Book Review: The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020 Edited by John Joseph Adams and Diana Gabaldon

The Best American series, which in recent years has come to include separate volumes of science fiction and fantasy stories, has a distinctive method of selecting its stories. The series editor, who stays the same year after year, reads as many stories published in the genre as he can manage and selects his favorites (in this case a total of eighty – forty science fiction stories and forty fantasy stories) for perusal by a yearly guest editor. The guest editor then selects ten each of science fiction and fantasy for inclusion in the book. Unfortunately the editor of this series has decided not to allow any self-published material to be included, even though self-published stories are beginning to appear on more and more genre awards lists. I suppose it is to cut down on what is already an onerous amount of reading material. Still…

Because of the way the stories are chosen, the Best in the title is a bit of a misnomer; Favorite would be more accurate, because, of course, even if numerous guest editors read the same batch of eighty stories, the table of contents would be different from one editor to the next. People simply don’t have the same tastes. That’s why there is seldom much overlap in the various best of the year volumes that come out in any given year – because the editors are choosing their personal favorites, and their tastes do not match. Be that as it may, bringing in different guest editors each year for this series gives each entry a distinct flavor. Unlike the series editor, most of the guest editors do not edit professionally, so we receive a unique look at the idiosyncratic reading preferences of a range of writers.

A few of the stories in this volume are repeats from Jonathan Strahan’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction, which I reviewed back in March, but not many. (If you want to find out more of the stories that were my personal favorites from 2020, read that review.) Most of the stories I read for the first time here. As almost always with story anthologies, there were some I liked a lot, some that to me seemed mediocre, and some that I found tedious and difficult to get through. Thus it almost always is with personal tastes.

One of my favorites is “Between the Dark and the Dark” by Deji Bryce Olukotun. Two hundred starships have been sent out from a dying Earth to colonize new worlds; the twist, however, is that the behavior of the crews is being monitored by designated stewards. These watchdogs of propriety have the power to send out a signal and obliterate all the would-be colonists if they detect inappropriate activities. A steward observes a video that appears to indicate cannibalism among the crew, and then a debate ensues about whether to terminate everyone onboard the ship. Another great story, less somber but more delightful, is “Thirty-Three Wicked Daughters” by Kelly Barnhill. It is a humorous fantasy romp with a lot of unexpected twists.

I also enjoyed “Sacrid’s Pod” by Adam-Troy Castro. This story begins with a locked box premise. A free-thinking young woman is imprisoned for life by straight-laced fundamentalist parents in a prison deep in space run by autonomous AI entities. Her dilemma is how to escape and get back to terrorize her parents and help them see the errors of their ways.

A story that is thematically relevant to the present day is “Thoughts and Prayers” by Ken Liu. A young woman is killed in a mass shooting, and her mother posts a sweet memorial online. However, the memorial and the young woman are attacked by trolls, who have become ubiquitous and unstoppable. The story calls into question the concepts of truth and of free speech in an era in which almost anything goes online.

In closing, we’ll recall a quote from the movie Forest Gump: “Life is a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.” So it is with short story anthologies. It is inevitable that readers will enjoy some stories more than others. We read them for those delicious goodies hidden among the mix.

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