REVIEW: The Year’s Best Science Fiction #27 edited by Gardner Dozois

REVIEW SUMMARY: About on par with previous editions with 8 standout stories + 17 good stories – 7 stories mediocre or worse.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Editor Gardner Dozois’ picks for the thirty-two best stories of 2009.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: 25 stories worth reading, 8 of which were outstanding.

CONS: 7 stories were not all they were cracked up to be.

BOTTOM LINE: A very good anthology overall which is what you’d expect from this consistent series.

I’m late to the party on this one. The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection is the 2010 edition that showcases editor Gardner Dozois’ picks for the thirty-two best stories of 2009.

Compared with previous editions (See reviews of previous editions: #19, #20, #21, #22, #23, #24, #25 and #26), the twenty-seventh edition is about on par, quality-wise, although there were fewer stories overall that I thought were outstanding compared specifically with last year.

Those standout stories are:

  • “Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson
  • “Under The Shouting Sky” by Karl Bunker
  • “Three Leaves of Aloe” by Rand B. Lee
  • “Mongoose” by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette
  • “Paradiso Lost” by Albert E.Cowdrey
  • “Act One” by Nancy Kress
  • “One of Our Bastards Is Missing” by Paul Cornell
  • “Vishnu at the Cat Circus” by Ian McDonald

Individual story reviews follow…


In Robert Charles Wilson’s “Utriusque Cosmi” (originally reviewed in The New Space Opera 2 edited by Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan), Carlotta is asked by an alien intelligence (a member of “The Fleet”) if she would rather stay on the Earth to meet its sudden, impending end, or be uplifted to posthumanism and join The Fleet. This turns out to be an excellent start to a mind-blowing story that allows Wilson to take us across immeasurable time scales and incredible wonders — including the war between The Fleet and their unseen enemy. The story is told from Carlotta’s point of view (she’s actually telling the story to her younger self) and interleaved with the day she left her broken home. But the mind-numbing scales and Big Ideas are what this story – and space opera – are all about. Well done.

“A Story, With Beans” by Steven Gould (originally reviewed in The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 2 edited by Allan Kaster) is actually a story within a story. A trio of anthropology students, guided through transformed (post-apocalyptic?) western U.S. territory, are told the story of a peddler who brought books to a small village where women were not allowed to read. That intriguing setup is not really explored, as the story is really about one woman’s escape and the man who helps her.

Under The Shouting Sky by Karl Bunker takes place on Enceladus, the icy moon of Saturn, where a pair of explorers become stranded. The sense of wonder evoked by their mission to investigate the wreckage of an alien ship makes a nice launching point for a plot twist reminiscent of Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” — the end result being a finely tuned short story that doesn’t disappoint.

John Kessel’s “Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance” (originally reviewed in The New Space Opera 2 edited by Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan) follows the daring escape of a monk named Adlan who steals a valuable cultural artifact from the Caslonian Empire to use as leverage to free his planet, Helvetica. Along the way he meets Nahid, a soldier and a non-believer, with whom he forms a relationship and who aids in his escape. Kessel’s story is a fast-paced adventure, barely slowing down long enough to drop hints at the world in which it takes place (like this being the second wave of humanity after the first ended in posthuman apotheosis) before Adlan is once again following the voice of the gods he hears in his head to more adventure. But there was some weirdness about, particularly in the ability to deep-freeze humans by putting them in special 9-dimensional pouches.

Maureen McHugh’s “Useless Things” is a beautifully written solemn near-future story about a single woman trying to stay afloat during hard economic times. The woman sculpts lifelike custom dolls for the few who can afford it. The characterization of the narrator is superb; she’s a very giving person who really doesn’t have a whole lot to give and it’s sad to see her trying to hold onto her humanity when things get even tougher.

Bruce Sterling’s “Black Swan” (originally reviewed as a separate eBook novelette) is an espionage thriller with definite, mind-blowing science fictional elements. Luca, an American journalist/blogger in Italy with loose (but not invisible) ethics, meets with Massimo Montaldo, a shady character willing to divulge game-changing technological information. The impact of Massimo’s latest secret demands that Luca know its origins. An increasingly drunken Massimo is only too eager to reveal it to him, while simultaneously wallowing in self pity over his ex-girlfriend. Luca is subsequently thrown head first into a world similar to his own, yet radically different in so many dangerous ways. In this story, Sterling presents a near future (several, actually) that is dark and somewhat pessimistic. This becomes, in fact, the main focus of the second act. Characterizations here are minimal, as evidenced by Luca’s acceptance of the seemingly impossible being taken in stride with a single dismissive sentence. Surprisingly, this work’s to the story’s credit as it becomes more of a speculation on the apparently inevitable problems with the world. This keeps the story moving, too, though perhaps too quickly to keep it standing altogether upright. The short third act is over before it’s clear what, exactly, takes place in anything but the most general terms. This is perhaps by design — as if the story is not about what happens to Luca and Massimo, but what is happening around them; that is, what is happening around us.

A chase begins Paul McAuley’s Crimes and Glory in which a thief, who is dubious of the intentions of an alien race, steals an alien artifact and is accused of murder. He’s chased across the stars by a determined detective, who recounts the case for the bulk of the story. As a police procedural, this crime story (which is set in the author’s Jackaroo sequence) is pretty solid and enjoyable, but it does seem to be a bit longer than feels necessary.

The Seventh Fall by Alexander Irvine is a post-apocalyptic story about a man named Varner who is driven to searching for a book of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and signs of his long lost daughter. It’s about fifty years after meteors have decimated the Earth for the seventh time and little pockets of civilization survive while fearing the Missionaries, a group of people who destroy books. The story carries with it an overall feeling of gloom (like The Book of Eli and The Road) and focuses on the personal journey of Varner, while alternating between his current situation and his life as a child traveling with an acting troupe that included his father.

I’ll give Dominic Green’s “Butterfly Bomb” points for imagination, but the story seems to lack enough explanation for the urgency it tries to convey. In it, an old man named Krishna must retrieve an artificial construct that has escaped the planet where he acted as its caretaker. What’s not clear is how, if this construct who is capable of assuming many forms and is responsible for the death on the planet’s colonists, is allowed to exist in the first place. And why not with better containment?

“Infinites” by Vandana Singh is a touching life portrait of a mathematician who is obsessed with the concept of infinity. Beyond some cool discussion of mathematics, the remaining science fictional content is relegated to a brief trip through multiple dimensions that ultimately give the main character a better understanding of infinity.

Things Undone by John Barnes is a dizzying time travel story that is clearly well thought-out. The primary characters are a pair of FBI agents tasked not with finding the people who illegally travel through time, but rather the people that appear in their place that are required ballast for the transfer. Their latest case is an urgent one that has far-reaching implications. Barnes’ rigid rules of time travel decree that there is only one world with a single timeline that adjusts to changes, though trends towards a stable configuration. Be that as it may, the present day setting is clearly not quite our own and as the timeline alters in reply to their latest case, the world changes around them to match. The FBI agents, who secretly love each other but cannot admit as much in their society for fear of death, are somewhat immune to the changes as they are one of the elite few whose memories seem largely unaffected by changes in the time stream. This story is a whirlwind of ideas yet is easily followed, but also seems overly complex in some ways.

Jay Lake’s On the Human Plan (originally reviewed in The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 2 edited by Allan Kaster) is about Digger, a super-intelligent creature-for-hire on a for-future (dying) Earth where humans, ironically, have defeated death. The dog is hired by a being that lives on a different timescale to find the “Door into death”. Heavy on the world building and light on plot, this story is best viewed less as a narrative than as a philosophical contemplation on life and death. Heavy themes, to be sure, but I was looking for something more plot-wise.

“The Island” by Peter Watts (first reviewed in The New Space Opera 2 edited by Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan) takes us to the far, far future where human laborers aboard a starship build Stargates for the long-unseen (and super-evolved) ruling class. Long periods of seep mean their lives are spread out across millennia, with non-coinciding wake periods leading to loneliness. The daily minutia of running the ship is left to its artificially-limited AI, named Chimp. The narrator learns she has a son, Dixon, who is not so bright and looks at Chimp as a mentor. Neither Chimp nor Dixon realizes that their current build imposes a danger on a new star-sized life form. Nor do they see reason to change their course and save its life. Good drama all around and, of course, big ideas that tease the reader into learning more, only to be brought to even bigger ideas.

I’m fairly sure I’m missing the point of Lavie Tidhar’s The Integrity of the Chain about a young tuk-tuk driver in Laos with aspirations of going to the Moon. It seems to be more setup than story. Nicely done cultural atmosphere and imagery helps, but it seems that the story ends just when the stage is set.

Mary Rosenblum’s “Lion Walk” is a murder mystery set in a controversial animal preserve — controversial because it’s home to genetically engineered animals from the Pleistocene era. The Manager of the preserve, Tahira Gnani, acts as investigator to the murder while having to deal with the everyday politics of the Preserve and the threat of bad press. As murder mysteries go, this story is quite serviceable, though the pacing was slow in some spots.

Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction by Jo Walton is not a standard fictional narrative. Instead it’s a series of brief glimpses into an alternate history where the U.S. never recovered from the depression. The focus switches between brief newspaper headlines, advertisements and the like, and also (more traditionally) spends a bit more time on the story of a waitress affected by the bad economy. Interesting in its own way and chillingly reflective of modern times, but even so, not my cup of tea.

“Three Leaves of Aloe” by Rand B. Lee takes us to a near-future India where a woman who works at a call center is faced with an interesting dilemma: have her wayward daughter fitted for a behavior-affecting nannychip, or she’ll be expelled. Besides a nice depiction of Indian culture, Lee paints a touching, meaningful story around this interesting idea.

“Mongoose” by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette (originally reviewed in The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 2 edited by Allan Kaster) is an excellent story about a space station infested with creatures from another dimension and the subsequent efforts to get rid of them. To get the job done, the exterminator, Irizarry, relies upon his also-otherworldly companion, Mongoose, who is herself a fascinating creature that communicates via touch and colors. This story shares the setting with the also-excellent story “Boojum” (reviewed here) but works fine as a standalone as it paints a creepy picture of the creatures (the Toves, the more fierce Raths and the unseen Bandersnatch), employs a fast-moving plot, and maintains a decent bit of contention between Irizarry and the ship’s political officer.

A few years ago, I enjoyed a story called “The Tribes of Bela” by Albert E. Cowdrey. “Paradiso Lost” is a standalone prequel story about how Colonel Robert Rogers Kohn’s first experiences in the Security Forces. Cowdrey’s story packs the same wallop as before, offering smaller mini-stories into a larger narrative that evokes sf adventure of days gone by and Asimov’s robot murder mysteries. Great stuff.

“It Takes Two” by Nicola Griffith is fairly riveting story that’s deceptively void of significant sf-nal elements at first; it’s about a go-getter businesswoman vying for major promotion with her company that hinges on acquiring a major contract. Her business trip eventually leads her, the only woman in the group, to a strip club where she falls in love. This is a story that’s enjoyable from the get-go and emotionally invests you in the main character. And, to further stoke the sf fire, does eventually reveal itself to be quite sf-nal indeed.

“Blocked” by Geoff Ryman takes an interesting premise — the last remnants of mankind escaping pending alien invasion by moving underground – and goes nowhere with it. The story intro says that the narrator is an uplifted animal, but that seems to add nothing to the story. I realize I must be missing something obvious here since this story was selected to appear in multiple “Best of” anthologies, but I found little to enjoy here besides the premise which is ultimately relegated to the tiny corner of the background.

In “Solace” by James Van Pelt, the narrative alternates between a snowbound man on Earth stuck in a mill who is struggling to keep the mill running, and a colony ship traveling to a distant planet centuries later where a woman cherishes a miner’s candlestick holder used by the snowbound man. While this duality of stories made an interesting composition, and each story was interesting in its own way, the overall story seemed to lack a much-needed thrust.

In “Act One” by Nancy Kress, an aging actress named Jane Snow is researching her role in a controversial film about a recently discovered genetic modification. The real-life procedure is proliferated by a mysterious organization known as The Group whose long-term plans are to reshape humanity. Some see them as benefactors while others see them as biological terrorists. “Act One” is about what happens when Jane and her manager, Barry Tenler (the point-of-view character), meet with members of The Group. Like she did in her excellent novel Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress uses the fascinating science of genetic engineering as a springboard to a thought-provoking story. “Act One” raises interesting ethical questions as the ulterior motives of The Group unfold. Should we tinker with our DNA? Could there be situations where it would be acceptable? The answers are not always as clear cut as one would hope, an unfortunate circumstance seen from the perspective of realistically complex characters that draw you into the story. It’s difficult not to like a story that pushes all the science fictional buttons while making brutally honest observations about life.

John C Wright’s “Twilight of the Gods” takes place on a generation starship, years after calamity has befallen the passengers, where a power struggle ensues over a ring that grants control to the ship’s long-dormant computer systems. Modeled after Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungen” opera, this beautifully styled story plays in the sandbox of science fiction yet wears the robes of epic fantasy; ingredients for a meaty story, to be sure, though it gets somewhat muddled near the end.

“Blood Dauber” by Ted Kosmatka & Michael Poore is about a zookeeper named Bell who must deal with a troubled marriage and a convict doing community service at the zoo. Bell also discovers a new insect-like species that exhibits seemingly impossible characteristics. The authors insert a heavy dose of biology into the story, though this is mainly a character piece. I would have appreciated more drama; the kind that appeared at the end of the story when the situation with the convict (and the ex-wife) finally comes to a boil.

“This Wind Blowing, And This Tide” by Damien Broderick revolves around the discovery of an ancient spacesip on Titan. The team sent to research it includes a blind psychic and the narrator, a man who can somehow alter cause and effect. Despite the intriguing premise and setting and the touching back story of the narrator’s son, I still found it hard to connect with the characters – a feeling that ultimately made the story feel long on promise and short on delivery.

“Hair” by Adam Roberts details the relationship between a corporate lawyer and his coworker friend who develops a groundbreaking process that the company sees as its own intellectual property. The reveal of what he develops is part of the fun and ties in nicely with this near-future vision. Although the narrator’s slightly-rambling speaking style took some getting used to, this is a fairly solid story.

“Before My Last Breath” by Robert Reed (originally reviewed in The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 2 edited by Allan Kaster) tells the story, from multiple perspectives, of a geologist’s discovery of an alien fossil in a coal mine, which leads to even bigger revelations. The exploration of the lost alien culture is interesting, though seems somewhat disjointed from the otherwise economically drawn characters who do little more than serve as conduits into the lost civilization and what might have been.

“One of Our Bastards Is Missing” by Paul Cornell is the second Jonathan Hamilton story (the first one being “Catherine Drew” published in Fast Forward 2, reviewed here). Hamilton is an agent of a futuristic British Empire and this time around, he is charged with protecting the royal family on the day of a royal wedding reception. A previous relationship with the Princess and a sudden disappearance causes Hamilton (and the story) to spring into action. I stumbled a bit over some of the “Queen’s English” in the beginning, but the story was quite enjoyable when all was said and done and had some cool elements (like the ability to keep things a reach away through “knots” in space).

Chris Roberson mixes alternate history with steampunk in Edison’s Frankenstein. It’s set at the turn of the 20th century two weeks before Opening Day at the World’s Fair in Chicago. The Algerian protagonist becomes aware of a stranger, naked and scarred, found by his colleagues. He also learns that within the park there has been a murder. Amidst this basic plot, the author throws in several noteworthy elements: the winning out of promethium over electricity as the prevailing technology; the portrayal of racism between the different cultures of the fair’s participants; and the appearance of several historical figures (even if only in passing mention) and how they fit into this alternate history. Good stuff all around, though these added elements, as good as they were, seemed to occupy more of the story that the plot itself.

Ian Creasey’s “Erosion” (originally reviewed in The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 2 edited by Allan Kaster) feels less like a story and more like part of one. On a dying planet Earth, a man tests his exo-skeleton suit and gets into trouble. Not a bad premise and, to be sure, it was well-written. It just seemed underdeveloped, plot-wise.

The title of “Vishnu at the Cat Circus” (originally reviewed in the author’s collection Cyberabad Days) may make it sound insignificant, but this story is anything but that. The story’s narrator, Vishnu, runs a street show with trick cats. But his show is just an excuse for him to tell his life story. Vishnu is a middle child of an influential family. He is also a Brahmin, genetically engineered to be super-intelligent and long-lived. His intelligence gives him the ability to see patterns of human discourse – a trait that leads him into politics. His long lifespan gives him unprecedented opportunity, but at a price; his pseudo-immortality comes from physically aging at half-speed. But his intelligence progresses as normal, so you get the mind of a super-bright 20year-old in the body of a kid. Some thought-provoking stuff on it’s own, but McDonald doesn’t rest the story on that cool hook, but several others at he same time: the water-starved future India that is a rich treasure of Literature; the sibling rivalry between Vishnu and his older, jealous brother; an arranged marriage that leads to drastic life changes; and the AI back story first encountered in River of Gods, but taken to a new level and used to mind-blowing humanity-altering effect. All of this combines to make the story a remarkably captivating experience. Well done.

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Year’s Best Science Fiction #27 edited by Gardner Dozois”

  1. Thanks, John.

     

    You outline which stories worked for you, and why.  Not much else you can ask for in an anthology review. 

     

    I do need to read the New Space Opera 2, especially since a few of those stories wound up in the Dozois. 

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