After a rather disastrous thirteenth collection, for this one, devoted to the best SF short stories and novellas of 1996, Gardner Dozois have chosen better and made a much better work. The fourteenth annual collection is as good as the eleventh and twelfth, although still not as good as some those from the 80s. Most stories are very honest, some are very good. However, as in previous years the general mood of almost all of them is rather grim and depressing. Also, in this collection humour is almost totally missing in action.
This collection includes also a overview of what happened in SF (largely understood) in 1996 and at the end there is also the very useful section of "honorable mentions" - stories which couldn't be selected for this collection because of lack of space (and this is already a HUGE book!), but which were also of good quality.
As in all Gardner Dozois yearly anthologies, many of the stories are not exactly SF - some of them are rather alternate history, modern fantastic or simply "classical" literature with some vague fantastic elements (magic realism).
Below you will find my more detailed impressions about the stories, with some limited SPOILERS:
"Immersion" by Gregory Benford - the opening story is for my personal taste the SECOND best in the whole collection. In a relatively near future a scientist and his wife look for a holiday, which would provide in the same time a welcome change after many years of hard labour, but also be an occasion of scientific observation and experimentation. Their choice will be the "immersion" in the minds of wild living chimpanzees, which will allow them to "do the wild things" without taking any real risks - but is it ABSOLUTELY certain there there is no risks? A good, clever, well written SF story. Enjoy!
"The Dead" by Michael Swanwick - this in fact is just another variation on the theme of androids making their entry in our societies, in principle as disposable servants (in fact slaves), but ultimately making a very large impact on the whole human civilization, everywhere. In this dark and gloomy, but clever and well written story, there is an extra twist - the "androids" are in fact made from bodies of dead humans rather from any synthetic matter, and therefore many consider them as "zombies" or "walking corpses" rather than biological robots... A good, albeit quite shocking story.
"The Flowers of Aulit Prison" by Nancy Kress - an interesting story about an alien civilization, which just recently made its contact with more advanced technologically humans. A female alien criminal is offered a pardon for her (extremely serious) crime, if she accepts to serve as an infiltrated informant in a high security prison, where the most dangerous inmates are incarcarated - including a handful of humans and other visitors from distant stars. This story could have been a masterpiece, if Nancy Kress was able to resist just for once her obsession with conspiracy theories; after reading around a dozen of her stories situated in different places, times and civilizations I really got bored by her one and only explanation for EVERYTHING - a sinister governement plot... Still, "Flowers of Aulit Prison" are a honest, solid SF story.
"A dry quiet war" by Tony Daniel - this in fact is a western, disguised as SF. In a little dusty town, lost in the wilderness on a planet far from everything, a local kid comes home after serving in an incredibly distant, long and weird war. Taking over the farm and the shop left by his long dead parents he tries to start a new life and get back the girl he left behind. But of course one day outlaws - in fact degenerate veterans/deserters from the same war - will ride into town; and whoever wins in the unavoidable confrontation, nothing will be the same again... A good story, although with some considerable weird, creepy factor.
"Thirteen Phantasms" by James P. Blaylock - that is modern fantasy rather than SF, but it is a story very well written, clever and quite pleasant to read, with an elegant, kind of XIX century ending. To avoid spoilers, I will just provide one hint about the content - we all know that mail services can occasionally lose, mess or mix up almost anything... So what if one day they delivered a letter not many years after it was posted, but half a century BEFORE?
"Primrose and Thorn" by Bud Sparhawk - that is really the solid, good SF as I like it - and also the THIRD best story in the collection. Be however aware, that some knowledge of nautical and sailing language is necessary there, as this story is about extremely sophisticated sailboats racing amongst the unending cloud ocean in the middle layers of atmosphere of Jupiter. A really GOOD thing!
"The Miracle of Ivar Avenue" by John Kessel - in Los Angeles, somewhere in late 40s I believe, the body of a dead man is found floating near the coast and police starts an investigation; inspector Corcoran, a cop tough as nails and bitter as ten Raymond Chandler characters, starts to discover more and more upsetting facts about the victim and finds a suspects - an elusive, weird German guy. A nice little SF story immerged deeply in the old "film noir" and Chandler's stories atmosphere.
"The last homosexual" by Paul Park - a very controversial and quite shocking short story which will probably aggravate and insult virtually everybody reading it: the gay men, the homophobic bigots, religious conservatives, self declared "agnostic progressists" - absolutely everybody will find something to hate here... ))) And that makes it a very succesful and even enjoyable story!
"Recording Angel" by Ian McDonald - Chaga, an alien entity, arrived from outer space and started to EAT Africa. Of course all the principal information networks want the best possible coverage of this event, with the best possible picures, some "human interest" stories and a couple of Hollywood celebrities commenting about things they do not even pretend to understand... This story describes a day in the life of a famous female reporter covering Chaga for a world wide information network - and her meeting with probably the Last Great White Hunter.
"Death Do Us Part" by Robert Silverberg - in a society of eternally young immortals the marriage of a 400 years old very rich man with a barely 25 years old poor girl is hardly a scandal - it is barely topic for gossip for one day... But what a young wife is supposed to do with the unwanted advances of a stepson who is TEN TIMES older than her? And why the ten previous (long since divorced) wives look at the young bride with such a compassion and pity? A very honest SF story, with just a somehow weak ending...
"The Spade of Reason" by Jim Cowan - a quite clever short story about a man who during all his life looked for God in random numbers. Did he find Him there? You will have to read and find it yourself... Although for a believing Christian (like me) this story is in the same time an evident absurdity and a total blasphemy, I still rather enjoyed it.
"The cost to be wise" by Maureen F. McHugh - on a remote cold planet a population of humans, descendants of old times space pioneers, endures. Teachers and other volunteers from Earth try to help them rebuild the civilization their ancestors abandoned - but this is a hard, ungrateful and very dangerous work. I rather liked this story but at the end it felt like unfinished.
"Bicycle repairman" by Bruce Sterling - the only story in the collection to adopt a lighthearted and frequently even humouristic approach. A somehow anarchic bicycle repairman receives a mysterious package from a friend who left for distant countries - and immediately after arrives to his humble dwelling a gorgeous woman ready to almost anything in exchange of just some informations...
"The weighing of Ayre" by Gregory Feeley - a kind of slightly alternate history tale, in which an English spy is send to Netherlands during the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-74) to find out if the Dutch can build the same weapons Archimedes used with success against Roman fleet. But is this the REAL reason he was infiltrated in this country? Not bad, but a little bit too long and by moments boring.
"The Longer Voyage" by Michael Cassutt - that is possibly the weakest story in the whole collection; a mighty spaceship is being build since dozens of years and a special crew was even bred to live on it when it sets sail towards Alpha Centauri. But will it ever leave? I found this story very boring - and I couldn't understand the ending...
"The Land of Nod" by Mike Resnick - the BEST story in the collection; this is the conclusion of the "Kirinyaga" series; it is strongly advised to read the eponymous story first, as it is hardly possible to fully understand this one otherwise; and old man, who tried to escape the modern world and create Utopia lives now in what he considers a desolate place of exile (like the Biblical Land of Nod) - but in the last months of his life he will have to wage his last fight...
"Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland" by Gwyneth Jones - a story about psychotherapy via virtual reality, which serves just as a cover for people to send their avatars in VR so they can enjoy a virtual "roll in the hay". Of course, things do not always have to go the way the customers expect, because they have no control over avatars of other people. Sadly, it is not a very good story - in most places it is rather weak and weird.
"The lady vanishes" by Charles Sheffield - a woman scientist aware of probably 90% of all most crucial American military secrets disappeared from THE most secure of all the secret research facilities in USA. Was she forcibly abducted? Did she escape, for some unknown reasons all by herself? Was she maybe "turned" by some foreign power agents? This short, rather well written story answers those questions - but I must confess that I found the ending and the solution really, really disappointing and even stupid...
"Chrysalis" by Robert Reed - a gigantic space ship carrying millions of passengers of many space races goes through Milky Way looking for safe haven after escaping the war which destroyed Solar System. This could have been a very good story, if the author didn't pick the easy solution of just another conspiracy theory as the solution to all the problems in his story... Not bad, but the ending is weak.
"The Wind Over the World" by Steven Utley - this is another visit on board of the research vessel navigating through the oceans of the Silurian, resupplied by a space-temporal anomaly connecting this distant era with our near future. In this story, the Expedition suffers its first accident. Other than that, not much happens and this story is really quite boring.
"Changes" by William Barton - a story of USA from the beginnings of Space Program to the beginning of XXI century. A rather weak story with the SF element just present at the last page - but frankly I admit that I didn't like that one and I am not certain if I understood the (quite confusing) ending correctly.
"Counting Cats in Zanzibar" by Gene Wolfe - the FOURTH best story in the collection; a woman who did everything she could to sabotage the creation of working humanoid androids must admit her defeat when one such "machine" tracks and captures her after she spend years on the run. How can a defenseless woman still deal a blow to those she considers as enemies and a threat to the whole human race?
"How we got in town and out again" by Jonathan Lethem - a story clearly inspired by "They shoot horses, don't they?"; in USA completely devastated by some kind of economic disaster, a wandering entertainment company offers Virtual Reality endurance marathons, in which the contestants provide entertainment which the paying customers can then watch on screens. A quite good history - even if I do not really like usually all those "doom and gloom" things...
"Dr. Tilmann's consultant: a scientific romance" by Cherry Wilder - a German psychiatrist living just before World War I is ready to try anything to heal his most seriously ill patients; his British nurse (and love interest) discovers finally just how far is he ready to go... A rather good SF story, quite well describing also the death of a world, pre-WW I Europe...
"Schrodinger's Dog" by Damien Broderick - a very, very weird story about parallel worlds and the attempt to explore them via minds of dying people; I really can not say that I enjoyed this story, although it is not half bad written.
"Foreign Devils" by Walter Jon Williams - H.G. Wells Martians arrive just in time to save the Qing Dynasty from approaching British, French, German, Italian, American, Japanese and Austro-Hungarian armies, which just defeated the Boxers Uprising in 1900. Sadly, once Martians incinerated and/or suffocated above mentioned armies, they attack then the Chinese towns. The Great Empress Dowager Cixi, her nephew (puppet emperor of China) and all the aristocrats and their servants flee the capital for the (temporary) safety of mountains - in the meantime the intrigues around the throne continue... A quite clever, very well written alternate history - but which in my opinion gives too much credit to Empress Cixi, one of the most stubborn, cruel, bigoted, prejudiced and stupid power women in the whole human history
"In the MSOB" by Stephen Baxter - a short short-story about the last American astronaut who ever walked on the Moon, still surviving in a nursing house, where everybody hates him and wants him to just die... A very depressing and rather unpleasant read.
"The Robot's twilight companion" by Tony Daniel - another "doom and gloom" story, in which however exceptionally the instrument of destruction of USA are not the Republicans or greedy bankers, but ultraradical environmentalists! It is also a somehow Aasimov'ian story about an old robot becoming slowly more and more human. Not exactly a master piece, but still the FIFTH best story in the collection.
CONCLUSION: this is a rather succesful collection, with many good texts. You will not regret buying it. Enjoy!