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REVIEW: The Year’s Best Science Fiction #21 edited by Gardner Dozois

REVIEW SUMMARY: 6 standouts + 20 good stories – 3 losers = one heck of a collection.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of 29 sf stories from the year 2003.

PROS: Most of the stories were well-written and memorable
CONS: 3 stories failed to impress.
BOTTOM LINE: Better than most anthologies. 2003 was a good year for short sf.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction series is considered by many to be the premier science fiction anthology series. And with good reason. Gardner Dozois, who recently stepped down as editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, does have an eye for quality. And his summation of the year, in this 21st edition the year in question is 2003, is unsurpassed in it’s detail and it coverage of all media and sf happenings. However, this is just one man’s opinion as to what is best so it’s only natural that there would be some missteps. Three stories failed to significantly impress me; two of those were politics drenched alternate history tales, the other was marred by a hard-to-read writing style.

But there was plenty of sf goodness to be had here. I feel comfortable saying that this anthology is better than most. Standout stories for me were “The Ice” by Steven Popkes, “The Bear’s Baby” by Judith Moffett, “Calling Your Name” by Howard Waldrop, “King Dragon” by Michael Swanwick, “Anomalous Structures Of My Dreams” and “Welcome To Olympus, Mr. Hearst” by Kage Baker.

Before picking up the book, I had already read some of the stories because they were available elsewhere – I read 4 of the stories in David G. Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF #9 and I read 2 stories online.


  1. “Off On A Starship” by William Barton [2003 novella] (Rating: 4/5) [Read 11/13/04]
    • Synopsis: In the 1960’s, a sixteen-year-old boy named Wally finds himself whisked away on a flying saucer to encounter faraway planets with a more-than-friendly robot in the universe of the “Lost Empire”.
    • Review: This story is steeped heavily in the sense-of-wonder of golden-age science fiction. It reads like an amalgam of every 40’s and 50’s sf adventure that was ever written. Wally is an avid science fiction reader so the first-person narrative is littered with references to those golden age stories to which this story pays homage. And being an sf reader makes the character easy to relate to. Since I like golden age sf so much, this story came across as nostalgic and charming. Weird, though, were the horny teenager parts and the love/sex sub-plot with the shape-changing robot. The visited planets were largely unpopulated (hence the “Lost Empire” name) so the sense of wonder comes from planets and technologies.
  2. It’s All True by John Kessel [2003 short story] (Rating: 3.5/5) [Read 06/08/04]
    • Note: I read this in June 2004 at the SCI FICTION website. What follows is what I said then.
    • Synopsis: A time-traveling Hollywood talent scout travels back to 1942 to recruit Orson Welles to make movies in the year 2048.
    • Review: A good story. It is mostly an examination of Welles’ character with more than a generous helping of his films. Even the title refers to a docudrama about Welles.
  3. “Rogue Farm” by Charles Stross [2003 short story] (Rating: 3/5) [Read 09/06/04]
    • Note: I read this in September 2004 as part of David G. Hartwell’s Years Best SF #9. What follows is what I said then.
    • 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.
  4. “The Ice” by Steven Popkes [2003 novella] (Rating: 5/5) [Read 11/14/04]
    • Synopsis: Phil Berger, a talented high school hockey player, learns he is the clone of famed hockey player Gordon Howe. When word leaks out, the pressure mounts and over the next few decades Phil must decide if the cloning has determined his fate or if he can choose his own destiny.
    • Review: Very well-written story in which I was totally immersed. The numerous characters are portrayed so well that they seem real. While the cloning parts of the story were enjoyably thought-provoking and interesting, they served the story by not overwhelming the poignant portrayal of a man’s life. In fact, this story mostly reads like a non-genre fiction story, which is fine, because this is the perfect example of powerful writing. Well done.
  5. “Ej-es” by Nancy Kress [2003 short story] (Rating: 2/5) [Read 09/05/04]
    • Note: I read this in September 2004 as part of David G. Hartwell’s Years Best SF #9. What follows is what I said then.
    • 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?
  6. “The Bellman” by John Varley [2003 novelette] (Rating: 4/5) [Read 11/16/04]
    • Synopsis: Lunar colony mystery where pregnant police office Anna-Louise Bach goes undercover to investigate the mysterious murders of pregnant women.
    • Review: Except for the gripping but short opening sequence, I though the story setup was a bit slow. I was sure I figured out who the killer was but I was wrong. About midway through, the action intensified and it got really good. The motive for the killings is sufficiently shocking, too. Extras to the story include cool sci-fi inventions like mini-chainsaw knives, midwife pills and race/gender changes. Good stuff overall.
    • Note: Anna-Louise Bach is also featured in the Varley novelettes Bagatelle (1976) and The Barbie Murders (1978).
  7. “The Bear’s Baby” by Judith Moffett [2003 novella] (Rating: 4.5/5) [Read 11/16/04]
    • Synopsis: Set years after alien occupation and humans have been sterilized; the story focuses on Denny, a wildlife biologist who is helping the seemingly altruistic aliens restore the Earth’s ecosystem. After being ousted from his home and reassigned, Denny returns to his land and discovers that the alien Hefn have other plans for Earth’s wildlife. Denny must decide whether to risk a mindwipe by revealing the truth or do as he is told.
    • Review: I thought this was a very good story because the backdrop is interesting (declining human population, alien occupation, humanity clinging to the hope that the “baby ban” will be lifted), the pacing was mostly perfect (there were some minor slow points, but a plot twist or two kick-started it back up) and the characters well portrayed. Although there were lots of long passages with no dialog, which makes the story take longer to read and sometimes makes a story drag, I found myself wrapped up in the story nearly all the way through. The ending was good, but also makes me wonder if there is more to be done with this storyline.
  8. “Calling Your Name” by Howard Waldrop [2003 short story] (Rating: 5/5) [Read 11/17/04]
    • Synopsis: An elderly widower gets a shock from an electric band saw and wakes to find himself in a slightly altered timeline.
    • Review: Excellent story with a quick, terse and humorous writing style that keeps the story lean and entertaining. The poignant ending helped make this a feel-good story.
  9. “June Sixteenth At Anna’s” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch [2003 short story] (Rating: 3.5/5) [Read 11/17/04]
    • Synopsis: Technology exists to combine time windows with virtual reality in order to make holo-recordings of past events, famous or personal. A man named Mac views a famous recording of ordinary people at a restaurant, including his recently deceased wife.
    • Review: Definitely and Interesting concept. But the story needed a little something more to give it an impact, at least something more than Mac’s acceptance of Leta’s death.
  10. The Green Leopard Plague by Walter Jon Williams [2003 novella] (Rating: 3.5/5) [Read 11/17/04]
    • Synopsis: A story-within-a story. Michelle, a synthetic mermaid with the stored memories of a human, is hired to find out what transpired in three unaccounted-for weeks of economist Jonathan Terzian’s life. We experience Terzian’s lost weeks through flashbacks and learned he became embroiled in a conspiracy to unleash a virus that can purportedly eradicate hunger by transforming human skin to chlorophyll (or some such) such that nourishment is obtained for free from sunlight. Will the virus work? Should it be unleashed when Terzian knows the economic collapse it will bring? Meanwhile, we learn that Michelle harbors a secret of her own concerning her lover, another synthetic.
    • Review: Some really interesting concepts here – the virus, the downloaded memories and synthetic bodies (Look, I’m an ape! Look, I’m a mermaid!), the espionage angle. However, the story was way too long when all is said and done. The longwinded patches of political and economic tirades did not help matters. Still, it held my attention.
    • Note: This was a finalist for the 2004 Hugo for best novella.
  11. “The Fluted Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi [2003 novelette] (Rating: 3/5) [Read 11/17/04]
    • Synopsis: Lidia and her twin sister have been surgically modified to be human flutes. They perform in a castle for an “evil queen” who sees them as nothing more than a pet project with a capacity to make her rich and famous. Lidia has enough when she learns that the boy she likes was foiled in an attempt to kill the queen and, as punishment, is served for dinner.
    • Review: This story really reads like a fairy tale with the abused kids, the evil queen, the evil security officer, etc. The portrayal of Lidia is well done; the modifications have made her so fragile that she cannot walk without assistance. And it was easy to hate the “queen” (Madame Belari) and her security officer (Burson) who is a genetic mix of man, dog and jackal. The ending is left somewhat open-ended.
  12. “Dead Worlds” by Jack Skillingstead [2003 short story] (Rating: 3/5) [Read 11/20/04]
    • Synopsis: Robert is an “Eye”, a sort of proxy astronaut who sits in a sensory deprivation tank while his consciousness is projected via tachyon stream to faraway worlds, part of a project looking for alien life. The problem is that the process takes his emotions from him and he needs drugs to stay cognizant of his surroundings. This story follows Robert between trips, where he meets Kim Phan, a widower who still suffers the loss of her husband.
    • Review: Good story. The consciousness projecting idea is a good one as are the emotional and psychological price Robert has to pay. Still, the story, while well-written, lacked any real impact.
  13. “King Dragon” by Michael Swanwick [2003 novella] (Rating: 4.5/5) [Read 11/21/04]
    • Synopsis: A wounded, mechanical dragon lands in the middle of a village and assumes the role of King. The dragon forces young Will as his interface to the villagers which causes the villagers to despise Will more and more.
    • Review: Part sf, part fantasy, this story read mostly like a fairy tale or fable. Any way you cut it, it was fun. It was quickly paced and a fast read. There was a large presence of magic, but it was handled perfectly for my tastes. That is, the magic was not so prevalent that my usual apprehension for fantasy was triggered. Characters were distinctive and three-dimensional. A very good story.
    • Note: Set in the same world as Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter.
  14. “Singletons In Love” by Paul Melko [2003 novelette] (Rating: 3.5/5) [Read 11/22/04]
    • Synopsis: Most of the world population has left as part of the Exodus. One individual from a gestalt human “cluster” falls in love with a mere “singleton”. Malcolm, the singleton, was part of a human hive consciousness on the space station known as the Ring but was disconnected by a jealous friend. Meda, part of a 6-person cluster, falls for Malcolm and longs to feel her individuality away from the other 5, something that threatens to break up the cluster’s destiny of piloting a starship.
    • Review: A good story based on an Interesting premise.
  15. “Anomalous Structures Of My Dreams” by M. Shayne Bell [2003 novelette] (Rating: 5/5) [Read 11/22/04]
    • Synopsis: Mainly set in a hospital where the unnamed main character, an AIDS patient suffering from pneumonia, rooms with another pneumonia patient named Mr. Schumberg. Schumberg’s ailment, however, is not only contagious; it’s much more serious than pneumonia. Schumberg, through his job at a telecommunications research lab, has been infected with highly contagious nano-machines that threaten the health of everyone in the world.
    • Review: Excellent story. Powerful writing and a great premise that is slowly uncovered – from the personal story of the antagonist and his roomie through the impending global impact – adding to the ever-mounting tension. The ending leaves open the possibility for much cooler things.
  16. The Cookie Monster by Vernor Vinge [2003 novella] (Rating: 4/5) [Read 08/30/04]
    • Note: I read this in August 2004 at Analog online. What follows is what I said then.
    • Synopsis: Dixie Mae is a customer support representative of a huge technology company. She receives an email revealing something about her childhood that only she knows about. The email leads her on an adventure that proves things are not at all like they appear to be at LotsaTech Company.
    • Review: Very good story because halfway through it reveals itself to be something completely different (and much cooler) than the average mystery story set in a corporate environment. Hard to explain further without giving it away.
    • Finalist for the 2003 Hugo Award for Best Novella
  17. “Joe Steele” by Harry Turtledove [2003 short story] (Rating: 1/5) [Read 11/22/04]
    • Synopsis: Alternate history follows U.S. president Joe Steele from the 1933 election to his death in 1949.
    • Review: Three strikes against this story. (1) Alternate history, (2) Politics and (3) A staccato-like verbiage that was unique and interesting and first, then grew quickly annoying.
  18. “Birth Days” by Geoff Ryman [2003 short story] (Rating: 3/5) [Read 09/05/04]
    • Note: I read this in September 2004 as part of David G. Hartwell’s Years Best SF #9. What follows is what I said then.
    • 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.
  19. Awake In The Night by John C. Wright [2003 novella] (Rating: 3/5) [Read 11/24/04]
    • Synopsis: A story set in William Hope Hodgson’s Victorian story The Night Lands. A young man ventures forth from the protection of the pyramid into the Night Lands to rescue his friend who never returned from rescuing his love.
    • Review: Interesting story that works more for its flavor and mood than its plot (which in itself is good). The author excels at recreating Victorian prose, but I can’t help feeling that I would have enjoyed this story more if I had read Hodgson’s original story. Surely, there were many references to that story that were simply lost on me.
  20. “The Long Way Home” by James Van Pelt [2003 short story] (Rating: 4/5) [Read 11/24/04]
    • Synopsis: As the world is ravaged by nuclear war, a crew of 14,400 finally attempt achieve mankind’s dream of space travel. But the experimental FTL drives take the ship and leave the passengers floating in space, connected through some sort of freeze-dried group consciousness and slowly attracted to the sun’s gravity. Cut to 2 generations later: the world sees first signs of emerging from nuclear freeze. Cut to 400 years later: scientists grapple with the choice between repeating past foibles and charting new technological territory. Cut to centuries later: Mankind once again is set to travel in space as 14,400 comets light up the sky. Welcome home.
    • Review: Very good story that felt like four (interconnected) stories in one.
  21. “The Eyes Of America” by Geoffrey A. Landis [2003 short story] (Rating: 1/5) [Read 11/24/04]
    • Synopsis: Alternate history story that shows a technologically advanced America in 1904. The technology race culminates in television and is driven by the presidential race between Thomas Edison and William Jennings Bryan.
    • Review: Like Turtledove’s “Joe Steel”, this story immediately has strikes against it: (1) alternate history and (2) politics. Sigh.
  22. “Welcome To Olympus, Mr. Hearst” by Kage Baker [2003 novella] (Rating: 4.5/5) [Read 11/25/04]
    • Synopsis: Joe Denham and Lewis Kensington, a pair of immortal time-traveling employees of the Company, are assigned to store some artifacts on the estate of media mogul William Randolph Hearst.
    • Review: Very good story with good characterizations and an entertaining mixture of humor, mystery and suspense. The subplot of the stolen script signed by Rudolph Valentino gave it a little more substance than most stories
    • Note: This is one of Baker’s Company stories
  23. “Night of Time” by Robert Reed [2003 short story] (Rating: 3.5/5) [Read 09/17/04]
    • Note: I read this in September 2004 as part of David G. Hartwell’s Years Best SF #9. What follows is what I said then.
    • 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.
  24. Strong Medicine by William Shunn [2003 vignette] (Rating: 4/5) [Read 11/25/04]
    • Synopsis: A doctor’s suicide attempt is interrupted by a nuclear detonation.
    • Review: Good tension and an efficiently described back story (nanotechnology rendering the doctor’s services obsolete) mark this well-done short-short story.
  25. “Send Me A Mentagram” by Dominic Green [2003 short story] (Rating: 2.5/5) [Read 11/26/04]
    • Synopsis: A polar exploration team is exposed to flesh-eating bacteria.
    • Review: Good idea with some well-described effects of the bacteria, but the characters needed to be fleshed out some more and the suspense cranked up a notch or two.
  26. And The Dish Ran Away With The Spoon by Paul Di Filippo [2003 short story] (Rating: 4/5) [Read 11/26/04]
    • Synopsis: Kaz is about to lose his girlfriend Cody to a “bleb”, a composite of super-intelligent household items that integrate courtesy of a prevalent computer virus.
    • Review: Light-hearted (skillfully borderline silly) and inventive story with strong characters and good back story about Kaz’s bleb paranoia since the death of his parents at the “hands” of a bleb (a set of steak knives attached to a coat rack).
  27. “Flashmen” by Terry Dowling [2003 short story] (Rating: 1.5/5) [Read 11/27/04]
    • Synopsis: In a near-future Australia, alien attacks called Landings are fended off by Flashmen, Earth’s defenders who must make tough sacrifices to save thousands or lives.
    • Review: Tough to get into this story. As if the lack of back story weren’t a big enough strike against this one, the style of using incomplete sentences in the narrative is a surefire entertainment killer. Too bad, the sf idea is a good one.
  28. Dragonhead by Nick DiChario [2003 vignette] (Rating: 3.5/5) [Read 11/27/04]
    • Synopsis: A young man is a victim of a cranial digital implant that has caused eternal information overload.
    • Review: Good short-short story with the point of view switching between the kid’s free association thoughts and the conversation between his mother and doctor.
  29. “Dear Abbey” by Terry Bisson [2003 novella] (Rating: 4/5) [Read 11/28/04]
    • Synopsis: Two professors time-skip through Earth’s future, led by the mysterious, unseen Old Ones in order to determine if they should dictate the course of humanity through a proposed plan (known as “Dear Abbey”) set up by radical environmentalists.
    • Review: Very good story with lots of sense of wonder and thought-provoking issues coming to the fore. The story is structured so that the protagonists skip to several points in the future, each one an order of magnitude further tan the last. Ultimately, they arrive at the The End of Time to learn the identity of the Old Ones (not who I originally though, fortunately). The time-hopping gave the story an episodic feel, much like the Traveler’s observations in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. It also gives a bird’s eye view of the fate of humanity and, much to my liking, it was very bleak. (Maybe this is much to my liking because it was so much different the recent wave of post-singularity stories I’ve read?) Some cool ideas were present across the eons, including a self-aware, but man-made, entity known as ARD, taken by humanity to be the spirit of the Earth. Unfortunately, the love that man feels toward ARD is not reciprocated. Even cooler was RVR, the intelligent, all-knowing AI that does foster a love of mankind. One thing I could have done without was the hard to understand Pidgin English of the Chinese professor, a problem the author solved in later episodes by employing different translation devices.
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.

1 Comment on REVIEW: The Year’s Best Science Fiction #21 edited by Gardner Dozois

  1. “The Bellman” was written by Varley for Ellison’s infamous The Last Dangerous Visions, the book that has been “hanging fire” for what, 20 years? 30 years? now.

    Varley finally asked for it back, and it appeared in Asimov’s and his short story collection as well.

    Maybe it would have been a “dangerous vision” if that anthology had ever come out, now it seems, well, tame!

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