Book Review: Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2105 edited by Joe Hill and John Joseph Adams

I picked up this anthology recently when I went to check out the new physical Amazon book store in University Village shopping mall in Seattle.  I had heard through the online short story market grapevine that Adams was soliciting story submissions for a new series of year’s best anthologies, but I didn’t realize until I bought this that it’s the first entry in the science fiction and fantasy category in the larger “Best American” ongoing collections, which include Best American Short Stories, Mystery Stories, Essays, Travel Writing, Sports Writing, and so on.

To make the final selections, Adams perused the thousands of science fiction and fantasy stories published in 2014 and culled his favorites down to a list of eighty possibilities.  He then sent copies of the eighty stories to Joe Hill with the authors’ names removed, and Joe Hill read them all and chose the twenty he liked best as the final entrants in this volume.

Now of course a best of the year anthology is like any other anthology or magazine that selects an elite amount of finalists from thousands of possibilities.  It does not, of course, mean that these stories are the definitive best of the year, only that they are the stories that were the editors’ personal favorites.  There are a number of best of the year anthologies every year in the science fiction and fantasy field, and the stories seldom match volume to volume, because editors have different tastes.

As with any anthology, I found some of the stories to be superlative, some to be readable, some to be rather poor, and a few to be boring and all but unreadable.  I won’t go into criticizing the poor stories, because I have no inclination to discourage the writers.  Some of the stories I find excellent are “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawaii” by Alaya Dawn Johnson, about the social implications of an army of vampires conquering the world; Each to Each by Seanan McGuire, about a submarine crew of women mutated into mermaids to become more efficient sailors in the U.S. Navy; How the Marquis Got His Coat Back by Neil Gaiman, a bizarre fantasy set in the London Below universe from his “Neverwhere” novel; and “The Bad Graft” by Karen Russell, about a woman who becomes possessed by the spirit of a Joshua tree.

Some of the stories that I didn’t much care for appeared initially in slick literary magazines, and they struck me as similar to those that were innovative back in the 1960s and 1970s but have by now been done to death.  They are presented in polished language but bring nothing new to classics stories in their various subgenres.

Overall, I found the story quality no better or worse than in similar anthologies I have read recently.  What I did appreciate and find interesting, though, was the process of blind final selection by alternating editors.  Although Adams will continue to be the series editor and make initial selections, he plans to choose different editors each year to come up with the final choices.  This process, along with the opportunity to read some of the better new work in the field and the inexpensive price will probably encourage me to read more volumes in this series as they come out.  You’re never going to find an anthology that prompts bells and whistles from every story reading every time unless you edit it yourself, but I’ve found I can get something constructive from all the stories, good and bad.  The good ones will give me a great reading experience, and the bad ones will show me how not to do it – that is, cause me to analyze what’s wrong so I can avoid making the same mistakes.

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