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Science Fiction: The Best of 2003 by…

Science Fiction: The Best of 2003

by Jonathan Strahan (Editor), Karen Haber (Editor)

Other authors: Paolo Bacigalupi (Contributor), Stephen Baxter (Contributor), Cory Doctorow (Contributor), Jeffrey Ford (Contributor), Neil Gaiman (Contributor)10 more, James Patrick Kelly (Contributor), Ursula K. Le Guin (Contributor), David D. Levine (Contributor), Susan Mosser (Contributor), George Saunders (Contributor), Lucius Shepard (Contributor), Charles Stross (Contributor), Michael Swanwick (Contributor), Vernor Vinge (Contributor), Howard Waldrop (Contributor)

Series: Science Fiction: The Best of... (2003)

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My reaction to reading this anthology in 2004.

"Introduction", Karen Haber -- Short statement explaining what markets the editors scoured for stories to include and Strahan's role in this and future anthologies.

"The Fluted Girl", Paolo Bacigalupi -- This story has a fairy tale air to it since it's set in a dwelling described as a castle and features a put upon young girl. The story has a couple of good points. The first is the satiric -- if economically implausible -- idea that entertainers have sort of become like the patricians of Republican Rome or Renaissance lords -- the providers of patronage and public goods in a world where taxation and political power have been removed from the masses. (It seems implausible because if they are that poor, have no source of income outside of patronage, how do the masses provide the money to pay their entertainer overlords?) The second point is the image at the center of the story: the protagonist and her twin sister have had their bodies modified, with hollow bones amongst other things, to literally be musical instruments which, in an erotic lesbian display of fingering, fondling, dancing, and caressing, are played by each other. Their owner hopes their novelty will get her the money to refuse the entertainment mogul who surgically created her beauty and his notion of recording her every sensation. The story's ending, where the title character poisons Madame Belari, seemed a bit contrived -- though it is an impulse, suicide converted to murder at the last moment. After all, what is Lidia going to do after Belari is dead?

"A Study in Emerald", Neil Gaiman -- This story is from an anthology built around the bastard concept of crossing the Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes mythos with H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos: Shadows Over Baker Street ed. by Michael Reaves and John Pelan. Gaiman pulls the stunt off. At first the narrator in this pastiche seems an off-kilter version of Watson. He hangs out with a consulting detective on Baker Street and makes dark, oblique (and never explained) references to a horror he experienced in an Afghani cavern. His friend is invited, in a plot reminiscent of Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia", by Inspector Lestrade to investigate the death of a German noble in London. It's a Jack the Ripper type murder so Gaiman seems to tread a common path in sf Holmes pastiches (for instance Geoffrey Landis' “The Singular Habits of Wasps”), but the noble has green blood and is the product of Cthulhu gods, who have reigned over the nations of Earth for centuries, mating with humans. The detective determines the identity of the murders, all the while the narrator remarking in horror at the idea of men being allowed to govern their own affairs without the Cthulhu gods. But about seven-eights of the way through the story, when, again in the mode of Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia”, the detective gets a letter from the murderer and his accomplice, Gaiman pulls a neat reversal. We realize that he is Professor Moriarty (never named -- indeed none of the principals here are named except Lestrade), that the anarchist who masterminded the murder, Rache, is none other than Holmes, the man wielding the knife is Watson, and the narrator, judging from his initials of S. M., seems to be Moriarty’s henchman Sebastian Moran from the Doyle story “The Empty House”. The story also has something of the flavor of Alan Moore’s comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with each section preceded by various ads for things like Jekyll powder, exsanguination provided by a V. Tepes, and springy boots from Jack.

“Flowers from Alice”, Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross -- Like a lot of Stross I’ve read, this story is concerned with the transition from human to post-human. Here a man about to be married is bothered by an old girlfriend. He regards her antics as so post-human, and the conversations and pre-marital disputes and cold feet between him and his fiancé are described. It turns out, in a bizarre -- but logical -- twist at the end that the narrator is sort of half-way through the transition to post-human because his fiancé is just a sex-changed clone of himself. Eventually both the narrator and his fiancé marry the ex-girlfriend and post-human Al -- who obligingly makes copies of herself. This story didn’t do much for me. It’s another example of Stross’ bizarre twists on family life due to nanotechnology, information science, and biotech. However, casual sex changes have been around since at least John Varley and the addition of cloning an alternate sex version of yourself, while conceptually novel (at least to my knowledge), and having sex with them didn’t do much for me dramatically. Another problem is that I just don’t buy the plausibility of recording minds and uploading and downloading them. If I’m expected to suspend my disbelief, I want something more exciting, more of a payoff, than a domestic drama -- say space opera.

“The Tale of the Golden Eagle”, David D. Levine -- This story was pleasant enough and reminded me a bit of Ann McCafferey’s The Ship Who Sang in that it involved a mind being cybernetically implanted in a ship. There is a bit of the air of the fairy tale as we see the mind of a golden eagle implanted in a ship, the ship scrapped when made technologically obsolete, the horrible years of suffering as the mind lived in a sensory deprivation purgatory on a trickle of power, her resurrection as a wonderful automaton female who is won in a gambling match. The gambler at first wants to use her to power his ship, but she loves her new body so much that he puts his mind in the ship and the eagle/automaton is its captain. Its a nicely told story though nothing conceptually novel.

“Confusions of Uñi”, Ursula K. Le Guin -- Most “best of” anthologies seem to have one or two stories where you wonder what the editors were thinking. This is one of those stories. I’ve read some other stories set in the same universe, a universe built around the punning conceit that, in airports, you can change astral type planes as well as airplanes. I liked the one or two others I read in this series, but this was a pointless exercise in describing a place of changing geographical juxtapositions. Its only redeeming feature was an occasionally witty sentence.

“Jon”, George Saunders -- I approached this story with trepidation once I found out it was from The New Yorker, but it was actually fairly good, better than a lot of mainstream literary attempts at sf. To be sure, Saunders uses sf for social satire, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, and it’s a time honored tradition. Here, the narrator is one of the elite teens, the “Tastemakers & Trendsetters” (they even have their own trading cards) who spends his day evaluating various products and commercials -- commercials directly loaded onto a hard drive surgically implanted in his skull. While this has saved him from a life of squalor and poverty, it has left him with poverty of another sort: the inability to express himself in anything but cliches and quotes and metaphors from the ads he's spent most of his life viewing. However, when he falls in love with a fellow Tastemaker and fathers his child, he must decide whether he wants to follow his love to the world outside where he’ll be a unhip, poorer nobody -- with residual brain damage from removing the hard drive (supposedly only temporary). This being a literary story, of course he opts for poor true love, natural stimulation, and reality. The best part was the witty snatches of commercials for products real and imagined

“Legions of Time”, Michael Swanwick -- I don’t know if the title alludes to Jack Williamson’s Legion of Time stories or not since I’ve never read them, but this tale of how a widow of the Great Depression (I liked that choice for a character) becomes the leader and all the members of the Legion of Time, an organization dedicated to fighting the Aftermen. The story mixes the temporal solipism of Robert A. Heinlein’s “By His Bootstaps”, time wars a la Friz Leiber and Poul Anderson, and the human evolutionary stages a la Olaf Stapledon. If the story itself leaves you a little cold with the unexplained transcendence of Ellie Voigt to the Legion of Time, the other details are well done. I particularly liked the talking clipboard which, by the very questions it asks in trying to determine a time traveler’s when of origin, reveals something of the future. It’s a clever expository device. Like a fair amount of Swanwick’s short fiction, this is part of an ongoing genre dialogue only this time with several different sub-genre’s at once. I liked the two sides, the Aftermen and the Rationality, both commanding obedience by compulsion though its described, in the Rationality’s case, as irresistible rhetoric.

“Calling Your Name”, Howard Waldrop -- As usual, this is a Howard Waldrop alternate history, and it is an alternate history that features a lot of alternatives to the pop culture of our history though here the emphasized point of departure is the history of Richard Nixon. The rationale of the story -- man propelled into an alternate history by being shocked by a table saw -- makes it sf by courtesy only though the rationale of travel via a burst of electricity also being the the basis for L. Sprague de Camp’s sf classic Lest Darkness Fall. Still, this story had a point to it. First the man must struggle to adopt to the new world he finds himself in. Second, he hatches a plan to return to his world. It almost works. In fact, it works splendidly because he returns to a world similar to his timeline but where his wife never died. For once, Waldrop squeezes some emotion out of his story.

"Bumpship", Susan Mosser -- This was a skillful story on many levels. The narrative technique used is somewhat problematic. It's first person narration in the form of answers to a journalist's questions. Since this story is a character study, it works. Plotwise it also works because the narrator has been commanded by a superior in the Atmospherics Corporation to grant the executive's nephew an interview. The unspoken motive is that the narrator will provide good propaganda for resisting reform of Exclusion Rights by comparing the horrors of the status quo with the even worse ones of the past as suffered by the narrator. I suspect Mosser and Kelly Link, the editor of the anthology the story first appeared in, were also attracted to the narrative technique because they see it as a virtuoso one seldom employed in sf. I think it is hard to pull off but not as naturalistic as some think. After all, you're not hearing the questions so you're getting an artificial distortion of a dramatic situation. The journalism setup was a natural justification for that often contrived dramatic revelation of a dark secret from a person's past. The story belongs to the sub-genre of colonization horror stories. I was reminded of Robert A. Heinlein's "The Logic of Empire", the economics of colonization often featured in Peter F. Hamilton's work, and the exploration of how the technological infrastructure of supporting life in a hostile environment leads to political repression as seen in John Shirley's Eclipse series. In a future where the colonization of the Boondocks outside the "Hub" worlds of Earth (which can be terraformed or naturally support human life) is expensive, the colonists must buy their expensive infrastructure from large corporations. They can't always make the payments though. They have two options. They can sell some of their fellow colonists into indentured servitude. Or they can wait for their "bubble" to be popped (basically their life support plant shutdown) by a bumpship which will then pick up a certain portion of the colony's assets (ie their children) for corporate service -- before they die. The narrator operates such a ship. She comes from a time where things were even bleaker. Her parents were one of the first colonists. When their settlement defaulted on their loans due to some fraudulent biotech shipped them, their bubble is popped. As the colonists faced slow asphyxiation, lots were drawn by the young narrator and she had the misfortune of leaving her parents to die. However, she eventually worked her way up the Atmospherics Corporation. She is a fierce defender of the status quo and her arguments for the justice of what is done sound very much like a vigorous defender of capitalism -- she mentions "market democracy" and the chance for all to better themselves through discipline, the need of companies to recoup and protect their investments. The scars of her past show when she speaks with contempt of her father, a "low market" linguist of Ancient Earth languages. I found the story most remarkable for the ambivalence of tone and argument. I felt like Mosser wanted to give me a satire of capitalism by analogy (think houses and food and talent for colonization infrastructure and market value), yet she kept giving me balanced, plausible arguments, didn't suggest how it could be otherwise. (I think another clue to satiric intent was that the story doesn't really work economically and technologically in that it postulates, for instance, an interstellar traffic in elements like boron or advanced technology rendering interstellar commerce in most things obsolete. That was the story's only flaw.) However, at story's end, the satiric element came to the front. We here preachments of democracy but a cabal of businesses goes about their legislation in secret, and once such peace of legislation proposes grabbing defaulting colonists for slave labor -- or, at least, till they or their descendants can pay off their debt. This debt slavery reminded me of the Heinlein story.) To protest the status quo, 13,000 colonists choose suicide when their bubble is popped rather than board the narrator's bumpship. They call themselves Ceuganters after the colony world the narrator is from. She is unimpressed. A fierce defender of a status quo in which she has, to a certain extent thrived, which is better than the horrors she knew as a child, she, as her superiors expect, concludes the story with the chilly line of a wounded woman who will not dwell on the horrors of the past: "I have no sympathy for those people." It is, of course, an ironical line because we do not feel what the corporation and narrator want us to feel.

"Only Partly Here", Lucius Shepard -- A restrained story for Shepard. It forgoes his usual opening moral or philosophical statement though it characteristically concludes with one, and romance figures in the plot. The plot is a ghost story. A worker in the rubble of the World's Trade Center encounters an intriguing women in the bar he retires to after work. The worker and woman share a feeling of missing something -- including the passionate emotion that they think they should feel in the wake of the attack. I found that psychological observation realistic. Eventually, it is revealed that the woman is the ghostly owner of a half charred blue shoe the worker found in the buildings wreckage. The story ends with a nice rumination on all the unfinished, unlived lives ended, with no chance of course change or redemption, in the collapse of the Towers. Though I find it interesting there is not a bit of talk of vengeance against Al-Queda. ( )
  RandyStafford | Mar 12, 2014 |
All of the stories are worth reading, although the "Cookie Monster" by Vernor Vinge stands out to me as one of the best: a mystery wrapped around a very interesting, plausible, extrapolation of today's computer technology and science.

I also liked "The Chop Line" by Stephen Baxter. For some reason, it felt like an Asimov Foundation story with the element of time travel thrown in. That's not a very accurate description of the story, but that's the vibe I got after reading it.

Minor Problem: This anthology should have been titled "The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2003", since the two excellent stories, "A Study in Emerald" and "Only Partly There", should not be classified as science fiction. The first is a Sherlock Holmes/Cthulhu mash-up and the second is a modern ghost story. ( )
  bte101 | Mar 25, 2008 |

Not madly impressed; most of the stories I had read before as they were Hugo or Nebula finalists, or collected somewhere else, and the remaining ones were generally not up to much. (Honourable mentions though to "Flowers for Alice" by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, and especially to "Only Partly Here", by Lucius Shepard, the first successful genre story I've read about 9/11). There is also a surprisingly unprofessional level of misprints. ( )
  nwhyte | Sep 18, 2005 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Strahan, JonathanEditorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Haber, KarenEditormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Bacigalupi, PaoloContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Baxter, StephenContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Doctorow, CoryContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ford, JeffreyContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gaiman, NeilContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kelly, James PatrickContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Le Guin, Ursula K.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Levine, David D.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Mosser, SusanContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Saunders, GeorgeContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Shepard, LuciusContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Stross, CharlesContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Swanwick, MichaelContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Vinge, VernorContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Waldrop, HowardContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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