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The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2021 edition”, Rich Horton, Prime

Summary: Although delayed by the pandemic, Rich Horton’s “The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2021” (2022, Prime Books) is a very good anthology of fantasy and science fiction first published in 2020. I was glad I read it, even though it was the 5th “Best Of The Year” anthology I read that covered 2020. I rated it a “Very good” 3.78/5. Recommended.

The Full Story: Especially as I’ve been reading more short speculative fiction and been voting for the Hugo Awards over the last few years, I have been seeking out and reading more “Best Of The Year” anthologies. Some of these have been from many years ago, such as those by Judith Merril, Donald A. Wolheim/Terry Carr, Harry Harrison/Brian W. Aldiss, and others. Many have been more recent, including those by David G. Hartwell, Gardner Dozois, Jonathan Strahan, John Joseph Adams and guest editor, Neil Clarke, and Rich Horton.

For works published in 2020, I had previously read and enjoyed Jonathan Strahan’s “The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Volume 2“, Neil Clarke’s “The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 6“, the John Joseph Adams/Veronica Roth “The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2021“, and the “The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction (2021): Volume 1” by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.

I will not go back and review any of these I read before I started blogging. They are all excellent in their own way. Given the apparent cancellation by Saga of Jonathan Strahan’s “Year’s Best Science Fiction” series, I am pleased that Rich’s “Best of” anthology appeared this year.

My reading, especially for “Best Of The Year” anthologies, has no special rhyme or reason at times. This tends to be a combination of a) what I feel like reading, and b) what I can find at the library or decide to purchase.

In the case of Rich Horton’s 2021 edition (for 2020 stories), publication was substantially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, as stated by Rich in his Introduction. Accordingly, it was certainly the last of these covering 2020 that I have encountered and read.

One of the benefits of the pandemic delay was Rich’s ability to further read, research and evaluate 2020 works, which he mentions in the Introduction.

Amazon finally released Rich’s 2021 “Year’s Best” on Prime Books for purchase on August 22, 2022; I finished reading it on September 23, 2022.

The Table of Contents includes a generous 34 works of fiction. I had read 16 previously, whether in other “Best of” Anthologies or Hugo Voter packets or whatnot. I reread 13 of those 16 I had read before, happily.

My top 4 stories were ones I had read previously:

  • “Open House on Haunted Hill”, John Wiswell, rated 4.1/5, or “Superlative”. (see my short fiction rating scheme for an explanation of how I rate stories)
  • “An Important Failure”, Rebecca Campbell, rated 4/5, or “Great”.
  • “Little Free Library”, Naomi Kritzer, rated 4/5.
  • “Two Truths and a Lie”, Sarah Pinsker, rated 4/5.

The next group of stories that I loved were a mix of rereads and stories new to me:

  • “50 Things Every AI Working with Humans Should Know”, Ken Liu, reread, rated 3.9/5, or “Great”.
  • “Fog and Pearls at the King’s Cross Junction”, Aliya Whiteley, rated 3.9/5.
  • “Lovers on a Bridge”, Alexandra Seidel, rated 3.9/5.
  • “Silver Door Diner”, Bishop Garrison, reread, rated 3.9/5.
  • “Stepsister”, Leah Cypess, reread, rated 3.9/5.
  • “You Have the Prettiest Mask”, Sarah Langan, rated 3.9/5.
  • “A Feast of Butterflies”, Amanda Hollander, rated 3.8/5, or “Great”.
  • “Bereft, I Come to a Nameless World”, Benjamin Rosenbaum, rated 3.8/5.
  • “Laws of Impermanence”, Ken Schneyer, rated 3.8/5.
  • “Spirit Level”, John Kessel, rated 3.8/5.
  • “The Bahrain Underground Bazaar”, Nadia Afifi, reread, rated 3.8/5.
  • “Thirty-Three”, Tade Thompson, rated 3.8/5.
  • “Those We Serve”, Eugenia Triantafyllou, rated 3.8/5.
  • “When God Sits in Your Lap”, Ian Tregellis, rated 3.8/5.
  • Beyond the Dragon’s Gate”, Yoon Ha Lee, reread, rated 3.8/5.

After that were a number of stories that I felt were “Very good” but not quite “Great”.

There was only one story that I wondered at Rich’s inclusion into a “Best of The Year”. I found “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” by Mercurio D. Rivera to be an interesting replay of Theodore Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God” combined with the Simulation Hypothesis, but the characters were not as good as the ideas. This story was also included in “Best of” volumes by Neil Clarke and Allan Kaster, so perhaps I am an outlier on this.

Included were stories by a number of authors new to me that I enjoyed, such as Aliya Whiteley, Sarah Langan and Amanda Hollander, which was a real plus.

My overall average rating for the 34 stories included was 3.78/5, or “Very good”. Recommended. I hope we do not have to wait as long for Rich’s next “Year’s Best” anthology.

DETAILED REVIEW COMMENTS (SPOILERS FOLLOW!) in the order of the TOC:

  1. Stepsister“, a Leah Cypess novelette, May/June 2020 F&SF. A great, modern update on Cinderella, from POV of a male bastard brother of the King. Great on reread. Nebula and World Fantasy Award nominations. Rated 3.9/5.
  2. Laws of Impermanence“, a Ken Schneyer short story, September/October 2020 Uncanny. A great take on how quantum mechanics could affect books over time, in a slightly different universe. I love it. This is a fun, well executed story that is more of an essay. Rated 3.8/5.
  3. Songs of Activation“, a short story by Andy Dudak, December 2020 Clarkesworld. A very good story of a student in a very challenging situation who discovers he(?) has been set up as the one who will perhaps reconcile dogma with an alternate view in his world. Rated 3.7/5.
  4. The Past, Like a River in Flood“, a short story by Marissa Lingen, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #311. A geomancer has to return to the scene of a magical tragedy from her college years. She finds that some of her beloved professors were willing to compromise lives to ensure the success and financial health of the college. A very good story. Rated 3.7/5.
  5. The Bahrain Underground Bazaar“, a novelette by Nadia Afifi, November/December 2020 F&SF. An aging woman in Bahrain is dying of a brain tumor. Technology of the NeuroLync has the unexpected byproduct of recording the deaths of its users, and one can sample those at the Bahrain Underground Bazaar. She experiences one, of a woman who has an unusual death frim falling in Petra. She goes there, thinking perhaps to go out on her own terms, but changes her mind. I loved this story. Rated 3.8/5.
  6. Open House on Haunted Hill“, a short story by John Wiswell, June 2020 Diabolical Plots. I love this story. A haunted house desperately wants people to live in it again. A skeptic and his daughter decide to stay, with some help from the house. Great characters. Still great on reread; I loved the secret room. Nebula winner, Locus runner-up, Hugo and World Fantasy Award finalist. Rated 4.1/5.
  7. Beyond the Dragon’s Gate”, a short story by Yoon Ha Lee, a tor.com original. A wonderful story of AI space ships in a war that are upgraded and suffer dysphoria, some of them suiciding, and the AI researcher kidnapped to solve the problem. Still great on reread. Rated 3.8/5.
  8. Burn or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super“, a novelette by A. T. Greenblatt, May/June 2020 Uncanny. I really like this story of Sam Wells, an an accountant and minor league Super. His power is to burn without burning, and he wants to be a hero. Hugo and Nebula finalist. Rated 3.7/5.
  9. Minerva Girls“, a novelette by James Van Pelt, October 2020 Analog. A charming story of 3 school age (HS?) friends, young women, who figure out how to go to the moon, despite two of them being about to move elsewhere. There is a rather retro vibe. Still a great story on reread, very hopeful and resilient. Rated 3.7/5.
  10. A Feast of Butterflies“, a short story by Amanda Hollander, March/April 2020 F&SF. A wonderful tale of a constable in a very backwoods location, and the disappearance of 5 boys including the grandson of a local power, and a woman who eats butterflies. All is not as it seems; they are both shapeshifters and she has killed the five boys in her guise of a spider but a happy ending for the constable and her. Rated 3.8/5.
  11. Egoli“, short fiction by T.L. Huchu, in the 2020 anthology “Africanfuturism” (Brittle Paper, Wole Talabi editor). A very good story of an old woman, a grandmother at least, in a small rural village. She reminisces about her long life and changes, about learning to read perhaps when middle aged, and sees her grandson travel to the asteroids for mining. Great on reread. Rated 3.7/5.
  12. Spirit Level“, a novelette by John Kessel, July/August 2020 F&SF. A great story of a man who is drifting a little, divorced, estranged from his son, and perhaps haunted by his father’s spirit level. I suspect I missed some of the point. He is occasionally haunted by figures in his life, living and dead. I loved this story, but my incomprehension tells me it could have been better, or that I’m just not ready to put in the work and perhaps a reread to better understand it. Rated 3.8/5.
  13. Bereft, I Come to a Nameless World“, a short story by Benjamin Rosenbaum, July-August 2020 Asimov’s. A half-million year old entity, bred/created to help spread and encourage far future civilizations, flees a failing world and comes to a world with a peer in residence, Tharve. They struggle mightily with how to relate to Tharve, who has changed. At the end, there is hope and resilience. I loved this story; I see that it is part of a series, which I need to pursue. Rated 3.8/5.
  14. You Have the Prettiest Mask“, a novella by Sarah Langan, August 2020 Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. A great story of a young woman living in a time of Y-plague, where women can carry a disease that can kill men once they hit puberty. Masks for women are the custom and almost the law, in an amazingly but prescient tilt to patriarchy and not having men be responsible for their own safety. She and her two coven friends attempt to resist. Rated 3.9/5.
  15. The Garden Where No One Ever Goes“, P. H. Lee Beneath Ceaseless Skies #318. A story of forbidden love and magic in the gardens no one goes to. Rated 3.7/5.
  16. 50 Things Every AI Working with Humans Should Know“, a short story by Ken Liu, November-December 2020 Uncanny. This is a great story of the creation, existence and death of an AI who is an AI-critic. I especially enjoyed the flip flops on who wrote the output credited to the AI. Note that it is an obituary and epistolary. Rated 3.9/5.
  17. Magnificent Maurice or the Flowers of Immortality“, a short story by Rati Mehrotra, November 2020 Lightspeed. A very good story of a cat who protects Yggdrasil, and the witch he works for. Rated 3.7/5.
  18. Fog and Pearls at the King’s Cross Junction“, short fiction by Aliya Whiteley, in the 2020 anthology “London Centric: Tales of Future London” (NewCon Press, Ian Whates editor). I really like this great but very different story. A young woman answers an add and goes to work with somebody who sells pearls and harvests them from humans during the Great Fog, and a lighthouse. Reminds of a very different Dr. Watson. Rated 3.9/5.
  19. The Monogamy Hormone“, a short story by Annalee Newitz, from the 2020 anthology “Entanglements: Tomorrow’s Lovers, Families, and Friends” (The MIT Press, Sheila Williams editor). A very good story about love, a possible monogamy pill, putting bacteria on the walls of schools to help student health, and the protagonist being in love with two people. Note San Francisco locale and polyamorous nature. Still really liked this on reread. Although not noted in ISFDB, this includes some of the same characters and San Francisco setting as “#Selfcare” by Newitz. Rated 3.7/5.
  20. An Important Failure“, a novelette by Rebecca Campbell, August 2020 Clarkesworld. A great story about a climate change refugee on Vancouver Island, and the violin he makes, which will take decades if not centuries to mature and reach its peak sound. Great characters, great setting. Great on reread. The end brought tears of sadness and hope to my eyes. Sturgeon winner. Rated 4/5.
  21. When God Sits in Your Lap“, a novelette by Ian Tregellis, September-October 2020 Asimov’s. A great story of space age problems, featuring an angel exiled to Earth. This angel finds out that Metatron, a Heavenly Power, has decided to confine Humans to Earth. Fun story, by an author I don’t think I have read short fiction by. Rated 3.8/5.
  22. “A Guide for Working Breeds”, a short story by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, from the 2020 anthology “Made to Order: Robots and Revolution” (Solaris, Jonathan Strahan editor). Enjoyable story of a recently conscious/whatever robot and it’s communications with it’s very prickly mentor robot, and then it’s communications with it’s mentee as it becomes more experienced. Hugo, Nebula and Sturgeon finalist. Rated 3.7/5.
  23. Silver Door Diner“, a short story by Bishop Garrison, Autumn 2020 Fiyah. A great story of an alien from a very advanced race and an Earth with a short, recurring time loop leading to destruction after an unconventional weapon is used. One of the main characters is a woman working at a diner, which has the best apple pie. She opts for love, and surprises the alien 4,000 times later. Great on reread; this was one of my favorite stories from Fiyah read from the Hugo Voters packet. Rated 3.9/5.
  24. Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars“, a novelette by Mercurio D. Rivera, March-April 2020 Asimov’s. A replay of “Microcosmic God” combined with the Simulation Hypothesis. The story ideas were good, but the characters were not as good as the story for me. Rated 3.2/5, or “Good”.
  25. The Moon Fairy“, Sofia Samatar, from Conjunctions #74. A Moon Fairy visits and adopts a young woman, who is never the same after it leaves. Rated 3.6/5.
  26. Retention“, a short story by Alec Nevala-Lee, July-August 2020 Analog. A clever yet possibly hopeless story of an entity attempting to cancel an all-encompassing service (cable, security, etc.). As the story continues, we find it likely that both on the call are bots, trying to be more. This has gone on for 800 years. Rated 3.7/5.
  27. Lovers on a Bridge“, a short story by Alexandra Seidel, from the 2020 anthology “Past Tense” (John Benson, editor & publisher). I think this is a great story, but I am a sucker for speculative fiction stories involving art. A woman comes to consciousness in what appears to be a Gallery of Famous Paintings, real and real in the past. These are paintings that her suicide mother took her to see. She meets and falls in love with the Curator. Although she was supposed to replace him as Curator, they stay together in some form of existence. Rated 3.9/5.
  28. Thirty-Three“, a short story by Tade Thompson, from the 2020 anthology “Avatars Inc.” (XPRIZE, Ann VanderMeer editor). The second short fiction I have read by Tade Thompson, one of my favorite SF writers based on his “Rosewater” trilogy. A great, matter of fact and scary story of an academic with relationship problems who is recruited to try to help save the world. He does succeed, probably, after unexpected pain and suffering. Rated 3.8/5.
  29. Those We Serve“, a short story by Eugenia Triantafyllou, Interzone #287 May-June 2020. A great story, perhaps the first SF story I have read by her. An artificial person, on a Greek island where the natives tired of the tourist onslaught and retreated to an underwater city. They left artificials to interact with the tourists. The protagonist artificial is the manager of a hotel, and friend of Amelia, a woman who has been visiting for 30 years. Finally the original human he was modelled on returns, telling him that the humans are returning and that he and the other artificials will be turned off. Amelia has asked him to leave the island for an outing to Butterfly Island. He finds a way to use his programming and go with her, although his future is unclear. Rated 3.8/5.
  30. Behind Our Irises“, a short story by Tlotlo Tsamaase, in the 2020 anthology “Africanfuturism” (Brittle Paper, Wole Talabi editor). A very chilling story of employee mind control. NOMMO winner. Rated 3.7/5.
  31. Little Free Library“, a short story by Naomi Kritzer, tor.com. Great little story of a new resident of a neighborhood who decides to do a “Little Free Library”, and has an unusual and perhaps otherworldy user. Just as great on third or fourth reread, even knowing what is coming. Locus winner, Hugo runner-up. Rated 4/5.
  32. An Unkindness“, a novella by Jessica P. Wick, from the 2020 anthology “A Sinister Quartet” (Mythic Delirium Press). A very good story of royal siblings, a princess and king to be, and her efforts to save him from the fairies. Rated 3.7/5.
  33. The Dragon Slayer“, short fiction by Michael Swanwick, from the 2020 anthology “The Book of Dragons” (Harper Voyager, Jonathan Strahan editor). A youngster, Nahal, is saved from bandits by Olav, who himself is sometimes both a sell sword and a guard, and also a thief. Olav starts to teach Nahal weapons. Time goes on. We find out that Nahal is Nahala. Olav’s witch-wife, dead, returns as a dragon. Olav is forced to work for a wizard, whose main power is limited time travel via an amulet. When they all go to challenge the witch dragon, the wizard dies and Olav rendered unconscious. Nahala is rescued by her future self, who slays the witch dragon. Nahala lets Olav think Olav killed the dragon, and decides to marry and have children with Olav. Great characters. Very good on reread. Rated 3.7/5.
  34. “Two Truths and a Lie”, a novelette by Sarah Pinsker, tor.com. A great, very creepy story, with a rather circular relationship between a woman, a very creepy kids TV show host during her childhood, and a very disturbed dead brother of a childhood friend who had been on the show also. Very good on reread, just as creepy. Nebula and Hugo winner, Locus runner-up, Stoker finalist. Rated 4/5.
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4 responses to “The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2021 edition”, Rich Horton, Prime”

  1. I do strongly recommend you read the other stories by Benjamin Rosenbaum set in the same future as “Bereft, I Come to a Nameless World”, but though the main characters in that story are minor characters in THE UNRAVELING, the stories aren’t really closely related. And I say “stories” but it’s really one story — the short story “Fift and Shria” is an early version of an episode from the novel THE UNRAVELING (which was probably my favorite 2021 novel.) (Actually, you could just go ahead and read Rosenbaum’s complete works and you’d be well rewarded.)

    And thanks very much for the generous and perceptive review!

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    1. Rich, thanks for the Benjamin Rosenbaum suggestions. I will be making note of those. He is definitely an author I need to read more of, and I appreciate your help.

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  2. Very nice story synopses. Being that we are in October and headed towards that “creepy” holiday at the end of the month, I think I just might have to read Two Truths and a Lie as well as Open House on Haunted Hill. But the one that intrigues me most is Spirit Level, not just because the title would fit a little “October theme” reading, but because I love it when a man admits that perhaps he didn’t understand something, that maybe he could delve deeper for greater comprehension.

    This, the abilitiy to recognize our own failures of comprehension, is a very rare quality indeed, in humans as a species, but in particular those of the male gender. This is, no doubt in my mind, in no small part due to overt societal conditioning. Societal rules tell us men should never admit to being wrong or not understanding something, because it is weakness. This is poppycock, of course, but it is unfortunately a prevalent and sometimes toxic viewpoint. It hurts us all regardless of gender identity.

    This is one of the reasons I enjoy reading your story reviews. You put in the work, you get curious, you dig deep, and you are unafraid to question your own understanding. In a world where “armchair experts” with little substance, beyond some half baked opinions, abound, this is a refreshing and welcome respite.

    Thanks Dave, your breadth and depth of knowledge of speculative fiction is impressive, as always, and your enthusiasm for the genre is infectious. Keep up the good work.

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    1. Lorie, thanks for the nice comments. Considering your experience in writing, I value them. I do find it interesting when I write an essay or book review as to how personal I should get. Granted that it’s my blog so I can do whatever I feel like, but that balance is always there – that perfect balance of having an interesting and personal piece yet not blather on too long. On the “not knowing things”, I have certainly become more comfortable with admitting that as I get older. Also on admitting that I just don’t want to work hard enough to know things sometimes.

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