For the first time ever, the renowned Best American series of anthologies has published a collection of the country's best science fiction and fantasy stories. Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy is a terrific book, filled with 20 stories that filter very basic questions about humanity — how do men and women relate to each other? how are we being changed by our technology? what is the relationship between oppressor and oppressed? — through the filters of other genres and even other worlds.
Here, vampires might overrun Hawaii, or anthropology grad students might invent a fictional land that becomes all too real (or is it the other way around?). Children might be placated with "bugs" designed to make them emotionally docile for various service industries, or a woman might fund a trip into the underworld on Kickstarter.
Because some of the most exciting American writing is happening in the fields of science fiction and fantasy right now, I hopped on the phone with the book's two editors, Joe Hill and John Joseph Adams, to hear their picks for the 10 best science fiction and fantasy stories ever written.
Hill is a terrific author in his own right (with a short story collection that's a must-read for any fan of great writing), while Adams is one of the genre's most accomplished editors, having curated numerous anthologies and the online magazine Lightspeed. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Joe's first pick: "The Jewbird," by Bernard Malamud
A Jewish crow looks for a home with a Jewish family in New York City, but the family proves unkind. Read it here.
For me, the work of Bernard Malamud is magnetic north. I read everything Malamud did, and he wrote a really wonderful essay called "Why Fantasy?" This was at a moment in American letters when realism was considered the only serious literary mode. Malamud said it was nonsense. I'm paraphrasing, but he essentially said Lewis Carroll's Wonderland and Philip Roth's New Jersey have something in common, which is that they only exist in the imagination.
He said that with that in mind, you have to come to accept that all fiction is make-believe. The tools of make-believe — the wicked king, the ghost, the fallen angel, the talking animal — these are all instruments that any storyteller should feel free to use. When I was a young man, I desperately needed someone to give me permission to write fantasy. I felt like Bernard Malamud was giving that permission.
One of his finest stories is "Jewbird." It's a great example of how a fantasy can be one thing on the surface but can also be a perfect way to grapple with big questions and big subjects like, why do human beings have to be so tribal? Why do they feel drawn to say, "Our tribe good. Your tribe bad"? That's an uncomfortable question, but in the realm of fantasy, it's one we can tackle.
John's first pick: "Flowers for Algernon," by Daniel Keyes
A man with a low IQ is given an experimental drug that will hopefully boost his intelligence. It does — and then it doesn't. Read it here.
John Joseph Adams
One of the things that I think is so amazing about the story is how Keyes is able to really have the prose style tell the story all the way through it. It starts off with Charlie being very unintelligent. He gets the drug that boosts his intelligence, and the writing improves as Charlie improves. That's such a hard thing to pull off, and yet all of it just works wonderfully together. Of course, the story has the tragic end where Charlie loses the intelligence that he got to have only briefly, so he's returned to the same sort of writing style from the start. It packs such an emotional wallop.
A lot of [science fiction and fantasy] in the early days didn't have really great writing. It was very pedestrian prose, and some of the greatest practitioners of genre fiction weren't really prose stylists. Isaac Asimov wrote perfectly well, but his prose itself wasn't particularly notable.
In the early days of American science fiction, these dudes — they were mostly dudes; there were some women writing — were getting paid by the word. There was no incentive to really do anything except lay in as many adjectives as you could get into a single sentence, because every one was worth another penny and a half.
John Joseph Adams
People paint the genre with this one brush [of being poorly written] because they read one example somewhere and they thought it wasn't very well-written. Then they think all science fiction is written like that. Of course there are brilliant examples that are counterpoints, like the stories that Joe and I selected here and in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy.
In my intro [to Best American], I talk about Alfred Bester and how The Stars My Destination [a breakthrough science fiction novel] really woke me up to what genre fiction was capable of. Bester was one of the genre's great prose stylists. It's not to say that he didn't have great ideas, because he did. But he had the wonderful, beautiful prose as well. We can't separate these two things. Now the best science fiction/fantasy prose is on par with whatever you find in mainstream fiction.
Joe's second pick: "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain," by James Tiptree Jr.
The story acts as a log of the travels of the titular Dr. Ain — who turns out to be spreading a plague that will end human life on Earth. Read it here.
It was a forerunner of stories that have become relatively common, which suggest that the future might not be so bright after all, that there's a strong possibility that the future could take away as much as it offers, if not more. It's an apocalyptic story. It's a story of humans burning themselves out so that there's nothing left, except the planet without us. It's very powerful and perhaps useful as well, in the sense that one of the most basic functions of fiction is to provide cautionary tales.
It's very prescient, considering when it was published. It was concerned with the damage that could happen if man didn't get his industrial inclinations under control, if we weren't good tenders of the Earth. It is a great story of environmental concern before I think that was common.
Writing about utopia is kind of like writing about a happy guy who has a satisfying marriage and wonderful kids and a terrific job. That might be a great place to end a story, but it's a bit of a tough place to start a story. We tend to write stories about things going wrong, things being awful, about worst-case scenarios, because that's engaging and interesting. One of the reasons we're seeing a lot of apocalyptic stories is simply functional. Writing about terrible possibilities is more exciting and more engaging than writing about wonderful possibilities.
That said, we also know a lot more than we did 100 years ago. I think the world is much more aware of how fragile things are than we thought. It seems like every week we are presented with a new possible apocalypse. If it's not bird flu, it's the meteor we didn't see coming. If it's not the meteor we didn't see coming, then it's global warming. When there are broad fears, when there are broad shared anxieties, fiction almost always swoops in to explore the situation and to give people a safe playground to examine their feelings about those threats.
John's second pick: "The Deathbird," by Harlan Ellison
An inverse retelling of the creation involves a man who must kill God, in order to finally bring the world to peace by ending it. Read it in this collection.
John Joseph Adams
This one is likely one of the weirdest-formatted stories that I've ever read, probably. Part of it is sort of told in the style of a multiple-choice test. Then there's a story within the story about a guy and his dog. It's very mythic. "The Deathbird" is like nothing I've ever read.
What drives a lot of fantasy and science fiction, especially fantasy, is this desire to create new myths. We go back and revisit old ones, and we retell them, and we try to do different things with them. But we have this insatiable appetite as readers to encounter new myths. I think that's a large part of what writers have fun with when they create these new worlds: creating those new myths.
I published a lot of stories [that play with format]. I had one called "Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince" by Jake Kerr that I published in Lightspeed. It's told in a series of different sections, and they alternate with fake Wikipedia entries. One of the interesting things it does is it forces the reader to construct a meta-narrative while reading. There's so much that is hinted at but not directly said in the story. It's about 4,000 words, but it feels much, much larger.
Joe's third pick: "The Specialist's Hat," by Kelly Link
The most recent story on the list, "The Specialist's Hat" is a beautifully told ghost story about children who live in a mysterious old house. Read it here.
If you used a Venn diagram with horror as one circle and fantasy as another, there'd be a good 50-50 overlap there. Obviously, some horror is not fantasy. Silence of the Lambs is a work of horror fiction, but it doesn't have a fantastic element. But fantasy becomes horror when it's scary. It's really that simple. When the tension and suspense is cranked as far as can go, it becomes frightening, and we call it horror, but it's not fundamentally a different genre. At that point we are talking about a subset of fantasy.
What could more embody the genre of fantasy than a ghost story? We love ghost stories because they're fun and they're scary, and they do what good fiction does and give us a way to think about subjects that are actually kind of unhappy. Thinking about what happens to us when we die is upsetting, but if you frame it in a story, we can slip into it and play around with thoughts of death. Fiction is a place we go to wrestle with uncomfortable questions.
In the case of Kelly Link, I just think she writes better ghost stories than almost anyone. She's right there with Neil Gaiman and M.R. James. Her stories have what I think all really good ghost stories need, which is a sense that things will never quite make rational sense. There's a puzzle, but it's a puzzle that's beyond the human imagination's ability to solve. I love that.
John's third pick: "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," by Ursula K. Le Guin
The city of Omelas is seemingly a perfect place, but it masks a dark, horrifying secret that allows all of its perfection. Read it here.
John Joseph Adams
Science fiction and fantasy is one of the only places where people actually seem to deal with [the question of how to improve society]. We are trying to imagine things that aren't the way they are now, or in some cases maybe could be. You get a lot of people who don't typically write science fiction or fantasy who sort of turn to science fiction or fantasy when they have stories like that they want to tell.
That's not the case with Le Guin, obviously. She's lived there her whole life. This story has such a wonderful emotional impact. It's presented mostly as utopia, but then you only slowly figure out what the problem with this society is. When you get to it, it's so important that it really flips the entire story on its head. This wonderful reversal happens in the story for the reader. You have to ask yourself what evils are you willing to do in order to achieve things you think are going to be great.
Joe's fourth pick: "The Library of Babel," by Jorge Luis Borges
There's a massive library containing every book ever written, every book that ever will be written, and every book that could ever be written. Its occupants arrive at several different methods of coping with their world. Read it here.
Borges is to literature what M.C. Escher is to art. People are kind of fascinated by the labyrinth-like quality of his short stories. There are these 10-page stories that imply bottomless worlds. In the case of "The Library of Babel," I love that story because it's where I want to go when I die. Think about it — it's this endless, infinite library that's filled with every book ever written, but also every book that will be written, and every book that might be written. Isn't that kind of every bookworm's dream?
But there are billions of books there filled with all of these characters that don't even make sense. It's kind of like the thing about a thousand monkeys pounding on a typewriter. Yes, the most brilliant book ever written is there in the library somewhere, but it might be stuck in between thousands of books where the pages are filled with random characters. When you think about it, it's a little bit like trying to hunt for what you want on the internet.
All of these stories are about us. They have something to tell us about the basic condition of being human. We feel this more than ever — we're drowning in information. We're all in the library of Babel.
John's fourth pick: "Speech Sounds," by Octavia Butler
A mysterious plague has left much of humanity unable to communicate. One woman who can still speak navigates the post-plague Los Angeles world. Butler wrote the story during a period of intense grieving, which informed the story's emotional impact. Read it here.
John Joseph Adams
One of the reasons I picked it is because it has a brilliant conceit to it. I don't think I've ever read anything like it. I'm fascinated by the linguistic damage that is presented in that story. I'm terrified by that kind of thing.
The things that we remember and that make an impact on us are the universal human emotions, not something that is only possible in science fiction or fantasy. I'd be hard-pressed to imagine an emotion that can be evoked that only science fiction or fantasy could do. There's a sense of wonder that science fiction or fantasy does better than anything else, but I don't know if I would call that an emotion, per se.
Depending on how big and crazy you make your science fiction scenarios, the more you amplify those core human emotions. In a mainstream story, you may be able to talk about the loss of one loved one. In a science fiction or fantasy story, you may be talking about the loss of the whole universe or something like that. It allows you to play with those emotions in a way that only those genres can.
Part of why stories [of isolation] are commonplace in science fiction or fantasy a bit is because I think a lot of us who grow up as genre fans feel that same sort of isolation. It's less so now that the internet's around, and people that are searching for community can go online to find it. But if they're in their little town back in the day, it would be very difficult to reach out and find anybody who knows anything like what you're talking about.
The vastness of what science fiction or fantasy encompasses also suggests dealing with that sort of issue. When you have a whole world to deal with, obviously you can still find a way to be isolated, but if you have a whole universe to deal with, there's so much empty space. It suggests you deal with isolation.
Joe's fifth pick: "Harrison Bergeron," by Kurt Vonnegut
In a future where everyone has been hampered in certain ways to be perfectly equal, Harrison Bergeron stands out. Read it here.
In that world, if you're really intelligent, you have to wear a thing in your ear, and it buzzes at you like every 15 seconds to break up any intelligent thought that you have, thus reducing your intelligence to an average IQ. That seems to me a deeply prophetic notion. Now we all carry that device in our pockets. Whatever you're thinking, whatever you're doing — bloop! — another text message comes in, and it's gone. The leveling that Vonnegut was writing about is happening right now.
I read a thing about how there was some standard test that British males of a certain age can't answer basic questions. Their response was, "You can find it out on Google." The possibility that our technology, instead of empowering us, might reduce us and enslave us seems to me definitely something worth thinking about.
John's fifth story: "There Will Come Soft Rains," by Ray Bradbury
A "smart house" continues trying to care for its occupants long after they and everyone else on Earth have perished. Read it here.
John Joseph Adams
It's a really interesting story. There are literally no people in it. All the people are gone and dead. It may be the most depressing one that I could have picked. It's so sad and spare, and Bradbury does a wonderful job portraying everything in such a way to feel like it's sort of sweet but deeply sad at the same time. It's all about the reader. It's about you reading it and engaging with the story and then projecting yourself onto it. I think that's one of the things that makes it work so well.
When you read fantasy or science fiction stories, the ideas can open up your sense of wonder, but when I read Bradbury as a kid, that's when I discovered that a well-written sentence could do the same thing, that one really well-placed verb could blow you open and make you say, "Wow."
Bradbury, with tremendous joy, made it seem very effortless. He always managed to make his sentences and his paragraphs leap with the same energy that his plot did. That's why he's an American original, and one of the reasons he's one of the most important American writers of all time.
John Joseph Adams
I was so heartbroken when Ray Bradbury died, of course, but then when they tore his house down. I was so upset by that. I don't know if it's partly because of my affection for "There Will Come Soft Rains," which was about a house, but I was like, "Ah, come on! It was Ray Bradbury's house. That should be a museum."
Science fiction and fantasy have always been about exploring big, dangerous, edgy ideas. Science fiction explores the vast territory of what we could become. Fantasy is great at exploring inner territory, physiological territory. In the science fiction and fantasy community lately, there has been an argument, especially online, that science fiction is really supposed to be about laser guns and rockets. I find that an utterly baffling point of view, which doesn't seem to have any connection with the genres that I know and have liked since I was a child.
None of these stories we've talked about, with the exception of Kelly Link's, are recent fiction. These are all tentpoles of the genre, beloved, well-known stories that have stood the test of time. All of them are packed with daring ideas about environmental change, about the social contract, about gender, about the way technology can deform the human soul. I don't know why anyone who could have those things would want less.
Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015 is available at your local bookstore or online.