If I had been asked to read all of the short science fiction published in English in 2009 and pick the "best" 30 or so pieces, how many of my choices would have been the same as those made by Gardner Dozois for "The Year's Best Science Fiction, 27th Annual Collection"? Well, Dozois selected three stories from his "New Space Opera 2" collection to include in the "Year's Best": "Utriusque Cosmi" by Robert Charles Wilson, "Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance" by John Kessel, and "The Island" by Peter Watts. While Wilson's story is impressive for its scope and craftsmanship and Watts' fairly conventional piece did win the 2010 Hugo for best novelette, all of the three were among my *least* favorite selections from "New Space Opera 2". Based on the evidence at hand, I wouldn't have picked any of the same stories. Hm.
Nevertheless, virtually all of the stories included in this volume are good or very good, and only one (John C. Wright's highly mannered mythpunk story "Twilight of the Gods") was truly unreadable. My observations and comments are as follows:
1. An unusually high proportion of the stories are either set in worlds that the authors have previously written about or appear to be designed mainly to set the scene for later stories. Paul J. McAuley's "Crimes and Glory," for example, concerns the theft of alien technology on the colony world Port of Plenty, about which McAuley has written previously, and refers to events in earlier stories set there. "Mongoose" by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette takes place in the same universe of organic spaceships as 2008's "Boojum". Paul Cornell's "One of Our Bastards is Missing" is set in the same steampunkish alternate universe as his earlier "Catherine Drewe," where pre-WWI European colonial powers have mastered space travel and other advanced technologies. On the other hand, Alexander Irvine's "Seventh Fall", which follows a postapocalyptic search for a copy of "Hamlet" (evoking both "Davy" and "The Book of Eli"), reads more like the first chapter of a novel than a standalone story. Chris Roberson's "Edison's Frankenstein," takes place in an intriguing (and very race/culture/religion-conscious) steampunkish alternate world where power from "promethium" has made electricity irrelevant, but barely makes sense except as the first chapter of a novel.
2. A substantial fraction of the stories are set in developing countries in the near future. I often detect condescension, romanticism, and especially exoticism in these tales, which typically exploit the wonder in seeing, as Dozois says, "ancient customs and dazzlingly sophisticated high tech exist[ing] side by side." Lavie Tidhar's "The Integrity of the Chain", which is set in Laos, does little beyond drawing out this contrast. The other stories are less exoticist, especially "Infinities" by Vandana Singh, which centers on the friendship between two Indian mathematicians, one Muslim and one Hindu, during a period of communal violence, and "Three Leaves of Aloe" by Rand B. Lee, where the Indian setting is mostly irrelevant to the story of a mother contemplating the implantation of a behavior-modifying "nanny chip" in her unruly daughter. Geoff Ryman's "Blocked", which begins in Cambodia, is a poignant and unusual but frustratingly sketchy story narrated by an uplifted animal who marries a human woman and struggles to live up to his image of what a man should be. Ian McDonald's novella "Vishnu at the Cat Circus", arguably the best piece in the collection, is set in the same future India as his "River of Gods". While the cat circus is an annoying literary device (yes, there is a cat circus), this is a compelling story of rivalry between elite Indian siblings, one a gifted engineer who pursues technological augmentation of the human intellect, one a gene-modified genius who builds a behind-the-scenes career in politics, and the third an unmodified human who seeks to ensure that the common people don't get left too far behind. Concerns about the global poor being left behind are also central to Adam Roberts' story "Hair", which is much more attentive than McDonald's novella to the conflicting interests of rich and poor.
3. My favorites among stories not yet mentioned included John Barnes' "Things Undone," where the central characters are time cops in a socially backwards but scientifically advanced present; Maureen McHugh's "Useless Things," one of her typically subtle stories about a woman living in post-collapse New Mexico; and "Lion Walk" by Mary Rosenblum, in which a woman attempts to solve a set of murders that take place in a Jurassic Park-like setting.
4. Without getting into questions of story selection, there are a couple of things Dozois could do to improve these collections. First, he could provide more context when introducing individual stories (like, "this story is set in the universe that Bear and Monette introduced in 'Boojum'") and some indication of why he thought the stories were among the year's best. In this volume, Dozois' typical story introduction consists of a paragraph-long author bio and a single summary sentence. Second, Dozois could devote the first few pages of his volume introduction to some comments about the stories in the volume and some observations about general currents in the genre. In contrast, his introduction to this volume, "Summation: 2009", is a long (30 pp.), detailed account of doings in the industry, including lists of new anthologies, lists of sales figures, bulletins about new 'zines and old ones that are folding, box office figures for sci-fi movies, and obituaries for authors, editors, and actors associated with the field, and is unlikely to be interesting to any but industry insiders.
Bottom line: Although I might not have picked any of these stories as the best of the year had I read the hundreds of stories Dozois sifted through, this is nevertheless a worthwhile collection with several very good pieces and hardly any chaff.