It seems like everywhere I look there’s another incredible anthology and brand new short fiction ‘zine begging to be read. Wondering where to start, I asked our panelists the following question:
The easiest way to name some of my favorite stories of the last year would be to go down my Hugo ballot, but that seemed too easy, and I like themes! I love stories with unusual structures: tell me a story backwards, as a Cosmopolitan article, in the form of director’s commentary on a music video, whatever! As it turned out, three out of the five stories I nominated have unusual structures. Although none of them are in the form of director’s commentary on a music video; someone should write that.
- “Walkdog,” by Sofia Samatar. The best story in the excellent Kaleidoscope anthology is a child’s research report about a mythical creature called the Walkdog. Samatar inhabits the character completely, and the report has spelling errors and footnotes. At first, it’s cute and amusing, but when Yolanda reveals the reason for her report, this story had me crying in public.
- “The Lonely Sea in the Sky,” by Amal El-Mohtar. Christie Yant picked eleven great short stories for Women Destroy Science Fiction! and I expect to see other WDSF stories featured in this Mind Meld, but I’m shining a light on the one told as a mix of poetic, unhinged journal entries and primary documents from news articles to book excerpts. The contrast between one woman trying to comprehend a sentient diamond ocean and the cold, hard reporting of events works beautifully. The story is gorgeous and affecting.
- “How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps,” by A. Merc Rustad. How can you not love a story that begins with a list entitled “How to tell your boyfriend you are in love with a robot”? It sounds like it’ll be a funny story, but it’s both heartbreaking and heartwarming, as the narrator writes list after list (“A beginner’s guide on how to fake your way through biological social constructs”) to deal with their wish to be a robot. It’s the best metaphor for gender dysphoria I’ve ever seen: as a cis man, I don’t think I really understood what it was like until I read this story.
- “The Clockwork Soldier,” by Ken Liu. Ken Liu sent out his newsletter and said this story was partially told as a text adventure, and it did not disappoint this Infocom nerd! It’s a riff on One Thousand and One Nights where the captive creates a text adventure for his captor, and Liu faithfully recreates the text adventure experience. The text adventure story grabbed me more than the frame story but, of course, they are related. I gasped out loud at the end.
- “Documentation,” by Shelly Oria. For kicks, I’m throwing in a non-SFF story I loved from Shelly Oria’s debut short story collection, New York 1, Tel Aviv 0. The titular documentation follows a relationship by numbered kisses (“I kiss you for the first time, and it starts to rain”), and it’s a brilliant structure that allows for killer lines like “Kiss #288 gives me false hope, which, without the perspective of time, appears simply as hope.”
Honorable mentions to more traditionally structured stories “Makeisha in Time,” by Rachael K. Jones (see also: anything written by Rachael K. Jones), a time travel story that tackles the erasure of women (particularly women of color) throughout history, and “A Kiss with Teeth,” by Max Gladstone, which is the suburban-dad Dracula story you never knew you wanted.
The Book Smugglers became publishers this year and chose a handful of really great stories to start with. The one that has stayed with me the most (it’s hard to pick!), is probably “The Ninety-Ninth Bride” by Catherine F King. It’s a retelling of the story that provided the framework for the Arabian Nights, the story of Sheherazade, who told nightly tales to her murderous husband the Sultan, and ended each on a cliffhanger so that he would let her live one more night. To me, Sheherazade is the ultimate storyteller, a Fate, a magician, a witch, a goddess, using her tales to control not just her own life and that of the man who has killed so many women before her. “The Ninety-Ninth Bride” takes Sheherazade and her power, her strength and explores what she may really have wanted. It’s also quite charming, which doesn’t hurt.
I’ve been reading more translations recently, which has lead me to some interesting corners of the world, though I never thought one of those stories would be from just across the border from me, albeit not by someone who is known as a traditional SF writer. Naiyer Masood is an Urdu writer, renown academic and a translator (of Kafka!) from Lucknow, with many stories available in translation. His story “Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire” was recommended to me by Pakistani SF writer Usman Malik and I’m very glad I discovered it. It’s a strange, strange beast, this story, with elements of gothic horror, weird fiction and a heavy layer uncanny spread all across it. The writing isn’t for everyone, I imagine – many may find it a little dense. But it’s made me want to find the original Urdu version, because I can just hear the rhythms of rich Urdu that lie beneath the English translation.
Sometimes you don’t realise the intensity and rhythms of a story until you read it out loud. James Smythe’s “The Last Escapement“, published in Jurassic London’s anthology Irregularity was such a story. It wasn’t until I sat down to record the audio version that I really understood the intensity of the tone and the voice Smythe has employed. It’s about a watchmaker, a time keeper who goes to great lengths to make a watch that does not lose time. And in doing so, he loses so much more. It’s frightening and manic and powerful.
I’m also a big fan of Maria Dahvana Headley’s short fiction (well, also her novels but anyway). I don’t think I could possibly choose one single story – they’re all unique and wonderful in their own way. Her writing is delicious and dark, rich with flavours you didn’t know could work so well. “Dim Sun”, from Lightspeed’s Women Destroy Science Fiction is about appetites, “The Tallest Doll in New York City” from tor.com is about two landmarks in love, “The Scavenger’s Nursery” from Shimmer Magazine is a ‘garbage monster tale’ about love and loss and resurrections of the kind you’d never, ever expect. I think that’s what draws me to Maria’s stories – her great joy in exploring the unexpected and my great joy in watching her do it!
Of all the stories I picked out for best of lists and nominations last year, I had three clear favourites that would rise to the top of all my lists: Sam J. Miller’s “We Are the Cloud” (Lightspeed #52,) Ruthanna Emrys’ “The Litany of Earth” (Tor.com,) and A. Merc Rustad’s “How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps” (Scigentasy #4.)
Miller has come out as one of my favourite genre short story writers this year – late-2013’s “The Beasts We Want To Be” is one of my favourite short stories ever. It made me a fan. 2014’s “Alloy Point,” and “Kenneth: A User’s Manual,” were also brilliant, but “We Are the Cloud” epitomizes everything I love about this work: strong, solid, deeply emotional characters coming through difficult circumstances to find they are something more than they thought. His stories always deal with class in nuanced and insightful ways, which is also appealing.
“Litany of Earth” does the best single job of salvaging Lovecraftian mythos from modern irrelevance among all of this year’s attempts. Lovecraft and his concepts are just so deeply problematic, and yet so influential, it is really vital that we have takes that highlight what the mythos can still offer modern horror. This is another story driven by a strong, solid character – if these three stories have anything in common, it’s how they are anchored by characters who are struggling but also very pragmatic, wise, and grounded.
“How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps” is a character piece and a list story that brings us the same kind of strong-but-struggling character I love. This character’s struggles are just so perfectly articulated, with humour, love, and insight that really drive home the heartbreaking truth that even under the best circumstances with the nicest support, personal problems can overwhelm you. Oh, and there’s a robot.
This is the best and worst time to ask that question! 2014 was amazing in terms of genre content. I read my face off last year, and there were so many great offerings: Long Hidden was astounding, and Women Destroy Science Fiction was awesome. I have read a lot of short fiction in the last year, as I slushed for WDSF and a couple of projects as well as the normal Lightspeed slush. So, this is a much harder question this year than it might have been in other years.
“Each to Each” was written by Seanan Macguire and it was brilliant; the ocean is a great setting, and the perspective is perfect: the alien who turns out to be us, really, and it’s us that made them alien to begin with.
“Dust” by Daniel José Older was moving and again, gave us a perspective that’s not so removed, perhaps, from our own experiences, but different enough to connect with the elements of the story in a different way than I’m used to. It’s not every day that you get a story that blends two speculative elements together so well.
And I’m going to lean on the ‘…or so’ part of the question and include Brooke Bolander’s “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Her Dead” on my faves even though it came out in darkest February of this cold year; it’s basically a heavy metal riff of a story that ends up having a big heart as well.
I read a lot, and I’ve found the more I read, the more attracted I am to novelty. I don’t mean that a story must do something new to be good, but it’s awesome when an author is able to show me something I did not anticipate in the events unfolding in the story, do something cool with technique, or gives me a brand new look at a character trope that’s a little tired.
This story stayed with me because of its unexpected form, the beautiful prose and the delicate way it describes how a woman and a man from two different backgrounds slowly grew to be a couple. I am a sucker for detailed worldbuilding and Liu manages to weave with a deft hand a convincing alternate history in which zeppelins have replaced most cargo transportation by air after 9/11. Written like a newspaper article, it is the story of a writer tagging along with a couple who transport cargo from China to the United States and vice versa with their zeppelin. Nothing really spectaculars happens, it is your typical haul, but Liu tells a very touching and warm story about two people learning to live together and navigating a relationship.
“The Language of Knives” by Haralambi Markov
Best opening sentence for a short-story I’ve read in a long while. Although I can’t really say I ‘enjoyed’ this story it did impress me in such a degree that I kept thinking about it days after I read it. This is also a story with an unusual form as it describes a complex and visceral death ritual narrated from the second viewpoint. People tend to shy away from death, but this is a story that raises some interesting questions about how we think about the way we say our last farewells to the ones we love. Add to that the almost casual manner in which Markov subverts a couple of fantasy tropes and you have a story that is worthy of a Hugo nomination at the least.
If you don’t already have your eye on Carmen Maria Machado, check out her Nebula-nominated “The Husband Stitch” in Granta. It’s both the story of a marriage and a wicked, exuberant cocktail of campfire tales. Remember the one about the couple sitting in their car as the radio broadcasts the news of an escaped killer with a hook for a hand? What about the one where the girl volunteers to spend the night in a graveyard? Most importantly for this story, what about the one where the bride wears a ribbon around her neck–a ribbon she refuses to take off? Machado’s stories are fierce, feminist, playful, and sexy, and “The Husband Stitch” is one of her best.
Okay, my next story came out in 2012 but I read it this year and it completely haunts me: “True Milk” by Aixa de la Cruz, translated by Thomas Bunstead. “People born in the 90s like vampires,” de la Cruz announces. Her series of startling vignettes addresses not only vampires in general, but a particularly famous one (Lord Byron), as well as a vampire baby born to a teenager in Mexico City. Weird and brilliant.
The short fiction event of the year is, of course, Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble: a collection of the zany, creepy and compassionate stories Link fans crave. To whet your appetite, check out “I Can See Right Through You” at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. There’s a demon lover, a Ouija board, and a sex tape, so obviously things don’t go well. The story makes a great introduction to the collection, which is basically a series of delicious recipes for disaster.
I truly believe there’s never been a better time for short fiction these days. We have so many amazing writers of such diversity and imagination and power that pretty much any issue of any short fiction magazine you pick up, you’re guaranteed a gem. As such, in a sea of gems, I’ve picked out a few off the top of my head that caught the light and caught my eye this past year:
“A Kiss With Teeth,” by Max Gladstone: There are certain writers you learn to trust to the end of a story. No matter where it could potentially be going, no matter the murky waters you could be headed towards, you trust them to see you through safely. That’s Max to a T. As a writer, he doesn’t spare his characters pain or tension or sorrow, but to his reader, he’s incredibly open, asking: Let me take you with me. Trust me and know it’ll be alright. “A Kiss With Teeth,” is the story of Vlad the Impaler, Dracula, as a father and husband trying his best to live in the modern day and failing. He doesn’t connect with his son. He’s becoming distant from his wife. He’s taking an interest in his son’s teacher. The teeth behind his teeth ache for release. The story is not headed where you ever think, and that’s why Max succeeds.
“The Tallest Doll In New York City,” by Maria Dhavana Headley: This was a Valentine’s Day story at Tor.com and it’s just sweet and whimsical and so much fun. Headley has such skill at digging into the big heart of stories, imbuing her settings with so, so much personality and love, though you’d have to when your story is the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building falling in love with each other and traipsing through New York City. Bright, sweet, and bursting with young, yearning love fulfilled made this story wonderful.
“Stone Hunger,” by N.K. Jemisin: Writing a complete secondary world into a short story is by no means a simple task, and yet Jemisin makes it look easy in this short story from Clarkesworld. Set in the same world as her newest novel, due out in August, every sentence is a driving wave, that not only pushes the story forward, but sweeps up everything in it’s path: setting, character, magic, plot and so on. Every little bit is firing at 110% for this story to work and it does brilliantly, not only creating a compelling plot and world, but also a character to both admire and empathize with.
North American Lake Monsters by Nate Ballingrud: This is a collection from Small Beer Press and one that still haunts me. Ballingrud’s work is so powerful I had to take a break between stories, sometimes putting it down for days at a time, just to get myself back to center. Ballingrud uses horror to get at what disturbs us, scares us, makes us laugh, makes us cry, and really, in the end, what makes us capable of hurting others. What motivates us to lash out, to inflict pain rather than stop it, and are we also capable of rising above that? A powerful, visceral collection and a great writer.
“The Devil in America,” by Kai Ashante Wilson: I don’t want to run the risk of giving too much away, so I’ll say what I can, but first know this: This is a powerful, important, heart-aching story that’s incredibly relevant to our times and I think everyone needs to read it. That said: it’s a story about a young black girl in the 1800s with a special ability to talk to the “angels,” of the world, though trouble comes one day when she can’t control them. What happens next, when she makes a deal with a certain stranger to fix her mistake, is devastating. I’d say more, but you just . . . you need to read this story, please and thank you.
I’m Cheating, Part One: “The End of the Sentence” by Kat Howard and Maria Dahvana Headley is in fact a novella, but it is still shorter than a novel so I’m saying bully for me, I get to make the rules for my little square of internet, and I say, read this novella straight away! Howard and Headley working together is like watching Da Vinci and Monet collaborating; two distinct styles, yet working in a shared passion that you know will produce something beautiful. “The End of the Sentence” is a ghost story like none you’ve ever read, and when channeled through the talent of Howard and Headley, you have a story that is heartbreaking, compassionate, subtle, sad, and wonderful in how it continued to surprise me in it’s direction chapter after chapter. A must-read.
I’m Cheating, Part Two: Like I said, I make the rules, so here are some authors to read and love because this is getting long and they’re amazing, all of them. Sam Miller and Alyssa Wong write what I like to call “Heartpuncher Fiction,” which is when a story is so strong, emotional, and upsetting that it literally punches you in the heart with how crushing it is. Bo Bolander writes fiction with the violent vibration of a shot glass on top of an amplifier hooked up to the most powerful goddamned guitar in the world, and then keeps going until the fool thing shatters. Kat Howard makes me jealous with how graceful and powerful her worlds and words are. And finally, I had the opportunity this past summer to read and submerge myself in the short fiction of my classmates at Clarion 2014, and damn, I’ll tell you, you need to keep an eye on all of them. Each of my classmates was so different and distinct from the other, but they’re writing was powerful, stunning, heartbreaking, and uplifting in equal measure. Some of them have already begun getting publications, so keep an eye out for them; they’re going to take the world by storm.
I read a lot of short fiction and an overwhelming amount of slush through the magazine itself so I’m always looking for a story that impacts me on a visceral level. I also lean towards character stories. I like strongly drawn protagonists who walk the fine line between dark and toppling over into the too-dark. Those are the stories I remember the next day, the next week, even months later.
One of these stories is “The Seaweed and the Wormhole” by Jenn Grunigen (Shimmer, Number 20, July 2014). Ebb and Peregrine are lovers, enmeshed in a violent and often abusive relationship. Ebb says, “We both cling to emptiness, yes. That’s true. But I crave it and Peregrine leaves it in his wake. I have too much of everything in me, he has too little.” But that’s the given in this story. The bottom line. The conflict begins when Peregrine takes Ebb to visit his mother — the swamp itself. As the men journey deeper into the swamp, the mystery of who and what Peregrine is, as revealed through his relationship with Ebb, grows darker and more disturbing. Grunigen’s descriptions are spellbinding, real and wrong and so very right for the characters all at the same time. I won’t spoil the ending, but this is a story that has come to mind time and time again since I first read it. Brilliantly written, “The Seaweed and the Wormhole” is a love story for a new age.
I suppose I have a fascination with water stories and should begin packing a literary umbrella for my reading sessions. Another favorite story of mine is “Wet” by John Wiswell (Urban Fantasy Magazine). An immortal being meets and adopts the ghost of a drowned little girl. I love a story that comes at you sideways and that’s exactly what Wiswell does here. Instead of focusing on the horror of the little girl’s death, the playful, affectionate tone endears the reader to his character and makes us care. “I drowned with her, unable to hug her shoulders, but giving her someone nearby. She wasn’t alone.” There you go. It kicked me in the gut. I would have done anything for a character that drowned with a child just to keep her company in her greatest terror. Again, I won’t spoil the ending. “Wet” is enchanting and the payoff is worth the read.
Make me care and I’ll follow a character anywhere. Kick me in the gut and I’ll remember the story forever.
I read a lot of short fiction. Most of it is for SFFWorld.com’s forum monthly contests, but I also subscribe (paid or unpaid versions) to a number of short fiction ezines like Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, Daily Science Fiction, and QuarterReads. The free version of Fantasy and Science Fiction pops up on my Kindle every now and then, too. With all those stories (some finished, most not) running through my head, you’d think I’d be bored of short fiction or tired of it. But, not yet. While short story writers may tend to trod similar subjects (and opening lines and paragraphs), we are an inventive lot. I don’t have time to list all the great stories I’ve read, but here are two you should go read right now (if you haven’t already):
- “Ulder” by Vajra Chandrasekera (Daily Science Fiction, July 31st, 2014) – Sometimes a writer is able to capture the essence of a state of being and allow us to experience it. Not only was Chandrasekera able to do that in Ulder, but we also got treated to some haunting phrases: “…the word naked and bright like fever in my mouth.”
- “Half Dark Promise” by Malon Edwards (Shimmer #23) – I love the cadence and language of Mr. Edwards’ prose and I admire how real his otherworldly worlds feel.