The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois
“The Choice” by Paul McCauley is not just an excellent story about how alien technology comes to be swimming about in our oceans, it’s a masterclass in how to construct a story so that all the background is delivered without intrusive infodumps and the ending comes with a beautiful surprise. “A Soldier of the City” by David Moles asks the age-old question of why people fight. It may be out of a sense of patriotism or a generalised love for the leader. Whatever the reason, should the country or leader suffer a serious injury, the desire for revenge will dominate, soldiers will set off in anger. After the fighting has died away, what then remains for the surviving soldier, cut off from his people? “Dolly” by Elizabeth Bear converts the rather dry Asimov approach to the Three Laws of Robotics and finds an essentially human way of looking at an android that appears to have been used as a murder weapon. Assuming, of course, that a hacker could reprogram a machine. The result is a pleasingly provocative way of assessing what might constitute a just outcome once all the options are laid out on the table. “Martian Heart” by John Barnes is another very human story about the transformation people can achieve in themselves when they’re in love. Even the most unpromising of men can come good to fulfill a promise made to a woman left behind.
“Earth Hour” by Ken Macleod is a really nice story showing how the fact of an assassination, successful or not, can be a most promising move in a deep game where millions may be won or lost in stock trading and preparations for war may be advanced. It’s a most elegant blend of politics and future history. Continuing into the near future, “Laika’s Ghost” by Karl Schroeder shows us a different way of getting to other planets using profoundly dangerous technology for peaceful ends. Except once the peaceful have shown the potential, what will the militarists do? “The Dala Horse” by Michael Swanwick goes into a post-apocalyptic future where a death necessary for survival may trigger a second death out of compassion. Because of its uncertain context, the focus on the emotional essentials makes this rather poignant as the survival of the species may just have taken a step backwards.
“The Way It Works Out and All” by Peter S Beagle invites to consider the possibility that Avram Davidson might just have discovered a series of different dimensional doors through which one might pop from here to there and back again. Except could it also apply to those who have died? Our author is waiting for word on whether Avram can make it back. “The Ice Owl” by Carolyn Ives Gilman is a particularly elegantly constructed story parallelling examples of racial genocide on Earth with a story set on a world with three primary races. It considers the question of responsibility both for those who were naive collaborators and for those who now hunt government and military officers, ostensibly for trial but often for revenge killing. In the contemporary context, all it takes to produce the death of the owl is for a young woman to fail to check the freezer on a regular basis, reinforcing the message you should never trust others to do what you should do yourself. Indeed, even if it was the last of its kind, what value does one bird have? How can it compare to the sweep of human history or the love between a daughter and her mother? “The Copenhagen Interpretation” by Paul Cornell is rather in the spirit of the Prisoner of Zenda transposed into a rather different format. It’s fun but I confess to being a little baffled by what’s going on. I’ll have to track down more of these stories. “The Invasion of Venus” by Stephen Baxter is one of these quiet and unassuming stories that sets off quietly and, before you realise it’s in the air, it’s hitting the bullseye. I mean just how Earthcentric do we have to be! If I was an alien, I would ignore us too. “Digging” by Ian McDonald offers us the answer to the age-old question, “What do you do if you find yourself in a hole?” This is a nicely elegant terraforming story set on Mars where the people are trying a different version of the wartime Dig for Victory campaign.
“Ascension Day” by Alastair Reynolds is a short but highly effective story about a trading venture that must, in relative terms, span thousands of years between star systems and hundreds of years on individual planets. How then must the crew divide itself between the various duties to be performed? “Silently and Very Fast” by Catherynne M Valente is a richly poetic exploration of what might come after humanity. This, of course, assumes that humanity births something new or something evolves from us. However it comes into being, would it be human? Perhaps it might contain multiple versions of itself as it iterates towards consciousness or nests versions of its identity like a Russian doll. Whatever it is, it probably could not stay on Earth. It would have to move away from danger or because it was a danger to humanity. “A Long Way Home” by Jay Lake is a delight, showing us an indomitable quality in the human survivor — a man who can endure and then face the future with equanimity (so long as it’s not boring, of course). “The Incredible Exploding Man” by Dave Hutchison has all the attributes of a great story. It has a simple premise which is worked through to a logical conclusion. It has a good sense of humour and is a great advertisement for sandwiches as a reward. “What We Found” by Geoff Ryman is an idea story in extended form showing a similar paradox to Schrödinger’s cat in which observing an event causes it to change. That would leave us with a very uncertain future unless observational scientific findings will always find stability just as, hopefully, parents will by creating loving environments in which their children can grow up. “A Response From EST 17” by Tom Purdom (good to see him still writing) is a nice first contact story in which the aliens have to decide which of two competing Earth probes to respond to and what to say (if anything because saying something can be very unsettling). “The Cold Step Beyond” by Ian R Macleod is a beautifully wrought version of an old idea: that before you can conquer another warrior, you must first conquer yourself.
“Militant Peace” by David Klecha and Tobias S Buckell is another of these nice idea stories and, although wildly improbable, it does ask some nice questions about the morality of not fighting a defensive war. “The Ants of Flanders” by Robert Reed is another alien invasion story but our hero is incapable of fear and so comes through the experience emotionally the same although his body does go through a minor modification. “The Smell of Orange Groves” by Lavie Tidhar is an interestingly reflective piece about the persistence of memory and the extent to which a shared memory may bring people together. “The Iron Shirts” by Michael F Flynn is actually a very good story but I’m not convinced it’s SF. It seems to be lurking in a hinterland of alternative history based on who got to America first. “Cody” by Pat Cadigan is a delightful story of a courier’s ordeal. Not that it’s a delight to him that he has an ordeal, you understand. But his defences are better than the ordinary criminal might expect. “For I have Lain Me Down in the Stone of Loneliness and I’ll Not Be Back Again” by Michael Swanick is story worth longer discussion but all I can say here is that it demonstrates the tendency of history to cast people as victims but there can be a break with the past when people emigrate. It’s a very effective mirror to moderately recent events. “Ghostweight” by Yoon Ha Lee is a pleasing story about the change in role achieved by demonstrating competence. “Digital Rites” by Jim Hawkins struck me as outstanding both in concept and execution. While not original, it has a lightness of touch and a particularly elegant metafictional ending as the credits roll on this film-industry epic. “The Bonless One” by Alec Nevala-Lee is one of these pleasing stories in which an encounter with a new phenomenon triggers a potentially destructive effect. The important thing to remember in such situations is that the duty to the living outweighs all other considerations. “Canterbury Hollow” by Chris Lawson is a melancholic tale celebrating the futility of survival and the magnificence anyone with courage can engineer for the ending. “The Vorkuta Event” by Ken Macleod is one of these vaguely Lovecraftian SF stories in which one small step for man may be one step too far (depending on your worldview and general allegiances, of course). The final story, “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” by Kij Johnson is a delightful exploration of how one should approach the unknown. Here’s a world faced by a genuinely strange natural phenomenon. It does not have the technology to explore it but a few brave souls believe they may have the ability to build bridges over it whenever the gap is narrow enough. Except just what are the limits when people may have such big dreams and, in an ironic commentary on the engineering, is it not equally important to build social bridges between individuals?
For brief comments on the remaining stories, “The Beancounter’s Cat” by Damien Broderick, “The Vicar of Mars” by Gwneth Jones, and “Dying Young” by Peter M Ball first appeared in Eclipse Four. See also “After the Apocalypse” in the collection of the same name by Maureen F McHugh.
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-Eighth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirtieth Annual Collection
Dozois, Gardner & Martin, George R. R.
Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance
Songs of Love and Death
This anthology has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.