San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2016; $15.95 tpb/$9.99 ebook; 285 pages
The concept of this series is interesting but a bit confused.
The series editor (Adams) reads thousands of short sf/f stories each year and picks eighty of them—forty sf, forty fantasy. Then he gives them, stripped of identification, to the year’s guest editor (Fowler), who picks ten sf and ten fantasy stories, and that’s the book.
The first part I find confusing is the “American” criterion: the stories have to be in English, by an American or Canadian writer, published in a nationally distributed American or Canadian publication. Which excludes (reasonably, I suppose ... ) Francophone Canadian fiction—but also seems to exclude (say) an American’s story published in a British magazine such as Interzone, which seems problematic. If that’s the case, then why not a Briton’s story published in an American magazine? The criteria seem artificially narrow. (And one might quibble, given the North American focus, about whether Hawai’ian fiction should be allowed....)
The other part I find confusing is the firm requirement of ten each sf and fantasy stories, because, with some of the stories about in this edition, I’d like to know which bucket they put them in.
Yes, but what about the stories?
There are certainly no stories in this volume I’d call bad or even mediocre. But there are a number that left me wondering what I’d just read.
Let me step back from that statement for a moment and say that I have no problems with experimental fiction. But I do have trouble with the idea that of all the thousands of sf/f stories published last year, only half a dozen (more or less) traditional narratives were among the twenty best. Seriously? I find myself speculating about how this happened—whether, for example, in the sheer exhaustion of reading thousands of stories, the ones that stick out in Adams’s memory tend to be experimental.
At any rate, the result is a book that is actually harder to read than I expect from a “Best of the Year” anthology. Some of the stories demand a deep level of reader engagement—again, no bad thing, but a thing better (to my mind) used as the spice rather than the main ingredient.
The very first story is a perfect example of what I mean. “Meet Me in Iram” (Sofia Samatar) is a Borgesean piece about an “unbuilt city” whose author claims in the notes that “Every word of it is true.” It’s a delicate confection, made of little bits of prose, layered together to make something that is not quite a story as we know the concept: nothing actually seems to happen, and nothing seems to be resolved—or left unresolved. It’s satisfying on its own terms, but you have to figure out what those terms are as you read.
Next up is “The Game of Smash and Recovery” (Kelly Link), a relatively straightforward tale of people left behind on a planet with vampires. Only, well, it isn’t that straightforward, and nobody is what they seem to be, and it’s glorious.
“Interesting Facts” (Adam Johnson) is one of those stories where I can’t figure out whether it’s sf or fantasy or both or neither. Ostensibly the story of a woman going through the aftermath of a radical mastectomy, it herkyjerks along by way of Vonnegutian “hiccups”—interspersed “interesting facts,” and the narrator’s obsessive observations of other women’s breasts. Her status becomes problematic as the story progresses and ends in a kind of limbo.
“Planet Lion” (Catherynne M. Valente) should, to my mind, have been on this year’s Hugo ballot. On the surface it’s Yet Another Story of How Humans Fuck Up a New Planet, but beneath that is some of the most daring prose I’ve seen in ages—and, yes, that makes it “experimental” so what?
“The Apartment Dweller’s Bestiary” (Kij Johnson) is another nonstory, a collection of sketches in alphabetical order about strange things that might live in apartments. It’s fun and wildly imaginative, but I have a little trouble considering it as one of the twenty best of any year.
“By Degrees and Dilatory Time” (S.L. Huang) tells us about a man who receives a radical transplant for a rare cancer of the eyes and what comes of it—in particular, how he gets used to it, about the human ability to get used to damn near anything.
“The Mushroom Queen” (Liz Ziemska), by contrast, is an equally straightforward fantasy about, well, mushrooms and what it’s like to be them. Not too many fantasy stories are based on science. This is one.
“The Daydreamer by Proxy” (Dexter Palmer) is told in the form of a corporate handout. It is satirical and has a huge sting in the tail.
“Tea Time” (Rachel Swirsky) is probably the story I wanted most to like but couldn’t. It’s a creepy variation on certain characters from Alice, and, while I don’t at all mind variations on that theme, this one just didn’t work for me. Nonetheless, it’s powerful in its reimagination of the relationship of the Hatter and the Hare.
“Headshot” (Julian Mortimer Smith) is a dark, funny satire on all manner of things, in just five pages.
“The Duniazát” (Salman Rushdie) is a master at play, telling the story of the philosopher Ibn Rushd (known in Christendom as Averroës) and a woman he never seems to suspect is a djinn.
“No Placeholder for You, My Love” (Nick Wolven) is one of those wonderful science-fictional games of “figure out what is going on here before I reveal it,” but it works because it’s also a richly told story of love in the world or something like it.
“The Thirteen Mercies” (Maria Dahvana Headly) is a brutal fantasy of soldiers punished for doing what they were created and sent out to do.
“Lightning Jack’s Last Ride” (Dale Bailey) is a classic American tall tale set after peak oil, told by someone who was inside the story and knows the truth about its bigger-than-life Robbing Hood.
“Things You Can Buy for a Penny” (Will Kaufman) would fit well in with the catalog of Neil Gaiman or Lord Dunsany: a timeless fairy story about how the granter of wishes turns the knife.
“Rat Catcher’s Yellows” (Charlie Jane Anders) may well be the best story in this book. Like “Planet Lion,” it should have been award bait this year. A VR game helps a woman suffering from an infectious dementia hold it together but at a cost.
“The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History” (Sam J. Miller) disturbed the daylights out of me. Another “is it sf or fantasy” yarn, it retells the story of the Stonewall Uprising from an alternate universe where things turned out both better and worse than they did in ours. It’s done well with characters who have grit and gristle; but I came away from it wondering, why? It runs the risk of being the gay equivalent of the “Magic Negro Story,” but it’s not for me to say whether it’s offensive or uplifting....
“Three Bodies at Mitanni” (Seth Dickinson) is a classic Campbellian story, very much in the tradition of “The Cold Equations.” Three (simulated) people from Earth are required to decide whether or not to destroy a human colony for the protection of humanity.
“Ambiguity Machines: An Examination” (Vandana Singh) is on the border between story and not a story: it tells three rather fragmentary stories then sets the student a problem regarding them.
Finally, “The Great Silence” (Ted Chiang) is a meditation on parrots and the Fermi Paradox. If Karen Joy Fowler didn’t at least suspect in her blind reading that this was Chiang, she’s not as perceptive as I think she is because his style of thinking and writing is all over it (and that’s a good thing).
Dan’l Danehy-Oakes lives in Alameda, California.