Thursday, April 17, 2014

Kind of a Review: The Best SFF 8

I'm calling this "kind of" a review because reviewing an anthology, especially one with the word "best" in the name is kind of a tricky thing. Should I talk about the stories themselves? The editorial vision? The cover? And what on earth is my goal here? It's hard, and it's taken me a while to get my head together on it. But yet, but yet...I do have some things I'd like to say.

So let's kind of review this book.

Here is the publisher Solaris' blurb:

The celebrated The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year series comes to the UK – Solaris is proud  to be the new home for the latest volume in Jonathan Strahan’s critically-acclaimed SFF anthology series!    
The best, most original, and brightest science fiction and fantasy stories from around the globe from the  past twelve months are brought together in one collection by the multiple-award-winning editor. This  highly popular series is released in the UK for the first time and includes stories from both the biggest  names in the field and the most exciting new talents, including Neil Gaiman, Joe Abercrombie, Karin  Tidbeck, An Owomoyela, Madeline Ashby, Lavie Tidhar, Charlie Jane Anders, Geoff Ryman, Caitlin R Kiernan  and many more.    
With a fantastic range of diverse authors and cutting-edge science fiction, this essential book is an  established series in the US but has only been found on import in the UK. It now joins Solaris’ high-profile  anthology list. 
Now, even just a cursory glance at the author list will tell you this is big leagues stuff. And Jonathan Strahan, the editor, has a damned fine track record with not only this series, but his Starry Night anthology and many (MANY) more. And having read this book, I can say that yes, if you are a fan of SFF, or are interested in seeing where the current state of short speculative fiction lies, this will be a good overview. For those wondering if it lives up the "Best of " pedigree, I certainly think so. I believe there are some really great stories here, and no clunkers.

For me, the highlight of the anthology is Yoon Ha Lee's beautifully written Effigy Nights. The language is lush and deep, and flows around the border between SF and Fantasy with grace.

Neal Gaiman's story, The Sleeper and the Spindle, is Neal Gaiman-y through and through, a loving take on an old story (yes, you guessed which one), and certainly well worth including.

I could go on and on about the good stories and the great stories, but in terms of ideas to grab on to, in terms of something to actually discuss, I want to focus on the "why" of this anthology. In his introduction, Mr. Strahan writes about his direction for this collection, a desire to explore the breadth of current SFF from the core to the fringes, however:
"I have  restricted this book to stories that I believe are definitely SF or fantasy in  some way. That’s the contract I have with you, the reader, so some stories  that I loved this year aren’t here because I couldn’t convince myself they  belonged (the best example of this is Karen Joy Fowler’s wonderful  “The Science of Herself” which has a science fictional worldview, but  isn’t really SF at all), while the stories you’re about to encounter will  hopefully delight and entertain while providing a view of what SF was  about in 2013."
This is, obviously, a respectable attitude to have toward a "Best of" anthology, and one I can get behind. However, the statement itself, that these stories are "definitely SF or Fantasy in some way" is challenged thoroughly by the first story, and somewhat by the second.

The first story, Joe Abercrombie's Some Desperado is unabashedly, obviously and inarguably a Western.
A bank robber is fleeing from a trio of bounty hunters across a wasted desert, she stumbles on a crumbling ghost town and through luck, wit and plain old grit is able to turn the tables. The only non-Western element I can find is an absence of guns (the bounty hunters use bows and a"cavalry sabre," a weapon that was in use in the American West well past the Civil War). Seriously. There is no magic, no non-human creatures, no far off lands (the lands remain unnamed throughout) or exotic Gods or Goddesses, and no reference to kings, knights, or other standard Fantasy tropes. There is literally nothing that would prevent this story from being published as a Western except the use of "marks" instead of dollars or pesos. And yet, if we take Strahan at his word, he feels this story "definitely" falls in the realm of modern Fantasy. This, I take it, is a statement about the genre itself: its mainstreaming, its blurring and shifting base, has lead to a much more relaxed definition of what Fantasy actually is. And I'm fine with that.

The same might be said for Greg Egan's "Zero for Conduct." Apart from the pun of the title (you'll get it after you read the story) the story could very well happen tomorrow. I mean, I'm no physicist or chemist, so I can't judge just how possible or impossible the creation of the key tech in the story really is, but in terms of the setting, the political and social implications of disruptive technologies in the current day, this story might be as much at home in The New Yorker as in (the sadly defunct) Isaac Asimov's...but here it is, in a Best of SFF anthology.

Naturally, the majority of stories in the collection are much clearer and less arguable, but still represent the changing flavor and blurring lines of the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres. The above mentioned Yoon Ha Lee story is a space opera as imagined by Guy Gavriel Kay. Lavie Tidhar's The Bookseller nods directly at the way genres and definitions thereof evolve. This is, overall, a refreshingly modern feeling anthology across the board in terms of theme, setting and character.

And of course, I would be entirely remiss in not mentioning the fact that this anthology has stories written by women! At least 11 of them (K J Parker is an enigma)! And people with non-European sounding names! Given the recent issues with gender and ethnicity that have been boiling over in the SFF world the past few years, I honestly think it's important to note that this book showcases not only stories featuring outside-the-usual SFF settings and characters, but also writers who are not the usual white guy SFF authors. (There are a LOT of white guy SFF authors, people. WAY too many, I often think.)

So, in short, get it. Read it. Enjoy it. Affiliate link: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Eight (Best SF & Fantasy of the Year)

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