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REVIEW: The Year’s Best Science Fiction #20 edited by Gardner Dozois

REVIEW SUMMARY: Some great stories to be found.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of sf stories, novelettes and novellas from 2002.

PROS: Like most anthologies, some great, great reads.
CONS: Also like most anthologies, some weak efforts.
BOTTOM LINE: The better stories are worth the price of admission.

This is the twentieth annual edition of editor Gardner Dozois’ picks for the best sf of the year, the year in question being 2002. The 845-page collection contains (from shorter to longest) twenty five short stories, novelettes and novellas from that year. As is customary with the series, Dozois also provides a summation and a list ofm honorable mentions.

Overall, the book is a worthy addition to any sf library. While some of the stories were weak, they were few and far between or shorter rather than longer. Most stories were top-notch. Standout stories for me included Presence, In Paradise, To Become a Warrior, V.A.O., Stories for Men, Slow Life and Turquoise Days.

The Summation of the 2002 Science Fiction year by editor Gardner Dozois was fascinating. He covers everything from books, movies, TV, magazines, websites, the science fiction marketplace, sf publishers, conventions, awards, and sf deaths. It’s remarkable how much was actually going on in 2002, which was exactly the point he was trying to prove to naysayers. The 46-page summation even included brief commentaries and opinions on the work that was read/seen, calling attention to the good and, surprisingly, the not so good.

About 400 more stories are listed in the Honorable Mentions afterward. Some of those would have been a better choice for this anthology.

As a bonus for the thrifty, many of these stories are feely available online, as noted below.


  1. Breathmoss by Ian R. MacLeod [2002 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 02/20/04 – 02/21/04]

    1. Synopsis: Jalila, a girl in a female society on the verge of womanhood, makes the long trip down from the mountains to the lowlands where she expunges the breathmoss that her lungs needed to breathe the thin air. The story follows Jalila’s coming of age. Jalila befriends Kalal, a boy her age (Kalal and his father are the only two males in the story), Nayra, a girl who becomes her first lover, and a “tariqua”, a wise woman.

    2. Review: I really wanted to like this story but somehow I just could not get into it at all. The writing is infused with lots of made up words that slowed reading. But the bigger obstacle was the multi-claused comma-ridden verbiage. The pacing was way too slow. So much time was spent on world/society building (which was not all that interesting) that the plot was almost nonexistent by comparison. This was more of an exercise in literary creation than it was a vehicle for storytelling. Not very entertaining and therefore very disappointing.

    3. This is a finalist for the 2002 Hugo Award for best novella. That surprises me.

    4. This story is also available online.

  2. The Most Famous Little Girl in the World by Nancy Kress [2002 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 02/26/04]

    1. Synopsis: The life-spanning story of a relationship between two cousins, one abducted by a spaceship when she was a child

    2. Review: Very good story and very well written. Story spans the years beginning from when the cousins were children to their old age while stopping periodically to tell the engrossing story. Each glimpse shows how time has changed the cousins’ relationship and also the ever-changing society.

    3. This story is also available online.

  3. The Passenger by Paul McAuley [2002 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 02/27/04]

    1. Synopsis: A spaceship salvage crew discovers an improbable survivor on a wrecked ship.

    2. Review: A good, character-driven suspense story. Somewhat bland ending.

  4. The Political Officer by Charles Coleman Finlay [2002 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 03/02/04]

    1. Synopsis: A secret deep space mission is put in jeopardy when the ships political officer suspects a traitor among the crew.

    2. Review: Mediocre story. Seem like there should have been more suspense and action throughout the story, like there was near the otherwise-unsatisfying ending.

  5. Lambing Season by Molly Gloss [2002 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 03/04/04]

    1. Synopsis: A woman shepherd investigates a mysterious light that falls from the nighttime sky. She develops an unspoken understanding with a dog-like alien.

    2. Review: Slow-moving, but interesting.

  6. Coelacanths by Robert Reed [2002 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 03/04/04]

    1. Synopsis: OK, not entirely sure what this was about. There were four separate story lines; each one takes place in a related, but different, frame of reference and/or time scale and/or size scale. Is this a universe within a universe story?

    2. The preface says this is a far-future story where the few remaining humans have given up trying to understand their world so they can focus on surviving. OK.

    3. In a Science Fiction Weekly interview, Reed describes this story like so: “[Coelacanths proposes] a future where the true powers of technology and intelligence have been released, and humans are reduced, or enlarged, to fill a multitude of new niches.” Yeah, that explains it.

    4. Review: Fore all the confusion about what this was really about, it wasn’t that bad. It had a Stephen Baxter-ish feel; lots of the descriptions were esoteric, and I couldn’t really figure out what was really going on across all story lines. Still, each story line was enjoyable to some degree. It felt like this was good sf, but maybe I needed a little more hand-holding. Probably deserves another reading when I am prepared to devote more study into it.

    5. The title refers to a rare species of fish that is seen by one of the characters at the end of the story. Obviously some metaphor that is also lost on me. Sigh.

  7. Presence by Maureen F. McHugh [2002 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 03/05/04]

    1. Synopsis: The story of a woman and how she deals with her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease. She decides to give him an experimental treatment that will halt the disease but will not restore his lost memories. She struggles with the thought of her husband becoming a different person.

    2. Review: Excellent, top-notch story. McHugh delivers a powerful story using everyday English. Although light on the sf content (there are a few scenes with virtual phones, etc. and of course the science surrounding the medical treatment), this well-written story packs a lot of emotion that raises it to excellence.

    3. Finalist for the 2002 Hugo Award for best novelette.

  8. Halo by Charles Stross [2002 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 03/09/04]

    1. Synopsis: Amber Macx (tech-enhanced teenage daughter of Manfred Macx), in an attempt to become independent from her controlling and religious birth mother, goes along with her father’s scheme to sell herself into slavery to a space mining corporation. Meanwhile, her mother enlists the aid of a Muslim leader, en route to the mining operation near Jupiter, to bring her back.

    2. Review: Of the three Stross short stories I’ve read, I liked this best. At least, I could follow it better. In this imaginative future, everything is high tech, including 3D hologram printers. (I wonder how much the Bose-Einstein condensate cartridges go for?) Which is fine, but I kept stumbling over the jargon. Still, this was a good story and had a satisfying conclusion that is obviously a setup for the next story in the series.

    3. Finalist for the 2002 Hugo Award for best novelette

    4. Halo is the fourth in a nine-story sequence: (1) Lobsters [novelette also online], (2) Troubadour [novelette], (3) Tourist [novelette], (4) Halo [novelette, also online], (5) Router [novella], (6) Nightfall [novelette], (7) Curator [novelette], (8) Elector [due in 2004] and (9) Survivor [due in 2004].

  9. In Paradise by Bruce Sterling [2002 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 03/19/04]

    1. Synopsis: A plumber named Felix falls in love with a Moslem girl in an overly security conscious near future.

    2. Review: Excellent story. Throughout the story, from the initial meeting in the airport to their elopement and their dealing with the Department of Homeland Security, Sterling tells a great story. Neither character speaks the other’s language; they communicate via their cell phones, which act as translators. That’s cool.

  10. The Old Cosmonaut and the Construction Worker Dream of Mars by Ian McDonald [2002 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 03/23/04]

    1. Synopsis: Two alternating, interlocking story lines. One about an old Russian cosmonaut who’s Mars mission was aborted at the last minute. The other story is about a construction worker who remotely terraforms Mars.

    2. Review: Pretty good story. Elegantly and stylishly written.

    3. Notes: This short story is set in the same universe as McDonald’s novel Desolation Road.

  11. Stories for Men by John Kessel [2002 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 03/24/05-03/25/04]

    1. Synopsis: A young man in a matriarchal lunar colony gets involved with a rebellious activist.

    2. Review: Superb story! Great story telling with vivid descriptions that draw you in and keep you wondering what will happen next. The female-led society was portrayed from the man’s point of view – a nice twist that provides many thought-provoking passages. Interestingly, the activist (a comedian by profession) uses the stage name of Tyler Durden, same as the Brad Pitt Character in the movie Fight Club. There are many similarities between Fight Club and Stories For Men. Basically, it’s a story about growing up; about rebellion and understanding who you are. The story name comes from title of the book that Durden gives Erno to make him question his own way of life. Tyler sees men as subservient objects to be used by the women of the lunar colony.

    3. Also online.

  12. To Become a Warrior by Chris Beckett [2002 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 03/25/04]

    1. Synopsis: A man falls in with the wrong crowd. The wrong crowd would be a bunch of criminal Shifters from an alternate dimension that want Karl be part of their gang by killing his old social worker.

    2. Review: An excellent story. Surprisingly, the first-person narrative which is given with a thick (and intensely conversational) accent, does not get in the way of reading this fast-paced story. Somehow, though, the ending needed a more oomph.

    3. Googling this story shows that it is one in a series of stories featuring some of the same characters,

  13. The Clear Blue Seas of Luna by Gregory Benford [2002 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 04/01/04]

    1. Synopsis: The man who terraformed the moon is kept alive as an artificial intelligence and must fight for the world he helped create.

    2. Review: I just couldn’t get into this story at all. As a re-awakening entity, the narrator has this broken grammar that annoyed me. On the plus side, though, the physics and cosmic scale of the terraforming descriptions was cool.

  14. V.A.O. by Geoff Ryman [2002 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 04/10/04]

    1. Synopsis: An ex-hacker named Brewster lives in “The Happy Farm” assisted living facility that uses Victim Activated Ordnance (VAO) technology to protect the residents. Brewster, who helped design VAO systems, must resort to hacking to pay for his outrageously priced medical care. When a vigilante group of old-timers, led by the mysterious “Silhouette”, use VAO technology to commit crimes against the young, including Brewster’s own granddaughter, Brewster takes action.

    2. Review: Excellent near-future mystery story. Ryman uses the issue of rising costs for elderly care as a backdrop that drives much of the characters’ motivations. And, without being preachy about it, he gets the reader to think about the plight of the elderly (senility, stereotypes, pressures, loneliness, usefulness, mental state and independence). There is some cool technology too like info-glasses, medication-reminders built in to just about everything, and exoskeleton suits. Gentlemen, steel yourself for the shower scene where, while under suspicion by the police, Brewster hides a piece of hacking equipment.

  15. Winters Are Hard by Steven Popkes [2002 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 04/10/04]

    1. Synopsis: A human interest reporter interviews a man who is genetically altered to resemble a wolf. The televised interview makes him a celebrity and brings an end to his peaceful existence with nature.

    2. Review: Good story, though a bit long-winded for the tale told. I liked the idea of an augmented eagle that is used as the reporter’s camera.

    3. Also available online.

  16. At the Money by Richard Wadholm [2002 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 04/12/04]

    1. Synopsis: A future where metals are transformed in far space into highly valuable materials that are traded on the open market. One ship that didn’t make it has a big payload that is sougt after by various parties.

    2. Review: Interesting premise, but a snoozer.

  17. Agent Provocateur by Alexander Irvine [2002 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 04/12/04]

    1. Synopsis: The future of the world hinges on the decision of a coin toss at a baseball game. Youngster Avery must decide whether the baseball player, who is destined to kill Heisenberg when he is drafted in the war, should be allowed to do so.

    2. Review: This has some interesting ideas with the ability to changet the past/future and how it can change with simplest of decisions (butterfly flaps it’s wings, etc.)

    3. Also available online.

  18. Singleton by Greg Egan [2002 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 04/13/04]

    1. Synopsis: Quantum mechanics forms the basis for an intelligent life form that is raised as natural offspring.

    2. Review: Good story after a somewhat slow start. The image of the pre-fabricated bodies being delivered before the birth was just spooky. Egan gives thoughtful consideration to making this technology realistic. There is much discussion of determinism vs. free will that also gives the piece depth. Other topics include quantum theory and the idea of parallel universes branching off at decision points.

    3. Also available online.

  19. Slow Life by Michael Swanwick [2002 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 04/16/04]

    1. Synopsis: A small exploration team on Titan discovers an intelligent life form that has a much slower metabolism than humans due to the extreme cold of Titan. (The exploration team’s spaceship is named “Clement”, an apparent nod to sf author Hal Clement, who wrote Mission of Gravity which takes place on the planet Mesklin, a planet with a methane-rich atmosphere.) The life form communicates through the dreams of one exploration team member, Lizzie O’Brien, who is fatally trapped in Titan’s Methane-rich atmosphere and who has only a short time to live. The life form is inundated by the experiences shared with O’Brien and, for the first time, realizes that it is not a single consciousness.

    2. Review: Excellent, excellent suspense story. There was lots of sense-of-wonder by way of Titan’s exploration and a survival story that draws you in and won’t let go. Particularly nice touches include the live web cast of the exploration, including a company-encouraged live Q&A session, and the fish-like underwater turbot-cam.

    3. The well-deserved winner of the 2002 Hugo Award for best novelette.

  20. A Flock of Birds by James Van Pelt [2002 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 04/16/04]

    1. Synopsis: Follows the story of one man, Carson, and a sick woman he found, Tillie, in 2011 after most of the world’s population has died out from a devastating plague. Carson is an avid bird watcher and marks time by noting bird sightings.

    2. Review: Mediocre story that is low on sf content and actual story. The only redeeming quality is the competent writing style and the eerie post-apocalyptic world it describes.

    3. Also available online.

  21. The Potter of Bones by Eleanor Arnason [2002 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 03/18/04]

    1. Synopsis: In an era before modern science, a race of fur-covered beings is the dominant species. One of them, named Haik, lives in a fishing village and is assigned the role of potter, maker of clay pots. Her matriarchal tribe has suffered huge losses because if fishing accidents and appoints Haik to bear many children. But Haik is not interested in pots and children. Her interest lies in the heretofore unheard of sciences of geology and paleontology. Her strong curiosity leads to her development of the Scientific Method with particular attention to the theory of Evolution for her species. She is hesitant to divulge her discoveries to her people since their main religious belief centers around their Goddess and Creationism.

    2. Review: This was pretty good. The primitive world/culture building was superb, a must for this cerebral (there is virtually no action here) feminist sf outing. We see Haik grow into a scientist while traveling abroad and falling in love with an actress named Dapple. Her experiences give her “the big picture” to evolution. The tale is told through a present-day alien narrator who credits Haik with the initial theory of evolution.

    3. Also available online.

    4. Set in Arnason’s Hwarhath universe (sort of a sequel to the short stories The Actors and Dapple).

    5. Award notes:

      i. Finalist for upcoming 2004 Nebula Award (best novella)

      ii. Finalist for 2003 Asimov’s Reader Poll (best novella)

      iii. Finalist for 2003 Locus Award (best novella)

  22. The Whisper of Disks by John Meaney [2002 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 04/17/04]

    1. Synopsis: 2102: an elderly woman, 113-year-old Augusta Medora de Lauron, reflects on her life and decides to see “the maiden flight”. Cut to 1997: Eight-year-old Augusta goes to work with her mother, a poverty-stricken cleaning woman. We learn that Augusta is unusually bright. Cut to 1843: A thread about Augusta’s ancestor, August Ada Byron (Lord Byron’s daughter), also uncommonly intelligent, for she has foreseen the true power of Babbage’s Engine. Cut to 1998: Augusta’s trip to the library reveals that she is reading way beyond any normal intelligence level. We also learn that the identity of Augusta’s father is unknown. Cut to 1844: Ada schemes to avoid scandal with the birth of an illegitimate child. Cut to 2001: Augusta’s intelligence is noticed by Oxford teachers and professors. Cut to 1844: Ada gives birth. Cut to 2004: A 14-year-old Augusta attends Oxford, learns programming (via the Java JDK!), and gets mugged. Cut to 1844: Ada’s child is put aboard a boat. Cut to 2006: Augusta starts to formulate an idea for a computer game. Cut to 1848: Ada’s child is older. Cut to 2024: Augusta creates a computer game whose sales skyrocket, making her rich. The basis for the game is a mixture of mathematics and physics that forms the seed for an even larger idea. Cut to 1852: Ada’s continuing story (not much). Cut to 2024: Augusta demos a laser that can travel through another dimension. Cut to 2102: An 113-year-old Augusta witnesses the first-ever FTL spaceship travel to Alpha Centauri and back?within minutes.

    2. Review: Cool concepts but stiff writing style. The 1800’s story line was incredibly boring and should have been omitted; it would have made a much more interesting story.

  23. The Hotel at Harlan’s Landing by Kage Baker [short story] (Rating: ) [Read 04/17/04]

    1. Synopsis: This is a story of baker’s “The Company” series in which a pair of time-traveling defectors hole up in a 1934 seaside town. Unfortunately, someone comes looking for them.

    2. Review: The story, as told by a “native” barkeep, provides lots of atmosphere. It almost reads like a ghost story. Not having read any of Baker’s Company stories, I found this to be a bit under-explained. The confrontation between the good and bad guys was short, but cool, though.

  24. The Millennium Party by Walter Jon Williams [vignette] (Rating: ) [Read 04/17/04]

    1. Synopsis: A man readies for his 1,000th anniversary by plugging in a set of stored memories containing all the good times they’ve shared.

    2. Review: Not bad, but not spectacular either. The idea of plugging in hand-picked memories is a good one.

    3. Also available online.

  25. Turquoise Days by Alastair Reynolds [2002 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 04/18/04]

    1. Synopsis: The story is told in three acts:

      1. Two sisters, Naqi and Mina, are on a scientific exploration mission on Turquoise, an ocean-covered planet that is one home of the mysterious alien entities known as the Pattern Jugglers. During a communications blackout, they discover a Juggler node. The Patten Jugglers “invite” them to go swimming, which is how the Jugglers mind-meld with others. The sisters briefly sense an evil alien mind as part on the collective consciousness of the Pattern Jugglers. Only Naqi returns from the swim. Mina is presumed dead; another casualty of the Pattern Jugglers.

      2. Two years later, a spaceship lands on Turquoise, the first to arrive in nearly a century. The crew wishes to study the Pattern Jugglers on Turquoise. Their attention turns to the Moat Project which is designed to isolate a portion of Jugglers and study their behavior. Political pressure forces the Moat Project to immediately “close the moat”, an event that is safely months away. Naqi, now a prominent leader of the Moat Project, receives word that one member of the landing party, Weir, might pose a security risk to the project. Soon, Weir makes an unscheduled trip out to a Juggler node.

      3. Weir starts a chain reaction amongst Juggler nodes in the Moat that causes them to die. Naqi learns the identity of the evil mind absorbed by the Jugglers, the true mission of Weir, and the ulterior motives of the spaceship crew. She swims once more, communicates with Mina and relays to the Jugglers the danger. The Jugglers decide to take matters into their own hands.

    2. Review: Excellent story! It’s set in the Revelation Space universe and was, for me, much a more accessible read. There was a steady dramatic buildup throughout the whole piece with little pockets of drama and mystery interspersed throughout. I remember feeling the same way about Reynolds’ story Spirey and the Queen (reviewed here). There’s great sense of wonder in the airships that are home to the human inhabitants and in the Pattern Jugglers who are given a much larger treatment here than in Revelation Space. Nicely done!.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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