James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

When We Were Young

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Seventh Annual Collection  (The Year’s Best Science Fiction, volume 7)

Edited by Gardner Dozois 

30 Sep, 2021

Special Requests


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

1990’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Seventh Annual Collection is the seventh volume in Gardner Dozois’ annual collection of outstanding science fiction. 

Once again, I’m faced with a behemoth the reading of which required careful allocation of time lest all the other books I need to read go unread (and of course, having been careful about rationing reading time, I then lost a number of days to technical issues). In most physical editions it is nearly 600 pages. Happily for me, it’s available in ebook, so I could expand a font one assumes people could read back when they were 28 and not, oh, 60. In terms of the amount of material one gets, this is value for money. 

Through no particular fault of the anthology, it tends to fall between the keys of my particular areas of interest, being a bit too old to count as exciting new work but insufficiently old to be classic. No doubt someone out there has a particular interest in the short SF of the late 1980s and early 1990s; this might be a good starting point for such readers, although they’d want to supplement it with anthologies with editors more aware than Dozois of works by women. 

Aside from the Resnick, and a couple I won’t acknowledge, there are not any stories in here whose inclusion is baffling. Standouts for me: the annual report, of course, which of interest to anyone with an interest in the history of the genre, Popkes’ The Egg”, Sterling’s Dori Bangs”, and Kress’ The Price of Oranges”. About all of which, see below for more details. 

Summation: 1989 • essay by Gardner Dozois

Dozois’ annual report on the state of the industry. It wasn’t a particularly interesting year for SF, which is not at all the fault of Dozois. I imagine that if he had had his way, the shared universe boom would have collapsed. Which it did almost immediately after this volume was published. Nevertheless, this is consistently my favourite section of these anthologies. 

Tiny Tango • [Holy Ground Trilogy] • (1989) • novella by Judith Moffett

An HIV+ woman details the extremes to which she went to avoid triggering the onset of AIDS. The appearance of aliens provides her with an unanticipated option.

Younger readers might find the background detail of homicidal riots aimed at HIV+ people implausible. Such readers will happier if they don’t research PANIC’s Proposition 64.

Out of Copyright” • (1989) • short story by Charles Sheffield

Implausible engineering challenges are met by cloned geniuses.

Cyteentackled the same issues more successfully. The story acknowledges nurture vs nature, but not convincingly. 

For I Have Touched the Sky • [Kirinyaga • 3] • (1989) • novelette by Mike Resnick

A traditionalist African tries to fit a brilliant girl into the gender-conforming box he deems suitable for a woman. Tragedy results.

There really needs to be a mirror series written by an African who visited Disneyworld a few times. 

Alphas • (1989) • novelette by Gregory Benford

An astronaut’s attempt to determine what enigmatic aliens are doing to Venus nearly ends with his death.

I believe Benford reused the idea of slicing up planets with a cosmic string in the Galactic Centre series. Also, there’s no real need to send humans on this mission. Robot space probes were a thing in 1989 and they probably will be in the future as well. 

At the Rialto • (1989) • novelette by Connie Willis

A scientific summit is complicated by zany hijinks, not all of which are caused by the fact that the desk clerk is a stupendous knucklehead. 

I am aware everyone else in the world loves Willis’ fiction more than I do. This was a bit twee and my tolerance for this kind of zany is low, but the story does not overstay its welcome. 

(Be happy I am not reviewing Lincoln’s Dreams.)

Skin Deep” • (1989) • short story by Kathe Koja

A besotted man carries on an obsessive love affair with a most remarkable partner. 

The Egg • (1989) • novella by Steven Popkes

The appearance of an orphaned nephew and its alien minder complicates a curmudgeonly woman’s household. 

While the focus is on a Boston household, there’s enough detail about the greater universe to make it clear this is, if not an outright cosmic horror universe, then close to it. However, because the author is not a raging bigot like Lovecraft, it works out a bit better here than it would have done in a Mythos setting. 

Tales from the Venia Woods” • [Roma Eterna] • (1989) • short story by Robert Silverberg

This is a short story by Robert Silverberg.

Visiting the Dead” • (1989) • short story by William King

An off-world colonist returns to the Britain of their birth for a funeral. They find a society disturbingly alien, teetering on the edge of war. 

Whereas I recall the previous volume had a modern ice age story, this is very firmly set in an era of global warming. Was 1988/1989 an inflection point for climate stories? 

Dori Bangs” • (1989) • short story by Bruce Sterling

Sterling deals with the untimely deaths of Lester Bangs and Dori Seda by imaging a world in which they survived, met and found, if not true love, at least each other. 

Younger readers may ask Lester who? Dori who?” Search engines are your friends in such matters. 

The Ends of the Earth • (1989) • novella by Lucius Shepard

A romantic setback sends an American author to self-inflicted exile in Guatemala, where he finds what seems to be a romantic triangle, but which is in fact something much worse. 

The unfortunate protagonist is a bit pretentious, but his awareness of his pretentiousness makes him a more appealing character. 

My takeaway: don’t look to Shepard for characters who are having fun. 

The Price of Oranges • (1989) • novelette by Nancy Kress

A well-meaning coot with access to a time portal of unexplained origin uses it to kidnap a pleasant man from the past to date his melancholy granddaughter. He succeeds in cheering up his granddaughter, but not in the manner he planned.

I wonder if this is in part a reply to Turtledove’s 1984 Hindsight”? I spent the story annoyed at the protagonist but unlike a lot of stories where I do that, I was supposed to dislike him. Anyway, I’m not a Kress fan in general, but I was amused by how this played out. 

There’s a problem with the worldbuilding here, which is discussed below, in connection with Crowley’s Great Work of Time.

Lottery Night • (1989) • novelette by S. P. Somtow

A Thai man from an unfortunate family resorts to the only reasonable course of action: appeal to a dead family member for her assistance in winning an upcoming lottery. Occult complications ensue. 

Of course, there is no story if complications do not ensue.

I did not expect the oh, it’s Tuesday, so there’s a military coup” development that turns up near the end. The coup is treated like weather, just something that happens from time to time. 

A Deeper Sea • (1989) • novella by Alexander Jablokov

A Russian researcher cracks the problem of communicating with cetaceans, thus transforming his world.

This was expanded into a novel. I wonder if Tor would like a piece about works expanded from novella to novel? There are enough of them. In this case, the plot of the novella is pretty much the plot of the novel; it’s other aspects of the work that are elaborated. 

The Edge of the World” • (1989) • short story by Michael Swanwick

Three bored ex-pat teens go looking for wonder at the edge of the world. Too bad for them that they find it. 

Silver Lady and the Fortyish Man” • (1989) • novelette by Megan Lindholm

The life of a discontented middle-aged woman is transformed when she meets an unlucky but endearing wizard.

The Third Sex” • (1989) • short story by Alan Brennert

A person neither male nor female struggles find happiness in a world disinterested in accommodating persons who do not fall into a small number of designated boxes. 

Winter on the Belle Fourche” • (1989) • short story by Neal Barrett, Jr.

Grizzled frontiersman John Liver-eating” Johnston rescues Emily Dickinson from certain death at the hands of savage native Americans, in return for which she steals his poetry. 

This story contains a number of racist epithets for native Americans. Interesting historical tidbit: Living-eating Johnston is said to have killed, scalped and eaten the livers of over three hundred Crow warriors. 

Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another • [Time Gate] • (1989) • novelette by Robert Silverberg

This is a story by Robert Silverberg. 

Relationships” • (1989) • short story by Robert Sampson

Unable to leave the past to the past, a man insists on bringing back the phantoms of loves lost. This does not endear him to the objects of his obsessions. 

Just Another Perfect Day” • (1989) • short story by John Varley

An amnesiac wakes to discover that his memory will reset to the mid-1980s as soon as he falls asleep. While this is disturbing (and will be just as disturbing every morning for the rest of his life) there are some wonderful benefits to this development. 

The Loch Moose Monster • [Mirabile] • (1989) • novelette by Janet Kagan

Setting: a struggling, self-sufficient extra-solar colony saddled with the consequences of a badly implemented attempt to provide biological redundancy. A scientist is consulted to determine what creature is behind recent reports of a monster. 

This is a comedy so it does not end with carnivorous kangaroos stalking and killing colonists, although the narrative takes the time to establish that that is an outcome about which it is reasonable worry in this setting. Never, never, accept a cutting-edge tool if you won’t be able later swap it for an older model that actually works. 

Readers who like this adventure will be happy to know there were enough stories in this setting for a small collection: Mirabile.

The Magic Bullet • (1989) • novelette by Brian Stableford

A researcher is shot and his laboratory firebombed. Mortally wounded, he lingers long enough to explain what motivated the attack: his discovery and suppression of what was from his perspective a fatally flawed form of immortality.

I don’t know if this is part of Stableford’s Emortality series or if it is a reworking of the same themes. 

The Odd Old Bird • [Doctor Eszterhazy] • (1988) • short story by Avram Davidson

Doctor Eszterhazy stumbles across an astounding zoological specimen in backwater Europe … a discovery too late, thanks to the habits of Europeans of the era. 

It was inevitable that the story would end with ironic disappointment. 

Great Work of Time • (1989) • novella by John Crowley

Having come into possession of time travel, well-meaning imperialists set out to ensure that the British Empire will last forever. Certain emergent properties of time manipulation come as a very unpleasant surprise. 

Crowley explicitly tackles the issue I had with The Price of Oranges (also in this collection, discussed above), which is that currencies change. Prices a century ago may sound cheap, but 2021 bills won’t buy bupkiss in 1921, and buying old currency may be expensive. 

The story raises the question: was the British Empire really a force for good? However … the people asking this question are fanatical supporters of the Empire, so you can guess what their answer would be. 

593 • Honorable Mentions: 1989 • essay by Gardner Dozois

What it says on the tin. 

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Seventh Annual Collection is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo). I could not find it on Book Depository.