The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 21, edited by Gardner Dozois (Part 4)

Anthony G Williams

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 21, edited by Gardner Dozois (Part 4)

The final batch of eight stories.

The Accord by Keith Brooke. A far-future story of people living pleasant, simple lives on a backward planet, all believing in a supernatural life-force called the Accord. Then an anomalous character appears to disturb the peace - and it becomes apparent that the world is not at all what it seems. An intriguing story concerning reality and identity. I recently reviewed Brooke's YA novel, The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie.

Laws of Survival by Nancy Kress. A dystopian future in which, following nuclear war, unseen and mysterious aliens arrive and establish impenetrable grey domes close to the sites of destruction. A woman, barely existing from hand to mouth by following her own rigid rules of survival in a collapsed world, finds herself inside one of the domes and learns that the aliens have their own bizarre priorities.

The Mists of Time by Tom Purdom. A fascinating tale of a future in which a kind of time travel is possible with great difficulty - but only to observe the past, invisible to the people then. Only one visit to any scene is permitted to avoid any risk of problems, and the time-travel rig takes only two people. A wealthy man funds a mission to film a crucial incident in the life of an ancestor, the young commander of a small Royal Navy vessel cruising on anti-slavery patrol off North Africa in the 19th century, but the film-maker who goes with him has her own ideas of what kind of film she wants to make. The viewpoint alternates between the young commander and his descendent, watching and listening in fascination. Combat at sea in the days of sail is richly and tensely evoked, and the difference in attitudes and priorities between the observed and the observers wryly portrayed. A gem of a story.

Craters by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Another dystopian future in which young children are turned into unwitting suicide bombers by having bombs undetectably inserted into them, timed to explode years later. A reporter visits a dangerous refugee camp to try to determine the truth behind the incidents.

The Prophet of Flores by Ted Kosmatka. A alternative present-day Earth in which the accepted scientific methods of dating the past appear to prove that nothing is more than 6,000 years old, so the Bible is regarded as literally and unchallengeably true. Hominim remains discovered by archaeologists are categorised as "human" (tool users deriving from Adam and Eve) or "not human", but these careful distinctions - along with the archaeologists - come under threat when the remains of the small humans of Flores are discovered.

Stray by Benjamin Rosenbaum and David Ackert. A bizarre little fantasy of an immortal, able to command anyone to adore and follow him, who falls to Earth in a segregated America, determined to try to live as a human.

Roxie by Robert Reed. A man's life with his old and ailing dog, told against the background of an impending major asteroid strike on Earth. Hugely sentimental, and for dog lovers only.

Dark Heaven by Gregory Benford. Aliens in the form of vaguely humanoid amphibians have arrived on Earth as peaceful visitors, and live in a few specially-made structures on the edge of the oceans, rarely seen by most people. But then bodies start being found with mysterious injuries, and a police detective in the southern USA begins to suspect that the presence of the nearby alien base may not be coincidental.

Something of a marathon effort, this; I don't think I've read so many short stories in such a brief period of time. The book provides a fascinating cross-section of the state of SF short fiction today, and reveals it to be at least as varied and interesting as it has ever been. The stories are all of a high standard, and the choice of favourites will be determined by the preferences of the reader. Of this group, I most enjoyed the tale by Purdom, and also liked the ones by Brooke, Kosmatka and Benford. My overall selection of ones I liked most from each batch (which also happen to be the ones I liked most overall) is:

Finisterra by David Moles (first batch - reviewed 18 September) - the overall winner.
Alien Archeology by Neal Asher (second batch - reviewed 8 October)
Hellfire at Twilight by Kage Baker (third batch - reviewed 6 November)
The Mists of Time by Tom Purdom (final batch)

(This entry is cross-posted from my science-fiction & fantasy blog.)