I just finished Rich Horton’s “The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020” anthology (Prime Books, 2021). This is my third “Best Of” 2020 read, after the prior 2020 “Best American” SF and Fantasy by John Joseph Adams/Diana Gabaldon and “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Volume 1” by Jonathan Strahan. There is no particular message in the order of the “Best Of” volumes that I read, as I read them in the order I was able to find at the library. I hope to read the Clarke and Kaster for 2020 as well.
I had read 13 of the 34 stories before, in other anthologies, as part of a Hugo Nomination package, or at the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction Group (BSFFSF) on Facebook for a Group Read. I had read some of these before I joined the BSFFSF Group or started taking detailed notes, so I encountered a number of stories here that I did not realize I had already read. I ended up rereading and enjoying most of these.
A number of these stories have not been included in the two prior “Best Of” 2020 anthologies I have read. This is a great reason to consider reading more than one of them.
Overall, I really enjoyed and was glad I read this “Best Of” Anthology. My average rating was a very robust 3.77/5 (updated from prior 3.75), so not quite a “Great” overall on my scale, but very, very good.
I did not explicitly look at the balance of SF and fantasy here, beyond noting that this series continues to include both. From what I found in the anthology and what he notes in the Introduction, I assume that Rich Horton’s main editorial focus is on great stories, ones that both speak to today and that he hopes “will still be read in a century.”
I really loved a lot of the stories here. In order of my ratings, from the top down, my favorites included:
- “Secret Stories of Doors, a short story by Sofía Rhei;
- “The Archronology of Love”, a short story by Caroline M. Yoachim;
- “At the Fall”, a novelette by Alec Nevala-Lee;
- “The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations”, a novelette by Minsoo Kang;
- “A Country Called Winter”, a novelette by Theodora Goss;
- “Anosognosia”, a novelette by John Crowley;
- “Green Glass: A Love Story • (2019) • short story by E. Lily Yu;
- “Give the Family My Love” a short story by A. T. Greenblatt;
- “Ink, and Breath, and Spring”, a short story by Frances Rowat;
- “The Death of Fire Station 10”, a short story by Ray Nayler;
- “Knowledgeable Creatures” a short story by Christopher Rowe;
- “Love in the Time of Immuno-Sharing”, a short story by Andy Dudak;
- “A Catalog of Storms”, a short story by Fran Wilde;
- “Fix That House!”, a short story by John Kessel; and
- “Mighty Are the Meek and the Myriad”, a short story by Cassandra Khaw.
I was pleased that 6 of my favorites were stories that I had not read before. I appreciate being introduced to new stories and some new authors that I really liked.
There were a number of stories that fell into the “very good” range for me, not quite into “great” or one of my favorites, but still very good. I’ll keep an eye out for some of these authors that are new to me that.
I do have one story that my reaction to was, ‘What? Why is that story in a “Best Of” for SF and fantasy?’ Perhaps I missed nuances or just did not get it, but I really struggled to interpret “The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear”, a short story by Kelly Link, as either SF or fantasy. I know Rich Horton is a big fan of Kelly Link. I am a fan of Kelly Link also. It’s a pretty good story, with perhaps some Groundhog Day elements, but I don’t see fantastic elements. Regardless, this is just my impression. I don’t care to do more research or reread to figure this out more, as there are other things to do with life.
UPDATED REACTION/DISCUSSION OF “The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear”. My thanks to Rich Horton, who challenged my opinion that this story was without fantastic elements, and by implication not speculative fiction. Rich said, “One thing about the Link story … it appears to be set in a world with no men. I think that’s pretty SFnal.”
I had not noticed that particular point when I first read it. Upon rereading, I came away with a different perspective.
I concur that this is speculative fiction. Between the Groundhog Day repeating elements of the protagonist trying to get home from an academic conference and the lack of any men or obviously differently gendered individuals, this is definitely not our consensus reality part of Kansas anymore.
I don’t think that this story is science fiction, partly due to a lack of information. Also, I was somewhat jarred out of story consistency by the sentence, “In the aisle seat was a woman just a little older, heavyset and tired looking, wearing the kind of clothing and minimal makeup that signals camouflage worn by lesbians in administrative offices”. I could be missing something, but I don’t see how this world with no apparent men or other differently gendered individuals fits with the presence of lesbians in a coherent, consistent fashion. I could be so wrong about this.
Joanna Russ, in the award winning 1972 short story “When It Changed”, conveyed a very consistent and coherent world in a great science fiction story with no men until they came back. “The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear” is a good story, but the internal consistency fails for me. This is OK, but it makes me consider it fantasy or interstitial fiction.
My other disappointment with the story is the nature of the plot, a Groundhog Day attempt to get home, but that is just a personal reaction.
SPOILERS FOLLOW. Here are my individual story comments and ratings, in order of presentation in the book’s TOC. (Publication data is from ISFDB, http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?807208)
|13 • Green Glass: A Love Story • (2019) • short story by E. Lily Yu||An achingly sarcastic tale of two extremely rich, accomplished people marrying amidst the deterioration of the world. Previously read in Strahan’s “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Volume 1”.||3.9|
|21 • At the Fall • (2019) • novelette by Alec Nevala-Lee||Very affecting story of an aquatic artificial being, intelligent and designed to explore and map deep sea vents with her sisters. Their contact at the surface disappears, and she decides to travel thousands of miles home via energy found at deep sea vents and whale falls. At home, all surface dwelling intelligences appear to be dead. Prevously read in Strahan’s “Year’s Best” (appears in Strahan, Clarke, and Kaster “Best of”), and a #4 finalist in the 2019 Analog Readers contest for novelette.||4.0|
|44 • The Fine Print • (2019) • short story by Chinelo Onwualu||Previously read in “New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color”, edited by Nisi Shawl. A man owes his first son to a djinn. Not my favorite. Upon reread, however, I like what this story tells us about human nature.||3.7|
|55 • Fix That House! • (2019) • short story by John Kessel||A horrifying story that sneaks up on you. A couple moves into an old antebellum mansion, and want to restore it to authentic conditions. At the end, we discover that includes slaves!||3.8|
|59 • Mighty Are the Meek and the Myriad • (2019) • short story by Cassandra Khaw||A great story of personal and national conflict, post war from a US and others international war with significant AI robot deployment. In England, the robots were put out to work after the war is over. The English government gave them dogs to give their lives purpose, but then realize they cost too much and take the dogs away. Finally, the robots realize they have no purpose and go back to war, against humans. At least one human may have helped start this war, a retired general who misses the clarity of war.||3.8|
|75 • The Savannah Problem • [Draiken] • (2019) • novella by Adam-Troy Castro||This is the 2nd Draiken story I have read. It was interesting, perhaps revealing more of his history and how he came to be than the last one. He and his associate Delia Stang kidnap a deadly killer. At the end of the story, we find that killer serving as evidence to a faction Draiken is allied with, perhaps of mind control. This felt more like a chapter of a longer work and less like a standalone story.||3.6|
|121 • How to Kiss a Hojacki • (2019) • novelette by Debbie Urbanski||A world very like ours. Some people, women, are changing into different humanoid forms. No one knows why. The protagonist is a man who clearly believes in traditional gender and life roles, and is not okay with change, and expects sex his way. His wife is changing, and he is obsessed about her not wanting to have sex anymore. During all of this, the governor’s race features a traditionalist versus a changing woman. I don’t find this a great story, but it is interesting. I suspect I missed some things about it.||3.5|
|146 • Tourists • (2019) • short story by Rammel Chan||Aliens travel the universe as Tourists who must see it all, coming to alien planets with local bodies and translators. Many planets and cultures are ok with this, but not all. They are cautioned not to reveal themselves to the locals. One of these Tourists is visiting Paris, and finds they have been discovered by a member of a race who massacred hundreds of thousands of Tourists, and they may be next.||3.7|
|158 • Vīs Dēlendī • (2019) • short story by Marie Brennan||A candidate sorcerer, a mediocre student, vows to return the dead to life to gain his qualification. He succeeds yet dies anyway.||3.6|
|168 • Cloud-Born • (2019) • short story by Gregory Feeley||A young woman has grown up on a not quite generation ship to Neptune. She has an adventure that brings her to the attention of one the ship’s Earthborne elders. Appears in Horton & Kaster “Year’s Best” for 2020.||3.6|
|190 • Give the Family My Love • (2019) • short story by A. T. Greenblatt||Previously read in 2020 Hugo Package for Neil Clarke. “Great story, intergalactic Library, Librarians, astronaut, climate change, hope, family”. Nebula winner, Sturgeon finalist, Neil Clarke & Horton “Best Of” appearances.||3.9|
|203 • The Archronology of Love • (2019) • short story by Caroline M. Yoachim||Hugo 2020 Novelette nominee. A great story of love, loss and discovery, with a new colony all dead and all organic matter gone. The protagonist and her dead husband, a colonists, are both academics in the field of archronology, which combines archeology and travel to and viewing of different times. Listened to on audible, instead of read. Strahan, Horton & Adams/Gabaldon “Best Of” appearances.||4.1|
|223 • The Migration Suite: A Study in C Sharp Minor • (2019) • short story by Maurice Broaddus||A very good story of a family’s perseverance and hope, including emigration to an unwanted Moon colony.||3.7|
|236 • Secret Stories of Doors • (2016) • short story by Sofía Rhei?||Previously read in Strahan’s “Year’s Best” 2020. “I deeply loved this story, perhaps alternate history and perhaps political satire, of a world where some of the ideas of H. G. Wells and Orson Welles have been implemented for the government. The protagonist introduces false stories and documents into the official narrative/world encyclopedia.” I don’t always reread stories I have read recently, but I love this masterful story and it was a true joy to read again.||4.2|
|249 • The Ocean Between the Leaves • (2019) • short story by Ray Nayler||Previously read for the Hugo 2020 Nomination package, reread here. A very good story of a future where people can inhabit blanks, bodies for rent/whatever. The story tracks two people, and we eventually find out there is really only one person, who has been the subject of “research”. There are huge inequities here in Istanbul and elsewhere, and if you are not a “citizen”, you are really screwed. Kaster & Neil Clarke “Best Of” appearances.||3.7|
|266 • The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations • (2019) • novelette by Minsoo Kang||First read in “New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color”, edited by Nisi Shawl. Great story of a cataclysmic war averted by two translators, and a lovely postscript praising yet criticizing the analysis leading to the story as containing too many assumptions and omissions.||4.0|
|282 • Shucked • (2019) • short story by Sam J. Miller||A woman suspects her boyfriend’s body has been stolen, but she can never be sure. This felt incompletely developed.||3.5|
|292 • Empty Box • (2019) • short story by Allison Mulvihill||A man and perhaps a woman. The woman is remote, not local. The man wants to meet her in person; she may be an AI.||3.7|
|297 • The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear • (2019) • short story by Kelly Link||Interesting story of a woman who is at a an academic convention or some such who has a hard time getting home to her wife and daughter and an important meeting. I don’t see this as genre at all, unless you count the somewhat “Groundhog Day” repetition of her attempting to fly home. UPDATED REACTION: This is speculative fiction, and a better story than I believed the first read. However, it does not quite get to “great” for me. I’ve updated the rating to 3.7 from the prior 3.1.||3.7|
|311 • Ink, and Breath, and Spring • (2019) • short story by Frances Rowat||For me, this was a great fantasy/horror story. A man is found murdered, in a place he should not be. A library page of key knows there is someone around, a guest, who is there but cannot be seen by the page who should be able to. There is a lot going on here, with perhaps a fair amount that never becomes clear. The murderer is found and dealt with.||3.9|
|329 • The Death of Fire Station 10 • (2019) • short story by Ray Nayler||A great story of the passing of an AI Knowledge Center into a “blank” body after being judged sentient, and the fate of it’s friend Fire Station 10.||3.9|
|342 • Love in the Time of Immuno-Sharing • (2019) • short story by Andy Dudak||The title is a play on “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I don’t remember enough of that book to be able draw closer comparisons and contrasts, other than that it too included love in a time of epidemic. This is a very good, even great, story of 4 characters who live on a floating artificial archipelago that hosts the Movable Feast. A future, perhaps artificial plague system lends sharing illness a similarity to sex. For varying reasons, these 4 inhabitants leave the Movable Feast to enjoy immuno-sharing sex with mainlanders off the Northwest coast of North America. Life goes on for some of them. This story is both well written and features concepts novel to me.||3.8|
|360 • Bark, Blood, and Sacrifice • (2019) • short story by Alexandra Seidel||A very interesting tale at the fantasy/horror juncture. Eyes and other sacrifices are required to reach the 7th gate. Not a favorite, but good atmosphere.||3.7|
|371 • Tick-Tock • (2019) • short story by Xia Jia (trans. of 滴答 2015)||A scary, self-referential story of a world where you pay to have better dreams, and perhaps you are working on your own dreams. There is a lot of inferences to life as simulation. Reminded me of the Charles Stross novel, “Glasshouse”, one of the most terrifying things I have ever read.||3.7|
|383 • Mnemosyne • (2019) • short story by Catherine MacLeod||A woman discovers she is a ghost courier, a very rare talent. She is trained for it. She survives, but has to live with betraying and betrayals. A good story.||3.6|
|396 • Cloud • (2019) • short story by Michael Swanwick||A very interesting story, with a lot of unresolved elements hinted at. A world with a Cloud that occupies or replaces part of the topography, focused on NYC. A man on the way up, with an equally a accomplished fiancé, visits a party hosted by her scandalous, rich aunt. The aunt’s manor sits on top of the Cloud. A rich and unpopular uncle disappears over the balcony, into the Cloud. As they drive away from the party, the Cloud may be disappearing. I’d like to like this story more, but it felt like too many unrelated threads at this length.||3.5|
|404 • A Country Called Winter • (2019) • novelette by Theodora Goss||Previously read, perhaps in John Joseph Adams, Hugo 2020 Nomination package. I recognized I had already read it perhaps 1 page in. The reread was just as good as original read. A young woman grows up in Boston, knowing that her father died in a revolution and that she is a refugee. Towards the end, she finds out she is the princess and heir to the throne of the country Winter in Northern Europe. She is not ready for this, but the Goddess of Winter, Lady Moon, convinces her.||4.0|
|421 • And Now His Lordship Is Laughing • (2019) • short story by Shiv Ramdas||Previously read as a Hugo 2020 finalist. Good, but not great, story of starvation and revenge in India in WW2. Upon rereading, it is a very good story. Hugo and Nebula finalist.||3.7|
|436 • Knowledgeable Creatures • (2019) • short story by Christopher Rowe||Previously read as part of the Hugo 2021 package for Ellen Datlow. “Lovely story of the secret masters and a dog Detective.” from prior read. Great characters and plot. It was close to being able to be interpreted as SF, but probably fantasy.||3.9|
|450 • The Visible Frontier • (2019) • short story by Grace Seybold||Our protagonist is a young sailor, heading out on a first voyage and curious about and wanting to know and understand the world. He encounters a machine man who shows him the truth; he lives within some kind of Dyson sphere, in a civilization that has forgotten the outside. Although more adventurous than most, he cannot handle all of this. The machine man wipes his memory and he goes on with life, no longer curious. A rather sad story, but a good one.||3.7|
|462 • A Catalog of Storms • (2019) • short story by Fran Wilde||Previously read as a Hugo & Nebula 2020 nominee. Interesting, fun fantasy about people that become weather and their conflict with smart weather. Appearances in Strahan, Horton & Guran “Best Of”.||3.8|
|472 • At the Old Wooden Synagogue on Janower Street • (2019) • short story by Michael Libling||A fantasy or horror of the Holocaust. It’s not clear if the father and son are pulled back to the Holocaust by his dead relatives, or if he just imagined a new life in America.||3.7|
|478 • Miscellaneous Notes from the Time an Alien Came to Band Camp Disguised as My Alto Sax • (2019) • short story by Tina Connolly||A light but fun story of young love, musicians in a youth symphony, and an alien who wanted to understand Earth.||3.6|
|481 • Anosognosia • (2019) • novelette by John Crowley||Previously read in Crowley’s collection, “And Go Like This”. A great story about a young man who maybe lives two lives through a version of travel between two universes in a time travel variant, or perhaps suffers from anosognosia.||4.0|