This second annual virtual anthology of the year’s best speculative fiction differs in four primary ways from last year’s Web’s Best Science Fiction #1 (2017 Stories) and Web’s Best Fantasy #1 (2017 Stories). Rather than restricting my coverage to web magazines as in 2017, I added coverage of several 2018 print magazines which created a much larger pool of stories to choose from. Thus, the word count for the “best” stories has increased from 140,000 to 250,000 words. Further, those words were evenly divided between two volumes of science fictional and fantastic stories but have now been combined into a single volume with three sections of uneven story and word counts. Finally, because of some of this, I renamed it to Year’s Best Short Science Fiction and Fantasy.
What hasn’t changed is the principle of selecting (to repeat the first introduction’s quote of the late Gardner Dozois) “only those stories that honestly and forcibly struck me as being the best published during that year, with no consideration for log-rolling, friendship, fashion, politics, or any other kind of outside influence.” And there’s still the same qualification to that: for variety’s sake, if multiple stories are by the same author or have strikingly similar elements, I try to select only one. Similarly, I’ve attempted to sequence the stories for a varied reading experience rather than any other principle. (The sequencing may not be ideal, though, as I wasn’t planning to do it this time, because not everyone will be able to read all the stories, but I wasn’t happy with other ordering methods.)
So what are the specifics of these principles and what sort of compilation did they produce? From December 11, 2017 to December 9, 2018 I read nearly 900 stories (864, I think) from 21 magazines (Analog, Apex, Ares, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Compelling, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, Diabolical Plots, F&SF, Flash Fiction Online, Galaxy’s Edge, Grievous Angel, Lightspeed, Nature, Nightmare, Slate, Strange Horizons, Terraform, Tor.com, and Uncanny) plus occasional issues from others. I selected 29 stories from fourteen of those regular, and two irregular, magazines which, despite the increased word count, is only three more stories than last year. The main reason for this is that last year there were several flash or very short pieces and no novellas while this year there are only three flash pieces and four novellas (which ironically include two from the web).
Partly due to the increased coverage and word count and partly due to an intrinsic quality of some of the best fiction, I felt it was better to split the fiction into three sections called “Natural,” “Pseudonatural,” and “Supernatural” fiction. The natural stories are science fiction stories which, while they might push the boundaries or make mistakes, are stories set in this space/time continuum and deal with things intended to represent the physical phenomena of nature while supernatural stories are fantasy stories which slip those mortal coils and deal with ghosts, vampires, spells, or otherwise purely fantastic things. There were a number of stories, though, which didn’t quite fit either category but which might be called alternate history, steampunk, rationalized fantasy, science fantasy, etc. They may insert fantastic elements into a science fictional milieu or apply the scientific method to fantastic things or at least approach them in a particularly reasoning and empirical way. They may be set in different timelines or use imaginary science or otherwise stress the notion of natural plausibility without sacrificing literary quality. Or they may just oscillate back and forth between genres while being experienced, like optical illusions.
Each section’s story count is not identical but happens to have come out close though the wordage of the “natural” stories (114K) dominated the rest and the “pseudonatural” stories (58K) formed the smallest group. If forced to pigeonhole everything as either SF or F, I’d probably split the “pseudonatural” category titles evenly between them. In terms of quality, I felt the SF in the first volume was generally stronger than the fantasy but this year produced numerous especially powerful fantasies.
As I did last year, I once again wish I could present more than three space-based or extra-terrestrial stories in the “natural” section and almost substituted one cluster of stories for another to achieve that but, strictly on quality, decided not to. I wish there were more combinations of Nina Allen’s “A Gift of Angels” (a beautifully written but almost mainstream story) and G. David Nordley’s “Empress of Starlight” (a huge toybox of Big Dumb Objects and interstellar exploration/adventure without appealing characters) but most excellent stories, if not that lopsided, still excel more in one domain than the other.
One type there was more than enough of, which cuts across subgenres, is the “Young Adult” or “juvenile” tale. More than one good story failed to appear in this group due to an excess of that type and they still make up over a third of the titles. On the one hand, this shows the remarkable quality of such stories and that’s a good thing but, while “YA,” I’m not sure how many young adults they’d actually excite. I can only hope it’s a lot.
A last thing to note about the contents is that 26 authors make their first appearance this year with only Ashley Blooms, Greg Egan, and Susan Palwick repeating.
As a final note on the field generally, the magazine is dead! Long live the magazine! Ares and Grievous Angel no sooner became SFWA-qualifying markets than they died. While Grievous Angel lasted most of the year, Ares died before I ever saw an actual issue and after I’d read only one story which was released on their website. To make up for this, Amazing (the cat of science fiction magazines) was reborn yet again and The Dark raised its pay rate to an SFWA-qualifying level. Here’s hoping they not only survive to qualify but prosper after doing so.
Edit (2019-01-17): Moved one magazine from “regular” to “irregular” and adjusted number of “regular” stories read accordingly.
Part One: Natural Fiction (Science Fiction)
“Umbernight” * Carolyn Ives Gilman
Clarkesworld #137, February 2018
“The Independence Patch” * Bryan Camp
Lightspeed #94, March 2018
“Redaction” * Adam R. Shannon
Compelling #11, Summer 2018
“Galatea in Utopia” * Nick Wolven
F&SF, January/February 2018
Flash: “My Favourite Sentience” * Marissa Lingen
Nature, April 25, 2018
“Grace’s Family” * James Patrick Kelly
Tor.com, May 16, 2018
“Octo-Heist in Progress” * Rich Larson
Clarkesworld #146, November 2018
“The Nearest” * Greg Egan
Tor.com, July 19, 2018
“The Camel’s Tail” * Tom Jolly
Analog, March/April 2018
“Sour Milk Girls” * Erin Roberts
Clarkesworld #136, January 2018
“The Last Biker Gang” * Wil McCarthy
Analog, May/June 2018
Part Two: Pseudonatural Fiction
“Likho” * Andy Stewart
F&SF, March/April 2018
“Strange Waters” * Samantha Mills
Strange Horizons, April 2, 2018
“In the Sharing Place” * David Erik Nelson
Asimov’s, September/October 2018
“A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” * James Beamon
Lightspeed #98, July 2018
“Never the Twain” * Michael Reid
Interzone #274, March/April 2018
“Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” * Nibedita Sen
Nightmare #69, June 2018
“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” * Daryl Gregory
Tor.com, September 19, 2018
Flash: “This Big” * John Cooper Hamilton
Nature, March 21, 2018
Part Three: Supernatural Fiction (Fantasy)
“The Lady of Butterflies” * Y. M. Pang
F&SF, November/December 2018
“The Thing About Ghost Stories” * Naomi Kritzer
Uncanny #25, November/December 2018
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” * Alix E. Harrow
Apex #105, February 2018
“The Thought That Counts” * K. J. Parker
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #250, April 26, 2018
“Hainted” * Ashley Blooms
F&SF, July/August 2018
“The War of Light and Shadow, in Five Dishes” * Siobhan Carroll
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #247, March 15, 2018
“Hideous Flowerpots” * Susan Palwick
F&SF, March/April 2018
“The Monstrosity in Love * Sam Thompson
Black Static #64, July/August 2018
Flash: “The Ghost In Angelica’s Room” * Maria Haskins
Flash Fiction Online, March 2018
“Shadowdrop” * Chris Willrich
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, September 27, 2018