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The Year's Top Ten Tales Of Science Fiction 4 edited by Allan Kaster

01/08/2012. Contributed by Rod MacDonald

Buy The Year's Top Ten Tales Of Science Fiction 4 edited in the USA - or Buy The Year's Top Ten Tales Of Science Fiction 4 edited in the UK

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pub: Infinivox/Audiotexttapes. 8 CDs 8.5 hours. Price: $29.99 inc p&p (US). ISBN: 978-1-884612-16-9) read by: Tom Dheere, Jared Doreck, Adam Epstein and Vanessa Hart.

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It was a great pleasure to receive this audio CD collection, 'The Year's Top Ten Tales Of Science Fiction 4', to review, especially during one of the worst summers in living memory. It has rained every day for a couple months! Having reviewed the first three in the series, I knew what to expect and edition 4 did not leave me disappointed. Once again there were ten cracking good stories, delivered professionally in crisp and clear tones making them a delight to listen to. This seems to be a company of merit with lots the Science Fiction fan will find interesting so, without trying to be a salesman, I would suggest having a look at their website.

Maureen McHugh was the author of the first story. Entitled 'After The Apocalypse', it seemed to be the female equivalent of 'The Road'. Set in the Western USA, Jane and her teen-age daughter, Franny, are trying to make it up to Canada where reportedly the situation is better. Society has collapsed, not through war, disease or famine but through a collapse in social structure. Apocalypse stories are overly common these days, so why do they still have appeal?

In essence, our society is like a house of cards which can collapse at any moment, leaving all the things we have built up so carefully over the years, our gadgets, mechanisms and organisations to evaporate making us go back to the Stone Age with no experience or skills for survival in that enforced environment. It is the ultimate nightmare of 21st-century: life! Perhaps that's why Apocalypse stories still fascinate us? We wonder how we would survive ourselves!

In the story, told in a colloquial manner of a woman not overly intelligent and somewhat shell-shocked by the circumstances she is now in, Jane tries to survive by muddling her way through. Reacting to imminent events, she meets up with a man and tries to gain an advantage from her new relationship. All values have now disappeared along with electricity, mobile phones and water. Her most precious possession is her daughter but would she be abandoned along the way? The story isn't enjoyable because it's too near the truth but it's fascinating in another way.

Steve Rasnic Tem story, 'At Play In The Fields-, was another post-apocalypse tale but with a difference. Tom had woken up in another world that turned out to be Earth at some distant point in the future. He had died a long time ago but had been revived by alien plant-like creatures who now attended to matters. Apparently, over the time that he had been in suspension, society collapsed and catastrophe occurred.

In a dream-like existence, Tom discovered that the remnants of humanity scurried about looking for items of interest. Talking to another survivor from the old times helped a little but he couldn't discover anything meaningful from the plant creatures. Was Tom really alive? An engaging story, well told and delivered.

Karl Schroeder was next with 'Laika's Ghost'. You may remember that Laika was the dog sent into space in Sputnik 2 by the Soviet Union in the early days of the space age, never to return and to die in space. Set in the near future, investigators examine a site in Kazakhstan only to find it's got nothing to do with anthrax production but something else instead. In this future, there exists the Soviet Union Online.

There was also a strange mystery concerning the planet Mars. A pyramid had been discovered with the letters CCCP written on the side. How did it get there? What was its significance for the future? In a very good story, the investigators eventually discover the truth.

Michael Swanwick's story entitled 'For I Have Lain Me Down On The Stone of Loneliness And I'll Not Be Back Again', was set in Ireland two hundred years after the 1916 uprising. In this future, an American visits Ireland and holds a conversation with Mary, a conversation that will open eyes. The Irish are rebelling again, this time against alien occupiers!

'Martian Heart' by John Barnes told of people going to the red planet on something similar to national service. The problem is living on Mars for a few years under lower gravity conditioned the body so that heart muscles weakened and it would be suicide to return to Earth. In the story, the Martian explorers seem to be rejects from Earth. Cap lacks education, cannot even read, but he is helped by his female companion, Sam.

If you ever wanted a good description of what it's like to be on Martian soil, then listen to the story. After working on the planet, they go prospecting towards the polar regions. It's an unforgiving environment. Sam seems to be dying and Cap makes a promise which will be difficult to keep. A thoroughly good story!

'Bit Rot' by Charles Stross involved a long space journey and strange computerised goings-on within the ship. Dying Young by Peter M Ball invoked a dragon, a talking dragon at that!

'Purple', written by Robert Reed, was a strange story about a severely disabled young man, Tito, being cared for by the Master. It's not exactly clear who the Master really is but he has rescued severely disabled people from perilous positions of conflict. Within his complex, he unreservedly cares for a finite number of people and aliens. There are even feline creatures under his supervision.

All some can recall is a light in the sky before they are rescued. Tito can't see and has only one arm. He has dreams about a yellow bus and a purple designation, whatever that means. Do the dreams become reality? A story that came with a warning, it's challenging to listen to but rewarding just the same.

'Canterbury Hollow' was deep inside the planet. This wasn't Earth, it was a distant planet colonised by humans but the star that it orbited had become dangerously unstable, scorching to death all civilisation on the surface. Survivors clung to existence in a subterranean world. Chris Lawson's story told about two people, a young man and a young woman, destined to die. Why? People were balloted out of existence because society could only sustain a certain number.

A story about a society on the edge of existence, maybe it's another post-apocalypse tale but the survivors are composed and collected, calmly accepting their fate. Rewarding to listen to, it was tinged with sadness. Very well written!

Finally, 'The Choice' by Paul McAuley. A dragon had crash-landed beside the sea and young explorers were determined to find it. In this universe, Earth has gone through a collapse only to be rescued by aliens called the Jackaroo. It isn't a conventional dragon, it's something else. Intriguing and interesting story, it makes you want to look into this universe in more detail.

A great package, well worth buying and you can't say more than that. It was very enjoyable to listen to. Competently presented, it takes you away to other worlds and existences with thought-provoking clarity. On second thoughts, I would warn you not to look at their website because it's like an Aladdin's cave full of goodies and you will be severely tempted! Proceed at your peril.

Rod MacDonald

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