The New Voices of Fantasy is a collection of short stories edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman that collects, in Weisman’s words, "the stories of nineteen authors of fantasy that Peter S. Beagle and I firmly believe will soon be much better known." This is a vague enough definition of "new" for the collection to include stories that are mostly a couple years old (in a few cases from as early as 2011), and from authors ranging from the quite obscure to others who will already be known by many readers. Some—like Amal El-Motar, E. Lily Yu, and Ursula Vernon—have won prominent awards; others, like Max Gladstone, Sofia Samatar, and Hannu Rajaniemi, are already well-known novelists. Furthermore, four of the nineteen stories were originally published here in Strange Horizons, so that's another potential source of familiarity. Still, at least some of these authors will be completely new to even the most widely read reader.
Of course, the first question to ask of any anthology is: are there some great stories in it? The answer is yes!
For example, I hadn’t read any short fiction from Ursula Vernon before, though, based on her Hugo Award-winning graphic novel Digger—an epic fantasy that manages to be whimsical, humorous, and philosophical—my expectations were high. Her story here, “Jackalope Wives,” takes some familiar themes (it’s essentially a selkie story, one of several in this collection), but manages to pack an outsized emotional heft into its fairly short length. Its storytelling voice gives the text the air of something that is drawn from deeply-rooted folklore, so it's interesting to note that the existence of "jackalopes" seem to be a recent and rather silly tall tale, made up by a guy in Wyoming in the 1930s and never taken seriously by anyone. I'm not sure Vernon was thinking about cultural appropriation when she made this choice, but regardless it's an interesting solution to the otherwise thorny issues which surround incorporating myth into modern stories. Instead of taking, say, an authentic Native American tradition and possibly being seen as cheapening it, Vernon has taken a piece of inauthentic kitsch and given it more gravitas. But more important than all that is the fact the story is wonderfully told and fairly unique in choosing an old grandmother as its protagonist.
Carmen Maria Mochado's “The Husband Stitch” isn't quite a selkie story, but it's close, and she gives it a horrific twist that makes it the collection's most memorable story. The narrator recounts a long life with a single fantastic element, a mysterious ribbon around the narrator's neck, but which is otherwise filled with mostly normal things: falling in love, getting married, having children, then returning to an empty nest. Yet this biography is imparted in a way that turns a normal life into something both banal and suffocating. Carefully selected details depict the narrator's life as being completely defined by the desires of her husband. Only the ribbon is her own, yet he wants to possess that as well. Throughout, the narrator freely makes her own choices, yet the story suggests she's completely trapped by her circumstances.
Then there's E. Lily Yu's "Cartographer Wasps and Anarchist Bees," which many will remember from when it was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula. I read it and liked it at the time, and while Yu’s was therefore not a "new voice" for me it was a pleasure to revisit the story. Much of the story feels like a transposition of human colonial history onto animals, as imperialist wasps use their superior science and organization to easily subjugate a far more numerous indigenous population of bees. The wasps consider bees to be savages and, under their instruction, many of the bees start to agree. What distinguishes the story from similar treatments, besides its Chinese setting and Yu's concisely beautiful writing, is that it does not remove humans from the equation, despite casting wasps as Europeans. For all the wasps' arrogant science, they are helpless when humans come to take their maps. The wasps have studied their world but in no way have they mastered it.
Unsurprisingly for a collection with nineteen stories in it, there are a few puzzling choices. A.C. Wise's "The Practical Witch's Guide to Acquiring Real Estate" has the conceit that it is a book written for witches with living houses, combining ideas from both the way humans buy property and manage pets. It's a cute sort of joke, but there's never enough force behind any of the punchlines to carry the story. JY Yang's "Tiger Baby" likewise feels a little too one-note, telling of a woman who fervently believes she is a tiger. There are a few well-done scenes, but the story seems mostly intended to set up a twist ending that doesn't have the impact to justify what came before.
Because this collection aspires to provide a view of where fantasy is going, it's hard to discuss without bringing up definitional questions about what qualifies as fantasy. I know few horses have been beaten so much, nor so long after their death, but this collection does provoke a few thoughts that hopefully are of interest.
First, what of the arguably narrowing distinction between mainstream fiction and genre fantasy? Peter S. Beagle spends much of his introduction recounting an anecdote from his time as a student, in which he composed a genre story only to have the professor reject it out of hand. He then admits that the authors in this collection "aren’t at all likely to undergo either the intellectual snobbery or the commercial exclusion that my generation had to withstand, to one degree or another." Is that because mainstream literature has long since begun to commonly incorporate fantastic elements? Is it because at least some genre fiction is now written in a "literary" style? Are these distinctions even valuable any more?
A few stories in the collection provide some direct evidence. Weisman in his introduction notes that mainstream stories have been intentionally included. Carmen Maria Mochado's excellent "The Husband Stitch" was originally published in Granta, a mainstream periodical, but Mochado herself has published many stories in genre markets like Strange Horizons. Insomuch as there is still a genre ghetto, she's probably a member of it. So the real mainstream presence in the anthology comes from two stories in particular. One, Adam Ehrlich Sachs' "The Philosophers", was originally published by the New Yorker. The other, Ben Loory's "The Duck", is from the author's own short story collection. Both of these authors have not published in genre markets and seem to be clear representatives of mainstream fiction. If their presence here was meant to emphasize the increasing unity of mainstream and fantasy, the stories have rather the opposite effect. Simply put, they don't feel like the others. "The Duck" is a short piece that I suspect might have been included because its use of an animal protagonist (a "boy duck") suggests the sort of folklore voice used by many other authors in the collection. But the story is really an absurdist piece: the duck is in love with a rock. Genre boundaries are fluid enough that certainly an argument can be made for calling this fantasy, even drawing a line from its use of animal imagery to, say, the use of fairies in Kelly Sandoval’s "The One They Took Before." But the stories simply do not feel the same, not in retrospect, nor on first read with no knowledge of which authors are "genre" and which aren't. For its part, "The Philosophers" is even more out of place. It’s composed of three very short, very tenuously connected stories whose fantastic elements are minimal at best and portrayed by the story itself more as neuroses. The clearest fantastic element, a time machine, is couched in the language of science fiction rather than fantasy.
Had you asked me before reading this collection, I might have said that the distinction between fantastic mainstream works and genre fantasy is that, for mainstream fiction, the fantastic is simply a means to explore a particular theme or idea. Genre fantasy, on the other hand, can be thought of as truly positing a different sort of world and persuading the reader to believe in it for the duration of the story. I think this is still a useful distinction, but it comes close to defining nearly all the stories in this collection as mainstream, so something is amiss. I'll come back to this in a moment, but for now I'll observe that two mainstream authors in this collection include some fantastic elements, but the stories feel different because they are not working in any sort of recognizable fantastic tradition. The duck in love with the rock presupposes no reader knowledge, no great dialogue, except a little bit about ducks and human nature. "The Philosophers" likewise connects with Borges and HG Wells but not genre fantasy or older folklore.
In contrast, nearly every other story in the collection is somehow building upon some fantastic tradition or other, more or less directly. Max Gladstone’s "A Kiss With Teeth" is a vampire story, Hannu Rajaniemi’s "The Haunting of Apollo A7LB" is a ghost story that feels like fantasy despite involving the space program, and Sofia Samatar’s "Selkie Stories are For Losers" is, despite its title, a selkie story. "Jackalope Wives" and "Cartographer Wasps" don't build on any real traditions that I'm aware of, but they are told in the sort of folklore voice often used in traditional fairy tales, and so evoke these traditions for most readers.
The only story that joins the two mainstream stories in this formulation is Maria Dahvana Headley's "The Tallest Doll in New York City," which uses a slang-heavy narration to evoke the roaring twenties while describing how two New York City skyscrapers go on a date. It's very well done, a remarkable piece that, to my way of thinking, would fit right in at the New Yorker, but happens to have been published by Tor.com. And good for them! I'm not handing out parking tickets; just trying to figure out why a few of these stories seem different.
Since I’ve claimed that most stories in the anthology can be classified as genre fantasy, you could be forgiven for thinking I’m grouping them with the novels you’d find on the shelf at a bookstore in the fantasy section, but it’s interesting to note this isn’t the case. Novel-length fantasy is more diverse than ever, too diverse for me to summarize here, and over the years many distinct strains have developed including epic fantasy, sword and sorcery, urban fantasy, and political fantasy, plus young adult variations on all these and more.
Yet the stories in this collection seem mostly to draw from older and simpler fantastic traditions: vampires, selkies, ghosts, fairies, and so on. Philip K. Dick, who knew something about writing both short stories and novels, once wrote that “a short story may deal with a murder; a novel deals with the murderer.” In other words, a short story can describe an event, but only the longer form of the novel allows for a complex character to be properly explored. The stories of this collection, though they are surely pursuing different goals than most fantasy novels, imply this formulation is at least incomplete, for almost none of them rely on plot for their effect. Perhaps the one exception is Usman T. Malik’s “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn,” but that’s a novella and by far the longest piece in the anthology.
Instead, I would argue most of these stories, in lieu of fully capturing a character, strive to capture some particular quality of their protagonist’s experience. Sometimes that can be a character’s reaction to a particular situation or moment, other times it’s a quality of experience that runs throughout the character’s life. The successful story is one that conjures these situations powerfully enough for the reader to then contrast them with their own experience. In Alyssa Wong’s “Hungry Mothers and Starving Daughters,” the main character feeds on the negative thoughts of others but is corrupted by them, allowing us to reflect on the way the negative thoughts of others affect our own lives. In Sarah Pinsker’s “Left a Century to Sit Unmoved,” meanwhile, people continue to dive into a secluded pond even though occasionally those who do disappear, letting us think about what motivates reckless actions in ourselves and others. Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” goes farther and puts this comparison directly into the story, contrasting the narrator’s feelings of abandonment by her selkie mother with her best friend’s mundane family problems.
The difference in approach to story is most notable with Samatar, Rajaniemi, and Gladstone because they have published novels that, each in very different ways, try to immerse the reader in a secondary world. Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief (2010) almost drowns the reader in neologisms, for example, while Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria (2013) uses long stretches of florid description. Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead (2012) is the most conventional of these three, but it nevertheless establishes its world through dialogue and exposition as its protagonist begins a career in necromancy. Three very different approaches, then; but what they all have in common is that they wouldn’t work in a short story.
With their far smaller authorial investment and, let’s face it, greater freedom from financial incentives, one would think short stories would be a far more experimental form than commercial novels. So it’s a surprise that although Samatar, Rajaniemi, and Gladstone have written such distinctive novels, their short stories here feel very similar to each other and to most other stories in the collection. Maybe this is selection effect and the editors simply like this kind of story. But perhaps it stems from the unique challenges in writing short-form genre fantasy. It’s unreasonable to expect authors to conjure settings comparable to Middle Earth or Earthsea in just a few pages. By tying into traditional and therefore widespread tropes, these stories let the reader fill in much of the imaginative ground without the need for exposition or demonstration. This heightens the impact an otherwise short story might have, but it means the experience of these stories have more in common (the reader) than the equivalent number of novels.
None of this should take away from the fact this is a solid collection with many interesting stories written by a remarkably diverse set of authors. The similarity between stories means it’s not representative of the vast expressive range of fantasy as a genre, but if you like what these stories are doing, there’ll be a lot to like.