The Future of the Fantastic: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 1

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 1
edited by Jonathan Strahan, Night Shade Books, 500pp, $19.95

In this space I was going to review, as promised, the book ParaSpheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction: Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist Stories. This anthology turned out to not be very good for a number of reasons I won't bother to enumerate; with stuff from very small presses, a bad review just seems egregious and unnecessary—no one's reading the book anyway. Instead I'll be reviewing The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 1, edited by Jonathan Strahan, which turned out to be excellent, and easily the best of the anthologies I've reviewed so far in this series. There's a story called "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)" by Geoff Ryman that typifies the book, taking me completely by surprise with the fantastic elements it uses and how it uses them. I was trepidatious about the story to begin with; I questioned the "(Fantasy)" in the title, as in, if it's a fantasy story or not why does it need the explicit pronunciation of that fact? And then the first page or so has a relatively unremarkable little story about ghosts appearing in a copy machine in Cambodia. However, this is merely a prelude, an idea to get you comfortable with the world you're operating in, an idea which disappears immediately and then fades slowly back into view like a creeping fog. The story is really about imagining the life of Pol Pot's only daughter, a "completely untrue story about someone who must exist," and it's this conceit, this constant reminder that this story is somehow true and untrue at the same time, that is the reason for the identifier in the title. At it's simplest level, it's about a spoiled rich girl who tries all her life to shut out the world around her and the suffering of her own people at the hands of her father, and then must gradually come to terms with it. Through this girl Ryman manages to tell a remarkably rich and detailed ghost story that encapsulates the horror of Pol Pot's regime and the plight of those who live in its aftermath—thus the story being about "someone who must exist", as somewhere there must be people who have to live in countries destroyed by a parent who is now vilified, and more generally there exist children of mass murderers and sociopaths.

This tells you something about the style of these "Science Fiction and Fantasy" stories, which is that they tend to be stories that use the tropes of their genres in order to get at more fundamental human issues. Sometimes this kind of SF is called "Soft Science Fiction" or "Mundane Science Fiction" which are both stupid and horrible labels which seem to deride the thing they identify. These stories are not "soft" nor are they "mundane," and I for one refuse to call them that. Using genre tropes to get at fundamental human issues is, usually, simply how you use genre tropes to produce good writing, and "good writing" is what I will call it. There was only one story in this bunch that was so poorly written I was compelled to stop reading it, "Femaville 29"; there was not one other bad story, which, as regular Wet Asphalt readers know, is very unusual for anthologies. More to the point, the best of these stories are simply excellent fiction, able to hold their own against Updike or Carver or Joyce, and not merely in the hyperbolic sense that that sort of sentiment is usually uttered in. This includes "Pol Pot", the haunting "Night Whiskey" by Jeffrey Ford and "The Saffron Gatherers" by Elizabeth Hand. The last in particular rides a very strange sort of Hitchcockian, imagistic minimalism; it's a story that plays with a few symbols and ideas without letting you understand their meaning until the drastic right-turn at the very end in which everything changes and your whole perspective on what's happed so far radically alters. It's a delicate, bonsai-tree version of the similar trick she performed in "The Least Trumps", and it's something she understands how to pull off with an unnatural ease. Hand is quickly becoming one of my favorite short story writers.

The two biggest problems with this anthology both have to do with the packaging. One is that the year is not put on the cover (it's 2006), which strikes me as bizarre for a "Best of the Year" anthology. The first thing I said when I saw it was "what year"? The second problem is one sentence on the back cover that completely gives away the twist ending of one of the stories, an obvious and glaring oversight that should never have made it past the editor. (Perhaps the back copy was written by the editor himself, indicating why editors need good proof-readers.) These are both relatively minor complaints, however.

It's curious to me that of the four anthologies I've read so far in this series, the two best ones are without doubt the ones put in the SF section of the book store. "Best SF & F of the Year" doesn't even explicitly attempt to blur genre lines or illustrate why SF authors are just as good as literary ones. It just does those things, which would indicate to me that at least in some quarters of the SF world there are people who understand what makes for good fiction, and the rest of the reading universe would do well to listen to those people.