I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately, what with The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year 2017 edited by Jonathan Strahan, The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith, and now this volume. Normally I like to alternate between reading a volume of fiction and then a volume of nonfiction, but the reason I jumped right into reading this one after finishing Cordwainer Smith is that I had ordered it from the library months ago, before the library even had it, and it finally arrived, and I had to grab it and read it when I did because if I didn’t, someone else in the growing waiting list would take it. I won’t go into another explanation of why my poverty forces me to wait for new books from the library instead of buying them.
I have in the past read more than one best of the year short story collection in the same year, but never so closely together. It allows me to compare the choices of the editors and brings out the dramatic difference in tone between the two volumes. So far (I haven’t finished the Adams and Yu book yet) I have seen that Strahan leans much more heavily towards fantasy and fairy tales, while Adams and Yu, although offering an even mix of fantasy and science fiction, tend more towards realism with just one element of fantasy or science fiction mixed in, rather than immersion in alternate worlds. Strahan also has numerous more dark offerings, while Adams and Yu lean towards more light-hearted fare. There are several repeats from Strahan’s collection, but they also omitted three of my favorite stories that Strahan included, all of which are exceedingly dark and yet exceedingly lovely: “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” by Alyssa Wong, “Red Dirt Witch” by N.K. Jemisin, and “Red as Blood and White as Bone” by Theodora Goss.
One dark devastating tale that Adams and Yu include is “Vulcanization” by Nisi Shawl. I’ve read a few others of her stories, but this one stands out. Set in Africa during the time of her new novel Everfair, it describes a particularly evil haunting of the Belgian king Leopold, which would have been no more than he deserved.
I have read the other volume of best of the year 2017 so recently that I have been skipping over the stories that are repeats from Strahan’s book. One story that is unique to this volume and that first saw light in a small literary magazine called the Beloit Fiction Journal, though, stopped me in my tracks. It’s called “Openness” by Alexander Weinstein. It’s one of those rare things: a perfect gem of a story, exactly the right length, with precise prose, brilliant characterization, and a uniquely presented idea. It concerns a near future in which people scarcely speak to each other but instead give access to their personalities through various layers of networked interaction. At the heart of it is a love story concerning two people who meet and let down various levels of defenses until they make a decision to open themselves completely to each other. Highly recommended. Great story.
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As for the rest of the stories in the book, most are readable and entertaining. “Not by Wardrobe, Tornado, or Looking Glass” by Jeremiah Tolbert is a very clever portal story with a fine twist ending. “The Story of Kau Yu” by Peter Beagle is an elegant unicorn fantasy set in China. Overall, the collection is a good read, although it contains several stories that I personally would not have chosen as representing the best work of the year. If I had read only this “best of” collection, I might have come to the conclusion that it was simply a weak year for speculative fiction, but because I read the other collection first, I realize that the inclusion of certain other stories would have made it significantly stronger.