on 23 June 2006
In my review of the 2004 Year's Best SF, I mentioned the dearth of hard SF stories in that year. Year's Best SF 11 rectifies that situation somewhat. I'm still not the biggest fan of hard SF, which is why this year's edition was a bit of a chore for me. It still had a lot of strong stories in it, but I had to struggle at times. Fans of harder SF who were disappointed in last year's edition will probably find this one much better. With stories by Stephen Baxter, Gregory Benford, as well as some good examples by Matthew Jarpe and Ken MacLeod, there is lots of SF action.
The only real problem with this edition, however, is the numerous examples of the short-short stories from "Nature" magazine. I find it admirable that "Nature" would be including short SF stories in their magazine, but I don't think any of them were so good that they needed to be included in a "best of" collection. A couple of them were decent (I loved Greg Bear's "Ram Shift Phase 2", where a robot reviews a book by a fellow robot in a typically pretentious review style). Being a "review," it definitely called for that short length, and it was perfect. Others, however, were not nearly as good, and I think they probably took space away from a couple (or at least one) other good stories.
Still, there were some wonderful stories in this year's edition. I'm a big rat fan, so the two rat stories ("When the Great Days Came" by Gardner Dozois and "Mason's Rats" by Neal Asher) were exceptionally fun. Dozois' story is told from the point of view of a rat making his way across the big city on the night when the great comet hits. It's a "night in the life" of the rat, and it's told wonderfully. The ending is perfect as well, with the realization that no matter what happens to him, his species will survive. "Mason's Rats" is the story of a futuristic farmer with a rat problem. Not only are they infesting his crops, but they're beginning to learn how to use weapons. It doesn't matter what sort of robotic help he might get; sometimes, the two-legged rats are worse than the four-legged variety.
While those two stories are the ones I had the most affinity with, I would say that the best story in the whole collection is "I, Robot," by Cory Doctorow. It's an homage to Asimov (even down to the name), where a society that is fully dependent on robots. A detective who isn't a fan of working with robots has some troubles of his own. His ex-wife defected to the other side immediately after they split up, leaving his daughter with him. But his daughter seems to be misbehaving as well, mixing herself up in things that are way over her head. The detective discovers that things are a lot worse than he thinks, especially when he discovers what his wife has been up to with his daughter. This is a fairly long story, over fifty pages in the book, and it's worth every page of it. The setting leaps off the page and Doctorow's prose perfectly fits the genre. Being my favourite story in this year's book, it's probably fitting that it also ends it. It definitely makes me want to go out and check his other work.
Other strong stories were "The Edge of Nowhere" by James Patrick Kelly (where a young woman librarian in a virtual world is asked for a unique book by three dogs that appear to be products of the virtual intelligence behind their world), "Oxygen Rising" by R. Garcia y Robertson (where a human mediator between "Greenies" and the humans they are trying to wipe off of a planet gets involved with a sinister plot to destroy the planet so it can't be used by anybody else), and "Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play" by Michael Swanwick (where a man and dog, investigators for the British government, go to Greece to track down some statues, only to find some experiments in pheromones and the recreation of Greek Gods).
I can't really point to any of the stories as "bad," though some of the "Nature" ones didn't really appeal to me. Even the hard SF stories were pretty good, just not my favourite. 2005 was a much better year than 2004, and Year's Best SF 11 definitely shows that. If you want to sample some great short stories, definitely pick this one up.