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

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

This edition of the Year’s Best S.F. seems very heavy with first-contact/gee-wow-there’s-life-where-we-least-expected-it stories. In the list below, I don’t reveal all of them, as in some cases it’s integral to not know about the life ahead of time. But still, be ready for almost any story in this collection to have that as a story element.

Cover of The Year's Best Science Fiction: Sixteenth Annual Collection
Oceanic, Greg Egan (1999 Hugo for best novella)
Greg Egan’s own description is:

The people of Covenant believe they are the descendants of immaterial “Angels” who were brought to the planet by the daughter of God to “repent their theft of immortality” and live and die as flesh once more.

Martin is a Freelander, raised on the ocean, and a personal experience as a child convinces him of the truth of this account. But when he becomes a biologist and begins to study the native life of Covenant, his work leads to revelations about the true history of the planet, and the nature of his own beliefs.

There wasn’t anything especially new or groundbreaking about the story. It’s a pretty typical attempt to explain how religious belief could spring up, and pretty typically sides on the side of rationality. It’s a well-crafted story though and works as such, even if the deeper exploration of religion is boring.
Approaching Perimelasma, Geoffrey A. Landis
I liked this story about a trip into and out of the event horizon of a black hole. The story requires the assumption that we’ve solved a bunch of problems with physics, but I suppose it’s plausible given the assumption. I don’t generally enjoy straight hard S.F. but this one I did for some reason.
Craphound, Cory Doctorow
This story is one of the reasons why I love S.F. so much. People think it’s all about aliens and space ships and laser guns and whatnot, and in reality it can be a way to explore people’s sense of home and of their childhood. It’s also on of the frustrating things about S.F. to me. This story spends all it’s time exploring someone’s attempt to possess part of their childhood, and throws the S.F. twist in at the end, and that twist really doesn’t add anything substantive to the story.
Jedella Ghost, Tanith Lee
Jedella Ghost is one of those stories that sits on the edge of fantasy and science fiction. A young woman appears in town and appears to know nothing about death. Where did she come from and why does the dying of things confuse her? Is it because she is already dead? A ghost?
Taklamakan, Bruce Sterling (1999 Hugo award for best novellette)
In the future, a couple of well-equipped freelance spies are commissioned by N.A.F.T.A. to check out a Taklamakan desert base which might have starships. But the death of their spook contact leaves them on their own. Enticed by the allure of the big score, they go on without him, unsure of what they will find.
The Island Of The Immortals, Ursula K. Le Guin
A tourist hears about an island that has immortal people in residence. Determined to see them for himself, he finds that one can become immortal by the bite of the flies on the island, but that everyone on the island keeps themselves covered in mosquito netting to avoid becoming immortal. Because not dying can be as much of a curse as a blessing.
Sea Change, With Monsters, Paul J. McAuley
Indira Dzurisin is a monster hunter on Europa. The colony wars with Earth, and loses decisively. Among other things, Earth released genetically engineered monsters into Europa’s anaerobic ocean under the ice, which keep its residents from using the ocean to their benefit. Years later and back under the subjugation of Earth, some of the monsters still live there, like undetonated mines. One of the monsters is threatening a virulently male-only monastery, and Indira (a woman) is sent to cleanse their farm of the monster as a joke on them. Nice mix of story, setting, and prognostication.
Divided By Infinity, Robert Charles Wilson
I didn’t like Wilson’s story particularly much. The premise is that some bookseller has a theory that people can’t die. The second they die, many alternate incarnations of their soul appear in other universes. But since you can’t communicated with them, and can’t know about them, there isn’t much point. The protagonist is resurrected in part 2 by aliens from his D.N.A. Maybe I’m just dumb but I didn’t get the connection between this and the first part.
US, Howard Waldrop
This is Run Lola Run as an S.F. short story. What would Charles Lindbergh Jr.’s life look like under a few different scenarios? One, he follows his father into flying. Two, he takes advantage of his fame in Hollywood. Three, he retreats to fish in western Washington. Oddly enough, at the time of publication, Howard Waldrop retreated to western Washington to fish. I can’t fault his taste in regions.
The Days Of Solomon Gursky, Ian McDonald
Eh. Solomon Gursky invents/discovers the methods for reincarnating as an employee of a conglomerate. Since he doesn’t quite agree with the conglomerate’s politics/ethics/whatever, they ice him. Thus begins a life of reincarnation and fighting the man. As the first person to be able to be reincarnated, he eventually becomes the man millions of years in the future, when humans are more than humans. Let me repeat, Eh.
The Cuckoo’s Boys, Robert Reed
Phillip Stevens is a genius geneticist and biotech company owner. He makes a billion dollars before he’s 26. But he goes a bit mad, and let’s loose a virus/bacteria that replaces the D.N.A. in human female’s eggs with his D.N.A. Thus a fair number of them give birth to kids not having their own genes, but those of Phillip Stevens instead. The P.S. kids are smarter than your average bear, and are treated very differently, owing partly to their genius, but also owing partly to how they were conceived. Houston Cross is a mentor (tutor) who works with middle school students. This is the story of the year he mentors his first three P.S. kids, and the ways he challenges them to be better than they are. Plus, there’s even a twist ending that I didn’t see coming. Though even without the twist the story would have been interesting.
The Halfway House At The Heart Of Darkness, William Browning Spencer
An addiction counselor who helps people addicted to virtual reality gets caught in a virtual reality where he helps addicts detox from virtual reality addiction. It’s not really as circular as it sounds, and it’s not another Matrix-like what is real? story. But it’s really only average at best. Weird thing is, this appears to be the last published story by Browning, though there is a collection of his short stories that was published in 2006. None of those stories appeared to be new though. Weird that he dropped out after this story.
The Very Pulse Of The Machine, Michael Swanwick (1999 Hugo award for best short story)
First contact story. Martha Kivelson is exploring Io when a freak accident kills her partner and strands her miles from the lander. With no backup and no radio she has to get back to the lander on her own, with barely enough oxygen to do so under the best of circumstances. And then she begins hearing a voice in her communications system…
Story Of Your Life, Ted Chiang (1999 Nebula award for best novellette)
This is a story for the linguistics geeks. It’s the story of the people who are trying to get the language down after first contact. Only the languages are very different. I’d love to see the universal translators on Star Trek handle these languages. Much more complicated than a Tolkien language.
Voivodoi, Liz Williams (blog)
Teresa’s brother Roman is the victim of a genetic illness from experiments gone wrong. He takes on the appearance of the vodyanoi. His family wants to commit him to a sanatorium, both for his good and for their reputation.
Saddlepoint: Roughneck, Stephen Baxter
How much volatile elements (e.g., carbon) are buried in the Earth’s mantle? The surface of Earth is covered in them. But the surface of the moon is not. After Earth’s surface freezes over, the people living on the moon get by with very little water, etc. Enough to survive, but not to grow. Where can they get these elements? Two options are crashing comets onto the surface of the moon and digging into the core of the moon. Because the moon is much smaller and cooler than Earth, it should be much easier to dig a deep core mine.
This Side Of Independence, Rob Chilson
Years in the future, mankind has spread throughout the solar system and basically lives on various habitats orbiting the sun. We cannibalize all the various planets to construct them. But now we need more material and all that is left is Earth, which is cooling off because all the habitats block the sunlight. Much like various people refused to move off Denny Hill leaving houses standing on very tall columns, some people refuse to leave Earth. But now it’s been 300 years since the last folks left and we run into one last bunch, in Independence Missouri. Discovered by the crew digging up Kansas, we gotta figure out what to do with the remaining people.
Unborn Again, Chris Lawson
This is a fun story of revenge. Basic plot is this: people in China come down with rare disease, disease is traced to a U.S. lab, investigator shows up to interview former head of lab, who promptly gives him a prepared written confession. As he reads it, he discovers why she did it.
Grist, Tony Daniel
Kind of surprised it took this many stories into the anthology, but I only read a couple pages of this novella before skipping on to the next story. Something about priests chatting, and the introduction by Dozois talked about how there are superpowerful beings. The conversation between the priests just seemed too obscure for me. I don’t like have to guess what the hell is going on. Some amount of mystery is fine. Trying to confuse me is another story though.
La Cenerentola, Gwyneth Jones
This one kind of went over my head. Thea Lalande and her wife Suze Bonner are spending time in Europe looking for a place for a summer home. They run into a woman who appears to have two twin children cloned from herself (in the perfect Paris Hilton mode) and one ugly stepchild. Except the perfect mother and twins fade away at times. Supposedly a retelling or a twist on Cinderella, I still didn’t get it, other than the pretty sisters ugly step-sister thing.
Down In The Dark, William Barton
Living on Titan with a few other technicians and scientists, Hoxha Maxwell helps maintain all the equipment. They’re stranded when an asteroid hits earth, obliterating all human life on the surface after an attempt to blow apart the rock with nuclear missiles only causes multiple fragments to crash across the globe. His wife dead and with only a remote chance of returning to the moon with the few hundred other people in space, there’s not a lot of point to living. And a few commit suicide. Maxwell, zombie-like, plods on. Enter Christie Meitner, who discovers something in the frozen landscape but won’t tell Maxwell what it is. While not exactly curious, he does have to maintain her equipment for his own sanity.
Free In Asveroth, Jim Grimsley
I loved this story! I think it’s mostly the atmosphere. On some planet, sentient creatures are enslaved by two-legged aliens that seem much like humans (it’s never said that they are). The indigenous life is rounded up and put in pens. Three escape, years after enslavement, and lead the subjugators on a merry chase across the countryside. See, they like to run, and leap. Huge distances in each jump. Story is told from the point of view of the non-humans.
The Dancing Floor, Cherry Wilder (Cherry Barbara Grimm)
Aliens visit various human places when few people are watching. Each time they build a platform of some sort, then perform a complicated dance on it, with only a few people around to witness it. Then they leave. Three such artifacts have been found prior to the story, which follows someone investigating the fourth.
The Summer Isles, Ian R. MacLeod (1999 World Fantasy award for best novella)
An alternate history story, posing the question What would happen if the Germans won World War I? Instead of the Germans paying crushing reparations under the Treaty of Versailles, it’s the British, and that prompts the loss of Empire. Resentment builds up, and a former soldier named John Arthur quickly rises to power and then dissolves Parliament and rules by decree. Soon the Jews, the homosexuals, gypsies, and other minorities are sent away to camps. In other words, Germany and Great Britain switch places in the lead-up to World War II. This would all be a boring story if that’s all though. Take a history of Germany and England and switch over the names. Luckily there is more. The story is told from the perspective of Geoffrey Brook, a former lover of the closet homosexual John Arthur, who has even more in his past. Brook has his own resentments toward Arthur, some personal, and some political. Can one megalomaniacal man like John Arthur really steer a country wrong, or does he merely lead where the people already are headed?
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