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REVIEW: Science Fiction: The Best of 2004 edited by Haber/Strahan

REVIEW SUMMARY: 4 standouts + 6 good stories – 2 Meh – 1 forgettable = good overall.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of 13 sf stories from 2004.

PROS: 10 stories good or better, 4 of them excellent.
CONS: 3 stories mediocre or worse.
BOTTOM LINE: This was weaker than last year’s anthology in this series but still good overall.

This is the fourth in a science fiction anthology series originally started in 2002 by Robert Silverberg. This edition, Science Fiction: The Best of 2004 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 showcasing the best science fiction of the target year. 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.

Standout stories in this anthology are “The People of Sand and Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi, “The Best Christmas Ever” by James Patrick Kelly, “The Voluntary State” by Christopher Rowe and “Three Days in a Border Town” by Jeff VanderMeer.

Reviewlettes of the stories follow.


  1. “The Best Christmas Ever” by James Patrick Kelly (2004 short story) (RATING: 4.5/5) [READ: 06/24/05]
      • Synopsis: he last man on Earth, in an understandable depression as of late, gets an early Christmas courtesy of subservient, human-like, shape-changing “biops” who cater to his every wish.
      • Review: This well-written story’s Twilight Zone vibe made it wonderfully creepy. Its dash of poignancy (his biop “girlfriend” appears as his lost love) and suspense (the man wishes for a gun and gets it) make it a darn good read. I was hoping for different ending, though. Still, excellent job!

    Note: Also available online at SCI FICTION and in mp3 format at Jim Kelly’s website.

  2. “The Voluntary State” by Christopher Rowe (2004 novelette) (RATING: 4.5/5) [READ: 06/21/05]
    • Synopsis: Soma, a Nashville painter, is abducted by a band of rebel Kentuckians (yes…people from Kentucky) whose goal is to free the people of Tennessee from the control of an all-powerful AI.
    • Review: Wonderfully weird and challenging; always a half-step ahead of my complete understanding of what was really going on. At times, this was a little frustrating, but mostly it kept me thinking. In the end, I got the same “wanna do that again” reaction after watching The Sixth Sense; once you know what’s really happening, you want to experience it again with that higher level of understanding. Interestingly, the people of Tennessee see themselves as living in Utopia (everyone participates in singing the national anthem – even the environment) when they are actually living in a Dystopia. Fascinating imagery (like the flying Tennesse Highway Patrolmen) and high-concept ideas (like mind-control and sentient cars) made this story seem fresh and filled with a sense of wonder.
    • Note: Hugo Nomination for Best Novelette 2005.
    • Note: Nebula Nomination for Best Novelette 2004.
    • Note: Available online at SCI FICTION.
  3. “The Lost Pilgrim” by Gene Wolfe (2004 novelette) (RATING: 2/5) [READ: 06/07/05]
      • Synopsis:

    A time traveler bound for the Mayflower overshoots and hooks up with Argonauts instead.

    • Review: This was disappointing to me in that it was more of a fantasy rather the sf I was expecting. The narrator of the diary entries fought six-armed giants and such. Maybe because of this genre switch it failed to hold my interest. The writing style was, however, appropriate for the content and kept this from being worse than mediocre. Sigh.
  4. “Memento Mori” by Joe Haldeman (2004 short story) (RATING: 4/5) [READ: 06/12/05]
    • Synopsis: A doctor’s patient gets an exorcism-like immortality treatment courtesy of nanotech.
    • Review: At a sleek 4 pages, this short story doesn’t offer a lot of meat, but the images portrayed are shocking nonetheless.
    • Note: The title is Latin for “remember mortality”.
  5. “PeriAndry’s Quest” by Stephen Baxter (2004 novelette) (RATING: 4/5) [READ: 06/12/05]
    • Synopsis:
    • Review: A seventeen year old from the Shelf falls for a girl from the Attic, where time moves about ten times faster.
    • Note: Nicely done. The world of Old Earth has been affected by some unknown force such that time moves faster as you increase your altitude. Peri is from the Shelf and, as a member of a House, is served by people from the Attic, a small town up the side of a cliff where time moves about ten times faster. He falls for Lora, an Attic girl he meets at his father’s funeral. Nice touches were the perspective of up and down for people. For example, for people on the Shelf, the sky color is “blueshifted” while the lowlands at the bottom of the river appear red in color. Also, the bottom of the waterfall fans out as the faster moving falls from above pressure the lower, slower-moving waters to expand. Neat ideas.
  6. “Three Days in a Border Town” by Jeff VanderMeer (2004 novelette) (RATING: 4.5/5) [READ: 06/13/05]
    • Synopsis: One woman’s search for the planet’s last, elusive, moving city.
    • Review: This excellent story had a literary feel about it that created a marvelous mood and flavor. The backdrop of the story is shrouded in mystery and hints that left me wanting more. The small border towns treat the mostly unseen moving city with reverence and have a mysterious set of customs in their own right. The story of the unnamed woman is spliced with the seemingly unrelated relationship she has/had her husband, Delorn. (Although the splicing was evident in most of the story, the early parts lacked any white space between the two story lines so, alas, it took a few pages to realize there were different threads. I think this is an editing problem though and not the intention of the author.) In the end, we realize that the two story lines are indeed related.
    • Note: This story is set in the same world as the critically acclaimed Veniss Underground. The writing in this novelette makes me want to read the book.
  7. “Elector” by Charles Stross (2004 novella) (RATING: 3/5) [READ: 06/27/05]
    • Synopsis: In the post-singularity era, simulations of historical figures are overpopulating Saturn thanks to the handiwork if semi-godlike creatures known as the Vile offspring. Election candidate Amber Macx hopes to save post-human mankind from the inevitable destruction of the refuge planet (and Earth as its resources are used to produce more nano-machines). Amber’s father, Manfred, is re-instantiated in human form – he was a flock of pigeons – to help her and so is Amber’s son, Sirhan.
    • Review: This story is as equally enjoyable as the other stories in the Accelerando sequence that I have read (“Lobsters” and “Halo“), which is to say that the it is stuffed to the brim with imaginative ideas on a grand scale, interestingly extrapolates technology to new, dizzying areas and is well-written. But it also says that reading the story is difficult to read at times because of all the jargon. You can tell that Stross has fun with the writing; sometimes it’s laugh-out-loud funny. (I particularly liked the FAQ for orienting newly instantiated humans: activities to be avoided include “giving your bank account details to the son of the Nigerian Minister of Finance.”) A good story overall, it just takes some work to wade through it.
    • Note: This is the final story in the nine-part Accelerando sequence, which was released in its entirety just last week.
    • Note: Hugo Nomination for Best Novella 2005.
    • Note: Also available online at Asimov’s.
  8. “Opal Ball” by Robert Reed (2004 short story) (RATING: 3/5) [READ: 06/14/05]
    • Synopsis: Shows the brief relationship between two people who “play” at predicting the future for money. Unfortunately, the pool of players predicts they won’t make it.
    • Review: A good story, but it felt like it needed something more.
  9. “My Mother, Dancing” by Nancy Kress (2004 short story) (RATING: 1/5) [READ: 06/14/05]
    • Synopsis: The story of genderless, posthuman Johnny Appleseeds whose Great Mission is to populate the lifeless worlds of the galaxy. They come to learn that one of their seeding has resulted in life.
    • Review: I must admit that it was really late at night when I read this and I was very tired. Maybe that’s why I felt like I was dragging myself to finish it. I couldn’t figure out exactly what was going on for a while and when I did, it was not the revelation I was hoping for. The use of the genderless pronoun “hirs” got quickly annoying to me for some reason. Overall this was disappointing because I like really enjoyed other work by this author.
  10. “The People of Sand and Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi (2004 novelette) (RATING: 5/5) [READ: 06/29/05]
    • Synopsis: A group of miners, bio-enhanced to survive harsh environments through the wonders of “weeviltech”, find a biologically unaltered dog, a creature believed to have been extinct for decades.
    • Review: Interesting was the portrait of how humanity has “evolved” with the aid of technology. They eat sand, are impervious to acid and amputate body parts at the drop of the hat. (By morning, the arm or leg grows back.) In effect, mankind has achieved a form of immortality through science. When they find the unaltered dog, a “lesser” life form, they question their own heritage and what it means to be human. Ultimately they decide that the unaltered species of man was far too vulnerable to lead an enjoyable life. Good stuff.
    • Note: Hugo Nomination for Best Novelette 2005.
    • Note: Also available online at Fantasy & Science Fiction website hosted by SF Site.
  11. “Tourists” by M. John Harrison (2004 short story) (RATING: 3/5) [READ: 06/17/05]
    • Synopsis: A mood piece set in a spaceport bar on the fringes of the mysterious Kefahuchi Tract.
    • Review: Harrison’s literary style is played to good effect in this brief character study of the bar’s despondent occupants. The whole story is set in the bar and the five characters, each with a story, come and go.
    • Set in the same universe as the book Light.
    • Note: Available online at
  12. “All of Us Can Almost…” by Carol Emshwiller (2004 short story) (RATING: 3/5) [READ: 06/15/05]
    • Synopsis: A reflection on the lost art of flying told from point of view from a flightless female bird, a chicken, I think. A youngling attaches itself to the female, asking her to fly. They are chased by an amorous male up to a “cliff” where it’s sink or fly.
    • Review: This took a little bit to get into, but it’s pretty good. The chicken’s thoughts explain the brief backdrop of the predatory society in which they live.
    • Note: Available online at SCI FICTION.
  13. “The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid” by Walter John Williams (2004 novelette) (RATING: 2/5) [READ: 07/03/05]
    • Synopsis: A high-seas adventure in which an American Indian folk band (who moonlight as spies) hires a team of acrobatic swimmers to retrieve a mysterious biotech treasure from a sunken ship.
    • Review: Meh. This story only managed to interest me peripherally thanks to mostly flat characters, a predictable mystery killer and a marginally interesting plot. The white self-replicating pyramids (actually tetrahedrons, as the main character is so fond of correcting) were cool, though. This one has some similar themes (biotech, espionage) to Williams’ “The Green Leopard Plague“.
    • Note: Available online at SCI FICTION.
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.

3 Comments on REVIEW: Science Fiction: The Best of 2004 edited by Haber/Strahan

  1. And the Dozois anthology has hit the stands! Don’t get crushed under the weight of all the annual best of sets!


  2. You need to reread “My Mother, Dancing” while awake! It’s not about life that resulted from their seeding. It’s about the consequences of their arrogant refusal to acknowledge life that arose spontaneously, because of their religious belief in Intelligent Design.

  3. I stand corrected! Thanks.

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