The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois
“Hold very tight please,” advise Flanders & Swann as we climb to the top of the Clapham Omnibus in their song “Transport of Delight” — and off we go in a not-so-little something for everyone who likes to travel through science fiction under the editorial direction of Gardner Dozois. The bus starts rolling with “Utrusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson in which a now godlike being looks back at her humble origin and reviews what she told herself about her life. The love she unexpectedly came to share with Erasmus carries them forward as they distance themselves from this universe, shedding other social relationships much like a snake sheds its skin as it grows. The irony is that she becomes this higher being because of the borderline personality disorder induced by her early life in this trailer park. “A Story With Beans” by Stephen Gould also deals with the forces that shape a young couple’s destiny while “Under the Shouting Sky” by Karl Bunker speculates on what price anyone would be willing to pay to preserve knowledge and the possibility of understanding. Thematically, this idea of balancing cost against benefit continues with “Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance” by John Kessel. The authority implicit in hegemony often depends on simple cultural icons. If only you could steal the prime icon. . . Holding the icon for ransom and resisting the use of power to recover it, would introduce a sense of vulnerability and puncture the myth of the hegemon’s invincibility. But how many lives would you sacrifice in this “means” and “ends” war of attrition?
In “Black Swan”, Bruce Sterling has fun thinking about alternate versions of Europe while rerunning a version of the Sliders trope. “Crimes and Glory” is one of the Jackaroo stories by Paul McCauley (there are six of them now). When an alien offers you a bargain, we’re in the old stamping ground of the primitive who does not have the knowledge and experience to recognise a gun for what it is. As Earthlings, we don’t have the technology to explore the limitations or liabilities of accepting the deal as offered. How are we to know their motives? This story has us rattling the bars on the cage in a highly readable police procedural and consequent pursuit. “The Seventh Fall” by Alexander Irvine is not unlike Brin’s Postman and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 where a survivor performs Shakespeare and Homer to those he encounters in return for food and shelter, all the while trying to reconstruct a copy of Hamlet. It’s a bit derivative but emotionally powerful. “Butterfly Bomb” by Dominic Green is a really elegant story about how, in a relationship built on love and respect, one might negotiate with a bomb to persuade it not to self-replicate and kill more people. Having read similar stories before, I can say this is my all-time favourite version of the trope. A real delight. “Infinities” by Vandana Singh is slightly outside my comfort zone because I have no competence in maths. I recall “Message Found in a Copy of Flatland” by Rudy Rucker as similar in theme. But no matter how obscure the concepts, in using the relationship between the two men as they age, we have a powerful story about the futile but continuing strife between the Hindus and Moslems in India. In this case, friendship transcends the more usual reality.
“Things Undone” by John Barnes is an unexpectedly good time paradox story. All authors flirt with the changes-in-the-past-rippling-forward thing (and some get them published), but this is the first time I can remember anyone having this kind of choice in the process. It’s genuinely innovative and pleasing to see how there’s an element of conservation in the mutability of time so that, sooner or later, the same people will come to the right place to do the things they ought to have done or ought to do. “On the Human Plan” by Jay Lake is a striking story of stasis. In the end of time, perhaps we will just endure in whatever body we have made for ourselves and deny death an entry to our realm — we are, after all, no longer really living anyway. “The Island” by Peter Watts is equally fascinating in that humans alternate short bursts of activity followed by long periods of suspended animation and so mirror Robert Wilson’s method of transcending time. The relationship between the original human crew, the computer and the newly born is carefully thought through, while the intelligent Dyson sphere reminds me of Hoyle’s cloud. The whole thing is stitched together by the supposed continuing need to provide a transport infrastructure — left hanging in an absurd way Douglas Adams would have approved. Not surprisingly, this won the Hugo Award 2010 for Best Novelette.
“The Integrity of the Chain” by Lavie Tidhar is a haunting tale of life in a future Vientiane where even the humble may dream of one day going into space. “Lion Walk” by Mary Roseblum tells a genre-bending tale of mystery and a variation on Crichton’s Jurassic Park. The ideas are interesting, but a better balance between detail on the investigation and the safari adventure content would improve it. “Escape to Other Worlds With Science Fiction” by Jo Walton is a “fun” alternate history where Nazi-style betrayal may become irresistible, even in a freedom-loving USA. “Three Leave of Aloe” by Rand B. Lee describes the possibility of surgery and chips as an intervention to control behaviour. All hyperactive or aggressive children should read this cautionary tale. It’s also pleasing to see this with an Indian setting. Too often short stories are Western-centric and Dozois is to be commended for diversifying locales throughout this anthology.
“Paradiso Lost” by Albert E. Cowdrey is a delightful military space opera with everything from the loopy general, the still-wet-behind-the-ears officers to the telepath and hostile aliens (if not initially, then certainly at the end). This is a terrific, page-turning read. “Blocked” by Jeff Ryman is a fascinating rumination of how Earth’s civilisation might respond to the prospect of alien’s arriving (or not, depending on how you view the world governments’ announcement). There would be urgent efforts to develop technology to escape from Earth or perhaps to escape into the Earth. The relationships across cultures and age are scrupulously honest. As for Singapore, I can’t think of a better place to build new shopping malls. When writing a story like “Solace” by James Van Pelt, a balance always has to be struck between real emotion and mere sentimentality. Here we have two threads juxtaposed in which both protagonists need to find the strength to continue life. That both arrive at satisfying resolutions without mawkishness is a testament to a good writer at work. “Act One” by Nancy Kress is quite the best gene terrorism story I’ve read in years — a real tour de force with characterisation to match the needs of the plot in every sense of the word. This should be written up into novel length so I can get to see Act Two and the Finale. With quality recognised, this was shortlisted for both the Nebula and the Hugo Awards 2010 for Best Novella. “Twilight of the Gods” by John C. Wright gives a completely unexpected spin to the generation ship trope with a hoary conflation of Tolkien and Wagner making magical music on the rings.
“Blood Dauber” by Ted Kosmatka and Michael Poore is a story that would work equally well in science fiction or horror. It grips you like a new breed of Hymenoptera with teeth and never lets you go. This is a genuinely outstanding story reminding me of George R. R. Martin’s “Sandkings” — another of my all-time favourites. “This Wind Blowing, and This Tide” by Damien Broderick is a sensitive story about loss showing how shared emotions may reach out across time and space, propagating like a wave. It also nicely captures two levels of contempt: one the scientific community holds for the paranormal; the other the military has for everyone. “Hair” by Adam Roberts is a realpolitik story of how the world’s vested interests might react to a scientific innovation that removes any human’s reliance on eating as a source of nourishment. This is very clever, although the ending is a bit predictable. “Before My Last Breath” by Robert Reed captures a sense of wonder in posing the question and then answering what the aliens were doing — it’s a real tragedy that, even with interplanetary capability, a species may still be dogged by inappropriate belief systems.
“One of Our Bastards Is Missing” by Paul Carnell is an old-fashioned gonzo science fiction tale of daring-do in an alternate world where Newton’s inspiration from the apple took an entirely different turn. This is remarkably entertaining and, if he could be persuaded to write this up into a novel, I would be queuing to buy it. Again the quality was recognised with its shortlisting for the Hugo Award 2010 for Best Novelette — he was also shortlisted for Best Graphic Story and proves himself a person of interest. “Edison’s Frankenstein” by Chris Roberson has us in an alternate world where electricity never has a chance to gain a foothold as against technology recovered from a polar expedition. The resulting culture is carefully Victorian and very steampunkish as a men struggle to find a place for themselves in a world increasingly dependent on automata to supply labour. This is great fun and faintly horrific in an impish way. “Erosion” by Ian Creasey is amusing as a science fiction story set on the coast not so far from where I used to live, showing how we must all make sacrifices if we are to leave our roots behind us. It manages to cram a lot of interesting ideas into a small space. Finally, “Vishnu at the Cat Circus” by Ian McDonald (also shortlisted for the Hugo Award 2010 for Best Novella) sees gene manipulation produce a new generation where, perhaps, time moves differently in this new India, allowing the chance to observe and detect cultural patterns. But, of course, nothing changes within a family where brothers may jealously squabble and then reconcile.
Looking back through this anthology, I am conscious of something remarkable. At this length, I can rarely remember encountering a group of stories without an obvious weak link. Frankly, having been a reader of science fiction for more than fifty years, I can safely say this is one of the very best (of the best) anthologies I can recall reading. There should be no excuse. If you enjoy science fiction, you should read this book!
For other anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois, see:
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirtieth Annual Collection
Working as a tag team with George R R Martin, there are four anthologies:
Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance,
Songs of Love and Death: All Original Tales of Star-crossed Love
This anthology is a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Anthology.