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Exclusive Interview: “Year’s Best Canadian Fantasy And Science Fiction: Volume One” Editor Stephen Kotowych

 

When we think about the best science fiction and fantasy, some people only think of writers from the U.S., Britain, and Japan. But despite what Disney insists, it’s a big world out there, and good writers come from all four corners of the globe.

And yes, that includes Canada.

Which brings me to the following interview with Stephen Kotowych, the editor of the new anthology Year’s Best Canadian Fantasy And Science Fiction: Volume One (paperback, Kindle), in which he explains why he assembled this collection, what the rules were, and his plans for Volume Two, Volume Three

Stephen Kotowych Year's Best Canadian Fantasy and Science Fiction Volume One

To start, why did you decide to put together Year’s Best Canadian Fantasy And Science Fiction: Volume One? Did you feel Canadians were being underrepresented in other Best Of anthologies? You could’ve just asked nicely.

Plenty of Canadians get noticed in the various Year’s Best books that come out from American publishers each year, so it wasn’t that. It was realizing how many great stories and authors still weren’t being recognized.

I was scrolling through a list of Year’s Best volumes for some reason, and noticed that there was a Best of British sci-fi, a Best of Australia, a Best of Aotearoa New Zealand…and the thought that there could be (and really ought to be) a Best of Canada volume popped into my head and wouldn’t leave.

Once you decided to put Year’s Best Canadian Fantasy And Science Fiction: Volume One together, how did you decide what to include?

Because I had to go from idea to finished book so quickly, I relied heavily on my own reading of Canadian stories that I’d done throughout the year. But I also looked at the long list of eligible works for Canada’s Aurora Awards — our national English-language prize for work in the fantastic — to help me find stories I hadn’t come across previously and tracked many stories down that way. Any stories that got one or more award nominations or wins or that made various recommended reading lists also got a hard looking over. Canadians get nominated for the biggest prizes in the field a lot. I also benefitted from material sent to me by authors and publishers during a brief open call in Summer 2023 that alerted me to things I would otherwise have missed and I ended up including several of those.

And while I’ll still rely on all of that as part of the consideration process for next year’s volume, I’m also going to have a more formal extended submission window via a Moksha portal so that authors and publishers can submit work for consideration. My goal is to cast as wide and comprehensive a net as I can each year and to give myself the time to do that.

Did the people have to be from Canada and living there right now, or did you also include people who were born elsewhere but have moved to Canada and / or people who were born in Canada but have since moved elsewhere?

Well, as I point out in the introduction to the anthology, unlike a lot of other countries, there isn’t really an easy definition of what it means to be “Canadian.” Our historical reality— Indigenous peoples, French and English settler cultures, on-going immigration from around the world — means that “Canada” and “Canadian” can be really nebulous in ways that might not be the case in other countries.

But, for the purposes of this collection, I thought the easiest way to define eligibility would be to include Canadian citizens, permanent residents, or Canadian citizens who are living and writing from abroad. Those are the eligibility criterion used by the Aurora Awards and are similar to what other national Best Ofs, like the Best Of British SF, tend to do.

Plus, with expats eligible it means that technically William Shatner could be included in a future volume if ever he writes a sci-fi short story. So, you know, fingers crossed!

contributors Ariel Marken Jack, Jonathan Olfert

 

What other parameters did you set? Like, did you only accept stories that were published in Canadian journals or books? Was there a word count limit?

I looked at stories by Canadians published anywhere around the world and in any format: magazines, anthologies, online markets, zines. Many were published in American markets, but a lot were published in Canadian venues, and some in the UK.

As for length, I was looking at anything 1500-ish words to 7500-ish words in length. Much shorter than 1500 words and you’re looking at a story that’s only a couple of pages long, and much longer than 7500 words and you won’t be able to have as many total stories in the book.

That being said, there are one or two that are sub-1500 words and at least one that edged over 7500, but it was because they were so strong I just had to have them.

If I have one regret about the contents of this volume, it’s that I couldn’t include novellas. We’re living in an absolute golden age for novellas, but publishing even a single one could take up a third of the whole book. And with so many novellas today published as essentially stand-alone short novels, I wouldn’t be able to get rights to reprint many of them anyway. But I did include in the anthology a list of the best novellas and novelettes published by Canadians in 2022. I hope people will seek them out and enjoy them as much as I have.

And was there also a limit as to how many of the stories could be based on songs by Rush, and if so, why was that limited to 12 and not 21?

No, no, no — the stories are all based on Bryan Adams songs…

[storms out]

[saunters back in]

As the title states, this collects both science fiction and fantasy stories. Why did you want to include both and not one or the other? Or do two books?

I probably included both from my inherent Canadian sense of fairness. Ha!

In all honesty, while I know there are some diehards who only read fantasy or who only read science fiction, I think most fans of genre literature enjoy both to one degree or another. Particularly at the short story length. And there’s so much great science fiction and fantasy being written by Canadians that I couldn’t leave out one in favor of the other.

It’s a bit like that line from The Blues Brothers when they ask the bartender at the honkytonk what kind of music is usually performed there. “Oh, we got both kinds,” she replies, “we got Country and Western.”

That being said, I think the book broke out about evenly between science fiction and fantasy — didn’t aim for that, it just happened.

You also have some poems in Year’s Best Canadian Fantasy And Science Fiction: Volume One. Why did you decide to include poetry in this anthology?

There’s actually a really robust speculative poetry community in Canada, and like our speculative fiction authors, they keep getting nominated for and winning major awards in the field, like the Rhysling Award and the Ignyte Award.

In fact, there were so many noteworthy poems being published each year by Canadians that they had to add a Best Poem category to the Aurora Awards a few years ago to recognize the work being done. With a track record like that, how could I not include poetry alongside the fiction?

Stephen Kotowych Year's Best Canadian Fantasy and Science Fiction Volume One

contributors Chelsea Vowel, Premee Mohamed

 

While everything is obviously science fiction or fantasy, what subgenres are represented by stories in Year’s Best Canadian Fantasy And Science Fiction: Volume One?

It’s a pretty wide range. There’s everything from the hard science fiction of Michèle Laframboise’s “Rare Earths Pineapple” to the dark, eerie fantasy of Ariel Marken Jack’s “The Bleak Communion Of Abandoned Things.” There’s near-future climate-focused science fiction, like Premee Mohamed’s “All That Burns Unseen,” to Stone Age fantasy like Jonathan Olfert’s “Redfin Spine.” “And in the Arcade, Ego” by Kate Heartfield is a space opera focused around a game of pinball, while Chelsea Vowel’s “Michif Man” is about a Métis superhero in 1950s Canada. I could go on and on. I feel like we’ve got a pretty good breadth of subgenres.

Year’s Best Canadian Fantasy And Science Fiction: Volume One is the second anthology you’ve edited after Game On!, which you co-edited with Tony Pi. What did you learn assembling Game On!, and with Tony, that made the biggest impact on Year’s Best?

Well, I’ve learned that doing an anthology by yourself is a lot more work, for a start. It’s been a lot of fun to do this volume, but I’m realizing how much I appreciated having Tony to bounce ideas off or to have him suggest something I hadn’t considered before.

I think the biggest thing I learned from doing Game On! that translated into putting together Year’s Best, though, was something I’d always heard as a writer: that editors might not know if a story is for them within the first couple of lines or by page 2, but an editor can definitely tell when a story is not for them in that short amount of time. It’s so true.

The difference here was that, with Game On! it was unpublished stories, so you were getting some submitted that just didn’t work on a prose or craft level, even before you looked at storytelling. Here, with doing a Best Of volume, everything’s been published already, so you know the quality is there.

What it came down to was really a matter of my personal taste and sometimes trying to choose between maybe two stories that were close together in theme or tone — which one of these do I take and why? Or if an author had more than one great story last year, which of them do I choose? Usually, one grabbed me quicker than the other and that’s what I went with.

What other anthologies that you’ve read do you think had a big influence on how you put together Year’s Best Canadian Fantasy And Science Fiction: Volume One?

Well, my Year’s Best has definitely been influenced and inspired by the Years’ Best collections that have been edited by people like David Hartwell or Gardner Dozois back in the day, or by volumes from Neil Clarke and Paula Guran more recently. Some of those were focused just on science fiction or just on fantasy, though, so my inclusion of both is a bit of a departure from those volumes.

Those books also tend to be big, oversized door stops, which I love. I wasn’t quite able to manage that with Volume One, but we’ll see about future volumes…

I also hope in future volumes to do a bit of a “year in review” of the Canadian sci-fi / fantasy field, similar to what Gardner Dozois used to do for the whole field in his annual Best Of volumes. I’ve already started taking notes on what’s been happening in 2023 that’s worth covering.

contributors Kate Heartfield, Michèle Laframboise

 

You just mentioned “future volumes.” I assume that means you’re planning to do another volume next year, a third in 2025…

Yes, my goal is to keep doing these as long as readers are interested.

Volume One publishes in 2023, but covers the best stories and poems from 2022. Next year, Volume Two will publish in 2024, looking back at the best of 2023. And on and on, hopefully.

So then why did you decide to call it Year’s Best Canadian Fantasy And Science Fiction: Volume One as opposed to 2022’s Best Canadian Fantasy And Science Fiction?

I chose Volume One rather than Best Of 202X so that the anthology didn’t seem dated in a few years. Sometimes, having a year on anthologies can feel like including a “best before” date on the contents and that’s really unwarranted. These stories aren’t going to be out of date the way, say, a non-fiction book on current events will.

Yes, stories age, but I feel they do so at a much slower rate than non-fiction. Readers might not be willing to pick up an anthology that was published three, or five, or seven years ago, because they might think of the stories as “old,” but they’d be missing out by doing so. Why give someone a reason to turn the book away unread just because they see a specific year in the title?

I want the Year’s Best Canadian Fantasy And Science Fiction series to act as a bit of a time capsule for the field in Canada, so we can see where we’ve been and, looking back, see how that pointed to where the genre was going. But I also want readers to be able to pick up the volume at any point in the future.

Hollywood loves turning short stories into movies. Are there any stories in Year’s Best Canadian Fantasy And Science Fiction: Volume One that you think would work especially well in film?

Ooo — I’m reluctant to single out any one story or author. You’re not supposed to play favorites. And while I’m not sure about movie-length adaptations, I think many of the stories in the anthology would lend themselves to a one-hour prestige TV anthology series, like Black Mirror. That would make for a great season of TV.

So, is there anything else you think potential buyers might need to know about Year’s Best Canadian Fantasy And Science Fiction: Volume One?

Just that it’s all killer, no filler. It’s 125,000+ words of stories and poems that were winners and finalists for the Aurora Award, Nebula Award, Locus Award, Ignyte Award, Prix Solaris, World Fantasy Award, and the Rhysling Award, plus some hidden gems that I think readers will really love.’

Stephen Kotowych Year's Best Canadian Fantasy and Science Fiction Volume One

Finally, if someone enjoys Year’s Best Canadian Fantasy And Science Fiction: Volume One, what sci-fi / fantasy short story anthology that doesn’t have the word “best” in the title would you suggest they read while waiting for Year’s Best Canadian Fantasy And Science Fiction: Volume Two?

There’s a joke that the “golden age of science fiction” is whenever you, the reader, were 12, and I think that holds true for me. Because there’s a collection that I’ve always remembered reading when I was about that age that was brand new at the time. It’s called After The King: Stories In Honor Of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Martin H. Greenberg. It’s got a great list of contributors — Terry Pratchett, Peter S. Beagle, Jane Yolen, Charles de Lint, Andre Norton — and is probably the first book of short stories that I remember reading that wasn’t a single-author collection of previous published stuff, like Ray Bradbury’s R Is For Rocket or S Is For Space (which I loved). I remember thinking how cool it was that there were a bunch of new stories based around a theme. It was pretty foundational for me. It’s long since out of print, but if you can find a copy, check it out.

…But if you can’t find a copy of that one, I hear Game On!, edited by Stephen Kotowych and Tony Pi, and which looks at fantasy and science fiction takes on games, game playing, and games in culture is in print and is pretty good, too.

[storms out]

 

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