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[BOOK REVIEW] Science Fiction: The Best of 2003 edited by Karen Haber and Jonathan Strahan

REVIEW SUMMARY: 5 standouts + 7 good stories – 2 mediocre entries = 1 darned good anthology.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of 14 sf stories from the year 2003.

PROS: Twelve stories good or better, five of them excellent.
CONS: Two stories mediocre or worse.
BOTTOM LINE: Proof that 2003 was a great year for short sf.

This is the third in a science fiction anthology series originally started in 2002 by Robert Silverberg. This edition, Science Fiction: The Best of 2003 is edited by sf author (and Silverberg’s wife) Karen Haber and professional editor/reviewer Jonathan Strahan.

The aim of the series is to provide an affordable (read: mass-market paperback) anthology series of science fiction. As such, it necessarily lacks the comprehensive review that Gardner Dozois provides in his The Year’s Best Science Fiction series, but that’s OK. It’s the fiction that counts. And this collection offers a large number of award-nominated and award-winning science fiction.

Of the 14 stories presented, I had already read six of them. Standout stories for me were “The Tale of the Golden Eagle” David D. Levine, “Jon” by George Saunders, “The Chop Line” by Stephen Baxter, “Calling Your Name” by Howard Waldrop, and “The Empire of Ice Cream” by Jeffrey Ford.

Reviewlettes of the stories follow.


  1. “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.
  2. “A Study in Emerald” by Neil Gaiman [2003 short story] (Rating: 4/5) [Read 06/18/04]
    • Synopsis: An alternate universe Sherlock Holmes story in which H. P. Lovercraft’s “Old Ones” are the accepted royalty.
    • Review: Very good story. I like the Sherlock Holmes stories and this was true to the spirit and feel of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I have yet to read any Cthulhu stories.
    • Note: Nominated for the 2004 Best Short Story Hugo Award.
  3. “Flowers from Alice” by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross [2003 short story] (Rating: 3/5) [Read 04/23/05]
    • Synopsis: An engaged man receives a visit from his old girlfriend who is now a post-human.
    • Review: Good story. The possibilities of posthumanism are always interesting. Here, Alice instantiates herself as small orbs and pieces of furniture, constantly flirting with the main character, Cyd, and eventually prompting him to become posthuman himself.
  4. “The Tale of the Golden Eagle” by David D. Levine [2003 short story] (Rating: 4.5/5) [Read 05/15/05]
    • Synopsis: The mind of a bird is grafted to the hull of a spaceship, then extracted into a android storytelling machine, then lost in gambling to a prince who lost his fortune.
    • Review: Very good story that reads like a fable, although the writing is a bit condescending occasionally.
    • Note: Winner of the 2003 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.
  5. “Bernardo’s House” by James Patrick Kelly [2003 novelette] (Rating: 3/5) [Read 06/17/04]
    • Synopsis: A sentient house pines for her creator, Bernardo, who hasn’t been home for a long time. The house is visited by a streetwise girl who moves in and begins to fill the emptiness left by Bernardo.
    • Review: A good story. A bit weird though. Through explicit flashbacks, we learn that Bernardo engages in sexual activity with the house via a seemingly human extension. Ultimately, we find out that the house has blanked out the fate of Bernardo and why he hasn’t come home.
    • Note: 2004 Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novelette.
  6. “Confusions of Uñi” by Ursula K. Le Guin [2003 short story] (Rating: 2/5) [Read 04/27/05]
    • Synopsis: A light, Alison in Wonderland-like tale depicts the problems one can encounter while traveling between planes of existence.
    • Review: Meh. Although the casual writing was appealing, overall this story didn’t do much for me.
  7. “Jon” by George Saunders [2003 novelette] (Rating: 5/5) [Read 04/30/05]
    • Synopsis: Two kids working as Assessors (jacked in to advertisements to determine their effectiveness) fall in love, have a kid and oppose each other on whether to go out into the real world.
    • Review: Despite the Algernon-speak of the narrating protagonist, I was ripping through story waiting to see what happened next. The themes have been done before – ignorance, love, freedom, consumerism – but the scenario portrayed here was excellent. I liked the ideas that (1) kids were used and raised as assessors, (2) that Assessors are deemed a privileged position by the outside society, and (3) that the Assessors ironically seemed to lack communication skills while being the ones who determined which ads were successful. Wonderful story.
  8. “The Cookie Monster” by Vernor Vinge [2003 novella] (Rating: 4/5) [Read 08/30/04]
    • 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.
    • Note: Winner of the 2003 Hugo Award for Best Novella.
  9. “Legions in Time” by Michael Swanwick [2003 novelette] (Rating: 4/5) [Read 05/20/05]
    • Synopsis: In 1934, Eleanor Voigt is hired to watch, but never open, an empty closet and press a button if anyone comes out. Curiosity eventually gets the best of her and she opens the closet to find a far-future where humans have become slaves. Ultimately, Eleanor joins the fight against the Aftermen, humans from the even-further-future who are conquering their way back through the time streams.
    • Review: Very good story that’s fast-paced and full of epic, eon-spanning ideas. Eleanor is quickly caught up in an adventure for which she is (surprisingly) prepared. The explanation of the Aftermen and their enemy, the Rationality, is heady stuff, but the writing is top-notch.
    • Note: Winner of the 2004 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.
  10. “The Chop Line” by Stephen Baxter [2003 Novelette] (Rating: 4.5/5) [Read 05/03/05]
    • Synopsis: A ship from 24 years in the future arrives after having suffering a devastating Xeelee attack and a young ensign Dakk confronts her older self (Captain of the attacked ship). Ensign Dakk must help prosecute Cpatain Dakk for disobeying the “no hero” Doctrine.
    • Review: Very good story. I liked that the events of the future were sent back to the past as a form on military intelligence. Naturally, this gives rise to the “decision vs. destiny” question. Can you change the future? Time is initially portrayed as immutable, but we later learn that things aren’t always that clear cut. Although Baxter’s description on the ability to change the future was a bit nebulous, this was a fun and thought-provoking read.
  11. “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.
  12. The Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford [2003 novelette] (Rating: 5/5) [Read 07/21/04]
    • Synopsis: A man with synesthesia – a condition that causes some serious sensory association – has visions of a beautiful woman when he tastes coffee. His first experience occurs as a young boy when he sneaks out and tastes coffee ice cream.
    • Review: Really good story and a quick read. The condition of synesthesia is interesting in that there are lots of twisted sensory descriptions like “the horrible smell of purple” and “the ring of the telephone feeling like burlap.” An excellent description of William’s boyhood initiates the lifelong loneliness that prompts what he believes is a hallucination of the girl Anna. Or, is she real?
    • Note: 2004 Hugo Nominee and 2004 Nebula Winner.
  13. “Bumpship” by Susan Mosser [2003 short story] (Rating: 2/5) [Read 05/19/05]
    • Synopsis: The retrospective tale of a planet’s legally enforced eviction.
    • Review: his one was kind of mediocre. The whole story is done in a first-person narrative which is essentially the transcript of an interview whose subject involves the speaker own survival from the bumpship, which is fine, as far as it goes. However it felt like it took too long to get off the ground.
  14. “Only Partly Here” by Lucius Shepard [2003 novelette] (Rating: 3/5) [Read 05/19/05]
    • Synopsis: In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bobby meets a mysterious stranger in the bar where he and friends unwind after working at cleaning up Ground Zero.
    • Review: Good story, but slow, and I wouldn’t classify this as science fiction. I would classify it as fantasy but even that is not apparent until very near the ending. Until then, it reads like present-day fiction. Because of this, the identity of the mysterious Alicia, or rather, her nature, is no surprise at all.
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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