Book Review: The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 Edited by Karen Joy Fowler and John Joseph Adams

In contemplating the merits of this new volume of the best speculative fiction of the year 2016, I am inevitably drawn to a comparison to Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Third Annual Collection, which I read a few months ago.  Dozois emphasizes only science fiction and does not consider fantasy.  His collection is also three or four times larger than the volume in question.  However, these are not the most important differences.  The main thing that sets the Dozois anthology apart from this one is that almost all of the short stories, novelettes, and novellas he selects are heavy on story, while less than half of the choices in the Fowler and Adams collection are story-oriented.  In fact, most of the selections are not stories at all, or at least qualify as stories only on the slimmest of pretexts.  Instead, they are dazzling literary exercises, flamboyant language dances, plot synopses, intricate lists and descriptions – but not stories.

I have no problem with literary exercises in the guise of story – I’m a great fan of Borges – and certainly the short form is the place to experiment.  What I object to in this volume is the preponderance of such prose.  Less than half of the selections are actually stories in the traditional sense, with well-developed characters and beginnings, middles, and endings.  I think for this reason that this anthology is imbalanced.  I don’t mind that an anthology has a few less coherent or experimental stories mixed in with the more traditional fare – even the Dozois collection has a few such pieces.  However, on my part, I prefer stories that are stories – that evoke a sense of wonder as I follow the journey of the main character or characters.  The best of the New Wave writers back in the late sixties and early seventies, the era when I became enamored of speculative fiction, such as Roger Zelazny and Samuel Delaney and Robert Silverberg, experimented heavily with prose styles, but they almost always took care to tell a recognizable story as well.  I wouldn’t like the field to get too far away from that.

As I said, I have no objection to most of the stories in question in this volume that lean towards experimentation instead of substance – it’s just that there are too many of them.

Having said that, I have to add that there are several great stories in this book.  A few are duplicates from Dozois’s anthology, notably Nick Wolven’s “No Placeholder for You, My Love,” about virtual personalities attempting to escape an endless cycle of parties, and Kelly Link’s “The Game of Smash and Recovery,” about a crashed sentient spaceship who finally remembers her mission.  “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination” by Vandana Singh is an extremely strong story set in the exotic locales of Mongolia, Italy, and West Africa about people who discover strange devices that alter time and how their lives are changed as a result.  “Three Bodies at Mitanni” by Seth Dickinson is a fascinating hard science fiction tale about a team of analysts that follow a human colonial effort into deep space to determine if the resulting civilizations deserve to continue evolving or perish. “Rat Catcher’s Yellows” by Charlie Jane Anders offers an absorbing look at the effect of gaming on dementia.

Yes, no doubt there are some first-rate stories in this book.  And my favorites may not be yours; that’s the beauty of diversity in literature.  If all best of the year editors thought the same and had the same predilections, the volumes would be identical and there would be no need for so many of them.  So if your tastes run towards stories that are light on plot and heavy on experimentation, this volume may be your cup of tea.  If you prefer stories with more coherent plots and characters, you’ll find many more of those in Dozois’s anthology.

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