The Short Version: A twist on the tale of the Mad Hatter, stories of human evolution gone awry, scenes of warfare turned endless, and all manner of creatures (including but not limited to the Daydreamer-by-Proxy and djinns) feature in this collection of the year’s best Science Fiction and Fantasy, compiled by Karen Joy Fowler.
The Review: It’s interesting to think about how a collection is often a manifest representation of its editor. Joe Hill’s work guest-editing the first annual installment of BASFF showed a true nerd like the rest of us, a reader engaged by the most fantastical of ideas and the joy with which those ideas are put on the page. Junot Díaz’s work in this year’s Best American Short Stories shows an omnivore’s love of all genres, specifically in his including a story that also got collected here. But Karen Joy Fowler is not the first (or, honestly, the second or third or fourth) name you’d think of to edit a collection of speculative fiction. She’s a lit-fiction writer, right? Except, when you think about it for a second, you realize that her work has certainly dealt with the speculative. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is absolutely a work of speculative literature, even if it doesn’t include a wink of magic or the supernatural or the extraterrestrial, and some of her earlier work is even more up front about the blurring of those genre lines. John Joseph Adams points this out himself in his introduction to the collection, as though he knew that readers might be entering with a quizzical eyebrow.
And Fowler absolutely has whatever ‘credentials’ she ‘needs’, simply by being a brilliant writer and a deeply engaged reader. As she, in her introduction, asks: “Could it be more clear that the tools of so-called literary realism are no longer up to the task of depicting the world in which we live?” We live in science fictional and/or fantastical times, after all.
This having been said, the stories that Fowler chose seem to me to create an image of an author who has come to these tales in search of an accurate depiction of the world we’re living in – perhaps because she wasn’t finding it elsewhere. This feels important to me because I’m intrigued at the collection overall. There are tales that, while entertaining, feel far less memorable than one would hope to find in a “year’s best” collection. That could be a representation of the year at large, or a representation of the author’s taste. I suppose the question we must ask is: who can truly say?
Many of the stories in this collection see people dealing with very human experiences (cancer, loss, prejudice, fear) in fantastical/science-fictional ways. Adam Johnson’s “Interesting Facts” (one of the better stories from his inexplicably National Book Award-winning Fortune Smiles), S. L. Huang’s “By Degrees and Dilatory Time”, Charlie Jane Anders’ “Rat Catcher’s Yellows”, and Sam J. Miller’s “The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History” are the prime examples – and they all feel rooted, even in their fantastical natures, in a very real present (or at least near-future). Miller’s story, in particular, felt timely as it revisited the Stonewall Riots with the twist that a mass pyrokinetic event was sparked by the gay rioters, as a push back against oppression. But all of these stories have, at their heart, very easily accessible human emotions – ones that often cause us to look for explanations or ways of coping. Where, in olden times, humanity might’ve turned en masse to religion, we see now a turn towards the imagination and towards the possibility of a future that might see us solving a problem of our present.
Fowler is also deeply interested in the SFF ramifications of violence – and several of these stories could stand alongside selections from The Things They Carried or Redeployment as honest depictions of wartime. Julian Mortimer Smith’s “Headshot” is just waiting to be adapted into an episode of Black Mirror (I haven’t finished the third season yet so maybe it already has been) and both Catherynne M. Valente’s “Planet Lion” and Seth Dickinson’s “Three Bodies at Mitanni” are great thought experiments of how we, the flawed humanity you see before you at present, might move out into the stars. Chances are, we’d screw it up – but there’s a pretty much equal chance that there’s no way not to do so. Dickinson’s story in particular had that magic thing about it that absolutely captivates from word one and that leaves you wanting more stories about the universe that the author has spun up so vividly in such a small span of time.
The collection isn’t all deep thoughts, of course. There are delightful quirks of deranged whimsy like Rachel Swirsky’s “Tea Time”, which goes down the rabbit hole (as it were) of the Mad Hatter’s mind, and apocalypse riffs like Dale Bailey’s Mad Max riff “Lightning Jack’s Last Ride.” Dexter Palmer’s “Daydreamer-by-Proxy”, which I encountered earlier this year in the Ann VanderMeer-edited The Bestiary, is still one of my favorite stories of 2016 and it reminds me that I need to get on reading Version Control post-haste. I was also delighted to find Salman Rushdie’s “The Duniazát”, which I’d missed in The New Yorker, and serves as a sort of prologue to/early version of his latest novel – the story reminded me that Rushdie is one of our master fantasists.
It is safe to assume that any given SFF collection for any given year will likely include stories by certain authors and that remains true here. It makes sense, as it did last year with Neil Gaiman’s entry, that Rushdie would be included here and obviously there was bound to be an offering from perhaps the greatest speculative short story writer alive, Kelly Link. I don’t, myself, understand the appeal of Sofia Samatar but she and Link and Sam J. Miller are the only repeat authors from last year’s collection (where Samatar had two stories included) so clearly her work is striking a chord. And while there aren’t as many discoveries as last year (discoveries in the sense that I immediately went online to find and add to my list every single thing the author has written), I was still enthralled by Kij Johnson and Ted Chiang and Nick Wolven. Chiang’s story in particular – the one that Díaz also included in the Best American Short Stories for this year – is called “The Great Silence” and it is… well, it is both beautiful and heartbreaking. That’s all I’ll say. Oh, and that it’s an absolute must-read. Especially now, in the wake of this year’s unrelenting horribleness.
Rating: 4 out of 5. There are certainly delights to be found here, both in the adventure vein and the intellectual one, but the collection doesn’t quite reach the same heights as the inaugural edition. This is, of course, to be expected – not all years can be winners and I think it’s pretty safe to say that 2016 has been shit from nearly day one. (Day ten, really, if we want to think about Bowie’s death as the lead-off hitter for this exceptionally rough year.) It might not even be the fault of these stories so much as the fault of this reader, this fall, or the way that even great writing (across any genre) can sometimes fail to speak to the impossibly difficult task of living through our daily reality. But the other wonderful thing about a collection like this is that there is and will always (I hope) be another just a year away. A reminder that each year gives way to the next – and that the future, imagined or otherwise, can always be brighter.