Fantasy is a strange bird, with an etymology that stretches back at least as far as the Greeks and with more shifts and changes than what poor Proteus himself ever could manage to do. From its earliest roots of phainein (to show) through phantasia (appearance, imagination) to its current bifurcating pathways of meaning today, the word 'fantasy' haunts us, filling us with images and visions of things that could have been, should have been, might never have been, and what thankfully cannot ever be - yet we cannot pin it down with a single, pithy expression.
In 1988, Ursula Le Guin wrestled with trying to describe all of these possible meanings ascribed to the word 'fantasy' when she was asked to write the Introduction to the English translation of a quaint 1940 anthology that Jorge Luis Borges, Silvina Ocampo, and Adolfo Bioy Casares edited, a volume called The Book of Fantasy. That collection, which was revised in the 1960s, contained all sorts of stories involving imagined horrors, what-ifs, things we would today call "magic realism," and every sort of miscellanea that often gets crammed into that little box called 'fantasy.' Borges and his friends did not agonize over any real definition of what constitutes 'fantasy' - they just sat at a dinner table and added to a list the types of stories that they enjoyed which couldn't have happened.
Fast-forward to 2007. There is a new anthology series being released called Best American Fantasy. Edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, with Matthew Cheney serving as the series editor, this collection of 29 tales begins with an echo of sorts to Le Guin's introduction to the Borges, Ocampo, Bioy Casares anthology. Each of them notes the difficulty in trying to define what fantasy is (if such things could ever be defined, of course), instead focusing on what these stories of the fantastical does.
I mentioned this earlier collection because in many ways this new anthology reminds me of the spirit of this older one. Good anthologies tend to have some sense of purpose or unifying theme behind them and while Best American Fantasy differs from The Book of Fantasy in many ways, each has this perception of fantasy as being more than just "child's play" or "worlds in which dragons, elves, and orcs roam." Harking back to the Greek etymology, phainein is in full display, showing us via imagined tales and dreamscapes some elements about ourselves and our hopes and dreams that "realist fiction" cannot accomplish.
In reading these tales, I was struck by how many of the tales contained elements of separation from family, how there were hurts and pains that existed within the stories, and how the resulting sense of alienation played a major, albeit largely unspoken, role in the development of stories such as Nik Houser's "First Kisses Beyond the Grave" or Julia Elliot's "The Whipping." This is not to say this theme occurs in the vast majority of the stories, only that it is something that occurs from time to time to highlight how fantasy can serve to illustrate our own deep social problems and fears in a way that doesn't scream preachiness at the reader.
Another thing that I noticed about this collection (if I'm scrimping on analyzing each of these stories, it is because I'm focusing on looking at the very broad picture here, as it would take multiple reads of each of the stories to outline each of their own unique perspectives) is that one is not going to find a single preferred story style here. Some authors will use a juxtaposition of the mundane with the extraordinary to highlight the tensions contained within their stories, while others will bury this tension within a fairy tale-like mode, as Geoffrey Landis does with "Lazy Taekos." Still others, such as Peter LaSalle, might opt for a Borgesian approach of constructing their stories. Regardless, in virtually all of these tales, I felt this underlying sense of play, between images, words, and assigned meanings.
As an anthology, Best American Fantasy was a pleasure to read. The stories were dissimilar enough in style and approach as to avoid boring the reader with repetitiveness, while the perceived themes of disassociation, alienation, and exploration of the boundaries of our relationships with each other are strong enough to make this anthology unified enough to work. High recommendation.
Release Date: August 15, 2007 (US), tradeback