Spread across 8 compact discs and totaling more than 9.5 hours of narrated fiction, Allan Kaster’s latest audio anthology — The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 2, collecting the best stories from 2009 — is just as good as his previous audio anthologies. The usual Infinivox narrators (Tom Dheere, Vanessa Hart, and J. P. Linton) are on hand to deliver the goods and each one does an excellent job.
As can be expected with any anthology, your mileage may vary. For me, one story was mediocre and another came close to it. That said, even though this collection was not quite as strong as last year’s collection, many of the stories were very good and three of those were outstanding:
- “As Women Fight” by Sara Genge
- “Mongoose” by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
- “This Peaceable Land” by Robert Charles Wilson
Overall, The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 2 is a collection is well worth listening to.
Individual story reviews follow…
Ian Creasey’s “Erosion” feels less like a story and more like part of one. On a dying planet Earth, a man tests his exo-skeleton suit and gets into trouble. Not a bad premise and, to be sure, it was well-written. It just seemed underdeveloped, plot-wise.
The people of the society depicted in Sara Genge’s “As Women Fight” have a solution to gender equality: they are able to switch bodies with their opposite-sex partners through a fighting ritual. By doing so, they achieve a balance of being, an understanding of what each sex experiences. And while there is an equality of understanding and an indeterminate outcome of gender, each gender itself still has its proscribed roles: the women having senses heightened and acting as homemaker while the male is the hunter that puts food on the table. This setup alone provides more than enough interesting, mind-bending gender-related scenarios and examinations to engage the reader/listener, but for good measure Genge throws in a child abuse sub-plot that raises this story even further. This was one of the most thoroughly thought-provoking and highly enjoyable stories I’ve come across in a long time. Well done.
“A Story, with Beans” by Steven Gould is actually a story within a story. A trio of anthropology students, guided through transformed (post-apocalyptic?) western U.S. territory, are told the story of a peddler who brought books to a small village where women were not allowed to read. That intriguing setup is not really explored, as the story is really about one woman’s escape and the man who helps her.
John Kessel’s “Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance” (originally reviewed in The New Space Opera 2 edited by Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan) follows the daring escape of a monk named Adlan who steals a valuable cultural artifact from the Caslonian Empire to use as leverage to free his planet, Helvetica. Along the way he meets Nahid, a soldier and a non-believer, with whom he forms a relationship and who aids in his escape. Kessel’s story is a fast-paced adventure, barely slowing down long enough to drop hints at the world in which it takes place (like this being the second wave of humanity after the first ended in posthuman apotheosis) before Adlan is once again following the voice of the gods he hears in his head to more adventure. But there was some weirdness about, particularly in the ability to deep-freeze humans by putting them in special 9-dimensional pouches.
Jay Lake’s “On the Human Plan“ is about Digger, a super-intelligent creature-for-hire on a for-future (dying) Earth where humans, ironically, have defeated death. The dog is hired by a being that lives on a different timescale to find the “Door into death”. Heavy on the world building and light on plot, this story is best viewed less as a narrative than as a philosophical contemplation on life and death. Heavy themes, to be sure, I was looking for something more plot-wise.
A chase begins Paul McAuley’s “Crimes and Glory“ in which a thief, who is dubious of the intentions of an alien race, steals an alien artifact and is accused of murder. He’s chased across the stars by a determined detective, who recounts the case for the bulk of the story. As a police procedural, this crime story (which is set in the author’s Jackaroo sequence) is pretty solid and enjoyable, but it does seem to be a bit longer than feels necessary.
“Mongoose” by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear is an excellent story about a space station infested with creatures from another dimension and the subsequent efforts to get rid of them. To get the job done, the exterminator, Irizarry, relies upon his also-otherworldly companion, Mongoose, who is herself a fascinating creature that communicates via touch and colors. This story shares the setting with the also-excellent story “Boojum” (reviewed here) but works fine as a standalone as it paints a creepy picture of the creatures (the Toves, the more fierce Raths and the unseen Bandersnatch), employs a fast-moving plot, and maintains a decent bit of contention between Irizarry and the ship’s political officer.
“Before My Last Breath” by Robert Reed tells the story, from multiple perspectives, of a geologist’s discovery of an alien fossil in a coal mine, which leads to even bigger revelations. The exploration of the lost alien culture is interesting, though seems somewhat disjointed from the otherwise economically drawn characters who do little more than serve as conduits into the lost civilization and what might have been.
“The Island” by Peter Watts (first reviewed in The New Space Opera 2 edited by Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan) takes us to the far, far future where human laborers aboard a starship build Stargates for the long-unseen (and super-evolved) ruling class. Long periods of seep mean their lives are spread out across millennia, with non-coinciding wake periods leading to loneliness. The daily minutia of running the ship is left to its artificially-limited AI, named Chimp. The narrator learns she has a son, Dixon, who is not so bright and looks at Chimp as a mentor. Neither Chimp nor Dixon realizes that their current build imposes a danger on a new star-sized life form. Nor do they see reason to change their course and save its life. Good drama all around and, of course, big ideas that tease the reader into learning more, only to be brought to even bigger ideas.
Robert Charles Wilson’s “This Peaceable Land, or, The Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beacher Stowe” (Originally reviewed in Other Earths edited by Nick Gevers and Jay Lake) presents an alternate history where the American Civil War was never fought because slavery died out due to economic reasons. The story takes place in 1895 and follows an educated black man and his hired hand (a white photographer) as they attempt to document the poor living conditions of slaves who, despite the popular misconception, were (and still aren’t) regarded as equals. Wilson’s slow unfolding of the story is initially misleading; it disguises an otherwise moving and powerful story and poses some thought-provoking questions.