After a whirlwind August (more travel and projects than either of your trusty reviewers can count) we’re back at the very end of September. The deluge of excellent short spec fic means that sometimes I don’t have time to cover some of my favorites in as much depth as I’d like with a busy schedule, and it especially means compiling year-end best-of lists is going to be extremely daunting. So I’m taking this opportunity to talk briefly–very briefly!–about ten or so of my favorites up to this point. I’m only including things published before August; I’ll do another at the end of the year, and a roundup post. But it’s easy to forget things that come in January and April, even if they’re lovely, and none of these should be overlooked. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list; I’m sure I’ve forgotten some work I’ve loved. But it gets a conversation started about what I’m enjoying and what, if anything, binds these works together.
“Salto Mortal”, Nick T. Chan, at Lightspeed (http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/salto-mortal/)
A devastatingly raw story about lucha libre, aliens, and domestic violence, this one got under my skin in the most visceral way. It does feature (graphic) depictions of emotional and physical abuse; for me, it was a heavy read. Salto Mortal is, on every level, about assimilation, about the thousand tiny sacrifices one makes to pass, about wounds–both personal and cultural, and that intersection. It’s a rare symphony of theme and character and interwoven imagery, of plot amplifying metaphor and the reverse.
It’s a story I’m careful when I recommend, when I speak about it, handling it gingerly and with reverence.
“Foreign Tongues”, John Wiswell (http://flashfictiononline.com/main/article/foreign-tongues/)
Howlingly funny, the tale of a puzzled alien on a mission to liberate Earth’s ice cream, and also resistant humans from their fragile flesh prisons. It’s really a story about language, about how we communicate and what we value and what happens when empathy and connection fails, so it’s very much my sort of thing.
It’s also laugh-out-loud hilarious. “Butter Cream Ripple wants to be my friend.” Same, terrifying alien. Same.
“The Right Sort of Monsters”, Kelly Sandoval (http://www.strangehorizons.com/2016/20160404/sandovalmonsters-f.shtml)
I loved this piece from the moment I started it. The narrator, Viette, ventures forth into the forbidden Godswalk when her efforts to conceive a baby with her husband meet with miscarriage. In the forest, she meets with a creature–one of the sort of children–and she reaches a sort of reckoning with her choices. The story felt inevitable in the best way–quietly satisfying, real and lovely and true in the way that fairy stories often are.
Unloved monsters–the thing that looks human, mostly, but isn’t quite, are very much one of my concerns. Sandoval tackles this in a way that is messy, raw, human and true.
“The Virgin Played Bass”, Maria Dahvana Headley (http://uncannymagazine.com/article/the-virgin-played-bass/)
Magical realism and war and the most vulgar cat in all of SFF this year, surely. Bulgakov homages have to be good to convince me, and this is good; that balance of lush prose and staccato impatience, that careful sidelong glance that warns against simple sincerity and simultaneously offers a sort of fleeting, complex, mediated truth.
“Your Orisons May Be Recorded”, Laurie Penny (http://www.tor.com/2016/03/15/your-orisons-may-be-recorded/)
Angels don’t usually make me laugh. “Your Orisons May Be Recorded” is an exception. The story opens, “All prayers are answered, but sometimes the answer is no. And sometimes the answer is: “Let me talk to my manager and get back to you.”” This sets the tone for what you’re getting. A switchboard operator whose job is to listen to the calls and prayers of humans and satisfy them as best as possible (while staying within the seven minute limit, please) is suffering from burnout and despair. Their officemate Gremory is a laid-back demon with too-long hair and possibly the most useful outlook of anyone in the story. It’s a darkly funny, vibrant meditation on love, desire, want vs. need, prayer, and agency.
“The Rogue State Next Door”, Vajra Chandrasekera (http://www.unsungstories.co.uk/short/2016/29/4/the-rogue-state-next-door)
A tiny, explosive piece of flash fiction. “The Rogue State Next Door” builds up a complex and unsolvable political conflict in a handful of paragraphs. The president of the unnamed nation has to deal with a more powerful rival next door who keeps moving the borders. It’s tense and terse and very prescient.
“Suicide Bots”, Bentley A. Reese (https://www.shimmerzine.com/suicide-bots-by-bentley-a-reese/)
I’ve written at length on this blog about my thoughts on “Suicide Bots”, but I cannot leave it off. Suicide Bots is about the alienated, the “disposable” (both in the scrap-made purpose-built bots and the masses of humans teeming outside Nee Chicago), about fashioning a new world from chips that don’t work how you’d like and sentient creatures that are beautiful for their deviance from “passing”. It’s the parts of cyberpunk (the junk, the tech, the grinding mess) I like the best in a way that feels entirely immediate and contemporary.
“Chimera”, Gu Shi, translated by S. Qiouyi Lu and Ken Liu (http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/gu_03_16/)
“Chimera” is long–it took me two days to finish it, slotted in on breaks from pressing work obligations–but wholly worth it. Set in both the near future and aboard a farther-future spaceship, and jumping between the two times, the story unfolds like a symphony, taking up questions of genetic engineering, organ harvesting, genome sequencing, immortality, love, and legacy. The level of craft–both on the sentence level and in the larger pacing and perspective shifts–demonstrates a mastery of form; often I had to pause to marvel over how information was released to me, here a trickle and here a deluge, but almost always the right flow.
The ending isn’t terribly surprising, but I liked it better for that–the story itself plays between expansion and confinement, close perspective and distance. “Chimera” was one of Clarkesworld’s translated stories, and speaks to the absolute necessity of continuing to support this work.
“Breathe”, Cassandra Khaw (http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/khaw_05_16/)
As a narrative game writer, I’ve long been skeptical of the admonition to avoid the second person as though it were a particularly virulent strain of plague. Like any tool, it’s capable of misuse, but I find it hugely interesting in cases of narrative separation: where the narrator is addressing a part of themselves, as via a clone or a hive-mind, where there is a split between the narrator and their memories, or where producing an internal dialogue offers something to the story it would be poorer for lacking. “Breathe” is certainly a demonstration of the last–a hard SF story in which a woman beneath the surface of the ocean on an undersea mission has to confront visceral fears and make a difficult decision. The second person deliberately blurs the space between Alice and the reader, reminding us to breathe at the same time she reminds us to do so. Khaw creates empathy, forges a bridge between her narrator and reader, and thus asks for not only our observation but our participation in Alice’s decision–the choice to help others, even at cost.
That last paragraph is a risk–an attempt to craft a narrative ending that works both intra- and extra-textually. I know from personal experience that it’s not a technique that works on all readers, and for it to succeed it requires a very particular kind of craft in protagonist and prose. But it worked for me in spades, and “Breathe” is a pristinely crafted little gem.
“The Blood That Pulses in the Veins of One”, JY Yang (http://uncannymagazine.com/article/blood-pulses-veins-one/)
Another one I’ve written about on this blog, but which I’m unwilling to leave off. It’s a striking meditation on the link between connection and consumption, about how closeness comes about, about what is alien, compassionate, cruel. I’m very fond of Yang’s aliens.
Yang also has just published “Before the Storm Hits”, a micro piece of interactive fiction published here in sub-Q, which I also enjoyed.
“Fear Death By Water”, Arkady Martine (http://www.unlikely-story.com/stories/fear-death-by-water-by-arkady-martine/)
I debated the ethics of including my co-writer’s work on this list, but ultimately decided to because this is one of the stories I have repeatedly been thinking about this year so far, and it feels like a misrepresentation not to put it on. So I’ve added it as an eleventh.
The fact of the matter is this: it is impossible for me to ignore a story about pan-galactic tyranny, the limits of empire, ritual murder, and a female imperatrix who’s loyal to the woman she has pledged to protect up until the moment she isn’t, until the moment she can’t–everything about this is wholly and entirely my jam. So it rounds out the list.
A couple of trends here. There’s a lot of work about self-generation, from the sense of realization (Sandoval and Chan), to narrativization (Khaw and Martine), to literal self-creation through consumption or otherwise (Yang and Reese). There are also a fairly wide variety of zines and mags represented here: two each from Clarkesworld and Uncanny, but all the rest come from different sources. I didn’t set out to specifically organize things that way, but I’m that the breadth of my reading has rewarded itself.
Several authors on this list have written in interactive narrative spaces: Yang, Khaw, and Chandrasekera. I do think there’s something correlated here. My own work, and the work I tend to enjoy, takes up questions of absence: productive gaps in a narrator’s desires and actions, and how readers are made to participate in the stories those narrators tell themselves and us. Interactive narrative doesn’t do that better than static linear fiction: it just opens up a different possibility space for authors to play with voice, unreliability, and the reader’s experience.
We also have: complicated moral issues surrounding robots; aliens which I have entirely too much sympathy for; cannibalism. None of which should surprise anyone who’s been reading this blog.