BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Editor Gardner Dozois’ picks for the thirty-two best science fiction stories of 2013.
PROS: 27 of the stories are worth reading and 9 of those were outstanding; a huge short fiction anthology like this provides readers with diverse concepts and writing styles.
CONS: A small handful of stories just didn’t work for me.
BOTTOM LINE: A very good anthology and a wonderful snapshot of the 2013 short science fiction scene.
Here’s a pretty impressive fact: Garder Dozois’ annual Year’s Best Science Fiction anthology has been running for thirty one years. I’ve been following this series for years and I have to say, the series is an annual treat I always anticipate with eagerness. It has continually proven itself to be an excellent source of good science fiction. Sure, there are the occasional stories that miss the mark for me personally, but the stories are overwhelmingly enjoyable.
The same holds true for this year’s volume. The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-First Annual Collection boasts seven hundred pages and thirty-two pieces of fiction first published in 2013 — that includes short stories, novelettes and novellas. In comparison with the last twelve volumes, it seems as if there were even more outstanding stories this year than in previous years, either a sign that fiction is getting better, or that this year’s selection better matches my own personal taste. In either case, an anthology like this offers something for everyone. At the risk of repeating myself, I’ll say that the value of such an anthology is more than the sum of its parts; it broadens your reading horizons, allowing you to experience a diverse set of writers and writing styles, and most all, a variety of the mind-expanding ideas that are the hallmark of science fiction. This anthology has all that in spades. Add to that Dozois’ extensive recap of the science fiction year as well as an addendum of fiction honorable mentions, and any science fiction will have hours of excellent reading ahead of them.
The standout stories in this anthology are:
- “Rock of Ages” by Jay Lake
- “Gray Wings” by Karl Bunker
- “Martian Blood” by Allen M. Steele
- “The Waiting Stars” by Aliette de Bodard
- “One” by Nancy Kress
- “Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince” by Jake Kerr
- “Entangled” by Ian R. MacLeod
- “Earth 1” by Stephen Baxter
- “Technarion” by Sean McMullen
Individual story reviews follow…
Ian R. MacLeod creates a posthuman Heaven in “The Discovered Country,” the story of a man who is resurrected on Farside, a virtual construct meant to emulate Heaven for people wealthy enough to afford to have their consciousness uploaded after the die in the real world. Jon Northover seems disaffected by his transition, somber almost, as he travels to the ultimate destination, a castle run by an enigmatic woman named Thea Lorentz, who became the face of Farside to those unfortunate souls in the real world — a world which is increasingly plagued with illness and disease. In fact, Jon and Thea have a history together which seems — after the first half of a story that is only marginally interesting beyond its cool poshumanism concept — to be the center of the story. But in the final act, the story redeems itself as it reveals not only a very interesting turn of events, but a deeper meaning to the cool ideas that suddenly do more than prop the story up.
“The Book Seller” by Lavie Tidhar, one of the interconnected “Central Station” stories, takes place in a diverse future where nearly everyone is “noded” — taht is, connected to a galaxy-spanning network. A bookseller named Achimwene, one of the minuscule few who are not noded, shows compassion for a girl being chased by townspeople. The girl, named Carmel, is considered a monster; she is a strigoi…essentially a data vampire that leeches data from people who are noded. The story revolves around the relationship formed between Achimwene and Carmel, and their search for the reason she was allowed on Earth. There’s some fantastic world building here around the strigoi and their history and the story does a great job of fleshing out this multi-cultural future. Achimwene is immediately likable as a character who maintains an outdated love of physical books in an age of digital information. The story is only slightly marred by an ending that, despite the “sometimes life doesn’t end as neatly as it does in books” statement, still felt too open-ended.
“Pathways” by Nancy Kress is the Story of Ludie, an uneducated (but not stupid) nineteen year-old girl with a rare genetic disease. When the effects if the disease begin to show, Ludie bravely signs up to be the subject of experiments meant to help scientists understand the disease. Despite the debilitating effects of the disease — prolonged insomnia, increasingly violent outbursts, and hallucinations — Ludie seems rather clear-minded and headstrong about doing something about it. She’s initially mistrustful of the doctors at the clinic where she signs up, but the inevitable decline of her siblings pushes her to continue. Ludie is a very sympathetic character and there is some character growth (this despite the treatment being just an inhibitor of further progress, not a cure), but the story itself seems to lack a significant final climax, and thus any real sense of resolution.
The topic of Sunny Moraine’s “A Heap of Broken Images” is nothing less serious than genocide. In this case, it is the genocide of an alien race at the hands of human colonists. The story is framed a generation or so after the fact, where an alien tour guide is showing a pair of human journalists the devastation that remains as a stark reminder of all that was lost. Credit should be given to this somber story for the way it story unfolds and for the world building around the cultural beliefs of the aliens, which dictates that they distance themselves from the genocide lest they be branded outcasts.
There’s lots to like about Jay Lake’s “Rock of Ages”: the gripping front-and-center plot about an asteroid being thrown into Seattle to destroy it; the main protagonist Bashar, a long-lived spy (thanks to med-tech) who aims to stop it; the world building of the super-Green future with artificially-intelligent forests and opposing political factions that take surprisingly different views on how to do what’s best for Mother Earth; a dangerous plague genetically engineered to target specific groups of people; the relationships explored in Bashar’ family, specifically his convalescent wife who still helps him as co-spy; and more. It’s a lot of stuff to juggle, and to its credit, the story does a masterful job of keeping it well-organized without slowing the story down at all. There’s never a sense that the story stops to infodump. Instead, it’s a fast-moving thriller whose dramatic import and sense of wonder only increases as the story progresses. Bashar is a great character, smart in ways most spies are meant to be (even if his feats of deduction are unbelievably Herculean), but more importantly believably real and sympathetic. Well done.
Geoff Ryman’s “Rosary and Goldenstar” is an amusing alternate history focusing on a meeting between a young William Shakespeare, astronomer/mathematician John Dee, amateur astronomer John Digges, and two visiting men named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (translated into English as the story title suggests) who are friends of the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. In the ensuing discussion about astronomy, philosophy and the nature of the universe, Shakespeare alters his life course. This story starts amusingly enough, and the mis-translations between Digges and the Danish visitors are funny, but that soon gives way to meandering discussions that feel to me as if they have no import at all.
“Gray Wings” by Karl Bunker is a quick-but-wonderful story about the Haves and the Have-nots. It’s set in a future where the rich can afford nanotechnology capable of quick healing and allowing people to have wings that allow them to compete in races. One such girl, Amy, crash-lands in a poor area where she meets a young boy named Dabir and the story plays out. Bunker does a fantastic job of keeping the story focused while depicting the two-way street of shame felt by both Amy and Dabir. Well done.
Carrie Vaughn’s story “The Best We Can“ is a surprisingly grounded first contact story; grounded in that the depiction of what would likely happen should we discover intelligent life in the universe has less to do with glamour, and more to do with bureaucracy, office politics and slow progress. That realism, however, detracted from the story, which lacked any significant dramatic impact that readers have come to expect from first contact stories.
I like stories in which a world is introduced that entices me enough to want more. Paul McAuley’s “Transitional Forms” is one of those stories, taking place around a hotbed of artificial life (dubbed “alife”) activity. A man hired by the state to protect the area meets an attractive alife hacker who is more than likely up to no good. This is an interesting setup for a story, to be sure, but the emphasis seems to be less on plot than it is on trying to draw some similarities between life and alife.
Robert Reed’s story “Precious Mental” is yet another set in the wonder-filled world of the Great Ship, an eons-old Jupiter-sized spaceship created by enigmatic aliens that endlessly travels the galaxy with passengers both alien and human. This particular story takes place mostly far away from the ship and focuses on one of its immortal captains, Pamir, who has since left the ship, gone into hiding and has assumed the role of a drive mechanic named Jon. Jon is approached by a girl who wants him to help her find a millennia-old derelict ship that holds an important secret. What’s interesting about the story is both the present-day narrative of the salvage mission (which starts with a kidnapping and involves an ancient alien Kajja alien named Tailor) and the past narrative of Where-Peace-Rains, a community of the Great Ship that is home to the short lived Luddites (a world building thread that also offers some background on Pamir). As befits the grand scale of this universe, events (those that happen and those are told via legend) span decades or millennia, which give the story a confused sense of epic. The story’s length itself would lend to that epicness were it a bit tighter on plot and stricter on philosophical meandering of Tailor. It would also seem less drawn out had the ending been climactic enough to warrant the length. But there are cool ideas here (like the Bioceramic brains that lend to being immortal) and there are (I think) more than a few hints about other stories that were told in the still-cool universe.
“Martian Blood” by Allen M. Steele succeeds on many levels. First and foremost, it is a pastiche to the sf of yesteryear, when Mars was very much a part of the planetary romance. (This is befitting of the old-school sf anthology in which the story originally appeared, Old Mars edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.) It also depicts a wonderful retro-future in which Mars is not only inhabitable, it’s been colonized by humans who have since transformed it into an exotic getaway dominated by gambling. There’s sense of wonder in the fact that native Martians not only exist, but choose to hide from humans, which is just fine by them. It’s also an engaging story in which a researcher from Earth arrives and hires a Martian-born human guide to take him to see some aboriginal Martians. The researcher seeks Martian blood to prove or disprove a theory about the origins of mankind. Steele’s prose is straightforward and easily-consumed, which is perfect since this is one of those story where you’re eager to see what happens next. Surprisingly, when I thought the story would neatly end a certain way, I was pleasantly proved to be wrong. A well done old-school story from start to finish.
Greg Egan’s “Zero For Conduct” is a hard sf story about a young Afghani girl named Latifa who lives in a repressed near-future Iran. Latifa makes an amazing scientific discovery that could be world-changing if only she were able to develop it, which she tries to do despite the political and cultural roadblocks. Her journey is something of a potboiler, starting quietly-but-interestingly and becoming more engrossing as it progresses. It never quite crescendos, but is nonetheless very good.
“The Waiting Stars“ by Aliette de Bodard is an engrossing story about a rescue mission to a graveyard of dead spaceships undertaken by a young, determined woman named Lan Nhen. Not a bad premise, to be sure, especially when delivered with the author’s tight prose, but what elevates this story is the universe in which it is set: it’s the same far-future of other stories by de Bodard in which (to quote Gardner Dozis’ helpfully succinct story intro) “a high-tech conflict is going on between spacefaring Mayan and Chinese empires and women give birth to children who are prenatally altered in the womb to become the control systems of living spaceships.” Against this rich and imaginative backdrop, it becomes apparent that Lan Nhen’s mission is about more than saving a spaceship, but about saving the Mind within it as well. There is a second narrative as well, obviously related to the first, regarding the children at an institution set up to rescue and re-educate those who are destined to be Minds. Both narratives are expertly woven together and drive home a story with emotional impact.
In “A Map of Mercury“ by Alastair Reynolds, a man named Oleg tracks down a reclusive artist on the airless planet – an artist so reclusive, that she has joined a collective of Cyborg artists. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this story is how, with just a few strokes, Reynolds manages to paint a picture of the traveling cyborgs that captures a culture that could easily form the basis for an entire novel. The conversation between Oleg and the artist, though brief, is thought-provoking. In short, this just feels like an Alastair Reynolds story. Even if the story feels a bit minor by those high standards, that’s still pretty good.
“One“ by Nancy Kress is about a down-on-his-luck and not-too-bright boxer named Zack Murphy who undergoes an everyday medical procedure that inadvertently gives him the ability of enhanced sense perception, a gift that more or less amounts to mind reading. It’s an idea that definitely feels like a central conceit of all good short fiction, and Kress largely plays it out through its logical progressions: Zack receives the ability; undergoes a period of confusion as he acclimates; realizes his ability; attempts to control it; uses it to his benefit (as you can imagine, a boxer who knows what moves his opponent is going to make can be quite helpful); etc. It was reminiscent in some ways to “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, though perhaps without quite as powerful an emotional punch. Zack’s relationships with the people around him — his worried sister, her wife who Zack doesn’t get along with, his on-again/off-again girlfriend — are part of the appeal here, and that only adds to the focused delivery of this very entertaining story.
Mysteries set in space are not new and nothing about Martin L. Shoemaker’s “Murder on the Aldrin Express” smacks of anything new either. The mystery involves a failed expedition on Mars that resulted in someone’s death. The captain of the transport ship that is carrying the expedition back from Mars finds himself in the detective role, trying to solve the case. A couple of Sherlock Holmes references notwithstanding, this doesn’t feel like a Sherlock Holmes story. (If I had to compare, I’d say it’s more like A Nero Wolfe story as the arrogant captain never leaves his room, leaving it up to the capable first-officer to do the legwork. At least Nero Wolfe is likable.) A few of the suspects are interviewed and the captain makes impressive leaps of deduction, but this story, as serviceable as it is, leaves some room for improvement.
One of the more surprising stories I’ve read is “Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince“ by Jake Kerr — surprising because I generally don’t hold much stock in stories that shirk standard narratives for writing techniques that appear gimmicky at first glance and usually prove themselves to be so. In this case, the story is presented as a series of Wikipedia and interview excerpts about an author who survived and wrote about an asteroid that hit North America rendering it inhabitable. What’s interesting here is that through Julian Prince’s biography, we get glimpses of society surrounding the Event: The Expatriation Lottery, the North American refugees to Africa, how the post-apocalyptic event was treated by society and the media, etc. I found myself wanting to read the books written by this fictional author. And just when readers are focused on the surrounding events, in comes the emotional punch of the character who you assumed was just a vehicle on which to hang this excellent story.
In days of sf past, short stories were more to-the-point, taking the single conceit and doing the minimum to portray that idea. “The Plague“ by Ken Liu is one of those stories. It takes place fifty years after the nanotech-apocalypse, where those unaffected by the plague live inside a dome and the disfigured and genetically altered descendents of the “survivors” live outside. A meeting between a dome-dweller and a girl from outside leads to the question of who, exactly, is the superior race.
Sandra McDonald’s “Fleet” is steeped in the culture that arose in a post-apocalyptic Guam cut off from the Western world, where things may or may not be finally looking better. The main character here is Isa, a woman (formerly a man) who acts as a “bridge” between the past an the future, assigned by the wise ones to stand watch for the inevitable return of outsiders. That’s exactly what happens here, of course, and we get to see exactly the kind of thing Isa was educated for. Great world building and a surprise or two make this a very good story.
in 1972, Gene Wolfe saw his novella “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” published to critical acclaim. It takes place on a post-colonial world (one of a pair of twin planets) in which the narrator recounts his youthful days while imprisoned for killing his father. The story plays heavily with themes of genetic engineering. In 2013, Michael Swanwick wrote “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin,” which is clearly written as a pastiche to Wolfe’s story, both in plot, theme and language. I read Wolfe’s story in preparation for this one, and the best description I can give is that Swanwick’s story reads like an alternate version of Wolfe’s. Brothers are replaced by sisters, for example. This is all well and good, but really too much of a literary gimmick for my tastes. It’s not clear to me how this story would stand on its own had you not read Wolfe’s story within recent memory.
Did you ever read one of those stories when the environment in which people live is part of the sf appeal of the story? I’m thinking about Stephen Baxter’s Raft, Karl Schroeders’ Virga series and, perhaps more apropos to Alexander Jablokov’s story “Bad Day on Boscobel,” Larry Niven’s Integral Trees. Boscobel is a hollowed-out cylindrical asteroid in which massive trees exist, and these trees are home to its residents, who move around the light gravity in interesting ways. The front-and-center story revolves around a woman named Dunya whose job it is to assist refugees with integrating into society. Her latest charge is a man named Phineus who seems to have gotten mixed up with the wrong crowd. As Dunya begins digging, she learns that there are other players afoot and larger stakes involved, in what essentially amounts to a quick-moving, richly drawn detective story. While the focus is on the Dunya’s quest for answers (and secondarily on the relationship she had with her rebellious daughter), lingering intrigue is provided by the world building teasingly revealed behind the scenes – one that includes lots of political factions and crafty maneuvering.
“The Irish Astronaut“ by Val Nolan is a story about an astronaut named Dale who visits Ireland to inter the remains of a fellow astronaut who died in a re-entry accident. The mood of this piece, as you might expect, is very somber — made more so by Dale’s coming to terms with what happened, his own feelings of inadequacy, and the bittersweet relationships he forms with the locals. Even so, this story seemed to be missing something that would elevate it past the realm of mediocrity.
Neal Asher expands his Polity universe in “The Other Gun,” a story about a bounty hunter named Tuppence who, working for a mysterious client, sets about to retrieve the farcaster, a devastating weapon that’s been disassembled and scattered around the universe. With the help of his companion, a woman named Harriet who has had her body modified to resemble a trodon dinosaur, Tuppence (who himself is part cyborg since some pre-story accident nearly killed him) operates less of his own free will than at the mental commands of the Client. The Client, a member of an alien hive race, wants the weapon to use against the alien Prador, an enemy he shares with the human Polity. The story, thanks to some interesting twists and turns, is more intricate and finely detailed than that, and there is much world building here — so much so that it seems to be bursting at the seams to go in a variety of directions. But Asher keeps things relatively focused, even if it seems that there are many allusions to other Polity stories. (Reminder: read more Polity stories.)
“Only Human” by Lavie Tidhar is another story set in his “Central Station” universe, however, unlike “The Book Seller”, which appears elsewhere in this volume, I didn’t find this one nearly as enjoyable. Ostensibly it’s about a relationship between a cleaning woman (Shereen) and an initiate (Aliyah) into a House run by hive-mind intelligences. The Houses control the economy of a space port on Titan, and there is (off-screen) conflict between them. The conflict can be resolved, but only at the risk of the relationship between Shereen and Aliyah. While not a bad idea for a story, it lacks a sufficient number of handholds to really grasp the situation between the Houses, rendering the story more abstractly interesting than tangibly enjoyable.
Ian R. MacLeod’s “Entangled” is a powerfully poignant story about a girl named Martha and her perceived disability. Due to an accident, Martha lacks the ability to be part of the common gestalt of society. While others share their thoughts and feelings with each other (the result of a virus that spread after Martha’s accident), Martha is essentially alone. She’s seen as different, almost invisible, by others. This story is about how Martha deals with those feelings of loneliness as she recalls meeting a charming fellow in her youth. The way MacLeod lays out events is masterful, painting a picture that slowly reveals the truth of Martha’s situation, culminating in one of those genuine “wow” moments. Good stuff.
One of the unexpected perks of short fiction (whether short, novellete or novella length stories) is when authors extend the universe they created in novel-length stories. “Earth 1” by Stephen Baxter is such a story. It extends the world depicted in Baxter’s duology Flood and Ark and it turns that already-epic tale into something that seems more like a future history. It also leverages an old sf trope — that of a far-flung future humanity investigating the single-planet-of-origin myth (one of the aspects I liked about Asimov’s later Foundation novels) — and at the same time improves upon it. In Baxter’s story, a space expedition is undertaken by the people of Urthen looking for humanity’s planet of origin. It’s spearheaded by a woman named SheLu who believes that all of humanity exists inside a digital simulation, yet also believes that the simulation was based on the real life of the “Designers” and that, further, they created a parallel planet of origin within the simulation itself. Her view is opposed by a scholar named Jennin PiRo, who believes that reality is indeed real, but that the presence of similar human species on multiple worlds is due to parallel and converging evolution. This contention serves as a meaty stand-in for the “science vs. religion” argument that plays out around the central characters, LuSi (SheLu’s estranged daughter) and JaEm (PiRo’s son and LuSi’s love interest). Across several decades, their exploration takes them to multiple worlds and a truth that they realize they were not ready to accept. Baxter’s story presses all the right sf buttons with “Earth 1”. It’s an engrossing premise which will have readers wondering at first whether what they are reading is actually happening within some digital construct. It also has excellent world building, which not only stands on its own, but successfully extends the world of Flood and Ark. (That in-story history is referred to as “Backstory” created by the simulation’s Designers.) Baxter throws in some other goodies (like anti-aging technology) but that’s really icing on an already tasty cake. “Earth 1” is a thoroughly enjoyable and solid sf story.
“Technarion” by Sean McMullen, an excellent short story set in the 19th century, is about a man who becomes involved in the development of a calculation machine. Lewis Blackburn is trained as an electrician in an age of steam, and he’s soon hired by a rich businessman who is working on a secret project. Blackburn quickly becomes part of his small, inner circle and learns the true purpose of the machine. But even that purpose is influenced by outside factions, and that spells danger for Blackburn, his boss and the woman with whom Blackburn falls in love. McMullen’s story reads like a classic a Victorian scientific romance, and his straightforward delivery propels the story at top speed. Some of the plot twists may not be true surprises, but that doesn’t diminish the enjoyment of the story.
There are plenty of stories out there about down-and-out space salvagers and their attempts to make the One Big Score that will put them in the black, and on that score, Melissa Scott’s “Finders” feels like a retread. However, the story is embellished a bit with lots of teases at a bigger story universe: things like ancient alien Ancestors, the cool technology they leave behind (a la Frederik Pohl’s Heechee), and the alien elements of varying degrees of ubiquity, value and power. Also, there’s an interesting drama that plays out amongst the three main protagonists: the tough team leader Cassilde, victim of a respiratory disease; her partner Dai; and the enigmatic Ashe, their former partner who turned on them but needs them now for the aforementioned One Big Score — all of which adds to the story.
“The Queen of Night’s Aria” by Ian McDonald is a well-done story about a boorish virtuoso who, past his prime and in desperate need of money, undertakes a tour on the front lines of a human/Martian war. Count Jack Fitzgerald and his trusty accompanist, Faisal (who narrates the story), are thus thrust head-first into the action. This story (like Allen M. Steele’s “Martian Blood”) originally appeared in the old-school tribute anthology Old Mars, and was specifically written to evoke the sf of yesteryear. It does that splendidly by incorporating Martian races (both hostile and otherwise) and even tripods that attack the human forces. McDonald also injects copious amounts of wry humor that is perfectly balanced with action and the horrors of war.
“Hard Stars” by Brendan DuBois is an excellent near-future thriller based around the premise that a foreign enemy has successfully attacked the United States using an army of air drones that target technology. For that reason, abandoning tech devices becomes a method of survival. The small group of people that is the center of the story have a reason for being together, which, when revealed, ups the ante of a story a good amount. For a story that lacks any significant amount of action, it sure does pack a dramatic wallop.
In “The Promise of Space“ by James Patrick Kelly, a woman science fiction writer converses with her astronaut husband in the hospital where he is staying…except that she’s really talking to an artificial intelligence based on his memories. There’s a lot of emotion packed into this dialogue and relationship and Kelly pulls off the amazing feat of getting readers to care enough about characters in a relatively short space to feel sad at the turn of events.
“Quicken” by Damien Broderick is a sequel to Robert Silverberg’s award-winning 1974 novella “Born with The Dead”. (For readers who haven’t read the original, both Silverberg’s and Broderick’s stories can be read in the book Beyond the Doors of Death.) In Silverberg’s excellent, almost lyrical story (which I re-read in preparation for Broderick’s sequel), the dead are brought back to life (“rekindled”) through a radical medical procedure. They are far from zombies, but nor are they their former selves. The rekindled move about, living their afterlives, yet they are completely disconnected from their former existence; they are, by choice, largely separated from the “warms” who are still living their first lives. The rekindled are infused with a general disinterest in everything. Silverberg’s narrative focuses on the efforts of one man, Jorge Klein, to reconnect with his formerly-dead wife, Sybille, who now wants nothing to with him. It’s a story that works because of its focus on the personal level. Broderick’s sequel, though perhaps less lyrical, picks up Klein’s story some months later and admirably maintains the focus on the personal level, on how Klein handles being rekindled. But then the scope widens a bit as the story beings to address some of the wider issues at hand when the dead are brought back to life. When the story puts Klein in the role as emissary between the warms and the rekindled, it touches on issues of fear, tensions, legal matters, and religious ramifications. These are issues that the original story glossed over, a necessity in keeping the focus on Klein himself. It was interesting to see them finally addressed in some way here. But then the story took a sharp and unexpected left turn into the bizarre as it attempted to leverage a tenuous explanation of rekindling technology into a plot direction that is vastly grander in scope. The subsequent, half-hearted attempt to focus on Klein’s personal desires (which itself seems an affront to the disconnected feeling of the rekindled set forth in the original story) ends up a subtle, meaningless whisper in the inexplicable white noise of some far-future war that is too far removed from the reader’s interest. Neither story line quite supports the other, which is a shame because “Quicken” had such a strong start.