Growing an Anthology Series: The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016

Last year, John Joseph Adams and guest editor Joe Hill introduced the inaugural edition of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, bringing together twenty of the best stories published in the year 2014, a mixture of rockets and robots, magic and myths. That the rich worlds of science fiction and fantasy short fiction were finally getting their recognition in the mainstream was a joy to many, and Adams and Hill nailed it, crafting a brilliant collection that celebrated writers new and old, across a wide spectrum of identities, as accessible to newcomers as it was to seasoned readers.

And with such a success in the first volume, there inevitably came the question: what will next year’s look like? In the hands of Adams and guest editor Karen Joy Fowler, Volume Two continues to spotlight amazing writers exploring difficult and brilliant concepts, and while the overall styles of the story therein have a different cadence than Volume One, it makes them no less inspiring.

Speaking personally, I’ve not had the pleasure to watch a project of this breadth change hands between editors from one edition to the next, so I approached this collection with a lot of excitement; Joe Hill and Karen Joy Fowler are very different writers, and as this collection shows, have very different tastes. And that’s a very good thing. The last thing a series celebrating science fiction and fantasy needs is stagnation, and while the stories each guest editor chose for their collections are, collectively, wonderful, they also represent the individual concerns of each editor, and what fascinates them. That is not to say either collection is better than the other, but watching the series evolve and delve into interests different than those presented in the volume that preceded it fuels my curiosity about the volumes to come. If there’s any genre that should feel unlimited, it’s science fiction and fantasy, and if the evolution from Volume One to Volume Two proves anything, it’s that.

Fowler’s interests lie in liminal spaces, uncanny valleys, and the Weird as much as they concern themselves with day-to-day tragedy, personal journeys, narrative fluidity, and the exploration of language. In some stories, a sense of time, a sense of place, are less concrete than you’d expect, which means that the emotional core of the stories themselves are that much more potent, and are the true focus of the narrative. Many of the stories in this collection are focused on the use of language to convey emotion and rich complexity, rather than anything resembling linear narrative information.

One half of the best stories in this collection are those that have found a narrative balance: able to establish enough realistic grounding without sacrificing the deep emotional core of the story. A focus on location brings us the best of both worlds: grounded realities that the reader can connect to, as well as beautiful language and challenging narratives that catapult us into the emotional core of the story.

Sam J. Miller’s “The Heat of Us: Notes Toward An Oral History” constructs a spoken word history of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, explores the deep personal, cultural, and geographic histories that kick off a movement, and what the strength of a community can accomplish when pushed to the edge by those that oppress them. Catherynne Valente’s “Planet Lion” looks like a heady science fiction story on the surface, but goes on to tackle merciless colonization, dangerous technology, violence, family, and the myriad ways we are capable of hurting each other. Sofia Samatar’s “Meet Me in Iram” documents one young woman’s attempts to find the city of Iram, hidden, though not always; in finding it, she hopes to gain what she’s desperately been missing. Kij Johnson’s “The Apartment Dweller’s Bestiary” is a short, sweet, and sad look into the many magical monsters that can live in an apartment and how they aren’t enough to bring happiness to a relationship. Charlie Jane Anders’ “Rat Catcher’s Yellows” is about a woman whose wife is afflicted by a rare disease, and the fantasy world that helps draw her back out into reality. Maria Dahvana Headley’s raw and brutal “The Thirteen Mercies” explores a rainy, dense, and almost mythological jungle where thirteen men who must live out the punishment for their war crimes are haunted by a specter with scales and teeth.

The other set of stories that work very well in this collection are strongly in favor of using language and experimentation with narrative form to transport the reader to that emotional heart. These stories are heavily invested in character, in precision of language, in manipulation of form, in order to rocket you toward catharsis, or bittersweet resolution.

Adam Johnson’s “Interesting Facts” is a devastating story of the uncanny, about ghosts, broken families, womanhood, and impending death. Kelly Link’s “The Game of Smash and Recovery” is a dense, strange examination of a relationship between a brother and sister on a world of vampires and robots, and the horrors we’re capable of when we’re truly desperate. Rachel Swirsky’s “Tea Time” details the love story of the Mad Hatter and the Hare, and how sometimes Time is only precious because it cannot be stopped. Dexter Palmer’s “The Daydreamer-By-Proxy” is a discomfiting, absurd, and bittersweet examination of a creature that will dream for you while you work, though it may end up doing much more. Seth Dickinson’s “Three Bodies at Mitanni” is a dense, brutal, and compassionate story of three ambassadors who must decree if certain evolved life can be allowed to continue out in the far galaxies, and the tension that comes between them when they encounter an evolution not thought of before in human consciousness. Vandana Singh’s “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination” recounts three tales of soft spots in the universe, where physics allows for wonders, and lives are changed by those wonders. Liz Ziemska’s “The Mushroom Queen,” is a horrifying reversal as the Mushroom Queen, ruler of all things fungal, and a woman living in the suburbs, yearning for more, switch places with horrifying results. And Ted Chiang’s “The Great Silence,” is a short, sweet love letter to humanity from a species that is very concerned for us.

The remaining stories in the collection all fall on a spectrum between the two pairings of stories above. In some ways, these stories are quieter, or more subdued than their brethren, though no less important for what they have to say. S. L. Huang’s “By Degrees and Dilatory Time” is a bittersweet story of transformation, pain, and the bittersweet resumption of life after a tragedy. Julian Mortimer’s, “Headshot” is a short and fascinating look into a future that melds our military and our obsession with social media. Will Kaufman’s “Things You Can Buy For A Penny” is a self-aware fairy tale, meticulously paced and sharply written, leading you toward an end that cannot be avoided, no matter how much you wish otherwise.

Adams and Fowler have put together another winning year of stories, while successfully showing the range and breadth of the genre without struggling to capture the style of the stories from the previous collection. There has never been a better time in science fiction and fantasy short fiction, and you need look no further than this collection to see that truth. Within, you will find magic, aliens, dystopia, fairy tales, terrifying technology, far-flung futures, uncanny planets, and more. But you’ll also find heartbreak, laughter, compassion, complex morality, acceptance, strength in numbers, love, justice, the absurd, and the bittersweet. Let this collection take you to lands uncharted, and lands unknown, and lands unseen—you will be glad you went, and in these countries, there is something for everyone.

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 is available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Martin Cahill is a contributor to Tor.com, as well as Book Riot and Strange Horizons. He has fiction forthcoming at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. You can follow his musings on Twitter @McflyCahill90. Tweet him about porters and stouts for the Fall, if you think Flash Season 3 will redeem Season 2, and how excited you are on a scale of 9-10 for Arrival this November.

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