The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Seventeenth Annual Collection / Gardner Dozois ed.

This review appeared on my previous blog, Rat's Reading.

I apologize for the delay in posting this. I’ve been reading this collection for a couple of weeks and finally finished it on a short cruise this week. However, I wasn’t about to pay the rates that Celebrity wanted to use the internet on their ships, so I waited until I returned to finish the review.

Cover of The Year's Best Science Fiction: Seventeenth Annual Collection

As I’ve written before, I think Gardner Dozois puts out great collections of S.F. This is probably the only anthology series I will ever collect. I only have seven of them, but I poke in the used bookstores in Seattle quite regularly to see if any more ever pop up.

On to the stories:

The Wedding Album, David Marusek
I loved this inventive story. The concept is that current picture albums will be replaced by holograms and simulations of events. Rather than posing for photos, a bride and groom will pose for a holographic simulation. In the story, these are not just reproductions of the event, but the technology endows the holographic entities with their own artificial intelligence. They think for themselves, but start with memories from the originals up to the point where the hologram was taken. The story accomplished two things for me. First, it explores how new technology will change our lives in little ways. Many science fiction stories focus on space travel and vast computer networks and the like. This one highlights just a little small change in how our lives could change. And in a very believable way. John Crowley’s Snow explores a similar way we could record our lives. But that story doesn’t seem to describe what I would think would be a realistic way people would use a technology. This does. The second idea The Wedding Album explores is that of artificial intelligence. It’s not new ground, but the effect is new. It’s written from the A.I.s point of view. Imagine being turned on and off at will by a being that also has the power to reset your memories back to square one. Would you be upset to discover you were re-incarnated but that all record of your previous life were erased from your memory? Doomed to re-enact scenes over and over with severe limitations on your free will. Marusek also gives the first credible take that I’ve seen on having self-awareness without complete free will.
1016 to 1, James Patrick Kelly
In this story, James Patrick Kelly explores a scenario where a time-traveler set to change the future (by assassinating John F. Kennedy) fails prior to the consummation of his plot, and enlists the aid of a child. Will Ray Beaumont go through with it?
Winemaster, Robert Reed
Julian Winemaster gave up his body for a virtual reality ages ago. His daughter was diagnosed with an incurable disease and opted to give up her body. Winemaster felt like he needed to do the same to support her. I suppose kind of like shaving heads today when a friend undergoes chemo. Only she didn’t really need him there with her, and they drifted apart. Now, the U.S. government has sabotaged a nest housing millions of nanomachines that comprised the minds of the virtual reality people. Government policy makes them illegal except in closely guarded nests, and these nests are barely tolerated. Now, the survivors are on the run. They’ve constructed a body so Winemaster can drive them north to Canada. Yes, even in alternate realities Canada is still more inclusive than the U.S. WInemaster is transporting the survivors north, but he is tailed by a man who appears to be a government agent. He offers to help. Do the virtual minds accept the help or is it a trap to destroy the rest of them? I didn’t find much in the way of a moral or new intriguing ideas to ponder, but the story is good to read on the plot alone. It’s a well constructed mileau, and Reed pays attention to the details.
Galactic North, Alastair Reynolds
Reynolds’ story was just there for me. It didn’t repulse me, but it didn’t really excite me either. The plot follows Irravel and Markarian throughout time as Irravel chases Markarian for betraying a mission during a pirate attack in deep space. She wants to retrieve 200 people kept in deep sleep on Markarian’s ship that the two of them were originally transporting. The pirate enslaved Markarian during the attack, but in the course of the story he seems to disappear. Now, it’s important to realize that this takes place over the course of 10,000 years (or more) as the characters are mostly travelling at relativistic speeds, their lives lengthened by technology and time dilution. Oh, and they are also witness to a technology that destroys worlds in the galaxy, slowly converting all known civilizations to greenhouses of plants. Some things about the story just didn’t work. For instance, Reynolds leaves out key chunks that would explain some of their behavior. Sometimes, it’s good to let actions speak for themselves, and sometimes it needs good exposition of reasons. This is one of the latter situations. The little I can tell about the reasons for the chase, long after these people have no rational animosity, completely baffled be.
Dapple: A Hwarhath Historical Romance, Eleanor Arnason
Dapple is the story of a woman in the Hwarhath society, where women are forbidden to perform certain jobs. One of them being an actor. Helwar Ahl’s (a.k.a. Dapple) family apprentices her to a sailor. After several years as a sailor, she sneaks off the ship to apprentice herself to a lowly acting troupe. Set upon by bandits, she must fend for herself and face her desire to break the prescribed ways, and force those around her to face her desires as well. Fairly typical feminist bent to this story, but thankfully it doesn’t have the anti-male everything would be all right if women just ran things feel. Women more or less run things on Hwarhath. They aren’t supreme, but in the grand scheme they make a few more of the decisions and are just as bound by tradition and stereotype as males are. I didn’t think this was particularly deep, but it was a decent read.
People Came From Earth, Stephen Baxter
Stephen Baxter is one of a new wave of hard SF authors. Hard SF meaning they focus on the science and technology, extrapolating out the ideas based on a concept rather than use the freedom of SF to construct interesting conjectures and explore them. People Came From Earth is set on the moon. After a war between Earth and the Moon for the Moon’s independence, Earth released nanotechnology onto the Moon that destroyed all metal constructions. Basically, they set back the moon to the middle ages. The Moon being metal poor, the current residents are extracting every bit of metal they can to restore their technology base, but are making slow progress and may not be in time to save themselves from losing their atmosphere to lack of gravity or their bodies from poisoning. Earth apparently has no intelligent life.
Green Tea, Richard Wadholm
I gave up on this story about halfway through because it was very confusing. From what I can gather, the main character is offering tea to a gentleman he is about to kill for revenge. He then goes into his monologue, the story of why he’s going to kill the person. This person caused some sort of catastrophe on the ship on which the protagonist worked. Most of the monologue is about the catastrophe, and it involves all sorts of advanced technology all given fancy sounding hard-SF kings of names.
The Dragon of Pripyat, Karl Schroeder
In the future, there’s been a second accident at Chernobyl. Afterward, the entire area is sealed off and a non-profit trust is given the money and power to monitor the site. Except they aren’t given a lot of money. Someone is threatening to bomb or otherwise release the radioactivity inside the sarcophagus. And they demonstrate that they have the power to do so. The trust hires Gennady to investigate. He’s a private investigator, willing to take on a risky proposition in order to make serious money. Later, he’s re-hired to pilot a remote robot to get close enough to disrupt the plot. Only the robot only has a couple of miles radius for it’s remote. He beings the robot in and pilots it, while also setting up a relay so it can be operated from greater distances. But the plotters have other plans and destroy the relay with a missile, leaving Gennady as the only person who can pilot the robot. Really, not that hard of a SF story. The technology is limited and the speculation about the future is pretty reserved. What the story is about is Gennady. He’s shy and wants the money so he can disappear into the net, where he feels most comfortable, where he can be who he wants to be and doesn’t have to face people in person. Through the events at Chernobyl, he has to face himself and the fear inside him.
Written in Blood, Chris Lawson
I didn’t like this story much because there really isn’t much too it. Someone invents a technology that allows viruses to embed messages in unused sections of our DNA, so an enterprising Muslim uses it to embed the Quran in the blood of the faithful. Thus meaning it is heretical to spill their blood. More just a quick sketch than anything else, and it felt to me like it should be developed more.
Hatching the Phoenix, Frederik Pohl
This nice story interspersed the story of a rich woman looking for purpose in her life with the exploration of the Crab Nebula (a project she’s funded). How they do this is by taking a space ship out past the front of the light wave of the supernova that formed the nebula. They set up a giant mirror and watch a planet in that sun’s system, and discover a civilization that is about the be destroyed by the nebula. Since it happened thousands of years prior, all they can be is observers. As the mirror is constructed, the researchers can get better and more detailed pictures of the planet. What they discover there is that the civilization, much like human civilization, wars with itself.
Suicide Coast, M. John Harrison
At first Suicide Coast appears to be a cautionary tale about becoming so integrated with computers that a person loses touch with the real world. The main character is a writer (as best as I can tell) who writes about adrenaline junkies. The second character is a rock climber and adrenaline junkie. It becomes apparent about midway through the story that he’s had an accident at some point as is now paraplegic. He turns to computer games, and slowly becomes unable to separate himself. But then at the end, Harrison turns it all around on the reader. I liked this. Harrison is hard for me to read. I have two of his books that I purchased after reading a laudatory bit from China Mié about Harrison, but I didn’t get very far in them before I put them aside for reading later. I liked what I read, but Harrison’s style is more opaque than some, and it took more work reading it than I cared to do at the time. Now that I’ve got more time on my hands and after liking this story, perhaps I’ll pick them up again.
Hunting Mother, Sage Walker
This little story is about life on a colony ship of some sort. The prospective colonists have brought animals along much like Noah’s Ark. They’ve also genetically engineered some crosses between species, including between humans and animals. Since it’s a long voyage, some of the animals have to be culled, since there aren’t natural predators (with natural contact with prey at least). The story is all about a human/animal person who is in charge of culling animals. He must contemplate culling his own mother as her life is nearing its end.
Mount Olympus, Ben Bova
This is a man against the elements story, where the men and elements are on Mars. Two men on a manned mission to mars fly a specially built craft to the top of Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system. After rappelling down the inside of the crater a few yards, an accident strands one of the explorers inside a lava tube with no power. The other explorer must save him. I kind of liked this, despite only a limited amount of science fiction involved.
Border Guards, Greg Egan
This surreal story takes place in a future where humans live in other dimensions or in computers (I’m not sure which exactly), solving problems of resource scarcity and life expectancy. A lot of the story is about a game of quantum soccer, which I didn’t really understand. Follow the link for more information and a Java applet that lets you play. The story is mostly about Jamil and Margit. Margit is one of the inventors of the space in which everyone lives, but she has seen people die and is traumatized by it. Few people see that anymore. The story felt flat to me. Nice ideas, but no real story and the characters were hard to get into.
Scherzo with Tyrannosaur, Michael Swanwick
Swanwick had an interesting, but largely empty novel about time travel called Bones of the Earth. I liked that novel overall despite a lot of flaws. Scherzo is placed in the same setting as Bones. Basically, at a high society fund-raiser for the time travel project the main event is the viewing of a tyrannosaur through a safe window. While the project takes a lot of effort to protect the timeline from paradoxes, the project leaders break their own rules frequently. One of the table captains asks to be excused, as a woman at the table hitting on him doesn’t know he’s actually her son (from the future). So the project director sends him off and replaces him, to disastrous results.
A Hero of the Empire, Robert Silverberg
I liked this little alternate history of the Roman Empire, where the Roman Empire never fell. It’s divided between east and west in an uncertain coexistence. The protagonist, Corbulo, is exiled to the Arabian peninsula to represent the western emperor. He looks for a way to get back in the emperor’s good graces and locks onto a charismatic Arab named Mahmoud as his ticket. Mahmoud professes a belief in one god, the same god as the Hebrews. Yes, he’s Islam’s Mohamed and he’s beginning his conversion the Arabs to Islam. Only Corbulo sees the danger and sees his way to get back to Rome.
How We Lost The Moon, A True Story By Frank W. Allen, Paul J. McAuley
This moon story is much better than the previous moon story in the collection. Here, a significant mistake releases a small black hole into the moon, triggering massive catastrophic changes on the just beginning to be settled body. So bad that eventually the moon is consumed. A little bit of hard science fiction, and a little bit of first-person story-telling from the character at the heart of the experiment that went awry.
Phallicide, Charles Sheffield
Normally, it seems like Sheffield writes a lot of hard S.F. This one is not really in that sub-genre. Rachel is a bright woman raised in the polygamous community of Bryceville, Utah. Needing money, the Blessed Order sends Rachel off to be educated and work for Tilden, Inc. where, among other things, she is designing a drug to cure the Blessed Order’s senile 90-plus year old patriarch of his impotence. However, her time away from the Order has awakened her to its reality and she’s devising a plan to release her daughter from their clutches. This is complicated though by the strict roles that women play in the Order and by their use of truth serums that she’s developed on herself.
Daddy’s World Walter Jon Williams
This is a cool short story about a child growing up in cyberspace, literally. A university researcher has his son’s brain scanned before he dies and implants the scan in a programmed world on a university computer. The little cyberspace world where the main character Jamie grows up exists entirely in this computer. And so it can be as fantastic as a child would dream. Not that he dreams and programs it (at least not at first), but his father certainly does. Williams pays attention to lots of details, such as a common thing in universities where resources have to be shared, so Jamie only runs part-time, and his sister in real life grows up in real time. So in her brief forays into the imaginary world she ages faster than him. And she shows typical teenage rebellion and tells Jamie that he’s not a real boy anymore.
A Martian Romance, Kim Stanley Robinson
This is a sequel to the story Green Mars, which appears in the third annual collection. I thought that story was good reading for a single read. This one isn’t so much. Now some of the characters from that story as ice-boating on Mars. Terraforming seems to have failed, and all the water on the surface of Mars has pretty much frozen. Didn’t like this at all.
The Sky-Green Blues, Tanith Lee
On an alien world undergoing civil war, a journalist finds out that she is a figment of the imagination of the author she is interviewing. Eh. Wasn’t very compelling to me.
Exchange Rate, Hal Clement
Here, explorers on world halfway across the galaxy encounter an alien intelligence. It’s typical first-contact we-don’t-understand-each-other stuff, but very well executed. A pretty good read.
Everywhere, Geoff Ryman
This one is a big Huh??! to me. Way over my head. Did not get it at all.
Hothouse Flowers, Mike Resnick
What would the quality of life be if we could effectively live forever? Most S.F. stories that deal with immortality assume we also get to stay young and alert as well. But what if you can keep people alive but you can’t reverse aging or senility? In the world of Hothouse Flowers we’ve reached that point, and society also believes the adage that all life is worth keeping. Resnick takes the concept to its absurd ends.
Evermore, Sean Williams
Evermore explores a facet of awareness without true free will. Cyber-people on a probe crossing the galaxy that has an accident and veers off course. Deprived of their original purpose and constrained by their programming, many simply slow themselves down and live in their own little worlds where they don’t have to think much. Their creator, also a presence on the probe, figure out a way to expand their programming so they can learn and grow. Doing so raises the possibility of repairing the probe, but also disturbs the slacker utopia they’ve programmatically built for themselves.
Of Scorned Women and Causal Loops, Robert Grossbach
Grossbach writes an interesting (though I’m sure not completely novel) theory on time travel. The theory is: since moving through space takes time, it should be possible to travel back in time by moving through space. In other words, if a person move far enough away in space, there’s no possibility of getting back to the original spot in time before leaving. Thus, there is not possibility of a time paradox. Now, the discoverer of time travel doesn’t realize this principle, but one of his researchers does. He belittles his researcher when she can’t prove her assertion. But when he expands the time travel field to attempt time travel himself by going back in time a significant amount, he discovers the space component the hard way. Fun story. Of course, scientists that experiment on themselves should always suffer greatly, if you have read any amount of S.F.
Son Observe The Time, Kage Baker
This is a story of The Company, the future enterprise that runs time travel and creates a race of immortal cyborgs who rescue priceless things to make The Company money. So long as they don’t change recorded history, they can do whatever they want. Very blah to me, this story. Basically, a Company operative runs into a renegade operative who implants the idea that the recorded history which is taught them could be faked.
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