The Short Version: From a trip to Neil Gaiman’s London Below to a compendium of the ogres of East Africa, from a scientist racing to his daughter before a black hole consumes the Earth to a man attempting to clone his wife, this first installment of the latest Best American series compiles 20 of the best science fiction & fantasy tales of the last year.
The Review: It’s astounding to me that this past year was the first with a Best American collection for SF/F. Obviously there’s been no shortage of collections of SF, F, or any other subset within these most outre genres but something about the Best American imprimatur feels like an important milestone in the progress of speculative fiction becoming more widely accepted in the cultural conversation. That feels a little silly to say in a year when a Mad Max movie is in the running for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, I know – but adolescent me would be astounded to hear that there was a Best American SF/F. Progress is being made, one giant leap at a time.
Now, I’m well aware of the silliness of the exercise of picking the “best” anything and hoping to be even a little bit subjective. (Longtime readers will know that I’m an impassioned fan of The Tournament of Books for exactly this reason.) It’s even sillier when you realize that only two people, ostensibly, are responsible for the content in this collection: the series editor, John Joseph Adams, and the volume editor, Joe Hill. But, at the same time, we’re in very good hands here: Joe is one of the best writers working in any genre today and an incredible champion of SF/F while John is a long-time editor of speculative collections and consumer of said workers. They outline in their respective introductions the process of how they came to these stories and it sounds like they had their work cut out for them. Thousands of entries, submitted by anybody to John’s attention and then narrowed to eighty (this full list of finalists is included in the back of the book, much to my delight) – from which Joe then chose the ten sci-fi and ten fantasy stories that he thought were the most exemplary for the year. It’s an imposing task but I was delighted to see that there was such a range of talent and intention in the final product.
Sure, it’s hard even when you’re reading anonymously (as the editors both were) not to see something like Neil Gaiman’s return to London Below in “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back” and not immediately know who wrote it… but also, I don’t think it’s terribly far-fetched to say that Neil Gaiman is exactly who you’d expect to find in a collection of the best writing of a year (especially best fantastical writing) in which he happened to’ve published something. More exciting for me than the entries from Gaiman, Kelly Link, T.C. Boyle, and Karen Russell were the discoveries of this collection: authors like Susan Palwick, Nathan Ballingrud, and Theodora Goss. These are authors who I might’ve heard about at some point (Ballingrud, in particular, crossed my radar with North American Lake Monsters, which I haven’t read but has been on my list for a while) but who might just as easily have gone unnoticed. It’s the great promise of a collection like this, featuring different authors all writing in the same general genre, that you’ll find unexpected treasures alongside the predictable ones.
Of course, not all of these stories are great – again, the subjectivity thing comes into play. A couple of them feel like they try too hard for relevance, the “message” interfering with the storytelling. A few others are good stories but ultimately forgettable and so not the sort of thing that I myself would’ve put in a collection of the best of the year – but we can horsetrade til next year’s edition comes out, swapping Tom Hanks’ “Alan Bean Plus Four” for Sam J. Miller’s “We Are the Cloud” or arguing whether Seanan McGuire’s “Each to Each” should count as fantasy or science-fiction (in favor of including something else in the other category). The fact that Joe and John found these stories particularly full of merit is not a knock on the other stories and we’re certainly allowed to disagree with them when our opinions diverge – it’s the great thing about guest editors and, more generally, about reading culture.
But the stories that are truly great in this collection (by my opinion and that of the editors) deserve some quick shout-outs, because they provided some of the most delightful reading of the beginning of my 2016.
Nathan Ballingrud’s “Skullpocket” is perhaps my favorite discovery: a tale of a small town with a deadly yearly festival and a house of ghouls and monsters, a tale that he promises (in his note at the end – all of the authors had a chance to write a short note about their story, a practice I’m very much in favor of) is just the beginning of his time in Hob’s Landing. His promised novel about the town is already at the top of my wishlist.
Carmen Maria Machado’s “Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead” is one of the best experiments in form I’ve read in a long time, taking the form (if not the actual designed layout) of a Kickstarter page for a young woman who needs to raise $5000 to follow her sister into the land of the dead, where she apparently went partying several nights earlier. The concept is cute, but the emotional wallop that the story is utterly unexpected and it’s a nearly perfect short story.
Kelly Link’s inclusion here, “I Can See Right Through You”, was one of my favorite stories in Get in Trouble and I was happy to see it here – especially with her note, at the end, that it was partially inspired by an anecdote of Leo DiCaprio or Kate Winslet talking about Titanic and their relationship during/since.
Daniel H. Wilson’s “The Blue Afternoon that Lasted Forever”, which I read the day I spent reeling from the news of David Bowie’s death, absolutely wrecked me in the best possible way. There are tears on the final page of the story in my copy of the book and I’m okay with that.
A. Merc Rustad’s “How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps” achieves the simultaneous thing of being a great story on its own while also delivering a potent social message, in the vein of some of the very best old-school sci-fi. I’m deep into reading about and discussing the transgender movement for work right now and this story has got to be a must-read for both transgender individuals today and, in all seriousness, transhuman individuals in the future.
Theodora Goss’ “Cimmeria: from the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology” kept twisting in my mind for days after I read it and presents not only a great critique of Western thought (re: “discovering” things that’ve already been there) but also a great exercise in the power of the imagination.
But I’ll stop there – just go read the damn book already. You won’t be disappointed, I promise.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I could go on at length and reference every single story, because even the ones I didn’t love had something catchy or unique or interesting about them, but that’ll take the fun out of picking up the collection for yourself and exploring. I guarantee you’ll find something new here – and you’ll probably disagree with me about at least one story that either you or I liked that the other didn’t like. But even while the quality isn’t 100% perfect across the board (for me, subjectively), this is one hell of a debut for the Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy line. Mr. Hill was a great guest editor to start things on a really solid note and I look forward to many more years of Mr. Adams’ guidance in collecting some of the very best, every year.