The OF Blog: 2009 in Review: Anthologies

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 in Review: Anthologies

If I had to sum up my experiences with 2009 release anthologies in a single word, "solid" would be the word of choice.  However, there would be that hanging "but..." left unsaid but implied.  I read more short fiction this year and while I shall not comment at length upon individual works due to my desire to explore certain stories in greater depth in 2010, I will note that when judged as a whole, most of the original anthologies I read this year were comprised mostly of several good, unassuming, competent works, but only a few tales that grabbed my attention.  So while there were few outright horrid stories to be found in the eleven original anthologies and three reprint anthologies I read this year, there also were not as many spellbinding tales as I had encountered in years past.

Perhaps part of it is that I did not read as many magazines and e-zines this year as I would wish (a situation that certainly will be rectified in 2010).  Perhaps it's just that some of the themes for several of these anthologies did not work.   Regardless, 2009 for me was a year in which solid, steady works reigned supreme.  So with this said, what anthologies as a whole struck me as being the more enjoyable reading experiences from cover to cover?

Below I shall discuss three at length, followed by a list of the other works that I read.  For most of these works (minus the last couple or so), I would recommend with few to no reservations to readers curious about the short form, especially in regards to genre fiction.  For most of the rest, some may find the individual stories to be hit-or-miss, but hopefully rewarding ultimately.

Mike Allen (ed.), Clockwork Phoenix 2

This second volume from the small press Norilana Books appealed to me because of its mixture of established and newer short fiction writers.  While I will not comment on specific stories for several reasons, I will note that a couple of my favorite short fiction reads for this year came from this original anthology.  While this anthology on the surface is unthemed, several of the stories contained here are lyrical paeans to hope, despair, and illusion, among other cardinal emotions.  Allen did an excellent job selecting authors whose stories fit together, as the tales were neither monotonous nor were they so heterogeneous as to create a sense of dissonance in the work.  This was the best original genre anthology that I read this year.

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (eds.), Best American Fantasy 2

Disclaimer:  I will be assisting with the construction of Best American Fantasy 4 in 2010-2011.  However, the review excerpt below was written long before I was asked to assist with the upcoming volume.

From my original review:

When the first volume of Best American Fantasy came out in the summer of 2007, I wrote a review praising it for exploring facets of "fantasy" that remained true to the various interpretations of that ancient word while each story managed to avoid feeling repetitive with their motifs, styles, and story progressions. That anthology was one of my favorite anthologies for 2007, but if it contained an Achilles Heel, it would be that in covering so much ground that other best of year anthologies failed to do, there weren't as many readily-identifiable "hook" stories (and writers) that would draw in a casual fan.

In the second iteration of this new anthology series, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer return for a second tour of duty as guest editors, with Matthew Cheney serving as the overall series editor. Unlike the 2007 anthology, Best American Fantasy 2 is a slimmer volume, clocking in at just over 330 pages, compared to BAF1's 450 pages. But in many aspects, this anthology serves as an example of why often less can mean more.

As the VanderMeers note in their introduction, BAF2 contains fewer stories from non-genre sources, due in large part to a seeming lack of interesting fantastical fiction being published in 2007 compared to the 2006 stories that were included in BAF1. Furthermore, the stories follow a more "rigorous" definition of fantasy that excludes for the most part tales that employ fantastical elements as mere metaphor for concrete, mimetic settings. But although this does constrain the possibilities for each story included, this more narrow focus also served to create a greater sense of thematic unity among the included short fictions, as there was not quite as much disparity in styles.


  On the whole, BAF2 builds upon the elements that I thought made BAF1 a successful new entrant into a rather crowded best of year anthology market. Despite the retooling that narrowed the selections from around 30 to 19, this second volume managed to avoid feeling stagnant. I am curious to see what new directions this series will take in the upcoming third volume, now that Kevin Brockmeier will be the guest editor and that Underland Press will be assuming publishing duties from Prime. If BAF2 is any indication, it will be a different, fresh take on selecting exemplary short fiction of the fantastic.
 Although this was the only reprint anthology published in 2009 that I read, I believe BAF2 is worth consideration for the excellent ratio of good stories to merely solid ones.

 Bradford Morrow (ed.), Conjunctions 52:  Betwixt the Between: Impossible Realism

For years, Conjunctions has been one of the best literary journals in the United States.  Unafraid to mix speculative stories with more mimetic tales, this lit journal has for almost 30 years been one of the best and most interesting journals that I have read.  Some of its past issues, particularly 39: The New Wave Fabulists, have sparked discussion (and some controversy) among readers and writers from various writing traditions.  In this issue, there is some kinship between these stories and those found in issue 39.

When I read it in May, I found myself divided between thinking that there were so many excellent stories in here and believing that there was little to unify those stories into a greater whole.  Despite my reservations about the theme of this issue and how well it was executed by the various writers, Betwixt the Between was the best magazine or lit journal that I read this year.  For those curious about these stories, individual issues can be ordered via Amazon.

Other Anthologies:

Gianpaolo Celli (ed.), Steampunk:  Histórias de um Passado Extradordinário (reviewed in the Otros Idiomas article)

Peter Straub (ed.), American Fantastic Tales (two-volume reprint anthology that is part of the Library of America collection)

Lavie Tidhar (ed.), The Apex Book of World SF

Jay Lake and Nick Gevers (eds.), Other Earths

Jonathan Strahan (ed.), Eclipse Three

Ellen Datlow (ed.), Lovecraft Unbound

Delia Sherman and Christopher Barzak (eds.), Interfictions 2

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (eds.), Last Drink Bird Head (flash fiction)

Bradford Morrow (ed.), Conjunctions 53:  Not Even Past:  Hybrid Histories

Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan (eds.), The New Space Opera 2

Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois (eds.), The Dragon Book

What anthologies, if any, have you read this year?  Which would you rate as your favorites and why?


Joe said...

Eclipse Three was fantastic. Just finished it under the wire of 2009. It's not making my top 9 lists, but would make any extended list. Nicola Griffith's contribution was an outstanding story.

Fast Forward 2. Another great entry in that series.

And, also worth mentioning is Paper Golem's Alembical antho.

Anonymous said...

I read Best American Fantasy and Paper Cities, Imaginarios I/ II and Paradigmas (brazilian SF & F anthologies)and Brinca Comigo (portuguese little book with four stories about toys - horror, fantasy and SF)
My favourite was paper cities. I've just loved it.

Lsrry said...

Good anthologies you two mention. Of course, I'm very curious about the Brazilian ones (perhaps Fábio might have a copy he's sending me? I'll have to ask). Paradigmas in particular intrigues me.

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Nephtis said...

I really liked Clockwork Phoenix 1 & 2. Glad you agree.

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