The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 21, edited by Gardner Dozois (Part 1)

Anthony G Williams

Apr 18, 2007
I don't normally buy anthologies but read a very good review of this one so I added it to my "to read" pile. It took a couple of years before I pulled it out, though; the occasion being a travelling-light holiday abroad for which I needed one book which would keep me entertained for the entire period. At over 700 pages of small print this proved to be more than adequate, and I only managed to get part way through it. So this is just the first instalment, covering eight of the thirty-two stories in the book; the rest will follow in due course.

I'm new to this series, so I was pleasantly surprised by the Summation which occupies the first fifty pages of the book. In this, the editor gives a detailed analysis of the SFF fiction market of the previous year (2007), discussing among other things the varying fortunes of short-story outlets, both paper and electronic. A fascinating insight into contemporary trends. Now for the stories:

Finisterra by David Moles. A far future in which humanity shares the galaxy with other intelligent races. A woman trained secretly as an engineer in a male-dominated society accepts an illegal but high-paying task on a strange world. It is a gas giant with a narrow zone within its atmosphere capable of supporting human life. In this float vast living islands up to 100 kilometres long, on which remanents of humanity have settled. But the islands have a greater value to some off-planet species. An original and memorable setting, complex and interesting characters and a gripping plot: what more could one ask for?

Lighting Out by Ken MacLeod. Another optimistic future in which humanity has spread to the stars, primarily threatened by artificial intelligences getting out of hand. A young woman is haunted by her mother who constantly sends virtual versions of herself to inveigle her into worthwhile activities. A grand plan for marketing some of the huge variety of new developments flooding back from the stars produces unexpected results.

An Ocean is a Snowflake, Four Billion Miles Away by John Barnes. Two rival documentary makers combine to produce a story on a Mars whose terraforming is about to be completed by breaking up a huge comet in such a way that the ice falls to the surface and creates oceans. But they have different priorities and not everything goes to plan.

Saving Tiamaat by Gwynth Jones. Human diplomats try to intervene in a devastating civil war between the humanoid masters and slaves of a distant planet. But the situation is more complex than had been imagined, and some unorthodox methods are required.

Of Late I Dreamt of Venus by James Van Pelt. The world's richest woman decides to sponsor the terraforming of Venus, but this will take so long that she decides to sleep for a thousand years, waking only occasionally to review progress. Society does not, however, stay unchanged.

Verthandi's Ring by Ian McDonald. A galactic war to the finish between humanity and an impenetrable alien race. Three warriors, used to being constantly switched between different virtual and actual bodies, win a significant victory but discover an alarming threat to humanity's survival.

Sea Change by Una McCormack. A near-future story on a smaller scale concerning two upper-class girls whose perfection was assured by genetic modifications, and how they relate to each other and to the rest of society.

The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small by Chris Roberson. Another change of pace and scene in an alternative history story which barely qualifies as SFF. A young functionary in a Chinese Empire is given the task of researching the distant land of Mexica in preparation for a planned invasion. He discovers that the best source of information is a political prisoner who has for decades resisted every attempt to make him cooperate; but his future is on the line.

In summary, a promising start. I was pleasantly surprised at the traditional and optimistic setting of so many of the stories, featuring a galaxy-spanning (or at least system-spanning) humanity. It will be interesting to see how many of the rest have similar themes.

(An extract from my SFF blog)
More stories from the anthology, following on from the first instalment posted on 18th September.

Glory by Greg Egan. Set in a far galactic future. Embodied virtual facsimilies of two explorers are sent to a newly discovered planet to find out what a previous alien civilisation had learned about advanced mathematics. But the current inhabitants have a war to fight.

Against the Current by Robert Silverberg. A man from the present day suffers a sudden reversal and watches in dismay as history rapidly rewinds before his eyes. More of a psychological mood piece than a story with a clear plot or purpose.

Alien Archeology by Neal Asher. A retired secret agent discovers an artifact of great value from an extinct alien race, only to have it violently taken from him. The star-hopping chase for restitution and revenge involves murky dealings in the galactic underworld, rogue AIs and the uneasy threat of what exactly it was that destroyed all previous galactic civilisations. A modern version of traditional SF by a rising star in the genre, densely-packed and fast-moving; the kind of writing that you have to read twice to make sure you've grasped it all. An unusual aspect is that the story is at first told from the villain's viewpoint (in the third person) before switching to the hero's (in the first person). One of the highlights of the anthology so far.

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate by Ted Chiang. A merchant in long-ago Baghdad tells a fantastic tale to the Caliph, concerning a gate through which people can travel twenty years into the future - or into the past. He recounts the varied fortunes of those who have used the gate, including himself. More of an Arabian Nights tale than conventional SF but a fascinating read. An intriguing contrast with the author's award-winning Exhalation, reviewed in this blog on 15 May 2009, which demonstrates the remarkable versatility of this master story-teller.

Beyond the Wall by Justin Stanchfield. Another complete contrast, as if to illustrate the vast range of modern SF. An enormous alien structure has been discovered on Titan and is promptly put out of bounds while countries try to decide what to do about it. A group of wardens tasked with protecting it from illegal explorers are compelled to enter it and find their hold on reality slipping as they experience alternate futures. An unsettling tale.

Kiosk by Bruce Sterling. A real oddity this one; a man living in eastern Europe after yet another major economic crisis makes use of a "fabrikator" - a machine which spins 3D models of anything it can scan - to start an economic revolution.

Last Contact by Stephen Baxter. I've commented before about the fundamental optimism of many of the stories in this collection, but here's a tale from the opposite end of the spectrum. Near-future astrophysicists discover that the Universe is unravelling, right down to the atomic level - and the Earth has just few months of existence left. This poignant story follows a middle-aged woman, the mother of one of the scientists who made the discovery, as she copes in mundane ways with the inescapable fact of impending annihilation.

The Sledge-Maker's Daughter by Alastair Reynolds. I'd read this one before and was sure I'd blogged about it, but I can find no reference so my memory must be at fault (again). Another one on the pessimistic side as far as human civilisation is concerned. A girl lives in a post-industrial Tyneside with a medieval level of technology, but discovers that the folk tales of winged men falling from the sky have substance, and that there is a lot going on behind the scenes. An intriguing tale, with a setting which would justify a full-length novel - which I would buy.

Half-way through the anthology - more later.

(An extract from my SFF blog)
Into the third batch of eight stories (one more batch to go):

Sanjeev and Robotwallah by Ian McDonald. A youth in a future India is entranced by the remotely-controlled battle robots he sees in action and becomes determined to get involved. But reality proves less glamorous than he expected.

The Skysailor's Tale by Michael Swanwick. Another dissatisfied youth, this time in an alternative America in the Revolutionary War period. A vast British flying craft with a crew of a thousand, held up by a huge number of hydrogen-filled balloons, appears in the sky over his home town and of course proves irresistable to the youth. A story strong in atmosphere and convincing detail, as I have come to expect from this writer.

Of Love and Other Monsters by Vandana Singh. Yet another youth, in India again, who has the ability to weave minds together. He slowly finds out more about his origins as he constantly tries to escape the attentions of a man like himself - only far more powerful. An original and intriguing tale.

Steve Fever by Greg Egan. Dissatisfied youth number four (am I detecting a theme here?) in a future USA feels powerfully drawn to escape his farm and head for the city. But his impulse is not self-generated, and he is being called to the city for a bizarre purpose. A strange tale of nanobots out of control.

Hellfire at Twilight by Kage Baker. A time-travelling cyborg tasked with retrieving historical documents is sent back to the notorious Hellfire Club, a group of British aristocrats devoted to excess in depravity. He is after a Greek scroll describing the ceremony of the Eleusinian Mysteries , but find himself involved more closely than he expected. This one reminds me of Connie Willis's novel To Say Nothing of the Dog.

The Immortals of Atlantis by Brian Stableford. The destruction of fabled Atlantis, a biotechnologically advanced civilisation when the rest of humanity was still in the Stone Age, led the inhabitants to ensure their survival via latent mitochondrial DNA, which could be awakened in the unsuspecting carriers by the application of a sequence of drugs. An interesting notion given an unexpected twist in this short story, in which a woman in a present-day housing estate receives a peculiar visitor. I particularly enjoyed the wry description of the crime-ridden slum estate: "The Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses had stopped coming to the estate years ago, because there were far easier places in the world to do missionary work - Somalia, for instance, or Iraq".

Nothing Personal by Pat Cadigan. A present-day US police detective is assailed by a growing feeling of dread, which seems to be associated with the natural deaths of two identical young girls. But much more than this is going on. Not time-travelling in this tale, but shifting between alternate realities.

Tideline by Elizabeth Bear. An crippled battle robot tries to use its last energy to create a suitable memorial for its dead human comrades on the beach of a distant shore, and strikes up an unlikely relationship with a young boy.

A varied mix of stories this time (except for the dissatisfied youths) with some original ideas and unpredictable plots, although the Bear story struck me as rather familiar. My favourites from this group are the ones by Swanwick and Baker.

(An extract from my SFF blog)
The final batch of eight stories.

The Accord by Keith Brooke. A far-future story of people living pleasant, simple lives on a backward planet, all believing in a supernatural life-force called the Accord. Then an anomalous character appears to disturb the peace - and it becomes apparent that the world is not at all what it seems. An intriguing story concerning reality and identity. I recently reviewed Brooke's YA novel, The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie.

Laws of Survival by Nancy Kress. A dystopian future in which, following nuclear war, unseen and mysterious aliens arrive and establish impenetrable grey domes close to the sites of destruction. A woman, barely existing from hand to mouth by following her own rigid rules of survival in a collapsed world, finds herself inside one of the domes and learns that the aliens have their own bizarre priorities.

The Mists of Time by Tom Purdom. A fascinating tale of a future in which a kind of time travel is possible with great difficulty - but only to observe the past, invisible to the people then. Only one visit to any scene is permitted to avoid any risk of problems, and the time-travel rig takes only two people. A wealthy man funds a mission to film a crucial incident in the life of an ancestor, the young commander of a small Royal Navy vessel cruising on anti-slavery patrol off North Africa in the 19th century, but the film-maker who goes with him has her own ideas of what kind of film she wants to make. The viewpoint alternates between the young commander and his descendent, watching and listening in fascination. Combat at sea in the days of sail is richly and tensely evoked, and the difference in attitudes and priorities between the observed and the observers wryly portrayed. A gem of a story.

Craters by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Another dystopian future in which young children are turned into unwitting suicide bombers by having bombs undetectably inserted into them, timed to explode years later. A reporter visits a dangerous refugee camp to try to determine the truth behind the incidents.

The Prophet of Flores by Ted Kosmatka. A alternative present-day Earth in which the accepted scientific methods of dating the past appear to prove that nothing is more than 6,000 years old, so the Bible is regarded as literally and unchallengeably true. Hominim remains discovered by archaeologists are categorised as "human" (tool users deriving from Adam and Eve) or "not human", but these careful distinctions - along with the archaeologists - come under threat when the remains of the small humans of Flores are discovered.

Stray by Benjamin Rosenbaum and David Ackert. A bizarre little fantasy of an immortal, able to command anyone to adore and follow him, who falls to Earth in a segregated America, determined to try to live as a human.

Roxie by Robert Reed. A man's life with his old and ailing dog, told against the background of an impending major asteroid strike on Earth. Hugely sentimental, and for dog lovers only.

Dark Heaven by Gregory Benford. Aliens in the form of vaguely humanoid amphibians have arrived on Earth as peaceful visitors, and live in a few specially-made structures on the edge of the oceans, rarely seen by most people. But then bodies start being found with mysterious injuries, and a police detective in the southern USA begins to suspect that the presence of the nearby alien base may not be coincidental.

Something of a marathon effort, this; I don't think I've read so many short stories in such a brief period of time. The book provides a fascinating cross-section of the state of SF short fiction today, and reveals it to be at least as varied and interesting as it has ever been. The stories are all of a high standard, and the choice of favourites will be determined by the preferences of the reader. Of this group, I most enjoyed the tale by Purdom, and also liked the ones by Brooke, Kosmatka and Benford. My overall selection of ones I liked most from each batch (which also happen to be the ones I liked most overall) is:

Finisterra by David Moles (first batch - reviewed 18 September) - the overall winner.
Alien Archeology by Neal Asher (second batch - reviewed 8 October)
Hellfire at Twilight by Kage Baker (third batch - reviewed 6 November)
The Mists of Time by Tom Purdom (final batch)

(An extract from my SFF blog)

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