Book Review: "The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2014," Rich Horton (ed.)

"I doubt that the imagination can be suppressed. If you truly eradicated it in a child, he would grow up to be an eggplant."

-- Ursula K. Le Guin

“Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.”

-- Sir Terry Pratchett

Sir Francis Bacon's famous mini-quote - "Reading maketh a full man, ...," is one of the best examples of how certain statements, that seem pithy truisms at first glance, can contain within themselves, a portion of truth greater than the sum of their parts. The virtues of reading have been explored by numerous thinkers, writers, and critics over centuries, and do not bear repeating once more in this place - although the sad reality of our times is that in spite of an overabundance of written word that has succeeded in making readers of many, few can claim to have completed the metamorphosis implied by Bacon. The company of books has arguably transformed - from a fiercely intimate conversation, to a conversation starter at public events. Such conversations, however, tend to center around a very narrow spectrum of "fine literature," a term that is at once undefinable yet globally implied! The genres of written word thrive on a caste/class system that segregates the desirable from the undesirables, the so-called sublime from the allegedly crass (but with completely incorrect criteria) which in the larger context is just another reflection of the dominant hues of prevailing social fabric - "us" from "them."

A very special form of contempt and disdain is often reserved for that darkest beast in this literary family - fantasy, and its cultist sibling, science fiction! They are often criticized for being too far removed from reality, and generally dismissed as "childish stuff" (often by people who have never read a single piece of good, mature science fiction in their lives, ever) -- the truth could not be further away. The history of our relationship with fantasy is probably the history of human storytelling, for it is highly probable (almost possible) that the first purveyor of tales and spinner of colorful yarns, was not a journalist or a documentarian, but a grandmother putting her grandchildren to sleep, infusing their dreams with tales of heroes and their imagined lives, to be held as a standard for the younger generations.

In spite of being shunned/ignored/ridiculed/sneered at/... science fiction has not only survived as a populist fiction, but has also influenced generations of youngsters to look towards the sciences as a viable career and passion (though not in the same order.) And while it can be conceded that there are few diamonds in the massive rough, the same can also be claimed for other genres and non-genres like "General Literature" -- one would think this sign would apply to everything sold for reading! It is therefore an important and also somewhat difficult task to not only separate lighter fiction from the more hardcore counterparts, but also find avenues to disseminate critically evaluated and recognized samples to readers, avid and new. Quite a few anthologies are regularly published in this field, and "The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy," edited by Rich Horton, now in its fifth year, is one prime example of the best fiction in this area, collected annually and from across the globe.

The 2014 edition is remarkable for the amount of non-American authors showcased in the collection. Although Hollywood may have us believe so, the domain for science fiction is not limited to the shores of Americana. Stories from far away lands, about even more far flung places, bring different cultural and social perspectives to the reader, in the comfort of their armchair. These stories offer a fresh outlook towards the perennial question in fantasy - "what if?" Strip away the strange sounding names and replace the locales with familiar places (if you prefer), and you would be hard-pressed to find something to not-like in these stories! There are murder mysteries, existential quests, love stories, revenge sagas, heroic deeds (foolish and strong), noir dramas, and a variety of colorful tales that would engage a reader of good fiction. You may also find it surprising that some of the stories would be classified under the fantasy or science fiction genre because they would be as engaging and illuminating, even if filed under a different category! More than ever, anthologies like this prove that fantasy & science fiction are not just about spaceships and lasers and B.E.M.s and dragons and monsters and fairies and talking cats, but they are windows into our imagination and the dragons, cats, fairies, monsters and other peculiar creatures hiding within us.

Highly recommended.