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I love variety, so I love the SF short story length and collections thereof. I prefer single-author collections or thematic collections, but when my shelves are nearly bare of short fiction, I get desperate… so I buy a “best of” anthology. Gasp. Yet, I’m always leery about buying a “best of” anthology because they fall in one category or the other: (a) the stories most heavily laden with accolades, awards, and praise from some collective and distant opinion or (b) some editor’s avuncular back patting for his author buddies. This 2004 collection falls into the first category; I think the editors name drop about every single SF award there is to be offered and they just love to praise, praise, praise each author for their respective awards or nominations.
I’d like to see subjectivity in an anthology, one based on an author’s honest opinion or idea rather than a objective spew of praise… that seems easy, lazy, and profit-driven. Now I’m reconsidering reading or even keeping two other anthologies in my shelves: a Dozois collection from 2008 and a Carr collection from 1979. Now, I’m thinking I’ll junk (read: sell to the second-hand bookstore) it and keep the Carr collection, which includes Varley, Leiber, Ellison, Disch, and Kelly. Fingers crossed.
The Best of 2004 has a distinctive feel to it being infused with two themes from the years around 2000: (a) nanotechnology, in line with Greg Bear’s Slant (1997) and Collapsium (2000) and (b) zaniness, in line with Adam Johnson’s collection Emporium (2003) and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992). Neither of these themes strum the strings of my heart, but it does give the 2004 collection the feeling of being a period piece… which is strange given that it’s only nine years old. Sign of the times? Bad editing?
That said, this collection is also full of typos. Not just a dropped letter or two, but some very grievous typos which any proofreader would have edited if they had just spent one minute looking at the page. If you’re not going to respect the stories for their supposed superiority, then at least respect the reader for their purchase of the collection and their time spent reading it. There are no excuses for such terrible proofreading. Like mentioned in the second paragraph, this collection must have been pumped out simply for the profit rather than the art. This seriously dampens the overall rating of the collection, dropping it from 4 of 5 for the stories, to 3 of 5 because of the laziness.
Kelly, James Patrick: The Best Christmas Ever (shortstory, 2004) – 4/5 – Albert Paul Hopkins is the last man on earth but he is accompanies by “biops” which shift form to random celebrities of the past. The biops, specifically Auntie Em and Dr. Watson, call him Bertie while his cat calls him Mario and his dog calls him Buddy. Attempting to enliven Bertie’s spirit, Auntie Em organizes a Christmas shopping trip but the only gift Bertie requests is a Glock-17 handgun, the severity of which his human girlfriend doesn’t quite grasp. 21 pages
Rowe, Christopher: The Voluntary State (novelette, 2004) – 2/5 – A Tennessean painter by trade, Soma spends his life indulging in his profession… until his car is vandalized. While the car mewls in pain and as Soma applies the car’s salve, he phones the healer, Jenny. Seeking retribution for the crime, Soma enters the Kentuckian state; there, he is kidnapped and subjected to tranquilizers while his captors carry out sabotage on Tennessee through their steampunk ways. 50 pages
Wolfe, Gene: The Lost Pilgrim (novelette, 2004) – 3/5 – Encumbered by memory loss, an academic traveler in time struggles to identify his mission. He knows that being aboard Captain Eeasawn’s ship isn’t right, but perhaps the adventure could take him closer to his elusive target. Seemingly in the waters of ancient Greece, the crew of the ship, along with the translator- and camera-equipped academic, battle nemeses, ply the winds of trade in the straights, and pray for favorable winds from the Gods. 38 pages
Haldeman, Joe: Memento Mori (shortstory, 2004) – 3/5 – Nanozooans have the ability to make humans immortal but sometimes even their miracle of medical science can go awry. Rather than destroy its host, the nanozooans default to safe mode when an error occurs, such as when a woman dies a physical death. With her death, a professionally-transmogrified doctor incants the process to adjust her state with terrifying yet predictable results. 5 pages
Baxter, Stephen: PeriAndry’s Quest (novelette, 2004) – 4/5 – Old earth was a simple place actually, where all its atmospheric and geological strata pass at the same rate; this, of course, was before the Formidable Caress, which varied the subjective sense of time. PeriAndry lives on the pampered Shelf where time is ten times slower than in the Attic. During his father’s funeral, he sees and lusts for one of the lovely Attic girls but his brother warns him of the taboo; regardless, he seeks out the aging Lora. 27 pages
VanderMeer, Jeff: Three Days in a Border Town (shortstory, 2004) – 5/5 – The myth of a phantom city crossing the desert drives one mournful woman to experience its crossing because she knows that the prismatic caravan city is real. In the border town of the desert, the woman seeks knowledge and contact with anyone else who has witnessed its passing, an investigation which she finds comfort from her companion, The Book of the City. Her restive eagerness has its root in a tragic past. 30 pages
Stross, Charles: Elector (novella, 2004) – 4/5 – Mankind’s technological singularity bastard child has been named the Vile Offspring, who have altered the solar system’s inner-most planets, save Earth, into a Matrioshka brain of Dyson Spheres. Corporeal humanity has fled to Saturn where they co-exist with tailored reconstructions of historical figures. One political camp sees the Vile Offspring as a threat and are willing to embrace new-found alien technology… yet some are not. 78 pages.
Reed, Robert: Opal Ball (shortstory, 2004) – 3/5 – Cliff, along with much of society, hedges his bets on the most inane aspects of life and makes some decent money from his intuitiveness and research. Other punters also gamble on their research into personality types from DNA and its probable effect on a person’s life. Cliff met the woman of his dreams yet punters have him an 8% probability of success unperturbed, he unknowingly heads for disaster. 9 pages
Kress, Nancy: My Mother Dancing (shortstory, 2004) – 4/5 – On a distant Jovian planet, humans plant the seed of the Great Holy Mission—cybernetic replicators programmed for sentience, culture, and eventual contact with the species that created them. Returning years later, the seedlings had created a culture of their own but have only reached one-third of their predicted population size. The crew of the observation ship, called “Mother” by the diaspora, listens to the spore’s story with concern and leeriness. 18 pages
Bacigalupi, Paolo: The People of Sand and Slag (novelette, 2004) – 5/5 – Consuming sand and mud, amputating and implanting razors into each other’s bones for fun, and nuking invaders of their Montanan mine, the employees of SesCo are your typical post-human gods impregnated at the molecular level with weeviltech. Out in the acidic slag of their strip mine, the crew discovers a real live dog, an original organic animal fragile and needy. Debating whether to keep it or eat it, they experience the dog’s needs, wastes, love, and weaknesses. 29 pages
Harrison, M. John: Tourists (shortstory, 2004) – 3/5 – Jack Serotonin machoistically sulks at the Black Cat White Cat bar on Strait Street when a client enters the bar to seek his service—entering the “event site”. The bizarre topology of the site unsettles the human mind yet Jack is able to remain calm during the chaotic city penetration, unlike his client who runs away screaming. Unnerved, Jack returns to the bar, orders two drinks, and sits amid the bar’s seedy goings-on. 21 pages
Emschwiller, Carol: All of Us Can Almost… (shortstory, 2004) – 4/5 – After generations of aesthetically breeding for strength and size, an avian race has fallen from their skyward grace and freedom. Now imprisoned to the ground, waddling as they go, the avian race’s only right to brag lays in their past, which they embellish to the naïve pawed natives who admire their feat. However, their lies of flight ability damped their progress and one woman may make a promise she can’t keep. 13 pages
Williams, Walter Jon: The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid (novelette, 2004) – 4/5 – “Competing secret organizations of Andean street musicians” (366) descend on a sunken cargo linear off the Chinese coast. Both are undercover with their respective pleasure cruise ship, but the Hanansaya moiety has ingenuity on their side having the water ballet team of the Outrageous Water Ballet of Malibu. The competing Ayanca entourage sabotage their efforts by killing their client, but the Hanansaya band have the perfect opportunity for their own sabotage. 58 pages