Besties: The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by R.F. Kuang

Besties: The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by R.F. Kuang

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2023
(Mariner Books, October 17, 2023)

Perhaps the most overused title for short story anthologies beings with “Best of.” In genre fiction, the heavyweight (in terms of both size and breadth of coverage) was the Gardner Dozois-edited The Year’s Best Science Fiction Stories that ran for 35 years until his death in 2018. And there are a whole slew of similar “Best of’s” for horror, dark fantasy, speculative fiction, you name a subgenre and there’s a “Best of” collection.

If “Best of” is overused for survey anthologies of a year and/or genre, and recognizing that someone’s “best” is someone else’s “meh,” it is probably because a more accurate title of This is Kinda What the Editor Liked More than Others For Whatever Subjective Reasons doesn’t go over well with publisher marketing teams.

The “Best of” concept dates back to 1915 with the Best American Short Stories, first edited by Edward O’Brien, which actually originated as a magazine serial. The franchise series went on to encompass a range of other subjects, at one time covering sports articles, travel writing, comics, spiritual writing, even something called non-required reading. It has since scaled back under the Mariner Books imprint to six yearly Best of American titles for:

  • Short Stories
  • Essays
  • Mystery and Suspense
  • Food Writing
  • Science and Nature Writing
  • Science Fiction and Fantasy

The best one that concerns us here is The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, of which there are currently nine volumes overseen by general editor John Joseph Adams with each headed by a guest editor. For the 2023 incarnation, Adams selected 80 original genre short fiction from print and online magazines as well anthologies and collections published in North America during the 2022 calendar year (leading to possible confusion that a best of for 2023 comprises stories from 2022).

Guest editor R. F. Kuang chose 20 from the Adams list as the best (there’s that word again). Her criteria: stories “perceived as absurd, but within the framework of the narrative, they take themselves completely seriously.” Presumably Douglas Adams-wannabes need not apply. And although this might also seemingly rule out of lot science fiction, where premises are based on actual scientific, or at least extrapolated imaginings of real science (like interstellar space travel), there are an equal number of stories classified as science fiction as fantasies.

There is some occasional blending of the two, and contributions from Stephen Graham Jones and Nathan Ballingrud could be considered horror, but, really, don’t we have other things to worry about? There’s also a Star Trek pastiche by Chris Willrich that’s better than most of its sci-fi (and I’m using that term in its derogatory sense) source material. Apparently in the interest of balance and fair play, the sequence of stories alternate between fantasy and science fiction (see below for a complete table of contents).

The tone of absurd settings is set right off with the opening story, Sofia Samatar’s “Readings in the Slantwise Universe” (originally published in Conjunctions) a series of vignettes inspired by National Geographic reportage about foreign cultures rewritten following a scheme from the 1930s attributed to surrealist writers Andre Breton and Paul Eluard. There’s no story here in the sense of characters moving through narrative plotting, but rather some strange dreamscapes of alien societies. Not sure if you can take them seriously, but fun to read. Especially the last part about why fairies are disappearing.

A few stories to take seriously particularly in light of current events relate to the reversal and repression of women’s reproductive rights. “Rabbit Test” by Samantha Mills (Uncanny) juxtaposes historical pregnancy tests (hence the title) and abortion procedures along with a near future getting too much like our own in which women are prosecuted for terminating their pregnancies.

Similarly, “The CRISPR Cookbook: A Guide to Biohacking Your Own Abortion in a Post-World” (Lightspeed) is a reaction to the repeal of Roe that, as author Mkrnyilgld puts it,

As a biologist, I realized it doesn’t matter what the Supreme Court or anyone else thinks I can do with my body. With the aid of CRISPR systems…We have the power to alter our bodies to our own liking down to the molecular level…I wrote this story because I wanted as many people as possible to see that.

Women as strong characters feature in many of the selections. “Termination Stories for the Cyberpunk Dystopia” (Clarkesworld) is, as author Isabel J. Kim explains, the protagonist described as Asian Girl is a reflection of cyberpunk’s frequent fascination with Asian setting and “my riff on a ‘cool sidekick character’ who learns to use the shape of the narrative and the character conventions she’s trapped in for her own benefit.” Similarly, the aforementioned Jones in “Men, Women, and Chainsaws” ( delivers a revenge story that inverts the archetypical ballad of a woman’s life ruined by the desertion of her lover and his promises.

Another aspect of serious technological concerns these days is artifical intelligence. S.L. Huang points out that although “Murder by Pixel” appeared in Clarkesworld the same day as ChatGPT did, the story was actually written a year earlier. “No science fiction writer wants to see the future they warn against come to pass,” Huang notes. Just in case you are still dubious about the potential dangers of thinking machines, the author provides footnotes.

I recently attended a panel discussion where Alix E. Harrow noted the dissonance between why you write a book and the business expectations of how that book is marketed. Harrow, who is noted for witches and fairy tale tropes that the publisher might expect to see continued, noted her publicist’s shock in hearing that her next book is sword and sorcery. If “The Six Deaths of the Saint”( Into Shadow), about how a hero really is just a pawn in the game, is any indication, the publicist needn’t be concerned.

One of my favorite stories here is “Sparrows” by Susan Palwick (Asimov’s). The end of the world is approaching, but college student Lacey is finishing her paper comparing Shakespeare’s Richard II and King Lear, on a manual typewriter, no less. Once finished, she walks to the English department, passing rotting corpses, to put the paper in her professor’s mailbox, only to discover the professor in his office, gun in hand with a bottle of whiskey. She asks if she can read her paper to him. He figures, why not?

Why are these two people here? Because they have no where else to go.Why bother with the paper, or a cynical teacher who expects his students to plagiarize want to listen to it? Why not? As the paper quotes Lear, “We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage.” The story is a perfect metaphor, if you’ll pardon my morbid musing, for continuing our own tasks and goals in a life we well know comes to an end.

Speaking of Shakespeare, one equally absurd but serious theme is that of star-crossed lovers. But Shakespeare never had to deal with the space-time continuum. Catherynne M. Valentine does in “The Difference Between Love and Time” (Someone in Time: Tales of Time-Crossed Romance), demonstrating that there are second chances. And third, and fourth, and so on.

The value in these “Best of” collections is that whether you agree or not that the contents actually are better than some other stories you may have read that didn’t make the cut (and no doubt account for endless bitching on social media), you may be introduced to a writer or two you’d hadn’t previously encountered, or a publication you didn’t know about. That’s always the best part.

Here’s the full table of contents.

  • Readings in the Slantwise Sciences by Sofia Samatar (Conjunctions, 2022)
  • Air to Shape Lungs by Shingai Njeri Kagunda (Africa Risen, November 2022)
  • Beginnings by Kristina Ten (Fantasy Magazine, April 2022)
  • Sparrows by Susan Palwick (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September-October 2022)
  • The Six Deaths of the Saint by Alix E. Harrow (Amazon Original Stories, 2022)
  • Termination Stories for the Cyberpunk Dystopia Protagonist by Isabel J. Kimfrom (Clarkesworld, July 2022)
  • Men, Women, and Chainsaws by Stephen Graham Jones (, April 20, 2022)
  • Rabbit Test by Samantha Mills (Uncanny, November-December 2022)
  • There Are No Monsters on Rancho Buenavista by Isabel Canas (Nightmare, June 2022)
  • Murder by Pixel by S.L. Huangfrom (Clarkesworld, December 2022)
  • White Water, Blue Ocean by Linda Raquel Nieves Pérez (Reclaim the Stars, 2022)
  • The CRISPR Cookbook: A Guide to Biohacking Your Own Abortion in a Post-Roe World by MKRNYILGLD (Lightspeed, September 2022)
  • Three Mothers Mountain by Nathan Ballingrud (Screams from the Dark, 2022)
  • The Odyssey Problem by Chris Willrich (Clarkesworld, June 2022)
  • Pellargonia: A Letter to the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology by Theodora Goss (Lost Worlds & Mythological Kingdoms, 2022)
  • Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867 by Kim Fu (Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, 2022)
  • In The Beginning of Me I Was A Bird by Maria Dong (Lightspeed, January 2022)
  • The Difference Between Love and Time by Catherynne M. Valente (Someone in Time, 2022)
  • Folk Hero Motifs in Tales Told by the Dead by KT Bryski (Strange Horizons, October 31 2022)
  • Cumulative Ethical Guidelines by Malka Older (Bridge to Elsewhere, 2022)
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Joseph P Bonadonna

Great article, thank you. “This is Kinda What the Editor Liked More than Others For Whatever Subjective Reasons” is truly what “best of” means, in my opinion. I’ve read countless “best ofs” in my long career as a human being, and often found myself shaking my head in bewilderment. It’s all based omn personal taste and opinion. Another good title would be, “These Are the Stories I Liked Best. Maybe You’ll Like Them, too.” 😊

Rich Horton

I dunno — speaking for myself as a Best of editor, I feel like I should call “These are the Best of the Year, and the rest of y’all are just WRONG!” 🙂 🙂 🙂

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