2016 may not have been a barrel of laughs, but it did produce some quality scifi and fantasy. As always, I found Jonathan Strahan's collection to be vivid, varied, and thought-provoking. In his introduction, Strahan comments on the absence of general themes, other than a preponderance of climate-change-related dystopias. I was initially struck by how free these stories are of themes of authoritarianism, populism, isolationism, and bubbles, but of course, most of them were written before Brexit, the US election, or the rising tide of populist movements around the world. Even so, I saw a few common themes: stretching the definition of humanity, irrevocability of change, viewing ourselves as monsters, and feminism, as well as a series of folklore retellings whose themes are less easy to categorize.
I adore everything that Yoon Ha Lee writes, and "Foxfire, Foxfire" is no exception. Easily one of my favourite stories in the collection, the story is narrated by a gumiho who seeks to be human and is one death away from the one hundred murders he must commit to achieve his goal. It takes place in a rich world of endless mechanized warfare between a monarchy and rebel parliamentarians, complete with the giant war machines called Cataphracts, tiger sages, and the small gods whose energies power the world. The story explores the definition of humanity and uses the metaphor of the gumiho to express the sense of not quite fitting in either world and of seeking a form to fit one's soul.
Several other stories also stretched the definition of humanity. Paolo Bacigalupi's "Mika Model" is a short vignette in which a sexbot turns herself in for the murder of her owne. If she is a murderer rather than a defective machine, then she is also a person, and who is to be held responsible for her enslavement and torture? While I'm not normally a fan of Sherlock Holmes retellings, Delia Sherman's "The Great Detective" was an exception: I thoroughly enjoyed the steampunk worldbuilding, the Illogic Engines and Reasoning Machines, and even the sly mentions of beekeeping. "Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home" by Genevieve Valentine is a trippy story about the lasting effects of virtual reality, experimentation without consent, and a world that is literally what you make of it. "Terminal" by Lavie Tidhar deals with the titular word in two senses. It is about terminally-ill colonists making a one-way space voyage to a new world. Dreamy and philosophical, it explores what it means to be human through short vignettes of those who choose to make the voyage. The last of the stories exploring this theme, and by far the creepiest, is Carolyn Ives Gilman's "Touring with the Alien", where the protagonist finds herself acting as the bus driver to an alien and its once-human translator. I saw it as a horror story made all the creepier by the protagonist's inability to see it as such, and it definitely opens up questions about helper species and the definition of humanity and consciousness.
Another popular theme was the story that reveals the apparent protagonists as villain or monster. My favourite from this horror-tinged genre was, as usual, Alice Sola Kim. Her "Successor, Usurper, Replacement" is about a group of want-to-be writers writers who meet on a night where "the beast" has been sighted in their area. In the midst of a thunderstorm, a mysterious girl turns up at the door. It is deliciously creepy and comedic, made all the more vivid by her ironic, informal writing style. In Sam J. Miller's "Things with Beards," the monsters are both literal and figurative, from alien beasts trapped in ice to family members who casually spew hatred:
"The horror of human hatred-- how such marvelous people, whom he loves so dearly, contain such monstrosity inside of them."
I loved how he used the horror elements as a metaphor for social commentary:
"Maturity means making peace with how we are monsters."
Seth Dickinson's "Laws of Night and Silk" is radically different, a high-fantasy story about an endless war between rival countries, where each side sacrifices its children to stamp out the evil of the other. It is poignant and thought-provoking and begs the question of what war makes of us. "Spinning SIlver" by Naomi Novik tells the tale of a Jewish moneylender who gets caught up in fairy tale when her boast about turning silver into gold is taken literally. The most interesting aspect to me was the way that the protagonist floats between the protagonist and villain of the story. The narrator of Caitlin R. Kiernan's "Whisper Road (Murder Ballad No. 9)" is an unabashed villain, and the story is both colorful and gruesome. Similarly, Rich Larson's "You Make Pattaya" is an entertainingly twisty heist story that is told from the perspective of the thief and takes place in a near-future Thailand.
Strahan notes that many of the stories deal with the impact of global warming, but I saw a broader theme: the irrevocable consequences of our actions and the irreversibility of change. For me, the most memorable such story was "The Future is Blue" by Catherynne M. Valente. The story takes place on a world irrevocably changed by global warming, where survivors live on islands of garbage in a rising sea and want to bring back a past that lives on only in myth and folklore. It is gritty and vivid and twisted and entertaining, with Valente's trademark disturbing notes. Aliette de Botard's "A Salvaging of Ghosts" is a gorgeous, haunting story about a space crew who salvage the remnants of other voyagers, transmuted into precious strings of "gems" of memory and experience, in the weird expanses of deep space. The protagonist is on a quest to very literally recapture her lost daughter's memory through the gems that are all that remains of her. Paul McAuley's "Elves of Antarctica" is a far more straightforward take on the theme. It takes place on a nearly ice-free future antarctic where refugees from the drowned world come to eke out a living. The protagonist becomes fascinated with rune-inscribed "elf stones" and the idea of primacy, that the land will eventually return to its pre-human state when global warming is reversed. A story about change and permanence from a different angle is Alex Irvine's adventure story, "Number Nine Moon"where a group of scavengers are left stranded after the Earth turns from exploration to isolation and cuts support for the Mars base. Nina Allan's "The Art of Space Travel" also takes place in the near future, but the issues the protagonist faces feel very familiar. The protagonist works at a hotel where a group of astronauts are due to stay before heading off to Mars. It is about change, but also about parents, about irresponsible actions and responsibility for the consequences. "The Visitor from Taured" by Ian R. MacLeod is told by a rare student of Analogue Literature--ie, physical books-- in a future where everything has been transmuted into the virtual. Testing the line between virtual and physical, it also explores the idea of alternate timelines, yet another way of changing the unchangeable past. Last, Ken Liu's "Seven Birthdays" is perhaps the most explicit story on this theme. Imaginative yet ponderous, it follows a girl's birthday in powers of seven, testing the boundaries of human and machine and exploring the long-term impact of easy solutions and the human desire to restore what is lost.
A surprising fraction of the stories took the theme of feminism head-on, executed with varying levels of skill. My favourite of the stories with this theme was "Seasons of Glass and Iron" by Amal El Mohtar", a lovely blending of several fairy tales, primarily "The Enchanted Pig," where a woman who betrays her shape-changing husband must wear out seven pairs of iron shoes to get him back, and "The Glass Hill," where a beautiful princess is placed upon the top of a glass mountain and the prince who scales the summit wins her hand in marriage. With lyrical writing and a rather beautiful little love story, El Mohtar explores the double standards and abuse that make the backbone of fairy tales:
"She recalls shoes her brothers have worn: a pair of seven-league boots, tooled leather; winged sandals; satin slippers that turned one invisible. How strange, she thinks, that her brothers had shoes that lightened the world, made it small and easy to explore, discover. [...] Perhaps, she thinks, what's strange is the shoes women are made to wear: shoes of glass; shoes of paper; shoes of iron heated red-hot; shoes to dance to death in.
How strange, she thinks, and walks."
The rest of these feminist stories struck me as rather less well-executed, and most also failed the Bechdel test. "The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight" by E. Lily Yu starts as a rather generic fairy tale about a witch and a knight who brings her on his dragon-slaying quest. The themes were interesting, but I think the message was rather muddled by attempts to explain abusive sexism and by the femme-fatale characterization of the only other female character. I'm not a huge fan of Joe Abercrombie, and sadly, "Two's Company" was no exception. What with the Amazonian warrior traveling with another female until they meet up with a Conan-the-barbarian sort, it's a bawdy, comical tale of warrior-man-versus-warrior-woman, and I feel like that theme got beat to death in the 1960s. Easily my least favourite story in the collection was Geoff Ryman's superficially feminist story, "Those Shadows Laugh." In the story, the Taino women, aka Colinas, are asexual and reproduce through parthenogenesis. Of course, they are universally obsessed with babies--women, naturally!-- and are technologically backward and require the aid--and tourist dollars-- of the "normals." The story is supposedly narrated by a woman, but the possessive male gaze is so strong that I had to keep checking the narrator's supposed gender. I found his alternate history despicable: it is the lessening of a society where women had significant agency into a people he so clearly sees as inhuman, as though lack of sexual desire makes them something "other." But naturally, how would you get a matriarchal society unless you eliminate the men? (Eyeroll.) I admit this struck a nerve, and maybe it will work better for other readers.
Twisted fairy tales seemed to be a favourite this year. Like many of the stories already mentioned, Alyssa Wong's "You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay" is a wild fairytale retelling, in this case a bizarre spin on "Cinderella" that takes place in a dusty American Western town that becomes a battleground between the clash of cultures and demigods, life and death. As always, Wong's writing is gorgeously, vividly lyrical. "Red Dirt WItch" by N.K. Jemisin takes place in Alabama during the Civil Rights era, when a fairy queen comes after a local healer and her children. Jemisin turns the fairy kidnapping into a vivid portrait of everyday savage racism and a clear-eyed yet hopeful exploration of civil rights. Daryl Gregory's psychadelic "Even the Crumbs were Delicious" takes place in the world of Afterparty and as with the latter, there are a lot of drugs involved; in fact, the walls are papered with them. It is an odd, comedic, hallucinogenically twisted take on "Hansel and Gretel." "Red as Blood and White as Bone" by Theodora Gos is a story about stories, told by a maid who longs to be in a fairy tale. When a mysterious stranger falls through the door during a snowstorm, the narrator assumes a prince-meets-princess-at-the-ball ending, while the reader is conscious of a wholly different story at work. Possibly my favourite of the fairytale retellings was Charles Yu's "Fable", the last story in the collection. It is a sharp-edged, self-aware tale of a man asked by his therapist to tell his life story in the form of a fable. So he starts again and again, and his own story is slowly revealed in all its pathos and humanity:
"Once upon a time, there was an angry guy, who hated the story he was in."
Yet again, Strahan put together a wonderfully diverse collection. No matter your taste in stories, you're bound to find something of interest in his "Year's Best" collection, and as for the rest, speculative fiction is all about expanding your horizons. If you're looking for a new author or just a new viewpoint, his "Year's Best" collections are well worth a look.
~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Rebellion/Solaris, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!~~
Cross-posted on Goodreads.