book reviews by Althea

The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016 Edition – Rich Horton, ed.

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The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016 Edition
The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016 Edition by Rich Horton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**** “Mutability” by Ray Nayler (Asimov’s)
On the face of it, it’s a rather sentimental story – but it’s also thoughtful speculative fiction; showing us the possible ramification of what might happen if humans do finally conquer death. The characters here do not except to die; they and their contemporaries have lived for hundreds of years. But although they might live forever, their memories do not.
A chance encounter in a cafe and two souvenirs from the forgotten past leads two people to realize that they were once terribly important to each other. But in this future, what does that mean?

**** “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed)
Hard-bitten, tough mercenary finds herself in a tough corner when a deal goes bad and a bunch of mobsters have her hacker partner’s consciousness trapped in a machine… To try to save him, she’ll have to face not only her real and physical opponents, but will also have to win a virtual battle against a security system that resembles herself… and not herself now, but herself at her hardest, most invulnerable peak.
An action-packed, violent, gritty cyberpunk adventure.

*** “Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld)
Previously read, in ‘Clarkesworld.’ Clearly, many people have been more impressed by this story than I was. (I continue to prefer the Bruce Sterling piece that it’s a response to.)
“Inspired by Bruce Sterling’s ‘Maneki Neko’. (…)
In this story we meet an AI who just wants to help people, like the computer system in Sterling’s story does. All it wants in return for its help is pictures of cute cats (this explains the preponderance of this genre on the Internet.) However, it’s awfully frustrated by people’s seeming insistence on ignoring its obvious suggestions. Why would people rather be self-destructive and unhappy, rather than seeking out the help that’s put right in front of their faces? Nevertheless, the AI persists…
The story is cute and optimistic, however, I felt that it was weakened by the fact that every response the AI came up with to alleviate people’s problems was the obvious suggestion that any reasonably socially liberal American in 2015 would immediately jump to. Perhaps the humor of the piece rests in part in that the AI is behaving exactly like what one would imagine a well-meaning do-gooder with an affinity for cat memes would. But I still felt that it was a missed opportunity; because I think that an AI would come up with some much more unexpected solutions than “therapy sessions.””

***** “Capitalism in the 22nd Century, or AIr” by Geoff Ryman (Stories for Chip)
The anthology this originally appeared in was dedicated to Samuel Delany, which is why I skipped it – I’ve just never been able to become a fan. I’m not sure how this story relates to Delany, though. Rather, it seems to be a sequel, of sorts, to Ryman’s short story/novel, “Air: Or, Have Not Have.” The novel shows us the inception of a totally wireless Internet. In this story, we jump ahead and see where that innovation has taken the world. The theme: The artificial intelligences that humans create to serve us will eventually become our masters. It’s an arguably over-done theme, but this is a very well-done, excellent iteration of it.
Two Brazilian women have scrimped and saved and had irreversible medical procedures done in order to be able to join a secret, illegal colony mission to a distant planet. The story itself follows their frantic, fearful journey to the spacecraft. Along the way, though, we explore power structures, interconnectivity, and cost/benefit relations. The most obvious is that between human and the AI networks that they depend on. The second is more traditional, political power structures, between a dominant economy and the smaller ones surrounding it. And finally, we also find out that the relationship between two individuals that we initially saw as cooperative equals are not quite that, either. Subtle and thought-provoking… I thought it was excellent.

* “The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild” by Catherynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld)
There is a certain type of nonsense story for children that I really disliked, even when I was a child. I suspect that Valente loved those stories.
Here we take an absurdist journey through the colors of the rainbow, following a girl called Violet Wild through a series of alternate universes on an allegorical Pilgrims’ Progress/quest of self-discovery with musings on love and depression.
It’s also extremely meta- just as much about language & the function of storytelling as about the plot, told in intentionally over-the-top, florid, poetic prose.
Valente is very hit-or-miss for me. She’s written some things that I just love to death – and others, well, I feel more like I do about this one. She is undeniably a brilliant writer, and I can see that some people will love this, for wholly valid reasons. However, I really, really didn’t like it.

*** “My Last Bringback” by John Barnes (Meeting Infinity)
Medical advances in genetics have caused a sudden shift in society. Perhaps the people of tomorrow are not quite transhuman – but neither are they “natches,” a derogatory term spun off from “natural.” Among a society of long-lived, physically superior individuals with superbly well-balanced brains, one of the last-born natches has lived a life of bitter resentment – and once committed a shocking crime. She’s also become a renowned geneticist. This is her story…

**** “Please Undo This Hurt” by Seth Dickinson (
Previously read on
“Since ‘The Traitor Baru Cormorant’ was one of my absolute favorite books of the year, I’m not at all surprised that this short story was also excellent. As someone who despises ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ I liked it even more.
Through an interaction between two friends, Dickinson explores the irony that life is harder for those who make life more bearable. It’s also those who are more compassionate who are more likely to have compunctions about hurting those around them by contemplating suicide. But what if you could simply make it so that you’d never been born and none of the pain had every happened?
Would you, or anyone you know, take that option? Might it be a better choice?
(Although I very much appreciated the story, it didn’t speak to me as directly as I suspect it might to others. Probably because I’m just not that nice.) ”

** “Time Bomb Time” by C.C. Finlay (Lightspeed)
Don’t date a selfish and unethical grad student researcher. You could get caught in a distressing time loop.

***** “The Graphology of Hemorrhage” by Yoon Ha Lee (Operation Arcana)
Previously read in ‘Operation Arcana.’ Re-read, upgraded to 5 from 4 stars because it’s just so perfect, beautiful and sad. And I love writing.
“I really enjoy Yoon Ha Lee’s takes on the ideas of lexical magic. I found echoes here of some of her other work: ‘Effigy Nights’ and ‘Iseul’s Lexicon’ – but this is a piece that works on its own.
A brilliant magician has been forced into a dangerous military position in official retribution for the groundbreaking – but status-quo-threatening – ideas she came up with in university. Now, her mission will require her to explore even more radical ideas – and may demand the ultimate self-sacrifice.”

***** “The Game of Smash and Recovery” by Kelly Link (Strange Horizons)
Previously read, in ‘Strange Horizons.’
“Anat lives with her beloved brother Oscar, alone on an alien planet. The small base they’re on has enough to keep them alive – although not in any kind of luxury. Anat knows They do, however, have the robot ‘handmaids’ which can do just about any task one sets them to. Oscar and Anat are waiting for their parents to return, although she doesn’t remember them. All she remembers is Oscar taking care of her, although he’s shown her pictures of them with their parents. She depends on Oscar, and obeys his rules, which help keep her safe from the alien vampires who lurk outside.
To pass the time, they play a hide-and-seek-type game which they’ve come up, which they call ‘the game of smash and recovery.’ But one day, in the process of playing that game, Anat will unexpectedly recall that the one she’s playing isn’t the only game in town that could be described by that phrase.
Eerie, bizarre and masterfully-crafted; this short story is taking its place among the ranks of Link’s best.”

*** “Acres of Perhaps” by Will Ludwigsen (Asimov’s)
A Twilight-Zone-esque tale about a writer for a Twilight-Zone-esque TV show. The writer reminisces about the days when he was just starting out in his career – and frustrated that his alcoholic colleague, he was convinced, was a much more brilliant and inspired writer than he would ever be. But one day, the bride his co-writer had abandoned shows up – entire backwoods-hick family in tow – to collect him from the TV studio and bring him back to his “proper” place as an employee at her daddy’s feed store. When asked why he left his wife and changed his identity, the man has a truly unusual tale to tell…

***** “Little Sisters” by Vonda M. McIntyre (Book View Cafe)
Previously read – purchased from Book View Cafe.
“Boy, did this one squick me out.
I think that’s why I started out with 4 stars, but after letting it coagulate, I think it deserves 5. The fact that’s it’s truly disturbing is a good thing.
At the outset, we see a soldier, retrieved and brought back home long after a dangerous and successful solo mission. He anticipates congratulations, honor, and tangible reward for his accomplishments… but not everything transpires as he expects.
Saying too much would be spoiling the well-crafted way in which McIntyre reveals the deeper aspects of the story, but with lean and concise prose, she conjures a strikingly original alien species with a social agenda, power structure and ideals that a reader is likely to find both troubling and believable.
Vonda McIntyre, in my opinion, is an author who has not received the prominence she deserves – and this story shows that she’s still at the top of her game. ”

***** “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang (Uncanny)
Visually, the shifting skyscrapers of ‘Folding Beijing’ brought to mind the film ‘Dark City,’ but the mechanics of this scenario are all-too-human, and underlaid with a cynical observation that “they would do this if they could.” Europe has taken one approach to the ‘problem’ of automation advances making menial jobs practically obsolescent. Here, Hao Jingfang theorizes what China might do. This future city, a technological marvel, has a strict caste system, which the reader sees through the eyes of one waste worker, who’s willing to flout the law in order to try to earn some money to better his adopted daughter’s future. As we gain insight into the perspectives of people in each of three very different Beijings, the parallels with our real-life society become clear. And oh, it’s also a heart-wrenching tale, vividly illustrating how the scale of people’s dreams can differ exponentially, and how the few at the top sit comfortably on a throne crafted from the misery of the many.
The one thing, though, that made me feel positive about this story is that I couldn’t help seeing it as a sequel to Kelly Robson’s “Two-Year Man” ( I know, none of the details match, but it does have the lowly worker adopting a foundling, and well, the outcome here is undoubtedly better that it is bound to have been in Robson’s story!
I also think that any fans of Paolo Bacigalupi’s short fiction, especially, perhaps, “Yellow Card Man” will particularly enjoy Hao Jingfang’s offering.

**** “Today I Am Paul” by Martin Shoemaker (Clarkesworld)
Here, the author invites us to consider the perspective of a robot designed as a home healthcare aide. The android emulates the family members of an Alzheimer’s patient, providing emotional services as well as performing medical tasks. It’s a believable projection – and also very sad.

*** “The King in the Cathedral” by Rich Larson (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Would make a good opening chapter for a novel…
The rightful king has been imprisoned for years – possibly decades. Alone in his jail, he passes the time playing strategy games against the robot that is both his caretaker and his guard. When a daring and idealistic rebel arrives with ill-thought-out plans of rescue and revolution, what she finds is not quite what she expected of her hero.
I enjoyed the dark fantasy/sci-fi mix, and the surreal mood of the piece, but felt that it would work best if expanded on…

** “Drones” by Simon Ings (Meeting Infinity)
In a near-future where we’ve wiped out the bees, British society has reshaped itself in strange and disturbing forms. Because, oh yes, the bee plague pretty much wiped out women, too… and men have learned to get along (although, arguably, not ‘well’) without bees or females.
I liked the dystopic, Handmaid’s-Tale-esque feel to the story, but its intentional opacity didn’t really work that well for me.

** “The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club” by Nike Sulway (Lightspeed)
Perhaps I’d have appreciated this more if I was more familiar with the work of Karen Joy Fowler? I’m not, so I can’t say how it comments on her oeuvre.
As it was, I didn’t really enjoy this story of doomed-to-extinction rhinoceroses puttering about, planning book club meetings, buying things on eBay, checking facebook, and trying to find comfort in each other. Rhinos or no rhinos, this felt like the sort of supposedly-meaningful banal and quotidian chick-lit that I just don’t care for.

*** “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (Analog)
A reclusive art collector isn’t interested in much except spending time with his favorite painting. His manservant sees to his needs, negating the need for him to even leave his home. But the prized masterwork, the pinnacle of the “evolutive” genre, has developed a flaw, and the collector becomes obsessed with it. When a mysterious colleague offers him a solution in return for his curatorial services, he accepts the offer.

*** “This Evening’s Performance” by Genevieve Valentine (The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk)
In a time of peace a surplus of androids intended as soldiers must be repurposed. The latest fad is for android actors – and plays cast wholly of robots have been the death of “live” theater. One small company is the last to keep plugging along. Once great stars, now they find themselves aging and wrinkled, in progressively shabbier surroundings, as glittering, forever-young robots supplant them in their signature roles.
Theater isn’t where we usually worry about ‘the robots taking our jobs!’ but this is a good exploration of possibilities, and of human ways of handling change. The crises facing this theater company are not only technological: human relationships and interactions present challenges that are just as great.
I think that Connie Willis would enjoy this story a lot.

*** “Consolation” by John Kessel (Twelve Tomorrows)
Extremely timely-feeling socio-political commentary, with just enough twists and reversals to keep it feeling fresh and fun. A government agent, privileged intellectuals, a couple of different types of terrorist… and a near-future where a good chunk of the USA has opted to join Canada, putting an entirely new spin on the ‘immigration’ debate.

*** “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” by Elizabeth Bear (Old Venus)
Previously read in ‘Old Venus.’ While it’s not bad, it wasn’t one of my favorites in that collection.
“I’m not getting the connection to the David Bowie song referenced in the title…
Other than that, this is a pretty good sci-fi adventure. An exo-archaeologist goes on a dangerous solo mission in an attempt to find a lost city: and, in the process, ‘prove’ herself to her over-achieving lover. A fight with alien megafauna features prominently. I loved all the details here – the setting, the ‘throwaway’ details about technology, future social attitudes, plant and animal life. However, the central psychodrama involving the main character and her lover didn’t really grab me.”

**** “The Daughters of John Demetrius” by Joe Pitkin (Analog)
This is another ‘short story’ that feels very much like a chapter from a book – but in this case it’s a book I’d very, very much like to read! The scenario is intriguing, and I really want to get to know these characters.
In a post-apocalyptic (?) future, genetic enhancements have divided society into more than just haves and have-nots. Certain guided mutations have given some individuals super-human abilities, opening up privileged realms to them. But these ‘gods’ are also enmeshed in some kind of bloody internecine conflict, the details of which we do not learn here. Rather, we see just an incident where a ‘god’ visits a poverty-stricken village, and plans on plucking a child with the required genetic markers from her home and bringing her to where she can receive an education. But not all goes exactly as planned.

***** “Unearthly Landscape by a Lady” by Rebecca Campbell (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Wow – Rebecca Campbell is going to be an author to watch, if she decides to pursue speculative fiction. This story is gorgeously written, full of vivid imagery and with characters that your heart breaks for. It’s not so much a science fiction story (well, there are a few hints that the other world might be visions, not just imagination), as a story about the urge toward science fiction; and also about the strictures that society places on all of us (but perhaps especially women) that prevent us from wholly realizing our dreams.
Told from the point of view of a governess, we see a young lady of wealth and talent, who has, it seems, a not-altogether-unsatisfying life. Indeed, by the social standards of her day, she is more than successful. But she has always dreamed of travelling far, and always had the knowledge that she will not. Her lucidly imagined (or glimpsed?) science-fictional worlds are seen as disturbing, even by the narrator, and although the young woman continues to pursue a hobby as an artist, she squeezes her bizarre space warriors and aliens into the margins and details of paintings which seem on the face of it to be subjects entirely suitable for proper ladies.

*** “Hello Hello” by Seanan McGuire (Future Visions)
Previously read in ‘Future Visions.’
“An advanced videophone interface with a built-in, adaptive translation feature helps the protagonist here stay in touch with her deaf sister. But when children start getting odd phone calls from a total stranger, a parent’s instinctive alarm bells start ringing.
Interesting ideas here related to how technology often turns out to have utility far beyond what was planned – but the story itself was just OK.”

*** “The Astrakhan, the Homburg, and the Red, Red Coal” by Chaz Brenchley (Lightspeed)
A government agent on Marsport approaches a certain kind of gentlemen’s private club, in order to recruit – or blackmail – them into being the next to test a new device. The goal: to be able to communicate with the aliens they’re sharing Mars with – and on whom humanity has become dependent in certain ways.
The story feels very much like it was written for George R.R. Martin’s ‘Old Mars’ anthology, with its retro British Colonial-meets-pulp sci fi style. I liked the setup, but the ambiguity of the ending was a bit of a letdown.

**** “Twelve and Tag” by Gregory Norman Bossert (Asimov’s)
At first, I wasn’t sure where this was going, or what the point of it all was. A spaceship crew has a ritual when new crewmates are hired. They play that game where someone tells you two stories about their past, and you have to guess which one is true. If the veterans don’t like what they hear, they’ll veto the new hire. Some people you just don’t want to trust your life to on a dangerous job.
Today, there are two new crew members, and we start hearing their stories. While the stories are interesting, and, as the game is designed to be, revealing – as a reader, I thought it was getting just a mite tedious… but then it all got tied together just magnificently.

**** “The Deepwater Bride” by Tamysn Muir (F&SF)
There’s been quite a bit of work coming out lately with Lovecraftian influences updated for a modern setting. For example, Daryl Gregory’s ‘Harrison Squared.’ I think that this story would definitely share an audience with that one.
Hester has never been one of the ‘cool’ girls – she’s always been a bit peculiar, and it shows, even though the kids at school might not know that she’s part of an ancient family of seers and chroniclers, and that he life’s destiny is to document the coming of a leviathan horror which will lay waste to the land (including demolishing WalMart.) But when Hester meets a girl named Rainbow who’s a disturbing but alluring combination of trendy and sociopathic – and who may be doomed in the coming upheaval – her objective standpoint as observer and documentarian may change.

***** “Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Idea Countness Rathagan” by Ian McDonald (Old Venus)
Previously read in ‘Old Venus.’
“Ian McDonald has been very hit-or-miss for me. Some of his works I’ve loved; others have left me cold. But – this one’s a hit! A well-known & wealthy artist has embarked on a tour of Venus with her dear companion, ostensibly with the goal of creating artworks inspired by the alien flora. But it gradually becomes clear that the Countess has another agenda: she’s trying to find her long-lost brother. Against a fascinating but seemingly-innocent background of lovely flowers emerges a welter of conflicts involving jewel thefts, dynastic marriages, bloody conflicts, power struggles, and the fomenting of revolution. The richly detailed and gorgeous worldbuilding and the compelling characters made me completely forgive the unanswered question the reader’s left with.”

** “Asymptotic” by Andy Dudak (Clarkesworld)
Those who are really into physics may be more into this story than I was. In this space-travelling far-future, FTL travel is now believed to contribute to an unravelling of space-time and the potential end of the universe. Our protagonist is a cop/agent assigned to track down violators. It doesn’t help that the experience of FTL travel is apparently addictively blissful. There are some interesting ideas here, but I felt they could’ve been presented with more clarity; the non-linear structure of the story didn’t enhance my experience with it, either.

***** “The Two Paupers” by C.S.E. Cooney (Fairchild Books)
A simply delightful fantasy. Or maybe not so simple… Loosely echoing various myths, such as Tam Lin, Pygmalion, etc., the end result here feels wholly original.
Gideon is a sculptor, a rich boy seemingly slumming by living in his artist’s garret. Across the hallway is Analise, an author who’s come to the big city to pursue her writing career. The two enjoy – or possibly don’t enjoy at all – a fraught and intense relationship, sliding between viciousness, repressed attraction, and uneasy friendship. But what bothers Analise the most is Gideon’s seemingly self-destructive urge to smash all of his beautiful sculpture – sculptures which seem magical in their beauty – and just plain magical. One day, she steals one, to save it… and from there, a deadly drama involving the otherworld of the fey will ensue….
I think this would appeal to fans of Ursula Vernon/T. Kingfisher, and of Sarah Monette’s ‘Doctrine of Labyrinths’ series.
Most delightful of all – after finishing this I found out that it’s actually second in a series(?) of three related novellas. More to read!

Many thanks to Prime Books and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this excellent anthology. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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