Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy: “Best” sets the bar high and these stories clear it

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Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016, edited by Karen Joy Fowler & John Joseph AdamsBest American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 edited by Karen Joy Fowler & John Joseph Adams

Karen Joy Fowler is the guest editor of the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. This is the second book in the annual series, which John Joseph Adams conceived of, and he still plays a large role in the selection process.

It is worth reading both Adams’ and Fowler’s introductions. Fowler’s is brilliant because she talks about the world, fiction, fantasy and language. Adam’s is instructive. He walks us through the selection process. This is where I discovered that the title, “best of science fiction and fantasy” is quite literal. It’s not “science fiction/fantasy” or “science fantasy” or “science fiction or fantasy.” The book contains twenty stories. Ten are fantasy, and ten can be described as science fiction. That raises the bar for the stories here, I think. Adams also provides a useful definition of “fantasy” by his lights, and how it is different from science fiction. Science fiction, he says, while not possible now, is theoretically possible, whereas magic does not exist, so fantasy stories are not possible. In another time and place I might debate that bright line, but for the purposes of this anthology it works just fine.

Adams and his staff read through a huge number of stories and created a longlist of eighty, which were sent to Fowler. Fowler read them blind; she did not have the writer’s name attached to the story (although with some of these, she probably had a pretty good idea who wrote it); nor did she know where it had been published. When she chose her ten of each, she and Adams discussed the finalists, and here is the result.

I’m not going to review all twenty stories in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. I will list the table of contents and then single out a few stories in each sub-genre that spoke to me or touched me the most. While there were one or two stories in the book that were not to my individual taste (always the case for me with an anthology,) there is not a single bad story in the bunch.

  • “Meet Me in Iram,” by Sofia Samatar; first appeared in Meet Me in Iram/Those are Pearls
  • “A Game of Smash and Recovery,” by Kelly Link; first appeared in Strange Horizons
  • “Interesting Facts,” by Adam Johnson; first appeared in Harper’s Magazine
  • “Planet Lion,” by Catherynne Valente, first appeared in Uncanny Magazine
  • “The Apartment Dweller’s Bestiary,” by Kij Johnson, first appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine
  • “By Degrees and Dilatory Time,” by S.L. Huang; first appeared in Strange Horizons
  • “The Mushroon Queen,” by Liz Ziemska; first appeared in Tin House
  • “The Daydreamer by Proxy,” by Dexter Palmer; first appeared in The Bestiary
  • “Tea Time,” by Rachel Swirsky; first appeared in Lightspeed Magazine
  • “Headshot,” by Julian Mortimer Smith; first appeared in Terraform
  • “The Duniazat,” by Salman Rushdie; first appeared in the New Yorker
  • “No Placeholder for You, My Love,” by Nick Wolven; first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction
  • “The Thirteen Mercies,” by Maria Dahvana Headley; first appeared in F&SF
  • “Lightning Jack’s Last Ride,” by Dale Bailey; first appeared in F&SF
  • “Things You Can Buy for a Penny,” by Will Kaufman; first appeared in Lightspeed
  • “Rat Catcher’s Yellows,” by Charlie Jane Anders; first appeared in Press Start to Play
  • “The Heat of Us; Notes Toward an Oral History,” by Sam J. Miller; first appeared in Uncanny Magazine
  • “Three Bodies at Mitanni,” by Seth Dickinson; first appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact
  • “The Ambiguity Machines; an Examination,” by Vadana Singh; first appeared in Tor.com
  • “The Great Silence,” by Ted Chiang; first appeared in e-flux journal.

You’ll notice some publications on that list that are not the “usual” places we look for speculative fiction. There is a vocal contingent of SFF fans who proclaim repeatedly that places like Tin House, the New York Times and Harper’s Magazine are not the right places to look for our kind of stories. Fowler and Adams beg to differ, and so do I. These markets are an indication of the quality of story being created in the field now, just as a story like “Lightning Jack’s Last Run” by Dale Bailey, which is a conventional — I might even say old-fashioned — SF story, belongs in this group because Bailey perfectly captures the tone of his narrator character, a person we feel like we know by the end. Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 demonstrates that in some areas, at least, walls are coming down, not going up.

Sofia Samatar often makes me cry and makes me think at the same time, and “Meet Me in Iram” does just that. Written in prose that gleams like ocean foam at sunrise, this elegiac tale explores memory, migration, loss, family and the idea of “home.”

Dexter Palmer’s science fiction story “The Daydreamer by Proxy,” written in the form of a just-so-cheery corporate brochure, encourages corporate employees to get a “daydreamer by proxy” attached symbiotically to their bodies because it will improve mental clarity and productivity. The company genetically modifies, and even creates, creatures, and the daydreamer is one of its very best — just ask them! It is hard for SF to be funny; it’s even harder to be funny and scary, and Palmer pulls it off right through the last line. I don’t want to minimize the tale; you’ll have plenty to think about, and wince about, after you stop chuckling.

In “Planet Lion,” a planet that is of strategic importance in an interstellar war starts to change when humans first land there. The scouting expedition’s warnings, particularly those about the apex predator, a lion-like animal with three sexes, are ignored, and we see the results of that choice. The lions think as a collective, and author Catherynne Valente slowly unspools exactly what happens when new data and new elements are introduced into the population. It’s Valente, so what made the story powerful was the way the language shifted as the lions began experiencing their world differently.

…But he was so weird about it, picked up the bowl with the aincolo hunched down now, nothing visible but two eyes in a cloud of cream-colored fur, and took it out the living room and hid it somewhere. Why? Why.

“The Apartment Dweller’s Bestiary” by Kij Johnson is a series of vignettes: entries from a bestiary. The language is charming and the imagery grabbed hold of me. Through the cataloging of imaginary creatures Johnson comments on the difficulties of modern urban life and relationships, like boyfriends who might hide more than their unusual pets.

Adam Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Orphan Master’s Son. In “Interesting Facts,” he does something unusual with a familiar type of story. I won’t say anything more than that.

The three main characters of Seth Dickinson’s “Three Bodies at Mitanni” are charged with the most hubristic of human assignments. They roam space, searching out the descendants of “seedships” that send human genetic material into the universe. Now, on earth, various simulations have played out and there is a fear that some of these populations will grow and destroy all other forms of humanity. Most dreaded is the Duong-Watts malignancy. Each of the three women on board the ship was chosen because of her specific personality type, her mode of thinking, and Shinobu, the narrator, is the one who can always see both sides. When they reach Mitanni, they discover a type of humanity that has sacrificed the concept of individuality in order to survive as a species. The tension in the story is not whether the three will allow the Mitanni colony to survive… it is whether the three of them will survive as humans, or what they consider human, after they make their decision.

In Liz Ziemska’s “The Mushroom Queen” a dissatisfied wife is shocked when she finds she’s turned into a fungus, while the queen of the mycelium has taken her place in the marital bed. I think Adams’ categorization fails here — with everything we are learning about mycelium and fungi and how they work, this could be science fiction. Okay, no, not really. The story moves back and forth among the formerly-human fungus, the “mushroom queen” who is trying to appear human, and two dogs. It has a lot to say about changelings, about relationships, and what makes a home. It also has a lot to say about fungus. I think Jeff VanderMeer would like this story.

One of my favorite Ted Chiang stories is in here: “The Great Silence.” Parrots, observing humans turning their eyes and imaginations to the heavens with the hopes of getting “non-human communication” wonder why the humans ignore the parrots themselves, who have been reaching out for thousands of years. As the parrots put it,

We parrots used to think humans weren’t very bright. It’s hard to make sense of behavior that’s so different from your own. 

“The Great Silence” is smart, witty, gentle and lovely. Chiang makes his point without hitting us over the head with a big mallet. This may not be his deepest story, but it is definitely beautiful.

Charlie Jane Anders’ tale “Rat Catcher’s Yellows” is another story that nearly made me cry. Grace’s wife Shary has been infected with a virus that leads to early onset dementia; now in her thirties, she is already losing touch with Grace and with her life. Grace buys her an online game that she has heard is soothing for people with this type of dementia. The game is called The Divine Right of Cats. At first, Shary is uninterested. Soon, though, she begins to play, and in her role as an advisor to the queen of Greater Felinia, she begins to improve the status of the kingdom. Soon Grace and Shary have been approached by an online players group, inviting Shary to a gaming convention. It turns out that people with the disease that Shary had, colloquially called Rat Catcher’s Yellows, show amazing skills at solving social and economic problems inside the game, and those solutions can be applied outside the game. Reluctantly, Grace agrees to let Shary participate. The story expertly balances a certain whimsy, with the game and its peripherals, against the heartbreaking reality of dementia. Shary rarely recognizes Grace, but she has named places in her game-world after their shared moments. Grace notes that she has had her human wife RFID’ed — chipped — just the way we would a dog or a cat, in case she wanders away. Grace is beset with real world issues, too, like the need to return to work. The ending is heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time.

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 contains an afterword where the writers discuss their inspirations for the stories, and a list of notable stories in 2015. The afterword was particularly enjoyable.

These stories question the human experience; they ask us to check our assumptions; many of them delight us and trick us with powerful, beautiful, I might even say magical language. At the very least they provide a survey of what’s possible under the big tent of SFF. I recommend Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 to anyone who is interested in the state of the SFF field.

Published October 4, 2016. From quiet, elegiac, contemporary tales to far-future, deep-space sagas, the stories chosen by series editor John Joseph Adams and guest editor Karen Joy Fowler for The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 demonstrate the vast spectrum of what science fiction and fantasy aims to illuminate, displaying the full gamut of the human experience, interrogating our hopes and our fears—of not just what we can accomplish or destroy as a person, but what we can accomplish or destroy as a people—and throwing us into strange new worlds that can only be explored when we shed the shackles of reality. The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 includes Rachel Swirsky, Sofia Samatar, Charlie Jane Anders, Ted Chiang, Kelly Link, Maria Dahvana Headley, Kij Johnson, Catherynne M. Valente, Dexter Palmer and others. KAREN JOY FOWLER, guest editor, is the author of six novels and four short story collections, including We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. She is the winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, and has won numerous Nebula and World Fantasy awards. JOHN JOSEPH ADAMS, series editor, is the best-selling editor of more than two dozen anthologies, including Brave New Worlds and Wastelands. He is the editor and publisher of the digital magazines Lightspeed and Nightmare and is the editor of John Joseph Adams Books, a new science fiction/fantasy novel imprint from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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4 comments

  1. My shelves are not happy with you Marion!

  2. This sounds wonderful. I’m going to get it.

  3. This does sound really good! I’d better put Santa on notice. :)

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