Every year numerous anthologies are published that aspire to present "the Year's Best" of genre fiction. Different editors give each volume a different spin. As a reader and consumer, the important thing to discover is which editor's tastes most closely match your own. Then you can simply buy that editor's anthology each year and walk away satisfied. Go to Amazon.com and look at the different tables of contents. Which selection of authors most closely matches your taste? No reviewer can answer that for you (although I'll admit that Strahan is my closest match so far), so instead we have to write about different things, cabbages and kings. Thankfully, the editors of the three Year's Bests at hand have given us hooks, in the shape of their introductions. Here they lay out their goals for each anthology, which gives the lucky reviewer something to really dig into, and use as a starting point for a comparison of the different volumes. The books I have before me are Jonathan Strahan's The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Two, David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's Year's Best Fantasy 8, and the Year's Best SF 13 from the same duo. The differences between the volumes are interesting for what they imply about the current trends in the field.
Strahan begins by pointing out that Once Upon a Time, a serious genre fiction fan or writer could actually read everything published in a given year. That has not been the case for many years now, which makes the Year's Best anthologies particularly valuable:
This idea that SF is in dialogue with itself, that it in some sense progresses and evolves, is an important one. It's what gives readers the sense that SF has an evolutionary centre, a core. (p. 1)
I believe that the flood of new SF and fantasy that has been published over the past decade has played a part in changing the mechanism that allowed SF's dialogue with itself to continue. The enormous volume of work published makes it impossible for a professional writer to keep up with, never mind comment on, the best work in the field. (p. 2)
SF and fantasy are broadening, changing, diverging. I suspect that many of the new movements identified in SF and fantasy over the past few years—steampunk, new space opera, the new weird, and so on—are at least in part a side effect of this. (pp. 2-3)
The purpose of a book like this one is to reflect that change, while also presenting the best of the field. (p. 3)
Strahan is saying that as well as presenting the "best" of the field, it is also important to present a survey of the field to show where interesting evolutions are occurring. Genre boundaries, he argues, are shifting and becoming more porous, and it is important to recognize those trends. His selections include several stories that illustrate this point. Ted Chiang's beautiful and exotic "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" exists at the fuzziest of boundaries where SF and fantasy merge into one another. Daniel Abraham's brilliantly intellectual "The Cambist and Lord Iron" could be straight historical fiction for all the use it makes of its vaguely fantastic setting. Ted Kosmatka's intense "The Prophet of Flores" can be profitably read either as fantasy or as alternate historical science fiction. M. Rickert's disturbing story of child abuse and its aftermath, "Holiday," can be read as either supernatural or mundane horror, as per the reader's inclination—it's equally unsettling either way.
Shifting over to the Hartwell/Cramer anthologies, their introductions indicate different goals. From the fantasy volume:
...we still maintain that genre-bending fiction is not superior to, or more interesting than, or better written than, genre fiction—except when it is so well-done that it expands the genre itself. (p. 1)
From the SF volume:
This book is full of science fiction—every story in the book is clearly that and not something else. It is our opinion that it is a good thing to have genre boundaries. If we didn't, young writers would probably feel compelled to find something else, perhaps less interesting, to transgress or attack to draw attention to themselves. (p. 2)
Generally speaking, Hartwell and Cramer enforce the boundaries fairly strictly. Even when choosing work by the same authors as Strahan—which is quite often; there are 13 authors picked by both—they choose stories that fall more clearly into one stream or the other. Their M. Rickert story, "Don't Ask," is more clearly fantastic than "Holiday," for example, although both delve into uncomfortable aspects of parent-child relationships. They also avoid some of the more "slipstream" or genre-bending authors: no Kelly Link entry here, while Strahan has "The Constable of Abel," nor did they pick up this year's Chiang story. From their story sources one might think that they've modified Damon Knight's famous quote to say: "SF/fantasy is what genre anthologists point to when they say it." Ten of their 23 fantasy stories come from clearly fantasy anthologies, with five coming from Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois's Wizards. Likewise, 10 of the 25 science fiction stories come from clearly SF anthologies, with 5 coming from Lou Ander's Fast Forward 1.
This makes their few selections that do blur categories all the more interesting. Terry Bisson's over-the-top modern-day story of a young boy on a cruise ship that is attacked by pirates, "Pirates of the Somali Coast," has no science fictional element. The boy is in touch with his friends and family via email, which is perfectly possible in today's world of satellite communications. "Always," Karen Joy Fowler's quiet tale of the rise and fall of a Northern California cult, told by one of the few remaining followers, can easily be read as perfectly mainstream with no genre elements at all. Most amusingly, the sole selection from famously hard-SF mag Analog also lacks any genre background. "As You Know, Bob" by John Hemry hilariously tells of an SF story being repeatedly re-written in response to the author's agent's comments. It's not science fiction, it's metafiction about science fiction. Moving to the fantasy volume, we find that their Jeffrey Ford selection is also metafictional, being the account of an author coming up with a fantasy story. It starts off hesitantly, awkwardly, before finally becoming completely immersed in the tale. Wonderfully written, as most Ford stories are, but perhaps not as clearly genre-bound as the introduction would lead one to believe.
It's a little worrying that all the editors are drawing from the same genre pool. There are no stories in any of the collections from such nongenre venues as Harper's, McSweeney's, or Mississippi Review, such as anthologists Jeff and Ann VanderMeer and Matt Cheney like to find for their Best American Fantasy series. The farthest away from the normal genre pool that our editors venture is out to Nature, where Hartwell and Cramer find two short-short SF pieces, by Peter Watts and Gregory Benford. In an anthology as comfortable with genre-bending as Strahan's, it's perhaps a shame that none of the stories come from more unusual sources. I do want to commend Hartwell and Cramer for selecting two stories from James and Kathryn Morrow's memorable anthology of translated European SF, The SFWA European Hall of Fame. It's good to be reminded that SF has a continuing tradition in non-English speaking countries.
I do have to wonder, though, at the fact that in their introduction to the fantasy volume Hartwell and Cramer make sure to remind people that online fiction is generally inferior to printed fiction:
The one 2007 trend we will note here is that original anthologies are growing in importance. And it looks to us as if the online magazines are not in general getting the top stories. (p. 1)
However, between the two volumes they go on to select three stories from online venues, one each from Flurb ("An Evening's Honest Peril" by Mark Laidlaw), Strange Horizons ("Artifice and Intelligence" by Tim Pratt), and Baen's Universe ("Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz Go to War Again" by Garth Nix). They specifically mention excellent online venues in their SF introduction, which is much more encouraging of online fiction. Strahan, while not going out of his way to denigrate online fiction, also doesn't select any. A minor point, but an odd one.
There is no question that the stories contained in these three volumes are of high quality. Strahan gives us 24 stories, by authors from Peter Beagle to Michael Swanwick. The Hartwell/Cramer fantasy volume has 23 stories and their SF volume has 25. With only two stories overlapping between them, there's a serious argument to be made for getting all three if you can afford it. For instance, then you would get two Bruce Sterling stories, "Kiosk" (Strahan) and "The Lustration" (Hartwell/Cramer), both fiercely extrapolative and original SF. One would get Daryl Gregory doing SF ("Dead Horse Point," Strahan) and fantasy ("Unpossible," Hartwell/Cramer fantasy). There are only a few duds, the most notable being Charles Stross's "humorous" novelette in Strahan.
As with any anthologies, especially ones making statements about genre definitions, arguing with the editors is half the fun. (If Chris Roberson's retro-adventure story "Such Small Deer" had been published 80 years ago, it would clearly be SF, as it adopts the biological premises from The Island of Dr. Moreau. What's it doing in Hartwell/Cramer's fantasy volume?) However, all three volumes contain some of the best work being done in the genre today. Take for example Theodora Goss's two gorgeous fairytale-style stories ("Princess Lucinda and the Hound of the Moon," Hartwell/Cramer, and "Singing of Mount Abora," Strahan) and Elizabeth Hand's acclaimed contemporary eco-revenge story "Winter's Wife," included in both Strahan and Hartwell/Cramer fantasy. Even self-proclaimed border police Hartwell and Cramer let in the occasional fuzzy case if it's fun, adventurous, and well written. While arguments can be made about genre definitions, and about stories and authors included or left out, there's no doubt that each of these volumes is worth the money. They will certainly be time savers compared to going out and reading the increasing volume of short fiction being published each year.
Karen Burnham is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a speculative fiction reviewer. She lives in Long Beach, CA, and blogs at the Spiral Galaxy Reviewing Laboratory. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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