Worlds Seen In Passing

Worlds Seen in Passing: 10 Years of Tor.com Short Fiction
Ed. by Irene Gallo

Perhaps the world’s leading publisher of science fiction, Tor is also one of the few companies to have gotten online publishing right. Their Tor.com webpage regularly updates with great new fiction and has become an essential site for fans of the genre.

Now, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the website’s launch, we have this anthology of some of the best stories they have published online.

While online content still bears some stigma as being second rate, the stories here, which range from hard SF to fantasy, put the lie to that. Because Tor is able to draw on such a wide and deep pool of writers, not to mention what editor Irene Gallo rightly describes as “a dream team of editorial talent,” this is a collection of some of the best writing from the past decade, including a number of award winners and nominees. High quality and rich variety make this a book for every collector, and continue to make the website a prime destination.

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.

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.

Wastelands: The New Apocalypse

Wastelands: The New Apocalypse
Ed. by John Joseph Adams

This book is the third Wastelands anthology to be brought out by editor John Joseph Adams, giving some indication of the public demand for this sort of fiction.

Such stories aren’t just dystopic: they present worst-case scenarios where a reset button has been hit on civilization due to plague, environmental collapse, alien invasion, or some other calamity.

That notion of reset or starting over actually makes the wasteland a somewhat optimistic place. Few of the stories collected here (20 reprints and 14 new, by some of the biggest names in the field) bother with explanations of how things went to hell, instead focusing on coping strategies. How will people adapt to survive in the wastelands? What new kinds of community will evolve? Given how close the end times feel, these are subjects we may want to start thinking about.

Exhalation

Exhalation
By Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang is not a prolific author – Exhalation is only his second story collection – but he has a big reputation, recently bolstered by having written the story that the Denis Villeneuve movie Arrival was based on.

Chiang’s stories operate a bit like speculative essays, though they’re a lot more fun than that sounds. Few authors working today are as good at exploring our intimate connection to technology. In “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” he gives us what may be the best look yet at what it means to fall in love with an artificial intelligence, with all of the feelings of responsibility and dependency that love entails. In “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” two watershed moments are juxtaposed in order to show how the tools we use for recording daily experience change us. This is how technology works: we shape it and then it shapes us in turn. We get inside each other.

It’s a short step in a Chiang story from the everyday to the bizarre: a time-travel portal or a fidget-like toy may equally teach us profound truths about ourselves. Truths we may conclude we’re better off not knowing.

A People’s Future of the United States

A People’s Future of the United States
Ed. by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams

For several years now SF has had a good claim to being the most socially aware or “woke” genre of fiction. This is most likely because SF is by its nature more political and speculative in its imaginings, with its various utopias and dystopias representing critiques of our current ways of doing things. In the 2018 volume of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy there was even a call by editor N. K. Jemisin for resistance to the “fascist” Trump regime by using SF stories to speak truth to power.

A People’s Future of the United States, which borrows its title from Howard Zinn’s lefty landmark People’s History of the United States, is an anthology very much in the same mode. The editors called for stories that would imagine a more hopeful, liberal, just future America. As you might expect, the results can sometimes get preachy with their calls for greater tolerance and diversity, and appeals for an end to oppression. It is not all virtue signalling, however, and there a lot of really good stories here that go in unexpected directions and achieve their ends with subtlety.

Radicalized

Radicalized
By Cory Doctorow

As an author and activist Cory Doctorow’s fiction often takes up the same political subject matter as his advocacy and opinion pieces. In recent years the two have been drawing ever closer together, to the point where the four novellas in his latest collection, Radicalized, might almost be thought of as dramatic essays.

The stories are drawn from hot-button issues in today’s headlines and then given an SF spin: cybersurveillance runs amok in smart homes, racism and law enforcement get challenged in an age of superheroes, the rationing of health care gives rise to dark-web terrorism, and social inequality implodes at the end of the world.

Informing all of this is Doctorow’s libertarian but socially progressive optimism, with heroic hackers and freedom fighters looking to create a more just society. And while he can be preachy, he is dealing with timely issues that affect us all.

The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction

The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction
Ed. by Gardner Dozois

For 35 years super-editor Gardner Dozois, who died last year, helmed the prestigious Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies. The Very Best of the Best offers up some highlights from his tenure, but the subtitle is flat-out wrong as the book only includes stories that go back to 2002. There were two previous Best of the Best volumes that included stories published from 1983 to 2002, making this book the third such selection.

With that important caveat out of the way one can recommend The Very Best of the Best wholeheartedly. As you would expect, the line-up of names is like a who’s who of contemporary SF, and as always with Dozois the selection is expertly assembled, offering up a wide range of traditional tropes and themes being spun in all kinds of imaginative new ways. Not all of it will be to everyone’s liking, but for everyone there is a lot to like. You really can’t go wrong adding such a volume to your collection.

Nebula Awards Showcase 2017

Nebula Awards Showcase 2017
Ed. by Julie E. Czerneda

The Nebula Awards debuted in 1966, with Frank Herbert’s Dune taking the prize for best novel, and since their inception they’ve been accompanied by a companion volume showcasing the nominees.

This year’s edition, the fifty-first, is drawn from the 2015 Nebulas and comes to us edited and introduced by Canadian author Julie Czerneda. It contains all of the nominees for Best Short Story as well as the winners of the Best Novella, Best Novelette, Best Short Poem and Best Long Poem prizes. In addition there are excerpts from all of the books nominated for Best Novel, and brief intros by the authors. While not as big a book as most Year’s Best anthologies (of which there are many), its sampling of different forms does make it something a little different.

There has been controversy in recent years over the underrepresentation of women in SF awards, so it’s worth noting that in 2015 all of the major Nebula Awards, for poetry and fiction, were won by women, from Alyssa Wong for best short story to Naomi Novik for best novel. Did the voters get it right? The Showcase lets you be the judge.