The previous two editions of Gardner Dozois' The Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies have been very good, with gripping stories that refused to let me take much of a break. They were very dense editions, certainly not readable in a day or two, but never what I would call a "slog" - I didn't feel like I was wading through a trench of mud while I was reading them. Unfortunately, the twenty-third edition does feel like that. There are many good stories in it, but also a few I didn't like (which is rare, as most often there are one or two). Even worse, there weren't too many standout stories, either. Having already read one "Year's Best" edition (Year’s Best SF 11, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer), I had already read many of the better stories fairly recently. Perhaps this contributed to my feeling as well.
That's not to say there isn't some good stuff in here. Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold (responsible for some great collaborations that I've read in Realms of Fantasy) once again impress with "The Canadian Who Came Almost All the Way Back from the Stars," (originally published on the sadly now-defunct SCI FICTION web site). Ostensibly this is the story of a Canadian billionaire, Nick MacInnes, who funded experiments and then built a ship that would take him to a far-away star. In actuality, the story is more about CIA agent Bruce Diedrich and Nick's wife, Kelly, and the time they spend around Crystal Lake. Kelly supposedly receives a message from Nick stating to meet him at the lake at a certain time. When they get there, some weird sort of bubble is forming in it. While Bruce's job is to watch Kelly and try to find out what's going on, he has also fallen in love with her. The story is not only about their relationship, but also her dedication to what her husband has done. Will he return after six years as promised? And what is the bubble in the lake, constantly spewing radiation? I loved this story the first time I read it on SCI FICTION and loved it even more this time around. Lake and Nestvold just have such a way with characterization that made me want to get to know Kelly and Bruce more, and hoping that Bruce wouldn't be disappointed. They throw a couple of twists toward the characters as well, and the final resolution is haunting even in its inevitability.
Also wonderful is the opening story of the anthology, "The Little Goddess," In it, Ian MacDonald first introduces us to a futuristic India and Nepal, both of which have splintered. Nepal has returned some of the old ways, and a little girl is installed as the latest goddess of her people. The requirements for this are to laugh at pain, blood, and death, and she is the one who passes the test. Given two "mothers" who help train her in what she needs to do, she will retain the position until she "bleeds" for the first time. Most of the time, this "bleeding" is caused by the onset of puberty, but one of the mothers is giving her drugs to keep puberty at bay - that is, until something else happens, forcing the girl to leave her sheltered life and go out into the world. She gets involved in the world of arranged marriages, where men buy their brides, as well as the smuggling of artificial intelligences across national borders. Told in first-person from the girl's point of view, we get to see a large portion of the girl's life as well as a vivid world with a mixture of the futuristic and the historical. McDonald has created an interesting set of societies with all of the different nations that India has broken in to. The ending, however, makes this story really worthwhile, as young Devi uses what she is left with to install herself as her own little goddess. McDonald makes her an interesting character to read about, and the pages fall away effortlessly as the reader gets wrapped up in her story.
Other strong stories are "Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck" by Neal Asher (a man who hires out his blimp for people to explore the strange jungle of a far-away planet finds himself the hunted of a rich brother and sister who are after forbidden trophies) and "The Clockwork Atom Bomb" by Dominic Green (after a devastating nuclear war, Mativi comes to Africa with the UN to try and clean things up, but finds himself caught in local politics when he discovers that some of the governments are dangerously using abandoned weapons more powerful than atomic bombs as power sources), as well as many others.
The problem with this edition is that a few of the stories just left me cold. Harry Turtledove's "Audubon in Atlantis" (an alternate history where John Audubon, growing long in the tooth, wants to make one last expedition to the wilds of Atlantis to find samples and paint pictures of a rare species of bird) suffers from most of his usual novelistic faults - some repetition as well as stilted prose and dialogue). What's strange is that I've never really noticed that problem with his short fiction until this piece. This, combined with the fact that the story almost bored me to tears, made it a struggle to get through.
Stephen Baxter's "The Children of Time" gives readers an interesting premise but no characters to make things interesting. The story begins at what most would consider the end of the world and moves on, chronicling millions of years of the future as a succession of societies deal with the remains. The story is divided into sections with each one jumping a long span of time. There are some references back to previous characters who become legends, but mostly they are self-contained, with the only continuity being the world they live in (or what's left of it, anyway). Baxter relies on the premise to keep things interesting, and it is what kept me reading. We see the world sink slowly into oblivion, societies living and dying while the population gets smaller and smaller, but I didn't really care about any of these people. Once again, my aversion to hard science fiction without character means that I didn't like a story. Hard SF fans may disagree with that assessment.
The Year’s Best Science Fiction #23 has way too many "eh" stories in it. A number are enjoyable, too many to name here, but there are also far too many that I didn't really care about one way or the other. As Hartwell's collection shows, this wasn't necessarily a bad year for short SF, but Dozois' choices left me a cold. Hopefully next year's edition will bounce back.