The third annual Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy features many lesser-known writers and deserves praise for showcasing more diversity—specifically, more women and more people of differing racial and ethnic backgrounds—than typical genre anthologies. We are cheering hard for this series to succeed, especially with the tragic passing of Gardner Dozois recently. It’s more important than ever that quality anthologies like this one continue to highlight the tremendous work that so many talented sci-fi writers are generating today.
However, we have noticed a bit of a slide in quality since this anthology debuted in 2015 and a strong turn away from hard sci-fi toward fantasy, fantasy/horror, social commentary and genre satire. We hope future volumes of this series find a way to feature more hard science fiction without losing the diversity of voices represented. We’ve highlighted a few noteworthy stories below. We hope you find this review useful. Happy reading!
“Head, Scales, Tongue, Tail” by Leigh Bardugo
This well-written story narrated by a teenager is somewhat evocative of early Stephen King, mixing teen romance, coming of age, and horror fantasy. Grace’s summer fling with the mysterious and reclusive boy Eli centers around her family’s Dairy Queen in rural Little Spindle, a village in upstate New York, and the local swimming hole, site of some strange goings-on. The story does an admirable job of weaving together Grace’s growing love for Eli and her jealousy over his annual winter disappearances, all steeped in 1980s nostalgia. In the end, Eli is directly linked to the mysterious beast spotted in the pond, a revelation that changes Eli’s and Gracie’s lives forever.
“Teenagers from Outer Space” by Dale Bailey
Despite its somewhat comic title, this is a serious story about a pretty high school girl, Joan Hayden, who avoids her abusive boyfriend and father by falling for and eventually moving in with one of the local aliens who settled in the bad part of Milledgeville, Ohio, where the action is set in an alternative 1950s. Fairly simple but effective in its social commentary, Bailey’s sci-fi story clearly depicts the emotional abusiveness that Joan experiences through her boyfriend and, even more alarmingly, her father, against the backdrop of the town’s prejudice toward their peaceful alien cohabitants, which eventually drives them away for good.
“The Future Is Blue” by Catherynne M. Valente
This is an allegorical story in which Tetley Abednego lives on one of the last “inhabitable” towns, a floating garbage dump, after the world has been flooded due to global warming. The descriptions of the towns and villages (named after different categories of trash) are clever: Scrapmetal Abby, etc. And Tetley is a compelling narrator and protagonist. The story focuses less on the hard science governing this post-apocalyptic world and more about the societal reactions.
“On the Fringes of the Fractal” by Greg Van Eekhout
This story is set in a world governed by “stats”—a metric similar to Facebook likes—which rule everything from a person’s credit score to who they can associate with. The writing style feels similar to early Neal Stephenson (in a good way), and the story follows a character who tries to save a friend whose stat has taken a meteoric plunge.
“Smear” by Brian Evenson
This sparse but effective story tells of a long-distance space passenger who wakes from hibernation too early, is plagued by a vision, and wastes away over many years. “Smear” is an allegory and, as with much of Evenson’s work, provides little character detail or background. Instead, it focuses on creating an immersive and ambiguous world operating at an existential level, exploring the edge of human perception.
“The City Born Great” by N. K. Jemisin
Containing perhaps the most powerful voice of any piece in this anthology, Jemisin’s story is told almost completely as metaphor. The main character is New York City on the eve of its birth, as a new global metropolis with its own personality and identity. There are forces trying to prevent New York (also the protagonist) from surviving. The power of the story lies in the description of what it means to be a city: “…great cities are like any other living things, being born and maturing and wearying and dying in their turn.”
“Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station. Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0” by Caroline M. Yoachim
Here is a choose-your-own-adventure style story told in the second person. Although primarily a satire and also more linear in structure than the usual choose-your-own adventure, there is more than enough self-awareness and wit to keep the reader entertained.
A FINAL THOUGHT
One cool feature of this anthology are the end notes by each author. Not just a collection of citations, this section is like album liner notes. Almost as entertaining as the stories themselves, these comments include the genesis of the stories, inspirations, influences, and significance to the author personally.
For more, check out:
The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017
John Joseph Adams, Series Editor and Charles Yu, Editor
Published October 2, 2017 by Mariner Books