One of these days, Kage Baker is going to get me into trouble. Not personally, of course (having never had the honour of meeting the lady), but her stories. See, the problem is that I'm such a big fan of hers that I now have to track down every thing she has written and at least read it. I happened upon this year's edition of Year's Best SF, the ninth, and saw that she had a story in it. Of course, this meant I had to buy it. However, doing this leaves me at the mercy of the rest of the stories. I'm not a big fan of hard SF stories, and I prefer fantasy to science fiction in any case. Will I have paid a lot of money (especially with Canadian prices) for a book that I only like 20 pages out of 500? Would this be the time that she's cost me more money then I want to spend?
Thankfully, no. While I didn't care for every story in Year's Best SF 9, I did like them well enough to thoroughly recommend the book. At 500 pages, there's a lot of stories in here, varying from hard science fiction to near-future character-driven stories, and everything in between. While Baker's story, "A Night on the Barbary Coast," is among the best stories in the collection, I would have to say that the best is actually John Varley's "In Fading Suns and Dying Moons."
Baker's story is another in the continuing adventures of The Company, where a bunch of immortal cyborgs try to make money for the time-traveling Dr. Zeus Corporation by harvesting soon to be extinct species of plants and animals, as well as other rare items that will eventually disappear. In this story, Joseph needs the botanist Mendoza to help him identify a rare fungus related to a quartz deposit that the Company wants in California. Their personal relationship has always been rocky, ever since Joseph forced her to sit and watch her English lover be burned at the stake, rather than intervene, in the 1550s. The story takes a nice twist at the end, but as ever Baker's strength is in the characterization, and the banter between the two protagonists. Mendoza is as anti-social as ever and Joseph is just as witty as he always is. It made me even more anxious for the next installment of the Company books.
Varley's "In Fading Suns and Dying Moons" is the story of an unstoppable line of alien beings, humanoid and apparently holding hands, are sweeping across the country, and ultimately, the planet. They are harvesting the world's butterflies for some unknown reason. Dr. Richard Lewis, an insect expert, is called upon to see if he can figure out why they are doing this. Slowly, with the help of other people (including a mathematical specialist), what these aliens are doing dawns on them, with possibly horrific consequences. I found this story fascinating, with the alien scourge being very mysterious and intriguing. There were a couple moments where I laughed, but the ending left me very cold, but in a good way. I even shivered. Now *that's* getting the reader involved in the story!
There are definitely some other good ones too. There's Allen M. Steele's "The Madwoman of Shuttlefield," the story of a musician befriending an old hermit in a run-down section of a far-off colony world where the original colonists aren't too happy with the influx of new people. There's also "The Waters of Meribah" by Tony Ballantyne, which involves the creation of an alien species by turning a rapist into one. The end result isn't quite what the scientists expected. Finally, there's "Night of Time," by Robert Reed. This is a story of a man whose job it is to restore memories, and how an alien known for remembering everything has come to him because he has forgotten one small item. The character work in this story is great, with special kudos for the alien's assistant, whose earliest memories appear to be of food and feasts. As with most of these stories, there's a nice twist near the end to lead the reader down a different path then expected. Most of the other stories certainly had their strong moments and I enjoyed reading them. They just weren't the best.
The only exceptions were some of the harder SF stories, and that could very well just be a matter of personal taste. Even these stories, however, were interesting in their own way. Stephen Baxter's "The Great Game" is the only one that I really had a problem with other than that, and it's mostly to do with the one-dimensional aspect of the story. A military team is inserted onto a planet to extract an academician who has been studying the planet's problems to see if the Xeelee are involved. If so, a war could erupt. This is an anti-war story that portrays something like the military industrial complex here on Earth, but makes the general in favour of starting the war way too obvious. It's a caricature more than a character.
If you like your science fiction in short doses, this is a great anthology. I am not as versed in the science fiction field as I am fantasy, but I'd say there's definitely a good cross-section of the best of the field in 2003. The stories are definitely interesting, and if there's better stuff out there, then the field is pretty healthy. Highly recommended.