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The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois

The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-eighth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois is a big anthology of thirty-three stories and novellas. With a lot to mention, I’ll forego the usual introduction.

“A History of Terraforming” by Robert Reed is a melancholic story that reflects on the inherent intellectual and emotional weaknesses that bedevil the human race and seem, forever, to doom it to self-destructiveness. And, yet, suppose a gentle and wise man could live long enough to impose some self-discipline on us childlike humans. Would he not only transform planets, but also the people who live on them? It’s a pleasing, albeit elegiac meditation on the dangers of hubris and the value of humility. “The Spontaneous Knotting of an Agitated String” by Lavie Tidhar is also somewhat sad. Although we are the sum of our memories, there’s no guarantee that the removal of unhappy memories will make us any happier. Indeed, the irony is the very notion we might have forgotten something important could make us even more unhappy.

At last, I’m able to praise a story by Allen M. Steele. He’s so often come close with the ingenuity of his plotting, but I’ve always felt his work lacked an emotional heart. “The Emperor of Mars” proves a real delight. It’s a reassuring tale of a colony faced with a worker having a serious psychotic break. Instead of reacting with intolerance, there’s a surprisingly supportive response, allowing the man to live in the world as he chooses to believe it is. “The Things” by Peter Watts is the other side of the John W Campbell, “Who Goes There?” as told by the alien “thing”. I was interested in the idea, but thought it went on too long. “The Sultan of the Clouds” by Geoffrey A. Landis is a most ingenious story about money and power in a future version of our solar system. The physical descriptions of life on Venus are fascinating and the plot itself neatly dovetailed together. On a note of frustration, I can understand why the story ended where it did, but I remain curious as to what happened next.

Gardner Dozois looking avuncular

“The Books” by Kage Baker is a post-apocalypse story of a group of travelling entertainers who also act as a repository of some human knowledge and skills. It’s an adult story with children as the protagonists which makes it slightly unusual, avoiding the sentimentality that so often blights such stories and keeping the adults of ordinary intelligence. “Re-crossing the Styx” by Ian R. Macleod is another ingenious idea about life before and after death. It might be surprising to find out how hard people might fight to maintain their existence, particularly if the right technology was available. “And Ministers of Grace” by Tad Williams (1) poses the eternal question of what we might believe if we’re left to our own devices. For too long, we’ve been surrounded by people telling us what’s right and wrong. Perhaps, if those people went away, we might discover more natural or universal laws in operation. It would be interesting to find out. “Mammoths of the Great Plains” by Eleanor Arnason is slightly tedious, chronicling the demise and resurrection of the North American Mammoth in this alternate history. “Sleeping Dogs” by Joe Haldeman is a pleasingly hard-bitten story that ruminates on the uses and abuses of power. When a ruling group controls all aspects of life, problems can disappear or people may simply forget inconvenient truths. “Jackie’s Boy” by Steven Popkes could have been a routine post-apocalypse story, but it’s saved by the relationship between the boy and the elephant. Both have serious trust issues. Nevertheless, as is always the way in stories of this kind, they reach a mutual accommodation in the face of adversity. “Chicken Little” by Cory Doctorow is compulsively intelligent in its discussion of what makes us human and how, if at all, we could change the mix to produce a better version. In this, let’s put aside the ethics of experimenting on people without their knowledge and consent. After all, farmers have been feeding us antibiotics for years. All we need for a mass clinical trial is the right person to sell the need to take the new magic pill. Then we can all find out the hard way whether the world becomes a better place. “Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain” by Woon Ha Lee is a particularly pleasing idea, elegant framed and shortly executed. Like any tasty morsel, it’s consumed in a moment, but lingers on the intellectual palate for a long time. “Return to Titan” by Stephen Baxter is an amusing gonzo science story of an exploration of Titan that literally pulls the plug on the characters’ life support system when they discover sentient life from a different universe. “Under the Moons of Venus” by Damien Broderick is Ballardian in spirit covering rather more contemporary conceptions of knowledge and science. It’s interesting but, for me, underwhelming. “SevenYears From Home” by Naomi Novik (1) sees the tried-and-tested approach of prodding a hornets nest come unstuck because, in this instance, the prodders mistook the nature of the nest. Hornets are dangerous enough but, when they can develop new abilities, everyone may be at risk. “The Peacock Cloak” by Chris Beckett takes an internalised debate on how to develop a world, and allows different facets of a creative personality to play out the options in a pocket universe. It’s an intriguing idea and, like all good ideas, it’s time-limited.

“Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn flirts with sentimentality and just about emerges unscathed in a heart-warming tale of fisherfolk, their quotas and a desire for children. “Seven Cities of Gold” by David Moles is a rather melancholic story about the intellectual and emotional journey all thinking people should take when confronted by the reality of war. When you realise the blood of the dead is on the hand of leaders on all sides of the conflict, the best you can do, assuming you survive, is to get as far away from the madness as possible. “Again and Again and Again” by Rachel Swirsky is short and hilarious. It should be required reading for all those contemplating parenthood. “Elegy for a Young Elk” by Hannu Rajaniemi is a completely entrancing fantasy masquerading as science fiction. The ideas are fascinating and thrown into the melting pot so casually, you almost miss their cleverness before they are gone. “Libertarian Russia” by Michael Swanwick asks what we really mean by freedom. Perhaps it’s an absence of rules or maybe it’s an absence of people to enforce rules, or could it be a rejection of contemporary values and systems like money? “The Night Train” by Lavie Tidhar is an OTT story about how far human evolution might go as a crime boss and bodyguard take a short trip by train from one exotic city to another. This has a willful exuberance about it, as if there are no envelopes left to be pushed.

“My Father’s Singularity” by Brenda Cooper is ostensibly science fiction but really about the gulf that separates parents and their children. Every father has dreams for his children’s future but, when they grow up and move away, reality collides with the dreams and something has to give way. “The Starship Mechanic” by Jay Lake and Ken Scholes paraphrases the Biblical suggestion, “physician heal thyself” to refer to an alien mechanic who, as a book buff, doesn’t quite polish floors with hairless cats, but comes close. “Sleepover” by Alastair Reynolds is a classic example of the “big idea” story. What if our world is nothing but a simulation requiring massive processing power to keep it working. The more complex the world and the greater the number of people, the slower the “machine” would run. In such a case, we might all have to stop thinking for a while. There’s no-one better than Reynolds at this kind of story. “The Taste of the Night” by Pat Cadigan (2) walks the think line between sanity and insanity, tumour and a new ability to see the world (or perhaps, even, a new world).

“Blind Cat Dance” by Alexander Jablokov sees the idea of editing an animal’s consciousness applied to human relationships. We don’t need to see those we dislike. Equally, in our own relationship with food, we can edit out the inconvenient animal parts and leave only the meat. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. “The Shipmaker” by Aliette de Bodard shows us how we might produce starships in a distant future even though nothing might quicken without the help of a surrogate mother. In-fall” by Ted Kosmatka shows how even the threat of not dying and so denying martyrdom may not be sufficient to prise the names of co-conspirators from a fanatic’s lips. “Chimbwi” by Jim Hawkins confirms that, culturally, there’s a border to cross when you arrive in a country as a refugee with nothing. Even so, journeys don’t always end where you expect. Finally, we come back to Robert Reed, Ouroboros style, in “Dead Man’s Run” which is a nice mystery with a clever idea, but it unnecessarily prolongs the literal chase to the whodunnit solution.

In a book of more than 700 pages, it would be a miracle in convergence of taste if a reader found every word coming through an editor to be of the highest quality. The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-eighth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois is no exception. Critical sensibilities are highly personal. That said, there are only a few stories I found weaker than hoped for. In a book of this length, no-one can ask for anything more and, with some spectacular successes to find, I unhesitatingly recommend this. It has won the 2012 Locus Award for Best Anthology.

(1) First appeared in Warriors edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois.

(2) First appeared in Is Anybody Out There? edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern.

For other anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois, see
The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirtieth Annual Collection
and as a tag team with George R R Martin:
Old Mars
Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance
Songs of Love and Death
Warriors

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