The Mammoth Book of the Best of Best New SF by Gardner Dozois (2007) (read in 2017)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This is a gigantic collection of science-fiction short stories and novellas. From the title, it’s the “best of the best”. That is, there is a “best of” collection edited every year by Gardner Dozois—and this is a “best of” just the stories already distilled from those works. There is a wide range of authors represented, though almost all of them have won one or many more of the most renowned and prestigious sci-fi and fantasy awards, like the Hugo and/or the Nebula. The stories are, for the most part, extremely good and well-worth reading. As someone who raised himself on a diet of golden-age and silver-age science fiction as well as a lot of 80s and 90s science fiction, it’s really interesting to see where things have gone over the last 20 years during which I’ve been paying far less-close attention (though I never went away entirely: I follow some authors, like Gibson and Stephenson and Egan and Baxter very closely).


Salvador by Lucius Shepard

“He felt weak and weakening, as if threads of himself were being spun loose and sucked into the blackness. He had popped three ampules prior to the firefight, and his experience of Tecolutla had been a kind of mad whirling dance through the streets, spraying erratic bursts that appeared to be writing weird names on the walls. The leader of the Sandinistas had worn a mask – a gray face with a surprised hole of a mouth and pink circles around the eyes. A ghost face. Dantzler had been afraid of the mask and had poured round after round into it.”
Page 38
“He saw nothing aberrant in this; even the doctors would admit that men were little more than organized pretense. If he was different from other men, it was only that he had a deeper awareness of the principles on which his personality was founded.”
Page 45

Flying Saucer Rock and Roll by Howard Waldrop

“The sun had just gone down, and Sparks was a silhouette against the purpling sky that poked between the buildings.”
Page 97
“Leroy sang like he was Frankie Lymon – not just some kid from the projects who wanted to be him – and the Kool-Tones were the Teenagers, and they began to pull and heave that song like it was a dead whale. And soon they had it in the water, and then it was swimming a little, then it was moving, and then the sonofabitch started spouting water, and that was the place where Leroy went into the falsetto “wyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy,” and instead of chopping it where it should have been, he kept on.”
Page 102

Dinner in Audogast by Bruce Sterling

“The man inched into the lamplight like a crippled insect. His voluminous dust-gray cloak was stained with sweat, and nameless exudations. He was an albino. His pink eyes were shrouded with cataracts, and he had lost a foot, and several fingers, to leprosy. One shoulder was much lower than the other, suggesting a hunchback, and the stub of his shin was scarred by the gnawing of canal-worms.”
Page 111
“death comes in its own time, as it will to all of you.” Manimenesh cleared his throat. “Can you see our destinies, then?” “I see the world,” said the Sufferer. “To see the fate of one man is to follow a single ant in a hill.””
Page 112

The Winter Market by William Gibson

“He cruises Greater Van in a spavined truck-thing chopped down from an ancient Mercedes airporter, its roof lost under a wallowing rubber bag half-filled with natural gas. He looks for things that fit some strange design scrawled on the inside of his forehead by whatever serves him as Muse.”
Page 139
“Trash fires gutter in steel canisters around the Market. The snow still falls and kids huddle over the flames like arthritic crows, hopping from foot to foot, wind whipping their dark coats. Up in Fairview’s arty slum-tumble, someone’s laundry has frozen solid on the line, pink squares of bedsheet standing out against the background dinge and the confusion of satellite dishes and solar panels. Some ecologist’s eggbeater windmill goes round and round, round and round, giving a whirling finger to the Hydro rates.”
Page 144
“She’s big because she was what they are, only more so. She knew, man. No dreams, no hope. You can’t see the cages on those kids, Casey, but more and more they’re twigging to it, that they aren’t going anywhere.””
Page 148
“I didn’t attain a state of partytime that night. Neither did I exhibit adult common sense and give up, go home, watch some ancient movie, and fall asleep on my futon. The tension those three weeks had built up in me drove me like the mainspring of a mechanical watch, and I went ticking off through nighttown, lubricating my more or less random progress with more drinks. It was one of those nights, I quickly decided, when you slip into an alternate continuum, a city that looks exactly like the one where you live, except for the peculiar difference that it contains not one person you love or know or have even spoken to before.”
Page 150
“And I know something now. I know that if I hadn’t happened in there, hadn’t seen them, I’d have been able to accept all that came later. Might even have found a way to rejoice on her behalf, or found a way to trust in whatever it is that she’s since become, or had built in her image, a program that pretends to be Lise to the extent that it believes it’s her. I could have believed what Rubin believes, that she was so truly past it, our hi-tech Saint Joan burning for union with that hardwired godhead in Hollywood, that nothing mattered to her except the hour of her departure. That she threw away that poor sad body with a cry of release, free of the bonds of polycarbon and hated flesh. Well, maybe, after all, she did. Maybe it was that way. I’m sure that’s the way she expected it to be.”
Page 152
“The heat was like syrup. The sun drove shadows deep into corners, left them flattened at the feet of the people on the sidewalk. It made the plate glass of the store window into a dark negative of the positive print that was Wornall Road. August.”
Page 155

The Pure Product by John Kessel

“We got into the front seat, beneath the trees on a street at the edge of the park. It was quiet. I reached over, grabbed her hair at the nape of her neck, and jerked her face toward me, covering her little mouth with mine. Surprise: she threw her arms around my neck and slid across the seat into my lap. We did not talk. I yanked at the shorts; she thrust her hand into my pants. St. Augustine asked the Lord for chastity, but not right away.”
Page 157
“On the Great American Plains, the summer nights are not silent. The fields sing the summer songs of insects – not individual sounds, but a high-pitched drone of locusts, crickets, cicadas, small chirping things for which I have no names. You drive along the superhighway and that sound blends with the sound of wind rushing through your opened windows, hiding the thrum of the automobile, conveying the impression of incredible velocity. Wheels vibrate, tires beat against the pavement, the steering wheel shudders, alive in your hands, droning insects alive in your ears. Reflecting posts at the roadside leap from the darkness with metronomic regularity, glowing amber in the headlights, only to vanish abruptly into the ready night when you pass. You lose track of time, how long you have been on the road, where you are going. The fields scream in your ears like a thousand lost, mechanical souls, and you press your foot to the accelerator, hurrying away.”
Page 158
“When the videotape started repeating itself I got bored, crossed the street, and lost myself in the crowd.”
Page 170

This story reminds me of the Strugatsky brothers, Octavia Butler, Robert Harris (Hannibal), Robert Silverberg (Up the Line)

Even the Queen by Connie Willis

A perfectly lovely story about women’s liberation from an age-old curse…and the naïve fools who would try to unliberate them.

None So Blind by Joe Haldeman

“When a baritone saxophone player has to transpose sheet music from cello, he (few women are drawn to the instrument) merely pretends that the music is written in treble clef rather than bass, eyeballs it up an octave, and then plays without the octave key pressed down. It’s so simple a child could do it, if a child wanted to play such a huge, ungainly instrument. As his eye dances along the little fence posts of notes his fingers automatically perform a one-to-one transformation that is the theoretical equivalent of adding and subtracting octaves, fifths, and thirds, but all of the actual mental work is done when he looks up in the top right corner of the first page and says, “Aw hell. Cello again.” Cello parts aren’t that interesting to saxophonists.”
Page 271

Mortimer Gray’s History of Death by Brian Stableford

““Planning a life,” I explained to a whole series of faces, indistinguishable by virtue of having been sculptured according to the latest theory of telegenicity, “is an exercise in story-making. Living people are forever writing the narratives of their own lives, deciding who to be and what to do, according to various aesthetic criteria. In olden days, death was inevitably seen as an interruption of the business of life, cutting short life-stories before they were – in the eyes of their creators – complete. Nowadays, people have the opportunity to plan whole lives, deciding exactly when and how their life-stories should reach a climax and a conclusion. We may not share their aesthetic sensibilities, and may well think them fools, but there is a discernible logic in their actions. They are neither mad nor evil.””
Page 297
“He argued that syphilis was primarily responsible for the rise and spread of Puritanism, repressive sexual morality being the only truly effective weapon against its spread. He then deployed well-tried sociological arguments to the effect that Puritanism and its associated habits of thought had been importantly implicated in the rapid development of Capitalism in the Western World, in order that he might claim that syphilis ought to be regarded as the root cause of the economic and political systems that came to dominate the most chaotic, the most extravagantly progressive, and the most extravagantly destructive centuries of human history.”
Page 299
“Throughout the next two centuries, Gray argued, war and publicity were entwined in a Gordian knot. Control of the news media became vital to propagandist control of popular morale, and governments engaged in war had to become architects of the mythology of war as well as planners of military strategy. Heroism and jingöism became the currency of consent; where governments failed to secure the public image of the wars they fought, they fell.”
Page 303
“Gray dissented from the view of other modern historians who saw the World Wars as an unmitigated disaster and a horrible example of the barbarity of ancient man. He agreed that the nationalism that had replaced the great religions as the main creator and definer of a sense of community was a poor and petty thing, and that the massive conflicts that it engendered were tragic – but it was, he asserted, a necessary stage in historical development. The empires of faith were, when all was said and done, utterly incompetent to their self-defined task, and were always bound to fail and to disintegrate. The groundwork for a genuine human community, in which all mankind could properly and meaningfully join, had to be relaid, and it had to be relaid in the common experience of all nations, as part of a universal heritage.”
Page 304
“Sometimes, I thought of this failure as a result of cowardice, or evidence of the decadence that the fabers and other subspecies attributed to the humans of Earth. I sometimes imagined myself as an insect born at the bottom of a deep cave, who had – thanks to the toil of many preceding generations of insects – been brought to the rim from which I could look out at the great world, but who dared not take the one final step that would carry me out and away.”
Page 308
“[…] death, Gray insisted, would forever remain a fact of life. The annihilation of the individual human body and the individual human mind could never become impossible, no matter how far biotechnology might advance or how much progress the Cyborganizers might make in downloading minds into entirely new matrices. The victory that had been achieved, he argued, was not an absolute conquest but rather the relegation of death to its proper place in human affairs. Its power was now properly circumscribed, but had to be properly respected.”
Page 319
“One or two Thanatic apologists and fellow-travelers publicly expressed their hope that Gray, having completed his thesis, would now recognize the aesthetic propriety of joining their ranks. Khan Mirafzal, when asked to relay his opinion back from an outward-bound microworld, opined that this was quite unnecessary, given that Mortimer Gray and all his kind were already immured in a tomb from which they would never be able to escape.”
Page 320
“[…] remind myself that it is not her fault that the war turned her into an old woman, or that her mind is full of holes and everything new drains out. But it’s not my fault either. I don’t even try to curb my feelings and I know that they rise up to my face. The only way to be true is to be true from the inside and I am not. I am full of unchristian feelings. My mother’s infirmity is her trial, and it is also mine.”
Page 328

Wang’s Carpets by Greg Egan

“Paolo slowed his clock rate a thousandfold, allowing C-Z to circumnavigate the planet in twenty subjective seconds,”
Page 341

How do you have relationships when everyone is on their own clock? The problem exists today, with many choosing to live in the absolutely ephemeral, while others wait and see and digest. By the time the second group is ready, the first group doesn’t even remember the event anymore.

“In a quarter of a billion years, would the citizens of Carter-Zimmerman be debating the ethics of intervening to rescue the Orpheans – or would they all have lost interest, and departed for other stars, or modified themselves into beings entirely devoid of nostalgic compassion for organic life?”
Page 344
“Did human consciousness bootstrap all of space-time into existence, in order to explain itself? Or had a neutral, pre-existing universe given birth to a billion varieties of conscious life, all capable of harboring the same delusions of grandeur – until they collided with each other? Anthrocosmology was used to justify the inward-looking stance of most polises: if the physical universe was created by human thought, it had no special status which placed it above virtual reality. It might have come first – and every virtual reality might need to run on a physical computing device, subject to physical laws – but it occupied no privileged position in terms of “truth” versus “illusion.” If the ACs were right, then it was no more honest to value the physical universe over more recent artificial realities than it was honest to remain flesh instead of software, or ape instead of human, or bacterium instead of ape.”
Page 345
“Paolo was relieved to be back to normal; ceremonial regression to the ancestral form was a venerable C-Z tradition – and being human was largely self-affirming, while it lasted – but every time he emerged from the experience, he felt as if he’d broken free of billion-year-old shackles. There were polises on Earth where the citizens would have found his present structure almost as archaic: a consciousness dominated by sensory perception, an illusion of possessing solid form, a single time coordinate.”
Page 346
“Life – embedded in the accidental computations of Wang’s Carpets, with no possibility of ever relating to the world outside. This was an affront to Carter-Zimmerman’s whole philosophy: if nature had evolved “organisms” as divorced from reality as the inhabitants of the most inward-looking polis, where was the privileged status of the physical universe, the clear distinction between truth and illusion?”
Page 363

The Dead by Michael Swanwick

“The slums below me stretched to infinity. They were a vast necropolis, a never-ending city of the dead. I thought of the millions out there who were never going to hold down a job again. I thought of how they must hate me – me and my kind – and how helpless they were before us. And yet. There were so many of them and so few of us. If they were to all rise up at once, they’d be like a tsunami, irresistible. And if there was so much as a spark of life left in them, then that was exactly what they would do. That was one possibility. There was one other, and that was that nothing would happen. Nothing at all.”
Page 392

A Dry, Quiet War by Tony Daniel

““Soldiers who don’t go home after the war. The fighting gets into them, and they don’t want to give it up, or can’t. Sometimes they have . . . modifications that won’t let them give it up. They wander the timeways – and since they don’t belong to the time they show up in, they’re hard to kill. In the early times, where people don’t know about the war or have only heard rumors of it, they had lots of names. Vampires. Hagamonsters. Zombies.””
Page 409
“About how there is not enough dark matter to pull the cosmos back together again, not enough mass to undulate in an eternal cycle. Instead, there is an end, and all the stars are either dead or dying, and all that there is is nothing but dim night. I told her about the twilight armies gathered there, culled from all times, all places. Creatures, presences, machines, weapons fighting galaxy-to-galaxy, system-to-system, fighting until the critical point is reached when entropy flows no more, but pools, pools in endless stagnant pools of nothing. No light. No heat. No effect. And the universe is dead, and so those who remain . . . inherit the dark field. They win.”
Page 409

Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang

“just mean that the human auditory system isn’t an absolute acoustic instrument; it’s optimized to recognize the sounds that a human larynx makes. With an alien vocal system, all bets are off.” I shrugged. “Maybe we’ll be able to hear the difference between alien phonemes, given enough practice, but it’s possible our ears simply can’t recognize the distinctions they consider meaningful. In that case we’d need a sound spectrograph to know what an alien is saying.””
Page 468
“And after graduation, you’ll be heading for a job as a financial analyst. I won’t understand what you do there, I won’t even understand your fascination with money, the preeminence you gave to salary when negotiating job offers. I would prefer it if you’d pursue something without regard for its monetary rewards, but I’ll have no complaints. My own mother could never understand why I couldn’t just be a high school English teacher. You’ll do what makes you happy, and that’ll be all I ask for.”
Page 481

Barf. Isn’t this part of the problem?

“the physical attributes that the heptapods found intuitive, like “action” or those other things defined by integrals, were meaningful only over a period of time. And these were conducive to a teleological interpretation of events: by viewing events over a period of time, one recognized that there was a requirement that had to be satisfied, a goal of minimizing or maximizing. And one had to know the initial and final states to meet that goal; one needed knowledge of the effects before the causes could be initiated.”
Page 493
“Consider the phenomenon of light hitting water at one angle, and traveling through it at a different angle. Explain it by saying that a difference in the index of refraction caused the light to change direction, and one saw the world as humans saw it. Explain it by saying that light minimized the time needed to travel to its destination, and one saw the world as the heptapods saw it. Two very different interpretations. The physical universe was a language with a perfectly ambiguous grammar. Every physical event was an utterance that could be parsed in two entirely different ways, one causal and the other teleological, both valid, neither one disqualifiable no matter how much context was available.”
Page 495
“For the heptapods, all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, heptapods already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place.”
Page 498
“suddenly remembered that a morphological relative of “performative” was “performance,” which could describe the sensation of conversing when you knew what would be said: it was like performing in a play.”
Page 499
“Like physical events, with their causal and teleological interpretations, every linguistic event had two possible interpretations: as a transmission of information and as the realization of a plan.”
Page 500
“Before I learned how to think in Heptapod B, my memories grew like a column of cigarette ash, laid down by the infinitesimal sliver of combustion that was my consciousness, marking the sequential present.”
Page 500

People came from Earth by Stephen Baxter

“But Berge wasn’t listening. He turned away, to look again at the bloated sun. “All this will pass,” he said. “The sun will die. The universe may collapse on itself, or spread to a cold infinity. In either case it may be possible to build a giant machine that will recreate this universe – everything, every detail of this moment – so that we will all live again. But how can we know if this is the first time? Perhaps the universe has already died, many times, to be born again. Perhaps Leonardo was no traveler. Perhaps he was simply remembering.””
Page 513

The Real World by Stephen Utley

““Now let’s say someone from our present-day visits a prehistoric Earth and returns. After a while, after the initial excitement’s died down, he starts to ponder the implications of travel back and forth between multiple Earths. He’s come back to a present-day Earth that may or may not be his own present-day Earth. If it’s virtually identical, well, if the only difference is, say, the outcome of some subatomic occurrence, then it doesn’t matter. But maybe there’s something subtly off on the macro level. It wouldn’t be anything major. Napoleon, Hitler, and the Confederate States would all’ve gone down to defeat. Or maybe the time-traveler only suspects that something may be subtly off. His problem is, he’s never quite sure, he can’t decide whether something is off or he only thinks it is, so he’s always looking for the telling detail. But there are so many details. If he never knew in the first place how many plays Shakespeare really wrote or who all those European kings were . . .””
Page 618

Lobsters by Charles Stross

““Nyet – no, sorry. Am apologize for we not use commercial translation software. Interpreters are ideologically suspect, mostly have capitalist semiotics and pay-per-use APIs. Must implement English more better, yes?””
Page 640
“He slips his glasses on, takes the universe off hold, and tells it to take him for a long walk while he catches up on the latest on the cosmic background radiation anisotropy (which it is theorized may be waste heat generated by irreversible computations; according to the more conservative cosmologists, an alien superpower – maybe a collective of Kardashev type three galaxy-spanning civilizations – is running a timing channel attack on the computational ultrastructure of spacetime itself, trying to break through to whatever’s underneath).”
Page 651

Breathmoss by Ian R. MacLeod

““This ant, Jalila, which crawls across this sheet of paper from here to there. She is much like us as we crawl across the surface of this planet. Even if she had the wings some of her kind sprout, just as I have my caleche, it would still be the same.” The tiny creature, waving feelers, was plainly lost. A black dot. Jalila understood how it felt. “But say, if we were to fold both sides of the paper together. You see how she moves now. . . ?” The ant, antennae waving, hesitant, at last made the tiny jump. “We can move more quickly from one place to another by not traveling across the distance that separates us from it, but by folding space itself. “Imagine now, Jalila, that this universe is not one thing alone, one solitary series of this following that, but an endless branching of potentialities. Such it has been since the Days of Creation, and such it is even now, in the shuffle of that leaf as the wind picks at it, in the rising steam of your coffee. Every moment goes in many ways. Most are poor, half-formed things, the passing thoughts and whims of the Almighty. They hang there and they die, never to be seen again. But others branch as strongly as this path that we find ourselves following. There are universes where you and I have never sat here in this qasr. There are universes where there is no Jalila. . . . Will you get that for me. . . ?” The tariqua was pointing to an old book in a far corner. Its leather was cracked, the wind lifted its pages. As she took it from her, Jalila felt the hot brush of the old woman’s hand. “So now, you must imagine that there is not just one sheet of a single universe, but many, as in this book, heaped invisibly above and beside and below the page upon which we find ourselves crawling. In fact . . .” The ant recoiled briefly, sensing the strange heat of the tariqua’s fingers, then settled on the open pages. “You must imagine shelf after shelf, floor upon floor of books, the aisles of an infinite library. And if we are to fold this one page, you see, we or the ant never quite knows what lies on the other side of it. And there may be a tear in that next page as well. It may even be that another version of ourselves has already torn it.””
Page 696

Zima Blue by Alistair Reynolds

““There’s always been something about blue. A thousand years ago Yves Klein said it was the essence of colour itself: the colour that stood for all other colours. A man once spent his entire life searching for a particular shade of blue that he remembered encountering in childhood. He began to despair of ever finding it, thinking he must have imagined that precise shade, that it could not possibly exist in nature. Then one day he chanced upon it. It was the colour of a beetle in a museum of natural history. He wept for joy.””
Page 772