While not quite Dozois-sized in the number of stories and pages it contains, The Best Fantasy and Science Fiction of the Year Volume 8 edited by Jonathan Strahan does have one major advantage over its counterpart. Strahan, unlike Gardner Dozois’s own yearly tomes, boldly mixes both science fiction and fantasy into one volume, rather than trying to figure out what belongs in Science Fiction and what is firmly in the domain of fantasy. Eight volumes in, Strahan’s editorial voice in selecting the best of the year from both SF and fantasy together is distinctive and strong.
The stories are:
- “Some Desperado”, Joe Abercrombie (Dangerous Women)
- “Zero for Conduct”, Greg Egan (Twelve Tomorrows)
- “Effigy Nights”, Yoon Ha Lee (Clarkesworld)
- “Rosary and Goldenstar”, Geoff Ryman (F&SF)
- “The Sleeper and the Spindle”, Neil Gaiman (Rags and Bones)
- “Cave and Julia”, M. John Harrison (Kindle Singles)
- “The Herons of Mer de l’Ouest”, M Bennardo (Lightspeed)
- “Water”, Ramez Naam (An Aura of Familiarity)
- “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”, Ted Chiang (Subterranean)
- “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Tor.com)
- “Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls”, Richard Parks (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
- “Rag and Bone”, Priya Sharma (Tor.com)
- “The Book Seller”, Lavie Tidhar (Interzone)
- “The Sun and I”, K J Parker (Subterranean)
- “The Promise of Space”, James Patrick Kelly (Clarkesworld)
- “The Master Conjurer”, Charlie Jane Anders (Lightspeed)
- “The Pilgrim and the Angel”, E. Lily Yu (McSweeney’s 45)
- “Entangled”, Ian R Macleod (Asimov’s)
- “Fade to Gold”, Benjanun Sriduangkaew (End of the Road)
- “Selkies Stories are for Losers”, Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons)
- “In Metal, In Bone”, An Owomoyela (Eclipse Online)
- “Kormack the Lucky”, Eleanor Arnason (F&SF)
- “Sing”, Karin Tidbeck (Tor.com)
- “Social Services”, Madeline Ashby (An Aura of Familiarity)
- “The Road of Needles”, Caitlín R Kiernan (Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales)
- “Mystic Falls”, Robert Reed (Clarkesworld)
- “The Queen of Night’s Aria”, Ian McDonald (Old Mars)
- “The Irish Astronaut”, Val Nolan (Electric Velocipede)
The lead story, Desperado by Joe Abercrombie, is a fine and well crafted story, once again showing the author’s ability to distill his narratives and ideas to lengths other than doorstopper. Smoke is an excellent character who is well drawn, and her conflict with the men who are following her is excellently depicted. It’s a secondary world fantasy, but with few, if any, really, fantastic elements. It’s really a Western set on that secondary world.
This light or low genre element in the lead story is a facet of the volume which repeats most notably in Cave and Julia by M. John Harrison. The story was not new for me (I’d bought and read it last year). Once again, as in my first read, I was struck by the nearly genre-free elements (aside from the Islandia-like existence of Julia’s home nation) as well as the effortless, excellent writing of two characters I didn’t particularly care for. It’s a story whose craft I can admire, even as I don’t care for it. However, it’s thinly-genre nature makes me wonder what it’s doing here at all.
The notable inclusion of the boundary and light-genre stories in this volume is puzzling. There is no denying that they are, by and large, very good stories. But what does their inclusion in the Best Fantasy and Science Fiction of the Year mean for the field? Is it a case of Strahan’s fondness for the edges of genre overwhelming a more center-of-field point of view? Or is it a reflection of the state of the field today, especially the short fiction market? Given the editor’s skill, I have to believe it’s indicative of the field more than being solely the editor’s individual taste, but I do see that there is an issue to grapple with here. This may tie into the idea of “Rainbow SF” or (to my preference) “Prismatic SF”, the broadening of the field, in terms of themes, diversity, writers, visibility. Is the best of the field, as seen by Strahan here in his diffuse and diverse selections, and pushing into these borderlands because that is the trend in the field as a whole? Or are these two different phenomena? Food for thought.
Moving beyond that, however, there are some really excellent stories for me that are firmly and solidly within fantasy and science fiction.
Effigy Nights by Yoon Ha Lee is an enchanting work of science fantasy. A city state under siege in a distant part of the galaxy, using monsters cut out of books to fight a hopeless battle against the besiegers. It’s poetic, it’s mythic, it’s tragic, and it’s utterly entertaining. It also felt distinctly different, and yet the same, than previous fiction of Lee’s that I’ve read. I do wonder now at just how wide her range can be.
Water by Ramez Naam reminds me a bit of Philip K Dick and more than a little bit of Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants in its story of a corporate executive in an advertisement-mad future who winds up getting a taste of his own medicine. Naam’s taste for writing fiction about brain-hacking made the ending lines of this story effective and chilling.
Zero for Conduct by Greg Egan was a heartwarming (and slightly heartbreaking story) of a young woman, a genius really, whose Central Asian warzone existence is a real impediment to the flowering of that genius. This, though, goes back to the problem of relatively low-genre-element stories in the volume. Not even the real implications of the single bit of speculation in the story are explored or used, much to my chagrin.
K.J. Parker is known for writing fantasy that doesn’t have too many fantastical elements to them (in a manner similar to the Abercrombie story above), and sometimes one has to squint to see how they are fantasy for anything other than being in a secondary world. The Sun and I, in its story of the development of a religion by cynical con-men, does seem to follow doggedly down that path, but a surprising twist in the story does make it more firmly fantastical than I expected. And, as usual, the characters and the prose are just gorgeous.
I have been a longtime fan of local author Eleanor Arnason’s work, and I knew from conversations I’ve had with her and panels she has been on that she’s been working in an Icelandic tradition lately. Kormack the Lucky, then, feels like it’s nearly ripped out of Icelandic sagas, as the titular character tangles with the faerie realm. It’s a lighthearted story that shows that even some very western traditions for story matter remain mainly undiscovered by authors.
The Queen of Night’s Aria by Ian McDonald is a strange duck of a story from an unusual (OLD MARS) anthology. I did like the Space 1889 meets War of the Worlds feel of the technology and the universe, though, as a longstanding war against Martians on Mars provides the opportunity for Count Jack Fitzgerald to try and make a comeback tour. It was the anchor story in the Old Mars anthology and it easily could have been the anchor story here, too, I think.
Overall, there is a good mix of short stories here, with something for everyone. As I do every time I read one of these volumes, I wish that such a volume had been transported back to me some months ago to read and ponder the stories. It would have made my Hugo nomination ballot in the short fiction categories stronger than it was.