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REVIEW: Year’s Best SF 9 edited by David G. Hartwell

REVIEW SUMMARY: Good collection of stories marred by one unreadable novella.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of 20 stories from 2003, all strictly SF (no fantasy).

PROS: Lots of really good stories.
CONS: One novella was unreadable, dragging down the books rating.
BOTTOM LINE: Good collection of stories more than worth the price.

This is the ninth in the still-running Year’s Best series edited by David G. Hartwell. It attempts to cull the best SF published in 2003. Mostly, it succeeds. There was one story that, for me, was unreadable. Unfortunately, it was of novella length and thus, being weighted more heavily than a short story or novelette, brought down the books rating. One other story was mediocre. The rest though ranged from good to excellent. Standout stories include “Amnesty” by Octavia Butler, “The Waters of Meribah” by Tony Ballantyne, “Castaway” by Gene Wolfe, “Nimby and the Dimension Hoppers” by Cory Doctorow and “Annuity Clinic” by Nigel Brown.

Reviewlettes follow.


  1. “Amnesty” by Octavia Butler [2003 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 09/03/04]
    • Synopsis: Earth has been invaded and settled by collective-type aliens (“Communities”) that travel in bunches resembling bushes. The benign invasion resulted in an Earth-wide economic downslide. An ex-captive human female, Noah, having experienced more pain when back in the hands of men than when in the alien settlement bubbles, returns to the aliens to work as a translator. In the process of recruiting others, she tells the story of her capture and reveals the harshness of the current state of affairs.
    • Review: Excellent story that is very-well told. While the story is not big on action, it does fully flesh out Noah’s story and the unfortunate fate of mankind. The emotions of the well-fleshed-out recruits range from anger, to violence, to acceptance. The alien customs were very interesting – they communicate with humans by enfolding them and with each another via electrical impulses, a process that is comforting to both human and alien.
    • Note: Also available online at SCI FICTION.
  2. “Birth Days” by Geoff Ryman [2003 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 09/05/04]
    • Synopsis: Four birthday-peeks into the life of a homosexual man who is outed on his sixteenth birthday to his NeoChristian mother, develops a way to control the “gay gene” around his 26th birthday, is the first pregnant man near his 36th birthday, and is the father of fifteen children on his 46th birthday when he has a miscarriage.
    • Review: Pretty good story with easy-to-read writing. Interesting to see the change in societal attitudes go from eradication to assimilation. The science behind the male pregnancy was a little silly, though.
  3. “The Waters of Meribah” by Tony Ballantyne [2003 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 09/05/04]
    • Synopsis: Buddy Joe, a convicted rapist, is fitted for an alien suit as part of an experiment to save humanity from a collapsing universe.
    • Review: A bizarre but very likable story; somehow charming. This read like a 50’s monster-movie fever-dream, but had many cool concepts stuffed into its short story length. Things like: a collapsing universe (only 300 miles wide) that forces humanity into a prison-like existence; loss of identity (Buddy Joe becomes the alien as more and more of the suit are grafted onto him); exploring a force of life which attracts other life; playing with man’s destiny; and rights of prisoners (we learn that the rape was a mental one – polluting someone else’s mind with new ideas). Excellent job!
  4. “EJ-ES” by Nancy Kress [2003 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 09/05/04]
    • Synopsis: An aging doctor arrives at a distant colony where she befriends a young girl, a survivor of a virus that killed the settlers.
    • Review: Meh. Just couldn’t get into this one. Not really enough drama here to hold my interest. Maybe if I knew the Janis Ian song, Jesse, on which it is based?
  5. “Four Short Novels” by Joe Haldeman [2003 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 09/08/04]
    • Synopsis: Four brief story synopses, named after famous 19th century novels, exploring the theme of immortality.
    • Review: Not bad, but this didn’t do all that much for me. They were just story outlines or encapsulations, really. They could have been the basis for more interesting, deeper stories
    • Note: Finalist for the 2004 Hugo for Best Short Story.
  6. “Rogue Farm” by Charles Stross [2003 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 09/06/04]
    • Synopsis: A farmer defends his farm from a “farm collective” (a biological entity made up of people who want to migrate to Jupiter), deals with his weary wife (whose consciousness must be uploaded after every breakdown), and bonds with his talking robotic dog.
    • Review: Good story. The dialogue and relationship between the farmer (the man) and his wife was well done. Stross has done better, though.
  7. “The Violet’s Embryos” by Angélica Gorodischer [2003 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 09/12/04 – unfinished]
    • Synopsis: A landing party on an alien planet obtain special abilities.
    • Review: Unreadable. Just couldn’t plow through this no matter how hard I tried.
    • Note: This story is actually more than 20 years old and is only included in the “Best of 2003” anthology because of it’s translation in that year by Ursula K. Le Guin. It should have been left out.
  8. “Coyote at the End of History” by Michael Swanwick [2003 short story] (Rating: 3.5 ) [Read 09/12/04]
    • Synopsis: A collection of fable-like vignettes detailing the interactions of the callous Coyote with the alien Star People and the unexpected results of their dealings.
    • Review: Fun (and not very meaty) set of short tales. All of the humans are named after animals for some reason.
  9. “In Fading Suns and Dying Moons” by John Varley [2003 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 09/12/04]
    • Synopsis: Earth is invaded by aliens from another dimension. The aliens collect all the butterflies of the world.
    • Review: Very good “Earth’s caretakers” story with an ending spelling out Man’s place in the order of things. The aliens exist on another dimension and several references are made to Edwin Abbott’s Flatland.
  10. “Castaway” by Gene Wolfe [2003 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 09/13/04]
    • Synopsis: A man is rescued after spending years alone on a planet. He tells the story of his love who might just be the planet’s spirit.
    • Review: Excellent story. The portrayal of the castaways supposed madness is well done. The story is recounted by a member of the rescue ship who humors the man by listening to him because his “colorful appearance” beats the monotony of everyday ship life.
    • Note: Also available at SCI FICTION
  11. “The Hydrogen Wall” by Gregory Benford [2003 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 09/14/04]
    • Synopsis: Humans look to distant aliens for a way to prevent a cosmic disaster from destroying the Earth. Ruth is a better “Librarian” than your average beginner and she forms a relationship with the distant aliens, whom she communicates with through a pod. The aliens offer to trade a solution to Earth’s dilemma for sex, of a sort.
    • Review: Good hard sf story with some interesting characterizations. The description of the impending disaster and the solution were cool.
  12. “The Day We Went Through the Transition” by Ricard de la Casa & Pedro Jorge Romero [2003 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 09/15/04]
    • Synopsis: Time cops try to prevent the assassination of a leader in order to prevent a Spanish civil war that was never supposed to happen.
    • Review: Very good time travel story that makes the rules of time travel clear (and interesting) and only fails in the paradox department (there are none – a bit on the lazy side). The relationship between two members of the Temporal Intervention Corps is endangered. But the many-worlds line means that the TIC members are essentially immortal. Good stuff.
    • Note: This story was written in Spanish in1997 and is only included in the “Best of 2003” anthology because of it’s translation in that year
  13. “Nimby and the Dimension Hoppers” by Cory Doctorow [2003 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 09/16/04]
    • Synopsis: When the destructive activities of people from other dimensions become too much for a technologically stagnant society, Barry, the mayor, decides to fight back.
    • Review: Fun, light, fast-paced story. People from the techno-stagnant society traveled via bike but lived in semi-sentient houses. Their disdain for the “technocrats” is good-enough motive for Barry to steal armor and a d-hopper device and try to protect his neighborhood.
  14. “Night of Time” by Robert Reed [2003 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 09/17/04]
    • Synopsis: An alien and his “shadow” aide try to recover lost memories from Ash, an inhabitant of the planet Marrow.
    • Review: Good story with a healthy dose of wonder and mystery.
    • Note: Set on the ship/planet Marrow, the subject of one of Reed’s stories that was later expanded into a novel length story.
  15. “A Night on the Barbary Coast” by Kage Baker [2003 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 09/20/04]
    • Synopsis: Company time traveler Mendoza is enlisted by her father in 1850 San Francisco to track precious metal.
    • Review: Good writing and good story, but lacked any oomph to propel it above any other good story. Time travel is only used as a setup plot device to locate the story in the past.
    • Note: A story in Baker’s “The Company” setting.
  16. “Annuity Clinic” by Nigel Brown [2003 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 09/24/04]
    • Synopsis: An aging engineer formulates a plan to escape from an old age home in a future where the elderly sell body parts for money.
    • Review: Great premise and a poignant story. Eloise meets up with the intelligence that lived inside of her doll when she was younger and together they form an escape plan. It’s interesting that Dolly is also unhappy with its existence working at the clinic. Good portrayal of treatment of the elderly.
  17. “The Madwoman of Shuttlefield” by Allen M. Steele [2003 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 09/26/04]
    • Synopsis: Allegra, hoping to escape her past on Earth, migrates to the planet Coyote to star anew. But the settlement is already overburdened with too many people and not enough resources. Allegra soon meets Cecelia, the so-called madwoman who herself is trying to forget her past.
    • Review: Excellent writing here that paints a story that could easily be of Colonial America. The last few pages seemed like there was some explanation missing, though. Maybe it relied on something in the Coyote stories I haven’t read? Still, great writing.
    • Note: Set in the planet Coyote, subject of the short stories collected in the book Coyote and set in m Steele’s Coyote universe
  18. “Bread and Bombs” by M. Rickert [2003 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 09/27/04]
    • Synopsis: What starts out as a story about childhood memories becomes a tale of a new way of life after war. The “weird new family” on the block that all the parents warn you about are foreigners.
    • Review: Well told story, but it’s a little too steeped in nostalgic reminiscing – obviously done for dramatic impact.
  19. “The Great Game” by Stephen Baxter [2003 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 09/27/04]
    • Synopsis: A deep space rescue mission to a faraway star that is seemingly under attack by the Xeelee.
    • Review: Good story, though Baxter’s done better. Some of his usual sense of wonder is sacrificed for some political posturing and trying to validate a war. The geological threat of the volcano was more interesting than the rest of the story.
  20. “The Albertine Notes” by Rick Moody [2003 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 09/28/04]
    • Synopsis: A magazine reporter is assigned to document the history of a memory-enhancing drug called Albertine.
    • Review: There’s not a whole lot of action in this 75 page story, but there sure is a lot of description. Most of the story is essentially background information for the effects that Albertine has in a New York after a bomb has decimated 25 square blocks of the city. The drug allows you to relive memories from both the past and the future. Moody is not normally a genre writer so the prose comes across as bona fide literature, kind of Gene Wolfe-like. I’m having a hard time deciding if this is pure genius or eighty percent fever dream. There were times when the endless recollections verged on annoyance, but most times it was like savoring a good wine. (Not that I drink wine, but if I did, I might savor it. So there.) I guess it must be genius. Overall, a good read, but it would have been better at half the length; still long enough to tell the story and be literate at the same time, but not long enough to get on your nerves.
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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