First things first. I hate when you can’t find the table of contents for an anthology. So here it is, with an assist from editor Jonathan Strahan. I’ve organized the stories in Volume 11 of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year in order of appearance.
Introduction, Jonathan Strahan
“The Future is Blue”, Catherynne M Valente (Drowned Worlds)
“Spinning Silver”, Naomi Novik (The Starlit Wood)
“Mika Model”, Paolo Bacigalupi (Slate)
“Two’s Company”, Joe Abercrombie (Sharp Ends)
“You Make Pattaya”, Rich Larson (Interzone 247)
“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay “, Alyssa Wong (Uncanny 10, 5-6/16)
“A Salvaging of Ghosts”, Aliette de Bodard (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 01/03/16)
“Even the Crumbs Were Delicious”, Daryl Gregory (The Starlit Wood)
“Number Nine Moon”, Alex Irvine (F&SF, 1/16)
“Things with Beards”, Sam J Miller (Clarkesworld 117, 6/16)
“Successor, Usurper, Replacement”, Alice Sola Kim (Buzzfeed, 10/26/16)
“Laws of Night and Silk”, Seth Dickinson (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 26 May 2016)
“Touring with the Alien”, Carolyn Ives Gilman (Clarkesworld 115, 4/16)
“The Great Detective”, Delia Sherman (Tor.com)
“Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home”, Genevieve Valentine (Clarkesworld)
“Those Shadows Laugh”, Geoff Ryman (F&SF, 9-10/16)
“Seasons of Glass and Iron”, Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit wood)
“The Art of Space Travel”, Nina Allan (Tor.com)
“Whisper Road (Murder Ballad No. 9)”, Caitlín R. Kiernan (Sirenia Digest 125, 7/16)
“Red Dirt Witch”, N.K. Jemisin (Fantasy/PoC Destroy Fantasy)
“Red as Blood and White as Bone”, Theodora Goss (Tor.com)
“Terminal”, Lavie Tidhar (Tor.com, 04/16)
“Foxfire Foxfire”, Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, March 2016)
“Elves of Antarctica”, Paul McAuley (Drowned Worlds)
“The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight”, E Lily Yu (Uncanny 12)
“Seven Birthdays”, Ken Liu (Bridging Infinity)
“The Visitor from Taured”, Ian R. MacLeod (Asimov’s, 9/16)
“Fable”, Charles Yu (The New Yorker, 5/30/16)
As Mr. Strahan points out in his introduction–and don’t you love the introductions to best-of volumes?–science fiction and fantasy are fields in the midst of a great number of changes. Science fiction was one of my early loves. I started very early with Asimov and Ellison and Bradbury and other giants of the genre and loved Asimov’s and Analog and F&SF. I loved the way that ideas drive the field. Great SF is all about the truly extreme WHAT IFs.
What if the Axis won WWII and each took possession of half of the United States? (Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.)
What if there were a medical procedure that could make you and your husband young again; you both undergo the procedure, but it only works on your spouse? (Sawyer’s Rollback.)
What if a little kid general were Earth’s only hope against hostile aliens? (Card’s Ender’s Game.)
Everything changes, unfortunately. (I don’t like change.) Over the past twenty years, it seems to me, science fiction and fantasy have evolved in the same direction as literary fiction. Less focus on plot, more focus on atmosphere. More emphasis on playing with language. Keeping the reader by inviting them to resolve the abstract.
There are, of course, many ways to tell a story and Mr. Strahan presents a volume of work that engages a wide range of protagonists, settings and ideas. I thought it would be interesting to compare two of my favorites to demonstrate how we can take different routes to the same destination.
Rich Larson’s “You Make Pattaya” announces itself in an interesting manner and establishes character, setting and tone in a felicitous manner. Let’s take a look at the first paragraph:
Dorian sprawled back on sweaty sheets, watching Nan, or Nahm, or whatever her name was, grind up against the mirror, beaming at the pop star projected there like she’d never seen smartglass before. He knew she was from some rural eastern province; she’d babbled as much to him while he crushed and wrapped parachutes for their first round of party polls. But after a year in Pattaya, you’d think she would have lost the big eyes and the bubbliness. Both of which were starting to massively grate on him.
What do we learn immediately and what do we love?
- There’s sex going on. Many people like reading about that sort of thing. (Subject matter)
- This is science fiction. There’s some kind of TV show playing in the mirror. (Genre)
- Nan or Nahm is a rural girl in the big city. She must be relatively poor and probably has found a lot of ways to make money, regardless of whether or not she’s being exploited. (Theme)
- Pattaya. City in Thailand. Where there’s lots of water and therefore lots of boats. A place where, as I understand it from Law & Order: SVU, there are slightly different attitudes about the connection between sex and money. (Setting.)
- Her bubbliness “grates” on him. Dorian isn’t the world’s sweetest guy. (Characterization.)
Mr. Larson gets the narrative off and running very quickly and packs all of the elements of our writers’ toolbox into as few sentences as possible. The story speeds along nicely, while still allowing the reader to enjoy the setting and the technology.
I don’t want to give away too much of the story, so I’ll be circumspect. It’s clear that Dorian feels great lust for Nahm. He also understands how hard she has worked to provide for herself; he’s a scammer, too. (He skims personal information from the unprotected devices tourists carry around.) The story takes place over a short period of time and drops the characters into a taut, compelling plot: Dorian and Nahm are going to team up and engage in a lucrative caper. (Capers are so much fun! Things happen! There are big stakes!
I also admired that Dorian and Nahm are not pushed into straitjackets and forced to act according to their…”demographics.” Sure, Nahm’s English is accented. That makes sense. But accents don’t mean as much about a person as their actions, right? Instead of writing Nahm to be a cartoonish virtuous victim of circumstance and economics, Mr. Larson allows her to be good and bad. Just like real human beings.
Ian R. MacLeod’s “The Visitor From Taured” is an interesting counterpart to the Larson story. A character named Lita tells the story, split into a number of different sections. Lita’s tale takes place over the course of several decades and is really about her relationship with Rob Holm, a handsome rogue who devoted his life to astrophysics. Lita, you see, is one of the rare old-fashioned people who goes to college to learn about those archaic, non-interactive narratives that people called “books.”
This story is not a whiz-bang caper. The narrative covers a massive amount of time in only twenty-four pages and a lot less actual stuff happens. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If the plot is not as big and flashy, the author must simply make sure that he or she offers the reader something else in return. How did Mr. MacLeod keep my attention, even though there wasn’t as much plot as a Star Wars movie?
- Lots of book and English grad student talk. I guess this won’t work for everyone, but it did work for me because I could relate so well.
- Romance! We all love romance. Lita tells us very early in the story how handsome and temperamental Rob is. My study of Hugh Grant movies has convinced me that is the magic combination to win over the ladies.
- Seeds are planted and allowed to grow. Humans love beginnings, middles, and ends. Lita convinces Rob to try reading one of those confusing paper-based books. He soon likes books. His tastes evolve and change. Literature becomes a way for them to relate. See how this development can keep the reader’s attention?
- Consummation. It’s pretty clear how Lita feels about Rob–and why she’s telling us the story in the first place. It’s altogether fitting and proper that she and he come together.
These two stories are, in a way, romance stories, but they’re helpful to us because of their differences. We can take our time with a narrative or we can zoom along, but we must always serve our specific characters and plot in a manner that will keep the audience’s attention.
Mr. Strahan has assembled a diverse roster of stories and seems to have taken great pains to search beyond the Big Three magazines. I’ve always thought of the O. Henry collections of literary short stories as the literary, experimental cousins of the slightly more staid Best American series. Perhaps Mr. Strahan’s collections are where you can turn when you are more in the mood for poeticism than plot or in a time when you have a hungrier heart than mind.