Book Review:  The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2021 Edited by John Joseph Adams and Veronica Roth

This collection has a different tone than the other best of the year collection I recently read and reviewed, The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Volume 2 edited by Jonathan Straham, and it’s not just that it includes fantasy. The selection process is different, and that has something to do with it. Straham chooses the stories for his collection on his own, while with Adams it is a dual process. Throughout the year Adams searches for what he considers the best speculative fiction stories of the year from as many traditional publications as he can find. (He does not include self-published works, which is a shame, but understandable considering how much more complex the selection process would be.) He comes up with a list of eighty, forty science fiction stories and forty fantasy stories, which he then passes on to a guest editor. This year it is Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent series. The guest editor reads the stories blind, that is, with the authors’ names removed, and chooses ten of each of the genres of science fiction and fantasy as the final selections.

One of the things I find most interesting about this collection is the inclusion of stories from literary magazines in the mix. Besides stories from the dedicated science fiction and fantasy magazines and anthologies, there are stories from The Paris Review, A Public Space, and One Story. This is a very good thing, not only because it demonstrates an inclusive expansiveness on the part of the editors of this volume, but also because it shows that the mainstream literary magazines are becoming increasingly willing to accept the value of speculative works.

When I read through these best of the year volumes, I do not expect all the stories to impress me as much as they impressed the editors, and in fact that’s not what happened. I had a mediocre reaction to several of them, and after I read a few I wondered how they managed to get published at all. Still, I am patient, waiting for that thrill of discovery that all readers look for. In this book, that ecstatic joy happened with two stories in particular. The first was “Our Language” by Yohanca Delgado, which first appeared in A Public Space. It concerns a woman in the Dominican Republic who inherits a strange curse. After marrying and having a son, she slowly begins to shrink and morph into a creature of the forest who can no longer speak in human language; however, when she leaves home she finds that there is a whole community of other women who have undergone similar changes. The other story that profoundly drew me in is “The Long Walk” by Kate Elliot. This one is about a heavily patriarchal society that condemns unwanted older women to take the titular long walk into the mountains to supposedly be consumed by dragons. After the death of her husband, a widow voluntarily takes the walk, only to discover that the reality beyond the mountains is different than what people on the other side believe.

Another excellent story is “The Plague Doctors” by Karen Lord. As the title indicates, this story concerns a worldwide plague that devastates humankind. An interesting side-fact is that Lord wrote the story six months before the COVID-19 break out, making it uncannily prescient. Daryl Gregory’s story “Brother Rifle” effectively deals with the traumatic aftermath of warfare, and Amman Sabet’s “Skipping Stones in the Dark” is a scary story about giving AI too much power, especially on a multi-generational starship.  All in all, I would say that there are enough good to excellent stories in this collection to make it a worthwhile read. There is also the undeniable fact that you may have different favorites than me. That’s what individuality is all about.

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