REVIEW: The Year’s Best Science Fiction #24 edited by Gardner Dozois

REVIEW SUMMARY: 4 standouts + 18 good stories – 6 less-than-stellar = a very good anthology.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of 28 science fiction stories first published in 2006.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: 22 stories worth reading; 4 of them outstanding.
CONS: 6 stories mediocre or worse.
BOTTOM LINE: Maintains the consistent high quality of previous editions.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction #24 is the sixth edition of this series I’ve read (see SF Signal reviews for editions #19, #20, #21, #22 and #23) and it continues to present a wide range of stories likely to offer something for anyone. Of course, that same strategy may also mean that there are some offerings that are not to taste, but overall this volume maintains a consistently good level of entertainment as compared with previous editions. As usual, editor Gardner Dozois also offers a comprehensive – though not as much as last year – summation of the science fiction landscape and a huge list of reading recommendations.

Even though there were some misses by this reader’s estimation, it must be noted that Dozois has an eye for well-received stories. Several of the ones included here have been chosen by other editors to be in their respective “best of” anthologies. Additionally, some of these stories were nominated for awards. (For more meta-sf Zen, check out SF Scope’s statistics for this edition.)

Of the twenty-eight stories in this volume, twenty-two of them were good or better, with four of those being outstanding. Six stories were of mediocre entertainment value or worse. The four standouts are “Tin Marsh” by Michael Swanwick, “Far As You Can Go” by Greg Van Eekhout, “Dead Men Walking” by Paul J. Mcauley and “Nightingale” by Alastair Reynolds. (Like last year’s edition, Alastair Reynolds grabbed two slots in the table of contents.)

As noted below, nine of the stories contained in this volume have been previously reviewed by me. Also, stories that are available online are linked.

Reviewlettes follow…


STORIES IN THIS ANTHOLOGY:

  1. I, Row-Boat by Cory Doctorow [2006 novelette]

    • Synopsis: A sentient rowboat, tasked with carrying human shells used by the uplifted who wish to scuba dive, encounters a sentient coral reef with different theological beliefs.
    • Review: As is evident by title and anyone familiar with Isaac Asimov’s writings, this story refers, at length, to Asimov’s robot stories. More specifically, it intelligently exercises Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics in light of the rowboat’s belief in Asimovism, the belief that “intelligence is its own reason.” The rowboat is actually a likable character as anyone who has thought about the meaning of life can attest. This story has been nominated for (and won) awards and now here it is in a Best of the Year anthology. I know I’m supposed to like it – and to be sure, it does have redeeming qualities – but I’ve personally had my fill of posthumanism stories. The idea of uploaded consciousness is now officially old and tired. Let’s move on.
  2. Julian: A Christmas Story by Robert Charles Wilson [2006 novella][I read this in April 2007. What follows is what I said then.]
    • Synopsis: Long after war and starvation have thrown society back into feudalism, a noble-born named Julian befriends a lower class stable-hand named Adam during a winter that sees their homeland on the brink of war.
    • Review: Wilson has created an interesting story that reads like a hybrid between post-apocalyptic sf and historical fiction. The story takes place long after the 20th century – “that period of great, unsustainable, and hedonistic prosperity, driven by the burning of Earth’s reserves of perishable oil, which culminated in the False Tribulation, and the wars, and the plagues, and the painful dwindling of inflated populations to more reasonable numbers.” Society – at least in this recognizable future America – has become one of feudalism with lords leading the masses and with technology no greater than a rifle. Julian Comstock comes from the noblest of families, one that has resided in the President’s chair for thirty years. Julian’s ward and former soldier, Sam Godwin, sees in a lower class stable-hand a friend for Julian. Adam, the narrator of the story, tells how he and Julian narrowly escape the conscription of their town’s citizens into the armed forces on the eve of war with Europe. Around this story float the themes of patriotism, social class and religion. (Christianity, in the form of the Dominion Church, is the predominant religion while others are either legally suppressed or culturally discouraged. In other words, the new Constitution of these 60 States of the Union allows freedom of religion…just as long as it’s Christianity.) The mood of the story mimics the gray skies of the fictional winter in which it is set. Even though the crux of the plot – that of Julian’s attempts to escape conscription at the hands of a suspicious uncle – lacks some much-needed drama, I found the writing to be engaging and easily consumable. But the major appeal for this science fiction fan was the echoing of the near-mythological 20th century. Julian is a Darwinist (Heresy!) who believes legend that man once walked on the moon. He seeks knowledge with a vengeance and, at one point, is agog at a newly discovered stash of ancient texts that includes a biology text and The History of Mankind in Space. This is rewarding in an Omniscient Viewer sense; we know what came before even if the characters are not altogether sure. The Church suppresses the advancement of knowledge, perhaps in hopes of avoiding a replay of past events. But the quest for knowledge remains. We see a replay of history and can only hope that mankind will once again reach for the stars.
    • Note: Nominated for the 2007 Hugo Award.
  3. “Tin Marsh” by Michael Swanwick [2006 short story]
    • Synopsis: Two armor-suited prospectors, whose forced togetherness has devolved their relationship to one of hatred, engage in a life-or-death chase across the harsh landscape of Venus.
    • Review: A gripping story quickly emerges from the seemingly stable setup. MacArthur and Patang have neural implants meant to protect themselves and, more importantly, company equipment – a setup somewhat reminiscent of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, as it happens. MacArthur’s implants malfunction and he is finally able to express his hatred for Patang, his female partner who taunted him by radio while they were physically separated during their long mission (offstage, before the story begins). Tension runs high throughout the whole story even though it’s not clear who the real victim is. But perhaps that’s the point.
  4. The Djinn’s Wife by Ian McDonald [2006 novelette] [I read this in April 2007. What follows is what I said then.]
    • Synopsis: A famous dancer falls in love with an artificial intelligence.
    • Review: Set as a prequel to McDonald’s fantastic River of Gods, this piece has many of the ingredients that made that novel such a success: an “aeai” who is as much a character as any human one, threatened by the Hamilton Acts that prohibit his growth; a sympathetic enforcer from the Department of Artificial Intelligence (Thacker, a “Krishna Cop”); the political background of a water war between neighboring nations; and a hefty injection of Indian culture. Sad, then, that this story was nowhere near as engaging. The fault lies in the execution. The aeai named A.J. Rao, who is also a major figure in the negotiations for precious water, reveals himself to be a fan of the dancer named Esha. Esha immediately notes how handsome the AI has made himself in his mental manifestation – Esha “sees” him thanks to hardwired brain hardware. A desire for social status prompts Esha to proclaim Rao as her fiancée, a charade to which he readily agrees. Their relationship – and here is where it gets silly – eventually leads to sex in which Rao brings Esha to e-orgasm. Life is apparently perfect for Esha…until the realization hits her that Rao, being the computer simulation that he is, can manifest himself anywhere simultaneously – an ability that is the digital equivalent of unfaithfulness. At around the same time, Esha is confronted by Thacker who is concerned of Rao’s advanced intelligence since impending legislation would make Rao eligible for “excommunication”. Thacker eventually wins the affections of Esha while she plays the part of spy. Of course, Rao finds out, and all hell (briefly) breaks loose in an ending that lifts the enjoyment level of this story to the realm of mediocrity. Another thing that hurt the story was the occasional use of run-on sentences meant, I suppose, to convey the hurriedness of the speaker but instead were longwinded interruptions to the flow of the story.
    • Note: Nominated for the 2007 Hugo Award.
  5. The House Beyond Your Sky by Benjamin Rosenbaum [2006 short story] [I read this in April 2007. What follows is what I said then.]
    • Synopsis: A virtual construct named Mathias must answer to his maker when he begins playing God to creations of his own making.
    • Review: Rosenbaum’s worlds-within-worlds story is simultaneously touching, dramatic and symbolic. Mathias creates worlds, like his own, where the beings eventually evolve beyond their artificial boundaries; they become aware that they are artificial. Mathias elevates them to his own world in the form of birds. Mathias wishes to save one of his constructs, a young girl named Sophie who has abusive parents. But the saved may instead turn out to be savior when Mathias own creator – a pilgrim to Mathias’ priest persona – comes knocking on Mathias door. Heady and mind-bending stuff.
    • Note: Nominated for the 2007 Hugo Award.
  6. “Where the Golden Apples Grow” by Kage Baker [2006 novella] What follows is what I said then.]
    • Synopsis: On a newly colonized Mars, settlers reside either on Mons Olympus hauling stuff in the open Martian air or down in the farm domes working the fields for a greener planet. Bill, a Hauler’s son dreams of being a farmer while Ford, a farmer’s son, would rather be working a Hauler. When the two meet under less-than-favorable circumstances, they get to see how the other half lives.
    • Review: Ford’s and Bill’s adventures nicely exhibit the common but usually neglected dangers of living off-world, but other than that there is little else here that screams sense of wonder in this “grass is greener” story. Bill is perpetually angry at his life and his “irresponsible” dad but learns a lesson or two about life. Ford, a starry-eyed twelve year old, is more naïve to the ways of colonization than Bill, and he also has room to learn a few things. They don’t immediately hit it off – in fact, they come to fisticuffs – but they do eventually learn to work together to overcome some very serious situations.
  7. Kin by Bruce Mcallister [2006 short story] [I read this in April 2007. What follows is what I said then.]
    • Synopsis: In an overpopulated future, a 12-year-old boy named Kim wants an alien assassin to prevent the government-sanctioned abortion of his unborn sister by killing the pencil-pusher assigned to initiate it.
    • Review: And interesting premise in an interesting future. In the absence of suitable payment, the threat of the pending abortion forces Kim to learn alien customs in hopes of convincing the Antalou assassin to help him. Although overpopulation is an old sf trope (see Make Room! Make Room! By Harry Harrison, to whom this story is dedicated, or John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar), the idea of population control is still a workable theme that provides sufficient controversy and drama. This story deftly handles that controversy without preaching.
    • Note: Nominated for the 2007 Hugo Award.
  8. “Signal to Noise” by Alastair Reynolds [2006 novelette]
    • Synopsis: Thanks to quantum mechanics, a recent widower gets to spend a week in a parallel reality a version of his wife who is still alive.
    • Review: This is a much more personal story for Reynolds than the usual galactic-scale stories he tells. Mick – the man who experiences life in another dimension where his wife, Andrea, did not perish – is as sympathetic a character as he should be. Mick’s connection with the alternate Andrea (done by proxy through Mick’s alternate self) gets weaker as the story progresses, forcing Mick to face another loss. Minor details about parallel worlds are mentioned because the focus is on the protagonist. The result is an effectively bittersweet story.
  9. “The Big Ice” by Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold [2006 novelette]
    • Synopsis: A planetologist, working at a site that shows signs of alien life, finds that she cannot escape her mysterious past.
    • Review: Lake and Nestvold have managed to weave several interesting story elements together to make a seamless whole: Vega, the planetologist who has abandoned the ways of her family so she could live her own life; a scientific anomaly in the form of biological readings deep within a nearly-continent-sized ice formation that has its own weather system; and a backdrop of political intrigue between the ruling Core class and the revolutionary Houses. Each thread feeds the other to create a crescendo of suspense and mystery. While the thrust of the plot is the pursuit of Vega, the main appeal of the story comes from the sense of wonder of all these elements, as well as Vega’s tenuous relationship with her partner, Mox. All told, a fun sf read.
  10. “Bow Shock” by Gregory Benford [2006 novelette]
    • Synopsis: An academic scientist becomes preoccupied with an astronomical discovery that appears to be a pulsar, but just might be something else.
    • Review: Benford’s present-day, hard-sf story offers a realistic look at science – or at least, it appears realistic to me – in that the scientist, Ralph, is concerned about tenure, making his mark in the field, scrounging for bits of time on the big telescopes, etc., even more so than his floundering relationship with Irene, his longtime girlfriend. The pace is casual at first but then picks up speed as the anomalous behavior of what Ralph dubs “The Bullet” becomes more unusual. Benford isn’t playing so much with plot twists here as he is with a genuine sense of wonder that is grounded in the present.
  11. “In The River” by Justin Stanchfield [2006 short story]
    • Synopsis: A mathematician, surgically transformed to speak with and live among aquatic aliens, returns to her exploration ship.
    • Review: The character of Jenna Ree is immediately sympathetic as she is pulled from the happiness of her new home with her tentacled “sisters” and longs to go back. Her human memories and experiences slowly return, only to bring more pain when her husband tells her some bad news. Jenna’s excursion among the aliens was not entirely successful either; the goal was to use mathematics to decode their advanced technology. Tension develops when Jenna gets to return to the aliens, however this time without the surgical modifications that allowed her to be one of them. In the end, the author successfully creates a pensive mood as dark as the waters in the alien ship.
  12. “Incarnation Day” by Walter Jon Williams [2006 novella] [I read this in November 2006. What follows is what I said then.]
    • Synopsis: A posthuman coming-of-age story in which virtual human children are downloaded into physical forms when they mature. Here, Alison narrates the story of her own approaching “incarnation” and freedom from the threat of termination imposed by parents who might see their children as defective.
    • Review: The virtual/posthuman aspect of the story puts a nice spin on the coming-of-age story. The children are not considered legally human until incarnation and are therefore have no rights. Nice touch. Children who don’t measure up are snuffed out by the “blue lady”, a digital version of the boogeyman. There’s a nice sense-of-winder-filled scene where the kids are granted temporary physical form to attend the incarnation of one of their cadre. Ultimately, the story focuses on Alison’s friend Janice and her very strained relationship with her mother. Alison comes up with a creative way to salvage the escalating situation, but will she be successful before the blue lady strikes?
  13. “Far As You Can Go” by Greg Van Eekhout [2006 short story]
    • Synopsis: A man and his robot leave their impoverished town in search of the sea.
    • Review: What’s interesting about this story is that the vague explanations of the world matter little to the importance of the journey. What happened that Ex-Town seems almost post-apocalyptic; where scrounging for food is done through judicious bartering; where street savvy is needed to survive; where there are dangers like spiked drones, road witches and the un-described “dust girls”? How is it that a seemingly modern city exists not too far from Ex-Town? Although these answers sound like they could easily offer more world-building sensawunda, they ultimately do not matter. The uneducated narrator thinks he is independent, but it is the robot named Beeman who pushed him to journey forth, away from the decaying city and his almost-indigent mother. And it is his friendship and their journey that matters most. Great stuff.
  14. “Good Mountain” by Robert Reed [2006 novella] [I read this in April 2006. What follows is what I said then.]
    • Synopsis: The last survivors of a dying Earth flee the rapidly encroaching destruction in the belly of a giant worm.
    • Review: Not bad, but it felt padded. The core of the story – the escape from a far-future Earth in its final death throes – was diffused by flashbacks that should have been short summations instead of longish sidetracks. Traveling via giant worm creatures was cool, even though it was a little too reminiscent of the Fremen in Dune. The mockmen creatures were an interesting concept: subservient to men and low in social status. I liked that the world has lost the most of its history, including mankind’s evolution. The Earth, one side in perpetual daylight since the Earth is no longer rotating, is made up of constantly shifting islands and the danger is in the poisonous gases that erupt from below the surface.
  15. I Hold My Father’s Paws by David D. Levine [2006 short story]
    • Synopsis: A man visits his estranged father before the father undergoes surgery that uses biotech to change him into a dog.
    • Review: The ultimate reason for the species change is poignant enough to redeem this story’s somewhat hokey premise.
  16. “Dead Men Walking” [Quiet War] by Paul J. Mcauley [2006 novelette]
    • Synopsis: A veteran of the Quiet War, hiding in plain sight as a prison guard on one of Uranus’s moons, is in danger of being discovered when a serial killer (most likely by another hidden veteran) appears.
    • Review: The story builds up a slow tension as the near death Roy Bruce recounts his story: how he was created as a doppelganger assassin with a limited life span (thus a “dead man walking”, a theme echoed by the prison-planet setting); how the investigation of the killings could lead to his unmasking being found; how he contacts the assassin and agrees to meet on the icy plains; and how he pleads with the assassin to try to live as normal as possible in the limited time they have left (thanks to a fatal retrovirus that limits their life spans). Some contemplative stuff gives this story depth and McCauley’s back story is also appealing, if fleeting.
    • Note: I read another of Mcauley’s Quiet War stories back in 2003. Between that one and this one, I’m looking forward to the upcoming book The Quiet War that Dozois mentions in the introduction.
  17. “Home Movies” by Mary Rosenblum [2006 novelette]
    • Synopsis: A human chameleon named Kayla uses nanotech to record memories for clients, but she is unable to retain those memories herself.
    • Review: The idea of memory recording via nanotech is a really interesting premise and one that comes at a cost of the chameleon. Kayla allows others to live their lives vicariously through her but the nanotech ensures that the memories do not last. In the telling of her latest job (attending a wedding at the request of the elderly Mayor of Mars), the story deals with the emotional issues attached with such a lifestyle and has a little action to boot. The ending was a little too predictable, though.
  18. “Damascus” by Daryl Gregory [2006 novelette]
    • Synopsis: Paula’s mysterious neighbors show religious salvation through biological means.
    • Review: Despite the slow pacing at the start, this is one of those stories that works its way under your skin. It starts out as a minor suspense story about some cultish behavior from neighbors who get too close to Paula and her daughter. But that soon gives way to some real-world creepiness in the form of biological terrorism. A malformed protein causes people to see their own version of Jesus. (Paula sees him as Curt Cobain.) The cultish neighbors are content converting the women of the world slowly, but Paula cranks it up and turns it into full-scale terrorist activities – all in the name of sharing her salvations. Disturbing and powerful.
  19. “Life on the Preservation” by Jack Skillingstead [2006 short story]
    • Synopsis: Young Kylie spends the day in a city preserved by aliens from the end of the world and stuck in a time loop.
    • Review: Great premise, but Kylie’s Carpe Diem attitude, while fun and perhaps a good lesson for us, is not enough to carry the story to greatness.
  20. Yellow Card Man by Paolo Bacigalupi [2006 novelette] [I read this in April 2007. What follows is what I said then.]
    • Synopsis: In an overcrowded Thailand, a Chinese refugee struggles to survive.
    • Review: Bacigalupi’s story is set in the same future of last year’s Hugo-nominee, “The Calorie Man” (see SF Signal review) where genetic engineering has wiped out all the crops save for those owned by the corporations that hold the few patents on resistant crop strains. The refuges that come to Bangkok were looking for a better future but found instead a life of extreme poverty. The country houses them in high rises without air conditioning, cramped together in unacceptable living conditions. The focus of the story is on Tranh, a Chinese refugee who was once a successful businessman until his people (and his family) were massacred. Now Tranh is left with nothing, struggling to find scraps of precious food. A not-too-promising job lead – which takes the first thirty percent of the story to get to while the narrative loiters with much world building – gives Tranh some slim hope of working his way up from poverty. In this, Tranh is a sympathetic character, a victim of unfortunate circumstance. Tranh also has a table-turning encounter with a former employee, fired in disgrace by Tranh himself but who is now much better off than his former boss. The employee (Ma Ping) shows compassion for Tranh in his time of need and Tranh’s circumstances elicit humility at first, then anger. This is a sign of things to come. Tranh’s situation gets the best of him and the hope of finding a job is overcome by a chance to get ahead at the expense of others. In short, his misfortune turns to desperation and a sympathetic character becomes much less so.
    • Note: Nominated for the 2007 Hugo Award.
  21. Riding the Crocodile by Greg Egan [2006 novella] [I read this in April 2006. What follows is what I said then.]
    • Synopsis: After 10,309 years of marriage and seeing and doing all there is to do, post-singularity humans Leila and Jasim decide to do one last thing: make contact with the distant Aloof species who have been playing hard-to-get for millennia.
    • Review: The problem I had with this story was the motivation of Leila and Jasim. It was stated early on that they had done everything, been everywhere, seen all there is to see. So, how, exactly, is making contact with the Aloof – something that had been attempted by others for millennia, mind you, though admittedly others’ attempts have waned – the answer to delaying their well-accepted (and expected) death? I just didn’t see the motive for delaying for tens-of-thousands-of-years what they had already accepted as inevitable. I suppose an argument could be made that they were clinging on to dear life (even if it was uploaded life in which they continually re-instantiated themselves in new guides and locations), but even that seems weak because it is so far beyond what any other human did in the story. After tantalizing the reader with the promise of the seeing a new species, we never get to see them. Bah! It’s not all negative, though. The uploaded consciousness thing was cool because it was not overplayed. And, despite the lack of motive for going the extra tens-of-thousands-of-years, I did like the way that the story skipped along in many-year increments.
  22. “The Ile of Dogges” by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette [2006 short story]
    • Synopsis: An Elizabethan-era censor is visited by a man from the future looking to preserve a seditious play lost to time.
    • Review: This was largely uneventful and shamelessly based on an idea that’s right out of Kage Baker’s Company series. Thinking there must be more to the story, I turned to the InterTubes to find that it is indeed based on history. Sadly, that does not lend any import or enjoyment to the story, even after the fact.
  23. “The Highway Men” by Ken Macleod [2006 novelette]
    • Synopsis: While the world is beset by war, terrorism-paranoia and ecological threats, a highway worker meets a bandit and falls for her.
    • Review: The workers (Jase, Murdo and Euan) are not educated enough to be enlisted to fight the war, so instead they work for the government as highwaymen, mostly insulating pipes from the increasingly volatile weather. When traveling to a job, they meet Ailiss and Jase falls for her. He tracks her down to a small community of folks living in the woods ready for the day when the ecological and political problems will force them to live like that anyway. Written entirely from Jase’s point of view, there’s a heavy emphasis on world-building but not much time spent on plot and characterizations. The proper way to read this is not so much as a story but as a reasonably possible speculation on where paranoia could take us. Macleod’s moody prose certainly lends to that feeling of despair.
  24. “The Pacific Mystery” by Stephen Baxter [2006 novelette]
    • Synopsis: A diary of a passenger on the first attempted flight around the world – the world being an alternate version of our own circa 1950 where Hitler still rules.
    • Review: The rather slow start of this story, which focuses on the alternate history aspect of the world, is deceiving. About halfway through, it becomes evident that the Pacific Ocean mystery involves some impossible geometries and Lost World-ish wonders. The narrator, a British reporter/aviator on board the German “atom-engine-powered” airship, tells of the decline of the ship’s status quo. The mystery of the Pacific brings the story out of its alternate-history doldrums and back into Baxter’s hard-science comfort zone.
  25. “Okanoggan Falls” by Carolyn Ives Gilman [2006 novelette]
    • Synopsis: When alien occupation reaches small town America, the Mayor’s wife attempts to convince the alien captain to not destroy her beloved town.
    • Review: While the writing does a great job creating the small town atmosphere and values, the bigger picture of alien invasion causes the premise to fall under its own weight. It’s simply not believable that Susan would start to have feelings for Captain Groton, despite the physiological changes that cause him to appear more human and supposedly more endearing. It’s still an Earth-conquering alien who is demolishing the town that we are repeatedly shown is the place Susan adores. How can she see past all that to get emotionally close to him?
  26. “Every Hole Is Outlined” by John Barnes [2006 novelette]
    • Synopsis: A slave boards a trader ship as a mathematician’s apprentice and companion.
    • Review: What started out as too-lengthy world-building descriptions gave way to even more annoying plot nonsense involving ghosts that appeared on birthdays. The occurrences are explained away as “aphysics”, with particles that leave holes behind them, essentially tracing a person’s life span. The slave Xhrina eventually comes to love the much-older mathematician Mtepic because he treated her like an equal. As the journey of their ship surpasses their life spans, the ghosts are meant, I think, to elicit feelings of sentimentality, but the effect is not even close to being achieved. The only saving grace for this story was some cool mathematical concepts that ultimately played no integral part of the too-thin plot.
  27. The Town on Blighted Sea” [Kabu] by A.M. Dellamonica [2006 short story]
    • Synopsis: Set on an alien planet where humans live in exile, a woman named Ruthless helps hide her nephews crime against a squid-like alien Kabu.
    • Review: This story takes place in the same universe as “Time of the Snake“. Once again, the author has created a nice air of tension (here, in the form of the older, wiser Ruthless covering up young Rav’s sudden initiation into adulthood) with fast-moving prose. Setting the story on an alien planet makes this story all the more interesting. Taken together, the Kabu stories outline an interesting, longer tale that I hope one day sees novel-length.
  28. “Nightingale” [Revelation Space] by Alastair Reynolds [2006 novella]
    • Synopsis: A team of war veterans attempts to retrieve a war criminal (who is supposed to be dead) from a massive hospital spaceship (that was supposed to have been destroyed).
    • Review: This story reminds me of why I like Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe so much. Not only do we get some rich backgrounds of the world – with a few nods to Demarchists, Ultras, Conjoiners, Sky Hausmann and Sky’s Edge – but we also get a riveting story. Dexia Scarrow, the narrator, is hired by a man with connections to join him and other war veterans in bringing Colonel Brandon Jax to justice. It matters not what he did, exactly; it’s enough to know he’s the bad guy. The story is about their mission to the supposedly-destroyed hospital ship Nightingale. While the first act sets up the premise and drops some remembered names, the second kicks in with the action and suspense. Even though the premise felt like a less-dangerous version Reynolds’ own “Diamond Dogs” (if you’re going to crib from yourself, crib the best), the story was no less suspenseful. The final act contains the unveiling of the intriguing mystery, a minor plot twist that readers familiar with Reynolds work may see coming, a well-handled anti-war message, and an ending that puts other short stories to shame. Well done.

10 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Year’s Best Science Fiction #24 edited by Gardner Dozois”

  1. I read this book as well – it was sent to me by mistake, but I didn’t let that stop me from checking it out before sending it on to John (sorry John!). I was pretty disappointed. I used to read a lot of short fiction in the past but quit because I felt the best writing was being done in novels. Frankly I’m going to stop reading short fiction again for a while – while there were some gems in here, I found most of them to be quite lacking.

    In my opinion, a short work has to stand on its own a self-contained story. It can NOT just be a chapter from a novel, and it seems to me that’s what most of the authors here have done.

    For example, while I enjoyed the writing and the style of Robert Charles Wilson’s novella Julian: A Christmas Story there simply isn’t much story here. The characters are well done, but this is obviously a slice of a larger work (even if this doesn’t end up being created, I felt the author was thinking that way.)

    Like John I enjoyed Damascus (my personal favorite), Nightingale, Dead Men Walking, Kin, and Signal to Noise. But that was it – the rest I wish I hadn’t taken the time to read.

  2. >> In my opinion, a short work has to stand on its own a self-contained story. It can NOT just be a chapter from a novel, and it seems to me that’s what most of the authors here have done.

    Agreed — otherwise it would be an excerpt! However, I thought all of the stories here were self-contained. Sure, some of them could be used as episodes in a larger story – that’s actually a common stepping-stone practice with writers. (See Allen Steele’s Coyote stories, for example). But I thought each story in this collection had a setup and resolution.

    In response to your concern over quality…this was to varying degrees of success. I mean, “Riding the Crocodile” is praised all over the place but it was just not my cup of tea.

  3. Just thought of something else…

    RE: Frankly I’m going to stop reading short fiction again for a while – while there were some gems in here, I found most of them to be quite lacking.

    That’s too bad as some short fiction stories put some novels to shame. Don’t let one book be the basis for that decision. In my opinion, you are unlikely to find a “best of the year” anthology that where every single story is a 5-star winner. Such books reflect the choices of one individual and the trick is to find an editor whose tastes coincide with your own. (I’m ignoring the weirdness that exists when compiling these anthologies, like license rights, space constraints, etc.) That said, my recollection of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 1 (which was admittedly formed during my more impressionable and less critical days) was that it’s outstanding overall.

    Time commitment is a factor as well, isn’t it? What if you want a jolt of sf but do not have the time for a novel? Oh wait — I forgot I’m talking to our own in-house Klausner! ;-)

  4. One of the reasons I stopped reading “year’s best” anthos is because they strive so hard to represent all the various aspects of the genre that, naturally, many of the stories fall into types that I just don’t particularly enjoy reading. If I have a lot of spare time these types of books can be a way to discover new authors I didn’t know about, but these days I don’t tend to have that kind of spare time.

  5. I understand what you are saying about not giving up on short fiction, but reading 23 stories I didnt care for in order to find 5 I did just seems like too high of a price to pay.

  6. I’ve been reading Dozois’s yearly anthology since around the tenth collection, and began buying them eight years ago, so this is always a must buy for me. I’ve always thought it would be impossible to attempt to read all the magazines, and now, go to all the fiction sites, in order to have a clear view of shorter SF–but luckily, Dozois does this for me! In previous years, some of the collections do tend a bit toward the grim side, but that’s one advantage to anthologies of shorter fiction–you can sample an unpleasant future, without being stuck in it for the length of a novel. And as John pointed out above, short fiction is great for fans with time constraints–although I’d reckon my taste is more for the short, bracing effects of a shot of liquor, rather than a complex cocktail. And of course, an anthology such as this is perhaps the best way to find current authors who’s novels I’d enjoy. Previous editions got me to check out the works of Swanwick, Egan, and Reynolds, yet another wonderful aspect of the series . . .

    So bravo for the yearly anthologies! (Ah, I used to love the Harrison and Aldiss Best SF:19__ series–odd and eclectic, they turned me onto Gene Wolf and Michael Bishop.)

    I haven’t finished this years anthology yet, just recieved it from the SFBC, and I’ll probably savor it for awhile, reading a story or two every so often. But I loved the first two–I prefer my Doctorow in short bits, and found I, Rowboat amusingly recursive. And Wilson’s tale is wryly elegant–maybe it’s just me, but caught a whiff of Gene Wolf’s style in the questionable first person narrative.

    Not many comments on Dozois’s summation so far, but of course, that’s the first thing most people would read . . . After reading so many in the series, this years preface is a bit too familiar, although he did throw in a couple of funny lines. And his annual plea to support magazines unfortunately may be falling on deaf ears–with collections this good, why wade through the bad stuff?

    In closing, thanks for the individual story reviews John, they will undoubtedly aid in my appreciation–Dozois’s introductory notes on them are sometimes a bit too ambiguously coy . . . ;-)

  7. Of course, that same strategy may also mean that there are some offerings that are not to taste

    Yeah the number of global warming scare stories in volume 23 was unbearable. (hopefully it will soon go the same way as telepathy, and fear of chemicals and nuclear radiation did.)

    But the “Isn’t great I am gay” story wasn’t to bad.

    Zima blue was also in that volume…one of the best stories i have read in some time…i might have pre judged Alastier Renalods…his talent is clearly in short form fiction.

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