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Year's Best Fantasy 6
edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
Tachyon, 354 pages

Year's Best Fantasy 6
David G. Hartwell
David G. Hartwell is an editor at Tor Books, as well as being a highly-respected author in his own right. He wrote Age of Wonders (1984), and has been editor/anthologizer of such works as The Dark Descent, Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment, Northern Stars (with Glenn Grant), and the relatively new annual volume, Year's Best SF.

David Hartwell Website
ISFDB Bibliography
The New York Review of Science Fiction
SF Site Review: Year's Best SF 5
The Golden Age of Best SF Collections: A Chronicle
SF Site Review: Northern Suns
SF Site Review: Northern Stars
SF Site Review: Year's Best SF 3
SF Site Review: The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF

Kathryn Cramer
Kathryn Cramer is co-editor (with David G. Hartwell) of Spirits of Christmas (1989) and Walls of Fear (1990). Her story, "The End of Everything" (1990), appeared in Asimov's SF magazine.

Kathryn Cramer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
Wonderbook: The Magazine for Curious Readers

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

Judith Merril launched her Best of the Year anthology series in the late-50s, just at a time when the magazine science fiction market was collapsing. At this remove, it is difficult to tell whether that was just a coincidence, but I've always suspected that part at least of her intent was a compensatory widening of what was considered science fiction. Since then the science fiction and fantasy market has somehow managed to sustain one or at most two Best of the Year anthologies.

Terry Carr and Donald Wollheim launched one in the mid-60s, then split up and we had two series that both lasted to the end of the 70s and, in Carr's case, on into the 80s. Most have not been so successful. Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison had a series that struggled on for nine issues, but few lasted longer than three years. Lester del Rey, for example, managed only three volumes of The Year's Best Science Fiction Stories, but the series was taken over by Gardner Dozois, and that grew into the monumental annual volume which has dominated the last 20-odd years. Throughout that time the short fiction market seems to have been in constant decline. Magazine after magazine has shrunk, struggled, folded; a brief flourish of original anthologies in the mid-70s atrophied and fell away; for as long as I can recall, publishers have been assuring us that short story collections do not sell. Except for Best of the Year anthologies, of course. In the mid-90s, new sources for short fiction began to appear: small press magazines like Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, self-published chapbooks like those from the Rat Bastards, and websites. But these have never had wide circulation, and some of the websites are now closing down. It seems that short fiction is always going to be in crisis. And how does the SF and fantasy world respond to this constant narrowing of opportunities? By producing yet more Best of the Year anthologies.

I have lost count of how many of these beasts have appeared in the last year. Getting on for 10 or more, I suspect, certainly far more than there are original anthologies of any kind, probably more than there are single-author short story collections. Do we need all of them? It sometimes feels that we respond to depression in the short fiction market like a 1920s stockbroker becoming more extravagant as the stock market crashed. The more we can point to fat reprint anthologies, the more we can say that the short fiction economy is really robust. Or are we trying to draw attention away from shortages by showing off quality, even if "best" in these circumstances is used in the rather limited sense of "slightly better than most of what else was published"? Does "best" even retain any meaning when the majority of the stories published are probably going to be picked up for one or other of the Best of the Year anthologies, or at least be listed in the ever-expanding "Honourable Mentions"?

Such thoughts are prompted by my labouring through just two of the current crop. "Labouring" is the operative word; once upon a time a Best of the Year anthology was something to be swept through, rushing excitedly from one vivid and spectacular piece to the next, now it is more likely to be a plod enlivened by the very occasional stand-out story. You should not have to rate a Best of the Year anthology by how often you nod and murmur: "well, that one's not too bad". David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's Year's Best Fantasy 6 is full of not too bad stories, there is nothing here you'd actively object to, but you can't help feeling in the end that if this really is the best the year could offer, it was a pretty lacklustre year.

One of the most persistent impressions presented by all Best of the Year anthologies is that a sizeable chunk of the content is there for the lustre of the author's name rather than for any intrinsic merit in the story. Any such collection these days, for instance, must include something by Kelly Link and by Neil Gaiman, even if Link's tale of childhood terrors, "Monster," is distinctly below her best. Gaiman's contribution, "Sunbird" about members of a club setting out to dine on the phoenix, could have been written by R.A. Lafferty; the oddball characters with even more oddball names are straight out of any of a hundred Lafferty stories and the ventriloquism is pitch perfect. But it's middle-rank Lafferty; should technical virtuosity on its own be enough to warrant inclusion in such company? Of the other writers who are here because their names look good on the cover of the book, Bruce Sterling's surprisingly tender story of the living dead, "The Denial," was one of the better things in his mediocre collection Visionary in Residence, but that shouldn't really be enough to elevate it to best of the year status. Esther Friesner's "The Fraud" presents an entertaining clash between scientific fraud and genuine magic, but the ending feels clumsy. Garth Nix's "Read It in the Headlines" tells a monster story entirely in newspaper headlines; it's a clever idea even if he cheats with headlines no newspaper would run, but it's a bit of fun not one of the best stories of the year. While Gene Wolfe's "Comber" feels like it has been chopped out of the middle of something much longer without really considering whether it works in isolation. It's a wonderfully intriguing world in which cities move across the planet in a sort of accelerated continental drift and I would very much like to read the longer work that surely exists, but I'm not confident that this piece counts as a great story, or even, really, as a story.

Curiously, Delia Sherman doesn't seem to be included among the star names, but her dreadfully titled "Walpurgis Afternoon" is the most successful of the stories by better-known writers. It's a chilly comedy about a pair of lesbian witches moving into an uptight suburb, their lesbianism almost more shocking than their witchcraft. It's stylish and beautifully constructed, but even here I doubt it's one of those stories we'll be turning to again and again over the coming years. It is the non-star names, however, who provide the real star quality in this collection, even if several of them are still clearly in the process of learning their craft. Laird Barron's "The Imago Sequence" is far too long and some kind editor should have sliced great chunks out of the over-slow opening half (and the very end of the story could have done with a bit of a trim also), but as a horror story about the effects of a sequence of photographs it is still very powerful. The most common problem among the newer writers is not knowing how to end a story properly, too often they stop abruptly, fizzle out, or change tack at the last minute into something else completely. "Eating Hearts" by Yoon Ha Lee, "Shard of Glass" by Alaya Dawn Johnson and "Being Here" by Claude Lalumière would all have been better for a little more work on the ending. This is particularly galling in the case of "Shard of Glass," the story of a young mixed-race girl and her mother on the run from her racist family with a crystal that allows her to glimpse another time, which was shaping up to be one of the few pieces that truly belonged in a best of the year collection until the limp and unconvincing ending threw it all away. To be fair, it's not always the ending that's at fault. Half way through "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" Gavin J. Grant suddenly changes direction; what starts as a superbly inventive story about a world in which national boundaries are fluid and a change in the border will suddenly bring a change in language, culture and even character turns into a much more routine tale of a journey to a haunted house, riffing off too familiar fairy stories. A pity, since before it changed this was one of the more spectacular stories here.

As I've said, this is a collection of not too bad stories. "Magic in a Certain Slant of Light" by Deborah Coates about a scientist with precognition who must learn to distrust scientific certainties is a slight story competently told but somehow lacking substance. "Robots and Falling Hearts" by Tim Pratt and Greg van Eekhout is an exercise in surrealism that never really seems to get going. "Still Life with Boobs" by Anne Harris has a neat idea, when our lives become boring our secondary sexual characteristics (breasts and penises) detach themselves to seek their own excitement. But Harris uses this for a comedy of embarrassment that never quite gets over being embarrassed at its own central idea. Not bad stories, just not the stand-out stuff you'd normally expect of a best of the year anthology. Though there are stories here -- "Crab Apple" by Patrick Samphire, "Mom and Mother Teresa" by Candas Jane Dorsey, "Newbie Wrangler" by Timothy J. Anderson -- that seem far too flimsy even for this wayward collection. Still there are stories that easily justify their selection, chief among them for me being "Single White Farmhouse" by Heather Shaw in which a sexually active Midwestern farmhouse uproots itself with the family aboard and heads for San Francisco in search of its dreamboat skyscraper. Never once letting slip, even by a word, that this absurdist premise is in any way unusual, Shaw carries off her inventive story with straight-faced élan. True, the ending could have benefited from another draft, but on the whole this is the sort of fresh and entrancing story that sticks in the mind so that you only become aware of such quibbles when you think back on the story later.

Shaw's story stands out in part because it is a vivid demonstration of the fact that fantasy does not need to be a conservative medium. Her story, along with the Pratt and van Eekhout, the Grant, and the Yoon Ha Lee are subversive in the way they make us see that questioning our understanding of the world will not necessarily throw up the familiar, safe, fantasy answers. But this is a deeply conservative collection, drawn from a narrow range of generally solid, long established sources. Most of the stories seem to have been selected not because they genuinely represent the best that the genre can do, or because they show it as challenging and innovative, but because they illustrate at most a variation on the familiar tropes and characteristics. This is comfortable, comforting fantasy that tells us yes there still are the same unicorns and witches and monsters we've been told about since childhood. Even the monsters are safe because they're out in the wild places, in the woods, not here in our everyday selves. That is why the Kelly Link story, for example, is so unusually flat, because it sanitises the monstrous, the unexpected, the unsettling. There is a good if sentimental story by Jonathon Sullivan, "Niels Bohr and the Sleeping Dane," in which a rabbi sacrifices his life to bring a statue to life, like a golem, to attack an SS unit and so allow his son and Niels Bohr to escape Nazi-occupied Denmark. It is a competent piece of storytelling, but there is absolutely nothing in the story that hasn't been done in countless other fantasies for the last fifty years or more, offering the basic, bland reassurance that the Nazis are not some dread and all too real evil that could be in us all, but rather cartoon villains who can easily be defeated by the good guys. Real life isn't like that, and nor should fantasy be. At least, not fantasy that is being held up as an exemplar, the best work of the year.

That brings us to the central question, which any review such as this must circle around but avoid at all costs: what, exactly, is meant by "best"? It is clear from the fact that only a bare handful of the stories picked by Hartwell and Cramer appear also in the Datlow, Link and Grant collection, which in turn has only a minimal overlap with the Rich Horton collection, which in turn ... well, it's clear that all the editors of these myriad best of the year anthologies are operating on very different definitions of "best". That's understandable, there are no absolute standards, any story that I love will be hated by other readers. Yet this is also part of the problem: the increasingly sparse pastures of the generic short story are being over-grazed by voracious herds of best of the year anthologists. Where one in a hundred stories may genuinely warrant the clamour and attention of being picked out as the year's best, one in ten has to be selected to stock all the year's best anthologies. The more best of the year anthologies there are, the less they tell us about what is truly interesting, innovative, best in the genre.

So, should we be looking not so much at the individual anthologies as at the stories that repeat between them? Well there is only one story that appears in both Year's Best Fantasy 6 and the other annual anthology I have under review, Best Short Novels 2006 edited by Jonathan Strahan, and that is "Inside Job" by Connie Willis. But discussion of that story, and of any implications that may flow from it, will have to wait for the second part of this review.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2006 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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