The Saga Anthology of Science Fiction 2020
Anthologies can be hit or miss depending on the editor’s vision. I picked this one up on NetGalley hoping to see a glimpse of the current short fiction world. What I didn’t expect was how many of the twenty-eight stories would win me over. These stories provide a diversity of voices and narrative styles, along with authors from many nations and/or ethnicities. The stories overall have more of a literary and sociological feel than the pulpy roots of the genre, but for every surreal tale, there is one more plot driven.
Jonathan Strahan begins the anthology with an essay on the state of the genre not only in short stories but across all mediums including non-fiction. This essay has enough examples you could easily use it as a reading list for the year. He also names the short fiction venues that he considers top markets.
The purpose of this volume, according to Strahan, is to honor works by stellar authors whether established or still becoming known. The theme celebrates diversity and the impact of culture. Rather than attempting to constrain speculative fiction into a narrow definition, Strahan aims to reveal how the genre can be both timely and interesting.
He succeeded on behalf of this reader. I am posting my review in two parts so I can call out all the stories that spoke to me, whether my favorites or those that came close. So, with no further ado, on to the stories:
These two were my favorites in the first half, a purely personal reaction. However, there is no question they are strong, well-written tales.
Kali_Na by Indrapramit Das
While I appreciated other stories, in Kali_Na I found my first favorite. It’s hard to articulate why without spoilers, so I’ll say only this: When Internet trolls come out in force to greet a newborn AI version of the Goddess Durga, the caste system might not be the only tradition to survive to modern day. It’s a cyberpunk-like vision of future India seen from the bottom looking up.
Sturdy Lantern and Ladders by Malka Older
I usually tidy my notes for the review, but here’s a direct quote: “Okay, wow. This is just wow.” I love this story for how it begins, because I’m sympathetic, then it takes us somewhere fascinating and new. Besides, it stars an octopus. I’d say more, but better you experience it on your own.
The below stories all had something about them I enjoyed, and/or which made them stand out. Appreciation is personal. While the missing stories did not catch my attention, they might still earn yours.
The Bookstore at the End of America by Charlie Jane Anders
The Bookstore at the End of America begins this volume with a glimpse down the path America is currently walking. The story has an almost magical realism tone. It looks at bias and the consequences of same, but more in raising questions than forcing answers on the reader. I like how it makes me think about these questions while reminding me of reading about a real-world library that exists on the U.S./Canadian border. I hope that library never faces what Charlie Jane Anders’ one does.
The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex by Tobias S. Buckell
As you might have guessed from the title, this short story offers a quick glimpse of a future where alien tourism wins. It’s something we’ve seen in smaller scales on our planet, but this is planetwide. But how our world has changed because of this commerce is only part of the story. Seen through the eyes of a taxi driver, the struggle to anticipate alien demands is both compelling and thought provoking.
Song of the Birds by Saleem Haddad
This story didn’t speak to me in part because of the focus on suicide. However, the strong imagery was compelling enough to warrant a mention. Nor is it the only story to include suicide as an aspect.
The Painter of Trees by Suzanne Palmer
This is an odd story, but a powerful one about ambition, arrogance, and claiming what is not your own. The author plays on the anonymity of first person, shared with a third person point of view (POV), to create a sense of mystery. There were enough clues to give me the answer before the reveal, but I still needed confirmation. It’s not only the mixed POV that makes this story stand out, however. I found the first-person narrator unsympathetic to the point of arguing with the page. In terms of engagement, this story earns a place, and I appreciate the questions it raises for all the method leaves me frustrated.
The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir by Karin Tidbeck
This story doesn’t have a firm plot, which is bizarre in a lot of ways since it’s a spaceship passenger vessel and has many of the older tropes mentioned. Instead, it’s beautiful for what it says and shows for both the speaking characters and those without a voice. The story didn’t go quite where I expected, but living ships and mechanically inclined, fix-it characters are some of my favorites.
Contagion’s Eve at the House Noctambulous by Rich Larson
The story sucked me into the moment with its sensory detail, so I accepted the strange happenings around me without question. And what’s happening is strange beyond question. This is the first one I’d classify as horror, and I don’t read horror because of the ability to be sucked in rather than despite it. I can safely say this is a strong horror offering, in part because it had the possibility of being something different had it made another choice.
Submarines by Han Song Translated by Ken Liu
As an example of the diversity within these pages, this story has two names attached, the author and the translator. It’s another odd story of unknowns and unknowables told through the perspective of an ignorant narrator. There are no answers to the many questions raised, and as a reader, I’m left trying to find meaning where none is offered. I don’t know whether this makes it more powerful a story or less. The imagery lingers, as does the tantalizing possibility of answers far beyond the life of our narrator.
As the Last I May Know by S. L. Huang
This is a powerful story of understanding war. It asks the same question covered in the movie War Games but puts it into more personal terms. The practice that serves as the story’s backbone is horrific, but that very quality makes it the best and possibly only way. The story offers a deep dive into another culture and the conflict between old and new ways. It plays with the reader’s emotions and pushes us to ask what we would do in the same situation.
A Catalog of Storms by Fran Wilde
This is a neat, surreal concept. It turns a story of lists into something emotional that plays with the reader’s sympathies tangibly. I enjoyed the imagery, the concept, and ultimately the question between desire and cost.
Dune Song by Suyi Davies Okungbowa
The narrative voice in this story is powerful and the description strong. I found the story to turn on belief and choice. Nata is trying to find her mother and find other civilizations. She rejects the ways of her village, choosing to reach for freedom rather than huddle in the dark and let fear swallow their voices whole. This makes it powerful.
P.S. I received this Advanced Reader Copy from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.
I’m reading through this anthology now, and I’m very impressed with the selection in general. Last night, I finished “Contagion’s Eve at the House Noctambulous.” I was totally sucked in – but (and I feel like an idiot for having to ask this) I’m so confused about what exactly happened at the end. SPOILER ALERT I get what a capcutter does – but… then what? How does he use that to exact his revenge?
That’s one of the stories I felt went the horror route when it could have ended another way. At least how I read it, he did not extract revenge. Rather, he gave in to the pressure to be like everyone else by cutting out the one piece giving him ties outside his own class. So now he’s just like everyone else.