The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2023
“As a playful grab-bag of moods, genres and plain impressive writing, there’s much in this omnibus to appreciate.”
“Whatever you do, whatever storytelling choices you make, commit.” So advises guest editor R.F. Kuang in her introduction to this year’s assemblage of notable science fiction and fantasy tales (the ninth in this anthology series). True to her dictum, this edition’s stories are passionate in their commitment to the bit, no matter how idiosyncratic the bit gets, and if these tales don’t necessarily break new ground, they reveal a dazzling array of styles and choice bits of writing.
Sofia Samtar’s whimsical “Readings in the Slantwise Sciences” kicks off the proceedings in delightful off-kilter style: We’re presented entries from what might be a science journal—if that journal dosed up on a few psychedelics. A crystal can see to the end of the universe; an icy kingdom is powered by necromancy; a treatise on fairy etymology reveals their value to the environment, even as their numbers dwindle to extinction. Samtar lets her ruminations on the alchemy of magic and science run free even as her writing is filigreed with luxuriant turns of phrase.
Many of the stories interrogate genre conventions to amusing effect. Kristina Ten’s “Beginnings” gives fairy-tale storytelling a hip feminist spin, as a love triangle between a prince and two female pals plays out as a high school comedy-drama, punctuated by sour betrayal. In Isabel J. Kim’s “Termination Stories for the Cyberpunk Dystopia Protagonist,” a “cool and sexy Asian girl” teams up with a “white boy hero,” the former all too aware she’s trying on her persona as one tries on a new dress, jaded existentialism and game theory all but overwhelming the putative narrative.
Fairy tales get a further makeover in K.T. Bryski’s “Folk Hero Motifs in Tales Told by The Dead,” in which citizens in a land of the dead come up with their own conventions for heroic legends, while Alix E. Harrow’s “The Six Deaths of the Saint” encases its bloody medieval fantasy in a time loop that echoes the ordeals of Tom Cruise’s protagonist from the film Edge of Tomorrow, even as an unspoken romance gives weight to the goings-on and offers the possibility of redemption. Speaking of movies, cinematic references aplenty can be found in Stephen Graham Jones’s “Men, Woman and Chainsaws,” as two lovers try to recreate a photo shoot involving a Texas Chainsaw Massacre star and a Camaro, only to find that the Camaro, much like Stephen King’s Christine, has a life and blood lust of its own.
A particular comic highlight is Theodora Goss’s “Pellargonia: A Letter to the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology,” wherein three young students besotted with role-playing games dream up the history, culture, and current events of an entire nation, gussying things up with soap-opera twists—only to see their creation spring to life. Mixing an epistolary structure with epistemological musings, “Pellargonia” pokes fun at scholarly pretensions even as it contemplates the reach of imagination.
While most of the authors Kuang and fellow editor John Joseph have selected have multicultural backgrounds, some are more explicit in their explorations of what it means to be a minority. In Shingai Njeri Kagunda’s “Air to Shape Lungs,” the simple act of drawing breath is linked to immigration, freedom, and escape. Isabel Cañas’s “There Are No Monsters on Rancho Buenavista,” offers a bracing reversal on a Mexican legend of a monster inhabiting a wife's body. Linda Raquel Nieves Pérez’s “White Water, Blue Ocean” dips into tender magical realism, as a transgender person finds love and acceptance while confronting an unusual family curse involving lies and noxious odors.
“People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it,” Ray Bradbury once said, and a handful of entries extrapolate dark outcomes based on the issues of our current day. Samantha Mills’s “Rabbit Test” and MKRYNYILGLD’s “The CRISPR Cookbook: A Guide to Bio-hacking Your Own Abortion in a Post-Wade World” both imagine futures in which women struggle to regain authority over their bodies, but while Mills confronts the ongoing specter of authoritarian control, MKRYNYILGLD adopts a cheeky, irreverent tone, even as all the fancy technical terms and genetic tomfoolery can’t mask the import of what’s about to happen: the destruction of a human embryo.
Meanwhile, S.L. Huang’s “Murder by Pixel: Crime and Responsibility in the Digital Darkness” kicks our current anxieties with AI into overdrive, mixing fact and fiction to ponder the possibility of an evolved chatbot that can drive humans to suicide—and whether such as AI (or its human operator) can actually be charged with a crime. Kim Fu’s “Pre-simulation Consultation XF007867” takes a more humorous approach to VR, as a tetchy argument plays out between a customer and a provider over what’s allowable in a simulation (no people from the user’s actual life allowed, but extreme sex acts might be okay), their debate touching on the commercialization of technology, and attendant questions of addiction, permissiveness and ethics.
The best stories in the collection are cosmic in dimension yet very human at heart. Susan Palwick’s “Sparrows” finds a student well-versed in Shakespeare confronting the true “promised end” of the world—and finding solace in the Bard’s language. Nathan Ballingrud’s “Three Mothers Mountain” is a chilling witch story of reincarnation and possession set in rural North Carolina which harkens to the brothers Grimm, as no threat to life and limb can be warded off without major sacrifice. Maria Dong’s unsettling “In the Beginning of Me, I Was a Bird” is ostensibly a tale about alien contamination, and human souls being forced into animal bodies, yet blossoms into a moving meditation on loneliness, our relationship to nature, and what it means to truly be alone.
The two entries that actually reach for the stars—Chris Willrich’s “The Odyssey Problem” and Malka Older’s “Cumulative Ethical Guidelines for Mid-Range Interstellar Storytellers”—investigate what it means to travel to places beyond our grasp. “The Odyssey Problem” discovers enlightenment and morality are a matter of perspective; much like picking apart the layers of an onion, Willrich picks apart the shortcomings of dueling galactic civilizations that claim to have the higher ground. Older’s “Cumulative Ethical Guidelines” is a bemused ode to storytelling, as the primal need for it persists on long interstellar voyages far from Mother Earth, even as the activity is regulated and twisted away from its original purposes.
For the truly cosmic, however, it’s tough to beat Catherynne M. Valente’s bravura comic tale “The Difference Between Love and Time,” in which the space-time continuum is anthropomorphized as an on-again, off-again lover, its hilarious love affair with a human narrator played out over decades. Whether it’s binging on episodes of Law & Order, being a slobby roommate, or stocking up on self-help books, the space-time continuum is a handful indeed, and Valente deploys absurdist humor one might associate with Douglas Adams (if Adams went on a bender), even while building up to an impressive pitch of longing, and an eventual catharsis about life, the universe and everything.
“What matters is that the rabbit comes out of the hat alive,” writes Kuang in her introduction, and one can find solid prestidigitation in most of the stories presented in this collection. Those seeking truly revelatory, game-changing sci-fi and fantasy might not be satiated by The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2023, but as a playful grab-bag of moods, genres, and plain impressive writing, there’s much in this omnibus to appreciate.