Even though a lot of the fiction I write, particularly short fiction, is science fiction or fantasy (or sometimes a blend of the two), I don’t read a lot of genre fiction. My reading goes all over the place – fiction and nonfiction, contemporary, historical, biographical, and so on – and I like it that way. I am interested in so many things that I don’t want to lock myself into a box of my own making. However, I get a good dose of short speculative fiction a few times a year. Once is when the Nebula Award nominations come out. As a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America, I am eligible to vote on the awards, and so I try to read what’s nominated so I can cast a knowledgeable vote.
I also get another healthy dose of short fiction when the best of the year anthologies finally make it to the local library. (Sorry, writers and editors, but I can’t afford to buy books right now.) This one took longer than usual. It’s already 2021, but these are the best stories, as judged by Strahan, from 2019. COVID-19 had something to do with the delay – the library has just recently worked out a system that allows readers to safely pick up books they’ve reserved from outside the building.
In The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Strahan is picking up the torch of the late great editor Gardner Dozois, who died in 2018. Like Dozois, he presents a comprehensive overview of the science fiction field in a long introduction and then presents over five hundred pages of stories.
I’ve written before about the mixed feelings I have when reading best of the year anthologies. There is no such thing as a definitive best of the year collection because it is in fact a selection of stories chosen by one person. It is interesting too that few selections in the various best-of anthologies that come out each year overlap – another example of individual proclivities. Very few of the stories nominated for awards in 2020 made Strahan’s final cut. I also inevitably found several stories I thought were less than excellent, and replacing them with some of the award-nominated stories that Strahan left out would certainly have improved the book.
Having said that, though, I have to admit that overall this anthology has a better-than-average selection of first class speculative fiction. I have had a lot of fun reading some stories that I otherwise would have missed out on.
One of my favorites is “Kali_Na” by Indrapramit Das. It is a tale of a near-future virtual goddess awakening and transforming into the fearsome goddess Kali. Das’s dark descriptive prose reminded me of the incisive stories of my former mentor at Clarion West, Harlan Ellison. It also reminded me of my own street wanderings in Kolkata, where I would sometimes come across foreboding likenesses of the dread goddess Kali.
Another wickedly dark tale of the future is “Contagion’s Eve at the House Noctambulous” by Rich Larson. The title alone is worth the price of admission. It concerns an evil future in which the privileged few have killed off most of the Earth’s population and kept the rest as cowed servants. Although the “surprise” ending can be seen a long way off, the story is still vastly entertaining for its unique take on a grim future.
There are several stories with unique perspectives or ideas. For instance, in “The Way of Wolves” by Tegan Moore, the narrator is an enhanced dog that assists humans in rescue work. In “Emergency Skin” by N. K. Jemisin, the privileged few left a polluted Earth to form a “better” world on a far planet; when a representative returns for some needed supplies, he discovers that the Earth has recovered and is getting along much better without the so-called elite. “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee is narrated by a deep ocean drone that is abandoned and has to make its way through thousands of miles of open ocean to its home base. “Reunion” by Vandana Singh, also set in India, gives me deep joy not only because of its description of a futuristic Mumbai, where I used to live, but also because of the sheer elegance of its prose.
Yes, there are some good stories in this book. It is well worth the read.