YEAR'S BEST SF (10) Ten: Sergeant Chip; First Commandment; Burning Day; Scout's Paperback – January 1, 2005
The Amazon Book Review
Book recommendations, author interviews, editors' picks, and more. Read it now.
Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Top reviews from the United States
There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.
My five favorite stories all dealt with a deep love that one character feels for another. This was not a theme of the overall collection, nor a conscious criterion for choosing my top five. I only noticed it after selecting them and mentally reviewing the plotline of each.
Bradley Denton's "Sergeant Chip" describes the bond between an intelligence-enhanced dog and his officer-master. When the moral fog of war closes in, Sergeant Chip's devotion is as important as his intelligence in making the right choices clear.
Terry Bisson's "Scout's Honor" introduces us to an anthropologist who loves the subject she studies. This unfolding passion occurs along with a story of impending change in her life. It's just a matter of when.
Gene Wolf's "Pulp Cover" is a love lost tale about a devoted employee who loses the boss's daughter to a smarter, wealthier, more charming and more handsome suitor. It's understandable that he regards this interloper as an opportunistic monster. It's less understandable that he is chillingly correct.
Sean McMullen's "The Cascade" starts off as a one-night stand following a chance meeting between two science enthusiasts in a bar. It becomes something else. Love can mean never saying the most important thing.
Brenda Cooper's "Savant Songs" describes an intimate relationship between a brilliant physicist, her devoted graduate assistant, and a customized artificial intelligence program. Sometimes growing knowledge of our selves makes relationships harder rather than easier.
Janeen Webb's "Red City" and Steve Tomasula's "The Risk-Taking Gene as Expressed by Some Asian Subjects" didn't work for me. After I finished each of them, I was left with the feeling of a slow build to an abrupt ending. Both had main characters who achieved interesting insights. But nothing that seemed to justify the long trudge through the story. I'll admit that I just might have missed something in them. The writing, characterization and other elements seemed skillfully done--these are obviously talented authors. The stories just didn't come together. Your mileage may vary.
And yes, I read this book on my iPhone Kindle app. It was no less fun than reading other story collections while sardined into a DC metro car or grinning mindlessly through the seventh speaker in some unmemorable government meeting. The iPhone was good cover; the stories were sanity-preserving medication. No complaints.
Edited by David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer
This collection of twenty-three stories represents what the editors considered the best published in 2004. All the stories are science fiction, in the truest sense of the word. Not horror, fantasy, speculative fiction, or slipstream or postmodern literature, just science fiction. It’s been a while since I read some real science fiction and I hadn’t realized just how much I’d missed it. This is a good collection, only two that I couldn’t make it through. 3.4 out of 5.
“Sergeant Chip” by Bradley Denton.
Sergeant Chip is a military K-9 partnered with Captain Dial. Sent to a war zone reminiscent of Afghanistan, Dial and Chip are betrayed by their own, their company slaughtered. Dial orders Chip to take a local family of refugees to safety. Sad and horrifying, too close to reality for comfort. I would've called it speculative fiction rather than science fiction, but whatever the classification, it was brilliantly written. 5 out of 5.
“First Commandment” by Gregory Benford.
Biologist Cindy Locke has been all around the world to inventory the creatures affected by man’s changes in the environment. A holy man warns her that, while God had commanded Adam to name all that lived in the Garden of Eden, he might not be pleased by those man has destroyed over the centuries. Intriguing, if far-fetched even for science fiction. After all, wouldn’t God have already known? 3.5 out of 5.
“Burning Day” by Glenn Grant.
In a world filled with humans, cogents, and cybrids, there is still crime and prejudice. Police Detectives human Danny Aramaki and cogent Gene Engine Mohad are called when a small private party is bombed, killing some of the cogent participants. I became suspicious about the truth halfway through, but wasn’t 100% certain. A strong police procedural, an undercurrent of morality that could come up in our near future if IA research continues. 3.5 out of 5.
“Scout’s Honor” by Terry Bisson.
A scientist who studies Neanderthals starts getting mysterious emails from someone who appears to have gone back in time to study and snatch one. Our unnamed scientist appears to be autistic, confirmed by the note at the beginning of the story. The stories about how NTs were eliminated are many. Bisson explores one possible solution. A tragic end for a gentle people. 3.5 out of 5.
“Venus Flowers at Night” by Pamela Sargent.
Mukhtar Karim al-Anwar has a dream, to look to the future of mankind. As Earth becomes hotter, thanks to pollution and the Greenhouse Effect, Karim considers how to terraform Venus, Mars being already taken. The other mukhtars are stuck in the now, but Karim is convinced this could yield enough knowledge to someday possibly restore Earth to its former state. Using virtual reality to explore the possibilities as well as the problems of terraforming Venus is inspired. An interesting look at what could happen to the United States if we don’t take the situation seriously, if we stop looking for solutions. 3.5 out of 5.
“Pulp Cover” by Gene Wolfe.
Our unnamed hero fell in love with his boss’ daughter when she was just 15 years old. Unfortunately, she becomes engaged to another man, supposedly the son of the boss’ best friend. Something is wrong, but the wedding goes through before it can be proven. A slightly different take on the BEM tales of the past. Creepy as hell. 3.5 out of 5.
“The Algorithms for Love” by Ken Liu.
Are we truly real or just programmed creatures? A designer and programmer of lifelike dolls becomes convinced that we are just that, programmed to react to certain words and situations. This is something that certain scientists have dabbled in, along with being a virtual reality program. Talk about creepy! Shivers. 4.5 out of 5.
“Glinky” by Ray Vukcevich.
Karl Sowa finds himself flipping from one universe to another. He’s asked to help return Glinky, a character rat back to his proper home before the universes explode. Not my cup of tea. I’ve never been a fan of what I call “acid SF” stories. This was a DNF for me after struggling halfway through the story.
“Red City” by Janeen Webb
Miles Smythe and his annoying wife, Lucinda Ponsonby-Smythe, travel to India on a combined vacation and research trip. Their driver, picking up extra money during the summer tourist season, is Professor Singh, who is investigating a particular site that intrigues Miles with the possibility of time-travel. Talk about the Ugly Tourist. Lucinda is all that is bad, not even willing to hide her bigoted and demeaning actions. I’d almost feel sorry for Miles, but he stays married to her. He isn’t strong enough to stand up to her. She deserved her fate. 4 out of 5.
“Act of God” by Jack McDevitt.
Jerry stops by Phil’s place for a drink, telling him about the work he had been doing with Abe and Mac and Sylvia, all of whom are now dead. Abe had made his own Big Bang, bringing into life a universe filled with planets. They tinkered to help intelligent flourish, but the creatures all seemed to stall at the basic village and savagery level. Maybe if they sent the Ten Commandments over, with an extra commandment added. Playing God is a favorite trope in science fiction, but it is rare to be so distant, much less that they are punished by another God. Or could it be a scientist doing the same thing they did? An intriguing tale. 3.5 out of 5.
“Wealth” by Robert Reed.
Wealth, an independent AI, has come to Mars with plans, the first of which is buying a crumbling old mansion. The house is also an AI, authorized to negotiate. Strange and wonderful and sad (just a little bit). Characters that I would love to see more of. 4.5 out of 5.
“Mastermindless” by Matthew Hughes.
Henghis Hapthorne, famed freelance discriminator, suddenly finds himself physically and mentally changed, his back account virtually empty. When he realizes that his isn’t the only victim, he must struggle, with the help of his Integrator, to find the villain. When this started, I was dubious. But the idea of a Holmesian genius losing that intellect just when he most needed it was an interesting idea. 3.5 out of 5.
“Time, as It Evaporates…” by Jean-Claude Dunyach (translated by Jean-Louis Trudel).
When time rips apart, only one small Muslim town survives in a pocket caused by surrounding mountains. But that time like is slowly receding. So incredibly deep. Faith and humanity, love and hate, all have a place in this tale. 4.5 out of 5.
“The Battle of York” by James Stoddard.
3000 years have passed since America fell. Scientists struggle to put together the history of that long ago country, mixing quite a bit up in the process. What a hoot! The Pilgrim, Waynejon. Custard, Arm Strong. The head eagle, E. Perilous Union, and his son, Apollo Leven, who live in the Peaks of Usps. A mighty quest that is beyond hysterical. 4.5 out of 5.
“Loosestrife” by Liz William.
Poor Aud had been kept a virtual prisoner by her mother. A little slow, Aud is now fending for herself and her baby. Kept a secret from everyone except her friend, Danny, Aud wants to give the baby a better life than London. Tragic, yet in many ways hopeful for Aud. This one really hits you emotionally. 4.5 out of 5.
“The Dark Side of Town” by James Patrick Kelly.
Talisha has longed for a child and a house for ages, but Ricky always said that they couldn’t afford them. Then she discovers expensive sexual fantasy pills hidden under his boxers. She’s furious, but she still loves him. Does she dare take one of the pills to see exactly what Ricky has been up to? Ricky’s fantasy was so much more than Talisha could ever have imagined. While sad in so many ways, it might be that Ricky is right, that it was the only way for them to have their dreams come somewhat true. 3.5 out of 5.
“Invisible Kingdoms” by Steven Utley.
Mr. Cahill, brilliant and wealthy inventor of IntelliGelatintm, has encased himself in a protective shell as his body began to fail him, retreating from public view. Now he is being hunted by Mr. Selby and various government agencies over the illegal trade from the Paleozoic era. It might not be the first collector done in by his obsession, but is he really the victim? Is he really gone? Will SpokesMomtm save the man’s most special collection? I really could see this happening, other than the space/time travel part. 4 out of 5.
“The Cascade” by Sean McMullen.
An unnamed protagonist meets Julia while watching the first Mars landing at a local bar. He finds himself on the edges of a conspiracy that will radically change both the mission as well as life on Earth. A tough story, one that has at the core a belief in space exploration being untaken by humans, not robots. It is an argument that those of us interested in space exploration have heard since we stopped the Apollo program. I found Julia’s solution to be self-defeating. In many ways, she has made it impossible to do manned exploration beyond that of Mars itself. 3.5 out of 5.
“Pervert” by Charles Coleman Finlay.
In a future time, there are only homosexuals and hydrosexuals. Or so the teaching goes. But what if you are neither? Frightening in its implications, yet a simple switch of sexuality would show how it is in many parts of the planet now. 3.5 out of 5.
“The Risk-Taking Gene as Expressed by Some Asian Subjects” by Steve Tomasula.
Studying the Risk-Taking gene in a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. Another DNF for me. While I understand that the inherent racism in this story was more than likely the point, I found it too uncomfortable to read. Add the pseudo-science in the narrative and I was unable to force myself to continue.
“Strood” by Neal Asher.
Human David Hall is dying of cancer. The alien doctors are unable to cure him, instead giving him a ticket to travel to their space station. While exploring, David realizes that a strood, another type of alien who some believe could be pets, is following him. A group making a documentary helps David find the truth. And what a glorious truth it was! You have to feel for the poor strood, desperately following David about, only wanting to feed. Such a special, extraordinarily written story. 4.5 out of 5.
“The Eckener Alternative” by James L. Cambias.
John Cavalli adores airships so he decides to sneak back in time and tinker so that they will survive. He keeps trying over and over again, but they never seem to survive past World War II. I feel for John, I think zeppelins are very cool as well. 4 out of 5.
“Savant Songs” by Brenda Cooper.
Adam Giles had fallen in love with autistic savant Elsa Hill years ago. He became her assistant, remaining long after he received his doctorate. Always interested in multiverses, Elsa and her PI are searching for themselves in those other universes. Prepare to tear up at the end of this tale. The search for ourselves may be as old as humanity, definitely as old as religion. Maybe even as old as science itself. 4.5 out of 5.
The collection isn't a waste of time, but I found myself skimming through quite a few lackluster stories or stories out of genre. Worth checking out of the library before a flight, but not worth going out of your way to buy or find.
Top reviews from other countries
There are also six total stinkers ("Sergeant Chip", "The first commandment", "Glinky", "Red city", "Pervert" and "Savant songs") and two stories which I was unable to finish and therefore I cannot rate ("Venus Flowers at Night" and "The Risk-Taking Gene as Expressed by Some Asian Subjects"). Remaining ten are at best readable, sometimes barely.
Many stories are boring and forgettable, lacking originality (some are just rewriting of older, better stories) and ideas. Political correctness and left winged politics (including anti-white racism and anti-Christian bigotry) pollute many of them. There are few interesting characters, there are clichés galore and the general tone is depressed.
Below, my more detailed impressions, with some SPOILERS.
"Sergeant Chip" by Bradley Denton – in a near future a cybernetically enhanced dog follows his trainer to the war in the Middle East. The story recycles every left wing antimilitary cliché and conspiracy theory and combines it with some abysmally crazy ideas: US soldiers routinely and purposefully commit atrocious war crimes, officers disobey standing orders and are not sanctioned, officers are not sanctioned for hitting superior officers, officers collect trophies from murdered civilians like serial killers, US government massively murders its own soldiers, US government maintains death squads which routinely murder civilians to cover the massive murder of its own soldiers, etc. etc. Rarely did I read such vomitoriously insane and hateful nonsense! AVOID!
"The First Commandment" by Gregory Benford – a biologist works on inventorying species which will disappear when Australian outback is irrigated; a religious zealot begs her to not do it… This story is a flagrant case of plagiarism. it is almost a carbon copy of the classical "The nine billion names of God" by Arthur C. Clarke written in 1953, with just some politically correct econazi madness and global warming hysteria added. AVOID.
"Burning Day" by Glenn Grant – in the future AIs ("cogents") got full citizenship rights – in the same time borders between humans and AIs get more and more blurry all the time. An AI detective and his human partner investigate the murder of a "cogent" family – this case will be a very surprising one. I cannot say that I enjoyed this story as from my point of view, for many reasons which I cannot reveal to avoid spoilers, this future world is a vision of absolute horror, as wrong as it is possible. However, to be objective, I must admit that this is well written, original and certainly forcing to think. A READABLE, although disturbing (and depressing) story.
"Scout's Honor" by Terry Bisson – the story about a weird scientist receiving even weirder emails, seemingly from Upper Palaeolithic (and no, this is not senders email address). GOOD solid stuff, well written, but if this Sci-Fi story is strong in "fiction", it is weak on genuine "science", containing a description of Neanderthal people which downgrades them significantly and makes them very alien to us... This is the only story in 2004 which also figured in Gardner Dozois yearly Best SF anthology.
"Venus Flowers at Night" by Pamela Sargent – the story occurs on terraformed Venus in a distant future; the whole humanity is ruled by a kind of caliphate; that idea was already not funny in 2004 and is even less appealing today, with all the abominations committed daily by the Islamic State. Still, I decided to do myself violence and tried to read it, but as after 20 pages virtually nothing happened, I gave up. For that reason I am not really able to rate this story. Read it and make up your mind.
"Pulp Cover" by Gene Wolfe – a short, well written story about a hard working ambitious guy who is slowly climbing up the corporate ladder when all the time being desperately in love with the daughter of his very rich boss. Then something unexpected happens… A READABLE, if quite banal story, written in a "classical" (50sand 60s) style.
"The Algorithms for Love" by Ken Liu – a quite interesting take on the theme of AI. A brilliant but somehow battered by life woman, who designs interactive toys for living, starts to wonder how do her "dolls" compare to real humans… The conclusion will be quite… well, interesting… Well written, quite profound and even, to some extent, a little bit scary… A GOOD story.
"Glinky" by Ray Vukcevich – that story is so weird that I cannot even say what it is about; it seems to be about the intrusion to our universe of somebody from another reality – but honestly I am not certain if I got it right. Some people believe that when writing a totally weird mess they create a clever masterpiece. Well, no, in fact they create just a totally weird mess. AVOID!
"Red City" by Janeen Webb – written by Janeen Webb, the wife of famous SF editor Jack Dann, this story seems to be about time travel in India, but in fact it is just a pretext to describe the kidnapping, torture, abuse and quite possibly also killing of a white woman by her captors. Includes quasi pornography and a lot of anti-white racism. AVOID!
"Act of God" by Jack McDevitt – scientists create a miniature Universe, start to play with it and then are surprised by the results… A READABLE story, but rather banal – the subject has been treated before, much better.
"Wealth" by Robert Reed – an extremely arrogant and powerful AI comes to buy real estate on Mars. As frequently with this author, the idea is interesting, the writing is very honest, but the conclusion weakens the whole thing. Still, a READABLE thing.
"Mastermindless" by Matthew Hughes – one day a kind of alternate reality Sherlock Holmes wakes up stupid, ugly and broke. That might well be THE puzzle of his life… A GOOD, well written, clever and entertaining tribute to an immortal classic. Good job Mr Hughes, sir.
"Time As It Evaporates" by Jean-Claude Dunyach – a kind of "time disaster" destroyed the world and only a small Muslim town, isolated by some high mountains, remains untouched – for the moment. One day a local muezzin meets an impressive but strange man he never saw before in town… Author has a fertile imagination and knows how to write, but the reality described is so weird and the conclusion so confusing (borderline absurd), that I cannot rate this tory more than READABLE.
"The Battle of York" by James Stoddard – in a distant future historians try to reconstruct the "original mythology" of United States from just a handful of scraps of information. The very first chapter is the heroic saga of George Washington, who is send on an epic quest by half-god Waynejohn, after they hold a parley in Giant Sequoia Forest…))) I almost died laughing when reading it. Very well written, merry and cheerful, this is one of the best things in recent SF I read since a long time. A VERY GOOD STORY, THE BEST IN THE COLLECTION. To read absolutely!
"Loosestrife" by Liz Williams – in a near future, a slightly retarded teenage girl raises her baby alone in an abandoned apartment she squats in half-flooded London. Although the story totally mines global warming hysteria, the beginning showed promise, but the ending is disappointing. Still, a READABLE thing.
"The Dark Side of Town" by James Patrick Kelly – this story occurs in a near future and is about a couple of hard working but still rather poor people; they would like to have a child, but are concerned about money; one day the wife finds something unexpected, disturbing and very expensive in her husband clothes… The story begins well, but fails to deliver in second half. Still, a READABLE thing.
"Invisible Kingdoms" by Steven Utley – although it might not be immediately obvious this is actually another story in the cycle describing the exploration of Palaeozoic by means of a space-time anomaly; a very, very rich man is accused of buying illegally smuggled samples of prehistoric life… Paradoxically, the best of those Palaeozoic stories are the ones which actually happen in our times…))) A quite READABLE thing, if nothing more. Sadly, Steven Utley left us in 2013…
"The Cascade" by Sean McMullen – on the day of first manned landing on Mars a young brilliant student meets an even more brilliant and somehow mysterious young woman; they quickly land in bed together and he soon finds that she has a hidden agenda (and many other things). The story is READABLE but I found the general idea behind it utterly idiotic – it also contains an endorsement of terrorism, pretending that it is necessary to strong arm humanity into progress. This kind of thinking produced the twin abominations of communism and Nazism and saying such a thing since 11 September 2001 is really a proof of poor discernment and bad taste…
"Pervert" by Charles Coleman Finlay – in a near future humanity is divided in three categories: homosexuals, hydrosexuals and perverts. Humanity is also ruled by a theocracy, based on a mixture of Christianity and Islam. The story is deliberately shocking and unpleasant. It is also a hateful attack on Christian religion, based on one real Bible verse but especially on one completely false. I was deeply insulted and disgusted by this thing. AVOID!
"The Risk-Taking Gene as Expressed by Some Asian Subjects" by Steve Tomasula – a scientist makes a genetic/psychological study in Chinatown somewhere in USA. I cannot really rate this story, because I couldn't really understand what was going on, I got tired and after first ten pages I abandoned. You must read it and judge it by yourself.
"Strood" by Neal Asher – a dying man is send by aliens to their home planet – once he arrives there a strange creature starts to stalk him… This is a READABLE thing, but the solution to the "mystery" is quite obvious from the beginning. Also, the same subject was already treated long time ago by Fred Saberhagen in one of his "Berserker" short stories… Finally, there is also an element of idiocy included – why would ETA Basque separatists try to target aliens!??
"The Eckener Alternative" by James L. Cambias – an amusing story about a guy who wants to change history because he thinks zeppelins are cool; he will end by changing much more than aeronautical history…))) A witty, well researched and well written thing. A GOOD story.
"Savant Songs" by Brenda Cooper – a story about an autistic woman who is also a genius physician and her younger male assistant; the story had promise but finally goes mostly nowhere, is boring on its way to nowhere and ends stupidly. AVOID
Bottom line, this is a 2,5 stars collection. If you already have Gardner Dozois anthology from 2004 and can find "Battle of York" somewhere else, there is no real need to buy this book.