THE BEST SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY OF THE YEAR VOLUME THIRTEEN edited by Jonathan Strahan
Solaris (Rebellion Publishing) pb, £12.99
Reviewed by Ritchie Valentine Smith
I chose this anthology to review because of two specific areas of curiosity. It is a large and comprehensive volume selected from works published in 2018, so it should show what the field is like now. I also chose it to see if I could draw some conclusions about how SFF has changed since I began writing about it way back when.
First off, this is a very good collection indeed, and I am only sorry this series has come to an end. Jonathan Strahan, the Australian editor, clearly knows his business.
Second, how much have things changed? A lot, of course, though some things are familiar. The cover is by Jim Burns. The place of honour in the collection (and probably the best story in it) is from Ursula K. Le Guin.
In terms of writers, there are lots of changes from the days when John W Campbell tried to get Isaac Asimov to change his name to something acceptably Anglo. The introduction gives enthusiastic mention of Black Panther – ‘a film that put Afrofuturism – the exploration of the developing intersection of African / African Diaspora culture with technology’. There are black writers here like N.K. Jemisin and Tade Thompson, both of them considerable talents. There is – going from the names – a Chinese presence, with Ken Liu, Zen Cho, Yoon Ha Lee and others, and Indian like Vandana Singh. There are also many, many more women. Excellent!
As for the stories themselves, there is still interplanetary and interstellar travel – though now there is no fuss about it. I was more struck by the number of fairies featured here. Faeries? Yes. For example, Naomi Kritzer has a cute story about ‘We Fairies’. The young protagonist is a science nerd in 1962, a world re-created convincingly. Much of the interest, however, is created by a somewhat clichéd role reversal. Amelia is a girl, not allowed to flourish. The science teacher – a man, of course – won’t let her into the science club, which is (of course) boys only. So far, so clichéd. In this 1962, girls must capture ‘fairies’ to achieve the feminine. Spunky (so to speak) Amelia is no shrinking flower. She feeds her science-project mice, alive, to a snake. She does capture her fairy. Instead of using the fairy to gain femininity, Amelia imprisons her, treating the creature like a specimen. In the end, though, she lets the creature escape. She rejects all the fairy represents and by doing that, achieves self-realization.
As well as Kritzer, there’s another (less entertaining) use of all-female perspective. Intervention is about running crèches in outer space and therefore, about raising children. In a sense, not a lot happens, but the different worlds are pictured convincingly.
More to my own taste was Tade Thompson’s Yard Dog. It’s about life in and around NYC jazz bars in ‘1944 or 45’, with fiery music, drugs, etc. The prose is pleasingly direct and clear and tells us about Yard and Shed, who are two… Well, I’m glad to say just who they are is never made unambiguous. Thompson could have made this story ‘just’ SF, with Shed and Yard as time-travellers or aliens. Instead, they simply are: possibly agents of the Apocalypse, certainly alien. The author keeps you guessing.
There are more faeries in The Bookcase Expedition, which is about fairies and some bookshelves. However, not much happens, though it’s beautifully written and detailed. I also found the non-ending somewhat strange.
So what else is new? Well, some of what’s new I found hard to follow. For example, there’s a wonderful prose-poem A Brief and Fearful Star by Carmen Maria Machado. However, when I was asking myself what had changed the world in the story, I could not answer. ‘(S)omething terrible. Something in the sky, burning. … The star came and everything moved.’ Was it a solar flare? A by-passing rogue sun? Even after three readings, I’m not sure. But the quality of this writing is very, very high indeed.
In Widdam Vandana Singh gives us something interesting and inventive and even poetic: ‘A dream came to me… A code, a secret code that travelled the AI darknet. There are many rogue codes, but this one was different.’ This story was so inventive it was almost too inventive – but somehow not quite an attention-grabbing narrative. As with A Brief and Fearful Star, though, I do wonder how popular even such very fine writing can be, without a clearer narrative. (This might be a longer debate for another day.)
To finish, here is some unmitigated praise: Le Guin’s Firelight is timeless and wonderful. This story is about the dying of the light – in other words, about dying. Ged – the protagonist of the famous Earthsea Trilogy – is an old, weak man, dreaming by the fireside. As his life expires, his mind roams. I found it fascinating, moving and superbly written: ‘it was a strange knowledge, but there was a joy in knowing it’ … ‘when he was (no longer) a man of power he had received his inheritance as a man’. What do we learn, as Ged fades away? This: There is nothing to fear.
So that’s a story that’s heavily recommended, from an anthology that’s also heavily recommended.