Guest Author

The Best of British Fantasy 2019: An Introduction

The Best of British Fantasy 2019 contains two dozen tales of the weird and wonderful: featuring pensive houses, angry gods, ghosts, monsters, living statues, were-creatures, sorcerers, swordsmen, spells, skeletons, and, of course, the end of the world.  Stories by Lavie Tidhar, Eliza Chan, Kirsty Logan, Chikodili Emelumadu, Maura McHugh, Heather Parry, Gareth Rees, Sara Saab, Natalia Theodoridou, and many more.

We are pleased to welcome its editor, Jared Shurin, to talk a bit more about it today.

“Someone will be along to dig you out.”: The Best of British Fantasy 2019

The best metaphor for a ‘year’s best’ anthology is the parable of the blind men and the elephant. As you may remember, each of the blind men touches a different part of the elephant and immediately, if justifiably, believes they know the entire nature of the beast. The man holding the tail thinks an elephant is like a rope, the one touching the leg thinks it is a tree, the one holding the trunk assumes it is serpentine.

All, according to their experience, are correct. Yet every one is also, objectively, wrong.

It is only by collecting enough blind men that we can begin to understand the true nature of the elephant. A novel, however brilliantly written, is, at best, one blind man with exceptionally sensitive fingers. An anthology, while not having that singular depth, gives us more hands: the collection of impressions required to feel out the edges of a vast and multi-faceted beast.

In the introduction to the previous volume, I wrote about the role of The Best of British Fantasy could play in capturing the past for the sake of the future. An anthology, I argued, can provide a snapshot of a particular point in time, capturing the feel of a moment for far distant readers. Many legendary anthologies – say, Dangerous Visions or Nelson Algren’s Own Book of Lonesome Monsters – accomplish this: ambitious collections that use fiction to help the 21st century reader glimpse some of the themes, concerns, and cultures of mid-20th century life.

In thinking about an anthology’s duty to the future, I completely neglected what it means to those of us in the present.

As I write this, we have entered the second month of mandated social distancing. My two countries – where I was born and where I live – are both facing economic and cultural ruin. Tens of thousands have died, a growing statistic that becomes more gruesome every day. I, like many of you, have friends and family risking their lives every day in hospitals, at care homes, in supermarkets and warehouses. We live in communal, collective anxiety.

Perversely, there are fewer opportunities for distraction. The cultural sector is near-universally furloughed. Sports have come grinding to a halt. Amazon, for the second time in as many months, has removed the ‘buy’ button from books as ‘inessential’. Reality is inescapable.

Given the state of our present, fantasy stories may seem trivial or ‘inessential’. But they have two, slightly contradictory, but very important, roles to play.

First, fantasy helps us escape reality.

Escapism can often be a dubious virtue, but given our current imprisonment, there’s unquestionable value right now. We cannot step out to dinner, but we can still cross into Narnia. It is easier to walk into Mordor than to the office. Reality is inexorable and inescapable. What is happening is so unquestionably important, that our minds do nothing else but whir frantically, trying to make sense of it.

As a result, and unsurprisingly, a recent ONS survey reveals that almost half of Britons currently report high levels of anxiety. The simple act of escape – of turning off, of giving yourself a break – has become essential. Escapism need not be Disneyfied, cheery, or overly simplistic: it is a matter of moving from here to there; a good story that allows the reader to ponder someone else’s problems for a change. In this volume you’ll find many ways of escape. Some are literal escapes, such as a flying carpet or a persuasive spirit. Others take place in captivating worlds, far from our own: ancient sailing ships, forgotten kingdoms, deep under the ground or high atop impossible sculptures. They draw us in – or, more critically, out – with seductive atmosphere, high-flying adventure, good humour, haunting horror, and impossible feats of magic. Enjoy them, as they are meant to be enjoyed: without guilt. You – we – all deserve some time away. As Gareth E. Rees’ story in this collection says, we all deserve a ‘fragile, momentary sanctuary’.

Second, fantasy helps us understand reality.

Some realities are simply too big to be understood except through stories. Stories, narratives, help us comprehend the incomprehensible. Stories are our hands on the elephant; they allow us to find the edges of the things, to capture abstractions into shapes.

Our current situation is too much for a single narrative. There’s no special spell or magic cloak; there’s no sword to wield or dragon to slay with it. There is no ring of power, no wizard, no prophecy or Crack of Doom. We’re trapped in the worst of stories: there’s too much going on, no resolution, a billion conflicts without a villain.

And that’s why we need fantasy: it allows us to simplify the incomprehensible; as Douglas Adams put it, to ‘eff’ the ineffable. A good narrative helps us reduce the inexplicable into a form that we can understand, resolve, and even act upon. Although the stories contained within were all first published before the Covid-19 outbreak, they are good stories (the best, in fact), and address themes that are still very relevant. We have a child learning to accept loss, a man learning to love, a family learning to survive. There are stories about sacrifice, and commitment, and bravery.

There’s a tale in here about how scary change can be, and another about how coming to grips with the past. There are several about loneliness, some about isolation, several about loss, and many more about friendship, and all the strange and wonderful forms it may take. Perhaps most importantly, there are stories here about survival, acceptance, and love. These are fantasy stories that understand tragedy, loss and fear, but also remind us that there is much, much more in life: redemption, companionship, and hope.

Perhaps the most eerily prophetic story in this book is the first, by Helen McClory. It captures, disturbingly, a world fearing [redacted]: seemingly wracked by a generic, all-encompassing, apocalyptic event. McClory manages to give voice to formless dread, but also, and far more importantly, reminds us that this is a shared experience, and, somewhere over the horizon, this too shall pass. When reality is cruel and abstract, fantasy can provide reassurance and perspective. As McClory elegantly reminds us: the world around you is kinder than you imagine now.

I look forward to sharing a kinder future with you.

The Best of British Fantasy 2019 is out on June 30 and you can get your copy here.

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