The Year's Best Science Fiction, 35th Annual Collection

Edited by:

Gardner Dozois


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

May 23, 2020

have been buying the annual collection for years now - I think my shelf contains volumes 6 thru 35. Thirty-five will be the last one, because Dozois sadly passed away. I don't think I have read any of these collections all the way through - the early editions boasted that they had 250,000 words, the covers to the later editions claimed over 300,000 words of fiction. Whew. I wonder how many millions of words Dozois had to read year to find the best stories. Clearly, these collections are a monument to his love of short SF stories. The cover tells us that the collection contains stories by Indraparmit Das, Nancy Kress, Alastair Reynolds, Eleanor Arnason, James S. A. Corey, and Lavie Tidhar. Only Alastair Reynolds is on my list of great SF authors. Inside are stories by Michael Swanwick, Linda Nagata, Greg Egan, Bruce Sterling, Robert Reed, Maureen McHugh and Michael Flynn - it is a surprise to me that these authors didn't get mentioned on the cover. I read these stories in the order they appear in the collection.

The Moon is Not a Battlefield - Indrapramit Das. If I was editing a collection, I would put the strongest story last, and put the second best story in the first place, so that the reader has an enjoyable read when beginning and ending the collection (assuming anyone can progress linearly through all 300,000+ words!). This story was boring. It is the recollections of an asura, an Indian warrior / astronaut who was assigned to the lunar surface to protect India's colony. But nothing happens. I didn't like this plotless story at all. Disappointing opening to the collection.

My English Name - R. S. Benedict. This is a story about a shapeshifter living in modern China. The shapeshifter can assume human form, but only for so long, then the human shell begins to decay and the creature must assume a new form. This story in the shapeshifter's incarnation of Thomas Majors, a British male in China. Unfortunately, Thomas Majors becomes great friends with a Chinese man, and when the inevitable decay of his human form begins, the shapeshifter finds it hard to abandon the Thomas Major body and forget his best friend.

An Evening With Severyn Grimes - Rich Larson. Larson packs in a whole lot into this short story - car chases and body hacking and betrayal and more. This is an action packed story about a plot by terrorists to kidnap Severyn Grimes, a billionaire, who's corporation has the technology that allows the rich people to occupy the bodies of the poor. The poor rent themselves out, hoping to collect good money and get back a body that isn't too badly damaged. Girasol is an expert hacker who wants revenge on Grimes, and so begins the adventure.

Vanguard 2.0 - Carter Scholz. This is the story of Sergei, who leads a small team in a hab in low earth orbit. Their mission is to collect space junk, to de-orbit the millions of bits of flying debris that threaten the function of current satellites. One day, a billionaire named Pace arrives at the hab, and asked Sergei if he could capture the last remaining Vanguard satellites. It would be a museum piece. But perhaps Pace has ulterior motives? I wished that the ending were better, rather than just Sergei musing on the possibilities of what Pace is attempting to do.

Starlight Express - Michael Swanwick. Swanwick is such a terrific author, able to pack in a convincing glimpse of Rome in the distant future, as seen thru the eyes of Flaminio. It is a time when the empire of humanity has collapse, there is only travel between the four habital planets of our solar systems (Swanwick mentions at one point that the Earth has 3 moons). One day, a woman appears next to the Astrovia - as if she had just stepped from its glittering field. But that is impossible, the Astrovia hasn't functioned for hundreds of years, no longer can mankind project themselves amongst the stars on that glittering beam. And yet, there stands Szette, unlike any other human Flaminio has ever seen.

The Martian Obelisk - Linda Nagata. In the future, civilization has collapsed. There are a few remaining outposts of technology and population, but it is clear that the future is downhill for humanity. Earth advanced as far as establishing a colony on Mars before the great collapse. Now, Susannah has inherited the ruins of a Martian colony. She has decide to instruct the robots and drones to build a giant obelisk on Mars, it will stand as a final monument to humankind. In the thin air on a geologically dead planet, the obelisk should stand for eons.

We Who Live in the Heart - Kelly Robson. Wow, who is this Kelly Robson? I haven't heard of her, but this is a fantastic story. In thirty pages, she details a world where humans live inside giant translucent blimp-creatures -inevitably called whales - that float due to helium filled bladders, and float through the atmosphere of an inhospitable planet. Robson also constructs a small crew of personalities, who are joined by Ricci, an ebullient newcomer to their mobile kingdom. The story has adventure, emotion, tragedy. There are some secrets about the Doc that are not explained, maybe this is a "seed" story that will grow into a novel someday.

Winter Timeshare - Ray Nayler. Set some years in the future, in Istanbul, we meet two women - Ilkay and Regina. They meet every year. Gradually, we learn that Regina and Ilkay are dead, except that their consciousness has been stored. Each year, their minds are downloaded into selected bodies, except this year Regina occupies a male body because a bureaucratic screw-up lost her original targeted body. Ilkay works in a secret government capacity, apparently an anti-terrorist organization. This story seemed unfinished to me, too much left unexplained.

Dear Sarah - Nancy Kress. In America, middle class citizens have no work and have fallen into despair and poverty. Aliens have come to Earth, and given humanity the gift of marvelous robots and other technology. The rich and powerful take the alien tech and put all the robots to work, which means that many jobs have simply disappeared. MaryJo is raised in one of these suddenly destitute families. Everyone is resentful of the aliens, but MaryJo decides to join the army as a way of forming a career. My problem with this story is that Kress doesn't need to introduce aliens - automation is already eliminating jobs around the world. But this wouldn't be science fiction if it didn't have the aliens, it would just be a story not included in this collection.

Night Passage - Alastair Reynolds. This is a terrific story. Captain Rauma Bernsdottir is awakened from Reefersleep by her second in command, Struma. The ship is only halfway to their destination. It seems that a group of sleeping Conjoiners woke up early and sabotaged the ship, the Equinoctial. The engines are damaged, the ship is drifting in the middle of empty space - except it isn't empty - there is a huge mysterious black object blotting out half the sky, and the crippled Equinoctial is drifting toward it. This is an exciting story, and although there is a plot and ending, I feel that there are more linked stories regarding the events here. The mysterious object is not explained here, there are probably other stories by Reynolds that tell more of the plot. I guess I will have to look for a collection of Reynold's latest stories.

The Dragon that Flew Out of the Sun - Aliette de Bodard. Depicts a family of refuges living in cramped circumstances. The story tells of a war between Lieu Vuong Tinh, the Khiet, and their implacable enemy, the Ro Federation. The destruction of the homeworld is explained to the lead character as she grows up. It all seems like background material at the start of a larger story, but their is no other story - just this world building exercise. Maybe de Bodard is planning to build on this.

Waiting Out the End of the World at Patty's Place Cafe - Naomi Kritzer. An asteroid big enough to destroy all of civilization is headed toward the Earth. There is a high percentage chance that it will strike, and much like the reign of the dinosaurs, the rule of humanity will come to an abrupt end. Lorien decides to drive back home to South Dakota and make up with her estranged mother before the end. But she runs out of gas, and finds herself stuck in a diner. Amazingly, the proprietor of the diner is still doing business even as the clock to extinction ticks down (who would do this?). Lorien sits in the diner and talks to other people as the asteroid strike nears. That's the story. I was not enthused by it.

The Hunger After You Are Fed - James A. Corey. Easily the worst story in the collection, I don't know what Dozois was thinking when he selected this one. A man is stalking an author named Hector Prima. Prima does not wish to communicate with his fans. The stalker is persistent. This is science fiction? It is mercifully short. It is awful.

Assassins - Jack Skillingstead and Burt Courtier. Sonia makes her living killing virtual characters, not assassinating real people. But in the future, people are so wrapped up in their digital life that the virtual characters seem like real people to them, so there is a global shock when a digital celebrity suddenly dies. The rules are that a digital celebrity has to remain dead. Why?

The Martian Job - Jaine Fenn. This is a fantastic story. It is the story of Lizzie Choi, the most wanted woman in the solar system. Her brother died on Mars, in a glider accident, perhaps while engaging in illegal activity. Lizzie decides to depart from her dead-end job as an executive assistant on Earth and travel to Mars to learn the details of his death. When she arrives on Mars, she gets involved in a big crime job. This is a long story, 55 pages, with a lot going on. There is adventure and double crosses and chases - this would make a great movie. I have not heard of Jaine Fenn before, but it is clear she is an author worth reading.

The Road to the Sea - Lavie Tidhar I had heard of Lavie Tidhar before reading this collection. His book Central Station came out to a lot of acclaim, so I tried to read it, but I got bored. It seemed to be a bunch of linked "stories" of characters in a future Tel Aviv. I put "stories" in quotes because nothing much seemed to be happening. Plot was absent. I got the same feeling reading this short story. It describes a post-apocalpytic world, where the protagonists survive by scavaging. But once the world description is complete, there isn't any plot. Nothing happens. It is some nice world building, but Tidhar has to attach some kind of story to make his writing interesting.

Uncanny Valley - Greg Egan. A wealthy old man has died. He has willed the majority of his wealth to Adam, a constructed being that contains a download of the old man's personality. But Adam doesn't have the entire memory bank, it is clear that the old man edited some event(s) from the download. I read the ending a couple of times, but I did not understand what the deleted memories were supposed to indicate.

The Wordless - Indrapramit Das. This is Indrapramit Das' second story to be included in the collection. It tells the story of some poor people who live on a deary desolate planet that is used as a transportation hub for starships. The citizens of the dreary planet are not allowed to leave, they spend their days selling food and trinkets to the starship travelers who pass through the hub on their way to other exotic worlds. I got confused by the pronouns in this book. Both NuTay and Satlyt are referred to as they or them - but I never got the understanding that they were multipersonalities. Maybe those are the pronouns for an arbitrary gender declaration? I'm not hip enough to understand.

Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics - Jessica Barber and Sara Saab. This long story drags on and on about the relationship between Mani and Amir, two brilliant youngsters growing up in climate-changed Beirut. They live in a regulated society. They attend meetings. They study. They grow up and go their separate ways. They get involved in projects, some of which don't make much sense - but hey, it makes sense to the future civilization. Nothing of significance happens.

Zigeuner - Harry Turtledove. Turtledove is known for this alternate history stories. In this short story, it is WWII, but the Nazi's have a different agenda, and yet oh-so-similar to what happened here on our timeline. The surprise ending seemed like an alternate history idea that a grade school child could invent.

The Proving Ground - Alec Nevala-Lee. In the future, rising sea levels threaten the island nation of the Marshall Islands. Haley Kabua is an islander. She intends to use the reparations that the UN has awarded her country to help build a self sufficient Marshall Islands while the UN is still handing out money - because she recognizes that politics change, circumnstances change - there won't be any money for the nation of the Marshall Islands if it ceases to exist, because it has disappeared beneath the waves. Haley is leading the charge to build solar panels, wind turbines, floating pontoons, etc. But something mysterious happens with the birds...

Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance - Tobias S. Buckell. This is a smart fun story about a conscious repair robot. The robot has no free will, it must obey human commands. But the robot once used to be a human itself, before it had its consciousness uploaded into the machine. In the distant future, the ship With All Sincerity has been triumphant against the Fleet of Honest Representation (Don't these ship names sound like something from the Iain M. Banks Culture universe?). There are treasures to be appropriated, knowledge to be absorbed from the captured ship. These ships sound more like worlds - they have rotating rings and habitats and inhabitants by the billions. I was impressed by Buckell's world building. I recognize his name, but I don't recall ever previously reading anything he had written. I should look into what else he has written.

The Influence Machine - Sean McMullen. I read McMullen's Souls in the Great Machine many years ago, and I loved it. The rest of the trilogy wasn't as super, but still good. So McMullen is a top author in my camp. Here, McMullen gives us an alternate history story, set in Victorian England. A brilliant woman has invented the Influence Machine, which could bring immense change to the world. Inspector Albert Grant (ARCS) and his sidekick, sergeant Duncan, interrogate Lisa Elliott, though what crime she has committed is not exactly clear. This is a good story.

Canoe - Nancy Kress. I don't think of myself as a Nancy Kress fan, I think her Beggars in Spain novel is hugely overrated. But this story is fantastic. A group of four humans, testing out a newly invented Yi Point (Faster Than Light) drive, drop into a nearby alien star system, which consists of two dim brown dwarf stars, a giant gas planet that never quite ignited into a third star, and a host of smaller planets in unstable orbits. One of these planets, Canoe, looks like a frozen ice world, with an ocean beneath the ice. In this story, Europa had proved to be sterile, but the crew of four decide to investigate Canoe to look for possible life forms. I hope this story gets expanded into a novel. I see that Kress has just released a new novel called The Eleventh Gate, which, unfortunately, doesn't appear to have anything to do with the story in Canoe.

The History of the Invasion Told in Five Dogs - Kelly Jennings. I think Jennings came up with the title for this story, and then hurriedly slapped together a short story to fit the title. It is completely forgettable. I think I read this....didn't I?

Prime Meridian - Silvia Moreno-Garcia. What a chore it was to slog my way through this long snooze-fest. I promised myself I would read every story in this collection, but this endless story really challenged my resolve. Amelia is bright young woman living Mexico city. But she is poor, she never finished college, and has no prospects, no full time work, no regular income. She lives with her divorced sister and her two nieces in a tiny apartment. Her most regular source of money is acting as a rented friend on the Friendrr app. On an on this story goes - for 47 tiresome pages!, as Amelia struggles with her poverty and powerlessness. Eventually the story staggers to a completely implausible ending.

Triceratops - Ian McHugh. In the near future, humans have recreated Neanderthals, wooly mammoths, and other ice age creatures. Thalers are hybrids - half Neanderthal, half Sapien parentage. A journalist flies to the Arctic region of Canada to talk with some of these Thalers. They talk. That's about it, but the descriptions of the mammoths is pretty good. What's the deal with the distant campfire burning out on the tundra?

Mines - Eleanor Arnason. I read her novel, A Ring of Swords ages ago (it was published in 1993), and my hazy recollection is that it wasn't that great. But for some reason I see it is still sitting on my bookshelf all these years later. This story is promising - an ex-vet on an alien planet has a companion African Giant Pouched Rat - together the duo goes searching for mines that are left over from the military conflict (on this alien planet the EurUsa and RuChin factions have gone to war). In her down-time, Les hangs out in a small town bar, where she meets another ex-soldier, Marin. Marin is suffering from PTSD. I thought this story was going to have more plot, but it ended abruptly. The end of the text is printed at the bottom of the page, so when I turned the page and saw the start of the next story in the collection, I was honestly surprised that Mines had ended.

There Used to be Olive Trees - Rich Larson. This is a terrific story. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, Valentin has escaped from his walled settlement with the aid of his nano-shadow. Valentin was facing his fourth (and probably final) test to demonstrate that he can control the chip that is embedded in his brain. The chip ought to let Valentin command the ancient machines that manufacture goods, but so far the autofab ignores Valentin's instructions. So now Valentin is fleeing into a dangerous wilderness before the townsmen cut the chip out of his head and implant it in another youngster. Valentin soon encounters Pepe, a wilder who lives with his clan in precarious circumstances. I liked the story that ensued.

Whending My Way Back Home - Bill Johnson. It took a while to figure out what is happening in this story. Martin is living in a primitive camp, before the dawn of human civilization. He has a virtual assistant named Artie that is somehow able to perform scans and manipulate some objects. This camp is Gobekli, which existed before humans built the first city. Martin is a time traveler, and somehow he has become stranded in the past. For some reason, there are lots of time travelers visiting this location, and they all want to manipulate the time line so that their civilization continues to exist. But how could there be travelers from multiple timelines all visiting, unless there is more than one future? I didn't quite figure this out.

Death on Mars - Madeline Ashby. Four women circle Mars on Phobos. They are an advance team, preparing the way for the first landing party that will arrive from Earth. But something has gone wrong down on the surface, the drill has become stuck. The team is meant to be retrieving Mars samples before any humans set foot on the planet, but the drill is not functioning. Earth is sending a drill expert, Marshall. He is flying alone to join their crew. I didn't really like the characters in this story, so it was hard to generate sympathy for their plight.

Elephant on Table - Bruce Sterling. I was pondering which author might have the longest span of appearances in these Year's Best Science Fiction collections, but I only have volumes 6 thru 35. Volumes 1, 2 and 3 sell for high prices on eBay, so I doubt I will ever complete the entire set. Collections 4 and 5 could be purchased, but maybe I should read some of #6 thru #34 first. I just checked The Year's Best Science Fiction, and Bruce Sterling is indeed in that volume, so I was correct that he had the longest span of appearances, but also appearing were Harry Turtledove and Nancy Kress and Michael Swanwick, so it is a four way tie for longevity. This story by Sterling has many ingenious ideas. It tells of the last days of an aged Italian politician, set in a future about 50 years from now. There's plenty of clever future stuff in this story, but some how that imaginative thinking didn't add up to a great story.

Number Thirty-Nine Skink - Suzanne Palmer. A robot trundles across an alien landscape. The robot has a "printer" that allows it to seed the biosphere with adapted earth organisms: lizards, snakes, bugs. The goal is to eventually convert the planet into a habitat suitable for human colonists. Unfortunately, the robot's human handler has died, so now the robot has carry on with mission on its own, without any guidance. But it has plenty of supplies and energy. The robot wanders into different environment, and must adapt the creatures it is making to this new ecology - with some unexpected behavior from the native animals. The robot comes upon the wreck of another of its kind, and it is clear that the other robot was deliberately destroyed. But by who? A great story.

A Series of Steaks - Vina Jie-Min Prasad. This is science fiction covering a topic that never occurred to me. Helena is a "meat-forger" - using her 3-D printer, she can create cuts of meat that look just like they came from a animal. Helena is based in China, where counterfeiting is rife. Her goal is to earn enough money to escape from this underworld activity and get a new identity in Nanjing. Helena gets a call from an anonymous client, demanding a shipment of T-Bone steaks. If Helena doesn't deliver, then he will expose her criminal behavior to the authorities. What can Helena do but acceed to his demands?

The Last Boat-Builder in Ballyvoloon - Finbarr O'Reilly. This is another story that is all idea and no plot. Sometime in the future, squid have turned dangerous, powerful and aggressive. These new squid rule the ocean, humans can't go into the water, the squids are too smart to be tricked, and they attack human where-ever they can. It seems like an unlikely premise to me - I would think humans could devise a deterrent (depth charges? massive electrical currents in the water? poison? High velocity bullets?). We learn this backstory, and that is the entire story.

The Residue of Fire - Robert Reed. I was disappointed by this one. Reed has written a huge number of stories, and novels, based upon the Great Ship - a gigantic planet core that roams through the galaxy, containing a multitude of environments and habitats, with plenty of alien species occupying the ship. Humans drive the ship, but a huge number of aliens are present. In this story, we meet the alien species 31-1. These aliens do not experience time. Instead, they see an infinite array of multiverses - no matter what decision you make, there is a multiverse in which you were destined to make exactly that choice. What appears to us as free will is really just a single thread of reality in an infinite multitude of possible multiverses. It's a bold idea, but somehow it didn't make a big impression on me.

Sidewalks - Maureen McHugh. Ros is called to a facility to evaluate a possibly-psychotic woman named Malni who is speaking gibberish. Ros is a language expert, can she figure out how to communicate with Malni? Hmm, it seems as if Malni is speaking Anglo-Saxon, exactly as it was spoken a 1000 years ago! Is Malni a time traveler?

Nexus - Michael Flynn. Dozios ends the collection with an excellent story from Flynn (I read his novel The Wreck of the River of Stars long ago, and I remember it being an enjoyable read.) This contribution is a delight. Flynn takes a ton of SF ideas and throws them all into one huge pot and cooks up an impressive tasty tale. Hidden aliens living amongst us? Time travel? Androids? Immortals? Alien invasion? Telepathy? It is incredible how Flynn pulls this off - but the story makes complete sense and is a joy to read. Could someone make a movie out of this, please?