Monday, October 19, 2015
REVIEW: BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY
2015 marks the 100th anniversary of The Best American Short Stories series as well as the first year of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy.
The centenary feting comes along with a best of the Best, 40 stories that represent a 100 years of the form. Over 700 pages you can see the progression of the short story from "a predictable plot tied up neatly with a happy ending... the literary equivalent of the Norman Rockwell paintings beside which they sometimes appeared" to more artful expressions of deeper emotional and intellectual truths exploded by smaller, more contained experiences and interactions. Between the 20s and the 60s, the form was honed by the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Salinger and O'Connor, only to then be recalibrated and complicated by the likes of Barthelme and Carver and Moore. Over the century, short stories became less about an experience and more about the experience of an experience; meanings gradually take the place of happenings.
The tome of shorts ends with George Saunders' "Semplica Girls", a story about Third World women shipped to the US to be used as status-enhancing lawn ornaments. Squeaking in at the end of the century, the presence of this story points out what might be termed a "genre-bias" in the previous 98 or so years of The Best American Short Stories. Beginning in 1915, the anthology can't help but leave out the forefathers of the form, the Irvings and Hawthornes and Poes – forefathers, too, of science fiction and fantasy. But the fact that The Best American Short Stories doesn't include the likes of Lovecraft or Bradbury or Sturgeon or Ellison™or Heinleine or Le Guin or Willis is disappointing, but is also not surprising. As the short story became more self-serious over the century – more "literary" – science fiction and fantasy more and more became the redheaded step-children of the form. Of course, "literary" is a genre like any other. It's not a mark of quality, but a summation of conventions. Just as there are heaps of rotten, cheap science fiction and fantasy stories, there is literary dross – god, it seems like there's so much of it.
I've been recommending this inaugural Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy to anyone who'll listen, and the response has mostly been the same: No way this can be the first year. Championed by John Joseph Adams and edited by Joe Hill (Adams read basically every weird story published in 2014 and recommended a list of 80 to Hill, who chose his favorite 20), the resulting anthology is the best of its kind that I've read in a long time. In Karen Russell's "The Bad Graft", a woman becomes possessed by the seed of a Joshua Tree; in Alaya Dawn Johnson's "A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai'i", humanity has been conquered by vampires and turned into feeding slaves; in Theodora Goss's "Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology", a serious nod to Borges' classic "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", academics visit a land of their own creation; in Adam-Troy Castro's "The Thing About Shapes to Come," a mysterious plague has most of the world's women given birth to spheres, cubes, and pyramids; in Sam J. Miller's "We Are the Cloud", the brains of orphans are used as wi-fi ports; in T.C. Boyle's "The Relive Box", people become addicted to a devise which allows them to revisit the past.
As a sort of happy accident – accident because Hill's selection process was "blind", meaning he had only the stories, not knowledge of their authors – The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy turned out also to be an impressive showcase for women writers. Whether there's a connection between marginalized writers excelling in marginalized genres can't be answered here, but it's certainly worth a think. I've always used – as I think many readers do – the Best American series as a way to find out about new authors, and it just so happens that this particular iteration is crawling some amazing writers you may never have heard of who just happen to be women.
The leg up that sci-fi and fantasy writing has always had on literary fare is that, even if the writing's poor, a crackerjack concept can sustain a story. But in the case of this collection, great premises are supported by the kind of storytelling chops that usually lands writers in The Best American Short Stories anthology. We're living in a literary landscape where a writer like Stephen King (Hill's dad, don't'cha know), either ignored or reviled by literary critics for the first half of his career, has been awarded the National Medal of Arts. The fact is that much of the great work being done today is being done in previously maligned genres. My sense is that both readers and writers have grown a little tired of strictly "literary" conventions and are beginning to seek, in their short fiction, the sort of entertainment that used to be the hallmark of the form. With this in mind, I can't wait to read – as a head in a jar – the next centenary collection of The Best American Short Stories 2015 – 2115.