We’re excited to share the introduction to The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019, written by guest editor Carmen Maria Machado!
This omnivorous selection of stories chosen by series editor John Joseph Adams and World Fantasy Award finalist Machado is a display of the most boundary-pushing, genre-blurring, stylistically singular science fiction and fantasy stories published in the last year. By sending us to alternate universes and chronicling ordinary magic, introducing us to mythical beasts and talking animals, and engaging with a wide spectrum of emotion from tenderness to fear, each of these stories challenge the way we see our place in the cosmos. The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019 represents a wide range of the most accomplished voices working in science fiction and fantasy, in fiction, today—each story dazzles with ambition, striking prose, and the promise of the other and the unencountered.
In an ideal world, I would have opened this essay with one of my favorite quotes from Salvador Dalí, the one he wrote in his diary about how he’s discovered that he’s always been painting the rhinoceros horn. It’s one of my favorite quotes about art, and I have always found its general thrust —the subtly singular focus of artistic obsession—to be funny, useful, and instructive. But instead I find myself feeling uncharitable, like a beleaguered parent driving a minivan across the Southwest whose fraternal twins are in the back seat drawing invisible lines down the upholstery and swatting at each other.
There is currently an unending, utterly exhausting fight between two particular writing communities: literary fiction and genre fiction. Fight might not even be the correct word, as it lacks both the acute thrill and the clear resolution of physical combat. You cannot attend a con, conference, or spend any time on social media without running into this petty squabbling, in which some writers and readers of the two communities find themselves thoughtlessly repeating a series of untrue truisms about the other in what they consider sympathetic or like-minded spaces: con panels, for example, or classrooms, or the surprisingly narrow scope of their Twitter universe. The untrue truisms are slightly different only in the most minor way: the clichés spouted by genre writers about literary fiction tend to be ignorant and defensive; the clichés spouted by literary writers about genre fiction tend to be ignorant and snobbish. “Literary fiction is boring and entirely about college professors sleeping with their students!” “Genre fiction is unserious and entirely about dragons and spaceships! Pew pew, pew pew.” They are such tedious clichés, and ones performed in such bad faith, that all they tell me is that the offending thinker is more interested in victimhood or condescension than in reading good work or becoming a better writer. It is solipsistic, irritating, and the opposite of useful. What a coincidence, I always think, that the fiction you think is terrible and not worth learning from is also one you’ve apparently never read. Blanket statements about these communities fail to be many things: they are not smart, not thoughtful, not generous, not a reflection of an omnivorous mind—all things you need as a reader and a writer!—but perhaps most criminally, they are not interesting.
I’ve been teaching undergraduates for the better part of a decade, and spend much of my time telling them that literature is about potential, about the brazen and thrilling integration of other people’s history and art with their history and art, about ambitious leaps of genre and worldbuilding and the ordinary magic of the human experience and the minute perfection of the sentence and pursuing your own obsessions and dozens of other wonderful things besides. And then they turn to the practitioners and readers of the craft and see endless, thoughtless squabbling, pointless category-enforcing, people who refuse to read outside of their comfort zones or even acknowledge their value, people who think of the work of certain writers as theirs instead of everyone’s. I am trying to show them that traditions are not destinies, that no community can own a writer or a book, that the existence of multiple distinct communities of literature means that there is more fiction to read, that the house is even bigger than you had imagined. And yet some folks are only interested in locking the doors, turning out the lights. It’s bullshit, and it hits every button of irritation I possess.
Kelly Link has often spoken of how genre is, among other things, “the promise of pleasure,” and if you think of all fiction as possessing or belonging to a genre (which I do), the issue becomes less combative. Instead of How can I denigrate the category to which this story belongs, and by extension this story? you might ask, What kind of pleasure does this story bring me? (Or, What kind of pleasure might this story bring someone else?) With that perspective fiction becomes infused with promise. This story might bring the deep somatic thrill of terror or the alluring perfume of mystery; it might sting with familiarity or drag you howling into the unknown, or both. It might give you sentences so thoughtful and precise you feel dizzy with specificity; those sentences might defamiliarize the familiar or be a garden path into some fresh territory you’ve never seen before. It might tell a story that you, in your eternal human nearsightedness, have never encountered before. It might tell you one that you didn’t know you needed to hear.
I read for this edition of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy with no particular agenda other than my personal pleasure. These stories—as well as those listed as honorable mentions—come from literary magazines and publishers and genre magazines and publishers, from authors who have been recognized by genre and literary awards, by graduates of the Clarion and MFA programs, and by folks who haven’t done either. All of these details about the authors and the magazines that published their work are incidental. Here you will find an undeniable bias toward the use of formal constraints, vibrant and muscular prose, ambitious weirdness . Many of these stories unnerved me, and others impressed me with their scope and their intimacy. There are several stories that reveal my weakness for compelling, complex, tender narratives about animals and animal-like creatures. There is one story that made me salivate, one that made me stand up out of my chair, one that made me cry. All of them made me happy to be a reader and writer in 2019.
And that’s all that matters, really. Why waste time drawing boundaries and performing ancient arguments and erecting dead horses and beating straw men and enacting coldness and smugness when you could be reading and salivating and standing and yelling and crying and learning and experiencing narrative pleasure and wonder and joy? Why, when you can do those things, would you do anything else?
—Carmen Maria Machado
Introduction by Carmen Maria Machado from THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY 2019.
Introduction copyright © by Carmen Maria Machado. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
All rights reserved.