Title: The Mammoth Book Of Best New SF 16
Editor: Gardner Dozois
This is the sixth volume of the annual collection of the best science fiction stories as judged by editor Gardner Dozois. Having started with volume 11 all those years ago, this is now volume 16. As I said when I recently covered volume 15, I got a little behind with reading these collections and am now catching up. Volume 16 covers the year 2002, though as usual it would have been towards the end of 2003 before this UK edition was published – being something like the equivalent of volume 20 of the US edition. This collection features stories by the likes of Robert Reed, Ian McDonald, Bruce Sterling, Paul McAuley, Greg Egan and Charles Stross, all of whom I am a fan of. Other luminaries include Ian R. MacLeod, Gregory Benford, Nancy Kress, Kage Baker, Michael Swanwick and Alistair Reynolds, whom I am most aware of having read through these collections. Other strong stories are contributed here from Chris Beckett, Eleanor Arnanson, Geoff Ryman, and John Kessell.
This years contribution from Ian R. MacLeod is the novella Breathmoss, which follows the story of a girl from childhood to adulthood as she is raised on a matriarchal planet, and starts to learn about the way things are run, and has an important encounter with one of those few individuals who can guide ships through deep space.
The Most Famous Little Girl In The World is another clever story by Nancy Kress, whose Computer Virus was particularly memorable from the previous volume. The story of two girls and the event which separated them, changing their lives for ever. One went on board the UFO, and became a media celebrity. Over the course of 50 years we watch how the world changes, and what happens when the aliens come back.
Apparently Paul McAuley has a series of stories, which comes under the header “the quiet war”, which includes the novella “making history” that was published as a split chapbook with a novella by Stephen Baxter. In The Passenger we meet Maris, who before the war spent 15 years building ships, after she works in salvage. So it was only a matter of time before she was taking apart a ship she put together – an omen, which spooks the rest of her superstitious crew. The fact that the ships crew was dead and the passenger is unaccounted for doesn’t help.
The Political Officer by Charles Coleman Finlay plays with a certain parallel to cold war submarine drama. A ship from one set of planets sets up to travel through a new wormhole to spy on a competing set. Filled with paranoia and intrigue, as the ships political officer tries to out guess the enemy and work out if there are enemy spies on board. Who to trust and what will go wrong?
Lambing Season is a short story by Molly Gloss, in which a woman spends time each year shepherding the flock but finds her outlook changed when she sees something strange one summer. A downbeat contribution, a strange lights at night kind of story, mixed with a woman in a man’s world – shepherding/sheep shearing kind of thing.
Coelcanths sees Robert Reed in weird territory – multi-layered and streamed version of a future reality, some parallels with his story Raven Dream, which was in the previous years collection. Man on a stage, a girl the size of a speck of dust, people living in the wild and city teens, all with different opinions on what is reality, and how those other characters fit or overlap with that idea of reality.
Presence, the title of Maureen F McHugh’s story, provides one meaning that is backed up a little, the woman in the story working by tele-presence. But it then turns it around, so that it is about the woman’s husband who has Alzheimer’s, and what new techniques might give him back his life.
In the previous volume we were introduced to Manfred Mancx in Charles Stross’s story Lobsters. With Halo, the main character is Amber Mancx, his daughter who has run away to space, fleeing her domineering mother. A journey to Jupiter and the representatives of Islam in space.
We have another story with an Islamic connection, as Bruce Sterling delivers a short piece called In Paradise. Following the encounter between an American man and the daughter of an Iranian diplomat – a diplomatic incident and a romance carried out through translation devices.
The Old Cosmonaut And The Construction Worker Dream Of Mars sees Ian McDonald enter parallel worlds and disparate visions of Mars. Where the titular characters meet one foggy morning. Combining the feel of McDonald’s Desolation Road Mars with his River Of Gods construction worker.
Stories For Men is a particularly interesting contribution by John Kessell, especially with its reinterpretation of a contemporary fictional character. A story about a “post-phallic” colony on the dark side of the moon, a matriarch where women have the power and the vote, and men are “pets”. In the midst of which rises dissent, a “stand up” comedian calling himself “Tyler Durden” calls for male emancipation.
In the previous years collection Chris Beckett presented Marcher, a story about an immigration officer, working a ghetto housing estate, trying to keep the poor from sliding across to a parallel reality. In To Become A Warrior, he plunges into the depths of the housing estates and the rise of the advocates of the world tree, and how if you can worship the appropriate gods you can shift from this branch of reality to another one where you can live free of the ghetto. Particularly nice taken with Marcher, as there is a marked contrast in the language it is written in to reflect the change in the characters involved.
V.A.O. by Geoff Ryman features a timely theme, given the increasing problems old people are having, with a number of prominent pension collapses in recent years. Following old age pensioners that express “age rage” against a system that has abandoned them to die in old folks homes – hacking the very systems that they wrote.
Winters Are Hard sees Steven Popkes following the life of a man who is engineered to live wild with wolves, and how things change when the press turn him into the celebrity du jour. While Richard Waldrop extends the periodic table through mining of suns and black holes in At The Money. The story’s narrator lands a mystery ticket from a ship crash, but what’s the best deal on the current market, taking into account half life speculation and object-orientated socialism. An unusual and interesting approach to SF.
In Agent provocateur Alexander Irvine presents a man with a choice, as he into a place between time and space. There he is presented with a question – does he want to witness a home run by his favourite baseball player, or does he want that player to become a spy during the Second World War and meet a key German scientist – the man has to decide, one or the other.
Greg Egan’s Singleton follows the life of a man concerned about infinite world theories and the computer he invents and installs into a “human” AI, to deal with this issue, creating the singleton option. Typical big idea driven story by Egan, with a dose of drama that seems more over the top than he usually goes for.
Michael Swanwick’s Slow Life is a combination of 2 prime SF themes, explorers encountering danger on another planet as a twist to the earth bound disaster, coupled with the possibility of an alien life or intelligence system being found in that alternate environment. In this case, three astronauts explore Titan, only to learn that an inert system is no longer inert if you are there and supplying energy.
A Flock Of Birds by James Van Pelt presents an America that is under quarantine. A plague has swept the country, the few remaining people struggle to survive. One of those people tries to keep a friend alive. The rest of the time he spends bird watching, can he find some small hope from this hobby?
A woman becomes interested in fossils in a small town in The Potter Of Bones by Eleanor Arnanson. But no one wants to know and she is forced to get a real job. Becoming a potter is the closest trade she can get to dealing with stone and earth, and over the years as a potter she forms a theory of evolution based on the fossils she finds. This is a story from an alien planet, with furry matriarchal humanoids and all.
In Jon Meaney’s The Whisper Of Disks he explores the life of a 113-year-old woman, tracing back her life as a child genius, and how she is actually descended from Ada Byron. I quite liked the character that the story was following, though I found the flashbacks to the past off-putting and not especially necessary.
The Hotel At Harlan’s Landing is one of Kage Baker’s Company stories, though the territory seems to have changed a little since I read any of those last. Set in depression era America, one dark night in a run down town, someone comes looking for locals with a secret. Walter Jon Williams’s The Millennium Party follows a couple’s celebration of their 1000th anniversary together. Taking in a generated environment, exchangeable brains and clones sent into space in barely two pages.
The planet Turquoise in Alistair Reynolds’s Turquoise Days is a water world with an isolationist policy. Which is upset when the first outside ship in a 100 years arrives. The story follows two sisters who are interested in the alien system manifested in the ocean and how that ties into why the folk have come to visit the planet Turquoise. The story is mix of sibling rivalry, political intrigue and alien encounter.