The Year’s Best Is Dead, Long Live the Year’s Best: On the 2023 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award Finalists
By Niall HarrisonSeptember 21, 2023
The challenge might be finding them. Historically, the SF field has been very good, or at least very enthusiastic, about engraving early drafts of its history in real time via an array of anthologies and awards. But in the early 2020s, these mechanisms seem to be faltering.
Take the selection of “year’s best” anthologies. They’ve been around for decades, but Locus Magazine, in its annual “Recommended Reading” list, first split them out as a separate category in 2008, when such books seemed to be proliferating. Locus highlighted nine books, edited by such luminaries as Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, Gavin Grant, Gardner Dozois, David G. Hartwell, Kathryn Cramer, and Stephen Jones. Four things now stand out about this selection: the longevity of the series; the stature of their editors; the fact that the books mostly appeared from widely distributed trade publishers; and, lastly, the fact that they were generally substantial in size—most notably, the Datlow/Link/Grant and Dozois volumes published by St. Martin’s Press boasted of reprinting over a quarter of a million words of fiction. But there were up-and-comers as well: the 2008 list highlighted smaller-press collections by Rich Horton and Jonathan Strahan, the latter being not just the first in a series but the only book on the list to combine science fiction and fantasy.
Fast-forward to this year, however, and the equivalent Locus category has merged general reprints and year’s bests together. All of the earlier series are gone, and only four of the seven books listed are year’s bests at all; only one has an editor from the earlier list (Ellen Datlow, with a horror-only collection, also the only series in the double digits). The most editorially interesting is probably The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, which in 2023 will see its ninth edition, but—despite the fact that the editors follow a pretty flexible definition of “American”—that title still sits awkwardly against the field’s current welcome trend toward a global inclusivity.
Perhaps, as Paul Kincaid argued in these pages in 2012, there have been signs of exhaustion in the short fiction field. But it’s also hard not to see Gardner Dozois’s death in 2018 as a turning point. Not only did no other editor replace him at St. Martin’s, but in the absence of his totemic series, there also seems to have been a general withering in the commercial viability of the year’s best as a format. There are plenty of bests for specific geographies and communities, but almost all hail from small presses. Horton’s series (which later became a combined science fiction and fantasy book) is now ebook-only, with no edition announced for this year. Strahan’s cross-genre year’s best lasted for 13 volumes; after it ended in 2019, he moved to editing a pure science fiction year’s best for Saga Press that seemed like it should have become the successor to Dozois’s series, but in the end only two volumes appeared. The impact of the pandemic likely had a hand in that, but the upshot is that it’s more difficult today than at any point in the last half century to recommend a series that a reader can follow for regular and reliable snapshots of the field.
We might, then, turn our attention to awards, of which there is still an abundance. The invaluable Science Fiction Awards Database tracks the short lists and results of over 100 different awards, and a few dozen include short fiction categories. Through their short lists, they provide a kind of crowdsourced year’s best survey, not least because most of them are decided by some form of popular vote. This includes probably the two best-known SF awards—the Nebulas, which are voted on each year by members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA), and the Hugos, which are voted on by members of that year’s World Science Fiction Convention—and is one reason why, historically, it has been so useful to have both awards and anthologies.
Popular votes and editorial selection have different strengths and weaknesses, and one particular weakness of popular votes has become more noticeable in recent years. There has always been a degree of overlap between the Hugo and Nebula nominees, but in an era of more short stories than any one person can reasonably read, there is an incentive to read the stories that are most easily accessible and that other people are already talking about, leading to reinforcing cycles of attention. As a result, it is now the norm for at least half of the short fiction nominees for these two awards to be the same, and for them to come from a relatively small group of online magazines—and even allowing for Sturgeon’s sometimes-useful generalization, in a healthy ecosystem, you’d like more differentiation than that.
All of this is a long way around to justifying the ostensible subject of this essay: now is a particularly good time to pay more attention to the short story awards that are casting a broader net than the Hugos and the Nebulas themselves, and one that I find consistently interesting is the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. Founded in 1987, it’s a juried award—with judges tending to serve for a multiyear stint—that draws on story nominations from a wide range of critics and editors. The former can submit a ranked list of up to 10 stories; the latter can submit three stories from their own editorial work, plus (if they choose), 10 stories from their other reading. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this mechanism is the best of all worlds, but I like the way it balances a breadth of input (the great virtue of a popular vote award) with consistency of viewpoint (the great virtue of an edited series). The list of past winners includes fine stories by many greats of the field, with the notable feature that nobody has ever won twice. If the Sturgeon has had a failing in recent years, it’s perhaps that it has been slower than other awards to fully reflect the increasing diversity of the field. Similar to other SF awards, only one winner in the last 10 has been a man; but at the same time, only one winner in the last 10 has not been white.
This year’s short list, though, is an exciting selection of work that, in most ways, feels like a representative snapshot. The winner has already been announced and will be celebrated at this week’s Sturgeon Symposium at the University of Kansas, but in an attempt to preserve some narrative suspense for those who haven’t already seen the news, I’m going to save it until the end of this piece.
The short list includes only one story that overlaps with the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and it would have been a shock if it had been overlooked. “Rabbit Test” by Samantha Mills, published at the very end of last year, has already won this year’s Nebula Award for Best Short Story; it is also on the Hugo ballot, and deservedly so. It is one of the most powerful recent examples of rapid-response science fiction that I can think of, an incandescent and unashamed polemic that distills the bitter aftermath of 2022’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization into a few thousand words. Its spine is the story of Grace, who when we meet her in 2091 is trying to hack the “rabbit test” implant that her parents installed to track her periods and pregnancy status. But the restless narrator, whose voice is pitched somewhere between Joanna Russ and Doctor Manhattan, yanks us backwards and forwards in time (“It is 2084 […] It is 1878 […] It is 2022 and it is never over”), visiting researchers developing pregnancy tests in the early 20th century, a seamstress in 1830s New York who can’t afford a fifth child, a Black activist in 1971 providing discreet abortion counseling, Grace’s own daughter in 2119, and others. It is hardly the case that limits on reproductive freedom are a specifically American issue, but for me the great and coldly urgent achievement of “Rabbit Test” is its dissection of the American situation, enfolding us as we read within a continuity of struggle, achievement, and backlash.
The ubiquity of “Rabbit Test” on this year’s short lists might obscure the fact that Mills is still early in her career. Five of the other finalists are also first-time award nominees, an unusual pattern for the Sturgeon, which has more often recognized established writers, but all are welcome introductions. Innocent Chizaram Ilo’s brief, dense “The City and the Thing Beneath It” takes place in Lagos over the course of a few days, during which we meet several characters affected by, or at least with opinions about, the “Thing” that fell from the sky, against a backdrop of civil unrest. Ilo’s Lagos is contested but rich in potential—“Evenings in Lagos are better imagined than experienced”—and the story adroitly navigates religious, political, and interpersonal tensions.
A. D. Sui’s “Toronto Isn’t Real and Other Metropolitan Anomalies” is also partly an urban sketchbook, which elevates an otherwise familiar narrative about whether the protagonist is becoming aware that their reality is a simulation, or experiencing delusions. Dominique Dickey’s “Slow Communication” is almost a pure thought experiment: if an alien visited each generation of women in your family, and you knew that only your daughter would hear the answer to the question you asked, what would that question be? For the protagonist, Darla, the situation is complicated by her uncertainty about her gender identity—waiting for the alien is another excuse not to explore that particular question too deeply—although for me the tension of the question was more memorable than the eventual answer. And Derrick Boden’s “Ten Steps for Effective Mold Removal” is, as the title suggests, slightly lighter fare, and another piece that feels a touch gimmicky (the apocalypse as told through a series of online product reviews), but it evokes just enough pandemic lockdown parallels to give the ending some emotional heft.
The last of the newer writers is Maria Dong, whose “In the Beginning of Me, I Was a Bird” outlines a different and much more hauntingly weird apocalypse. All we are told of the cause is that “almost-microscopic seeds” fell from the sky “on thorn-tipped maple wings” and drilled into whatever they landed on, whether it was concrete or flesh. The effects are demonstrated by the first-person narration more than they are explained: “Once you got the seed in you, the clock started.” The body starts to wear out, or burn up, and then when it dies, the consciousness from that body can transfer to another body nearby. The first place the narrator jumps to when their human body dies is a cat, with the new consciousness existing alongside the old rather than displacing it. The story that develops is about the relationship between the narrator and another hopscotching human consciousness, and it is brilliant at pairing whimsical touches with a darker commentary on human exploitation of the environment. People are dying, and when they die, they become animals, and the closer companionship that results is real, but it is not costless: the animals get used up. Toward the end of the story, with the narration shifting from past to present tense, the narrator dives deep into the ocean, perhaps seeking respite. We don’t know if they find any; certainly the reader doesn’t.
One feather in the Sturgeon’s cap is that, compared to other genre awards, it has been much more open to ecological and climate-oriented fiction. The last two winners have drawn from that well, and in addition to “In the Beginning of Me, I Was a Bird,” two other, more realist stories on this year’s list also fit the description. (Not to mention that “Rabbit Test” cleverly and carefully links personal politics with a broader revanchist-racist response to climate refugees.) A. T. Greenblatt’s “If We Make It Through This Alive” is the more conventional genre piece: three women undertake a 2,800-mile road race across a climate-battered United States and contrast the failing infrastructure they encounter with the developed, but not necessarily accessible, infrastructure in the country’s newly sustainable cities. It’s energetic but formulaic: everyone says exactly what they mean and what you expect them to say. Much more compelling is Nicasio Andres Reed’s “Babang Luksa,” in which characters don’t always know what they mean, and struggle to say it when they do. Gino is an army engineer returning to his childhood home in Philadelphia after 20 years away, for a gathering to mark one year of mourning the death of his father. He missed the original funeral because he was working on environmental protection and reclamation projects. The dynamics of his Filipino Italian family are beautifully captured as part of a measured, detailed story about why people leave or stay, how they are connected to places or make places, how they grieve and how they live.
It’s left to the two most established writers to take us away from earth. Yoon Ha Lee—a regular nominee for both the Sturgeon and other awards, although a rare winner—is on the ballot with “Bonsai Starships,” a typically creative science fantasy about a novice at the shrine where the titular bonsai are carefully shaped until they are ready to become the power at the heart of full-sized starships. The descriptions are spectacular: one bonsai is a “splendor of recalcitrant angles,” filled with “fractal vistas of protest and upended propaganda.” But the story stops just as it is about to take flight, and doesn’t feel like it fully pays off the setup. In contrast, Annalee Newitz’s “A Hole in the Light” is an equally bold piece of world-creation, and pays off comprehensively: it’s perhaps the best thing I’ve read by them. It recalls Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” (2008) in bringing to life an entirely alien setting in the space of a short story. In this case, the setting is the immediate aftermath of a Big Bang. The protagonist, Arch, has just lost her physics teacher, and the opening of the story is a kind of funeral, as she watches “his once-solid edges softening into a jumble of molecules.” In search of new purpose, she travels to the Memory, a palace of learning, and attempts to understand the future of her universe. The ending involves a kind of acceptance of the concept of endings; the journey to get there sparkles with imagination.
Notwithstanding the fact that most of the above stories are available to read online, I can’t help wishing they were collected, even if only as an ebook; they serve as a decent year’s best. Of course, one big difference between reading a year’s best and reading an awards short list is that, in the latter case, you know there will ultimately be a winner, and you’re looking out for it. This year’s winner is Mills’s extraordinary “Rabbit Test,” a decision that immediately feels inevitable, but it would be a shame if anyone got the impression that the other 90 percent of the short list was just making up the numbers; to my mind, the stories by Dong, Ilo, Reed, or Newitz would have made equally worthy winners. That’s a decent hit rate, and those five stories together embody the virtues of the short list as a whole: a mix of newer and more established writers, capable of creating distinctive, memorable narrative voices to relay ecologically and politically engaged stories, and publishing in a much wider range of magazines than typically get attention from the popular-vote awards. In other words, a good showcase of the wider 10 percent.
Niall Harrison is an independent critic based in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
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