This is the third Best of the Year volume in the science fiction and fantasy field that I have read this year, and… I wouldn’t say that I am becoming jaded, but I am learning that not all that is published in the field, even what is supposedly the best, appeals to me. This book had a fair amount of hits, but an equal or greater amount of misses, at least in my opinion. As usual, some stories were great, some were good, some were so-so, and a few I couldn’t finish. I skipped over the stories I had already read in other anthologies to focus on the ones that were new to me, and these, as I said, I found a mixed batch.
This anthology is by far the heftiest of the Best of the Year books in terms of sheer size. It’s almost six hundred pages of small print. It seems that Clarke is attempting to fill the gap brought about by the recent demise of Gardner Dozois, which is a good thing. I didn’t always agree with Dozois’s choices either, but I still appreciated that he took the time to do the sifting through the multitudes of stories that are published every year. I read a lot that is not science fiction, or even fiction, so I appreciate having a menu of stories that has been recommended by those more familiar with recent offerings in the field than I am. I also appreciate that Clarke has taken up the task of writing a yearly summary of important happenings in science fiction publishing, something that Dozois used to present in a comprehensive manner.
As for the stories, I want to mention a few that I found outstanding. “Traces of Us” by Vanessa Fogg tells of romance that begins on Old Earth but then is immortalized when two starships carrying the memories of the lovers in their computers meet. “Requiem” by Vandana Singh takes place at the edge of the Arctic Ocean. A woman goes to a research station to collect the personal effects of her recently deceased aunt, and while she’s there she learns of the research her aunt has been conducting on communicating with oceanic creatures, especially whales. It’s a grim story for much of its length, but it ends with a thrilling punch. “Lions and Gazelles” by Hannu Rajaniemi concerns a thrilling race by biologically enhanced CEOs of tech companies. It’s thrilling and innovative and lots of fun.
However, I have saved the best for last, as did Clarke. My personal favorite in this anthology is a hard science fiction tale called “Umbernight” by Carolyn Ives Gilman. It’s the final story in the book. It is one of the best new stories I have read in recent years. A team of colonists on an inhospitable planet set out from the safety of their enclave and race against time to recover supplies that have been sent from the home planet. On their journey, they discover that the colony planet is much more bizarre and dangerous than they had supposed. This story has it all: a clear story line, well-drawn characters with a well-defined goal, a threatening alien world, and mounting tension leading to a perilous conclusion. As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I have lately become somewhat jaded with the quality of what I have been reading, but this story knocked the complacency clean out of me. It is thrilling, exciting, and filled me full of sense of wonder. I can see why Clarke saved it for the end. It left me with a satisfying sense of fulfillment and helped remind me why I was drawn to the field of speculative fiction in the first place.