Every year, there seem to be more “Best of” anthologies out there in the SF world (and probably other genres, too, I just don’t pay attention to those). Year-in and year-out, however, Gardner Dozois’ edition is generally one of the best. After an off year in the previous edition, however, I was wondering whether Dozois might be losing that lofty position. I needn’t have worried; this year, Dozois presents an excellent selection of SF stories that could easily be considered the best of the year. The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fourth Annual Collection is a must-read if you like short stories in the SF field. Almost every story in the book is at least good (even if some aren’t necessarily to my taste, since hard SF isn’t my favorite genre).
There’s a nice mix of hard SF and more common SF stories in this year’s edition, and even the hard stories were enjoyable to me, with one exception detailed later in the review. Once again, Ian McDonald has one of the best stories in the collection. His “The Djinn’s Wife” (set in the same world as “The Little Goddess,” included in the 23rd edition) is an excellent story that left me in wonder at McDonald’s imagination. This is a story of the marriage between a female dancer and an AI diplomat. Set in a future where India has broken into many different countries, two of them are approaching war over water rights, and renowned diplomat A.J. Rao is called to the scene. On the night of one of the biggest parties ever, to celebrate a possible resolution to the crisis, dancer Esha Rathore is slated to perform, and she is personally complimented by Rao. They begin to "date", with Rao's avatar accompanying her, and they finally get married. But Esha finds out that marrying something that can't physically hold you or touch you (despite the fact that it can provide some great pleasure at times, if you know what I mean) doesn't really make for a good marriage. I heartily recommend both this story and the previous one, and I may be looking to pick up the novel set in the same world soon.
Alastair Reynolds is once again blessed with the honor of having two stories included in the anthology, and they are both excellent. “Signal to Noise” is about scientist Mick, who loses his estranged wife in a car accident. His best friend has been working on building a gateway to and communicating with different alternate realities, and his friend has just “met” one where the main point of divergence is that his wife didn’t die. The alternate Mick and his wife agree to let Mick switch places as long as is possible so that he can say goodbye to, at least, his pseudo-wife. This story is extremely touching and has beautiful characterization by Reynolds.
Reynolds’ second story is also good. “Nightingale” tells the tale of the aftermath of a war where atrocities were committed but a neutral organization constructed a hospital ship and Artificial Intelligence to treat the wounded on both sides. Now a war criminal is holed up on the ship (which had been thought lost), and a team is sent to fish him out. They find much more than they bargained for when they get there. Is it possible for an AI to go insane? This story has a creepy atmosphere but also features great characters. The result of the story is somewhat predictable, but the details are frightening, and the journey to get there is quite intense.
There is one story in the book that I just couldn’t finish, but others may find excellent (I’m sure Dozois did). “Riding the Crocodile” by Greg Egan is extremely hard SF and the only story that I found so hard to read that I finally gave up. In the few pages I was able to get through, I found that I had absolutely no interest in the two main characters and their scientific experiments, and Egan didn’t set them up in a way that made me want to continue. When I saw that the story was thirty-five pages long, I gave it up. Fans of hard SF may find the ideas intriguing and love this story, so I’m certainly not saying it’s a bad story. But anybody who doesn’t like hard SF may well find nothing for them here.
There are so many other strong stories in the book that I can’t name them all. There are some notable ones, though. There is the always reliable Kage Baker’s “Where the Golden Apples Grow” (a tale set on the same Mars as The Empress of Mars), which gives us the ultimate “the grass is greener on the other side” parable. There’s also Michael Swanwick’s “Tin Marsh,” a suspenseful chase in the heated chasms of Venus between two space-suited miners whose suits won’t allow them to hurt each other, though the hunter’s suit is malfunctioning.
Finally, I do have to note two hard SF stories by authors whom I normally don’t care for. “Bow Shock” by Gregory Benford has a lot of science in it and the characters are fairly wooden, but I did care enough about them, and the science (the study of neutron stars) is fascinating enough that I really liked the story. Stephen Baxter’s “The Pacific Mystery” takes place in a world where the Earth is more like a coil than a sphere; thus nobody has ever been able to cross the Pacific Ocean. Instead, you just keep going and going. After World War II, a German scientific expedition is sent out with British and American reporters (Britain sued for peace and, since Japan couldn’t attack the United States, the U.S. never entered the war) to “solve” the Pacific mystery, but they find this instead. Baxter presents an interesting concept and some believable characters, though the science is more intriguing than the people involved. It was quite enjoyable, though.
All in all, the twenty-fourth edition of Gardner Dozois’ annual collection of the best science fiction had to offer in 2006 definitely meets that description. It is an enjoyable anthology with every story (with one exception for me) being well worth the read. The only reason you might not want to pick up this year’s volume is if you either hate SF or hate short stories (and there are some like that out there). Otherwise, you owe it to yourself to buy this. Then you can sit back and let the wonderful SF goodness wash over you.