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Review: Best of British Science Fiction 2016

The Best of British Science Fiction 2016

Editor Donna Scott has selected the very best short fiction by British authors published during 2016. Twenty-four stories, from established names and rising stars.

This anthology is an eclectic collection of science fiction with a very broad range of stories, writers and styles! It’s a fun read whether you’re into sci-fi or not, and it’s a brilliant introduction to the genre or an excellent selection of modern sci-fi, depending on your reading in 2016.

The anthology opens with a story I already knew from Fight Like A Girl: Joanne Hall’s Arrested Development, a wonderful and poignant story about a fighter just trying to win one more fight, one more paycheck. Peter F Hamilton’s Ten Love Songs to Change the World is next with a wonderful take on the 1960s hippy culture crossed with time travel, crossed with romance and the desire to change the world…

I admit the next couple of stories didn’t grab me quite as hard, although not through any fault of the writing. Eric Brown & Keith Brooke’s Beyond the Heliopause is a story of the edge of the universe and of home, a mix of sci-fi and faith: what is out there, beyond the heliopause? And what does that mean for humanity, and our relations to each other and the world around us? The Seventh Gamer by Gwyneth Jones takes the idea of the life around us in a different direction, looking at gaming culture, alternate realities, real life, aliens…it’s quite a long story and I admit I didn’t find the payoff entirely satisfying; it’s an interesting concept for a story though. Nick Wood’s Dream-Hunter has echoes of classic sci-fi: if you could control dreams in someone else’s mind, you could see their secrets – but what happens if you can’t control it? And Robert Bagnall’s Shooting the Messenger which, to be honest, I just found a bit weird: it’s a story of aliens getting in contact in a war zone, but no one believes it – I think?

The next few stories, however, I found wonderful. Neil Davies’ The Lightship is a brilliant mix of war story and horror: two races are fighting each other for control of an old ship, but something doesn’t like either of them…and Liam Hogan’s Ana is a wonderful, amusing metaphysical discussion of alternate universes from a child who’s scared of the monster under the bed. Jaine Fenn’s Liberty Bird has echoes of Arthur C Clarke, telling the story of a young man trying to win a race and fight for his future in a lovely mix of sci-fi and personal, and Sarah Byrne’s Joined is eerie and brilliant, with a story of the unforeseen effects of a technology to join two lovers together.

Heinrich Himmler in the Barcelona Hallucination Cell by Ian Watson is, I think, simply not to my taste: it’s a weird take on alt-history and time travel, with a dose of paradox theory thrown in, but would probably suit anyone with a taste for the absurd. I also wasn’t entirely sure about Una McCormack’s Taking Flight; it’s a story that weaves love, romance, politics, personalities and relationships, a futuristic take on how human creations would still fall into a tangled web of love and deception – but despite the excellent writing and the interesting narrator, I felt this could have been a stronger story.

People, Places and Things by Den Patrick is an eerie take on the apocalypse; people simple vanish, written out of existence – and how does that leave everyone else to cope? Paul Graham Raven’s Staunch is another take on the dystopian, with a small, loyal band struggling through the ruins of a broken England (and I loved the small touches in this) to get medical aid however they can, while trying to avoid talking about the secrets they hold.

The next couple of stories were definite favourites. Adam Roberts’ Between Nine and Eleven is amusing: I love the concept of the new weapon, and the story is a surreal and light-hearted take on the standard sci-fi space battles. Natalia Theodoridou’s Ajdenia is a beautiful, haunting story: sunlight is rationed, and a worker in a tunnel has to choose between a fleeting, brief hope of freedom, and getting that little bit of extra light – and I loved the tiny, beautiful twist at the end. And Sylvia Spruck Wrigley’s To Catch a Comet made me laugh; it’s a fantastic take on the bureaucracy and paperwork that impede a scientist trying to warn the world about a comet impact.

The next couple of stories are longer. How to Grow Silence from Seed by Tricia Sullivan looks at relationships and the world around, silence and plants, what humans are doing to the planet – it’s a mix of strange and familiar. In Tade Thompson’s The Apologists, the apocalypse has happened with Earth mostly destroyed (accidentally) – and even though the handful of survivors get to recreate it, there are arguments about how to do it! Ian Whates’ Montpellier is an almost modern-day look at drugs, home and family: an envoy revisits their childhood home to try to negotiate a truce with the people living there. And in Neil Williamson’s Foreign Bodies, refugees from a broken Earth are trying to adapt to a new world, with the disjointed meld of familiar and alien that it brings.

The final couple of stories are a good round-up to the anthology. Michael Brookes’ The 10 Second War focuses on an AI fighting a war inside a computer system, with the eerie feeling that it could be Earth. In Possible Side Effects by Adam Connors, a patient is writing to a world that he left behind – and wondering if he can pick up a life that’s carried on without him. And E. J. Swift’s Front Row Seat to the End of the World -is a look at the apocalypse as it arrives on Earth, at the people waiting, and about the things that become important: family, friends, and the connections we share before it’s too late.

The anthology is a wonderfully mixed bag of stories, and well worth a read – if only to catch up on 2016’s eclectic, brilliant takes on what the future could bring!

Review: Waiting on a Bright Moon

Waiting On A Bright Moon by Jy Yang

Xin is an ansible, using her song magic to connect the originworld of the Imperial Authority and its far-flung colonies— a role that is forced upon magically-gifted women “of a certain closeness”. When a dead body comes through her portal at a time of growing rebellion, Xin is drawn deep into a station-wide conspiracy along with Ouyang Suqing, one of the station’s mysterious, high-ranking starmages.

This is a short story, only 40 pages, but it packs a lot of punch for a short piece!

The writing is stunningly lyrical, as fits in with the story; Xin opens her gateway with song, communicating to her love on the central world, ferrying goods and keeping the empire connected. But when a dead body comes through, there are questions – and a chance Xin to meet one of the station’s starmages, mysterious and powerful, and involved in far more than Xin suspects. The story is of rebellion and passion and loneliness, and it’s hauntingly beautiful.

But…it is too short. While I appreciated where it breaks off, I feel like the story had only just started; it’s not a conclusion, and it’s not even threads coming together before the story’s on the last page. This is a brief glimpse into the world of a set of characters  that I hope Yang is revisiting (the two novellas of The Tensorate Series have just come out,  but I don’t know if they are the same world).

It’s an elegantly-written and amazingly detailed world, full of (for Western audiences) unusual touches, and is definitely worth reading : you will be left wanting more.

Review: All Systems Red

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

“As a heartless killing machine, I was a complete failure.”

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

I absolutely loved this! A murderbot that just wants to catch up on the latest show episodes – because guarding humans is effort, and frankly, who cares? Except unfortunately when you’ve got a hacked governor module that means you don’t have to do what the bosses order, you do occasionally have to be useful, just so you don’t get stripped for parts.

And when ‘useful’ includes rescuing your survey team from a monster that wasn’t listed on the planetary survey, that unfortunately leads to more work. Like figuring out why the second survey team now aren’t talking to anyone. Or checking who deleted areas of the map. And then when your survey team start treating you like an actual team member as opposed to a rented murderbot, that means you have to interact with them, when really just being left alone to watch shows would be just great….

Luckily this is a trilogy, as my major complaint was that it’s too short; it ends quite abruptly, and I want to know what happens next! The characterisation is brilliant, and the main character (the previously-mentioned murderbot) made me laugh. The survey team are interesting, and I loved the way the motivations and plot are woven together. It never feels overwhelming or too complex, but the unfolding events are a brilliant mix of action and thought.

In short: sarcastic, cynical, amusing, enthralling and brilliant. I’m eagerly waiting for the next one!

Review: Binti, & Binti: Home

This series has been described as “African girl leaves home, comes home, becomes home”. Also, Nnedi Okorafor is on Twitter and she’s awesome.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.

Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.

If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself — but first she has to make it there, alive.

I loved this. My only complaint is that it’s too short! (It’s a novella).

There is so much in this that just gives a twist to something, and makes it different: mathematics as a mix of divination and foretelling, bound up with meditation; an alien culture and mindset, and the struggle to both interpret and understand it; a university in the space age, for all races and peoples; and a girl leaving her home, her culture, her land – yet carrying them with her, and binding them into her new life.

The story itself is simple, and sweet; a journey from home to a new place, a new adventure and all the emotions and trials that go along with it. It’s complicated by troubles during the journey, but Binit finds new strengths, ways around, new ways to think.

If you haven’t yet read this, and you like fantasy or sci-fi – read it. Even if you don’t like it, it will open your mind!

Binti: Home

It’s been a year since Binti and Okwu enrolled at Oomza University. A year since Binti was declared a hero for uniting two warring planets. A year since she found friendship in the unlikeliest of places.

And now she must return home to her people, with her friend Okwu by her side, to face her family and face her elders. But Okwu will be the first of his race to set foot on Earth in over a hundred years, and the first ever to come in peace. After generations of conflict can human and Meduse ever learn to truly live in harmony?

Still as beautiful, and still too short!

This novella is more about the culture, the home, the land; this is the girl who has been away and changed returning to a place that hasn’t changed, and how both she and it adapt. In Binti’s case, she’s also returning with her good friend – who happens to be a deadly enemy of one of her homeworld’s tribes, and terrifying and confusing to everyone else. The story is one of adaption and custom, of being a stranger in a familiar land, of family and home and belonging.

There’s also the surprise that Binti has seen the Night Masquerade, a rare and unusual sighting – and that her family and tribe may contain secrets and surprises that she does not expect…

Read the first one, read this one, and wait impatiently for the third!

The third book in the series, Binti: The Night Masquerade, is out in January 2018.

Binti has returned to her home planet, believing that the violence of the Meduse has been left behind. Unfortunately, although her people are peaceful on the whole, the same cannot be said for the Khoush, who fan the flames of their ancient rivalry with the Meduse.

Far from her village when the conflicts start, Binti hurries home, but anger and resentment has already claimed the lives of many close to her.

Once again it is up to Binti, and her intriguing new friend Mwinyi, to intervene–though the elders of her people do not entirely trust her motives–and try to prevent a war that could wipe out her people, once and for all.

Review: Snowspelled

Snowspelled: Volume I of The Harwood Spellbook by Stephanie Burgis

Four months ago, Cassandra Harwood was the first woman magician in Angland, and she was betrothed to the brilliant, intense love of her life.

Now Cassandra is trapped in a snowbound house party deep in the elven dales, surrounded by bickering gentleman magicians, manipulative lady politicians, her own interfering family members, and, worst of all, her infuriatingly stubborn ex-fiancé, who refuses to understand that she’s given him up for his own good.

But the greatest danger of all lies outside the manor in the falling snow, where a powerful and malevolent elf-lord lurks…and Cassandra lost all of her own magic four months ago.

To save herself, Cassandra will have to discover exactly what inner powers she still possesses – and risk everything to win a new kind of happiness.

This is, quite wonderfully, enjoyable, frothy fluff. It’s a mix between Georgian romance (mostly likely Georgette Heyer), Emma Newman’s Split Worlds series, Etiquette and Espionage, and Sylvia Hunter’s wonderful Midnight Queen series. It’s fairytales, Regency house-parties, feminist worldbuilding and magic all mixed up in a political mystery, along with a large dash of romance – and it’s fabulous.

Cassandra is spiky, frustrated, frustrating, charming and captivating, all at the same time. We don’t see much of her ex-fiancé until the end, but when he turns up, he’s rather a character. Cassandra’s surrounding characters are fun, too – notably the strong-minded, political Amy and Cassandra’s scholarly brother Jonathan, in amongst a host of others. The plot is moderately complex, but relatively easy to follow – and all gets explained at the end – and the action is fun. I’m not entirely certain we found out what actually caused Cassandra’s accident, so it felt that this was a little glossed over… but maybe that’s in the next book? The worldbuilding is fun, too; even though the action is restricted to (mostly) one place, we get a brilliant sense of the political structure, the social niceties, the gossip and the courtesies that make up the world.

This is going to be a series, which is going to be great – this first story is a light-hearted read with an occasional thought-provoking undertone, and was definitely enjoyable. Pick it up if you think you’ll like your Regency romances with a dash of magic!

Ps. Interesting interview with Stephanie Burgis here.