Reviewed in the United States on May 30, 2016
I was disappointed by this collection of what editors considered as best SF from 2004. Their choices seem very strange to me as it was a rather strong year for SF – for that matter yearly Gardner Dozois collection from 2004 was full of very good stories. Out of a total of twenty three, there is only one very good story, "The battle of York", plus four good ones: "Scout's honor", which also figures in Dozois collection, "The algorithms of love", "Mastermindless" and "The Eckener alternative".
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 Australia n 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 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 possible 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.