Jonathan Strahan, editor,
Best Short Novels 2004
(Science Fiction Book Club, 2004)

Every year, the various "best of the year" science fiction anthologies typically come with the proviso that they've had to limit the number of novellas featured. Despite the generally held belief that the novella is the ideal length for science fiction, their sheer number of pages often prevents more than a couple from being included. So hats off to the Science Fiction Book Club for stepping into the breach and publishing a handsome hardcover collection focused solely on the year's best science fiction novellas.

Of the nine tales editor Jonathan Strahan has included in Best Short Novels 2004, three turn up in Gardner Dozois's The Year's Best Science Fiction: 21st Annual Collection, but there is no overlap with the stories in David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's Year's Best SF 9. If you enjoy shorter-length science fiction, you'll want to pick up all three books to fully explore the tremendous breadth of quality writing currently taking place in the genre.

Best Short Novels 2004 is an impressive book, although opening with Kage Baker's "The Empress of Mars" was a bit of a misstep. While its lighter tone eases the reader into the collection in a way that Lucius Shepard's densely written "Jailwise" could not have done, the story left me with a first impression of science fiction as rather fluffy, inconsequential entertainment. I think perhaps Terry Bisson's "Greetings," with its cynically ecological future America, in which a lifetime of over-consumption is remedied by government-enforced assisted suicide for senior citizens, might have made a stronger lead story.

Stylistically, the stories run the gamut from plot-driven "what if" extrapolations like Walter Jon Williams' "Green Leopard Plague" and William Barton's "Off On a Starship," to Connie Willis's pointedly unscientific Christmas collage "Just Like the Ones We Used to Know." Then there's John Meaney's bio-punk alternate history "The Swastika Bomb," written in a voice that is equal parts grit and poetry:

"But I wondered, passing along the deserted dusty street, quiet before the working day, whether there were any rational conclusions to be drawn in a world where cosseted intellectuals, civilization's best, with their blackboards and chalk and scribble-filled notepads, could devise modes of devastation far deadlier than teeth ripping artery, blade slicing intestine in the thunder and stink and dirt of battle, and work their own cataclysm of torn DNA and ecodestruction, remotely tearing life asunder while holding themselves aloof from the stink and rawness and fear, at distant remove from the messy, bloody, excremental business of death."

What a sentence! And what a story. Meaney envisions an alternative version of World War II, in which the conflict's technological storm front is based not on rocketry and explosives, as in our history, but on genetic manipulation. His version of Kristallnacht has the Nazis spraying Jews with a solution that crystallizes their cells, transforming their bodies into glass-like statuary that shatter when toppled or struck. It's a clever horror, one of many in this ingenious, dark tale.

Now that I've completed Best Short Novels 2004, I'm reading Dozois's "Best of the Year" anthology. It's filled with wonderful short stories, many of which would not have made the cut if the Dozois had included more novellas. And yet, without Strahan and the SFBC joining forces, I would not have run across "The Swastika Bomb" or "Greetings" or Robert Freeman's surreal "In Springdale Town," a place the editor describes as "a part of small-town America that lies just a little aslant of Ray Bradbury's endless October." And if I had not had the opportunity to read these tales, my own October would not have been quite so entertaining.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 27 November 2004

Buy it from