The inevitable question about any collection of speculative fiction from 2020 is: “how many pandemic stories?” The answer in the case of HarperCollins's Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2021 is “surprisingly few,” but it would be ridiculous to say the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant political upheaval leave no trace at all. Themes of grief and survival against overwhelming odds abound, as do reflections on the role of storytelling in trying circumstances. But more intriguing is the number of stories centred on radical transformations, both physical and social. In his foreword, series editor John Joseph Adams happily notes that, “despite all of the actual, tragic deaths this year due to the pandemic, periodicals seem to have somehow thrived (or at least survived)” and indeed a couple of notable markets have “returned from the dead” (emphasis his). As the world at large still struggles to process the events of 2020, there is a sense in these stories of something newer and potentially darker being born, as speculative fiction survives by becoming ever weirder.
Physical and social transformations are cannily combined in “The Pill” by Meg Elison. The titular Pill is an experimental treatment that transforms fat people into thin ones, and is approved for mainstream use despite being extremely painful and carrying a one-in-ten risk of death. Elison zeroes in on the visceral and traumatic nature of the process:
you take the Pill and you shit out your fat cells. In huge, yellow, unmanageable flows at first. That's why they scream so much. Imagine shitting fifty pounds of yourself at a go.
As horrifying as the treatment is, it soon becomes ubiquitous, and the narrator finds herself even more excluded and stigmatised as a fat woman than before. Surrounded by flat, identical “Pill bodies,” she finds herself estranged from her family and former life, and becomes a sex worker in an exclusive club where the last of the nation's fat people are lusted after by the now-slim majority. It's a disturbing examination of how certain body types are both disavowed and exploited, the contradiction embodied in a kind of shameful voyeurism. “The Pill” is a bracing and thought-provoking portrayal of societal fatphobia, and deserves recognition as a highlight of short science fiction in 2020.
Physical transformation takes on a more fantastical aspect elsewhere in the anthology. In “Tiger's Feast” by KT Bryski, Emmy, a young girl from a Christian family, is subjected to homophobic bullying and releases her frustrations by feeding a local tiger with “her sin.” As in “The Pill,” there is a visceral unpleasantness to this sense of purgation: “Badness gushes out: hot, coiled, viscous. It steams on the dirt like a pile of black-red guts, quivering and thick-veined.” After the bullying goes a step too far, with one of Emmy's peers pretending to be attracted to her only to humiliate her in front of a larger group of people, she seeks out the tiger again:
As the coldness spreads, Emmy loses herself in the tiger’s golden gaze. Her bones crack, her blood freezes to stopping.
It all happens in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.
Then she rises, glorious, the sunlight shattering on her fur.
This sense of liberation through transformation is immensely cathartic, and it's not hard to read the story as a metaphor for a young person owning their queerness in the face of social stigma. At a time when queer and particularly trans children have found themselves under attack in the US, this kind of fantasy feels important. And yet Bryski also injects a note of ambivalence. The transformation is framed in terms of coldness, of “sharp edges and frost too deep to thaw"; in gaining this new power Emmy loses her humanity, and there is a sense that the shaming she has experienced has produced yet another predatory being.
The ambivalence of becoming monstrous is also explored in Yohanca Delgado's “Our Language.” A riff on the Dominican folklore of the Ciguapa—diminutive hairy creatures capable of immense speed and breathing underwater—the story centres on a young woman who, after being pressured into marriage and childbirth at a young age, finds herself changing into one of the creatures. Their monstrousness is explicitly located in histories of colonialism and gendered oppression. The narrator emphasises that “Ciguapas are always women,” the result of “pressurized alchemy”:
The colonists came, they say, and some island women escaped to the caves and to the sea. Terror morphed our bodies into something monstrous and untraceable. It took less than three years for the colonists to kill everyone else.
The story builds to a heartbreaking climax in which the narrator's son, having returned to the area after a long absence, tries to reconnect with his mother only to reject her again when she refuses surgery to “fix” her condition. The scene closes with a heartbreaking declaration (“I grieved him again and I let him go. This letting-go is called living”), only for the story itself to end on a glorious note of intergenerational solidarity. The entire narrative is revealed to be a communication between the protagonist and her young granddaughter; the Ciguapas, it seems, will survive.
These themes carry over into Yoon Ha Lee's “Beyond the Dragon's Gate” and Kate Elliott's “The Long Walk.” In the former, a starship's AI is revealed to have been “subject to dysphoria” after being moved from one external shell to another. In the latter, an older woman living in a patriarchal society is sent away as an offering to the dragons that guard the land, only to find a society of refugees who can eventually become dragons themselves. But, while these stories raise interesting ideas, that is about all they do, with both of them laboriously leading up to their reveals and then ending before the implications can be satisfyingly explored. There are some weaker stories elsewhere, too. “Schrödinger's Catastrophe” by Gene Doucette is a rather wearing “Alice in Wonderland in space” pastiche, and “Survival Guide” by Karin Lowachee never quite wrestles its themes of grief, inequality, and artificial intelligence to a satisfying conclusion.
But while not every story is a winner, the anthology does offer a pleasing diversity of perspectives. As well as “Our Language,” there are two other stories which centre on the Caribbean. In Karen Lord's “The Plague Doctors,” the book's only outright pandemic story, a scientist from a remote island works with a ragtag global community of researchers to combat a deadly new outbreak, and is eventually faced with a stark choice between medical ethics and the safety of her family. Though written in 2019, the story depressingly predicts the callousness with which certain populations were written off in 2020 and beyond, as the narrator realises that scads of valuable research have been kept from her and her colleagues:
What if there was a cull—not a purposeful, engineered attack, but a carefully curated neglect? Keeping the best chances of prevention and cure for those who could afford to pay for it ... a kind of plutocratic manifest destiny.
Reading this, it's hard not to think about the vaccine apartheid currently impacting the global south, and the lack of widespread access in the Caribbean in particular.
While there are inevitably exclusions to any anthology focusing on American literature, it is gratifying to see the definition here is broad enough to include stories focusing on regions outside the mainland United States. In “Glass Bottle Dancer” by Celeste Rita Baker, for example, a middle-aged woman living in the Virgin Islands learns a new and fiendishly complex version of limbo dancing, with the help of some magical cockroaches. It's a much lighter story than Lord and Delgado's offerings, but it creates a solid character study of its titular dancer and her struggle to be taken seriously, and it builds to an utterly joyful dénouement.
Less straightforward, but told with equal verve, is Shingai Njeri Kagunda's “And This Is How To Stay Alive.” The story centres on a young woman's reaction to the loss of her brother, and a mysterious remedy which allows her to travel back to before his death. It's a dense and heartfelt story, playing inventively with form to convey the dislocation of grief, without descending into hollow misery-mongering. In her contributor's note, Kagunda states that “this is just one version of one story and there are hundreds of thousands of other queer and Kenyan and happy and sad and hopeful and curious Black stories to be told.”
While not every story in the anthology expands or revolutionises the genre, or even hits the mark as entertainment, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2021 is about as effective an ambassador for the genre in the mainstream as one could ask for. It showcases a diverse, rigorous, and endlessly inventive set of writers, preoccupied with the same things as a lot of other people: colonial histories, gendered oppression, and the potential for our bodies and our societies to rapidly change out from under us. The challenge, in this context, is to respond in ways that only science fiction and fantasy writers can. And that is precisely what these writers have done.