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on 8 July 2004
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.
David Roy
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Working my way backward through the Year's Best SF series, I have arrived at number nine. I enjoyed most of these twenty stories. The story introductions were of the usual high quality--I fear that Hartwell and Cramer are spoiling me in this regard. I take for granted how well they prepare me to understand each author, each author's other works, and the story to come in such brief, readable introductions. I may wander around disoriented in lesser anthologies, unable to find my way without them.

My five favorite stories from the collection are:

Most of Octavia Butler's "Amnesty" takes place in a group job interview as a long-time employee of the very alien "Communities" explains to six new recruits what they can expect. The aliens are imaginatively alien, the humans are all too human, and the flashbacks are very instructive. I can't believe that my favorite story basically takes place in a corporate meeting.

John Varley's "In Fading Suns and Dying Moons" introduces aliens whose strangeness is based on their superficial similarity to humans. Suddenly the Earth is host to successive lines of identical, mannequin-like figures combing the environment for butterflies. They can't be destroyed, don't have much to say, and are relentlessly thorough. There is nothing to do but wait for the last one to finish.

Gregory Benford's "The Hydrogen Wall" lets us look over the shoulder of Ruth, a trainee librarian trying to communicate with the Sagittarius Architecture, an unfathomably complex artificial intelligence downloaded from a space transmission. We are reminded that communication is two-way, and that hidden agendas are often the important ones.

Ricard de la Casa and Pedro Jorge Romero collaborate to bring us "The Day We Went Through the Transition," a time travel story that combines the convolutions of Robert Heinlein's "All You Zombies--" with the emotional resonance of The Time Traveler's Wife. It is worth feeling your way through.

Nigel Brown's "Annuity Clinic" introduces us to a grim future where elderly pensioners sell off their prostheses to pay for a diminishing quality of continued existence. Eloise finds escape, first through the web, and then through a half-remembered doll from her childhood.

I recommend this collection and feel well-repaid for the time I spent reading it. Although all of the stories were at least good, there were fewer great stories than I have encountered in other Year's Best SF editions. Not a complaint; just an observation.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 15 October 2015
I was mostly disappointed by this 2003 collection, definitely less satisfying than the previous ones. Reading it was mostly not fun at all. It is inferior to Gardner Dozois anthology from the same year (stories which figure also in Gardner Dozois 2003 yearly collection are marked with letters GD). Most stories are very predictable, poorly written or without ending. Most writers seem to chase actuality (9/11, Iraq war) rather than looking into the future. Only four stories are really worth to be read – the rest, if you skip it, will not be missed. Below, more of my impressions, with some LIMITED SPOILERS.
"Amnesty" by Octavia E. Butler – Earth was invaded by nearly indestructible and extremely alien Communities; a woman who has a long (and very tragic) history of living amongst aliens meets some people willing to work for them. I didn't like the immensely stupid (and false) cliché about US government routinely abducting, detaining and torturing its own citizens, but other than that this is a GOOD, solid, honest thing. One precision here: in the introduction it is signalled that this is a sequel of the very classical "Blood child" – that is absolutely NOT true, this story is definitely not related in any way to this shocking and ground breaking masterpiece!

"Birth days" by Geoff Ryman – a story about pregnant homosexual men carrying foetuses in the overstretched colons and oversized anuses… It totally GROSSED ME OUT! AVOID! (GD)

"The waters of Meribah" by Tony Ballantyne – Universe collapsed and people are living in a tight place, where incredibly weird laws are in force and grotesque experiments on humans are routine, like transforming a man in an alien creature – invented by the scientists. Many modern SF writers believe that if they pile one nonsense on another, they will get some kind of masterpiece – well, no, the result is just a pile of nonsense… AVOID!

"Ej-Es" by Nancy Kress – for once Nancy Kress couldn't write a story explaining why all the evil in the world is the fault of US government and Republican party, because here we go on a distant planet in a distant future to try to solve a case mixing medicine, ethics and philosophy. Nancy Kress knows how to write but I totally hate her politics (she is a very left winged gal). Therefore it is a high praise coming from me when I state that this is a VERY GOOD STORY, THE BEST IN THIS COLLECTION, even if I didn't like the author taking a big stinking dump on the religion (all of them in fact). (GD)

"Four short novels" by Joe Haldeman – a mostly humorous attempt to analyse four various ways in which humanity achieves immortality; a READABLE, witty thing

"Rogue farm" by Charles Stross – in rural England completely ravaged by scientific progress a couple of farmers face unexpected trouble; a well written GOOD story, but quite depressing... (GD)

"The violet's embryos" by Angélica Gorodischer – a rescue mission comes to find the survivors of the crash of a starship on a very hostile planet; it turns out the survivors live more comfortably than anyone could expect, thanks to a local entity, which grants wishes… As there is no women on the planet, the whole survivor society is homosexual… This story could be much better if only the writing style was not so darn pretentious and freakishly weird – still a READABLE thing, if only barely.

"Coyote at the end of history" by Michael Swanwick – a collection of mostly humoristic short stories about Coyote, the Trickster from American Indian lore, who must deal with visitors from outer space… A READABLE, thing.

"In fading suns and dying moons" by John Varley – aliens who created Earth and seeded it with life, come back to harvest what their leader desires… This is an amusing end of the world story and a GOOD read. Just one small remark – even during an alien invasion I really don't see US Army tolerating officers taking service when drunk or soldiers routinely disobeying orders by opening all the time fire without any consideration for engagement rules and even worse, goofing around dangerous aliens and teasing them without any reason. And of course, if there is a crucially important mission in time of an alien invasion and you have all the resources of USA at your disposition, you just send in a National Guard lieutenant without experience and with a drinking problem. Come on Mr Varley, that is just plain silly…

"Castaway" by Gene Wolfe – a man stranded on a hostile planet is rescued after twenty seven years – he keeps talking about a strange entity he met during this time… Weird, pretentious and boring, this story is an absolute fail – thanks God, it is a short one. AVOID.

"The hydrogen wall" by Gregory Benford – in the future, messages from numerous alien civilizations, in form of downloadable AIs, were received. A young woman gets assigned to have conversations with one of the most mysterious of those AIs, the Sagittarius Architecture. Many things in this story were extremely weird, others were quite ridiculous, but still, it is a READABLE thing.

"The day we went through the Transition" by Ricard de la Casa and Pedro Jorge Romero – translated from Spanish this is the story about a temporal police, fighting against the abuse of time travel; the idea is not new (Poul Anderson was there already in 1955) but its treatment is original; if you are not familiar with recent history of Spain, read a little bit about Santiago Carrillo, admiral Carrero Blanco and king Juan Carlos – it will help to understand this quite GOOD story.

"Nimby and the dimension hoppers" by Cory Doctorow – in the future, in a community of people living in accordance of "developed biological technology/no machinery" rules, start to appear intruders from very high technology future. It leads to a conflict, which could be interesting – but quickly becomes messy and rather idiotic. It bored me down finally. I rate it READABLE – but barely.

"Night of time" by Robert Reed – another of Reed's stories about the Jupiter-sized space-ship travelling through the Galaxy; this time a human specialist in memory recovery is contacted by an alien customer who forgot something, but he cannot remember what...))) A READABLE thing. (GD)

"A night on the Barbary Coast" by Kage Baker – one of the Company cycle stories about immortal time travelling agents; two such agents, who have a strained relationship, look for a gold miner in California in 1850; it will prove to be a really tough assignment… Very well written, full of humour and wit, this is a solid, honest GOOD story.

"Annuity Clinic" by Nigel Brown – in a near future old people living in low-grade nursing homes are forced to sell their high tech artificial body parts to pay their rent and food… This is the story of an old woman who is waiting for the removal of her artificial eye… Quite depressing but still, a READABLE thing.

"The madwoman of Shuttlefield" by Allen M. Steele – in a distant future a woman, who used to be a successful composer, emigrates to another planet, where life is very, very hard for the beginners. There she meets a reclusive, not entirely stable woman. This story follows on a novel and is in itself the introduction of further works – therefore it doesn't have a real beginning and neither does it have a real ending. That makes it into a READABLE but rather pointless thing, if you don't intend to read the rest of the cycle.

"Bread and bombs" by M. Rickert – once there was a war and now refugees from one country come live on the territory of their former enemies. It creates tensions. This is a very boring, pretentious, predictable and ultimately stupid thing, just another one in a seemingly unending flow of stories on the topic "immigration is good, those who oppose it are racists – except if they are not white, then they are right to defend their land". AVOID!

"The great game" by Stephen Baxter – this one is part of Xelee cycle and was clearly inspired by Iraq war; a bunch of warmongering admirals try to find a pretext to start a galactic scale war for the sake of war, without any other reason… Predictable and as stupid as humanly possible. AVOID!

"The Albertine Notes" by Rick Moody – after a terrorist attack destroyed Manhattan, people started to use massively a ned drug, the Albertine, which allows to relive past experiences and also live thing which will only happen in the future… Later, it turns out this drug is even more powerful… This is a long novella, very densely written (few dialogs, very long paragraphs), narrated in first person. There was a good story somewhere in it, but it was mercilessly drowned under a pretentious logorrhoea and crushed under a nonsensical plot. Also, author clearly has no idea what a "dirty bomb" is – ten seconds of research on internet would help here. This thing tired me and ten pages before the end I gave up. For me this is FAILED STORY. Try it at your own risk.
CONCLUSION: This anthology is a disappointment. If you can find "Ej-Es", "Amnesty", "In fading suns and dying moons" and "A night on the Barbary Coast" somewhere else, you can easily skip this collection without losing much.
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on 22 December 2015
Great Stories from a Master Anthologist year on year
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