So, you may ask, what am I doing reviewing a science fiction anthology on a fantasy blog, especially when I have an entire blog devoted to science fiction?
I said, “You may ask”.
Thank you. I thought you’d never ask.
Well, a couple of months ago, a review copy arrived in the mail. (Thank you, Briana Scharfenberg of Night Shade.) This is Clarke’s first time to edit a year’s best anthology. He’s been the editor for years of Clarkesworld magazine, so he’s got the experience to tackle this type of a project.
Now, I’ve bought most of the annual retrospectives that claim to contain the best stories of the year for a long while. I’ve started many of them, but I usually don’t finish them. Too many other things vying for my attention, and I rarely read anthologies or collections straight through. There’s usually some novelus interruptus going on at some point. Or would that be anthologous interruptus? Anyway, I decided to give this year’s batch (or many of them, at least) a try.
Because this is the first volume of Clarke’s series, and because this blog gets a lot more traffic than any of my others, I decided to review it here, where more people will see it. See. That’s reasonable explanation, isn’t it?
Anyway, on to the review. The questions you’re most wanting to ask is are the stories any good? Does this volume actually contain the best stories published in the past year?
I’m glad you asked.
I can’t answer those questions. But they are certainly good questions to ask. “Best” is to a large extent a question of taste. What I like may not be what you like, although if you’re a regular visitor here, our tastes probably overlap a good deal. The best I can do is compare my taste to Clarke’s and let you draw your own conclusions.
I’ve had a subscription to Clarkesworld for a while, although like most subscriptions, I’ve not read much of it over the last few years. Time constraints and those other things vying for my attention, mostly. But I’ve read enough to know that Clarke’s taste and mine don’t line up very well in some areas. For example:
- Clarke’s preferences tend towards dystopias, while I prefer stories with an upbeat ending, or at least an ending that offers a glimmer of hope for a better future than the present we have now.
- Clarke at times favors fiction with a strong element of social commentary. Me, I don’t like to be preached to in my fiction. I prefer a sense of fun and adventure, with a hearty dose of pulpiness. Fiction that tries to raise my social consciousness better really entertain me if I’m going to like it. This is true whether I agree with the position of the author or not.
- I love time travel. I don’t know if Neil Clarke likes time travel or not. The only story in this volume that has anything close to time travel is Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World”, and the time travel aspect was minor. (In fairness, I didn’t read enough short fiction last year to really know if there were many time travel stories published or not, much less how good they were. I’ll give Clarke the benefit of the doubt on this one and assume the absence of time travel is due to what he had to choose from rather than a difference in taste, although I reserve the right to revise my thoughts on this point.)
So do these things mean the book isn’t worth your time or that I didn’t enjoy it? No, don’t be silly. It means the stories Clarke picked weren’t necessarily the ones I would have picked if I were compiling a similar volume. More on that in a bit. There were some stories I found tedious (“Calved” by Sam J. Miller) or boringly predictable (“Hello, Hello” by Seanan McGuire). Many didn’t elicit a strong reaction either way. On the other hand, there were some that I really liked or surprised me. These include (but aren’t limited to) “Today I Am Paul” by Martin Shoemaker, “Another Word for World” by Ann Leckie, “Iron Pegaus” by Brenda Cooper, “The Audience” by Sean McMullen, “Cocoons” by Nancy Kress, and “Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan” by Ian McDonald. Hmm, everything in that list except the Shoemaker is a space story of some sort or set on another planet. That should tell you something about my likes.
Clarke has taken his selections from a number of different sources, such as Analog, Clarkesword, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and various anthologies. The anthology that Clarke thought the best was Johnathan Strahan’s Meeting Infinity. He chose four stories from that volume. (See my review of that anthology here.) I’ve started reading Strahan’s year’s best anthology, and what I find interesting is that he doesn’t select any of the stories from Meeting Infinity that Clarke does. Again, more on that in a bit.
Clarke provides an introduction, and I found one of the things he had to say very interesting. Clarke speculates that the science fiction field (he is only looking at sf here, not fantasy, but suspect what he says applies to fantasy as well) is heading for a contraction. The basis for that belief is that he sees the overall quality of what was published in 2015 to be lower than in previous years; he gives the overall quality a B- for the year. He thinks it’s very possible that this will cause a contraction because some of the smaller publications won’t be able retain readers at the current level of quality. (This is my interpretation of what he said. Mr. Clarke, if I’ve misstated, please feel free to correct me in the comments.) He also thinks that regular save-our-publication fund raising is an unsustainable business model. I completely agree with him on that.
So, to sum up, Neil Clarke’s The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 1 is a solid inaugural volume in what I hope is a long running series. It often takes a couple of years for an anthology series to find a voice, but I think Clarke has established one through Clarkesworld that fits this series. Even though our tastes aren’t identical or even close in some subgenres, I understand the differences well enough (I hope) to know what to expect and as a reviewer to look past them to provide a balanced review that is informative and useful to all readers regardless of whether our tastes are the same. And while I’ve reached the point in life where I don’t want to read too far outside my comfort zone at novel length (I know what I like and that’s what I want to read and you kids get off my lawn), I’m still largely an omnivore at short lengths, at least for most subgenres of the fantastic. Neil Clarke is an experience and respected editor, so I know he’s going to present some things I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise, and while I don’t expect all of his selections to be to my taste, I’m willing to give them a try. I’m sure I’ll find some that are.
Now, about that stuff I said I’d get back to later. It’s now later. I’ve got three other best of the year anthologies that I’ll be reading. These are the Strahan, Horton, and Dozois volumes. Strahan and Horton include fantasy in their anthologies, while Dozois is only science fiction. The second Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, with series editor John Joseph Adams, isn’t due until early October. (A little late, don’tcha think, guys? I want to be done with this project by then.) I’ve also got Baen’s best military and adventure science fiction volume, an admittedly more limited overview that only considers a subset of the field. (That’s not a bad thing.) Plus I’ll take a look at Ellen Datlow’s Year’s Best Horror, which is also from Night Shade. (Another thank you to Brianna Scharfenberg.) And then there’s Paula Guran’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror. Guran also has a forthcoming best novellas, but it isn’t out until next month.
What I’m planning on doing is reading all of them. I’ll also be reading novels and other things, so it won’t be all year’s best all the time around here. I’m curious to see how the contents compare. The McDonald story seems to be the clear favorite, appearing in the most ToC’s. It’s title is so long, though, that it sticks out. There may be one or two other stories with short titles that I overlooked when I scanned the page. How much overlap remains to be seen. I’ve not sat down and compared the ToC’s among all of them yet, just glanced at them. This is what I find interesting, and highlights my earlier remark about “best” being a subjective term. There are some stories that show up more than once but not in all volumes. If best were truly an objective thing for short fiction, we would only need one or two anthologies.
I may or not review all of these anthologies, but I’m going to try to. I’ll wrap up with a summary post at the end when I’ve finished reading or when I just throw in the towel. That’s where I’ll have more to say about the degree of overlap between the anthologies. Stay tuned!