James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

A Shadow Hanging Over Me

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Sixth Annual Collection  (The Year’s Best Science Fiction, volume 6)

By Gardner Dozois 

27 May, 2021

Big Hair, Big Guns!


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

Gardner Dozois’ 1989 The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Sixth Annual Collectionis, rather unsurprisingly, the sixth volume in his series of annual anthologies collecting the best SF of the previous year. In the case of the Sixth, that year was 1988. Dozois, unlike some people I could mention, actually believed in letting years run to their end before deciding which works of that year were best.

1988 was a very interesting year for science fiction, albeit a disappointing one. This anthology reflects that contradiction nicely, as Gardner manages to be enthusiastic about these works but with just a tinge of ennui. 

As one would expect, works by women do not feature prominently in this anthology, although they are not entirely absent. Ah, well. At least Dozois included more women than Terry Carr used to do. 

The standouts are the Walter Jon Williams Surfacing, Kelly’s Home Front,” Willis’ The Last of the Winnebagos” — I am as astounded as you are! — and Moffett’s The Hob. More details below. 

There is dross as well: Turtledove’s Last Article, which relies on a misreading of Gandhi, Resnick’s tedious Kirinyaga, Stableford’s slow-moving The Growth of the House of Usher, and astoundingly, Waldrop’s Do Ya, Do Ya, Wanna Dance?; I have a very low tolerance for Boomer nostalgic melancholy despite technically being a Boomer myself and this story exceeded that limit. Be happy I’ve never tackled Martin’s Armageddon Rag.

This anthology is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo). I am not sure if Book Depository has it or not.

Now for the nitty-gritty.

Introduction: Summation: 1988 • essay by Gardner Dozois

No offense to the many fine authors mentioned in this book, but the annual summation is my favourite part of these collections. It’s fun to revisit an era for which most people now living were not present and of whichtime has eroded my memories. In any case, there was a lot of stuff going on in SF that I, being isolated up here in the Canadian wilderness, missed. 

Dozois clearly feels considerable concern for the well-being of science fiction, what with looming economic downturns and the rise of shared universes and sharecropping. As it turned out, Shared Universes stopped being hot not too long after this anthology was published, although Dozois guessed wrong when he speculated that Wild Cards was going to run out of steam soon. 

The general ennui cannot have been helped by the authentically horrifying wave of deaths among big-name authors, from Heinlein to Simak. It was not a good year to be an aged SF author. 

Surfacing • (1988) • novella by Walter Jon Williams

An alienated young man tries to help his new love with her alien possession problem.

Home Front” • [Home Front] • (1988) • short story by James Patrick Kelly

A young American tries to cope with a disappointing future America, one that provides only endless wars, hopeless parents, and stultifying boredom, thanks to the accumulated bad decisions of the Baby Boomers.

The Man Who Loved the Vampire Lady • (1988) • novelette by Brian Stableford

A visionary biologist resorts to extreme measures to test his innovation. Will it cure humanity’s worst parasitic infection (vampires)?

Peaches for Mad Molly” • (1988) • novelette by Steven Gould

A trader undertakes an arduous trek up the side of the apartment tower in which the trader and a diverse assortment of mad women, bandits, and other folk have taken refuge. They are convinced that ravenous predators live on the grounds surrounding the tower. Perhaps they’re right, perhaps they’re wrong.

Are there enough arduous shopping trip” stories to make a Tor article? 

The Last Article• (1988) • novelette by Harry Turtledove

Mahatma Gandhi makes the fatal error of believing that the Nazis who conquered India have a sense of shame analogous to the English, Methods that worked on the tender-hearted British masses only earn him a date with the executioner.

I hate this story. 

Stable Strategies for Middle Management” • (1988) • short story by Eileen Gunn

An ambitious manager embraces the wonderous possibilities offered by cutting-edge biotechnical transformation. 

In Memoriam” • (1988) • short story by Nancy Kress

What is worse: to reject one’s past by having extraneous memories erased or to be overwhelmed by a past one refuses to set aside? 

Kirinyaga • [Kirinyaga • 2] • (1988) • novelette by Mike Resnick

A traditionalist shaman guides his people while fending off the misguided attempts of white people to steer the shaman’s people away from euthanasia and infanticide. 

I would like to think that somewhere in Kenya, there is an African author writing similar tales about an America in which he believes himself an expert. On the basis of a couple of trips to a park in Newark. 

The Girl Who Loved Animals • (1988) • short story by Bruce McAllister

A mentally subpar woman rises above the dismal fate doled out to inferior persons like herself thanks to her willingness to be a surrogate mother to an extinct species. 

Afterward she is mind-wiped for some reason. Orwell once discussed how social activists of the 19th century saw the poor as an essentially alien species; this story deploys that model, garnished with flourishes of ableism. 

The Last of the Winnebagos • (1988) • novella by Connie Willis

A journalist realizes too late that reporting roadside roadkill could have earth-shattering consequences. Well-meaning authorities search for someone to punish, whether or not the punishment is proportionate or if the person the authorities focus on is actually guilty. 

For the most part I don’t care for Willis’ fiction but … the process by which people refused to take the steps needed to keep a plague from killing all dogs reads more plausibly now than it might have in 2019

Love in Vain• (1988) • novelette by Lewis Shiner

Confronted with remarkable evil, a jaded cop is motivated to take extraordinary steps to deal with it. 

The Hob• [Holy Ground Trilogy] • (1988) • novelette by Judith Moffett

Alien castaways carefully guard the secret of their existence through centuries. All this is put in risk by one stubborn hiker. 

This would be one of those stories that builds towards effectively subverting reader expectations.

Our Neural Chernobyl” • (1988) • short story by Bruce Sterling

Technological exuberance aided by a total lack of caution works a historic transformation on the animal kingdom. 

House of Bones” • (1988) • short story by Robert Silverberg

This is a story by Robert Silverberg.

Schrödinger’s Kitten• [Budayeen] • (1988) • novelette by George Alec Effinger

A brilliant Muslim woman finds the explanation for her mysterious visions in the promising new field of quantum physics.

This would have been even better had Effinger not decided to make the key moment of her life dependent on whether or not she got raped.

Do Ya, Do Ya, Wanna Dance? • (1988) • novelette by Howard Waldrop 

Disgruntled Boomer goes to his high school reunion.

The Growth of the House of Usher • [Biotech Revolution] • (1988) • novelette by Brian Stableford

A terminally ill man seeks immortality in applied biotechnology.

This appears to be part of the same sequence as Stableford’s later Emortality sequence, which as I recall was based on Langford and Stableford’s mid-1980s The Third Millennium. It was a vision of the future that was quickly encrusted with Zeerust. I remember the Emortality series as curiously antique, festooned with creepy eugenics and heartfelt defenses of genocide. This entry focuses on creepy sex stuff. 

Glacier • (1988) • novelette by Kim Stanley Robinson

Climate change and academic job politics forces change on a long-suffering cat, and the young man on whom the story inexplicably focuses.

In this case, the climate change manifests in an inexorably growing glacier. 1988 seems a little late for a The Coming Ice story from anyone who isn’t part of the right wing crankosphere. By the early 1990s, Robinson had moved on to other climate models. 

Sanctuary • [Montezuma Strip] • (1988) • novella by Alan Dean Foster [as by James Lawson]

An old cop finds love and tragedy when he investigates a researcher’s mind-wipe, which he assumes was murder and which turns out to be something else entirely.

I would not have pegged this as a Foster.

The Big Secret that drives the plot involves gay characters and institutional homophobia, which gets handled more sympathetically than I’d have expected from a story of this vintage from a fairly conventional SF author. 

The Dragon Line” • (1988) • short story by Michael Swanwick

Faced with Earth’s certain doom, an ancient revolutionary is forced to turn to an old foe for assistance. 

Mrs. Shummel Exits a Winner” • (1988) • short story by John Kessel

A bingo enthusiast acquires the means to win, not understanding the cost of her transaction until far too late.

Emissary • (1988) • novelette by Stephen Kraus

A scientist dealing with an estranged uncle’s estate tries to make sense of an indestructible artifact uncovered by an 18th century ancestor. 

It Was the Heat • (1988) • short story by Pat Cadigan

A bored middle-aged woman on a business trip pays a terrible price thanks to her overactive libido.

Skin Deep • (1988) • short story by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

A shape-shifting alien living unnoticed among xenophobic, casually homicidal human colonists is forced to choose between maintaining his disguise or assisting a fellow alien with a health crisis.

Humans are the worst. Just the worst…

Dying in Hull • (1988) • short story by David Alexander Smith [as by D. Alexander Smith]

An old lady makes a meager living from the ruins of Boston because, while Boston is sinking slowly and inexorably into the sea, it is still her home. 

This was later collected into Future Boston: The History of a City 1990 – 2100, which I know I owned at some point. I cannot recall if the anthology incorporated sea level rise or if Boston, like New Orleans, was simply fated to slowly sink into the ocean. The important thing is, Kitchener (where I live) won’t.

Distances • (1988) • novelette by Kathe Koja

NASA’s visionary interstellar exploration project hits a snag when a user interface system proves to have unpleasant side-effects.

Famous Monsters” • (1988) • short story by Kim Newman

An elderly War-of-the-Worlds-style Martian actor recounts anecdotes from his colourful cinematic career. 

Why did I stop reading Newman? His stuff is usually fun. Although this particular story has a melancholy overtone, what with the Martians being quite possibly doomed on Mars and an oppressed minority on Earth. 

The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter • [Griaule] • (1988) • novella by Lucius Shepard

A beautiful woman escapes attempted rape, only to become the helpless pawn of a vast, ancient dragon. 

She finds herself dealing with a humiliatingly mundane personal hygiene issue bedeviling the dragon. 

Honorable Mentions: 1988 • essay by Gardner Dozois

What it says on the tin. If you’ve an interest in late 1980s SF, you could do worse than tracking down the stories that almost made it into this volume.