Houghton Mifflin’s Best Americans franchise has myriad spin-offs: Best American Short Stories led to Best American Essays, Best American Mystery Stories, Best American Non-Required Reading, Best American Comics, and even Best American Infographics.
But, despite the diversity and multiplicity of the franchise, it’s taken until 2015 for the inaugural Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy to come into existence. This first collection, featuring stories by Neil Gaiman, T.C. Boyle, Karen Russell, and Kelly Link, was guest edited by Locke & Key author Joe Hill and series edited by John Joseph Adams.
To celebrate its long-awaited publication, EW chats with Adams about how he finally got the anthology off the ground, fighting for diversity in sci-fi, and narrowing down the best of the best with Hill. After the Q&A, we’re thrilled to exclusively reveal Hill’s introduction, “Launching Room.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get the job as series editor for Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy? Did Houghton Mifflin pitch it to you?
Actually, I pitched it to them! My former agent and I were talking about my career and different projects I might want to do, and he mentioned doing a “Best of the Year” volume. I was hesitant — I only wanted to do it if we could really do the right one. I’ve seen some of the year-end volumes that come out, and it’s a ton of work, and then they don’t sell very well. I said, “I don’t want to do all that work if it’s not going to reach a big audience, and he suggested pitching it to Houghton Mifflin.
I put together a proposal, and it was the best proposal I’d ever written, I thought. I was super proud of it. I showed it to my wife and she got all choked up reading it, so I was like, “I nailed it!” It was sort of a love letter to the genre, and a manifesto at the same time. So we pitched it to them in 2011 and they said no. We pitched it again the next year and they said no again. They said yes at the end of 2013, and then I started working on it in 2014.
After they said no the second time, Joe [my former agent] left agenting and became an editor, and I switched to Seth Fishman. When we were talking about my career, he said, “Do you have any projects that you were sad never took off?” I told him about this, and said, “That’s the one that got away.” So that was the first thing he did as my agent: He sold Best American to Houghton Mifflin.
John Joseph Adams
What was it that finally changed the publisher’s mind? Did you revise your proposal?
I think it was mostly just time: The time was right. Science fiction and fantasy feels like it’s been ascending in the zeitgeist. The biggest movies that come out tend to be science fiction / fantasy releases, it’s all over television… This is partially helped out by Marvel dominating the box office — obviously that’s comic book stuff, but basically any comic book movie or story is also science fiction or fantasy in some way, even if it’s not particularly rigorous in terms of paying attention to the rules of physics. But that kind of thing being in the public consciousness like that opens up so many doors for other types of related stories.
Why do you think they were hesitant to do a science fiction / fantasy anthology at first?
I don’t want to put any words in their mouth or anything, but I think there’s been some hesitance from the mainstream literary establishment to embrace genre fiction, because for so long, genre fiction has been seen as lesser than literary fiction — like there isn’t as much attention paid to the literary craft, the prose. Those barriers are finally starting to fall away.
People who are in the genre and know the genre, eat and breathe the genre, we’ve known for a long time that the best examples of genre fiction are on par with the best examples of any type of other fiction. I would argue that they’re better, but you know. They’re at least as good.
I’m excited to be able to present these stories to people who may not have picked up a science fiction and fantasy anthology otherwise. I’m hoping to convert some of the people who maybe just read The New Yorker, or just read Best American Short Stories. And hey: We got three stories from The New Yorker in there, so that should help with that.
I’m a convert myself! Earlier this year, I read Kelly Link’s Get In Trouble, and I thought, “Why have I not realized that everything I love is actually sci-fi or fantasy?”
That happens a lot, actually. If you read some interviews with science fiction fantasy authors, that sort of thing gets brought up over and over. They loved it when they were a kid, and they sort of drifted away from it because they were in college, and you’re taught that it isn’t serious literature, or they just get discouraged one way or another because their friends don’t read it. But they eventually come around to realize, “No, wait. This is really what I love.” You come home, you know?
I totally agree. How did you choose Joe Hill as the first guest editor?
I know Joe loves genre: Everything he’s written has been genre one way or another, pretty much. I think he has maybe two or three stories that are just mainstream stories. Obviously, he’s generally considered a horror author, but all of his horror is science fiction or fantasy as well. But he’s also published as a mainstream author: he’s in the regular fiction section at the bookstore, so he has a much broader readership. We figured that would help us get those converts, people who might not pick up the book otherwise.
But also, I just knew that he was a voracious reader. I knew he had very specific and literary tastes, and I knew that with a team like him and me, where I’m doing the vast amount of reading and narrowing it down to the 80 stories I think are best, I knew he’d do a great job filtering through the things that I gave him to pick the final 20 that end up in the book. It seemed like a good match of tastes.
When you initially started thinking about the anthology, were there any science fiction and fantasy authors you knew you had to include?
With something like this, I think you have to let it be completely wide open. I mean, there are certain authors that would have felt weird if they had a story out that year and it didn’t get considered, but the thing is, I really tried to read everything. Like I said in the book, I stopped counting after I got to 2600 stories or something.
I do all that reading and give the top 80 to Joe Hill, and I give the stories to him with the name stripped off. He just has the title, and doesn’t know who the author is: The whole process is geared to be all about the story, not about the author.
In this case, I didn’t have any preconceptions of who should be in the book, but I’m glad we ended up with somebody like Neil [Gaiman] in there, and T.C. Boyle, and Karen Russell. I will say that I definitely wanted to get that mix of literary authors who dabble in genre, or in some cases, like Karen Russell, basically always write genre, but get published as mainstream.
It’s really interesting that Sofia Samatar is in there twice. Did you have any pushback on that? How did it happen?
We did ask the in-house editor at Houghton Mifflin, “Is this a problem? Is this allowed?” And they said there are no rules against it, so I wasn’t particularly concerned about it. I would have put both of those stories in there as well if I was picking the top 20, so I had no complaints with Joe picking both of them.
The thing is, she’s definitely a rising star in the genre, so that seems right to me in that regard. Admittedly, there’s only 20 slots, so that’s a lot of space devoted to one person. But on the other hand, it’s read blind, and we came to the conclusion that those are two of the best stories. So even though they’re by the same writer, it shouldn’t matter.
Did you consciously try to make this collection diverse with respect to gender and race, especially, given the problems with diversity sci-fi has faced?
I definitely think it’s important, and that’s something I’ve fought for my whole career as a science fiction editor. I launched Lightspeed magazine in 2010, and from day one, we’ve had a strict mission to try to have gender parity in the magazine, because that was the first hurdle that science fiction and fantasy have been dealing with for a long time. Very frequently, you’d encounter a magazine where the table of contents has ten men and one woman. One of the ways we were able to fight that was with Lightspeed, we publish a mix of originals and reprints. We didn’t have to worry about skewing anything with the original submissions we were getting, because if I end up buying too many original stories by men, I’ll balance that out by finding reprints by women.
So for Best Americans, it was definitely important to me to have it be diverse. When I was picking the top 80, I wanted to make sure they did turn out that way. Happily, I didn’t have to do any tinkering – I think I’ve just gotten to the point in my career where my taste just runs that way. Too much of the same thing isn’t going to win me over in the way that it may have when I was younger.
Of course, when we went to do the final list, Joe could have easily picked 20 stories by white men. But luckily, Joe Hill clearly has no sort of gender bias or any other type of bias, in terms of the authors he prefers, because the book ended up very balanced and diverse, without re-thinking anything. I’m very happy for it, because there’s been this sort of culture war in science fiction, and I’m glad to be able to put out a book that represents what I feel is representative of the genre, and the people who are writing in it, and the people who are reading it.
What five stories would you include in an anthology of the Best Sci-Fi and Fantasy of All Time?
For top five, I’d have: “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, “The Deathbird” by Harlan Ellison, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. LeGuin, “Speech Sounds” by Octavia E. Butler, and “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury.
Hill’s introduction is below.
INTRODUCTION: LAUNCHING ROCKETS by Joe Hill
Wonder is a blasting cap. It is an emotion that goes off with a bang, shattering settled beliefs, rattling the architecture of the mind, and clearing space for new ideas, new possibilities. Wonder is often thought of as a peaceful emotion, a sense of resounding inner quiet. Of course we would associate it with silence. The world always assumes an eerie hush after an explosion.
Awe is TNT for the soul.
My own first experience with wonder came in the candy-coated package of science fiction: Richard Dreyfuss chasing aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In some ways I never recovered from that first great detonation of amazement.
In one pivotal scene, Dreyfuss is stopped at a malfunctioning railroad crossing when an alien spacecraft passes overhead, spearing him with a great shaft of light and causing objects to blow about the cab of his pickup in a frantic storm. Afterward, the side of his body that faced the driver’s side window is badly sunburned, although the incident occurred at night.
And this is very like the effect the movie had on me. After it was over I felt irradiated, aglow, charged.
I never looked at a starry night the same way. The clank-clankclank of the bell at a railroad crossing still evokes in me a shivery frisson of anticipation. Close Encounters shook loose a marvelous idea in my seven-year-old head: we are fish in the ocean of the universe, and there may be grand ships moving above us.
I experienced another of these walloping explosions of feeling a few years later, when I first read Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury’s classic story of a carnival stocked with monsters and poisoned rides. No one who buys a ticket to Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show ever forgets what they saw there: the carousel that ages you, the illustrated man with a book of living stories inked onto his flesh.
My awe, though, was not merely a reaction to Bradbury’s thrilling ideas. It was just as much a response to the shock of his sentences, the way he could fold a few words to create an indelible image, much as an origami artist may make a square of paper into a crane. One great verb, I discovered, had almost as much explosive power as any marvelous concept. The language of fiction could be as exciting as the subject matter. After Something Wicked, I could
never look at my own sentences without asking myself if they were really packing their maximum charge. I had not known until then what a few words could do —that like gunpowder, they could ignite with a shocking crack.
This is the truth of science fiction and fantasy: it is the greatest fireworks show in literature, and your own imagination is a sky waiting to catch fire. And here is the truth of this book: we’ve got all the best, brightest, bangiest fireworks a person could want. The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy is not just a book but also an explosive device . . . one that is, fortunately, entirely safe to bring on a plane.
Science fiction and fantasy: two different but closely related compounds, both highly combustible.
Fantasy, it has been argued, could well describe all literature. Any work of fiction, after all, is an act of sustained invention —a fantasy—and a dragon is a dragon, whether it sleeps in a cave on a pile of gold or wears a human face and works for Goldman Sachs, destroying lives by moving numbers from one column to another. I once sat in front of two werewolves on a train to Liverpool. They wore Manchester United jerseys, showed their fangs at every passing lady, and barked at anyone who looked shy or weak. When we roared into a tunnel, it was all too easy to imagine them leaping on someone in the dark and tearing out a throat. As it happens, we reached our destination undevoured, and I got a good fantasy story out of the experience (“Wolverton Station”).
Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Donna Tartt? Fantasists all.
Even those readers who would turn up their nose at a collection like this (perhaps to buy a copy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s The Best American Short Stories instead) are fantasy enthusiasts, whether they know it or not.
But for the purposes of this collection, our interest is not fantasy in the broadest sense but tales of the fantastic. The defining trait of such narratives is that the challenges in them are unreal or otherworldly. Familiar dangers have been rendered in mind-bending new forms, to help us see the problems of our lives afresh. For example, lots of stories explore workplace seductions, but in a book like this, the company is operated by vampires and the issues raised are not just moral but mortal. Children who fall far from the tree may test the love and patience of their parents in the extreme, but only in a collection such as this will a mother find herself looking after a gelatinous, mysterious cube.
If stories of the fantastic are a kind of firework, then their red glare may show you your own life in a truly new light, revealing who around you is a demon lover and who a ghost, who is the plaything of faeries and who has fangs.
Science fiction, on the other hand, might describe any literary work set in the modern day. Anyone with a smartphone in their pocket knows we’ve been living in the future for a while now. At the time of this writing, a man has only just moved into a small flat located 250 miles above the Earth. He plans to live there for a year. As has been noted by others, there is a planet in our solar system entirely populated by robots: Mars! How science fiction is that? Ray Bradbury would love it.
Anyone who writes a story in which someone sends a text or an email is writing science fiction. In a world where people own self-driving electric cars and maintain close relationships by way of daily video chats, it is not unreasonable to say every author is a science fiction author now. Again: Franzen, Smith, Tartt, etc. But go back even further — weren’t the first stories to account for the Internet, circa 1990, working in a science-fictional mode? Weren’t novels that mentioned the moon landing trying to reckon with a world in which the incredible had been calculated, computed, processed, and made credible?
Well. Leave it. As with fantasy, we will pass on the broadest possible definition of science fiction, and examine the genre only in its most potent form. Our interest is in those stories in which the science has been projected out from the marvels of now to the head-swimming possibilities of what might be next. We stand on the near shore of the twenty-first century, with the vast terrain ahead unknown, unmapped, only dimly apprehended. Science fiction stories are the dazzling flares we launch into the darkness, to catch a glimpse of the country before us and show us our way.
Both genres, really, are flashbangs to drive back the shadows. Fantasy shines its eldritch glare within, illuminating the contours of our dreams, our half-formed desires, and our irrational fears. Science fiction casts its blazing glare outward, into the brilliant night, at the smashed crystal ball of the moon and the future waiting beyond.
Put another way, fantasy explores the self, whereas science fiction asks you to leave selfhood behind and see your life for what it is—a bright mote of dust adrift in a vast and beautiful and terrifying universe.
The writers assembled herein —nineteen, with two incredibly different and equally breathtaking stories by a young she-can-do-anything star, Sofia Samatar —are a mix of old hands and fresh voices. If you’ve read John Joseph Adams’s foreword, you know the deal: he read several thousand stories, whittled them down to eighty that he thought were truly remarkable, and I read through those, reducing them to twenty favorites. The authors’ names were withheld from me, and everyone here fought their way in on their own merits. When their secret identities were revealed, it gladdened me to discover I was among some old friends, and excited me to be introduced to so many remarkable new talents.
I am also pleased that the finished collection organically arose as one of great diversity. Whatever your sexual orientation, whatever your ethnicity, whatever your age or personal experiences, it is my hope you will find a hero somewhere here you can relate to, that speaks to the world as you see it. Even better: there is a good chance you will find some heroes here who are deeply, fundamentally different from yourself. I don’t have much patience with readers who yearn to explore incredible worlds and mind-bending situations but grow cold at the idea of imagining their way into different political ideas, different faiths, a different gender, a different skin, a different life.
I hesitate to reveal many specifics about the stories themselves. A description of a fireworks show is never as good as seeing one. But perhaps I can offer a few general observations.
The apocalypse is totally happening… at least in the sense that it’s a popular subject in SF/F right now (as for whether the apocalypse is happening happening, continue to watch the Weather Channel and keep your disaster insurance up to date). There are three end-of-the-worlders in this book… and there were at least three others I read that were almost as good as these.
We are increasingly anxious about our inability to look away from our ever-more-seductive screens and all too aware that what you get from your shiny new device may be very different from what was promised on the box.
Even demon lovers and occasional ghosts are depressed by reality television and tabloid websites.
The world needs mermaids.
Kickstarter and Craigslist have replaced the stake and the cross as our go-to tools for dealing with the supernatural.
Poverty is hard, even in the future.
The natural world may not ever be done playing pranks on us talking apes.
History is no longer just a story written by the winners.
Most of all, we humans will always be driven to take enormous risks and perform heart-wrenching sacrifices for our friends, children, partners, or parents, regardless of our costume, be it a spacesuit or a fantastic coat with pockets full of magic.
And that’s enough by way of preamble from your faithful correspondent. I’ve talked myself dry, and besides . . . the hour grows late. The sun has long since set, and the first stars are out. Cricket song throbs in the high grass. Do you hear that? A bell clank-clank-clanks at a distant railroad crossing, although there’s no sign of a train. Whoa — spooky.
We’re all here on our picnic blankets on a perfect evening and it’s time for the show. Who’s ready for some fireworks? Who’s ready to watch the sky burn?
Oh good. I’m ready, too.
Strike the match.
Touch the fuse.
— Joe Hill