REVIEW: The Year’s Best Science Fiction #29 edited by Gardner Dozois

REVIEW SUMMARY: 8 standout stories + 24 good stories – 3 stories mediocre or worse = a collection on par with previous editions.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Editor Gardner Dozois’ picks for the thirty-five best stories of 2011.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: 30 stories worth reading, 7 of which were outstanding. Being exposed to new writers and a rapid-fire stream of ideas as compared with novel-length stories.
CONS: 3 stories didn’t strike me as qualifying for “best”.
BOTTOM LINE: A valuable anthology providing a snapshot of the year 2011 in sf.

Why, yes, I am way behind in my short fiction reading, thank you!

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection is the 2012 edition showcasing editor Gardner Dozois’ picks for the thirty-five best sf stories of 2011. The newest edition (See also my reviews of previous editions: #19, #20, #21, #22, #23, #24, #25, #26, #27 and #28) is about on par with previous editions, which is to say that some stories are more enjoyable than others. But the benefit of short fiction goes deeper than overall quality; it is the exposure to new ideas, new writers, and new writing styles coming at the reader faster than happens at novel length that is the true power of short fiction. But some stories have to stand out for any reader. For me they were:

  • “Dolly” by Elizabeth Bear
  • “Martian Heart” by John Barnes
  • “Laika’s Ghost” by Karl Schroeder
  • “After The Apocalypse” by Maureen McHugh
  • “A Long Way Home” by Jay Lake
  • “The Cold Step Beyond” by Ian R. MacLeod
  • “The Boneless One” by Alec Nevala-Lee
  • “Canterbury Hollow” by Chris Lawson

Individual story reviews follow…

Paul McAuley’s “The Choice” (one of his Jackaroo stories) concerns two young friends — the level-headed Lucas and troublemaker Damian — as they travel via the high flood waters of the near future (a sort of pre eco-collapse, since there is still some semblance of society) to sneak a look at a “sea dragon,” a fallen alien ship. The ship’s technology is dangerous, but highly desired and thus highly valuable. That trip changes their lives forever, which is a highlight of the story, but it also took about half the story to truly get underway. Perhaps this is understandable since the worldbuilding did lend a palpable atmosphere to the story via Lucas’ bedridden activist mother, Damian’s abusive father and the promise of transport to other worlds via alien tech, leaving a world of those left behind.

“A Soldier of the City” by David Moles shows a war between interstellar enemies, from the point of view of a soldier who was at the scene of the opening attack. What’s interesting about this particular society is how the military is integrated with their religion, and how their gods are human. The soldier, a devout follower of his assassinated god, seeks nothing but vengeance, and this story follows him on that quest. Some mind-blowing scales are used around the community of cities orbiting a back hole, but even so, there’s something I can’t quite put my finger on (Strangely architected sentences? Too much jargon?) that kept me from becoming fully engaged with the story, but the end message was a nice touch.

“The Beancounter’s Cat” by Damien Broderick is a science fiction story that puts the reader in the position of the main character, a so-called beancounter in a world where the cosmology is not clearly understood. She befriends an augmented, talking cat who obviously knows more than she. Slowly, the way of the world is revealed as the beancounter follows the cat on a journey up to the “skydark,” where she learns (or rather remembers) things like artificial intelligences and astronomical facts. This is one of those stories that stays a step or two ahead of the reader’s understanding (which is good) but perhaps plays a little too loose with the terminology of a world that is ultimately revealed to be a fabrication.

Elizabeth Bear takes a modernized look at Asimovian robots in “Dolly,” a mystery in which a sex robot has been used to kill her owner. But the question is, is she the murder weapon or the murderer? There are several things to like about this story: the feel of being a robot murder mystery (though way edgier than anything Asimov would have done); the ethical issues it raises; and the statement it makes about similar real-life circumstances. Good stuff.

In “Martian Heart” by John Barnes, a young couple in love are forced to relocate to a new Martian colony. What’s compelling about this story isn’t just the structure (a report by Cap, now older, aimed to inspire a new generation of colonists) but also that, in its short span, manages to create sympathetic characters in a poignant story.

One of the things I like about science fiction are well-conceived visions of futuristic technology. Ken MacLeod’s “Earth Hour” has that in spades. The story is about an assassin attempting to kill a politician in a high-tech future, and there’s some interesting world building…but the star of the story is the technology used by both hunter and prey (and police).

There is so much to like about Karl Schroeder’s “Laika’s Ghost,” I hardly know where to begin. The story takes place in a near-future Russia adversely affected by climate change. The protagonist, Gennady, has been hired by the United Nations to hide a young man who is being pursued by several factions, including Russian agents, NASA and…Google (casually portrayed as Evil Corporation). At the same time, he is tasked with investigating the very real threat of metastable bombs, ones that can be mass produced on one’s garage. Throw in a group of eco-radicals, a secret on the surface of Mars, nice use of augmented reality glasses, and you have all the right elements for a whip-cracking story that doesn’t stand still for a moment.
This story is a sequel to another (1999’s “The Dragon of Pripyat”). I’d love to see more stories set here.

“The Dala Horse” by Michael Swanwick is one of those stories that reads like fantasy (or fairy tale) yet takes place in the far future. Here, a young girl is sent away from home to seek protection at her grandmother’s house on the other side of a mountain. Some cool tech and clever storytelling make this an enjoyable read.

“The Way It Works Out And All” by Peter S. Beagle is not so much science fiction as it is urban fantasy in which Beagle himself learns from author Avram Davidson about the Overneath, a world just out of sight of our own that is traversed by moving just so. The story plays off Davidson’s Masters of the Maze, but you don’t need to have read that to enjoy this for the light, breezy, well-written story it is.

Carolyn Ives Gilman’s “The Ice Owl” is a wonderful story about a young girl who befriends a mysterious stranger who becomes her tutor. The story is a bit imbalanced, forsaking plot for copious amounts of worldbuilding — which involves an age-old genocide, a religious regime controlling the city, and the imminent overthrow by a more tyrannical faction – – yet still leaves the reader feeling that the story carries some meaningful weight in its themes of loss, revenge, and justice.

“The Copenhagen Interpretation” by Paul Cornell is another one featuring alternate history spy Jonathan Hamilton, of which I have only read one other story, Perhaps that’s why some of the world-building-related terminology was not quite clear. (The embroidery?) Even so, this only marginally hampered the enjoyment of the story, which featured an old flame returning into Hamilton’s life, with some interesting twists and decent action to whisk the story along.

“The Invasion of Venus” by Stephen Baxter is an excellent short story about the impending arrival of aliens in our solar system. The story is essentially told through the relationship between a government official and his philosophical-leaning ex-girlfriend. Amazing discoveries are made that force mankind to rethink its place in the universe.

The idea behind Ian McDonald’s “Digging” is the stuff of wonder. It involves a multi-generational project to excavate tunnels into the planet Mars, a project so immense that the society has a different view of the world. However, the story’s central plot, which involves a young girl dangerous visit to the surface with her aunt, takes way too long to get started while the reader is exposed to endless descriptions of wind and sand.

“Ascension Day,” a short piece by Alastair Reynolds, is about a space trader who, after being docked planetside for a century, is ready to leave. While there are a couple of grand ideas here, this seems less like a complete story and more like an introduction to one.

The apocalypse in Maureen McHugh’s “After The Apocalypse” seems to be the gradual economic collapse of the United States. Jane and her daughter Franny are making their way towards Canada hoping to find life’s basic necessities. It’s a dire setting, but perhaps not as depressing as the depiction of desperation and personal realization. This story is expertly written and affecting.

In “Silently and Very Fast,” Catherynne M. Valente takes the classic science fictional trope of a robot that wants to be human, and layers it with fairy tale and folklore. It tells the story of the growth of and artificial intelligence named Elefsis towards being human through flashback interactions with a girl named Neva and her great-great-grandmother, the computer programmer who created Elefsis. Beautiful language underscores the telling, making the story lean towards the fantastical rather than the scientific, a technique that worked for me more often than not.

Jay Lake’s “A Long Way Home” is about an augmented, immortal human named Ask who emerges from a deep cavern to discover that everyone else on the colony planet has disappeared. There is evidence of some destruction, but there is no sign of human life — and even more disturbing: no signs of the loss of life — save for a few corpses that were unable to join the rest of the human race in what Ask concludes must be the Rapture. It’s a compelling mystery that draws the reader over the decades that Ask wanders the planet looking for answers.

Dave Hutchinson “The Incredible Exploding Man” is a high-concept superhero origin story in which a supercollider accident gives two people the ability to travel between dimensions. Some interesting concepts are thrown about, but the crux of the story — told in alternating narratives that confuse more than help — is the reluctant protagonist’s predicament.

The narrator, Patrick, recounts a sad family history in “What We Found” by Geoff Ryman. Patrick’s childhood was filled with emotional and sometimes physical abuse due to a family history of mental illness. In spite of fears he will be affected the same way, Patrick does go on to become a renowned geneticist, positing a quantum-like theory that to observe an experiment is to change its results. Serious in tone and wonderfully written, though lacking the real science fictional hook I was looking for.

I liked the premise of Tom Purdom’s “A Response From Est17,” in which a pair of competing space probes controlled by different factions on Earth make first contact with the inhabitants of a distant planet. The humanoid aliens, whose technological level is about on par with that of Earth’s, have a process for dealing with visitations and we mostly see the story from their point of view. Their ace-in-the-hole is a message that is not what it may at first appear to be, and the Overseer of the visitation tries to hold off for as long as possible using it, perhaps at the expense of her own civilization. The story, written as if were written in the golden age of sf, also poses some interesting, though fuzzily-defined, moral quandaries.

“The Cold Step Beyond” by Ian R. MacLeod is about a genetically engineered assassin from the Warrior Church sent to kill an unknown target. With a cast of two, it’s not difficult to guess who the target is, but the story wonderfully mixes in themes of lost identity. The characters of Bess, who has little memory of her life before her training and her life as a misfit in a group of outcasts, and in Elli, who appears to be the lone survivor on one of the outer worlds, of a matriarchal universe. Aside from a brief feeling that Bess is not the warrior she is supposed to be, a necessary killing delay meant to serve the unfolding of the narrative, this is a vey powerful story.

The near future is the setting for “A Militant Peace” by David Klecha & Tobias S. Buckell. Here, Vietnamese forces engage in a corporate-sponsored, non-violent incursion into North Korea. Things do not go entirely as planned, particularly for one soldier who was trained for a more traditional definition of war. An interesting setup and rising tension mark this military science fiction story.

“The Ants of Flanders” by Robert Reed is an Earth invasion story in which the two attacking alien races barely even notice the human population. All of this is seen through the eyes of a special teen who knows no fear. Some wondrous ideas lurk in the background, but it’s the plight of young Bloch that is the most endearing.

“The Vicar Of Mars” by Gwyneth Jones is a ghost story set on the colonized Red Planet. The main character of the title, Boaaz Hanaahaahn, is an aging alien clergyman, nearing retirement and looking for some quiet time collecting rocks. But his duty as a High Priest takes precedence when he learns of a local woman named Isabel Jewel who is determined to be in need of spiritual guidance, a polite way of saying she may be insane. After a brief visit with her, Boaaz begins to question his faith when he starts imagining things, which is both the source of the uneasiness that the story emits and the questionable reaction he has when he begins to experience things that are closer to fantasy than reality.

Though more character study than plot-driven, Lavie Tidhar’s “The Smell Of Orange Groves” is a brief- but-enticing glimpse into a culturally diverse future where augmented humans share memories with their prior generations. This is part of a wider tapestry of stories (tentatively called The Continuity) that is even broader in scope and offers much appeal.

“The Iron Shirts” by Michael Flynn takes place in an alternate history; specifically 13th Century Ireland, where various clans play subversive political games to their unknown, secret ends. Nicely written, though this was the kind of alternate history story that, to me, felt more like a history lesson than a story.

The underlying premise of Pat Cadigan’s absorbing story “Cody” is that the human mind can store data in place of memories. That’s exactly what Cody does here; he’s a courier for a mysterious faction who hires Cody to carry information. Cody doesn’t know what the message is, but someone apparently does as he becomes the target of yet another mysterious faction. With its modern cyberpunk feel, this story offered a peek into a world that seems ripe for further exploration.

Michael Swanwick spins a tale rich with cultural history in “For I Have Lain Me Down On The Stone Of Loneliness And I’ll Not Be Back Again.” Set about a century into the future, an off-world Irish-American returns to Ireland where he meets and falls for an enigmatic woman with some very passionate feelings about Ireland’s troubles history. The narrator’s description of Ireland and meeting Mary were sufficiently engrossing, and the story took a more serious tone, it became even more so.

“Ghostweight” by Yoon Ha Lee offers an interesting premise; one in which a girl, whose society was wiped out by mercenaries, acquires a destructive weapon and uses it to seek revenge. Along for the ride is a “ghost” that speaks to her. More details about this universe are hard to discern as the particulars of the how the world works are a bit too abstract for my taste.

The police procedural meets a high-tech future Hollywood in “Digital Rites” by Jim Hawkins. A series of too-coincidental deaths — all were actors in a film — is a difficult case to solve, until the movie studio tech realizes that the last moments of the actors may have been recorded — a fortunate quantum entanglement side-effect of the process that digitizes the actors for expediency and budgetary concerns. Cool idea with smart, staccato-like delivery and short scenes, though the ending takes a bit long to wind down after the reveal.

“The Boneless One” by Alec Nevala-Lee — a story that takes place entirely on a boat in the midst of a years-long expedition to map the genetic diversity of the ocean — reads like a straight up mystery for most of its length. It isn’t until the final scenes that the science fictional elements come to the fore. But rather than feel cheated out of sf, the science fiction reader will realize that they have been rewarded with a well-crafted mystery with integral elements of science woven into it.

The appeal of “Dying Young” by Peter M. Ball is in the compelling tropes of the Weird Western, where fantastical elements are injected into the setting of the Old West. Only here, the Old West is some post-apocalyptic future in a town with a cyborg sheriff and his deputized clones, a doctor who is the last holder of technical knowledge, and a dragon seeking revenge. The story is seen through the eyes of its young narrator — all three of them; the narrator is gifted with the ability to see into both the past and future. Except for the ending, the story holds together amazingly well and has a great atmosphere throughout.

Chris Lawson’s “Canterbury Hollow” is a moving love story set on a far future colony world where the threat of the “killing sun” gave rise to a shocking social custom. Economically told, yet no less the dramatic impact.

Ken MacLeod’s deftly written “The Vorkuta Event” reads and feels like Lovecraftian horror, but is securely rooted in science. It manages the skilled trick of telling a riveting story-within-a-story as well as having something to say about the dangers of scientific progress.

Kij Johnson’s “The Man Who Bridged The Mist” is superficially the story of a engineer on a planet tasked with connecting the Empire’s Nearside and Farside communities that are separated by a canyon filled a strange and dangerous mist. But the bridge is of course a metaphor for the life of the bridge builder, Kit, who forms a tenuous relationship with Rasali, a ferrywoman who sails the strange mist. This lends the story some meaningful weight, though it is somewhat diluted by the length of the telling. Even so, Johnson’s natural storytelling style and compelling characterizations, along with the depiction of some very real dangers of the strange mist, make this one more than worth the trip.

4 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Year’s Best Science Fiction #29 edited by Gardner Dozois”

  1. I remember liking “The Choice” and probably would have rated it about the same as you did.

    I picked “The Beancounter’s Cat” for a short story read recently in a SF book club that I belong to and it got mixed reactions. It is an odd story but one I find particularly effective.

    “Dolly” is a great story, one of my favorites of the year.

    I enjoyed “The Vicar of Mars” and would probably rate it at least a 4 myself, maybe even 4.5.

    I’m positive I’ve read a few more of these because the titles of the stories look so familiar but it may be that I just have magazines/books with these stories in them that I haven’t gotten around to reading.

    This is a massive collection, John and I appreciate you going through it all and giving individual stories. There is a lot here that I feel like I missed out on so (with my abundant free time) I may need to track down a copy of this one. I have yet to read any of these larger collections, by Dozois or Strahan. They always seem so daunting. I think that is one of the reasons I am motivated to try to keep up with several individual publications each month so that at the end of the year I can go into a ‘best of’ collection with some of the stories under my belt and some of my own ideas as to what the field offered for the year.

      1. I really need to read more short fiction. I’ve got a pile of Clarkesworld and Lightspeed to get through… :-)

  2. With the short story Friday’s going on now I essentially am reading a short story every day, on average, even if it is done in chunks of two or three at a time. I’m enjoying keeping up with some of the latest stuff out there.

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