BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Editor Gardner Dozois’ picks for the thirty-six best science fiction stories of 2014.
PROS: An eclectic mix of fiction showcasing the wide range of stories, subjects and writing styles that fall under the sf umbrella; a terrific snapshot of the sf genre.
CONS:Not all stories will work for everyone. I was not fond of stories that were light on plot.
BOTTOM LINE: This volume gives more evidence that the long-running Year’s Best Science Fiction series stands as the definitive go-to volume for science fiction literature.
Clocking in at seven hundred pages, The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Second Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois offers readers thirty-six science stories written in a wide variety of styles by thirty-four authors. (Elizabeth Bear and Ken Liu each had two stories included.) There are a variety of settings as well, like a near-future Thailand, a moon colony, a Victorian-era colonized Mars, a present-day alternate history, and a harsh alien planet. The stories provided a wide variety of subject matter, although two of the stories revolved around futuristic sports (“God Decay” by Rich Larson and “Slipping” by Lauren Beukes). Several of the stories could be described as “poignant” and some stories offered a minimal plot in favor of presenting a snapshot of some situation.
Given the wide variety of stories and their construction, it’s not surprising (and even expected) that some stories would work better than others. I was not particularly fond of stories that were light on plot, for example, instead preferring stories with a definite beginning/middle/ending. Even so, the overall quality of the anthology was very good, much on par with the previous volumes, the most recent ones in particular. Dozois’ super-comprehensive summation of the year in SF continues to be both a treat for readers and an amazing feat of tracking — and that only adds to the value of the volume which will easily provide hours of solid sf-nal enjoyment for readers.
Standout stories in this volume include:
- “The Rider” by Jérôme Cigut
- “The Regular” by Ken Liu
- “Vladimir Chong Chooses To Die” by Lavie Tidhar
- “Passage of Earth” by Michael Swanwick
- “In Babelsberg” by Alastair Reynolds
- “West to East” by Jay Lake
- “Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)” by Rachel Swirsky
- “Red Light, and Rain” by Gareth L. Powell
- “Yesterday’s Kin” by Nancy Kress
Individual story reviews (with links to online versions where available) follow…
“The Fifth Dragon“ by Ian McDonald is about the complex relationship between two women who meet on their way to the moon to become immigrant workers. Adriana was considered the plain middle-child of a large family, but she is smart and ambitious. Achi is always aspiring to be useful. Both women are drawn to work on the moon to suit their individual goals. But the hard environment of the moon means sacrifices must be made. McDonald wonderfully paints a nice atmosphere of the emerging society on the moon (the setting for his upcoming novel Luna), and excels even better at describing Adriana’s and Achi’s relationship with a light-handed and heartfelt touch. In the end, however, I was left wanting more plot. This story serves as a prequel to the upcoming novel Luna: New Moon. Perhaps I will find it there.
“The Rider” by Jérôme Cigut is a superb cyberpunk story set in a world where advanced artificial intelligences are at war with each other while using human “riders” to manipulate meatspace. The story has a bit of a spy story feel as Luke does the real-world bidding of an AI named David, who send Luke on several assignments. The stakes are high, especially when the enemies’ riders have their AI handlers hardwired to their brains. The story is fast-moving and fun, and even includes a bit of thought-provoking themes. It also contains some excellent, rich world building that begs to be explored further in more stories. Well done!
I’ve quite enjoyed Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya stories that I have read thus far, which take place in a future stemming from an alternate history in which China discovered the Americas before the West and in which a high-tech conflict rages between the Mayan and Chinese empires. (The ones I’ve read so far include “The Shipmaker,” reviewed here; “Ship’s Brother,” reviewed here; and “The Waiting Stars,” reviewed here.) The one included in the latest Year’s Best volume is another good story set in that rich world. “The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile“ is a direct sequel to On a Red Station, Drifting and features a young girl named Thien Bao, a resident of a space station along with her mother and aunt (the latter the protagonist of the previous novel). The already-rundown station is nearing the end of its usefulness as the enemy approaches and the characters are confronted with having to evacuate. Rich world building props up much of the story, however Thien Bao’s character is portrayed as being poised for greater things to come.
I bounced hard on “The Burial of Sir John Mawe at Cassini“ by Chaz Brenchley, a retro-future sf story about the burial of a hero. While the idea of the planet Mars being colonized by Victorian era Britain is a solid one, the story’s balance between world building and plot is way out of balance. Nothing at all happens for the majority of the story except observations about the funeral procession. By the time an interesting twist revealed itself, the story had worn out its welcome.
I made the mistake of starting “The Regular” by Ken Liu late at night, a shame because this was a story I simply could not put down. It was a police procedural set in a near future Boston about a cybernetically-enhanced investigator (Ruth Law) looking for a serial killer. The alternating viewpoints, the fast-moving narrative and brief-but-weighty character backgrounds worked in concert to deliver tightly plotted and truly gripping story. Nicely done!
Karl Bunker’s poignant “The Woman from the Ocean” is about a woman who returns to Earth after a long space voyage to find that very much has changed on planet Earth. Short and to-the-point, this story embodies the “single conceit” idea of short fiction in that it presents a single idea, stays focused on it, and draws it to its conclusion. In that way, it felt very satisfying. Regarding the story that unfolded, the story evoked feelings of sadness.
“Shooting the Apocalypse” by Paolo Bacigalupi offers up an excellent story of a near future mid-west United States where water is at a premium. Arizona has it, Texas doesn’t, and the people are essentially at war because of pride in their respective cities. This is all seen through the eyes of a journalist and (mostly) her photographer friend who are looking for the big scoop of their career. Much of the world building at the start of the story comes across as actual commentary on the direction of online media, much like the author did in his (also excellent) short story “The Gambler (reviewed here). The crystal clear characterizations only add to the enjoyment of the story. By story’s end, I was more stoked than ever to read the novel The Water Knife, which is a longer story set in the same arid future.
Much of “Weather“ by Susan Palwick is shrouded in mystery, the mystery being: What happens to people when they die? In this moody story, an older couple disagrees about the eventual fate of their daughter, a contention that comes to the fore when a friend is on the verge of having the same thing happen to his child. Winter weather keeps the man from seeing her during her final hours, giving the story’s main conceit time to play out, perhaps a little too teasingly.
Layered realities are the new normal in Elizabeth Bear’s “The Hand Is Quicker.” People possess technology that allows them to “skin” reality to whatever they wish to see or not see, but only as long as you are a taxpayer. Central character Charlie loses it all in rapid succession: girlfriend, job, money, taxpayer status, and access to virtual reality. What’s underneath is disturbing: a society of “baselines” who are barely scraping by with minimal, if any, access to public health and safety services. Fast-moving and a bit depressing, but only because it serves as a symbol for how we can easily filter out the things we don’t want to accept or admit.
Cory Doctorow mixes maker culture and Burning Man in his near future story “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” the title (and some of the text) being a nod to Robert A. Heinlein. Here, a group of hardware hackers invent a 3D printing machine that uses solar power to convert desert sand into ceramic panels suitable for building structures. That idea leads to one more awe-inspiring: do the same thing on the moon using moon dust, preparing mankind for eventual habitation on the lunar surface. This is certainly an interesting idea for a story, but perhaps more inspiring is some of the life philosophy that is espoused along the way. (In the case of the moon “Gadget,” it’s giving people a reason to go to the moon instead of finding reasons to not go to the moon.) Doctorow has a way of upturning commonly held views and making us see them from a different perspective — certainly a hallmark of science fiction, but usually via symbolism and stand-ins rather than blunt statements that make you stop and think. He also promotes a hopeful future, which is refreshing in its own right. Although the Gadget is the central technological thread of the story, it takes a while for that story to ramp up. Until then, the story reads like (mostly) mainstream fiction about the adult years of one man’s life. In that regard, the story as a whole reads more or less like Mr. Holland’s Opus in Space, which, in retrospect, would have been a better expectation at the outset of a story that otherwise seemed distracted recounting seemingly pointless (to the story) sidebars like a false cancer scare and car accident scenes. So, a little meandering, sure but also evoking several emotions and ultimately satisfying. (And a Sturgeon Award winner, so what do I know?)
“Vladimir Chong Chooses To Die” by Lavie Tidhar is a story about precisely that: a man who chooses to see a mortality specialist at a suicide clinic to end his life with dignity, instead of slowly fading away as he loses his memory. Of course, the future setting of this story (which is part of the author’s culturally diverse Central Station sequence of stories) makes it a little more interesting in that Vlad also has the memories of his ancestors. Touching and bittersweet, I have to admit that this story struck a chord with me partly for personal reasons.
To its detriment, not much happens in the foreground of D.J. Cockburn’s “Beside the Damned River” other than a truck breaking down in a small town in a near future Thailand. The science fiction aspects come largely from the sparse world building that happens in the background. But a brief mention of asteroid mining doesn’t do much to raise this story above a level of mediocrity.
“The Colonel“ by Peter Watts is a hard science fiction story about a military man who has to deal with the threat of an invading hive mind and current fates of his wife and son. While the general events of the story are interesting, there is so much more to the story delivered in the form of sf-nal ideas mentioned in passing, and usually in language that makes it barely (if at all) understandable from context. This gives the story an artificial barrier to immersion, making it hard to really care about the main character besides any emotion you would feel for any stranger. While caring for the main character is not a requirement to enjoy the story, not being able to connect does lessen its impact.
“Entanglement” by Vandana Singh is less of a story and more of a series of loosely interconnected vignettes that take place in an environmentally aware near future. Four of them are about how little changes we make in behavior can have larger impacts on the environment. The first one makes some attempt explaining how the stories are interconnected, thus qualifying the story as science fiction in its use of a global method of communication. While the stories are good — each one had me wondering if there was more than character study, then surprised me by some surprising turn of events — the eco-conscious message was a little too preachy for my taste.
“White Curtain” by Pavel Amnuel (originally written is Russian) is a story about multiple realities and two men: Oleg, who can control them, and Dima, the theoretician who holds the affections of Oleg’s one true love, Irina. The story revolves around Irina’s fate and whether or not it can be changed. Mind-bending ideas abound in the dialogue driven story, for sure. The story is marred only by the unnatural cadence of that dialogue, perhaps due to its translation.
“Slipping” by Lauren Beukes is the story of a young girl named Pearl who is an Olympic-style runner competing in a race with a twist — Pearl and her rivals are mechanically enhanced. Pearl’s enhancements came after she lots her legs in a tragic accident. In a short space, Beukes portrays a sympathetic character and shows that sometimes second chances comes at great cost.
“Passage of Earth“ by Michael Swanwick is a wonderful story about an alien invasion as seen from the perspective of a medical examiner. When Hank is visited by his ex-wife with the opportunity to examine the strange, worm-like aliens, he has no idea what he’s in for. Swift-moving and fun, this story mostly reads like 1950s SciFi B-movie until it takes a hard left turn into wonderfully weirder territory.
“Amicae Aeternum” by Ellen Klages (which translates to “Friends Forever”) is not so much a story (with a proper beginning, middle and end) than it is a snapshot of a girl’s last day on Earth before she and her family board a generation ship. She spends the time, just hours really, remembering all the things she likes about Earth and will never see again. Poignant, but not much more than that.
For anyone who may have thought that short fiction about robots is passé or irrelevant, I would kindly point them to “In Babelsberg” by Alastair Reynolds. It’s about an artificially intelligent robot named Vincent who was to be a deep space probe, exploring and mapping parts of the universe unknown. Vincent has returned to Earth temporarily to do the talk show circuit at the behest of his sponsors. Vincent secretly enjoys his celebrity though may think otherwise. Therein lies just one of the interesting aspects of this story: Reynolds doesn’t follow Asimov’s three laws of Robotics, and by not doing so, spins a story that has deeper meaning than you might initially think. Add to that his ideas of the future of chat shows and genetic modifications and you end up with a well-told short story that presses all the right science fiction buttons. Well done!
Set in the far future, “Sadness” by Timons Esaias is a portrait into a division in humankind, between the New People (who are the dominant race of mankind) and the dwindling population of humans to which the narrator belongs. The narrator opines the loss of human culture, but not much more happens in this story. The writing is otherwise good and evokes a morose atmosphere.
“West to East“ by Jay Lake is a superb adventure story about a pair of space travelers stranded on an alien planet with a harsh atmosphere. I think I say that objectively, but truth be told, having known the late Jay Lake and seeing the situation of these two astronauts — knowing they are going to die and fighting like hell just to communicate their last words — makes this one of the most effective and heart wrenching stories I’ve ever read.
Rachel Swirsky hits a home run in “Grand Jeté (The Great Leap),” which is about a father’s (Jakob’s) attempts to lessen the pain of his daughter’s (Mara’s) impending death by cancer by building a lookalike automaton and impressing her memories upon it. This goes way beyond the Pinnochio-esque setup that the premise makes it out to be because so many issues come into play. How will Mara handle knowing that a “doll” with her likeness and memories will live on after she is gone? Will his “new” daughter (named Ruth out of respect for the daughter) ease the father’s pain? Ruth will look like Mara, but will she act and feel the same? Is she the same? Lots of weighty issues are bandied about expertly here. I admit miscalculating the direction the story would take after the heartbreaking first act seen from Mara’s point of view. Even the back story of Jakob, though perhaps not necessary to drive the plot forward, was useful in illuminating that character and the hardships he himself had endured. Meanwhile, Ruth, the artificial child, has a significant part to play in the story as she figures out her place in the family and how to act around Mara. Highly recommended.
“Covenant” by Elizabeth Bear is a suspenseful story about a serial killer who becomes the victim. The twist here is that male serial killer is caught, sentenced to “rightminding” — a process that effectively fixes the brain abnormality causing the psychopathic tendencies and whatever other genetic modifications are desired — and becomes a woman in the process. But the memories remain so that when she is kidnapped, she can speculate what the abductor is thinking. An interesting premise and fairly riveting story, especially when you catch yourself rooting for the victim who used to be a killer.
Karl Schroeder’s story “Jubilee“ is set in the same universe as his novel Lockstep and is most notable for the interesting future society it has set up. Certain factions of society enter a state of periodic suspended animation (say 1 month awake for every 30 years asleep) and are thus able to live their lives piecemeal across centuries. Contrast this with the realtimers who do not enter suspended animation and hold the so-called Locksteppers in high regard. The main protagonists are a group of realtime couriers belonging to a society that sprung up around hand-delivering (you read that right) the letters of two young out-of-sync locksteppers in love, called The Author and the Authoress, every thirty years or so. Every nine centuries of real time (but two years of subjective time for the locksteppers-in-love) they are both awake. The foreground story lies around the impending Jubilee (wakening) of the Author and the courier’s attempt to deliver a letter. Things do not go as expected and their society is thrown into turmoil. This foreground plot doesn’t really become interesting until the last pages — the main attraction here is the world building. But, for the life of me, despite some passages about the power of love, I cannot fathom how a society technologically advanced enough to perfect suspended animation and master long-term space travel hasn’t figured an alternate means of communication from hand-delivered mail…like, oh, say email.
“Los Piratas del Mar de Plastico (Pirates of the Plastic Ocean)” by Paul Graham Raven concerns a journalist named Hope Dawson who is working a story of macroeconomic changes in Spain. Things eventually lead to a mysterious drug lord taking advantage of expanse of the greenhouses (the “plastic ocean”) there. The story includes some interesting concepts about the “landscape” of short-lived businesses, but sadly the story is so steeped in boring (to me) economics as to be a story killer.
“Red Light, and Rain” by Gareth L. Powell is a gripping action story about two time-traveling enhanced humans from the future — one hunter, one prey — who wage their battle on the streets of present-day Amsterdam. The fast-moving narrative does a remarkable job of creating a compelling story with little time spent on characterization. Paige, the hero, is out to kill Josef, a so-called “vampire” because of his ceramic fangs. The future, as presented, sounds intriguing enough for me to want to read more stories set there, though here, it’s never quite clear how Paige turns from being Josef’s teacher to his enemy — a minor omission that doesn’t detract too much from a gripping story.
“Coma Kings“ by Jessica Barber is a terrific story about how videogames (and presumably other electronic media) consume our lives. Jenny is a young girl who is one of the best players at Coma, a fully-immersive virtual reality-type game played by jacking the game into your skull. But like all technology, even cool games comes with a price, as manifested by her sister, Annie. Much to her credit, the author doesn’t deliver a heavy-handed message; readers are free to infer their own meaning, or not. However, the promise of the fantastic premise, by story’s end, seems unfulfilled by an ending that feels unresolved.
One of the interesting things about “The Prodigal Son” by Allen M. Steele — a story about a private corporation’s efforts to launch the first space ship on an interstellar journey — is that it feels like your’re reading mainstream fiction. Sure, there are science fictional elements like the ship itself and the state of the near future world and society, but the focus is so much on the main protagonist that those parts seem only secondary. The main character, Matt, is the misfit twenty-eight-year-old son of the family behind the corporation. Matt doesn’t share his family passion for sending the seeds of mankind into space, but conditions nonetheless keep him there to help out on the project. What follows is a compelling glimpse at some of the challenges (both technical and personal) with achieving a project of such magnitude.
“God Decay” by Rich Larson is the story of a man, once confined to a wheelchair, who is now a sports superstar thanks to body augmentation. I say story, but it’s more of a snapshot in time, surrounding a meeting of him with the woman scientist who gave him those modifications. Much of his background is relayed in the conversation, as well as the nature of the their relationship. The near-future setting makes this all the more believable which, in turn, makes the story — and the man’s predicament– that much more interesting.
Credit to Robert Reed for not only being prolific, but for being prolific at a consistent level of high quality. His outing in this volume, “Blood Wedding,” is yet another other good story with cool sf-nal ideas. The story revolves around the tragedy of an ill-fated celebrity wedding. The bride is the daughter of the second richest man in the world whose only enemy is — you guessed it — the richest man in the world. What’s interesting about this story is (1) the way it’s told, with tragedy unfolding in the opening paragraphs and alternating points of view that lay out the whole story, and (2) The interesting uses of technology from tried-and-true (like cyborg implants) to new and inventive (self-aiming weapons and insect-mounted cameras). By story’s end, you have to appreciate the basic plot laid out and the way in which it is told.
Ken Liu paints an interesting alternate history filled with airship travel in “The Long Haul, from the Annals of Transportation, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009.” It’s a present day story in a history where the Hindenburg flew hundreds of successful voyages, thus opening up the airship travel and transportation industries. The story itself concerns a journalist who accompanies a husband and wife on a journey from central China to Las Vegas hauling cargo on their zeppelin. What is perhaps most interesting about the story is the top-notch world building which not only makes up for a relatively thin plot — not much happens beyond a storm — but is surprisingly believable. Add to that the portrayal of the husband’s and wife’s relationship and you get a darned good story.
Greg Egan’s “Shadow Flock” offers a great premise that taps into a couple of “Next Big Things”: an expert drone programmer is coerced into assisting dangerous thieves on a heist of digital money. The story hits its structure points in relatively rapid succession: establish Natalie as an expert, set up the leverage used by the criminals, describe the heist, show Natlie’s challenges, intentions and resourcefulness, etc. But then the story ends somewhat abruptly, petering out suddenly (not so suddenly that there’s isn’t time to deliver a “technology in the wrong hands” message) and undermining the well-laid-out premise thus leaving readers with something that feels somewhat unresolved.
“Thing and Sick” by Adam Roberts echoes the themes and the setting of John Carpenter’s The Thing in that it takes place in the cold Antarctic at a research station where two scientists (the science-fiction-reading narrator with whom we are supposed to relate, and Roy, an oddball whose behavior becomes more and more bizarre) are searching for a solution to Fermi’s Paradox. The two do not get along very well, and Roy’s withholding of the narrator’s personal letter sets off a decline into madness, compellingly told for as long as it goes on, and effectively conveying the psychological effects of isolation. Eventually, though, the latter parts of the story seem more fever dream — meant, I think, to coincide with the one scientist’s preoccupation with philosophy — and it’s hard to know precisely what went on other than a vaguely described first contact meeting with “the other”. (It seems as if this story is either the crux or the whole of Roberts’ upcoming book The Thing Itself.)
The foreground plot of “Communion“ by Mary Anne Mohanraj is about an alien who comes to collect the remains of his brother, who was killed while protecting humans in a terrorist attack. He deals with two women who knew his brother, though not well. The two women are partners who both agree they want a child, but cannot see eye-to-eye on how much genetic engineering should be employed. There is some thought-provoking internal dialogue around this area, and it is ultimately the portrayal of human relationships and the contrast of alien culture that makes this story work.
“Someday” by James Patrick Kelly takes place on a two hundred year-old colony world, where human customs have diverged from those with which we are familiar. Through the eyes of the main character, Daya, we get to see the mating ritual performed by the colony as Daya chooses the three men who would be fathers to her child. Kelly’s writing style is, as always, easy flowing, leaving the reader time to concentrate on the interesting culture and distinct characterizations he portrays.
“Yesterday’s Kin” by Nancy Kress (originally reviewed here) is a story of first contact with aliens, or perhaps more accurately, about the year following first contact. Aliens have landed in New York, ostensibly on a mission of peace, yet surrounded by a protective shield. A team of scientists is pulled together to visit the “Embassy” at the behest of the aliens for reasons unknown. Geneticist Marianne Jenner, one of the two main protagonists of the story, is one of them. Her recent scientific discovery, modest by her standards but nonetheless noteworthy, makes her an ideal candidate for the scientific team. Marianne is happy to go — it’s the chance of a thousand lifetimes — but she also has many other things to deal with, notably her three children: Ryan, whose work to save Earth’s ecology is of most paramount importance to him; Elizabeth, a short-tempered military police officer who subscribes to the widely held belief (in this slightly paranoid near future) that American isolationism is the solution to its failing economy; and Noah, the misfit of the family, whose addiction to a drug called Sugarcane allows him to temporarily feel like someone else. Noah, the other main protagonist, in particular is a lot for the other family members to handle. However, the author juggles family and national matters with expert precision in “Yesterday’s Kin,” mostly through the way story perspective switches between Marianne and Noah for the length of the story. She expertly teases readers along with one revelation after another. Some of those reveals are central to the aliens’ reason for visiting, while others are more personal to the characters themselves, who are realistically drawn with varying degrees of likability, but always with imperfections. Kress also does an excellent job portraying the impact that the aliens arrival has on society, not just via humorous-but-probably-accurate pop culture influences, but also in reactions caused by fear and uncertainty. Can the aliens be trusted? If they are lying, what is their true motive? These are some of the interesting questions posed by the novella-length “Yesterday’s Kin” while it dabbles in themes of selfishness vs. cooperation and delivers a cool science fictional premise (along with a lot of genetic science) in the process. The ending has the dual benefit of being one that is (mostly) unexpected and wholly satisfying. Nicely done.