REVIEW SUMMARY: 10 standouts + 25 good stories – 5 mediocre or worse = a very good anthology

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of 30 science fiction stories first published in 2008.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: 25 stories worth reading, 10 of which were outstanding.

CONS: 5 stories were not very engaging

BOTTOM LINE: A very good anthology, even though some of the less enjoyable stories were longer than average.

The latest volume of Gardner Dozois’ long-running series, The Year’s Best Science Fiction #26, contains 30 stories representing the Editor’s picks for stories first published in 2008. As is customary, Dozois summarizes the field of science fiction (written and visual) for the year in yet-another comprehensive introduction, noting things science fiction readers would find interesting in various media and venues.

I had already read elsewhere many of the stories presented within this volume, as noted below. As can be expected with any anthology, the Editor’s tastes do not necessarily coincide with my own, so some of the stories failed to impress. In fact, the two longest stories (which were award finalists) did not strike me as very entertaining, which brought the weighted average rating of this volume down. But overall, the anthology maintains the consistent high level of quality sen in previous editions. (See my reviews for previous editions #19, #20, #21, #22, #23, #24. and #25.) In fact, most of the stories (25 out of 30) were solidly good reads. 10 of those were outstanding.

The outstanding stories are:

  • “Turing’s Apples” by Stephen Baxter
  • “The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • “Boojum” by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette
  • “An Eligible Boy” by Ian McDonald
  • “Five Thrillers” by Robert Reed
  • “Incomers” by Paul McAuley
  • “Crystal Nights” by Greg Egan
  • “Special Economics” by Maureen McHugh
  • “Days Of Wonder” by Geoff Ryman
  • “Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moons’ Blues” by Gord Sellar

Individual story reviews follow…


Stephen Baxter’s “Turing’s Apples” (originally reviewed in Eclipse Two edited by Jonathan Strahan) is a perfect blend of interpersonal relationships and Big Ideas. The narrator, Jack, and his estranged brother, Wilson, eventually come together to decode an alien signal picked up by a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon. Wilson is obsessed with decoding its secrets while he avoids any personal contact with his family – especially Jack who shares Wilson’s love for mathematics and science, but shuns academia to the point of working in the supercomputing department of a government anti-terrorist agency. Baxter’s Big Idea comes in when Wilson actually does uncover the secret in the alien message – something that drives him to solicit Jack’s help – thereby setting of a world-changing sequence of events. This is an excellent, well-written story that’s only slightly muddled by Jack’s speculation over what really happened.

“From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick (originally reviewed as part of a 2009 Hugo Short Fiction Nominees reading project) starts with a meteor strike on a human city on an alien planet of millipede-like creatures. The human named Quivera is guided to safety by his armor suit AI, which is based on Rosamund, the woman with whom he had an affair. Quivera’s trek through the dangerous steam jungles of the planet with “Uncle Vanya” (a native millie with low social status) leads to several interesting discussions about their two economies: the humans based on information, the millies’ based on trust. As much as I usually dislike economics in my sf, I have to say this didn’t bother me a bit, as it offered up a nice contrast to the two characters whose relationship begins as one of mutual utility, but evolved in the face of their predicament and adventures.

The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi (originally reviewed in Fast Forward 2 edited by Lou Anders) is the type of story that reinforces my love for short fiction. It’s such a well-crafted story; simultaneously engrossing and thought-provoking. Ong is a Vietnamese refugee in near-future America working for an online media conglomerate, writing stories about social and environmental issues. His work visa is in jeopardy because his ratings are low. Ong’s colleague, on the other hand, is securing huge bonuses writing about the latest celebrity gossip. The message here is that nobody really wants to read about depressing issues, no matter how important; collectively, we’d rather read about Paris Hilton than global warming. Ong’s desire to raise social awareness in a media orgiastic society is in stark (and fascinating) contrast with his father’s desire to express discontent with the tyrannical government, a rebelliousness that ended with him being taken from his family when Ong was a boy. Bacigalupi also prognosticates a likely future of media giants, not only technically (where hit rates are visually tracked in a “maelstrom” of living blobs of color), but also at a meta-level, where the information is a living, breathing thing that is tailored to the lowest common denominator of interest. Powerful stuff and, in Bacigalupi’s capable hands, a marvel to experience.

Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette combine forces in Boojum,” a story about space pirates that travel aboard a living creature. The story focuses on a lowly Engineer named Black Alice, who feels an affinity to the Lavinia Whately, the Boojum creature that is her ship. Many elements of the story — including the legend of a rogue Boojum that ate her crew, mysterious metal canisters, and a tough captain — combine beautifully to make a cohesive, well-structured story that was fun to read.

In “The Six Directions of Space” (originally reviewed in Galactic Empires edited by Gardner Dozois), Alastair Reynolds posits not one but several galactic empires, all co-existing in different dimensions. The crossing point is a huge, hollowed-out moon called the Infrastructure where vehicles travel between the inner and outer shells. Phantoms are observed in one dimension (ruled by the Empire of Mongol Expansion) and are investigated by secret operative Ariunaa Bocheng (a.k.a. Yellow Dog) and Qilian, the leader of the Empire’s Special Administrative Volume in Kuchlug. The situation is made a little more unusual because Bocheng was originally sent to spy on Qilian, who turns out to be a classically evil villain. Although circumstances lead them to work together, the switch is not entirely believable; especially when acting as a double agent would have made more sense for Bocheng, who is shown to be a dangerously effective and adept at what she does. Their explorations do evoke sensawunda in the form of startling discoveries and some jaunts between dimensions, but I found some of the events to suffer from discontinuity. For example, one scene ends with a prisoner seeming ready to reveal all, and the very next scene begins with that prisoner being tortured for withholding information. Then end result, while still decent, left room for reader engagement.

The subject of Ted Kosmatka’s “N-Words” (originally reviewed in Seeds of Change edited by John Joseph Adams) is obvious from the title: racism. But in science fiction’s usual fashion of shining light on our own behavior by turning the tables on us, here the “N” stands for Neanderthals, or more specifically, for the people that are cloned from the bones of an archaeological dig. Like any minority race that is seen as different, they suffer the prejudice of the majority. The focus here is the personal story of Mandy, a recent widow who defied cultural norms and married a Neanderthal named David. The story is touching and succeeds at being instructive on the evils of hatred.

Ian McDonald returns to his futuristic India with “An Eligible Boy”. It’s the story of Jasbir, a young man so focused on the rituals and games of dating and finding a mate that he is blind to anything else. Beautifully written and stuffed with Indian culture, this story re-evokes the wonder I had reading his River of Gods. Well done. (This was originally reviewed in Fast Forward 2 edited by Lou Anders.)

It takes a long while to get interesting, but Dominic Green’s “Shining Armour” eventually captures the reader’s attention. It’s the story of a small village taking a stand against the large city, with their only defense being the hulking military machine that has been sitting dormant in their village for some time. There’s never any doubt who will assume the role of the Guardian’s operator, but even so, it was a sweet feeling to see him flex his mechanical muscles and serve up just desserts. (This was originally reviewed in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 2 edited by George Mann)

Karl Schroeder returns to the world of Virga with his story “The Hero,” a standalone story that only hints at the wonders of the world he created. It takes place about a year after the events of Pirate Sun, and concerns a young man named Jesse who seeks one of the fabled, mechanical Precipice Moths so he can relay some information vital to the survival of Virga, the miles-wide balloon world he calls home. Jesse, sick and abandoned by his family, wished to give back to the world so that he might have some purpose within it. But when he finds a Precipice Moth, Jesse must learn that sacrifice is part of being a hero. (This was originally reviewed in Eclipse Two edited by Jonathan Strahan)

Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Evil Robot Monkey” (originally reviewed in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 2 edited by George Mann) is an affecting snapshot in the life of a chimp with an implant in his head that increases his intelligence. Unfortunately for him, that lands him in the “hellish limbo” of being “too smart to be with other chimps, but too much of an animal to be with humans.” He becomes the subject of ridicule of children in what is presumably a school where he spends his time behind a pottery wheel. The interesting premise is delicately overlaid with emotion by having a single human show the chimp some compassion, resulting in a quick-and-dirty sf short story that is both charming and memorable.

Robert Reed’s excellent story “Five Thrillers” (originally reviewed in The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction edited by Allan Kaster) is exactly what it says it is: five dramatic stories. They happen to be related, portraying a few decades in the life of Joe Carroway, a merciless (and psychopathic) agent who deals in one way or another with the genetically engineered Rebirths, an oppressed faction of humans who eventually seek freedom by threatening to wipe out the “normal” humans. Joe is completely detached from humanity, as evidenced by the chilling reasoning shown in the first Cold Equations scenario. This makes him the perfect “hero” to fight the Rebirths, but the mindset that is rewarded may be no better for humanity in the long run. Great stuff.

Jay Lake’s “The Sky That Wraps The World Round, Past The Blue And Into The Black” is an introspective story in which the narrator labors endlessly for a gangster in China painting ancient artifacts (that prove the existence of a non-human intelligence) with a radioactive paint. The man does this out of choice, as a sort of penance. While Lake’s prose is caries a Literary quality and the premise is very intriguing, I’m not altogether sure I understood the point the story was trying to make.

Paul McAuley’s “Incomers” is another excellent story set in his Quiet War universe. (Another one is “A Dry, Quiet War“.) It takes place on Rhea, the second moon of Saturn years after the end of the war. The young protagonists (who are residents of the newer section of Xambu, the domed city in which it takes place) get it in their head that an herbalist named Ahlgren Rees (who lives in the older part of the city) is a spy. They investigate further and find that the man does have secrets, but not necessarily the ones they expect. I couldn’t decide if the best thing about this story was the background world building (the glimpses of history and Rhea’s development) or the story of these sixteen year-olds (particularly the mature Jack) on a self-important quest for adventure. Great stuff, either way.

In Greg Egan’s awesome story Crystal Nights,” a philanthropist oversees a project that crosses artificial intelligence with evolution. Egan’s playground is, as usual, attractively tech-heavy and is mixed with some thought-provoking issues to augment the cool sf-nal concepts. The themes presented echo Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God” (Are we meant to play God?) and, though there are played out virtually on a super-computing crystal, work just as effectively. Science fiction doesn’t get any better than this.

An eco-ravaged future is the setting for Mary Rosenblum’s “The Egg Man”, where water is scarce and strict border controls between the U.S. and Mexico are harshly enforced. The titular character delivers vaccination-rich eggs to a small community in Mexico, but he’s also looking for his lost love. Although this story had a long setup, it did lend weight to the final confrontation and ultimately made the story satisfying.

Hannu Rajaniemi combines genetic engineering, cloning and digital rights management in “His Master’s Voice”. The story, driven by the attempts of a super-intelligent dog and cat to rescue their master from Corporate Evil, is certainly dense with ideas, but presented to quickly for them to support the drama it was trying convey.

Charles Coleman Finlay’s novella “The Political Prisoner” (originally reviewed with the 2008 Nebula Award Short Fiction Nominees) is a sequel to his 2002 “The Political Officer” (reviewed here). It’s about political officer and double-agent Max Nikomedes, embroiled in the battle between the departments of Political Education and Intelligence on Jerusalem, a terraformed Christian planet. Max is taken prisoner and subjected to much cruelty. Despite some memorable and horrifying scenes of civil rights violations, I can’t say I enjoyed this one much more than the earlier one. It seemed about twice as long as it needed to be. It was, however, interesting to see the tactics used by the guards from the point of view of Max, himself an expert in breaking the human spirit.

In “Balancing Accounts” by James L. Cambias, robots and AIs have achieved a sort of autonomy, making their way through life like the rest of us. The narrator of this story, an artificial intelligence that runs a cargo ship, takes on unknown cargo from a mysterious stranger. A simple premise is made much more interesting by the fact that this particular AI takes it upon herself to avoid the direct instructions of the authorities who suddenly take a keen interest in the cargo (though we never quite find out why).

Maureen F. McHugh turns economics upside down in her excellent story “Special Economics”. Jieling is a new resident in Shenzhen, China, where the economy is already in turmoil after massive deaths due to a bird flu plague. She lands a job at a biotech company called New Life, only to learn that the employer/employee relationship works a little differently than expected. While the sympathetic characterization of Jieling immerses you in this story, it’s the left-curve hook of corporate slavery that drives it forward. I would have loved to have seen a more concrete resolution to this situation, but even so, McHugh’s storytelling power shines here. Well done.

Geoff Ryman’s “Days of Wonder” takes us to a far future where humans (Ancestors) are gone; all that is left are the human/animal hybrids who retain some memories of the way it was, but essentially live like the animals whose appearance they resemble (albeit with speech, tools, and much more manual dexterity). The story follows a pack of horse-hybrids as they travel the land on the run from the Cats, their natural predators. An ecological balance is soon upset and acts a trigger for change. Beautifully told, this story evokes emotion, explores tense relationships, and posits a wild, mind-blowing evolutionary track for Earth’s creatures. Fantastic stuff.

In “The City of the Dead” (originally reviewed in The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction edited by Allan Kaster), Paul McCauley takes us to dusty settlement on a faraway colony world (the setting of the author’s Confluence stories, I think) where the past history of the town constable (Mariliyn) clashes with the work of an elderly scientist (Anna) who is studying the resident hive rat population. Space travel and advanced technology have been granted to humans by super-intelligent landlords who, beyond a few scattered worlds like this one, reserve the rest of the galaxy for themselves. These are cool ideas that surface after a slow buildup, but they take a back seat to the immediacy of the plot; that is, how Annie’s shady past brings in a palpable tension related to Anna’s study of the hive rats.

“The Voyage Out” by Gwyneth Jones is about a trip to a prison planet by a group of social outcasts. While there are some good ideas presented here — like the exploration of gender issues, the idea that prisoners may be ‘digitized’, and the (perhaps imagined) ill effects of the torus-shaped power source of their transport — there was too-little actual plot to get a decent handle on this story.

Daryl Gregory’s “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” (originally reviewed in Eclipse Two edited by Jonathan Strahan) is an affecting (and political) story about the effects of war of civilians. In this case, American superheroes invade the land of Trovenia, ruled by Lord Grimm, and leave behind countless victims like Elena and her young brother. Elena is a steel worker in a factory that builds robots to fight the war. When the merciless American U-Men strike, casualties are high. Elena’s struggle to escape the onslaught is quite engrossing.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “G-Men” (originally reviewed in Sideways in Crime edited by Lou Anders) is equal parts sixties era detective story and political cover-up. A night of FBI agent murders – one of them a high profile figure – leads one FBI agent (Bryce) and a New York City policeman (O’Reilly) looking for clues. Meanwhile, Robert Kennedy, still in mourning after the death of his brother Jack, maneuvers to hide some private files that would reveal devastating secrets. The political aspect of the story makes it alternate history, but it’s the murder case that props this story up.

“The Erdmann Nexus” by Nancy Kress (originally reviewed as part of a 2009 Hugo Short Fiction Nominees reading project) concerns a group of elderly residents is an assisted living facility and their sudden sharing of memories. Imagine that the cast of Cocoon took part in a Vulcan mind meld and you’ll get the idea. This is an interesting premise, but the story is way too long and stuffed with lots of extraneous details about characters who really seem to be secondary. The main character, semi-retired Physicist Henry Erdmann, is the most sympathetic of the group, and the most level-headed about the strange goings-on. Meanwhile his caretaker, Carrie, gets superfluous background information like an abusive relationship and awkward attempts at romance. There’s also a researcher who makes amazing leaps of deduction to arrive at the idea of “emergent complexity”. Even the good ending can’t fully justify the long wait that came before.

Garth Nix’s short story, “Old Friends,” is about a short encounter between a being with special powers and the creations of his enemy. Unfortunately, there’s not much more, world-building-wise, to this story. What were the previous wars about? Who, exactly, is the enemy? What is the nature of these beings, whose abilities read like magic-fantasy or Lovecraftian horror more than they do sf? Too many questions and not enough answers.

“The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” by James Alan Gardner (originally reviewed as part of the 2008 Nebula Award Short Fiction Nominees reading project) is a simple story, simply told, about Jack, who finds a Ray Gun that has fallen from space. Jack treats the ray-gun with respect, training himself to be a hero, and along the way gets a girlfriend or two. Soon Jack suspects that the ray-gun might be controlling some aspects of his life. Gardner’s straightforward prose makes this read like a children’s fable. I must have been paying better attention during the audio version of this story than when I read it; the impression left this time was better.

Gord Sellar’s “Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moons’ Blues” could easily be titled “Jazz Musicians Save the Earth,” except that would take the cool out of this very entertaining story. It takes place in an alternate 1948. Frog-like aliens have come to Earth, offering their advanced technology (like cell phones and flying cars) and hiring musicians to tour the Solar System on cruise spaceships. The narrator is Robbie Coolidge, a jazz musician who’s got nothing to lose by signing up, whereupon he learns that the gig is not as rosy as it appears from the outside. Sellar’s prose and dialogue is thick with flavor and you can’t help but become involved with the story. It would have been extra icing on this already-tasty cake if some of the other elements only hinted at – like racial equality in the aliens’ (numerous) eyes – were expanded upon, but even without that, this was a great story.

Aliete de Bodard’s “Butterfly, Falling At Dawn” is a police procedural murder mystery set in an alternate history involving the Mexica and Chinese. Hue Ma, the Xuan magistrate leading the investigation of the murdered Mexica hologram artist, is herself Mexica-born, but she has denounced her culture and cut ties with her family. During her investigation, she wrestles with her memories of the civil war of her youth. This is a good (if straightforward) mystery but the alternate history setting, which seems like it would be rich with culture, merely acts as window dressing.

Ian McDonald’s “The Tear” (originally reviewed in Galactic Empires edited by Gardner Dozois) presents a water world culture that encourages multiple personalities – specifically eight- upon entering adulthood. At that time, its members relocate to a “Manifold House” where their other identities are born. This story follows the life of the protagonist born as Ptey, a male identity that is eventually replaced by eight others over the course of the story. Ptey’s passage to adulthood includes dealing with girls, a friend who cannot become multiple (Cjatay, a so-called “Lonely”), and – perhaps more prominently – the alien Anpreen that orbit the neighboring world for fuel. Ptey learns a terrible and dangerous secret of the Anpreen and their reason for emigration – a secret that forces him, against cultural taboo, to assume a ninth personality so that he can join them in their travels. Things only get worse for poor Ptey when the Anpreen situation comes to a boil. This is a very brief skimming over the central story, which itself is brief in comparison with the mind-numbing ideas being tossed about like balls in a lottery machine. Too many ideas may have taken the edge off this story, but it definitely has a most epic feel to it, the scope of which still has my mind reeling in wonder.

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