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The Year's Best Science Fiction
Thirty-Third Annual Collection
By Gardner Dozois
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Gardner Dozois
All rights reserved.
The Falls: A Luna Story
British author Ian McDonald is an ambitious and daring writer with a wide range and an impressive amount of talent. His first story was published in 1982, and since then he has appeared with some frequency in Interzone, Asimov's Science Fiction, and elsewhere. In 1989 he won the Locus "Best First Novel" Award for his novel Desolation Road. He won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1992 for his novel King of Morning, Queen of Day. His other books include the novels Out on Blue Six, Hearts, Hands and Voices, Terminal Café, Sacrifice of Fools, Evolution's Shore, Kirinya, Ares Express, Brasyl, and The Dervish House, as well as three collections of his short fiction, Empire Dreams, Speaking in Tongues, and Cyberabad Days. His novel, River of Gods, was a finalist for both the Hugo Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2005, and a novella drawn from it, "The Little Goddess," was a finalist for the Hugo and the Nebula Award. He won a Hugo Award in 2007 for his novelette "The Djinn's Wife," won the Theodore Sturgeon Award for his story "Tendeléo's Story," and in 2011 won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for his novel The Dervish House. His most recent books are the starting volume of a YA series, Planesrunner, and two sequels, Be My Enemy and Empress of the Sun. Coming up is a big retrospective collection, The Best of Ian McDonald. Born in Manchester, England, in 1960, McDonald has spent most of his life in Northern Ireland, and now lives and works in Belfast.
Here he takes us to an inhabited Moon, for a compelling look at people struggling to deal with the cultural and psychological changes generated in society by life in a Lunar colony.
My daughter fell from the top of the world. She tripped, she gripped, she slipped and she fell. Into three kilometres of open air.
* * *
I have a desk. Everyone on the atmospheric entry project thinks it's the quaintest thing. They can't understand it. Look at the space it takes up! And it attracts stuff. Junk. Piles. De-print them, de-print it, get rid of the dust, free up the space. Surfaces. You don't need surfaces to work.
That's true. I work through Marid, my familiar. I've skinned it as its namesake, a great and powerful djinn, hovering over my left shoulder. My co-workers think this quaint too. I spend my shifts in a pavilion of interlocutors. My familiar meeting my client's familiar: relaying each other's words.
My client is a planetary exploration probe.
I'm a simulational psychiatrist.
The proper furniture of psychologist is a chair, not a cluttered desk. And a couch. To which I say; the couch is a psychoanalytic cliche, and try laying a Saturn entry probe on a chaise longue, even before you get to the Oedipal rage and penis envy. The desk stays. Yes it takes up stupid space in my office, yes, I have piled it with so many empty food containers and disposable tea cups and kawaii toys and even physical print-outs that I'm permanently running close to my carbon limit. But I like it; it makes this cubicle an office. And it displays — displayed, before the strata of professional detritus buried it — my daughter's first archaeological find.
The technology is awkward by our standards — silicon micro-processor arrays are like asteroids next to modern 2-D graphene films; almost laughable. A finger-sized processor board; its exact purpose unknown. It's provenance: the location where the People's Republic of China's Yutu rover came to a halt and died forty kilometres south of Laplace F in the Mare Imbrium on the nearside of the Moon.
* * *
Acceleration under gravity on the surface of moon is 1.625 metres per second squared
* * *
I like Callisto.
I don't like — I don't have to like — all my clients. Every AI is different, though there are similarities, some of them the constraints of architecture and engineering, some of them philosophical, some of them the shared AI culture that has been evolving on the moon alongside human society. Every AI is an individual not an identity.
Callisto is quick, keen and erudite in conversation, charmingly pedantic, eager and naive. E anticipates the mission with the impatience and excitement of a child going to New Year and there is the trap. I think of er like I think of Shahina, and then I make mistakes. I become attached, I make presumptions. I humanise.
Erm, Nuur did you see what you did there?
"I beg your pardon Callisto?"
Erm, you used a wrong word.
"What wrong word?"
I can remind you ...
"Please do. I hate to think I'd said something inappropriate."
You said, talking about my atmospheric entry aspect, when she goes in. I think you meant to say ...
E. Er. The recognised pronouns for Artificial Intelligence. My embarrassment was crippling. I couldn't speak. I blushed, burned. Burbled apologies. I was naked with shame.
It's quite all right, Nuur. But I think I should tell you that you've, um, been doing it all week ...
When an AI ums, ers, demurs, it is a clear sign of a conflict between er laws: to be truthful, to cause no harm to humans. AIs are every bit as shy and self-deluding as humans.
* * *
I didn't laugh when she said, history. I didn't smile, didn't interject, object, reject though the arguments swarmed on my tongue. This is the Moon. Our society is fifty years old, it's a century-and-some since we first walked here. We are five cities, a university, a clatter of habitats and bases and one ever-moving train-cum-refinery; one million seven hundred thousand people. How can we have a history? How much does it take to have a history as opposed to anecdotes? Is there a critical mass? We are renter-clients of the Lunar Development Corporation, employed or contracted by the Five Dragons; history, for us, is over. We work, we survive, we pay our per diems for the Four Elementals of Air, Water, Data, Carbon. We don't just not need history; we can't afford history. Where is the profit? Where is the utility? So quick, so easy, see? I talk for a living. Arguments come to me as if drawn by whispers and pheromones. But I pushed them behind me and spoke none of them.
History, she said, spying the shadows of all those arguments and disparagements behind me. Defying me to criticise. We have a history. Everything has a history. History isn't a thing you find lying around, it's a thing you make.
Shahina, I named her. The name means falcon: a small fierce beautiful quick bird. She has never seen a falcon, never seen a bird, never seen a winged thing that isn't human, apart from the butterfly-fountains AKA make for society parties; that only live for a day and clog the drains when they make it rain to clear the dust from the air.
I have never seen a falcon either, for that matter. My father kept pigeons in a loft in the shade of the solar panel. I never liked them; they were smelly and rattly and jabby and swarmed around me when I went up on the roof with my Dad to feed them. Their wings clattered; they seemed more machine than bird. The thought of them now, cities, countries, worlds distant, still raises a cold horror. Falcons are the enemies of pigeons; Dad kept an evil eye for their swooshes in the sky. They're moving into the city, he said. Nesting up in the new towers. To them it's just a glass cliff. Any shadow he didn't like the look of was a falcon.
Shahina has never seen a falcon, never seen a bird, never seen a sky. But she's well-named. She is so quick. Her thoughts swerve and dodge, nimble and swift. Mine plod in slow, straight lines. She rushes to opinions and positions as if fortifying a hill. My work is deliberate: the identification and engineering of artificial emotions. She is fierce. Those opinions, those positions she defends with a ferocity that beats down any possible opposition. She wins not by being right but by being vehemently wrong. She scares me, when we fight as mother and daughter do. She scares me away from arguing.
History: what is it good for?
So, a thing can only be good if it's for something? she snapped back.
But are there jobs; will it pay your Four Elementals?
So, education is really just apprenticeship?
What's there to study? All we have are contracts.
Don't you get it? The contracts are the history.
And she would toss back her long, so shiny curls to show her exasperation that I would never ever understand anything, and let them settle under the slow lunar gravity.
Quick, fierce, but not small. I've been twenty years on the moon and it's turned me lean and scrawny, top heavy and bandy legged; tall and thin but Shahina towers over me. She is lunar-born, a second generation. Moon-kid. She is as slender and elegant as a gazelle.
I felt small and frail as a sparrow, hugging her goodbye at the station.
"Why does it have to be Meridian?" I couldn't help myself.
I saw my daughter's eyes widen in the moment before the this-again roll, her lips tighten. She drew back from the edge of fierce.
It's the best History Colloquium. And anyway, I always wanted to see the Earth.
She bent down to kiss me and then went through the pressure gate to the train.
At Farside station that day were some third-gens. They overbore Shahina and her generation as she overbore me. Alien children.
* * *
Mean atmospheric pressure inside lunar habitats is 1060 kilopascals, significantly higher than terrestrial norm.
* * *
I hover, Shahina told me. Over her, from the other side of the Moon. There's guilt first, when your daughter finds out you've been spying on her, then shame that you were so easily detected, then outrage at her outrage: it's only because I care, I shouldn't worry but I can't help myself; it's so far away. I'm worried about you. Doesn't she know it's only because I care?
The first time I went to Meridian to visit Shahina I saw an angel. I've lived all my life in the university, its cramped cloisters and mean halls, in the settlements of Farside, small and widely scattered, across many amors and amories. I turned my back on Earth and never looked over my shoulder. In those years away from the face of the Earth, looking out into deep space, the great nearside cities have delved deep and wide, quadras opened and linked into stupendous, vertiginous chasms, glittering at night with thousands of lights. They sent quaint, tight-horizoned me dizzy with agoraphobia. I caught hold of Shahina's arm as we came up out of Meridian Station. I felt old and infirm. I'm neither. Shahina sat me on a bench under the cover of trees, beneath leaves so that the lights became stars, half-seen. She bought me sherbet ice from an AKA tricycle and it was then that I saw the angel. People fly on the moon, I've known that forever, even before I came here and made it my home. It's the sole comprehensible image of life on the Moon to terrestrials: the soaring winged woman. Always a woman. Dizzy, I heard a movement, a rustle, a displacement of air. I looked up in time to see wings flicker over me, lights moving against the higher constellations. A woman, rigged with navigation lights, flying. She stopped down across the treetops, shadow, movement, sparkles glimpsed through the leaves. I looked up, our faces met. Then she beat her wings and pulled up out of her glide, climbing, twisting in helical flight until she was lost to my view, her lesser lights merging with the greater.
"Oh," I said. And, "Did you ..."
I thought about the flying woman, that moment of elements meeting, over the following days as Shahina introduced me, one by one, to her circle. Friends, colleagues, Colloquium fellows. Sergei her tall, polite amor. He was an archaeologist. I terrified him by existing. I wondered what Shahina had told him about me. They cooked for me. It was so special and touching. They had hired hob and utensils, plates and chopsticks. They had obviously rehearsed, their movements in the tiny kitchen area of the Colloquium apt — cramped even by Farside U standards — was as immaculately choreographed as a ballet.
I saw a flicker of impatience, a twitch of irritation before Sergei answered me.
"We've been living here for fifty years. It's been a century since the first human landing, overs hundred years since the first probes hard-landed. That's deep enough for archaeology."
"I get the same depth from studying history," Shahina said and she rested her hand on Sergei's. She was trying to softly intervene, to ameliorate, but I had no ill will to Sergei. I had neither ill will nor affection for him. He seemed a serious, flavourless boy, kind but dull. I could not understand what my daughter saw in him. I was neither surprised nor disappointed that it didn't last. Nor was Shahina, I think.
Shahina waited until I was on the platform, the train sliding in behind the glass pressure wall, before giving me the gift. It was small, the size of my thumb, but heavy, wrapped in indigo dashiki wave fabric through which I could feel sharp contours.
"From Laplace F."
She met Sergei through small, treasured items like this. Aminata, a Colloquium-mate, had introduced Shahina to the Digs. No digging was involved. Archaeologists, historians, some extreme sports fans took off in sasuits, rovers, dust-bikes out across the Mares in search of old space hardware. Lunar landers, rovers, construction bots and solar sinterers from the early days of the settlement. Most prized was the dusty, dented detritus of the Apollos. They called this practical archaeology. I thought it bare-faced looting but I could not say so to Shahina. Sergei financed it. He was some minor Vorontsov. One of the Five Dragons. I was still not disappointed when Shahina dropped him.
I turned the small precious thing over and over in my fingers.
"What is it?"
* * *
Terminal velocity in a pressurised lunar habitat is sixty kilometres per hour.
* * *
E dreams in code, in shaped packets of electrons, as we all dream. All dreams are coded, and codes. AI dreams are not our dreams. Callisto dreams awake. E never sleeps, never needs to sleep. Callisto has difficulty understanding the human need for sleep, what it is, how we return from it the same as we entered; that we return from it at all. And Callisto dreams in er three separate manifestations: the mainframe, the probe, the blimp. I like to believe e shares dreams, like a family around the breakfast table in some café.
If Callisto's intelligence and emotions are genuine — some still believe they aren't and I have argued and will argue again their error with them — then so are er dreams. Marid translates them into a form I can comprehend. Callisto's dreaming is primarily auditory. Marid plays me a storming chatter of notes and clicks, titanic bass and infra bass swells and clusters of rushing triads at the very upper limit of my hearing. It sounds like chaos. It sounds like the throb of black holes, the drone of the cosmic microwave background, the slow tick of entropy towards dissolution and chaos but if you listen, if you really listen, if you go beyond the human instinct to analyse, to structure, the pareidolic need to see rabbits in the moon, faces on Mars, gods in the alignments of the stars, then a titanic music unfolds. Themes, harmonies — though by no harmonic laws we recognise — modes and variations, unfolding over a time-scale longer than any human attention span. It is magnificent and beautiful and quite the eeriest thing I have ever heard. I drop into the dream-music and when I return, reeling, hard-of-breath and dazed, hours have passed.
I used to try to imagine what it must be like to dream constantly, to have this music rattling and burbling along the bottom of your consciousness like water over rocks. I understand now. The thing it must be like is imagination. That not-conscious but not-dreaming state of images, scenarios, illusions where we pursue potentials, alternatives, what-ifs. The imagination never closes, never quiets. It is the root of our humanity.
* * *
She got out of Aristarchus with three minutes of air to spare.
I'm all right, she said. There's nothing wrong, nothing to see. I came anyway, on the next express.
Three minutes, three hundred minutes.
But you could have died in there. How reluctantly I formed and spoke that word: died.
She was, as she said, all right. As she said; if you didn't die, you were untouched.
I hadn't heard from Shahina in three months. By heard from, I mean that in the old, Earthy sense — I hadn't seen, visited; been voice-called by her. I read her updates. Her posts and pictures and comments. I circled her social world with slow wing-beats but I was not of it. I could have called but it was a principle.
I must have read that she'd drifted away from the archaeologists, I must have seen the pictures of herself with her new friends, the explorers, leaning against each other, making gestures with their hands, pouting and posing and laughing. Urbanisme: I know that word, but I can only have learned it from Shahina's posts. I was working in a contract with Taiyang developing the interface for their new system of three AIs for Whitacre Goddard Bank; the ones — the legends said — that would be able to predict the future. The Suns expect work for their money; I remember long hard hours at the desk, digging deep, building layers, dripping emotions from algorithms like botanicals in custom gin. There is no more tiring work than emotion work. I must have read Shahina's posts in a blur of exhaustion, taken them in at some level beneath analytic consciousness. I remember excitement. New friends, new group identity, new sport. Sport it was. Archaeology pretended to intellectual merit; urbanisme was adventure.
Excerpted from The Year's Best Science Fiction by Gardner Dozois. Copyright © 2016 Gardner Dozois. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of ContentsTable of Contents
“The Falls: A Luna Story," by Ian McDonald
"Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight," by Aliette de Bodard
"Ruins," by Eleanor Arnason
"Another Word for World," by Ann Leckie
"Meshed," by Rich Larson
"Emergence," by Gwyneth Jones
"Gypsy," by Carter Scholz
"The Astrakhan, the Homberg, and the Red Red Coat," by Chaz Brenchley
"The Muses of Shuyedan-18," by Indrapramit Das
"Bannerless," by Carrie Vaughn
"The Audience," by Sean McMullen
"Rates of Change," by James S.A. Corey
"Calved," by Sam J. Miller
"Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathagan," by Ian McDonald
“Consolation," by John Kessel
"The Children of Gal," by Allen M. Steele
"Today I Am Paul," by Martin L. Shoemaker
"City of Ash," by Paolo Bachigalupi
"Trapping the Pleistecene," by James Sarafin
"Machine Learning," by Nancy Kress
"Inhuman Garbage," by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"Planet of Fear," by Paul McAuley
"It Takes More Than Muscles to Frown," by Ned Beauman
"The Daughters of John Demetrius," by Joe Pitkin
"Silence Like Diamonds," by John Barnes
"Billy Tumult," by Nick Harkaway
"Hello, Hello; Can You Hear Me, Hello," by Seanan McGuire
"Capitalism in the 22nd Century," by Geoff Ryman
"Ice," by Rich Larson
"The First Gate of Logic," by Benjamin Rosenbaum
"In Panic Town, on the Backward Moon," by Michael F. Flynn
"The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill," by Kelly Robson
"No Placeholder for You, My Love," by Nick Wolven
"The Game of Smash and Recovery," by Kelly Link
"A Stopped Clock," by Madeline Ashby
"Citadel of Weeping Pearls," by Aliette de Bodard
Honorable Mentions: 2015