REVIEW SUMMARY: 8 standouts + 14 good stories – 10 mediocre or worse = a good anthology

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of 32 science fiction stories first published in 2007.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: 22 stories worth reading, 8 of which were outstanding.
CONS: 10 stories were not very engaging.
BOTTOM LINE: A good collection overall, though slightly weaker in its content than past editions.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction #25 is the 2008 installment of the long-running sf anthology edited by Gardner Dozois. As is the norm with this series, it features a comprehensive overview of the sf year and showcases the variety of subjects and styles that science fiction allows. Overall, the anthology is a good one.

But taking a sneak peak under the covers shows something that I haven’t experienced with this series before: there seemed to be an inordinately high number of both outstanding stories and stories that didn’t do much for me. They still averaged out to a good rating (I used a weighted average based on the page length of the stories) but the previous volumes I read (see SF Signal reviews for editions #19, #20, #21, #22, #23 and #24) did not contain as many winners and losers. I’m not sure why that is…perhaps just a larger-than-normal divergence of tastes between the editor and myself, but there you go.

It may be interesting (or not) to mention that I had already read many of the story selections here, as noted below. Some of those were very good, others not so much. Given the caliber of author talent it contains, I was wanting to go back an re-read some of the misses, but not enough time has passed from the first read to make me want to give that a go.

As it is, the standout stories in this volume are:

  • “Against The Current” by Robert Silverberg
  • “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang
  • “Beyond The Wall” by Justin Stanchfield
  • “Last Contact” by Stephen Baxter
  • “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” by Alastair Reynolds
  • “Nothing Personal” by Pat Cadigan
  • “Tideline” by Elizabeth Bear
  • “The Prophet of Flores” by Ted Kosmatka

Individual story reviews follow…


[The following story was originally reviewed as part of a 2008 Hugo Award Short Fiction Nominees reading project.]

“Finisterra” by David Moles takes place in the meticulously constructed world of Sky, which is populated by massive floating/flying creatures that are large enough to serve as island homes for the thousands of humans and aliens that live upon them. (These finned creatures are so big that they have forests and mountains that sit atop their flesh.) Such detailed worldbuilding, which is both foreign and wondrous at the same time, reminds me of Frank Herbert’s Dune and Larry Niven’s Ringworld. The core story concerns Bianca, an aeronautical engineer who takes a job with an illegal band of poachers bent on taking down the biggest creature of all: Finsterra. Bianca wrestles with the consequences of her actions and things come to a nicely done dramatic finish.

Ken Macleod’s “Lighting Out” is set in a post-singular universe where people spin off into AI “partials”. However, they are short-lived since an overabundance of them leads to a “fast burn”, a situation where the partials’ desire to live longer causes chaos in the form of zombie-like citizens and tech gone haywire. This situation is nearly reached when Constance starts a business venture suggested by a partial of her mother. The threat of the havoc is more bark than bite, though; although we see some of the effects of the fast burn, they are somewhat downplayed in favor of Constance’s relationships with he mother and her partner, Andy. Better than these Big Ideas was the world that Macleod builds: the frozen-over Earth being terraformed, inhabitants living on the Moon, and people and aliens traipsing around the galaxy.

[The following story was originally reviewed in Jim Baen's Universe #8.]

“The Ocean Is A Snowflake Four Billion Miles Away” by John Barnes follows two rival journalists on the face of a terraformed Mars shortly before a cataclysmic event is set to reshape it even further. Professional rivals Thorby and Léoa aim to capture “The Great Blooming” – a terraforming project to create a Martian ocean using a comet – without the aid of computer-generated imagery. They both subscribe to the “realist movement” of documentary filmmaking, but that doesn’t stop one from sabotaging the other. Nor does it make them or their relationship interesting. The first half of this story was dreadfully slow, steeped in trivial philosophical discussions about things that did not directly affect the thin plot. Thankfully – as much as the resulting mediocrity could be considered a blessing – the pace picked up significantly when the BERE (Big Energy Release Event) knocks them both for a loop and Thorby must make some decisions about the type of person he wants to be.

In Saving Tiamaat by Gwyneth Jones, two diplomats are assigned to attend to a pair of aliens from different, warring races. As can be expected, there’s plenty of politics at play (not a favorite subject of mine), enough to overshadow the other decent sf-nal aspects of the story like the world building Diaspora setup and the alien culture infodumps.

“Of Late I Dreamt of Venus” by James Van Pelt follows the thousand-year plan of the tenacious Elizabeth Audrey to terraform Venus. Elizabeth is all business, noticing the affection for her felt by her subordinate, Henry, but not really caring. Periods of centuries-long sleep separate the vignettes that show not only the progress of the terraforming project (Elizabeth sets out to make her own version of Earth – one better than the original), but also the evolving relationship of Elizabeth and Henry. Van Pelt nicely handles some big, juicy ideas around the logistics of the terraforming, and his portrayal of the main relationship plays out quite well against it.

“Verthandi’s Ring” by Ian Mcdonald is a hodgepodge of big ideas and macroscopic vision but is also somewhat of a mess. It’s about two warring galactic cultures, or really, how that war is resolved. While there were some ideas that were cool (like postuhumans and concentric sphere-worlds), the rest are merely hinted at in made-up terms (Claspers? Bone blades? Incarnaculum?) that are bandied about like beads from a bag of tropes strung together with a knotted string of sentences. Considering some of the author’s other work I’ve read, this was very disappointing.

Una Mccormack’s “Sea Change” depicts a near future society with problems not entirely different than our own, at least for the young protagonists. The lower-class narrator, Miranda, is living with her upper-class friend, Callie. Callie is the spoiled rich girl whose opportunities and possessions go unappreciated. Miranda, meanwhile, appoints herself as Callie’s keeper. And while the story does seem rooted in an interesting society where citizenship is bestowed at sixteen, not much of it is used and the story otherwise leaves little room for engagement.

[The following story was originally reviewed as part of a Celestial Empire stories reading project.]

In “The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small” by Chris Roberson, Cao Wen, working for the Minister of War, is researching the enemy, Mexica. His search leads him to seek out Ling Xuan, a “temporary resident” (for the last 20 years) at the Embroidered Guard, a military unit of the Celestial Empire. Ling Xuan is suspected of holding vital information about the enemy, but Cao Wen learns that the prisoner holds information even more important to the future of the Empire. As with other Celestial Empire stories, this one transpires on a personal level; in this case, Ling Xuan is the focus of our sympathy. His only crime is having a desire to know the order of the universe. (There are laws to prohibit such learning.) To see him manipulate Cao Wen is a personal victory for him and an engaging event for the reader.

[The following story was originally reviewed as part of a 2008 Hugo Award Short Fiction Nominees reading project.]

“Glory” by Greg Egan starts with a head-expanding, hard-sf treatment of space travel, and then settles comfortably into a story about two visitors (Joan and Anne) to an alien planet interested in learning the advanced mathematics of an extinct race. Joan and Anne use technology that gives them the appearance of the natives, which allows each of them to contact one of two dominant species: the Ghahari and the Tiran, who are at war with each other. The story mainly follows Joan’s interaction with the Ghahari, specifically acting as an archaeologist at the site of some buried stone tablets that (hopefully) detail the extinct aliens’ answer to a unified theory of mathematics. The politics between the races proves a decent source of drama, but I have to admit that the ending lacked any of the spark promised by the slam-bang beginning.

Robert Silverberg has done time travel stories before, and there is certainly nothing new in “Against The Current”, but that doesn’t stop it from being a wholly enjoyable. Phil Rackman, a fifty-something Californian car dealer, finds himself traveling backward through time. This interesting premise is thrown off only a little by the fact that Phil while seems to be skipping back, nothing pops in or out of existence. He can walk and talk with others, just as if he were living life forward, but as some indiscernible time (usually when Phil is asleep or driving across a bridge) the year suddenly changes. Phil realizes that he his destined to travel forever backward, but the lesson learned, if any, is that his journey is not much different from our own.

Neal Asher’s space operatic “Alien Archeology” is filled with lots of action, double-crosses and gore. The center of the action is an alien artifact of extremely high value, sought after by two deadly agents named Jael and Rho. It’s not quite clear for some time which one the reader should root for; both of them seem to be of questionable morals. But either of them has to be better than the Prador, one of the baddest-ass aliens of Asher’s Polity universe. Slick action sequences and a fast-moving plot keep this story fun.

[The following story was originally reviewed as part of a 2007 Nebula Award Short Fiction Nominees reading project.]

Ted Chiang is often regarded as an excellent short story writer and with his wonderful story, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” it’s not difficult to see why. It’s the story of a Baghdad merchant who learns of the existence of an amazing artifact: a gate that acts as a wormhole allowing time travel across the space of 20 years. Chiang, using a “stories within stories” approach, has the Alchemist who owns the gate teaching the merchant about the rules of time travel – all while being firmly planted in Arab culture and mores. The author also treats the theme of time travel head-on by using cool time convolutions that are integral to the story. Meticulously tight plotting, excellent storytelling and great uses of time travel mark this story as a winner.

Justin Stanchfield’s “Beyond The Wall” is a fun, Big Dumb Object story – the object in question being a giant wall located on the frozen surface of Saturn’s moon, Titan. A small team, led by a pilot named Jenine, is in pursuit of trespassers, but as soon as they land on the planet, weird things begin to happen. No explanation is ever really given for these experiences (which are a cross between time-shifting and wish-fulfillment hallucinations), and that hampers the impact of the story to some small degree, but what’s left is still a riveting and fast-paced adventure that’s hard to put down.

[The following story was originally reviewed as part of a 2007 Nebula Award Short Fiction Nominees reading project.]

Bruce Sterling’s “Kiosk” is one of those stories that looks at technology and its effects on society. Set in a worldwide economic slump, the story initially focuses on Borsilav, a simple street merchant who captures a renewed wave of recycled consumerism by selling fabricated merchandise from a small, one-person kiosk. The poor-man who makes something of himself is a gratifying storyline, and it’s interesting to see how Borislav envisions and shapes the economic future. But as soon as Borislav offers the kiosk to the politician, the story loses its heart. It changes from personal story to political tool and not even the planned rebellion can restore its former glory.

[The following story was originally reviewed in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction edited by George Mann.]

In “Last Contact” by Stephen Baxter, an astrophysicist and her mother wait for the end of the world. Pensive, creepy, frightening and sad are all words could be use to describe this well-written story. Caitlin is the astrophysicist who blames herself for the impending “Rip” that threatens the Earth, even though she was just the one to discover it. Maureen is her recently widowed mother who is partially coping by pretending life will go on, even though she’s fully aware that this is the end. Knowing exactly when it is going to happen and being completely helpless about it throws a beautifully gloomy shadow over the story. Seeing society’s behavior, which ranges from sheer panic to quiescence, is downright creepy. Well done.

[The following story was originally reviewed in Interzone #209.]

Alastair Reynolds always seems to find the right kind of story to satisfy my SFnal tastes. In “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter,” which seems at first to be set in some low-tech past century, we follow innocent, young Kathrin on a moneymaking trip to help support her struggling family. She intends to sell a couple of hogs’ heads to an old woman suspected of being a witch. But the story behind Widow Grayling’s past is as misunderstood as the history of Earth itself. It’s really set about 300 years into the future after a global “Great Winter”, and the facts of years gone by have devolved to myths and legends: the Sherriff who used to fly; the road of iron that reached all the way to London; the scary-sounding jangling men… Kathrin learns the truth about Earth’s past and simultaneously takes on a heavy burden. This highly satisfying story strongly hints about the more immediate future of Kathrin (giving a letch his due) and the maturity with which she takes on the responsibility. Great stuff. The potential for future stories set in this world leaves me wanting more.

[The following story was originally reviewed in Fast Forward 1 edited by Lou Anders.]

During the tail end of war, a young boy named Sanjeev is befriended by a group of teen robot jockeys in “Sanjeev and Robotwallah” by Ian Mcdonald. While the overall focus of this story is how the times change when the war ends, it is brought to life by the cool AI-controlled war robots. McDonald doesn’t quite recapture the magic that he dealt out in River of Gods – the story needed seemed to lack its import – but it was nonetheless fun to return to that world.

The narrator of Michael Swanwick’s “The Skysailor’s Tale” is William Keely, an older man who is recounting the glories of days past to his child. Young Will lived in colonial-like Philadelphia when he takes a job on an airship where he has many adventures and becomes a man. In this alternate history, the British seems to be more technologically advanced than America. Swanwkick’s prose and reflections on life are certainly worthwhile, but this story (which honestly reads more like historical fiction than it does alternate history) left something to be desired.

Themes of loneliness and love permeate Vandana Singh’s “Of Love and Other Monsters”. We meet Arun after a birth by fire, almost literally, his past hidden by his guardian, Janani. Arun has the ability to connect with other minds and shape them together into a meta-mind. This ability is the one persistent clue to his secret origins; it’s also the reason he is pursued by Rahul Moghe, the only other person with this ability. This is a beautifully written story of a personal journey that slowly unfolds to reveal much greater implications.

“Steve Fever” by Greg Egan is a story with an unassuming start (family farm boy named Lincoln yearns to leave for the big city), a semi-mind-blowing premise (that the yearning is due to a nanobot virus designed to resurrect their creator, Steve), and a disappointing ending (Lincoln’s role in story ends and Steve’s story is left unresolved). In the end, the story just felt unfinished.

[The following story was originally reviewed in Gods and Pawns by Kage Baker.]

In “Hellfire at Twilight” by Kage Baker, Lewis, Document Preservation Specialist of the Company, is assigned to retrieve scrolls used by the infamous Hellfire Club. This was too steeped in historical context to stoke my science fictional fire. Furthermore, the final scenes featuring offstage cries of an apparent mythological orgy, while somewhat effective as a humorous element, were reached only at the end of a long and wordy road.

There is a message about impending eco-disaster in Brian Stableford’s “The Immortals of Atlantis”. This story focuses on Sheila, who gets a visit from a mysterious stranger who claims she is not who she thinks she is. There is another, it would seem, who has been lying dormant within her body’s cells, waiting for the right moment to arrive – a moment that marks the beginning of mankind’s slavery in order to save the world. This is an interesting premise but is never quite developed to its fullest potential.

[The following story was originally reviewed in Alien Crimes edited by Mike Resnick.]

In “Nothing Personal” by Pat Cadigan, a middle age detective and her new partner investigate the murder of a young girl. Marked by great characterizations and swift storytelling, this present-day mystery is a wonderful treat. Ruby Tsung, the middle-aged protagonist, is fully-fleshed out through interesting and relevant background details about her life; like her strained relationship with her former partner Rita, who warns Ruby that she should quit the detective game before she suffers a mental breakdown. It just might be too late since Ruby has been feeling “The Dread” creeping up on her for some time. When a new young victim is found brutally murdered – the latest in a string of murders – the feeling becomes even worse. So much time was spent on Ruby’s ruminations of The Dread that it began to feel like unnecessary padding. But that proved false in Cadigan’s capable hands which made The Dread as much a character as any other – and germane to the story. Ruby’s new partner, the young Rafe Pasco formerly of the fraud and cybercrime division, seems like an unlikely fit for Ruby’s style and experience, but does seem to know his stuff. Rafe’s experience provides the science fiction element here, the way of which is a spoilery plot element, so I will not divulge it (even though the book jacket’s description of the story does – don’t read that!). Until that time, you won’t realize that you’ve been cleverly fed clues along the way. And by story’s end, you’ll want more time with Cadigan’s cool premise. Well done!

[The following story was originally reviewed as part of a 2008 Hugo Award Short Fiction Nominees reading project.]

“Tideline” by Elizabeth Bear could be considered a small-scale post-apocalyptic story — there’s no definite description, as such, but the clues are there — and that serves as a great background for a personal story of a dying sentient machine named Chalcedony and a young boy named Belvedere. Chalcedony is a military machine that has lost her entire platoon during battle and who builds necklaces in their honor (hopefully before she expires) out of shipwreck leftovers. Her attachment to Belvedere (which can only be described as one of motherhood) is both believable and touching. Despite being a machine, Chalcedony is such a well-drawn character that I couldn’t help but feel sadness as her condition worsened – a reaction that can only be attributed to Bear’s superb storytelling skills. Well done.

[The following story was originally reviewed in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction edited by George Mann.]

In “The Accord” by Keith Brooke, Tish Goldenhawk falls for a charismatic stranger who appears to be a manifestation of the Accord, the collective intelligence of post-humanity. There’s a little bit of mystery as we meet the stranger Tish names Angelo; he is pursued by three strangers with enhanced abilities. Trish, unknowingly under Angelo’s unintentional spell, tracks him down, only to come to the realization that the world is more complicated than she knows. There are a couple of surprises and a few Matrix-like moments here, but the setup is jarred about midway through when Tish, without any bridging back story, is suddenly one of many of Angelo’s followers.

[The following story was originally reviewed in Jim Baen's Universe #10.]

“Laws of Survival” by Nancy Kress is briefly set in a pseudo-Dystopia where people scrounge for food outside the well-protected cities following a war that seems to have separated civilization into the haves and have-nots. Large alien domes, which have arrived from space years before and are impervious to any stimulus men can throw at it, sit idle where the cities dump their garbage. It’s not too long into the story before Jill, looking for food amongst the trash, sees a long-dormant dome actually open. A robot emerges and takes Jill and her newfound puppy inside. Jill is forced into the role of dog trainer for some unseen alien purpose and it’s interesting, though somewhat predictable, to see the reasons why aliens ignore humans but have plans for dogs. Better still was when the other plot shoe was dropped regarding a secret Jill has kept suppressed to help her survive on the outside. This story reads as smoothly as anything else I’ve read by Ms. Kress and doesn’t disappoint.

Tom Purdom’s “The Mists of Time” takes one of my favorite sf tropes, time travel, and mixes it with one of my least favorite genres, historical fiction. Well, maybe it’s not so much mixed as it is shuffled. The narrative switches points of view between a British naval ship fighting against slavery and the Captain’s distant ancestor and a video journalist who are observing from a time machine bubble. The two storylines do not intersect as one might expect (and indeed I hoped as much, during one brief moment when the travelers became visible to the ship’s crew). This unfortunately makes the sf-nal part of the story pointless as they are just observers – no more part of the story than the reader. This leaves the story of the slavers vs. the British navy and that just did not work for me, despite the realistic nautical adventure which was only marginally interesting.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has created a moving story in “Craters”. Told from the perspective of a journalist, it extrapolates national security fears to a near future where people are embedded with identity chips. The journalist is investigating a lead on a new form of terrorist attack that is shockingly effective and heartbreaking at the same time. Powerful stuff told in a captivating way – you can practically feel the journalist’s anger, shock, and confusion at the state of affairs.

[The following story was originally reviewed in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 2 edited by Jonathan Strahan.]

Ted Kosmatka’s gripping alternate history story, “The Prophet of Flores,” posits a world where creationism is accepted as fact and evolution has been scientifically proven false; and where the discovery of a new “hobbit” race threatens to upset the very fabric of society. This is seen through the eyes of Paul, a very bright scientist who emerged from an abusive household. Paul’s drive to understand the truth leads him into dangerous territory, and gives cause for some genuinely tense moments. At the heart of the story is a cool sf-nal idea which is nicely built upon to create a riveting account of one man’s journey for truth and understanding. Nicely done.

“Stray,” by Benjamin Rosenbaum & David Ackert, is the story of an immortal named Ivan who settles down with a mortal during the early 20th century. Ivan has the power to affect minds and change his appearance; here, he changes his skin color to avoid racial tensions. The authors do a fine job depicting the trials of this god among men, interestingly from the point of view of an immortal who does not wish to interfere with the natural course of events so that he may lead a “mortal” life. Of course, something forces Ivan’s hand and he must make a paradoxical decision: should he use his immortal power to maintain his mortal life? It’s an interesting setup that’s well-handled.

Robert Reed’s “Roxie” details a man’s relationship with his aging dog while the Earth comes into the path of an asteroid. Both are serious subjects, to be sure, but the impending doom of the Earth seemed to take a back seat to the dog story. Perhaps the message is that it’s the relationships that matter, but if so, why do the man’s wife and child go largely unmentioned? I realize that many aspects of this story are autobiographical (Reed is Nebraskan science fiction writer with a dog named Roxy, for example) but I prefer more science in my science fiction.

[The following story was originally reviewed in Alien Crimes edited by Mike Resnick.]

In “Dark Heaven” by Gregory Benford, Homicide Detective McKenna investigates the murder of a Gulf Coast fisherman whose death just might be related to the amphibious aliens that have taken up residence nearby. This was a way-too-long story about a crime whose investigation moved way-too-slowly. McKenna, occasionally lamenting about his deceased wife, uses his experience as a fisherman to gain confidence with the locals – who continually proceed to finger him for what he is and offer him nothing. And the Centauri aliens are apparently being guarded by the feds, offering yet another dead end for our protagonist. At times, it was a race to see whether McKenna would give up the case before I gave up reading the story. The only pertinent science fictional element – the aliens – was withheld for the majority of the story until the disappointing payoff at the end. Was this story an attempt to seem “Literary” by avoiding sf tropes in favor of longwinded passages about life, the sea and growing old? I don’t know, but the result was not very entertaining. Benford can do – and has done – better than this.

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