The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 12 edited by Jonathan Strahan. ★★★★
Do you like short fiction? Short SFF? Do you feel like you’ve fallen behind with last year’s stories? Then this is the collection for you! Buckle up your seat belts, because you’re in for a long ride.
I mostly skipped over the stories I’d read before, although they tended to be good stories! I just felt like reading something new at the moment and I’m too pressed for time to want to re-read. That said, I’m going to start with the stories I’d previously read.
“Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim was the only story in The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year that also appeared in my short list of best SFF from 2017. Of course, some of these other stories might have been included if I’d only read them in time. Anyway, “Carnival Nine” is a bittersweet story about family and growing old, told through the lives of wind-up puppets who only have so many turns each day. Each night the Maker turns their key, giving them a set number of turns for the day. Each puppet has to make the best of the turns they have.
“The Worshipful Society of Glovers” by Mary Robinette Kowal also made my list of Best of 2017 short stories. In Tudor era England, the fae are employed to provide enchantments for the nobility, which are all tied into gloves. Vaughn is a journeyman glover, and he desperately needs to become a master so he can make gloves for his sister Sarah, who has seizures. Kowal just has such excellent craft, and everything about this story was wonderful. The concept is so clever and intriguing, plus there’s a real heart to it.
Likewise, “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata and “The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer also made my list. In “The Martian Obelisk,” an elderly architect designs a memorial on Mars to last past the end of the human race, as civilization steadily declines. But is she right to have given up hope for the future? It’s a lovely little story full of hope and warmth, even when things look grim. “The Secret Life of Bots” is another hopeful tale. It alternates between the small concerns of an elderly maintenance bot tasked with tracking down the “Incidental” (a pesky biological that’s been causing problems) and the ship’s crew, facing a suicide mission that’s a last ditch effort to save humanity.
“Though She Be But Little” by C.S.E. Cooney is a very strange story! If you’re familiar with the work of Jeffery Fforde, it’s a bit like that, but less humorous. Some weird, apocalyptic scenario happened where the world… twisted. Emma Anne used to be an elderly widow, but now she’s a little girl with two talking stuffed animals. And there’s a child hunting monster after her. I liked the story, but it didn’t end up making my Best of 2017 list.
I originally read “Bring Your Own Spoon” by Saad Z. Hossain in the collection The Djinn Falls in Love, where it was one of my favorites. (The Djinn Falls in Love) – I reviewed this one in the collection The Djinn Falls in Love. Suffice to say it was one of my favorites of its anthology. In this sci-fi future, the very air is toxic and the vast majority of the population has never known real food, only artificial stuff that comes out of a processor. But a chef and a djinn begin to change things when they work together to create a restaurant in this delightful tale. The story was so much fun, and I’d love to read more set in the same universe!
The rest of the collection was new to me, although I had a few of the stories bookmarked and mentally marked down as “To Read.” Case in point, “Probably Still the Chosen One” by Kelly Barnhill. I’m so thankful I’ve finally read it, because it was a delightful subversion of the “Chosen One” trope. The heroine of the story is a girl who went through a kitchen cupboard and into a fantasy realm where she was proclaimed the Chosen One. In the midst of the kingdom’s great struggle, she is sent back to her own world for a week’s worth of safety. Only, time passes differently between worlds, and growing up and becoming a mother gives her a different perspective on her childhood adventures.
I loved quite a number of the new-to-me stories in this collection. It’s not “Best of” for no reason! Some of my favorites include “The Mocking Tower” by Daniel Abraham, “The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine” by Greg Egaen, “The Faerie Tree” by Kathleen Kayembe, “Concessions” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali and “A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad. All of these probably would have ended up on my list of favorite 2017 short stories if I’d only read them in time.
“The Mocking Tower” by Daniel Abraham is a very cleverly structured story that’s got enough of a heart to have an emotional impact as well as a intellectual one. “The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine” by Greg Egaen is a near future science fiction story where advances in computer technology have begun to lead to increased unemployment rates and a difficult job market. The protagonist is a father who’s just been fired and looking in vain for new work. While it took a while to grow on me, “The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine” ultimately left me thinking about how technology will impact our futures.
The greatest thing about “The Faerie Tree” by Kathleen Kayembe is the voice. It’s colloquial and distinctive, the sort you don’t hear that often in science fiction or fantasy. Atmosphere is the second greatest thing — it’s so creepy! The main character’s grandmother told her about the faeirie tree and the high price of a deal with them, but she might just have need… I hadn’t heard of this author before, but I need to read more by her!
I would love to read more stories set in the same world as “Concessions” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali. Like a number of other stories in the anthology, it’s a dystopia. The protagonist is a doctor eking out a living in a small settlement on the edge of the desert, in a future ravaged by religious wars. To go and live in a city where there’s more resources, she would have to renounce her faith.
One of my absolute favorite stories in this collection is “A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad. It’s just so great! I even had a dream about it the night after reading. The protagonist is a former art student who’s taken to creating forgery for a living. Only, she’s not forging art; she’s forging meat. In this near future, meat from actual livestock (as opposed to protein supplements) is a luxury. Armed with a high-tech bio-printer, she’s been making a living selling nearly authentic strips of beef. Then someone starts blackmailing her to make 200 T-bone steaks, a project bigger than any she’s risked before. The concept is so unique and just a tad hilarious. The execution is flawless, and I loved the characterization too. I really wish I’d read this story earlier!
However, as with any short story anthology, there’s quite a number that are middle of the pack. You know, those stories that you sort of like but don’t have strong feelings for. For instance, “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance” by Tobias Buckell was an enjoyable story, although not the most memorable in the collection. In it, a maintenance robot encounters a billionaire CEO of a newly conquered regime who considers uploaded/digitized people subhuman. They take advantage of the protagonist’s robotic nature to demand help, putting it in quite the bind. It’s a clever and engaging story, but it’s not one I’d probably ever return to.
I wasn’t always sure about the writing style or pacing of “Sidewalks” by Maureen McHugh, but it sure had its powerful moments. The protagonist is a speech pathologist called in to interview a woman who appears to be speaking gibberish. The commentary on gender norms was interesting, and I loved the concept. The execution just never worked quite right for me.
“Crispin’s Model” by Max Gladstone is a dark, creepy tale. I’d actually been avoiding it for that reason! Horror isn’t really my thing. However, Max Gladstone is a more than capable writer, and I enjoyed the human element to the story. I mean, Max Gladstone always does creepy demonic beings well, but it’s his characters that keep me coming back time and time again. Still, I tend to prefer his novels to his short fiction. Maybe I just like it better when he has more room to work with.
“Confessions of a Con Girl” by Nick Wolven takes an idea that feels at least a bit familiar (people’s lives being determined by a social media/interaction generated score) but does well with it. The narrator is writing a report on how she came to be a “Con Girl,” i.e. had a score that slipped into the red. I think she’d internalized performative behavior to the point where she didn’t even realize she was being performative. The potentially unreliable narrator was the most interesting aspect of the story.
When I read a story by Yoon Ha Lee, I know I’ll get something that’s at least solid. Such is “The Chameleon’s Gloves.” It’s set in the same universe as Ninefox Gambit and follows Rhehan, a disgraced Kel who’s turned to thievery to make their way in the world. It’s not a bad story. It’s just not Yoon Ha Lee’s best, and it left me fairly cold.
“My English Name” by R. S. Benedict tells of a shape-shifting creature who lives among humans. But what happens when it falls in love? Nothing good can come of it.
“Come See the Living Dryad” by Theodora Goss is the only story in the collection that is arguably neither science fiction or fantasy, although it was published in a SFF venue. “Come See the Living Dryad” uses excerpts from books, diaries, and letters to tell two stories: the life of a murdered woman with a rare skin condition and her descendant who’s trying to uncover the mystery behind the murder.
I was excited to see that this collection included a story by Indra Das, since I’ve been trying to read more by him after experiencing the darkly fantastic The Devourers. “The Moon is Not a Battlefield” by Indrapramit Das is a slower paced, wonderfully written, reflective story. The story’s a conversation between a journalist and a solider who was taken from childhood and raised to defend India’s interests on the moon. It’s a very melancholy tale, but I’m glad I read it.
“Babylon” Dave Hutchison is a highly intriguing story about a Somali intelligence operative tasked with entering the borders of a highly fortified Europe. I know some blogger fans who like his Fractured Europe series, and after reading this short story, I think I will need to read more by Dave Hutchison.
Perhaps the most complex story in the collection is “The Hermit of Houston” by Samuel R. Delany. It asks a lot of the reader! It’s set in a strange, dystopic future that’s of course utterly normal to the narrator. Adding to the confusion, memory editing is common place. The story follows the relationship between two lovers, gradually showing you more and more of the future situation. Gender and sexuality are prominent themes. I feel like I only understood about half of “The Hermit of Houston.” Maybe I should have read it a second time.
The final story in the collection, “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue” by Charlie Jane Anders, is another dark dystopia, but a little closer to home. In an incredibly near future, the government has decided to treat anyone they view as abnormal, claiming it’s the morally superior thing to do. The protagonist is Rebecca, a trans woman who thinks the Star Wars prequels are better than the Disney movies. She’s planning an art show in a coffee shop, complete with a manifesto, when she’s snatched off the street and brutally dehumanized. Overseeing her “treatment” is her childhood best friend, Jeffery, who maybe feels sort of bad about doing this to someone he actually knows. It’s a highly disturbing story, akin to Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
“Belladonna Nights” Alastair Reynolds takes place in a far future where post-humans consider a century to be a fairly brief amount of time. The narrator is at a thousand day reunion with the rest of their line (I think post-humans who came from the same individual), and encounters a mystery: someone keeps leaving belladonna flowers outside their door. And they think they know who it is…
I’m not a huge Caitlin R Kiernan fan, but I liked “Fairy Tale of Wood Street” okay. A woman wakes up one morning and sees that her lover has a tail. If you’re familiar with the mythology of the huldra, you’ll have some guesses as to what’s going on.
I’m also pretty tepid on “Eminence” by Karl Schroeder. There’s some interesting ideas about crypto-currencies, but I’m not sure how well it holds up as a story.
Of course, there’s also stories I had more of a negative tilt towards. For example, “The Smoke of Gold is Glory” by Scott Lynch. Sure, the ending is a bit poetic, but for most of the story, I felt like I was reading someone’s lengthy description of dungeon crawling in their RPG campaign. Look, hearing about other people’s RPG campaigns can sometimes be fun, but it can also be incredibly boring. This was the latter.
I’m not a huge fan of Kai Ashanti Wilson’s writing style. It’s the primary reason I’ve bounced off his books before, and it was yet again a factor in my tepid feelings towards “The Lamentation of their Women”. It’s a story about two people who make a deal with Satan and become bonded to these weapons that compel them to kill people. They decide that they don’t feel right about killing their own people, so decide to try and cheat Satan by going on what they view as “ethical” mass murder sprees against white policemen. They are morally grey characters, but its a dark morally grey. Honestly, this story was just too violent and sexual for me.
“An Evening with Severyn Grimes” by Rich Larson was well written had had some heist elements I enjoyed. But it also felt vaguely sexist. I’m just so tired of heroines being threatened with rape. So tired ya’ll. It’s seriously making me consider removing his new release from my TBR.
All in all, I did like most of the stories in the anthology! It’s perhaps not surprising for an anthology designed to be the cream of the crop, but there you go. I’d recommend it for anyone who wants an overview of some of the best SFF short fiction from 2017.
I received an ARC in exchange for a free and honest review.