravitational distress signal to a parallel dimension.
- Review: The idea of the parallel universe with its counter-Earth and counter-Moon was cool. The universe exists twenty centimeters away from our own along the Q-axis (whatever that is). Much of this exploration story is weighted down with longish descriptions of scenery. It picks up when the astronauts learn how to communicate with the large aliens they find and they learn that this decaying universe if a foreshadowing of their own.
- “Oxygen Rising” by R. Garcia y Robertson (2005 novelette)
- Synopsis: Amidst a war between humans and green-skinned aliens called (what else?) Greenies, a diplomat’s job is to rescue humans from worlds that are about to be taken by the enemy.
- Review: Meh. The situations that were set up in this story were interesting. Derek (the human diplomat) is actually in the employ of the Greenies but is motivated by the humans he can rescue through non-violent means. Meanwhile, Derek’s one (and only) girlfriend is a Greenie named Mia. On Derek’s latest mission, he rescues Tammy, the first human female he’s ever seen. She is exonerated of the charges against her and enlisted by Derek as a fellow negotiator. Their first task together is to deal with a Church of Presleites (those who worship Elvis in a Vegas-like setting. “Elvis has left the bunker” is used at one point). Except for a couple of instances of changing loyalties, there was not very much that I found engaging in this outing.
- “And Future King…” by Adam Roberts (2005 short story)
- Synopsis: A satirical look at what could happen if androids were allowed to run for office.
- Review: A cute story. Androids are initially put into positions of administrative drudgery until a simulacrum of King Arthur is created and does what King Arthur is wont to do. The story is told through a series of interviews with the androids’ creator.
- “Beyond the Aquila Rift” by Alastair Reynolds (2005 novelette)
- Synopsis: A merchant ship that uses alien technology to travel around the galaxy suffers from a routing error that transports it far, far away from home.
- Review: Another winning story from Reynolds. The story’s title is somewhat of a spoiler, but that in no way diminishes the enjoyment of this well-laid-out story. When Thom, the captain of the ship Blue Goose, wakes from hypnosleep before his other two crew mates, Suzy and Ray, he meets a familiar face from his past. As the story unfolds, Thom learns that all is not necessarily as it appears. Familiar plot aside, the marvel of this story is how it’s told. Piece by piece the reader learns the startling truth of what is really going on. There’s a definite dramatic tension in Thom’s repeated attempts to wake Suzy and break the news, only to immediately fail and have to retry. Excellent work.
- “Angel of Light“ by Joe Haldeman (2005 short story)
- Synopsis: : In a future where the Christian and Islamic religions have merged, a Chrislam man finds an old science fiction magazine whose cover and contents he finds shocking.
- Review: This is a sf story written for sf fans and is remarkably effective given the kitsch value. The sf mag in question is the Summer 1944 copy of Thrilling Wonder Stories. The man takes the magazine to the market where it finds an unusual prospective new owner.
- “Ikiryoh” [Banner of Souls] by Liz Williams (2005 short story)
- Synopsis: The caretaker of a former Asian goddess is charged with doing the same for a young, temperamental little girl referred to only as Ikiryoh.
- Review: An interesting setting and culture helped make this story enjoyable. The unnamed caretaker suspects something is different with the girl but can’t quite put her finger on it, until she learns the definition of the word Ikiryoh. The ending seemed to leave the situation of the story somewhat unresolved.
- “I, Robot“ by Cory Doctorow (2005 novelette) [Reviewed 06/16/06, what follows is what I said then.]
- Synopsis: A robot-hating police detective (cumbersomely named Arturo Icaza de Arana-Goldberg) deals with his wayward daughter (named Ada), his defector wife (Natalie) and his job in Social Harmony, an arm of the ever-increasingly dictatorship government which polices illegal tech during a tecnowar with Eurasia.
- Review: With obvious nods to Asimov and current Digital Rights Management practices, this piece has lots to offer in homage and symbolism. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics play into the story in a major way that ties these two literary handles together. The UNATS robots of Arturo’s country (rife with crime and the need for those to police it) are bound by the Three Laws (think DRM laws). The technologically superior Eurasian robots are not restricted by the Three Laws and yet choose not to harm humans anyway out of “their own sense of morality”. Supposedly we are supposed to infer that the absence of the DRM laws would yield a crime-free state like the fictional Eurasia? Hard to believe, but then again this is just a piece of fiction even with the obvious parallels. So, I was all set to knock off a whole star for the heavy-handed message behind the story, but darn it, I just have to give it some credit for making me think about the similarities. Ultimately, this is a fun and thought-provoking story (with an action-packed finale!) that’s sure to please both casual readers and those looking for some deeper meaning.