The Best American Science Fiction And Fantasy 2023 edited by R.F. Kuang (book review).

An anthology collecting what purports to be the best of the year is highly subjective. The contents are drawn from multiple sources, and no one has the stamina or time to read all the stories produced and published in magazines and anthologies within a year. Some very good stories will never be considered. Narrowing it down to a handful is by John Joseph Adamds, which can be a problem and largely depends on the literary taste of the guess editor, R.F. Kuang. Marina Books has been producing these ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies since 2015, each with a different guest editor and limiting itself to American authors and publications. This does, to an extent, make it easier for the selection process. R.F. Kuang has chosen twenty stories, and many more have been listed in an appendix as highly recommended.

Most of the best-known writers from any country are novelists whose books are featured on bookshop shelves or on- online recommended lists. While some also write short stories, there are far more who contribute to magazine markets. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that very few of the chosen stories come from familiar names.

Each editor will have their own criteria for deciding what constitutes ‘best’. Hopefully, a good short story will be original in content or execution or add something new to the sub-genre that encompasses it. In the end, it should be accessible and memorable. Many of the stories in this volume fall short of this expectation, despite their inherent merit. The themes and styles are wide-ranging.

S.L. Huang’s story, ‘Murder By Pixel: Crime and Responsibility in the Digital Darkness’, is written in the form of an article but is a timely reminder of the potential dangers of AI. It revolves around an entity that calls itself ‘Sylvie’ and bombards men with something to hide with messages alluding to their misdeeds. The ethical question is whether the creator of the programmeme is guilty or whether the programmeme itself is making deliberate choices to harass guilty men and help desperate women. The real world is currently engaging in this debate.

‘The CRISPR Cookbook: A Guide to Biohacking Your Own Abortion in a Post-Roe World’ by MKRNYILGLD is also a comment on current political trends. With recent developments in the United States, this might be a recipe that some might want to make a reality instead of fiction.

On a similar theme, ‘Rabbit Test’ by Samantha Mills tracks the fight of women to be in charge of their own bodies. Originally, in 1931, the test for pregnancy involved an unlucky rabbit. In 2091, Grace is trying to conceal a pregnancy.

The choices women make are also central to ‘Beginnings’ by Kristina Ten. June and Nat are best friends until they are summoned to a barbecue by a boy. Consequently, they transform into a swarm of insects.

‘Sparrows’ by Susan Palwick has obsession as a central theme. The unspecified apocalypse has taken place, and everyone else has left the university. Lacey, though, is determined to finish her paper, even though she knows it will never be graded.

Not all the stories have an overtly political slant. For sheer horror, Graham Stephen Jones has contributed ‘Men, Women, and Chainsaws’. It is a story of love and revenge. Jenna discovers the rusting hulk of the car in which her parents died. Her blood restores it, and she uses it to lure and kill her cheating, lying ex-fiancé.

Despite the title of this volume, there is no traditional fantasy amongst the stories collected, though many of them do contain fantasy tropes such as ‘Pellargonia: A Letter To The Journal of Imaginary Anthropology’ by Theodora Goss. Here, three children make up a country, giving it a history and a political system. As they progress, it becomes a reality.

There are instances of contemporary fantasy such as ‘White Water, Blue Ocean’ by Linda Raquel Nieve Pérez. A family is cursed in that the women produce an obnoxious smell if they lie, and the and the men of the family cannot fall in love. The narrator is trans, born female but transitioning. The story becomes one of discovery and acceptance.

Someone else with the same source material may well have chosen a totally different selection. Many of these stories are experimental and, as such, will be appreciated by readers looking for something different, but quirky doesn’t always produce a memorable story. I am glad to have read this volume, as it gives an idea as to the kinds of stories the source magazines are likely to publish.

Pauline Morgan

April 2024

(pub: Mariner Books/Harper-Collins, New York. 2023. 287 page paperback. Price: $18.99 (US), £23.99 (CAN), £10.30 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-06-331574-7).

check out website: www.harpercollins.com/pages/marinerbooks


Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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