Best-of anthologies of science fiction, fantasy, and horror almost feel a dime a dozen these days. Everybody’s grandma is producing one, each attempting to capture some portion of the market (a portion diminishing with each new best-of). But one of the first, in the 80s, was Gardner Dozois’ best science fiction of the year. And in the three decades since, Dozois produced an annual volume of what he considered stand out. In 2019, apparently it was time to narrow the field further, The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of The Year's Best Science Fiction the (semi-)retrospective result. (More on “semi-“, later.)
Containing a massive thirty-eight stories, stories that cover nearly the frequency and range of the genre, The Best of the Best is something that must be tackled like an elephant: one piece at a time. And so we go. One of Charles Stross’ best ever short pieces, “Rogue Farm” is likewise one of the oddest pieces of fiction the reader will ever try to get their head around. A weed-smoking dog, crops unlike any other, and a proposed trip that just doesn’t seem to add up, this vignette captures science fiction’s magical ability to present the oddest of futures while still being wholly enjoyable. Like an artist sketching things out before starting a masterpiece, “The Little Goddess” is a diamond from the tiara of the novel River of Gods. About a girl raised in a technology inundated India of 2047, this story follows a perfect arc and ends on an extremely satisfying note combining tech and plot and setting.
A story peripherally in Paul McAuley’s Quiet War universe, “Dead Man Walking” tells of a former assassin now living a quiet life, trying to ensure his previous endeavors remain in his past. A killer emerging at the prison where he works as a guard, he is forced to proactively find them himself lest they reveal his secrets. Overall, McAuley overlays a nicely juxtaposed stance on war and terrorism with a simple, fast-paced story. Another story that pits two characters against one another, “Tin Marsh” by Michael Swanwick finds two prospectors on Venus suddenly forgoing their initial contract for outright hostility. The source, however, is not as obvious as it looks at the outset. Where McAuley’s story is political at heart, Swanwick’s is personal individual.
Doing its part to fulfill the ‘squids in space’ quota for the collection, “Mongoose” by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette is about a space station infected by aliens from another dimension. I suppose I needn’t say more except that Bear and Monette don’t do much more with the idea, resulting in one of the more questionable (i.e. average) selections for the anthology. Though I doubt Chris Beckett was aware, Robert Reed’s “Good Mountain” is the clear forebear to Dark Eden. About a group of humans living in exotic conditions on an isolated planet, trying to come to terms with how a few generations spin a society’s cosmolology so far from its origins, the difference between the two is setting. Where Beckett’s Eden is a Christmas tree-colored world humming with life, Reed’s is a barren planet where humans traverse the methane fields in giant worms. Both, however, do not have clear histories from which to draw common identities.
If one ignores the tenets of quality literature and looks to pure entertainment, “Finisterra” by David Moles can be read. Apply any other measure, however, and the story becomes a contrived, inconsistent, overwrought planetary adventure that tries to cram too much into its small bag. Good vs evil, stabs at profundity, crap characterization—it’s a frustrating exercise that deserves longer treatment, refinement, and expansion. Adam Roberts ever the odd man out (oftentimes brilliantly so), his story “Hair” tells of a rich Elon Musk-esque entrepreneur who eschews the law in favor of inventing technology that allows people to gain sustenance in the most familiar yet strange way possible, and the resulting political-economic-military fireworks show that ensues.
“The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” by Daryl Gregory is a comic book story in more ways than one, and for this reason is largely unique. On the surface play elements of gritty superheroes (I was reminded of Watchmen), while at depth an all too standard good vs. evil mindset serves to undermine the proceedings. The story of a fictional Trovenia under attack by the dreaded U-Men of America, the locals employ their Slaybots, mechanized gear, and all other manner of steampunk-ery in defending their beloved land and villainous leader. Gregory seeming to enjoy the scene setting and tech more than telling a purposeful story, a fair amount of nice description meanders to a weak finish.
If an adult story, then Alastair Reynolds “The Sledge-maker’s Daughter” is a rather maudlin effort, empowering a teenage girl after a (melo)dramatic experience. If taken as YA, there is something positively metaphorical to say for the manner in which the girl evolves. A pleasant exercise in style possible only in science fiction, “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi” by Pat Cadigan is about biologically modified workers employed in orbit of Jupiter in which the reader learns of a relationship changed by the switch from biped to sushi. Perhaps more an exercise in worldbuilding, Cadigan nevertheless proves her 90s’ fiction was not the end of the line.
Though ostensibly a super-fast paced bit of space opera, “Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance” by John Kessel can’t help but plumb the subjective divide between belief and reality, and the factors influencing culture between. From another perspective, a colorful bit of entertainment with pensive undertones. A story I thought I was the only one in the world appreciative of, it’s incredibly refreshing to see “Useless Things” by Maureen F. McHugh included in a “best of” anthology over her more syrupy “The Lincoln Train”. Capturing America’s slow economic collapse in brilliantly subtle terms, that the narrative is channeled through the life of a loner artist making crappy art only elevates the story higher. Wonderful that Dozois should include this story in the collection.
Featuring a virtual heaven where the uploaded minds of the rich go after death, “The Discovered Country” by Ian R. MacLeod tells of one man’s infiltration with the intention of… well, best discovered by the reader. Written in Macleod’s mature, affecting hand, the characters are front and center but something more universally human is unearthed. Paean to golden age sf, “The Emperor of Mars” by Allen Steele manages to steer just wide of the pit engulfing many other writer’s attempts to glorify, honor, and respect early productions of Martian fiction. About a laborer on Mars who experiences a great tragedy, Steele manages to incorporate Asimov, Pohl, van Vogt, and the like with only a few kernels of corn. Written in Lee’s distinct style, “Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain” by Yoon Ha Lee seems (is?) at heart an examination of the meaning of power and responsibility in terms of weaponry, but on the surface is the story of a woman who owns a rare gun, and the things she must do to attempt to balance custom with morals. A pleasant surprise, “Martian Heart” by John Barnes is a simple story to recount but maintains a depth of emotion and humanity that a minority of sf possesses telling of two unlikely Martian prospectors and their hardships.
Yet another attempt by Lavie Tidhar to capture hardboiled noir mood in an sf story, “The Memcordist” is the fragmented story of a man named Pym who broadcasts his entire life online, and can be measured by followers. On a quest through a Golden Age solar system to find a young woman he met many years earlier, Tidhar never really connects the social media side of Pym’s life to the main narrative, but does capture some of the melancholy he was aiming for. A story that feels I’ve read many, many times, “The Best We Can” by Carrie Vaughn tells of humanity’s discovery of a BDO and one woman’s borderline obsession with controlling the subsequent global attempts at reaching, processing, and researching it. Well enough written, but average in content, its distinguishing mark the character of the woman.
A classic sf tale evocatively told, “Jonas and the Fox” by Rich Larson tells of one family’s attempt to hide a political dissident from a tyrannical authority. Trick is, the dissident’s mind is hidden in the body of a child. Nothing especially unique in terms of dystopian fiction, but tensely, suspensefully created. Having lived for four years in China and experienced 90% of what the story describes, “My English Name” by R. S. Benedict strikes close to home. Strongly evocative of the film Under the Skin (not sure which came first…), Benedict successfully tells the allegorical story of a “man” attempting to exist within and adapt to a foreign culture. While I don’t need a scarf, I nevertheless often felt the same as Benedict’s protagonist. A ghost story were it not for the strong science fiction elements, “Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson tells of a virtual, future Carlotta who travels back in time to visit her younger, sixteen year-old self. Story integrated with a setting involving an unfortunately all too common state of domestic disarray, the ending is powerful. Wilson can be hit or miss, and this is for sure a hit.
A story that wonderfully captures the personality of a woman who has yet to let go of her adult son, “Rates of Change” by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck uses technology which allows the transfer of human consciousness between bodies to exploit her desire for control, and ultimately break it. The core sf idea is nothing new, but its application is wholly human… and not. James Patrick Kelly’s addition, “Someday,” is a bizarre story of human reproduction in the far future that does more than turn the gender tables on which sex should take lead. “The Long Haul” by Ken Liu is one of the author’s best. About a cross-Pacific zeppelin flight, it subtly digs into culture and sacrifice without resorting to the manipulative literary devices I’ve seen Liu use in the past. With echoes of David Gerrold, “Calved” by Sam J. Miller is the story of a father on leave from his job as a manual laborer after a long time away, the time he spends with his now-teenage son, and the things he learns about him and their relationship—another solid story.
A spin on the film The Thing from the alien’s(s’) perspective, “The Things” by Peter Watts effectively portrays the winter-blasted research base all the representing in the existential side of the film in quality fashion. One of Watts’ best stories. “The Invasion of Venus” by Stephen Baxter is nothing short of an alien invasion story of Venus. Earth a mere bystander, Baxter tells a near mimetic tale of the forces beyond humanity’s imagination duking it out on the green planet. All in all, it’s rather blasé given a quarter of the Golden Age’s stories were about alien invasions. A Greg Egan story set in the author’s Amalgam of Incandescence and “Riding the Crocodile”, “Glory” opens on a sweet mix of pseudo-science pyrotechnics, which quickly escalates to post-human proportions as an anthropologist arrives on a distant planet to do research. Encountering local tensions, compounded by intergalactic hostilities, her job only becomes more difficult, resulting in a somewhat blunted story that is not the most subtle of Egan’s work.
My biggest quibble with the anthology is the disingenuous title; had it been The Very Best of the Best: Science Fiction in the 21st Century all would be ok. As it stands, not one—not one!—story was published before 2002, which means that half of the timeline is missing. Were there to be a Volume 2 after the title, I would understand the first half—80s and 90s—exists in another volume. Regardless of technicalities or misnomers, what is collected is solid. Most of these best-of-the-best collections feel very ordinary to me—nothing to distinguish them from other best-ofs. But this one has a little extra something—just a little, but enough of something to put an asterisk next to the title in my brain as “notable”.
The Potter of Bones by Eleanor Arnason
Rogue Farm by Charles Stross
The Little Goddess by Ian McDonald
Dead Men Walking by Paul J. McAuley
Tin Marsh by Michael Swanwick
Good Mountain by Robert Reed
Where the Golden Apples Grow by Kage Baker
The Sledge-Maker's Daughter by Alastair Reynolds
Glory by Greg Egan
Finisterra by David Moles
The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm by Daryl Gregory
Utriusque Cosmi by Robert Charles Wilson
Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance by John Kessel
Useless Things by Maureen F. McHugh
Mongoose by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette
Hair by Adam Roberts
The Things by Peter Watts
The Emperor of Mars by Allen Steele
Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain by Yoon Ha Lee
Martian Heart by John Barnes
The Invasion of Venus by Stephen Baxter
Weep for Day by Indrapramit Das
The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi by Pat Cadigan
The Memcordist by Lavie Tidhar
The Best We Can by Carrie Vaughn
The Discovered Country by Ian R. MacLeod
Pathways by Nancy Kress
The Hand Is Quicker by Elizabeth Bear
Someday by James Patrick Kelly
The Long Haul, from The Annals of Transportation, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009 by Ken Liu
Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight by Aliette de Bodard
Calved by Sam J. Miller
Emergence by Gwyneth Jones
Rates of Change by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck
Jonas and the Fox by Rich Larson
KIT: Some Assembly Required by Kathe Koja and Carter Scholz
Winter Timeshare by Ray Nayler
My English Name by R. S. Benedict