2001: A science fiction odyssey — Volume 19 of Gardner Dozois’s excellent ‘Year’s Best Science Fiction’ lives up to the series standard

May 17, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 17, 2014

If you love science fiction but have never read The Year’s Best Science Fiction, then I urge you to remedy that immediately. Launched in 1984 and now in its 30th annual volume, the series is curated by legendary editor Gardner Dozois. Each edition contains roughly two dozen stories; some are just a few pages long, with others stretching to novella-length. A mix of writers prominent and otherwise is represented each year.

A few weeks ago, I came across two volumes from the series at a used bookstore. The pair included the 19th annual collection, which was published in 2002 and anthologizes top stories from 2001.

The book opens with “New Light on the Drake Equation,” Ian R. MacLeod’s chronicle of the life of a lonely, dissolute SETI hunter. (That acronym stands for search for extraterrestrial intelligence, natch.) Protagonist Tom Kelly is listening for signals from intelligent alien civilizations on a mountaintop in France a few decades hence. The astronomer has all but shut himself away from his earthly surroundings, which are quite fantastic in their own right: Those who are rich enough can genetically re-engineer their bodies to be capable of flight and their minds to be fluent in other languages.

An unlikely reunion with Terr, his great love, prompts Kelly to re-evaluate his approach to life. The recounting of the love affair is a bit tiresome, and the ending doesn’t seem entirely earned to me, but the story works despite these flaws.

“More Adventures on Other Planets” by Michael Cassutt describes the relationships, real and virtual, between two remote-controlled robots on the Jovian moon of Europa and their Earthbound operators, a couple by the name of Earl Tolan and Rebecca Marceau. It provides an interesting look at how science and space exploration may proceed, even as human relations retains certain familiar qualities.

The great Dan Simmons contributes “On K2 with Kanakaredes,” the story of three mountaineers who unexpectedly gain the opportunity to climb K2, one of Earth’s most treacherous peaks, with a most unusual companion. That creature is Kanakaredes, a buglike mantispid alien. A traveler on a generation ship that arrived on Earth a few years previously, Kanakaredes says that his race is visiting Earth in order to help its inhabitants learn to listen. As the unlikely quartet ascends the Himalayan peak, they begin to bond.

Simmons’ story is mostly satisfying, but it’s marred by the flat character of a bureaucrat who arranges the excursion’s alien element. This figure features prominently in the story’s all-too-pat final scene.

By contrast, William Sanders’ “When this World is All on Fire” ends on a haunting note. The protagonist here is Davis Blackbear, a part-Cherokee law enforcement officer on a Native American reservation in mountainous Western North Carolina.

In a near future ravaged by global warming, the relationship among reservation dwellers and other Americans has been inverted, at least partly. “Oh, why can’t you leave us alone,” asks a member of a family of white squatters whom Blackbear rousts as the tale begins. “We’re not hurting anybody. You people have all this land, why won’t you share it?” That comes from the family’s mother; the father barks: “Bunch of woods niggers, hogging good land while white people starve. You got no right.”

For reasons he doesn’t understand, Blackbear becomes enamored of the family’s red-haired 16-year-old daughter, whose singing he finds haunting. He treats the adolescent kindly, and honorably, but the family’s patriarch nevertheless lashes back cruelly when he discovers the pair together. Taken as a whole, the story is devastating.

Nancy Kress’s “Computer Virus” is not quite as harrowing, even though it puts a recently widowed woman and her two young children at the mercy of T4S, an intelligent, powerful computer program that fears being deleted by its creators. The human protagonist, Cassie Seritov, a scientist who uses her expertise to try to free her family from the frightened but not overtly hostile computer program, never struck me as being a fully formed character. Still less convincing are the people outside the Seritovs’ fortress-like home, some of whom may be willing to sacrifice innocent lives in order to destroy T4S.

Dozois puts “Have Not Have,” by Geoff Ryman, immediately before “Lobsters,” by Charles Stross, which makes for a fascinating contrast. Ryman’s story revolves around Mae, a “fashion consultant.” She is the most sophisticated woman in a remote African village that is about to become the last place in the world to be connected to a futuristic version of the Internet.

In this scene, Mae visits a seamstress in the (relatively) large neighboring town of Yeshibozkay:

Miss Soo had a skinny face full of teeth, and she always looked like she was staring ahead in fear. “If you are rich you have no need to try to look rich.” Her voice was soft. She made Mae feel like a peasant without meaning to. She made Mae yearn to escape herself, to be someone else, for the child was effortlessly talented, somehow effortlessly in touch with the outside world.

“Ah yes,” Mae sighed. “But my clients, you know, they live in the hills.” She shared a conspiratorial smile with the girl. “Their taste! Speaking of which, let’s have a look at my wedding cake of a dress.”

The dress was actually meant to look like a cake, all pink and white sugar icing, except that it kept moving all by itself. White wires with Styrofoam bobbles on the ends were surrounded with clouds of white netting.

“Does it need to be quite so busy?” the girl asked, doubtfully, encouraged too much by Mae’s smile.

“I know my clients,” replied Mae coolly. This is at least, she thought, a dress that makes some effort. She inspected the work. The needlework was delicious, as if the white cloth were cream that had flowed together. The poor creature could certainly sew, even when she hated the dress.

Stross’s protagonist is Manfred Macx, perhaps the most connected man in an incredibly dynamic information-driven economy.

“I work for the betterment of everybody, not just some narrowly defined national interest, Pam,” the supremely self-confident Macx tells his former fiancée, Pam, who is trying to get him to pay an outstanding tax bill of about $12 million. “It’s the agalmic future. You’re still locked into a pre-singularity economic model that thinks in terms of scarcity. Resource allocation isn’t a problem any more — it’s going to be over within a decade. The cosmos is flat in all directions, and we can borrow as much bandwidth as we need from the first universal bank of entropy! They even found the dark matter — MACHOs, big brown dwarves in the galactic halo, leaking radiation in the long infrared — suspiciously high entropy leakage. The latest figures say something like 70 percent of the mass of the M31 galaxy was sapient, two point nine million years ago when the infrared we’re seeing now set out. The intelligence gap between us and the aliens is probably about a trillion times bigger than the gap between us and a nematode worm. Do you have any idea what that means?”

Good question, to which I can honestly answer: Only partially. I do know that Macx gets involved in arranging for the minds of KGB-connected digitally uploaded crustaceans to become the custodians of a comet heading into deep space, and that the story ends with a chemically enhanced kinky S&M encounter between Macx and Pam. At any rate, the contrast between the mainly rustic characters and setting of “Have Not Have” and the über-sophisticated ones of “Lobsters” is quite entertaining.

Stross’s story is followed by Michael Swanwick’s “The Dog Said Bow-Wow,” which is even more outrageous and entertaining. The central characters are an elegantly tailored, dog-shaped, genetically engineered person named Sir Blacktorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux, a.k.a. Surplus, and Darger, his sidekick. (Or is it the other way round?) These rogues infiltrate the royal court of Britain’s Gloriana, the maggot queen, with the intent of stealing an expensive piece of jewelry. The intrigue gets especially interesting when Darger chooses the wrong prop, a modem capable of connecting to the remnants of a demon-ridden Internet…

Andy Duncan’s novella “The Chief Designer” chronicles the early decades of the Soviet Union’s manned space program through the perspective of Korolev, the titular rocketry expert and his deputy, Aksyonov. It’s followed by Paul Di Filippo’s campy “Neutrino Drag,” in which an alien named Spacedog falls in — and eventually feuds — with a group of drag-racing Southern California car enthusiasts in the early 1950s.

Perhaps my favorite entry in the volume is Alastair Reynolds’ “Glacial,” a tense mystery story about interstellar explorers trying to understand why all of the colonists on the icy planet of Diadem are now dead. The story’s twist is easy to anticipate, but the tale is no less effective for that, and the way that the protagonist empathizes with the villain is extremely satisfying.

Leslie Gillis, the only character in “The Days Between,” is also an interstellar explorer, but he finds himself trapped in the vast void of space in Allen M. Steele’s story. Thanks to some sinister governmental machinations and a clerical error, Gillis is accidentally awakened on Oct. 3, 2070, three months into the URSS Alabama’s 230-year-long voyage between Earth and 47 Ursae Majoris. Lacking any way to return himself to hibernation, the utterly isolated communications officer struggles to find a routine.

Eleanor Arnason constructs an elaborate universe in “Moby Quilt,” the tale of a futuristic documentary filmmaker who unexpectedly finds herself encountering more than one form of intelligent aquatic life on the recently colonized planet Newtucket. Befitting her complex setting, humanity occupies a tenuous niche in Arnason’s creation: Members of our prolific species have settled many worlds, but they do so at the sufferance of artificial intelligences, whose motives are mysterious and whose benevolence is limited. The AIs rescued humans from their overcrowded home planet, but as one coldly reminds the protagonist of “Moby Quilt,” “We need not do it again.”

That protagonist, Lydia Duluth, finds herself, her vessel and her seagoing companions in jeopardy. The Persistent’s encounter with a strange new life form ultimately changes the destiny of Newtucket and its settlers.

James Patrick Kelly contributes an odd love story, “Undone.” In it, a shape-shifting time traveler named Mada finds herself stranded in the far future, where she takes it upon herself to repopulate her home world with a pleasant, unsuspecting man.

“The Real Thing,” by Carolyn Ives Gilman, involves Sage Akwesasne, who travels a generation or two ahead from more-or-less present-day Earth. The society she finds is vapid, celebrity-obsessed and disturbingly akin to our present-day world.

Maureen F. McHugh’s “Interview: On Any Given Day” describes an encounter between an Ohio teenager named Emma Chicheck and Terry Sydnowski, a rejuvenated youth-obsessed 71-year-old. The story, which takes the form of a transcript of a “National Public Internet” newsmagazine story, shows that age and maturity are not necessarily linked.

“Isabel of the Fall” is the volume’s second story by Ian R. MacLeod, and it could hardly be more different from “New Light on the Drake Equation.” Its setting — some kind of far-future artificial world — is so exotic as to make the other story’s flying aristocratic Frenchmen seem mundane. The titular Isabel, described as “un-beautiful and unintelligent, but … also un-stupid and un-ugly,” survives a violent war. She is adopted by a church and, more or less despite herself, rises in its ranks to become a Dawn-Singer, responsible for aligning the mirrors that bring strictly regulated hours and amounts of light and darkness to Ghezirah.

Thanks to her own negligence, Isabel allows an ill-lit area to appear in her territory; this attracts a dancer whom Isabel spies from her minaret. She strikes up a forbidden friendship with the dancer, Genya, who is indentured to the Cathedral of the Word. The illicit relationship is discovered, and both women are punished cruelly, but Isabel’s negligence allows the long-banished phenomenon of seasons to return, amidst much acclaim.

This description must make the tale seem foolish, but the story is quite moving.

Jim Grimsley’s tale, “Into Greenwood,” is narrated by a young human woman, a revolutionary on the planet Aramen, who would like to overthrow the telepathic Prin administrators who rule their world and many others. In pursuit of that goal, she travels to Aramen’s little-visited northern continent, which is ruled by the Dirijhi, a native species of intelligent, very slowly moving trees.

The narrator’s younger brother, Binam, became an assistant — they’re called symbionts — to the Dirijhi years earlier. After a long silence, he has finally agreed to her request to visit him in Greenwood. Binam is now part-plant, a very different creature from the young boy the narrator once knew.

We sat for a long time in the cool lifting breeze, thereat of the distant sun beginning to strip the clouds away. Light fell on Binam, bringing out the rich greens and softer-colored variations along his skin, and he closed his eyes and sat there. “I can’t tell you what a sweet feeling this is.”

“The sunlight?”

“Yes. On my chloroplasts.” He licked his lips, though the moistures looked more like sap than saliva. “I can feel it in every nerve.”

The Dirijhi tenatively commit themselves to allying with human colonists against the Prin, but before the narrator leaves, she makes a very unsettling discovery about the balance of power among the different sentient species on Aramen.

“The Two Dicks” strikes an entirely different tone. Paul McAuley depicts an alternative-history scenario centered around Philip K. Dick, who in this world is considered the greatest living American novelist. (“Updike joshed me about it during the round of golf we played the day after I gave that speech at Harvard.”) A drug-addled Dick is upset by the unauthorized publication of his alternative-history novel, The Man in the High Castle. (Yes, I happened to write about this book just the other month.)

Dick manages to arrange a meeting with President Richard Nixon (the other Dick), and in the process becomes vaguely aware of a strange conspiracy to suppress artists such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. (The names are famous in our world, largely obscure in the universe of “The Two Dicks.”) The story is vaguely amusing and ominous all at once.

Brenda W. Clough’s tale, “May Be Some Time,” has a wonderful premise but is compromised by its unlikeable characters. The central figure is Capt. Titus Oates, who is resurrected in New York City in the year 2045 after having died on Robert F. Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition of 1912. Clough’s depiction of Oates, a strong-willed throwback trying to accustom himself to life in the 21st century, is fine. But the contemporary people who surround him are thoroughly annoying, and by the end of the tale, it was hard to care what happened to him or them.

Chris Beckett’s “Marcher” is an understated character study of Huw, a roughly 30-year-old British immigration officer who investigates shifters — people who switch between different universes.

The book’s final story is “The Human Front,” a memoir of an alternative-history late 20th century as experienced by a Scotsman who throws in his lot with radicals. Ken MacLeod’s story is intricate and layered, and each page reveals another unexpected but wonderful development. I’ll say no more, lest I spoil anything.

Every time I read this series, I find there are a handful of stories that I can’t bring myself to finish (regardless of length). Sometimes, I have a change of heart during a subsequent visit to the volume, and one or more of the tales I skipped turn out to be among my favorites. It’s too soon to tell if that will be the case with this edition, but for the record, those stories were “One-Horse Town” by Howard Waldrop and Leigh Kennedy, “Raven Dream” by Robert Reed, “Know How, Can Do” by Michael Blumlein, and “Russian Vine” by Simon Ings.

As connoisseurs of The Year’s Best Science Fiction will know, the volume is prefaced by Dozois’s summation of the year in science fiction magazine publishing (professional and otherwise), websites, novels, movies, television shows, reference works and anthologies. He also records the past year’s notable awards and deaths among science fiction and fantasy writers, editors and notable fans and relatives.

If you care about science fiction, or if you think you might be interested in the genre, you could do much, much worse than to pick up any volume in this series. Number 19, I am pleased to report, is representative in its excellence and enjoyability.

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