Review: The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirty-First Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois

[Cover of YBSF31]

Overview: "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust..."

Just to make things clear, overall Gardner Dozois' 31st rendition of the The Year's Best Science Fiction is pretty good (even better than the last couple) and has a little something (sometimes a very tiny something) for most everybody and most everybody should run out and get it if they haven't already.

That said, this science fiction anthology begins and ends with death. Not only that, it begins with ghosts followed by vampires (and ends with zombies) and, for the third story, we get really uptempo with a story about someone with a terminal condition - but they're not dead yet! We follow that fun up with a tale of genocide and then face an apocalyptic terrorist strike (though, to be fair, that's actually a fun story). Then, because this is science fiction, see, the next story is set in an alternate sixteenth century. Back to the future, the next tale is about radical and hopeless social inequality. Continuing with the fun, we fail to make first contact. Yes, a story about what we don't do. Then bio/nano-tech run amok. And, in the most egregious nonsense of all, this "science fiction" anthology gives us a story about a naturally habitable Mars with indigenous life just like mom used to make.

Finally, with the twelfth story, Greg Egan saves the day (naturally) with a tale about someone making life better for a change. The irony is that the one problem with "Zero for Conduct" - about a young Afghan woman in Iran who is a prodigy of a chemist - is that, while I was brought to care about the protagonist and was dreading something horrible happening, things go a little too smoothly for the most part. Still, after an avalanche of death and mayhem, I'll take it. And it truly is an extraordinary story even apart from its context.

Since Egan spoiled that run, I'll work backward from the end. As mentioned, that's a story of death. Prior to that is another "failed space" story that involves sickness and death. A war that disintegrates American society and presumably much else. Another "Old Mars" fantasy. Before that, it's a post-apocalyptic future but we're so far past the apocalypse that things are actually starting to look up again. (Thank heaven for small favors.) An "electropunk" story set in the past which posits the forthcoming apocalypse as foreordained. Another apocalypse we're well past. Another apocalypse. Oddly, a story set on Titan dealing with group minds - not a lot of fun, but at least not quite apocalyptic.

And, prior to that, we have the second high point of the book ten stories from the end, when Neal Asher says, "Apocalypse? We don't need no steenkin' apocalypse - we blow up crap real good everyday, anyway." "The Other Gun" isn't exactly hard SF but it's a quintessential Asher-style New Space Opera thrill ride with lots of action and violence and with something to say, as well. Aficionados will recognize the prador and this involves the last surviving entity of a race the prador otherwise annihilated (so it was an apocalypse for them) who is out for revenge, with a human in tow.

Of the middle ten between those peaks, there's what is technically an alternate history insofar as it's part of an alternate history series, but this particular example is primarily a fairly nonsensical pseudo-space opera dealing with AIs. Then there's a sort of Shaper/Mechanist-feeling story dealing with a hateful artist and cyborgs and robots. A sort of fantastic seeming tale that tries to be rooted in neurobiology. A murder mystery on Mars. Another apocalypse done as a collage, the bulk of which takes the form of a fictional wikipedia article. An apocalyptic plague. An apocalyptic solar flare. A Gene Wolfe "tribute". (It must be good because I often like Swanwick but am repelled by Wolfe's work and I'm repelled by this story exactly as if it were written by Wolfe.) A political thriller on an asteroid. A story that's "SF" in the same way Gravity was except that this is a slow, quiet tale of burying astronaut remains - more failed space, more death.

As an example of what this all generally feels like, drawn from the actual writing, here's a quote from near the middle of Ian R. MacLeod's mostly nicely foreshadowed and well structured, but maudlin and extremely dull, "Entangled", in which a woman's had half her brains blown out and her father's been taking care of her. The alleged perpetrator gets away with it...

...whilst Martha Chanhan's[1] father's heart gave out from grief and exhaustion, and she was left empty, damaged, and alone.


And here's the dead protagonist in Damien Broderick's "Quicken" ruminating while his twice-killed former wife is undergoing her second resurrection:

The corpse began to swell. Pulsations flexed Sybille's smashed legs, her hips writhed in a horrid parody of sexual desire. Klein watched without emotion, neither excited nor repelled. The world was comic in its meaningless surges, its appetites, its agonies, but none of what he saw brought a smile to his lips or a burning wish to vomit. Awareness of his own inanition caused him neither self-reproof nor an anxious wish to remedy this loss of emotions that had once overwhelmed his life. All of this he saw clearly, layer within layer, and all he felt was a profound bleakness.


Are we having fun yet?

Two words, Dozois (and many SF writers generally): LIGHTEN UP!

But this is all what the stories (sub)generically are about and, but for a few, doesn't speak to their individual quality. Indeed, a remarkable thing about these stories is that, while totally imbalanced in the uniformity of their drab neo-early-70s apocalyptic matter and usually depressed tone, they don't give the impression of otherwise reading the same story over and over but manage some individuality in their disasters. Many of them are quite good.

Selected Stories

As mentioned in the overview, the stories that most impressed me were Asher's "The Other Gun" and Egan's "Zero for Conduct". Moving on from there, Jay Lake's "Rock of Ages" is set in the "METAtropolis" shared universe, about which I know basically nothing, and nothing about it need be known going into a tale of an old but very well-preserved superspy of sorts, and the plot to drop an asteroid on Seattle, unless that the Greens have taken over in the aftermath of ecotastrophe and splintered into more and less radical wings. I usually dislike adventure stories that try to work in "family" and character concerns a bit too obviously but this, while featuring a great deal of the man's wife and daughter, felt almost seamless and natural. It was a very exciting story, written with a nice pace and feel. Approaching the wonderfully named "Schaadt's Shack", a bar and contact point for our hero, he observes the exterior.

The tamped clay apron in front even held a few vehicles. Unusual in these parts. He slacked his pace and scanned. A couple of small, battered hovercraft that would run slow and fat on dense, long range fuel cells. The usual assortment of bikes and seggers. An honest-to-God Hummer body, though this one was crowded with an alcohol-fueled boiler and wouldn't drive much faster than he could run. Not that he could run with a couple of metric tons of cargo on his back.

And, strangely enough, a rather peculiar helicopter. Something very new. Insectile airframe, rotors folded politely, bristling with enough stingers of one kind or another to melt everything else in the yard and punch more than a few holes in Schaadt's Jack-the-giant-killer slate roof in the process.

Finding such a machine out here was like finding a silenced carbon fiber pistol in a child's toy box.

Somebody took their drinking seriously.


Nancy Kress is one of three authors with two stories in this edition (the others being Ian R. MacLeod - I wouldn't have taken either - and Lavie Tidhar, whose stuff I usually don't care for[2] and whose pieces weren't great in this but were better than usual). The best of her two is "Pathways", which details a young woman's efforts to deal with Fatal Familial Insomnia. The real strength of this story, I think, is the characterization of both the woman and her doctor (and others) and the genuine but restrained emotion. An oddity is the ambivalent focus on libertarian politics which makes part of the story possible. And my one complaint is the choice of making the woman a smart but uneducated mountain woman and writing her in dialect because you just don't say "warn't either" - it's "warn't neither"[3]. But, seriously: a very good story. (Her other story, "One", is also good but a bit too fantastical with its pseudo-psychic protagonist who can read animals and labors under his being much less appealing than the protagonist of "Pathways".)

As mentioned in the overview, Alastair Reynolds' "A Map of Mercury" is about a failed artist and flunky trying to entice a misunderstood artist back to her stratified and commercial Jovian moons of origin from her current residence on Mercury as part of the Cyborg Artists' Collective. This has a clever, amusing ending and some great ideas for art but the most striking thing is just the depictions of the cyborgs and robots on Mercury - all but the newest of us have read of zillions of cyborgs and robots but this still rekindles a bit of "wow".

Karl Bunker's "Gray Wings" off-puttingly starts like a fantasy but becomes a very nicely understated tale (in a literal, explicit sense, though quite vigorous in its presentation) of the social inequality and "uneven distribution of the future", using a crashed nano-filled flying human racer and the villager who helps her. Usually, I find stories that lack a decisive ending to be sort of gutless but this ending was possibly perfect.

Melissa Scott's "Finders" was not at all perfect as a story because it felt like an excerpt from a novel, presumably a sort of prologue. However, if it is - or becomes - a novel, I'll probably buy it. So it's good in that sense. This involves a former triad that had been reduced to a duo but reunites with the third member on a salvage operation. Very interesting people and scenario and excitingly written with, for instance, a scene like the "Reavers passing" scene in the "Serenity" episode of Firefly.

My next three favorite stories all come with more serious problems.

Ian MacDonald's "The Queen of Night's Aria" is one of two stories Dozois picks from his own Old Mars anthology. The other is Steele's "Martian Blood". This is a really annoying idea for an anthology as it is ipso facto fantasy - current stories set on the pre-Space Age Mars with canals, old civilizations, indigenes, etc. It's also annoying that, in an anthology of so many slow, thickly written, depressed stories, this is an irresistible barrel o' fun. An opera singer on the downside of his career, accompanied by his... well, accompanist, is performing a sort of UK USO tour on Mars while the humans fight the aliens. The characters are so over the top and pleasingly ridiculous and the story is so exciting and resurrects the old tropes so well that you can't help being swept along. But why does it have to be set on an impossible Mars to achieve this? Why can't the earth or Gliese-whatever be the setting of tales written with such vivacity? "If it's to be taken seriously, it has to be dull and depressing. Only impossible farce may be exuberant." I'm not deaf to the idea that this is about war and is making colonial comments and so on, so it's not all fun and games, but it's a lively story, that's for sure.

(I like a lot of Steele and his isn't bad but can't overcome the drag of the anthology's theme, there's a logical problem with a dichotomy drawn between panspermia and parallel evolution and another problem with an element of the presentation (though I give him points for trying to put some kind of science into this unscientific premise), and the ending is significantly flawed, anyway.)

Then Val Nolan's "The Irish Astronaut" turns the blarney up to 11 in a very charming and intriguingly idiosyncratic story of a backup astronaut returning the remains of a part-Irish astronaut (with the fine Irish name of Rodriguez, if I remember correctly) to Ireland to be interred. The story takes place mostly while the American is waiting around for the priest and making friends with a couple of older characters. The problem here is that, other than the fact that it didn't happen, it's a mainstream story and not SF at all. It just talks about a space program and so is considered "of interest" to genre readers, like everything from The Right Stuff to Gravity to Star Wars.

On the other hand, Ken Liu's "The Plague" is a very science fictional short-short which is a kind of inverted biter bit. It's deft economy is excellent. Taken by itself, there's little more to say but this can be taken as thematically unappealing as part of an agenda. It could have been included in We See a Different Frontier which, like Old Mars, doesn't help this anthology a lot, being another set of barbs in the whip with which the West has taken to flagellating itself, or letting itself be flagellated.

Regarding that anthology, Sunny Moraine's piece on "A Heap of Broken Images" is disappointingly like Brit Mandelo's "The Finite Canvas" from last year in that, while done well enough, it's not really SF. It sounds crazy to say about a story narrated by an alien but the narrator, after some initial potential, is not sufficiently alien and this might as well be about any human mass murder of humans. On the other hand, Sandra McDonald's "Fleet" is just a rant with irrelevant gender issues conflated and lacks any of the cleverness Liu's piece had. It's interesting to compare the stories from the other "agenda" anthology, The Other Half of the Sky. This is the origin of "Finders", Jablokov's "Bad Day on Boscobel" (about a revolution in an asteroid space habitat) and Aliette de Bodard's "The Waiting Stars" (the "fairly nonsensical pseudo-space opera dealing with AIs" mentioned in the overview). This is apparently a "feminist" anthology but the only requirement is to feature a female protagonist, which happens more often than not these days, anyway. While I don't like the de Bodard, that just goes for all de Bodards and the problem is not didacticism ruining the fiction. The Jablokov reads a little forced and has an almost all-female cast, but is not bad, and the Scott, as noted, is quite good.

Another element which I think brings this Annual down is the retro stories. There's nothing wrong with taking inspiration from the past - basically every story does - and there's not even anything wrong with paying direct homage to previous works. This can be done as differently as Kelly's brilliant "Think Like a Dinosaur" from the 13th Annual or as Cory Doctorow's very good "Chicken Little" from the 28th. But this year's crop includes the previously mentioned Swanwick-from-Wolfe which seems to be just another Wolfe story, and Damien Broderick's "Quicken", which is a sequel to Silverberg's "Born with the Dead"[4]. I've mentioned elsewhere that I'm not as fond of Silverberg's novella as many are and that one reason among many was its sociological implausibility. Broderick seems to have noticed the same problem but here tries have two wrongs make a right by being excessively sociological in a sequel when the right way would be to have had more sociological care in the original or to try to mute the problem in the sequel. And, somewhat as Silverberg says he poured heart and soul into his story, I don't feel this was a crass commercial move on Broderick's part but that he really put a lot into the story, so I hate to be negative. But, while not bad, it just didn't really work for me, especially with its uncontrolled expansiveness as it wore on, like Charles Sheffield's intrinsic scope in Tomorrow and Tomorrow just kind of bolted on to this one, or something which seized Broderick in a fit of passion.

And there's one specific story which isn't in this anthology that I'd like to note. This year's token Analog story is the adequate "Murder on the Aldrin Express" by Martin L. Shoemaker. In my opinion, this was only the third best Analog novella. Regardless, I suspect that in most people's opinion, it was quite clearly not the very best Analog story, which was Brad R. Torgersen's "The Chaplain's Assistant".

Summary Fiction Ratings:

As can be determined from the table, Gardner Dozois' The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirty-First Annual Collection presents thirty-two stories this year, including six novellas, thirteen novelettes, and thirteen short stories. Fifteen stories are pulled from anthologies (three each from Twelve Tomorrows and The Other Half of the Sky, two each from We See a Different Frontier, Pandemonium, and Dozois/Martin's Old Mars, and two from other sources). Ten are pulled from the SF magazines (five from Asimov's, two each from F&SF and Interzone, and one from Analog, as well as one from Nature. Five are pulled from ezines, with placing two - the only digital source with more than one. And he pulled one that was original to a Baxter collection.

Rating"Title", AuthorCategorySource (type)
4"The Other Gun", Neal AsherNovellaAsimov's (mag)
4"Zero for Conduct", Greg EganNoveletteTwelve Tomorrows (anth)
3.5"Rock of Ages", Jay LakeNovellaMETAtropolis (anth)
3.5"Pathways", Nancy KressNoveletteTwelve Tomorrows (anth)
3.5"A Map of Mercury", Alastair ReynoldsShort Story*Pandemonium (anth)
3.5"One", Nancy (ezine)
3"Gray Wings", Karl BunkerShort StoryAsimov's (mag)
3"Finders", Melissa ScottNoveletteThe Other Half of the Sky (anth)
3"The Queen of Night's Aria", Ian McDonaldNoveletteOld Mars (anth)
3"The Irish Astronaut", Val NolanNoveletteElectric Velocipede (anth)
3"The Plague", Ken LiuShort StoryNature (mag)
2.5"Hard Stars", Brendan DuBoisShort StoryF&SF (mag)
2.5"Precious Mental", Robert ReedNovellaAsimov's (mag)
2.5"Bad Day on Boscobel", Alexander JablokovNoveletteThe Other Half of the Sky (anth)
2.5"The Book Seller", Lavie TidharNoveletteInterzone (mag)
2.5"Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince", Jake KerrShort StoryLightspeed (ezine)
2"Earth 1", Stephen BaxterNoveletteUniverses (coll)
2"Murder on the Aldrin Express", Martin L. ShoemakerNovellaAnalog (mag)
2"Only Human", Lavie TidharShort StoryPandemonium (anth)
2"Martian Blood", Allen SteeleNoveletteOld Mars (anth)
2"Technarion", Sean McMullenNoveletteInterzone (mag)
2"A Heap of Broken Images", Sunny MoraineShort StoryWe See a Different Frontier (anth)
2"The Promise of Space", James Patrick KellyShort Storyclarkesworld (ezine)
2"The Discovered Country", Ian R. MacLeodNoveletteAsimov's (mag)
2"Quicken", Damien BroderickNovellaBeyond the Doors of Death (anth)
1.5"Entangled", Ian R. MacLeodNoveletteAsimov's (mag)
1.5"The Waiting Stars", Aliette de BodardNoveletteThe Other Half of the Sky (anth)
1.5"Transitional Forms", Paul J. McAuleyShort StoryTwelve Tomorrows (anth)
1.5"Rosary and Goldenstar", Geoff RymanShort StoryF&SF (mag)
1.5"The Best We Can", Carrie VaughnShort (ezine)
1"Fleet", Sandra McDonaldShort StoryWe See a Different Frontier (anth)
1"The She-Wolf's Hidden Grin", Michael SwanwickShort StoryShadows of the New Sun (anth)

* "A Map of Mercury" is listed as a "novelette" by the ISFDB but I believe it's a short story. (Thanks to Gordon Van Gelder for providing the word count for the DuBois which corrects my error in classifying it.)

Final word: An anthology which has a third of excellence, a fifth of... not, and a remainder of some interest, is not a bad deal. And I suspect many would have entirely different stories go in the categories but might have similar or better ratios.

But I repeat my annual call for harder SF, crisper prose, faster paces, and more upbeat mentalities in the Annual. This is an anthology - regardless of any quality - which is filled for the most part with apocalypse, death, destruction, failed space programs, and evil colonial Westerners, and only allows itself to have fun with preposterous anti-SF.


[1] I've been complaining about Analog's poor proofreading a lot but haven't had much cause to complain about the Dozois annuals. But this one is terrible. There are unacceptably many throughout the book and it really hits its stride around this point. On p.509-510, the protagonist's name is changed from "Chauhan", she "gabs" something, her "bother" gets killed, and then there's "that roaring in her ears which much far loud and close to be any kind of sound" and the dog recognizes "much more a familiar shape and scent".

[2] My footnotes are really footnotes! Skip this silliness if so inclined but I can't help mentioning this.

In the 29th Annual, in a Tidhar story, we have:
"He loved the smell of late-blooming jasmine..." (441)
"He loved the smell of this place, this city. The smell of the sea to the west, that wild scent of salt and open water, seaweed and tar, of suntan lotion and people...Loved the smell of cold conditioned air leaking out of windows, of basil when you rubbed it between your fingers, loved the smell of shawarma rising from the street level with its heady mix of spices, turmeric and cumin dominating, loved the smell of vanished orange groves..." (442)

In the 30th:
"Hers was the scent of basil, and the night. When cooking, he would sometimes crush basil leaves between his fingers. It would bring her back..." (71)

In the 31st:
"He loved the smell of sheesha-pipes on the morning wind, and the smell of bitter coffee, loved the smell of fresh horse manure..." (24)
"Savouring the moment light would fall down on the box's contents, and the smell of those precious, fragile things inside would rise, released, into the air, and tickle his nose. There was no other smell like it in the world, the smell of old and weathered paper.... They smelled of dust, and mould, and age. They smelled, faintly, of pee, and tobacco, and spilled coffee. They smelled like things which had lived.

"They smelled like history." (25)

And in the September 2013 Analog there's:
"The smell of lamb fat, slowly melting over rotating skewers of meat, flavored the air, mixing with the sweetness of freshly-baked baklava and the tang of cumin, and strong bitter coffee served with roasted cardamoms." (37)

Got it? He loves crushing basil and a million other smells including manure and pee. In every. Single. Story. And I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like victory.

[3] There are a lot of weird word choices and phrasings in this anthology. McAuley has a US Westerner who's talking about his hat say, "there's a store sells them", which sounds mighty English to me. Reynolds has hats, "space helmets" and brooches in weird contexts. That's nothing compared to de Bodard's spaceship having a "windshield". Speaking of English, Reed has apparently changed nationality as he "fancies" "dodgy" things. Kress has a reference to a "newspaper printing office" which seems anachronistic in context. And you'd be hard pressed to find a story that doesn't have "shit" (etc.) in it, usually not even in an emotive dialog context.

[4] About the most fun you can have with this story is play "spot the Silverberg reference". I didn't start right away and apparently quickly lost interest but noticed "stochastic" arbitrage (652) as one of the two uses of "stochastic", the entire phrase "downward to the earth" (666), and a Philoctetes reference which, in turn, references The Man in the Maze (671)

[5] Here's a "footnote" without a body reference but it's not worth a body discussion. Regarding the summation, be careful. Dozois again discusses ebooks without noting the willful demolition of mass market paperbacks by the publishers. While he doesn't make a point of it, I was struck by what seems to be a depiction of online fiction in collapse, starting with the end of Subterranean and going on to numerous other lesser markets. He cites Carol Emshwiller's second volume of collected stories as being released when it was only scheduled to be (as was the case in 2012) and wasn't yet again. His predictions of what would succeed and fail from the TV series weren't very accurate. But he did mention the excellent movie The Europa Report. Perhaps most astonishing, in mentioning the "first novels" that came out this year, which included Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, he says, "None of these novels seemed to draw an unusual amount of attention." I did not like the book personally, but if winning the Locus Best First Novel, the Arthur C. Clarke award, and the freakin' Nebula - and having the pre-existing buzz to make all that not particularly surprising - isn't unusual attention for a first novel, Neuromancer must be about the only first novel that ever did receive an unusual amount. I only note all this because, usually, one of the best parts of the Dozois annual (despite its templated nature) is the long, detailed, and interesting summation.