Hard to believe that is is the first Friday in July. And Independence Day (here in the ol’ U.S. of A.) to boot!

It hardly seems that long ago that I was sitting in this same chair, in much colder climes, writing about the stories I was nominating for this year’s Hugo Awards.

Now here we are, less than a month away from the deadline for voting, and all over the internet folks are talking about their picks for this year’s rocket.

In the midst of today’s festivities, I would encourage you to take the time to check out the four entries for this year’s Hugo Award for Best Short Story.

There are four very strong contenders that not only represent new (or newer) voices in speculative fiction, but the stories are also very much a reflection of the social and cultural issues prevalent in the science fiction community and in the world at large. There is nothing of what I would consider a long-held “standard” Hugo short story here.

While there are some similarities in theme, each story is uniquely its own and is different enough from its fellow contestants to make reading them truly pleasurable. It also makes it that much harder to decide which to vote top honors.

All four stories are available for you to read online for free and are well worth your time.

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REVIEW SUMMARY: A revenge fantasy that misses its potential to reinvent the Robin Hood mythos and examine real problems.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Interesting use of the Robin Hood mythos; novella length allows for the fleshing out of some elements of the story; great cover and interior illustrations by Charles Vess, the book itself is a beautiful edition, typical of Subterranean Press’ standards.
CONS: Appears to espouse an overly simplistic and destructive redistribution of wealth ideology; plot line of destined lovers is jarring against a background of violence; shines a light on real problems without offering any real solutions; the fairy-tale wish-fulfillment ending is hard to stomach against the plight of mundane world characters.
BOTTOM LINE: Given my familiarity with Charles de Lint’s work and his long history of tackling difficult subjects like poverty and abuse and inequality with honesty, creativity and a sense of hope amidst despair, I was wholly unprepared for a story that exposed real issues in a cliched fashion while offering nothing in the way of hope, with the exception of characters who were not worthy of the hope they receive. In the end this felt like little more than a revenge fantasy built on a very thin mythical foundation. If it is meant to be an indictment on the Robin Hood mythos, it is incredibly successful. If it has another purpose, it falls well short of its aim.

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Short Fiction Friday: Clarkesworld Issue 91, April 2014

REVIEW SUMMARY: Today’s Short Fiction spotlight focuses on the four works of original fiction presented in Issue 91 of Clarkesworld.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: These four short fiction offerings look at the presence of the truly alien on Earth, the child-rearing of an A.I. spaceship, a young woman with no magic of her own who suddenly finds herself possessed of an unusual way to travel her world, and the April Fool’s Day pranks of a future genius involving the then-common way that matter is transferred.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: A refreshing presentation of aliens who are truly alien; elements of “science” woven into the science fiction; plot lines which urge the reader to delve further into the stories.
CONS: All four stories share the trait of ending with questions unanswered (a “pro” for those who enjoy that type of storytelling).
BOTTOM LINE: I often speculate what percentage of one’s enjoyment of, or disappointment with, short genre fiction is based on the frame of mind/desires/expectations going in vs. the skill and story choices of the author. I have noticed within myself a preference for short stories that share a structure with novels–a tight beginning, middle and definitive end–as opposed to those that end with more questions, or simply a new beginning. Then there are times, like with this issue of Clarkesworld, in which the stories end in thought-provoking, questioning ways as opposed to wrapping up the vignette with a nice and tidy bow, and I find myself having an equally enjoyable reading experience. That is a long-winded way to posit the belief that the skill of these writers and the interesting variety of storytelling will be a rewarding experience for most readers who take advantage of what Clarkesworld Issue 91 has to offer.

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March 31st is fast approaching, and as the month goes out like a lamb, the period for nominating for the 2014 Hugo Awards is coming to an end.

This marks my first experience at nominating works for the Hugo Awards. When I asked our fearless leader, John DeNardo, about reviewing short fiction over the course of 2013 for SF Signal, it was with the intention of focusing on short fiction for this very reason.

It was a rewarding journey, though I quickly discovered how impossible it was to keep up with the amount of original short genre fiction being produced each month in print and electronic magazines, collections and anthologies, and as single stories on various websites. I’m not complaining. As a fan of short fiction, I am thrilled to see so much of it being produced every month.

It was a great pleasure to offer up my opinions on the short fiction I read throughout the year. The choices I have made for Hugo nominations are based solely on my own personal experience, not on the basis of who wrote them or what publications they appeared in. I regret that I wasn’t able to read more and that my reading was limited to but a handful of the worthwhile short fiction venues championing short genre fiction. Apologies to any authors whose works should have been among my consideration, and thank you to all of you who are keeping the pleasure of short fiction alive and well.

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REVIEW SUMMARY: This week’s Short Fiction Friday looks at the three works of original fiction in the March 2014 issue of Clarkesworld.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Space travel, war, and the variable nature of ghosts are examined in the original shorts in the latest issue of Clarkesworld.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Fans of space-faring science fiction will find much to like in two of the featured short stories; intriguing look at humanity from the point of view of an advanced alien race; one story provides the opportunity for examining folklore/mythological aspects of the Japanese culture.
CONS: One story ends slightly more abruptly than it should have; restrictions of short story format inhibits the effectiveness of one offering.
BOTTOM LINE: One of the greatest things about a foray into current offerings in the short fiction worlds of science fiction and fantasy is that you truly have no idea what you are going to get. Forrest Gump’s “box of chocolates” reference is so apt here. Whether that chocolate contains a surprisingly delightful filling…or coconut (no offense to you coconut lovers out there)…you always get a little bit of chocolate in the mix. So it is with the original works in this issue of Clarkesworld. They may or may not turn out to be to your taste, but they all have something going for them that makes them worth reading. For those who lean towards science fiction, two of the three featured stories are far into the science fictional spectrum. The other story uses fantastical elements of the Japanese culture to examine the stress and pressure of growing up. Links are provided. Give them a taste.

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Short Fiction Friday: The Anderson Project

REVIEW SUMMARY: The Anderson Project is a Tor.com original ebook presenting three science fiction novelettes inspired by a preexisting work of art.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SUMMARY: Three science fictional stories written by authors Ken Liu, Kathleen Ann Goonan and Judith Moffett, inspired by a painting by Richard Anderson. The painting is featured as the cover illustration.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Meaningful use of the elements of Anderson’s painting; nice variety between all three stories; solid narrative voice; significant word count allows room for the stories to develop.
CONS: Two of the stories have weak endings when compared to the overall story arc.
BOTTOM LINE: Editor David G. Hartwell points out in his introduction that there is a long tradition in the SF field of stories being written to accompany existing art work, a tradition that has fallen by the wayside in recent years. Hartwell teamed with Tor.com to reinvigorate the idea with The Palencar Project, based on an image by artist John Jude Palencar. Hartwell and Tor.com return to the idea with The Anderson Project. This is a fantastic science fiction image that compels you to wonder what is happening with these people apparently tethered to some sort of space craft. Each of these authors does an admirable job in interpreting the painting through story and this experiment has produced three solid stories that are well worth reading.

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Short Fiction Friday: EMBER by James K. Decker

REVIEW SUMMARY:Ember” is a novella prequel to James K. Decker’s novel, The Burn Zone, and the recently released sequel, Fallout.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SUMMARY: Dragan Shao had been an exemplary soldier, defending his nation’s resources by guarding the borders and dealing with the hunger-driven people who see the alien haan not as our saviors, but as parasites that need to be destroyed. Shao has his reasons for turning in his resignation and returning to civilian life, and he will find himself examining those reasons as his former skill set brings him into confrontation with the reality of what humans will do in order to survive.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Tightly wound prose; novella does everything it should to hook readers into the world fleshed out in Decker’s novels; inventive look at how an advanced alien race might interact with humanity; just the right level of gripping action with nods given to character development.
CONS: For some, the quantity of story present may not justify the $2.99 ebook price; revelations regarding the alien presence are few in number.
BOTTOM LINE: This series by author James K. Decker promises much with its imaginative future technology, look at the coexistence of an alien race with humanity, and acknowledgment of the economic and environmental issues our world is sure to face in the decades/centuries to come, coupled with a solid, action-packed story.  Decker gets things right straight out of the gate with this novella which introduces readers to a few pivotal characters and lays a bit of groundwork for the world-building, all while providing an exciting story.  If the goal of “Ember” is to get you to want more, it succeeds brilliantly.

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REVIEW SUMMARY: Holy Unicorns, Batman! This novella, set in Charles Stross’ Laundry universe, will leave you sleeping with one eye open anytime a young girl mentions a penchant for the mythical horned beast.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SUMMARY: What agent Bob Howard hopes to be a bogus assignment fueled by surviving death-bed letters written by H.P. Lovecraft, turns out to be a true eldritch nightmare. The mythical one-horned horse and its magical connotations are pushed through a Lovecraftian meat grinder with results both comical and frightening.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Stross channels Lovecraft masterfully; story is short enough to be read in one long sitting while not skimping on plot; works well as an introduction to the Laundry universe; balances wry humor with suspenseful elements.
CONS: Those familiar with Bob Howard and his adventures may find themselves skimming past introductory material, despite its brevity; in-jokes abound that will not have the same impact for new readers.
BOTTOM LINE: This is not my first experience with the writing of Charles Stross, but was my first foray into the world of his Laundry novels. I was encouraged to read the novella after seeing mentions of it on Hugo nominations lists and wanted to read it for consideration as I compile my own list. Given Stross’ ability to channel Lovecraft so well, it is a strong contender for a nomination. This is fun, funny and chock-full of the rich horror atmosphere that has helped the stories of H.P. Lovecraft remain popular to this day.

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Short Fiction Friday: My Favorites of 2013

REVIEW SUMMARY: A look back at what I consider the best of the short fiction that I read in 2013.

It has been quite a run. I did not realize how time-consuming and challenging it would be to take on the task of attempting (and sometimes failing) to review works of short fiction each week for 2013 here on SF Signal. I have appreciated the opportunity and the rewards have been rich indeed, as will be apparent in the following post. Many of the stories featured were first published in 2013, though some are not and were simply discovered by me for the first time this year. I have included links to each short story, when they exist, as well as my edited review notes and a notation of where I found each story. All of the stories featured in this annual overview received either a 4.5 or 5 star rating from me at the time of review.

This is a great selection of short stories, novelettes and novellas. In the mix you will find the presence of both established and up-and-coming authors, a great variety of style and subject matter in both science fiction and fantasy, and will see that various selections unintentionally play off of one another for interesting thematic contrast. As a disclaimer I will state that ratings are a matter of personal opinion and thus you may not experience these stories in the way that I did. A shortage of time means that many potentially noteworthy stories were missed and my personal desire to stay current with a handful of short fiction publications means that many other purveyors of short fiction were not featured during this year of reading and reviewing short fiction. So feel free to tell me where you agree or disagree and let me, and all the SF Signal readers, know what short fiction I missed in 2013 and where it can be found.

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Short Fiction Friday: New Fiction from Tor.com

REVIEW SUMMARY: Two short tales from Tor.com touched with a seasonal chill.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SUMMARY: A deeper imagining of a familiar heroic tale and a glimpse of psychological interrogation in an alternate, magical-filled Europe make up the latest free fiction offerings on the Tor.com website.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Lyrical prose; storytelling that evokes the mood of Autumn-Winter transition; tight narrative structure.
CONS: I tried folks, I really did…nothing leaps to mind.
BOTTOM LINE: Fantasy with a hint of folklore, when done well, can create a rich sense of history, a texture that makes a story more than the sum of its parts.  Both of the recent selections from Tor.com showcase talented writers mining familiar territory to craft memorable stories.

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Here in the United States it is Black Friday, a day that actually began in the early evening hours of Thanksgiving Day, where, satiated with turkey and the fixins and done with football, the consumerism of Christmas began in earnest.  Drawn by irresistible temptations of deals too good to pass up, people are out all over the place navigating the mine field of the holiday shopping season.

Not me. I’m at home, reading, and thinking of what gift giving means to those of us who are readers.  Over the course of this past year I have been able to present a variety of short stories to the readers of SF Signal, an opportunity that I appreciate as the medium is one I feel very passionate about. A recent Mind Meld approached the idea of anthologies and if they are important and why, which got me to thinking: if I could play editor and put together my own anthology of previously released works, beautifully bound with a stunning cover, what stories would I pick.  Keeping in mind that the gift giving season is upon us, I would want to put together an anthology with stories that I want people to read, be they classic, modern or a mix of the two.

And of course the curious side of me wonders just what the Table of Contents would be if you were able to create such an anthology as a Christmas gift for the readers in your life.  And so today, instead of reviewing short fiction, let us simply talk about short fiction.

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REVIEW SUMMARY: This week’s Short Fiction Friday features a review of the December 2013 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SUMMARY: Aliens visiting Earth, teenage rivalry, lingerie sales, frightening creatures on other worlds, frog deformities, discrimination…a wide variety of subject matter and style exists in 2013’s final issue.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Similar themes are examined in dissimilar fashion in a couple of the stories, offering much to provoke thought/discussion; one short selection showcases sfnal humor done well; the cover story provides the opportunity for Western readers to experience science fiction from a different culture; nonfiction offerings are engaging.
CONS: One novelette and one short story are slow-moving and overly long for the story being told, diminishing their effectiveness.
BOTTOM LINE: Science fiction comes in many forms, as this selection of stories proves. The trope of aliens visiting Earth is examined in two very different stories, one humorous and one quite serious and the theme of intra-species discrimination is also present in two of the stories and while they couldn’t be more different in tone, both offer interesting commentary on existing problems. Overall the December issue is a fine way to end the year. Two great stories, a few good and two that ultimately do not deliver opened by the kind of passionate editorial one expects from Sheila Williams and the educational article written by Robert Silverberg make this one worth picking up.

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Short Fiction Friday: Lightspeed Issue 42, November 2013

REVIEW SUMMARY: This week’s Short Fiction Friday looks at the Original Short Science Fiction and Fantasy offerings in the latest issue of Lightspeed. The November issue has additional reprint short stories as well as nonfiction and exclusive extras in the ebook addition.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SUMMARY: Four nicely-paced original works of short genre fiction that offer ideas sure to stir the imagination.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Strong science fictional aspects, even in the original fantasy selections; wide variety in style and subject matter; solid nod to two classic science fiction authors; offerings demonstrate that short story writers haven’t forgotten that stories can be fun.
CONS: Purists might feel the two original works of fantasy contain too many science fictional leanings.
BOTTOM LINE: The original fiction presented in the November issue of Lightspeed showcases the variety in subject matter and style that makes engaging in short fiction so pleasurable.  Not every story will work for every reader but the stories chosen demonstrate a proficiency with the medium that allows the ideas, and in some cases the characters, to shine through.

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Short Fiction Friday: Recent Selections from Tor.com

REVIEW SUMMARY: To welcome November, Short Fiction Friday focuses on two of the latest free fiction selections from Tor.com.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SUMMARY: The two stories reviewed this week focus on two different stages in the lives of young girls, one that examines disappointment and regret over birthday wishes not granted and the other looks at an adolescent girl whose coming-of-age changes are reflected in a series of strange and unsettling events at her house by the sea.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Tight, solid prose; well-written female protagonists; seasonal sentiments are present in both stories with one having a nicely wicked thread of humor.
CONS: None for me folks, I liked these both very much.
BOTTOM LINE: These two October 2013 offerings from Tor.com provide two different emotional experiences for the reader: one is mysterious and creepy and has some nice depth to sink one’s teeth into in regards to discussion points, the other is wry and a bit twisted but also very sweet without resorting to saccharine sentiment.  The characters are easy to relate to and the prose is skillfully wrought.  Don’t miss these.

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REVIEW SUMMARY: This week’s Short Fiction Friday features two selections of science fiction with a sinister vibe, the opening story from Peter Watts’ forthcoming collection, Beyond the Rift, and a story from the recently released anthology In Space No One Can Hear You Scream.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SUMMARY: Parasitic extraterrestrials feature in both of this week’s stories; one visits Earth and finds it a hostile place while the other chooses a pet from among Earth’s population only to discover that a pre-teen girl may not have been the wisest choice.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Strong prose in the Watts’ story; engaging young character in Daniel’s tale; fun takes on the alien-as-parasite trope.

CONS: Final line in one story is potentially offensive and may color what is an otherwise good story.

BOTTOM LINE: An alternate viewpoint of John Carpenter’s The Thing makes for a page-turning read and Tony Daniel’s story, chosen at random, provides a nice comparison as each story examines the idea of aliens assimilating mankind for their own reasons.  One story looks at things from the alien point of view while the other shows the tenacity of a young lady to remain fully human.  Both were enjoyable and worth checking out as further examples of science fiction with a frightful edge.

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Short Fiction Friday: Stories The Go Bump in the Night

REVIEW SUMMARY: Four recently published (or reprinted) chilling science fiction tales to read on a dark and stormy night.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Interesting comparison between classic and contemporary short sci-fright fiction; satisfying glimpses into two authors’ ongoing literary worlds; solid pacing; good examples to whet the appetite to buy the publications in which the stories are featured.
CONS: Three of the four reviewed stories undoubtedly have a greater impact if the reader is familiar with other stories written in those worlds.
BOTTOM LINE: Seasonally-appropriate science fiction tales from capable authors that work well within their word-count restraints and satisfy the reader looking for science fiction with an eerie edge.

Given that Halloween is not too far away I thought I would spend the next few Fridays featuring science fiction/fantasy shorts of the thrilling variety.  For this week’s selections I chose two stories from the recently released Baen collection In Space No One Can Hear You Scream and two from the October/November 2013 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction.

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Short Fiction Friday: Lightspeed September 2013 Original Science Fiction

REVIEW SUMMARY: This week’s Short Fiction Friday looks at a subset of the September 2013 issue of Lightspeed: two works of original science fiction.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SUMMARY: These two original science fiction stories each look at alien invasion in vastly different ways, offering entertaining, yet frightening, images of the future.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Imaginative sfnal concepts;  thoughtful pacing; satisfying story structure; one story highlights actual scientific concepts.
CONS: Fans of character-driven science fiction over idea-driven science fiction may be disappointed.
BOTTOM LINE: The original works of science fiction in the latest issue of Lightspeed are very entertaining stories focused on science fictional ideas that spark the imagination.  One story looks at a threat to an as-yet-unpopulated Earth while the other examines humanity in the wake of a devastating alien invasion.  Both stories are work checking out and are available for your reading (or listening) pleasure. Additionally there are original works of fantasy, along with reprints and more, available in this issue.

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Short Fiction Friday: Reflections on the 2013 Hugo Award Short Fiction Winners

The Sunday evening of Labor Day weekend most likely found the eclectic group of SF Signal readers doing any number of relaxing, geektastic things.  I was basking in the glow of a decent fantasy football draft and watching the Hugo awards live via Twitter feed.  You have to hand it to 21st century technology.  Although the feed from LonestarCon’s hotel venue was poor and kept dropping, the avid SFF fans on Twitter managed to keep fans like me aware of things as they were happening.

In my opinion the short fiction categories were very strong this year. In many of the categories I had my own favorites that I was pulling for, and yet the short fiction category for me personally was one of agonizing choices because I found myself torn over who I hoped would win.  There were several stories that I felt were deserving of artist Vincent Villafranca’s gorgeous 2013 rocket.

Serendipitously, it happens that I have read all the winners of the short fiction category as well as many of the deserving also-rans and I thought it would be a nice idea to honor the short fiction winners this year by discussing them this week for Short Fiction Friday.  What were your impressions of this year’s Hugo short fiction winners?  Let us know whether you agree or disagree and why.

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I have been on this short fiction review gig for eight months now and it has been largely a one-sided affair, as these things are wont to be, with me sharing my thoughts and (hopefully…possibly) listening. In a week where work has taken its cue from episodes of The Twilight Zone, I have not had nearly enough time to read. This set me to thinking about our busy lives and the time we carve out for reading and what informs our reading choices. For none of us have the means by which to read everything we want to read every day.

Short Fiction seems to be an oft-maligned, or perhaps just oft-ignored, format though I do believe the sheer volume of short fiction magazines and print collections over the past years shows that its near-death has been greatly exaggerated. Thus I am curious, about you. About what you read. About the choices you make in regards to where you get your short fiction if short fiction is a part of your reading regimen. About why short fiction appeals to you and what stories you feel represent the best that short fiction has to offer.

So what I’ve done is put together a list of questions that you can cut and paste in the comments, in whole or in part, if you have the time to talk about you, your reading habits, and what about short fiction turns you on…or off.
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REVIEW SUMMARY: This week’s short fiction selections are the three original works of fiction in the latest issue of Clarkesworld.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SUMMARY: Non-Western culture and a blending of genre elements infuse the three works of original fiction with thought-provoking ideas and creativity.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Familiar tropes form a foundation upon which various genre elements are added to tell largely satisfying stories; focus on non-Western cultures; interesting ideas are examined within accessible stories.
CONS: One story stumbles at times due to inclusion of an idea that feels forced.
BOTTOM LINE: The three works of new fiction in this month’s Clarkesworld strive for a sense of originality and in some measure each achieves that by first building upon the foundation of familiar tropes then adding a variety of genre and non-genre elements.  Each story satisfies in its ending, leaving the reader feeling as if he/she has experienced a complete story.  This issue also contains two reprint stories and worthwhile non-fiction that can be accessed through the Clarkesworld website.

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