The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019
Ed. by Carmen Maria Machado

With the recent demise of two of the biggest “year’s best SF” anthology series, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, under series editor John Joseph Adams, is going to have to pick up some slack. Putting SF and Fantasy together though can sometimes be an awkward fit.

2019’s editor, Carmen Maria Machado, is dismissive of genre labels, but they do provide some idea of what readers can expect. The first story here, “Pitcher Plant,” sets the table well, with someone invading a haunted house full of booby traps that may be “more sorcery than engineering.” It’s a story set in the weird world of dark fantasy, and it’s typical of a line-up that skews toward horror. There’s also a political edge to much of the selection, though not as pronounced as in last year’s volume. Of course, horror and politics are a big part of what 2019 felt like, in SF, fantasy, and real life.

We

We
By Yevgeny Zamyatin (translated by Natasha Randall)

This is a strange book. Strange primarily in terms of Zamyatin’s style, his deliberately alienating “language of thought” that traps us uncomfortably in the head of the fragmenting and indeed insane mind of D-503 to the point where trying to make any sense out of his impressions becomes futile. A “multicolored noise that stifles the logical process of thought,” we might call it. And no, I’m not even sure what those words might be referring to when read in context.

Also strange, however, is the political angle. A satire on the Russian Revolution, sure, but wasn’t Western industrial society more into the sort of mechanization that’s being sent up here, with Taylor playing the role of Huxley’s Ford in the dystopic vision? It’s curious how all the classic dystopias of this period took as their subject different political routes (socialism, fascism, capitalism) ending up at the same point. That We would influence subsequent works as diverse as 1984 and Anthem is telling. The technology of power is non-denominational.

Watershed

Watershed
By Doreen Vanderstoop

You may think you’re on familiar CanLit ground with a novel about a family of hardscrabble farmers trying to save their struggling homestead from predatory corporate interests. And, in so far as the basic landscape goes, you’d be right. But the year is 2058 and, climate change having done its work and turned southern Alberta into a dustbowl where a 500 ml bottle of water costs $8.50 and only the rich enjoy the luxury of flush toilets, different forces are now in play.

In this drought-stricken Alberta the only pipelines that matter are ones, like the retrofitted Northern Gateway, that carry water. Politics, big business, and the environment are still a toxic mix, and Willa Van Bruggen’s family is right in the middle of it, as she and her husband try to keep the farm going even while her conflicted son lands a job working for the water company. Throw in some ecoterrorists and picking sides gets complicated.

Though they’ve always been important in science fiction, environmental issues have, for obvious reasons, grown in prominence in recent SF. So much so that the label Cli-Fi has been adopted for a whole subgenre of fiction imagining the effects of climate change. In Watershed Cli-Fi hits home, both in a national and more domestic sense.

The City We Became

The City We Became
By N. K. Jemisin

N. K. Jemisin, author of the award-winning Broken Earth novels, gets another series started in this fantasy tale of a New York City that is coming to life in a strange new way.

In some parallel reality, of which most of us are unaware, cities have individual human avatars or champions, with names that reflect this status. So Paulo is (not “is from”) Sao Paulo and the boroughs of NYC are represented by Manny (Manhattan), Bronca (the Bronx), etc.

These avatars and their hometowns are in turn threatened by an Enemy (capitalized) torn from the pages of H. P. Lovecraft. Which means you can expect a lot of CGI-style action that whips along at breakneck speed, flavoured throughout with Jemisin’s aggressive politics. But even as a standard-bearer for woke SF (this novel is an outgrowth of a story that appeared in her collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?), Jemisin can lay the preaching on pretty thick. The chief Enemy here is even a monstrous Woman in White (or Dr. White), who has plans for gentrifying the Big Apple. Not if you love New York!

Vagabonds

Vagabonds
By Hao Jingfang (translated by Ken Liu)

At the beginning of the twenty-third century humanity finds itself in the middle of a new Cold War. Only this time the conflict has gone off-planet, pitting Earth against its colony on Mars. Standing somewhere in-between the two great rivals is Luoying, who is returning to Mars after spending five years as part of a mission abroad (that is, on Earth).

Though Martian by birth, Luoying is actually a bit of a nomad, not feeling at home anywhere. Which makes her a perfect proxy for the reader as Hao Jingfang explores a number of big philosophical questions about the well-ordered society.

It’s an easy game to translate the novel into contemporary political terms and see Vagabonds as an allegory of competing economic and cultural systems – broadly Earth as the West and the Red Planet as a socialist experiment. And to be sure there’s a lot of that going on. But what Vagabonds really feels like is a return to the grand SF of an earlier era, along the lines of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. Good company to keep!

The Eyelid

The Eyelid
By S. D. Chrostowska

There’s a moment in Don DeLillo’s classic black-comedy novel White Noise when the main character hears one of his children reciting fragments of commercial advertising in their sleep. We realize from this that things have gotten really bad.

The Eyelid spins a rich and rewarding political fantasy out of this same anxiety over the colonization of dreams and the subconscious by corporate power. As it begins, the narrator is introduced to the dreamland of Onirica by an erudite and romantic ambassador named Chevauchet who plays the role of Virgil to the narrator’s Dante, leading him through “the dark wood of nocturnal imaginings” while explaining the meaning and revolutionary role that dreams play in the global economy.

The situation is dire, as the surveillance state and big business have placed dreams, the last bastion of our freedom, creativity, and imagination, under siege, even getting us to drug ourselves into insomnia in the drive for ever greater worker productivity. Hope resides in the unconscious underground, a rebel community of dreamers running from the big sleep.

Repo Virtual

Repo Virtual
By Corey J. White

The hacker first became a staple of science fiction with the advent of cyberpunk and William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer. Since then he’s gone on to become a figure as familiar to the genre as spaceship captains and mad scientists, and in recent years has been enjoying a resurgent popularity.

Julius Dax (JD) is one such damaged anti-hero, a veteran gamer in a world where the line between reality and VR has become more than a little blurred. JD lives in Neo Songdo, a company town run by the tech giant Zero Corporation, and he is a man with a particular set of skills that are in demand when it comes to stealing a package of software from Zero. Though it might not have been wise to trust an off-the-grid cult leader with a name like Kali.

As it turns out, the software in question is the world’s first sentient AI, and both Zero and Kali want to get their hands on it, with JD stuck in the middle. What follows is an action-driven plot that, perhaps not surprisingly, bears some resemblance to William Gibson’s latest novel, Agency. It seems as though cyberpunk is not only back but may have come full circle.

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?
By N. K. Jemisin

With a title like How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? you may be expecting a collection of stories with a political bent, and if so N. K. Jemisin does not disappoint. In her introduction Jemisin, whose byline will likely always be headed by the fact that she won the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row for the three parts of her Broken Earth series, talks about how much of an outsider she felt as a black woman author entering the field of SF and Fantasy in the early 2000s.

Despite the fact that “things are better these days,” it is obviously an experience that still rankles. One can feel some of its impact in these stories, which revisit more traditional SF and Fantasy motifs and classic authors like Le Guin and Heinlein from a different, at times revolutionary perspective. Also in 2018 Jemisin edited The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, where she directly called for speculative fiction to present readers with ideas that will change the world. In the stories collected here she looks to show the way.

The Razor

The Razor
By J. Barton Mitchell

Planet 11-H37 isn’t a hospitable place at the best of times. Because of its peculiar orbit it is pretty neatly split between a hemisphere that is always burning hot and another side that is frozen solid. In between the two is a narrow green belt called the Razor.

This is just one of the features that make 11-H37 a perfect prison planet, a penal colony for the worst criminals in the universe. It’s a place no one escapes from, and for the latest shuttle of prisoners it looks like the end of the line. Things are, however, about to get remarkably worse for ex-engineer Flynn and ex-Ranger Maddox as they find themselves, literally, on a planet in full meltdown mode, fighting for survival alongside an odd assortment of other inmates against high-speed climate change, murderous gangs, and genetically-engineered killing machines.

J. Barton Mitchell’s first novel is crammed with relentless action, thrills, and mayhem along with plot twists and cliffhangers galore. A full-throttle blast from beginning to end.