05 September 2019

Review: The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 4 edited by Neil Clarke

Trade paperback, 599 pages
Published 2019 (contents: 2018)

Acquired July 2019
Read August 2019
The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 4
edited by Neil Clarke

So for the science fiction creative writing class I'm teaching this fall, I wanted a source of short fiction. A lot of the thinking behind my class has been motivated by contemplating what would have helped me at my students' stage of development. I know that when I first started mailing short sf out to magazine, I piled up rejections very quickly. Looking back, it's pretty obvious why. At age 20, my understanding of sf was largely informed by two things: film and tv (especially Star Trek) and sf novels I read when I was a kid (so mostly ones published before I was born). I had no sense at all of what science fiction in the year 2005 was like, and was just churning out sub-Star Trek stories. No wonder I got rejected! So I want my students to see what is happening in print science fiction now. We're only a week in, and it's clear they all have a strong understanding of the genre from film and tv... but even the writing majors have clearly read little written sf. To provide such an overview, I decided to assign the most recent volume of Clarke's Best Science Fiction of the Year. I've never read any of his anthologies before, but based on the stories from Clarkesworld that I've read, he has a sense of good sf that accords with my own, and he always has sensical things to say on Reddit.

I read the whole anthology the month before classes began. I was impressed. Often, when I review "best of" anthologies, I go story by story and mark each story "thumbs up" (feels like it belongs), "thumbs sideways" (I'm neutral), or "thumbs down" (I don't see why this is here), but at twenty-nine stories, this would get to be a very long review very quickly! But what I can say is that I would stack many of these up against what made the short fiction ballots for the Hugo Awards this year. S. Qiouyi Lu's "Mother Tongues," for example, is better by far than anything that did make the ballot in Best Short Story, with its clever use of the second person and typography. (It did make the longlist, but was pretty far down in fourteenth.) And even though I did really like the Best Novelette ballot this year, Ken Liu's "Byzantine Empathy" would have been a worthy addition to it. There were only two stories both on the Hugo shortlist and in this book, both strong: "When We Were Starless" by Simone Heller and "Nine Last Days on Planet Earth" by Daryl Gregory. I was also pleased to see Vandana Singh's "Requiem" here, which I nominated, but did not even make the longlist. The advantage that Clarke has over the Hugos is that he clearly reads everything, whereas the Hugos are biased toward free-to-access e-magazines. "Mother Tongues" is from Asimov's, which used to dominate the Hugo ballot but now barely gets a look in; "Byzantine Empathy" is from an original print anthology series; "Requiem" is from a single-author collection (an impressively deep cut, I felt).

I speaks highly that I put all but eleven of them on the syllabus for my class. I put every story I liked on the syllabus, and a few more that I didn't like, but felt were doing something interesting. Just some quick notes on a few other stories here:
  • Kelly Robson's "Intervention" (from the anthology Infinity's End) takes place in the same world as her Hugo-nominated Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, and like it, is good at unspooling an sf backstory.
  • Alyssa Wong's dark "All the Time We've Left to Spend" (from the anthology Robots vs. Fairies) is a great example of exploring character through an sf lens.
  • There are two different stories about people being trapped in smart houses, Madeleine Ashby's "Domestic Violence" (from Slate) and Elizabeth Bear's "Okay, Glory" (from the anthology Twelve Tomorrows), but they're very different, and both very good.
  • Vanessa Fogg's "Traces of Us" (from GigaNotoSaurus, an e-mag that just does one story per month) is an interesting example of generic crossover, as it's both a romance and hard sf.
  • I wasn't super into Nick Wolven's "Lab B-15" (from Analog), but it's a great example of how to slowly reveal a plot, where each answer just leads to more questions.
  • Yoon Ha Lee's "Entropy War" (from the anthology 2001) isn't a proper story, but a set of rules for a dice game! I think I liked it, but I am curious to see what my students will think.
There's a wide diversity of storytelling styles and subgenres here, and it convinces me that short sf is a thriving field. I also really liked Neil Clarke's introduction on the state of sf in 2018. I'm glad my gamble paid off, and I will be picking up future (and past!) volumes in this series for sure.

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