Year's Best SF Edited by David G.Hartwell

When David Hartwell started his own annual series of the year's best SF with this volume in the mid nineties, the doorstopper series edited by Gardner Dozois had been running for over a decade. Hartwell made some passing references to other anthologies being unfocused but otherwise he avoided the issue and that begged the question of why this series started and should you buy it instead of or as well as the Dozois book?

On the strength of this, the first volume, I am happy to recommend Hartwell's choice to anyone who is into SF in the traditional sense. That does not mean that the contents are old fashioned just that the contents are certainly Science Fiction and not some related genre.

The fourteen stories here, all of which were written in 1995, include works by a selection of the best of contemporary SF authors. Writers like Silverberg, Baxter, Benford, Kress, Haldeman, Wolfe, Zelazny and Sheckley rarely disappoint though the last of those is represented here by one of his weaker recent works.

The highlights for me were Joe Haldeman's "For White Hill" and Robert Silverberg's "Hot Times in Magma City". The first is a tale of war, art, love and sacrifice set on a ruined Earth in the far future and the second is set in a near future LA beset by volcanic eruptions. The producers of "Volcano" and "Dante's Peak", a pair of similarly themed disaster movies should have studied Silverberg's tale to see how to inject some real humanity into the subject.

Like the Silverberg story, William Spencer's "Downloading Midnight", Gene Wolfe's "The Ziggurat" and "Evolution" by Nancy Kress are all set on a contemporary or near future Earth and all three are compelling and rewarding stories.

Stephen Baxter's "Gossamer" and Gregory Benford's "A Worm in the Well" demonstrate that the traditional setting of space travel in the Solar System can still give rise to highly enjoyable and original ideas that bring "golden age" styles right up to date.

This is not a perfect book, there are still a couple of stories here that left me wondering what the editor was thinking (or smoking0 when he included them but on the whole, the book stands as justification for the fact that there is certainly room for another "years's best" series. If you buy Gardner Dozois' books, you should give this volume a go as well.

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Eight out of ten.
Getting the series off to a great start.
Detailed contents.
Kelly, James Patrick: "Think Like a Dinosaur"
Mankind has been given the gift of instantaneous interstellar travel by a race of intelligent dinosaur like creatures. This involves creating an atom by atom decode of a person and beaming a super-luminal signal to their destination where they are subsequently reassembled. The problem is what to do about the original that is left behind. For the dinosaurs, this is no problem, you just kill it. It's not so easy for people and when one woman is left alive several minutes after she has already materialised on a distant planet, there are problems all round. 8/10

McKillip, Patricia A.: "Wonders of the Invisible World"
A researcher, disguised as an angel visits the past to help in the study of human imagination. 4/10

Silverberg, Robert: "Hot Times in Magma City"
Magma City is a near future LA afflicted by a volcano. We see a bunch of folks on drink and drugs rehab programmes doing voluntary work battling the lava. Overall, the story has a very similar feel to Sozhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch" but it's not quite as good. 8/10

Baxter, Stephen: "Gossamer"
A scientist and her pilot are stranded on Pluto and must wait three weeks for a rescue. They are surprised to discover that there is life on the frozen planet. They are also afraid because it means that they will most likely be left to die rather than be rescued which might involve disturbing the planets fragile eco-system. So, they must devise their own escape mechanism. 7/10

Benford, Gregory: "A Worm in the Well"
Traditional space faring SF. The captain of an inner system cargo ship is down on her luck and the money-lenders are closing in. She gambles all on a desperate attempt to capture a wormhole that is ensnared in the magnetic field of the sun's corona. 7/10

Spencer, William Browning: "Downloading Midnight"
In a future world where people can experience full VR by plugging into the net, a VR porno star goes berserk on the net. The man who is the producer of his show hires the story's protagonist to track down and eliminate the virtual being. He does this but there is still trouble. The human actor who's psyche was the basis of the character turns out to have tracked down the female who was the basis for his counterpart. The shock of that is what sent him mad. 8/10

Haldeman, Joe: "For White Hill"
This story gets off to a slow start about artists summoned to Earth to take part in a competition to create a exhibit to commemorate the destruction of all life on the planet by alien attackers using nano-tech weaponry. It builds to a climax that is as sorrowful and touching as Asimov's "Flowers for Algenon." 9/10

Barton, William: "In Saturn Time"
Imagine that, instead of developing the shuttle, NASA continued to use and improve the Saturn V series of rockets. Then just write down a series of dates and missions that might be undertaken and that's it. No more. No plot, storyline, characterisation or anything else that might have merited it a place in a "Year's Best" collection. 2/10

Le Guin, Ursula K.: "Coming of Age in Karhide"
A right of passage story about a young person reaching sexual maturity on a planet of hermaphrodites. 6/10

Zelazny, Roger: "The Three Descents of Jeremy Baker"
A spaceship breaks down and drops out of hyperspace while passing a black hole. The sole survivor discovers that there is intelligent though disembodied life living in the region around the hole. Together with one of his new friends, he enters the hole. 6/10

Kress, Nancy: "Evolution"
This story is told from the viewpoint of a woman living with her family in a near future America. Drug resistant bacteria have become more and more threatening until it seems that mankind itself is under threat. Society starts to collapse as researchers battle to find a solution. 8/10

Sheckley, Robert: "The Day the Aliens Came"
Aliens come to earth. They are different but they form relationships and multi being bonds with people. A charitable soul might call this whimsey. I'd call it weak. 4/10

Slonczewski, Joan: "Microbe"
An exploration team, human and sentient nano machines land on and explore a new planet. They discover lots of strange toroidal life forms with triple helix DNA. 5/10

Wolfe, Gene: "The Ziggurat"
Aliens land in a remote forest in the North American winter. They disrupt the lives of a disintegrating family in an isolated cabin and the one man left ends up by making friend with the sole surviving alien. 8/10