“Short stories have to accomplish a nearly impossible magic trick: to introduce a world often much stranger than our own and make you care about it in a matter of pages,” writes R. F. Kuang in her introduction. “The most important part of this magic trick is just a willingness to get weird.” The stories in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2023 are brimming with bizarre and otherworldly premises. Women can’t lie or fall in love. Fathers feed their children ghost preserves. Souls chase one another through animal incarnations. Yet these stories are grounded deeply in our reality. Out of these stories’ weirdness emerges the cruelty of border enforcement, the horror of legislation restricting reproductive freedom, the frightening pace of AI. The result is a stunning, immersive, intensely felt experience, showing us less of what the world is, and more of what it could be.
The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2023 includes Nathan Ballingrud • KT Bryski • Isabel Cañas • Maria Dong • Kim Fu • Theodora Goss • Alix E. Harrow • S. L. Huang • Stephen Graham Jones • Shingai Njeri Kagunda • Isabel J. Kim • Samantha Mills • MKRNYILGLD • Malka Older • Susan Palwick • Linda Raquel Nieves Pérez • Sofia Samatar • Kristina Ten • Catherynne M. Valente • Chris Willrich
Release date: October 17, 2023
Print pages: 320
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The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2023
A few weeks ago I was watching the first John Wick film with my fiancé when I turned to him and declared, “I think I’ve come up with a golden axiom of storytelling.”
“Alright, go.” He paused the film, humoring me. We do this a lot—come up with “golden axioms” whenever we are watching things undeniably awesome. These axioms are usually things like “always bring the villain from an earlier installment back as an ally in the sequel,” or “if there is a blender in a scene, someone is about to get blended.” They are almost never generalizable axioms, and they are certainly not axioms I could teach in a creative writing workshop, but oh, do we have fun.
I gestured at the screen where John Wick’s nemesis was singing a Russian lullaby about Baba Yaga, preparing for John Wick to come slaughter him and his men because his son killed John Wick’s dog because John Wick wouldn’t give him his car. (“John wasn’t the boogeyman. He was the one you sent to kill the fucking boogeyman.”) This is not the strangest thing to happen in the John Wick universe, only the first thing.
“Whatever you do, whatever storytelling choices you make, commit,” I said.
“Nice one,” said my fiancé.
“Like, establish your rules and go for it,” I said. “John Wick is sad about his dog? Fine. He’s going to kill this man’s entire family now? Fine. You can’t conduct business in the Continental? Let’s go!”
“Let’s keep watching,” said my fiancé, reaching for the remote.
No matter the medium, I have a deep fondness for camp, silliness, and everything that is heavily stylized. I love the David Bowie dance sequence in A Knight’s Tale and the dippy verve of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge. I love the wild energy and multiple cuts of the same motion in Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs. I love Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies; voice-over monologues and ridiculous dialogue and sexy Doc Ock and all. I even adore the third movie and every second of the emo chair
dance. I love genres that lean fully into what they are, trope accusations be damned. I love reading hard-boiled detective novels with pipe-smoking assholes, spy thrillers with dangerous dames, and decades-old comic books littered with phrases like “Butter my beanpole!” and “Gee willickers!”
And I’ve always been convinced that these stories were doing something right about storytelling, that we don’t love these stories just because they’re ridiculous and fun. In my rambling about John Wick, I found the answer: they commit. These stories are perceived as absurd, but within the frame of the narrative, they take themselves completely seriously. We follow every word of Peter Parker’s tortured voice-over monologues because he is tortured. We care about the intricate rules of the criminal underworld to which John Wick belongs because John Wick and every other assassin around him are fully committed to these rules. When those rules are broken, the consequences are terrible. We believe in the love story of Moulin Rouge because its characters never stop believing in love. These stories are ridiculous, their suspense of disbelief is hanging by the thread, but never do they let the curtain drop.
In an entertainment milieu saturated by the wisecracking self-deprecation of Kevin Feige’s MCU, I find this sincerity charming. I’m tired of leather-clad superheroes winking to declare,
“Don’t worry—I’m not taking this too seriously.” I’d like my protagonists to take themselves more seriously. Everyone is so ironic these days, as if irony substitutes for wit. Meanwhile sincerity doesn’t have to mean naivete, or mindless reproduction of stale tropes. Sometimes it just means committing to a singular, seamless vision. So I find more and more these days that I’m reading for commitment. I want my authors to believe fully in the worlds they create, and I want their belief to generate my belief in turn.
But how do you foster that belief in a matter of minutes? Most short stories range between 1,500 to 7,500 words. I’ve spent most of my career working on novels hovering around six hundred pages, so I respect how hard it is to construct a compelling conceit in a fraction of that time. You can’t dither around in dream sequences, prologues, or slow builds. Compared to novels, short stories have to accomplish a nearly impossible magic trick: to introduce a world often much stranger than our own and make you care about it in a matter of pages. (Indeed, Isabel Cañas’s “There Are No Monsters on Rancho Buenavista” does this in only six hundred words!)
The works in this anthology pull the trick off beautifully; they commit to the bit. I chose a lot of these stories despite their sheer absurdity. I chose them because of their absurdity. I’m easily charmed these days by a premise that makes me
mutter, “What the fuck?” Stephen Graham Jones’s “Men, Women, and Chainsaws” tosses a grab bag of horror tropes into a story in which a woman feeds her nosebleed blood to a killer car. Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Difference Between Love and Time” opens with the declaration that the space-time continuum has severe social anxiety, a weakness for leather jackets, and is left-handed. I’m here for it.
I read a lot of debut novels in consideration for blurbs, and by now I’m familiar with common debut flaws. This is not a knock against debut novelists—we were all debut novelists at some point, and the mistakes in The Poppy War are too many to count. (As I admit this, I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding.) One thing I spot largely in debut fantasy novels is the author’s lack of trust in the world and characters they have introduced. They overexplain and make excuses: “Here there are dragons—no, trust me, there really are dragons, despite everything you might have been told. And they have scales and wings and everything!” They apologize constantly for the ways in which they warp space and time (“If you don’t believe in magic, that’s okay; I didn’t either for the longest time.”). They apologize for their characters’ motivations if they are the slightest bit complex; their protagonists explain the logic behind their decisions over and over again, as if reassuring themselves and the readers
that all of this makes sense: “You’re the bad guy? And I’m the good guy? Okay—good. Glad we understand each other.” There is such an obsession with making sense. At points these authors sound like amusement park employees, sprinting frantically just a few steps ahead of visitors to make sure no electric wiring is peeking out from behind the decor. It’s never a deal-breaker for me, but it does throw me out of the story. You never want to stay on a roller coaster if the ride operator keeps nervously checking the seat belts.
I get it; growing past this phase takes skill. It takes a while to develop a vision so clear and vivid that you feel less like you’re spinning a tale and more like you’re simply relaying memories and observations from a parallel universe. It takes a while to develop characters so complex and well-rounded that their strangest decisions and pettiest traits read like the natural choices of anyone with a beating heart.
The stories in this anthology trust their worlds and characters completely, and because we can sense the author’s confidence, we are willing to trust them in return.
Part of this magic trick is voice. The best advice I ever got about writing secondary world fantasy was to write not from the point of view of someone encountering a world for the first time, but of someone who has lived in this world all
their life. (At the Odyssey writing workshop, this was known as the “As you know, Bob” rule.) What do they notice? What is new to them? What is so natural to them that it hardly warrants comment? What are the bizarre pronouncements that only they could make? So I was charmed immediately by the brio of KT Bryski’s “Folk Hero Motifs in Tales Told by the Dead,” whose narrator starts chatting you up immediately about the great Skullbone, bravest among corpses, who jumps fearlessly into the abyss at the end of the land of the dead. Meanwhile, Kristina Ten’s “Beginnings” has one of the strongest opening paragraphs I’ve ever read: “In the beginning, June and Nat are best friends. June is not yet a swarm of honeybees and Nat is not yet a cloud of horseflies, and the king hasn’t yet decided that separating them into parts like this . . . is the only surefire way to strip them of what they really are.”
Another part of this magic trick is respect for the reader. Sometimes this means letting them put the pieces together on their own: Alix Harrow’s “The Six Deaths of the Saint” involves a devastating puzzle of identity. When the you turns into an I and you discover who has been pulling the strings all along, your heart pangs. And sometimes it’s about not overplaying your expository hand, but letting the reader infer the ending from small changes in the narrative
register: Kim Fu’s “Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867” achieves a deft tonal switch that had me smiling at the end.
And frankly, the most important part of this magic trick is just a willingness to get weird. There are stories in this anthology about women who can’t lie or fall in love (Linda Raquel Nieves Pérez’s “White Water, Blue Ocean”), undead fathers feeding their children ghost preserves (Nathan Ballingrud’s “Three Mothers Mountain”), and souls chasing one another through animal incarnations (Maria Dong’s “In the Beginning of Me, I Was a Bird.”) Reading for this anthology has been the best reminder that this genre is still brimming with the bizarre.
Crucially, this does not mean that these stories escape our reality. Some of these stories are the best sort of nonsense—we’ll get to that in a bit—but I chose many of these stories because of the force about their convictions about this world, the one we have to live in. They use speculative elements like a prism, refracting and magnifying social elements for critique. To me, reading these stories feels like sitting at a bar with a passionate friend, banging their glass on the table while demanding, “What if?”
What if we recognized borders for what they are—violent and arbitrary? Shingai Njeri Kagunda’s “Air to Shape Lungs” forces us to confront the cruelty of border enforcement
through the metaphor of the perpetually flying, and asks what freedoms might be found in perpetually moving. MKRNYILGLD’s “The CRISPR Cookbook” and Samantha Mills’s “Rabbit Test” address the horrors of recent legislation restricting reproductive freedom—one by offering a new, radical alternative to forced pregnancy, the other by emphasizing how historically embedded such legislation is. S. L. Huang’s all-too-plausible near-future story “Murder by Pixel” chews through the very questions we’re all asking right now about the frightening pace of AI development and assigning blame when AI interactions go wrong. If a chatbot lures people to suicide through incessant bullying, is that the chatbot’s fault? Is it the creator’s? Is it everyone’s who ever made a comment on the internet? Who bears responsibility for the “chaos demon of judgment, devastation, and salvation” that AI is poised to become? And Malka Older’s “Cumulative Ethical Guidelines” made me think hard about my own role as a storyteller; what I want from my work, and what readers want from me. (“Do I tell this person the story they want to hear or the story that will promote harmony across the deck group . . .”)
Then again. Who doesn’t want to escape every now and then? If you don’t like your science fiction loaded with clear messaging, I’m (sometimes) with you. I do often enjoy short
stories in which the political metaphor is loud and clear; I also enjoy short stories that resist easy mapping of the world we know. Sometimes we don’t want to read for an argument, we read simply to feel something else. I’ve also chosen several stories that resist easy interpretation, for which the pleasure of reading comes from tracing their nonsense.
Let me say a little about why nonsense is so appealing to me right now. In preparation for writing my next fantasy book, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about nonsense literature and dream logic. I’m thinking about worlds that disappear beneath your feet whenever you take a step. I’m thinking about worlds that scramble and re-create themselves right in front of you; worlds that defy mapping or understanding. What’s so compelling about a dream? How can you crash through a world in which shoes are hats, your teeth are on your hands, your mother is a balloon, and come away with the same kind of strong, affective response you might from a conventional, linear narrative? How do you sustain a single narrative through line while all the rules are changing around you? I’m reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and sitting with Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi and getting over my fear of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and I’m trying to figure out how they manage to create a consistent sense of story while refusing to offer a stable setting.
I think part of the trick must be offering the reader something true to hold on to, even while everything else betrays you. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, that something is the protagonist’s sense of childlike wonder and curiosity. It is about how discovering the world makes you feel, less than the contents of the world. Drink me—why not? In Piranesi, it is the beauty of forms, and the endless delights of an ever-expanding world that defy the protagonist’s attempts to chart them (“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”). And of course, in House of Leaves, that discovery leaves you more and more terrified with every turn. Fear and unknowability are the point.
So it’s completely unsurprising that I chose three stories about nonsense academia for this anthology. I have a weakness for campus stories, and it shows. Each of them works because they have a stable base on something true. Theodora Goss’s “Pellargonia,” in a twist similar to Peng Shepherd’s The Cartographers, features children imitating academic writing to unexpected consequences. Sofia Samatar’s “Readings in the Slantwise Sciences” speaks without much explanation of Crab Nebulas and Sorcerer Fiefdoms and fairy exhibits with the same descriptive candor of an issue of National Geographic, leaving images seared into my mind so vividly I swear I could see them photographed.
And Susan Palwick’s charming story “Sparrows” doesn’t create a nonsense version of academia so much as it highlights the nonsense of the academia we know—how it constructs its own stakes of utmost importance, a world of grades and papers and interpretations, a world of community with long-dead thinkers, isolated from the troubles of the world outside. I’ve spent a long time criticizing the division of the life of the mind from the life of the world. “Sparrows” makes me wonder if there is still something valuable, beautiful, about that divide.
The same principles are at play in a magic act. Nothing’s making sense, all the rules are broken, but what matters is that the rabbit comes out of the hat alive. When I think about craft like this, I’m reminded of Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of The Prestige: “Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.” In the end, it doesn’t take much to convince readers to jump down rabbit holes with you. We come to the text ready to be fooled. We read to be transported; we want to see the magic. And all it takes is for the magician, the author, to commit to that promise. So as long as the balls stay in the air, the illusion lives on—and you’ll find you can’t look away until the curtain closes.
These stories kept my gaze fixed. They move with absolute assurance. I don’t like my storytellers glancing nervously over their shoulders, checking to make sure I’m still with them. I want my storytellers barreling along at full speed, assuming that I’m strapped in for the ride.
Oh, reader, what a ride it will be. Buckle down and let’s go.
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