This is the second year of Strahan’s new best of the year science fiction anthology series, one that he has deliberately modeled after the late Gardner Dozois’s classic decades-long series. (Strahan acknowledges Dozois in the introduction.) With all respect to Dozois, who was one of the greatest speculative fiction editors of all time, this series has some distinct advantages over the previous one, at least in format. Strahan has decided not to include novellas, but instead sticks to short stories and novelettes. I think this is a wise decision. It makes the book shorter (although this volume is still almost six hundred pages) and easier to physically manage; and most importantly, it is in a larger more readable font. Like Dozois’s, it includes a roundup of the year’s news in science fiction writing and publishing, which you can read or skip depending on whether keeping up with such things is important to you.
In this anthology you’ll find Strahan’s selection of what he considers the best science fiction stories that were published in the year 2020. Of course, any such selection of stories is a subjective appraisal of the field. I usually read two or three best of the year anthologies of science fiction and fantasy when they come out, and I am always struck by the fact that there are very few matches. Each editor has their own ideas about what constitutes the best writing in the field.
One distinction of this anthology is that I managed to get through every story from beginning to end. Usually when I am reading anthologies I find a few stories that I just can’t get into and skip over; not so in this one. That said, I have to add that though some stories are very good, none of them absolutely blast me away with their brilliance. Have I become jaded and spoiled by the standard by which I measure every story I read: the genre-shattering brilliant stories of New Wave writers of the late 1960s and 1970s? I don’t know.
In this anthology I was surprised at the number of stories of cute and clever robots, which except for a few modern embellishments might have been at home in Golden Age science fiction anthologies of the 1950s. At the other end of the spectrum, there are some cutting edge stories that showcase the recent emphasis on the writing and publishing of African American speculative fiction. For instance, “The Transition of OSOOSI” by Ozzie M. Gartrell is an excellent story of hackers that create new types of virtual superheroes to bring about social change. “How to Pay Reparations: A Documentary” by Tochi Onyebuchi is exactly what the title suggests: a description of a fictional documentary of the social and financial implications when one city votes to distribute reparations to its African American residents.
Although the robot stories provide light entertainment, the most profound stories are those that deal with human situations and emotions. A good example is “The Bahrain Underground Bazaar” by Nadia Afifi, which concerns an old woman obsessed with her imminent death who comes to realize that her obsession is hurting beloved family members. Another touching story is “An Important Failure” by Rebecca Campbell, which tells of a violin maker striving to find the right wood to create an instrument fit for a virtuoso in a world decimated by global warming. Rich Larsen is a writer who seldom disappoints; in “How Quini the Squid Misplaced His Klobucar” he gives us a gritty heist story whose characters have deep heartfelt motivations. “Sparklybits” by Nick Wolven is a wonderful observation on parenthood. Other fine stories that effectively combine deep human emotion with the wonder of provocative ideas include “Yellow and the Perception of Reality” by Maureen McHugh and “The Mermaid Astronaut” by Yoon Ha Lee.
In conclusion, this is an entertaining anthology; whether you like light humorous fare, incisive social commentary, tense action, or heartfelt emotion, you’ll find something to please you.