The Best American Sci-Fi/Fantasy: Wonderbomb or Bust?

Review by Caitlyn Durfee

Cover Image of 2015 edition of Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy (Used with permission from John Joseph Adams).
Cover Image of 2015 edition of Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy. (Used with permission from John Joseph Adams)

“Wonder is a blasting cap. It is an emotion that goes off with a bang, shattering settled beliefs, rattling the architecture of the mind, and clearing space for new ideas, new possibilities. Wonder is often thought of as a peaceful emotion, a sense of resounding inner quiet. Of course we would associate it with silence. The world always assumes an eerie hush after an explosion.

Awe is TNT for the soul.” – Joe Hill, in his introduction to The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy (p. xvii)

And The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy lights the fuse, somber as the tone may be.

At turns grittily dystopic or sweetly mysterious, this collection of twenty short science fiction and fantasy (SF/F) pieces tugs the what-if of speculative fiction safely within the social and cultural realms of the twenty-first century. Including stories written by popular and decorated authors such as Theodora Goss, Neil Gaiman, and Kelly Link, Best American is not only a carefully appetizing collection for genre enthusiasts looking for entertainment, but is also a gentle introduction of SF/F to the general public (notwithstanding the opening story’s first line: “You have to puke it up” (1)). While the collection covers the full range of weird—military mermaids, cube-shaped babies, and robot love all make an appearance—some of the stories fall short of belief-shatteringly outlandish, to their benefit and detriment.

The remarkable pieces masterfully tie together theme and language, and their authors gild the work with sublime prose. While sales-driven motivations might have encouraged their inclusion (despite the purported anonymity of their selection), the popular authors’ pieces are nevertheless of the quality a Best American collection ought to represent. The most memorable works include Gaiman’s “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back,” a tale about a boy, a coat, and his relationship with his brother; Goss’ “Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology,” which describes an Italo Calvino-esque city developed out of the mind; and Kelly Sandoval’s “The One They Took Before,” which joins the lyricism and romanticism of fairytale with postmodern skepticism. Those “real” elements to which the readers may cling when the stories become fantastically dicey are prominently featured and, to lesser and greater extents, backbones of these pieces. Even the sentiments of the divorcée in Daniel H. Wilson’s “The Blue Afternoon That Lasted Forever” are inextricably bound to the tragically extraordinary situation in which the main character finds himself, and the technical language, far from off-putting, feels elegant and unforced. These are only a few of the many gems in this collection.

When featured alongside gems such as these, it is inevitable that some stories will come across as less polished. Read with breathing room, tales of East African ogres and addictions to reliving would absolutely shine with that grim twenty-first century gleam; however, the collection’s limitation to a single year results in overlaps in tone, emotion, and theme that color the non-standouts in drab grays. The remarkable stories push the momentum ever forward with the kind of eager page-turning that begs reading and rereading again, but in a deceleration that is more of a letting off of a gas pedal than a slam on the brakes, the reader coasts on that momentum, ending some pieces with a muted spark in the imagination that hardly compares to the explosive awe one might expect from the best representatives of a genre. For some, the fuse leading to that “blasting cap” of wonder simply fizzles outin some instances, that is fully acceptable. In these cases emphasis shifts from technological advancement and dystopic nightmares to explorations of sex, gender, and the philosophy of mind, so that “[w]hatever your sexual orientation, whatever your ethnicity, whatever your age or personal experiences, […] you will find a hero somewhere here you can relate to, that speaks to the world as you see it” (p. xx). In this respect, the editors have absolutely succeeded.

Best American revels, awestruck, in imaginative power. The Foreword, Introduction, and Contributors’ Notes (which are themselves humorous and often enlightening) tell candidly of this joy. The included stories themselves, all falling somewhere on the spectrum of speculative fiction, are evidence of this delight in created spaces. All that is left to do is pick it up, flip it open, and dive in.

End Notes

Quotes pulled from: Hill, Joe, and John Joseph Adams, eds. The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. Print.

Caitlyn Durfee is a Floridian pursuing a dual degree in English and Chinese with a concentration in creative writing. She was Co-Editor-in-Chief at the Long River Review.

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