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.
To call Genevieve Valentine’s “Abyssus Abyssum Invocat” a re-imagining or re-purposing of the Little Mermaid mythos would be to rob it of some of its tragic splendor, however, it must be mentioned as a bedrock upon which this story of obsession and longing is built. The appeal of sailor stories has always been this idea of the sea as siren, beckoning men to its seemingly endless waters. Valentine’s story takes the vastness of the sea and pares it down to something more intimate in its portrait of a mysterious but plain school teacher and the pull her presence exhibits on a young man named Matthew. “Abyssys Abyssum Invocat” is pleasing in its rhythms; in the way in which the words evoke the sounds of waves crashing on the rocks and the taste of sea salt on your tongue.
“The Herons of Mer de l’Ouest” by M. Bennardo (Lightspeed, February 2013)
This is the account, in diary form, of an adventurous period in the life of a trapper in the early 1760’s as he makes his way across the Pacific Northwest in search of a mythical passage to the Pacific Ocean. I was riveted to the page from the start as Bennardo tells a story almost Lovecraftian in its suspense. Bennardo expertly captures the feel of the period in his descriptions and the manner in which he writes mirrors that of much older works of fiction. This combination makes for a first-rate adventure.
In an impoverished and increasingly desolate rural community the people scrounge for what food they can while waiting on government trucks to deliver foodstuffs and they watch the hills for the Returned, those relatives who have passed away who often return to their families in the form of an animal. The animals may be exotic or domestic and it is felt that those who have acted wrongly return in the forms of animals that are commonly slaughtered for food, causing their family to have to weigh bonds of love against the need to survive. Straub’s brother Etgar has returned, creating a rift in the relationship that had been slowly forming between Straub and Helen, who had been Etgar’s fiance before his death. Worse yet, Etgar, by all accounts a good man, has returned as a pig, causing his family consternation in regards to the reasons why as well as the stress of having to hide him from the neighbors for fear of how they would react, for the food trucks have inexplicably stopped coming and families are slowly beginning to starve.
Ashley’s is an interesting story on so many levels. It works on the surface level as a fascinating examination of cultural beliefs regarding reincarnation and the karmic actions of one in life. On a deeper level “Brother Swine” examines the burden of relationships, and how in this culture the burden of caring for loved ones may not only continue past death but may become more burdensome upon their return.
“Robot” by Helena Bell (Clarkesworld, September 2012. Read when nominated for this year’s Nebula awards)
Bell’s story is constructed as a conversation in which the reader sees only one side, that of an older woman as she instructs the alien robot purchased to process the diseased flesh of her feet and legs. Or perhaps it is not a “conversation” at all but instead a running commentary that may be occurring aloud or simply within the mind of the protagonist. The story is brilliantly conceived and executed in that it conveys a sense of the passage of time, reveals much about the protagonist’s past and present, paints a picture for the reader of what the world looks like in the future that Helena Bell has created and offers layers of meaning all while maintaining this deceptively simple structure. The horrifying nature of the procedure this woman is undergoing is ever-present while her litany of instructions as to how this being must act shows a wide range of emotions that she is undergoing, the stages of grief on display as well as evidence of the first signs of dementia. The one-sided structure of the story lends an air of suspicion that makes the reader question what is real and what is imagination with Bell leaving bread crumbs to lead one down either path.
“Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld, June 2012. Read when nominated for this year’s Nebula awards)
This is the story of the intersection of the lives of two women on a space station named Longevity. In the far distant future the dominant culture is Galactic, represented as the more ‘civilized’ world-view. Longevity is an independent station of Asian influence that acts as a tourist spot throughout the Galaxy. Quy is a young Asian woman who is called in on her day off to return to the family restaurant to help her uncle negotiate a business deal with an important Galactic visitor. Agnes is the wife of this businessman and it is apparent from the very beginning of her story that something is desperately wrong. In Bodard’s future people make use of an Immerser, a piece of Galactic tech with various intensity settings that allows the user to overlay an Avatar while also instructing the user how to act and react while feeding the brain cultural signifiers. Quy and her sister are not fond of the immerser and the way in which it homogenizes interactions and reduces culture to something simplistic for tourists to navigate. Anges appears to have become increasingly dependent on her immerser for her day-to-day existence and she is only dimly aware that something is being lost, perhaps irreparably. As “Immersion” unfolds the reader is presented with a very intimate story that carries within it a larger context of cultural identity and an examination of the effects of colonization. If you will pardon the pun, Aliette de Bodard’s story immerses the reader into a fully realized world that seems both exotic and familiar. Without resorting to judgment “Immersion” makes a case for embracing and maintaining cultural identity in the face of ever-growing globalization.
“The Amnesia Helmet” by F. Brett Cox (Eclipse Online)
Marlena was eleven and her brother Johnny was nine in the late 1930’s when the great Buster Crabbe brought the role of Buck Rogers to life in the Rialto Theater in Clarksville, Illinois. Marlena, Johnny and their friend Pete were already fans of Crabbe because of his portrayal of Flash Gordon, but the Buck Rogers serials grabbed Marlena’s attention because of the inventions, and because of Wilma Deering. Constance Moore was lovely and as Wilma Deering she wore slacks and carried a ray gun and did things that the men in the film were doing. But it was the Amnesia Helmet, weapon of Killer Kane, that caused Marlena to defy her father’s instructions and head back into his workshop to create her own amnesia helmet. Secrecy, hard work and a brief run through of the Scientific Method and Marlena had her amnesia helmet. Along with the ability to make people forget came the dawning knowledge of things that truly are better forgotten.
Cox captures the spirit of the late 30’s/early 40’s with great skill and the accounts of Marlena, Johnny and Pete being ‘wowed’ by pulp science fiction on the big screen will take readers back to their own experiences of childhood celluloid adventures. It is that charm and nostalgia that reels you in so that you don’t easily notice the darkness residing under the surface. Cox does a masterful job of weaving a story that I am compelled to rate highly because of just how well crafted and effective it is.
“Deus Ex Arcana” by Desirina Boskovich (Lightspeed, April 2013)
In describing this story the author wrote that she wanted to pen a story “that reflects the essential absurdity of humans interacting with alien technology” and she does this with great aplomb by juxtaposing her own visually absurd images against some that are truly horrific. The protagonist is Jackson Smith who is seven when the story begins though the reader also spends time with him as an adolescent. It was an ordinary June morning when the box arrived in Springfield, Missouri and from the moment Jackson spies it, and then touches it, the town and the people who inhabit it will never be ordinary again. Boskovich writes in an engaging style that compels you to enjoy the words themselves as well as the images they conjure. Jackson is a very likeable character and in the midst of all the chaos he grounds the reader and keeps the story from becoming silly. I couldn’t help but feel that the story reads like a very serious Outer Limits or Twilight Zone episode.
This short story examines the moral and ethical complexities of the haves and have-nots in a science fictional setting in which nanotechnology and genetic modifications allow humans to achieve one of their age-old dreams: the ability to fly like the birds. Amy is soaring along somewhat absentmindedly considering that she is participating in a lengthy aerial race when the wash from jet engines causes her to lose control and crash into the thatched roof of a barn in an impoverished area of a third world nation. An older woman and her son, Dabir, come to Amy’s rescue, allowing her to stay with them and helping to bind her wings while her nanotech rapidly heals her wounds. Amy is immediately uncomfortable in her surroundings, not the least reason being that her hunger to get back in the race seems like a paltry concern next to the poverty and lack she sees in the lives of these helpful people. Though the story has a message that could have been told in any genre, Bunker’s science fictional elements manage to be intriguing without distracting from the story’s import. Though short, “Gray Wings” does an admirable job of exploring Amy’s conflicting emotions and leaves the reader not only wishing for further tales with this character but also provokes thoughts about how we who live in prosperous nations address the need we see in other nations as well as our own.
“Julian of Earth” by Colin P. Davies (Asimov’s, April/May 2013)
This story, set in a dense forested area, stirs up nostalgia as if the author chose to combine ideas from Edgar Rice Burrough’s most well-known characters, Tarzan and John Carter. In Davies’ story, Tarn Erstbauer is a young man living on Niselle V, a planet far distant from Earth, who takes care of his aging, infirm mother by conducting tourists around the planet to see sites associated with the mythical Earthman, Julian. When the latest Earth-ship arrives Tarn is surprised to discover that a distant grand-daughter of Julian, Anna Walcot-Winter, has arrived with a small film crew to shoot a documentary about her legendary ancestor. Tarn is surprised, and also worried. For Tarn himself is wrapped up in the mythology of Julian from the time when he was kidnapped at age 8 by Julian and the native alien savages he commanded, an event that made Tarn famous and is the primary source of his livelihood. The only problem: everything about Tarn’s story is a lie.
Davies’ story has something of a Lost World feel to it and the mysterious alien species, the Primes, who inhabit Niselle V are intriguing for the reader because Tarn himself knows very little about them and thus the reader discovers facts right along with Tarn, Anna and the film crew. Issues of how one culture sees another are lit upon briefly through the story but in the end it is a story about Tarn’s self-discovery and it acts as a really solid pulp-inspired adventure tale.
“Warlord” by Tom Purdom (Asimov’s, April/May 2013)
In this novelette, a relatively small colony of humans have settled on a distant world inhabited by two warring species. Harold Lizert is a near-sighted and not particularly aggressive human who left, along with his wife Joanne, when a man named Emile and his group of thugs killed Harold’s father to take leadership of the colony. Harold and Joanne ended up in a battle between the itiji and the Warriors of Imeten. The battle had reached a stalemate and Harold took the bold step of fighting a battle to the death that ended with him bringing the two peoples together into a mutually beneficial relationship. “Warlord” opens with Emile and a group of human colonists traveling in small ships towards the city of Imeten, with Harold, Joanne and the Warriors all believing their intentions are anything but good.
“Warlord” examines man’s aggressive tendencies against the idea of various cultures coming together for a greater good. In addition it turns out to be a tense, and intense, page-turner of a story. Once it gets going there is no stopping until it is all over. “Warlord” is not the first story Purdom has set on the planet of Delta Pavonis II and despite it having an ending it is obvious that it will not be his last. I look forward to seeing a future issue with Purdom’s next story. This was a good one, and not only because I, as a near-sighted man, enjoyed cheering for an equally handicapped hero.
In a far distant future Earth’s Empress plays host to an unimaginably ancient, nomadic hive-race who have come to broker assistance in addressing a threat that will not approach Earth until well after the current long-lived humans are forgotten. Narrated through the collective consciousness of the alien visitors, Nordley’s story portrays the subtlety of diplomacy and the deft skill required to maneuver into a position in which one’s message will be heard and seriously considered. Nordley has created a fascinating race in the visiting Children of Light as well as a small cast of interesting human characters, most notably Empress Marie and her daughter, Princess Anne. The story’s length allows Nordley to draw sympathy from the reader not only for the hive-race’s plight but that of another unmet species whose existence is purportedly threatened. In addition, there are elements of mystery and tension brought about by the presence of a xenophobic element in Earth society. There is a thread of duty and sacrifice woven into the fabric of “The Fountain” that lends a feeling of gravity to the whole affair, giving the reader an opportunity for emotional engagement. Nordley does not shy away from including a number of interesting science fictional props and concepts and yet they fit so well into the overall picture that no effort seems wasted. There is no window dressing here, everything serves the story.
“Skylight” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Asimov’s, June 2013)
At a young age Skye was unceremoniously dropped on the steps of the Assassin’s Guild by the man she knew as “uncle”, though she doubted the veracity of his blood relationship with her absent parents. Much to her surprise she was taken in, and even more surprisingly she continued to pass the tests given to her despite her oft-stated reluctance to practice their particular trade. When a simulated assassination leaves Skye perplexed about her long-held anger, she must decide how honest to be with her handler and how far she can push the luck that has kept her alive thus far. Kristine Kathryn Rusch has created both a compelling protagonist and an equally compelling setting. Rusch writes the world in which Skye finds herself as an insular place filled with mystery, revelations appearing slowly and carefully as the reader learns more about Skye, her past, and her present. While “Skylight” feels as if it could be the first chapter of an ongoing new series it also works well as a stand-alone story.
“A Love Song Concerning His Vineyard” by Megan Arkenberg (Asimov’s, June 2013)
Inspired by a number of seemingly incongruent sources, Megan Arkenberg’s tale sings of beauty in a life of prejudice and trauma and loss. Using wine as a many-faceted metaphor for life, the protagonist of the story reflects on her childhood, unmet expectations, love and grief in a future in which she and the man she loves set out to make good wine from the rough terrain of Mars. It could be seen as a contradiction of terms to describe a story as a “beautiful tragedy”, but if you have experienced a story like “A Love Song Concerning His Vineyards” then you will be nodding your head in agreement as you come to the end of the story. Megan Arkenberg gives good sentence; there were numerous lines I felt compelled to go back and read again because of the effectiveness of her voice.
“Leaving the Dead” by Dennis Danvers (Lightspeed, May 2013)
This original work of fiction is what author Dennis Danvers calls his “anti-zombie” story. His is an atypical last man, last woman, last dog story. The reader begins by seeing events through Darwin as he comes into contact with a cashier, Gabriella, in Target, waking her before she succumbs to death. Via Darwin, Gabriella becomes aware that everyone has indeed died or is very close to doing so. Leaving her post she agrees to go with Darwin outside the store walls to confront whatever they may have to face. Along the way they meet a dog, a good dog, Elvis, and the three characters become the window for the readers into the scenario Danvers has dreamed up. One would assume a story filled with mostly dead and decaying people would be anything but fun or sweet, but “Leaving the Dead” is just that. It is hard not to connect with these three characters from the moment of their introduction. This is the kind of SFF story that could so easily, with little effort, end in a disappointing way. Danvers instead makes an effort and gives the reader a short story that fully satisfies.
“Mono no aware” by Ken Liu (Lightspeed, June 2013)
In this 2013 Hugo- and Locus-award-nominated short story, Ken Liu’s protagonist, Hiroto, carries the weight of his Japanese heritage to the stars as the multicultural generation ship Hopeful begins its 300 year journey, leaving Earth’s destruction in its wake. As the story unfolds you see the events leading up to this journey through the eyes of young Hiroto and how these events inform the later decisions that befall Hiroto as he fulfills his role on the ship. Ken Liu examines cultural identity, nationalism, loss and hope in this story that hits all the right emotional notes. Adult readers are allowed to see things through a child’s eyes which gives the story a level of meaning it might not otherwise possess.
“Princess Lucinda and the Hound of the Moon” by Theodora Goss (Lightspeed, June 2013)
The Queen of Karelstad cannot have a child and though her husband tries to comfort her with the assurance that rule will pass down through his nephew, her sorrow will not be abated. On one cheerless, cold, moonlit night Queen Margarethe escapes the pomp of the evening’s celebration to walk the grounds. When she returns she does so with a baby found in a basket underneath a chestnut tree. Though they advertised the discovery, no one answered and the Queen became the mother of a daughter, Lucinda. Princess Lucinda was a fairly ordinary child, though she liked to read books and play in ways not typical among the children of royalty, and her life was nice if unremarkable. On the day of her sixteenth birthday, a rumbling shakes the castle and a voice announces that Princess Lucinda is being summoned. This extraordinary occurrence in her otherwise ordinary existence leads Lucinda to revelations that will change her life and the lives of those around her.
Theodora Goss has created a fairly straight-forward fairytale that is nevertheless lovely in the telling. She has built her imagined kingdom on a real-world framework which adds elements to the story that ground it. Goss captures simple beauty with her prose. It may seem dismissive to describe a story as “sweet”, but “Princess Lucinda and the Hound of the Moon” is just that, leaving the reader with a warmly satisfied smile.
“Game of Chance” by Carrie Vaughn (Lightspeed, June 2013)
A small group of people, who exist outside of time, examine patterns and manipulate events to try to bring about a better world. Clare is one such person, pulled into this existence from a time of drawing rooms and rigid expectations, which gives her a viewpoint different from their leader, Gerald. Where Gerald looks for the big event, the change that will finally bring about the better world that he envisions, Clare sees smaller changes, places where a slight intervention can bring about meaningful results. Carrie Vaughn has created an interesting time travel story that is not about the time travel but instead focuses on this select group of characters who live on the fringes of time. Vaughn’s story has tension in the form of the dangers that exist from intervening in a way that is too direct and the world she has created is engaging and mysterious, but it is the characters, particularly Clare, that makes the story stand out. “Game of Chance” is just the right length to allow the various plot lines to develop and ends in a way that leaves the reader feeling content.
“The Urashima Effect” by E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld, June 2013)
Leo Aoki wakes from a cold sleep, disoriented and alone on a ship bound for the planet Ryugo-jo in the Alpha Lyrae system. He has been under for three years, awakened as the ship gains proximity to its destination. Aoki’s mission is to establish a small livable base, his astrophysicist wife, Esther, to join him on a ship launched two years after Aoki’s. In addition to necessities and entertainments, the ship contains recordings from family and friends, meant to assuage his loneliness. Esther’s recording begins with a story about a man named Urashima Taro and the rescue of a small turtle. Leo rations this story, completing necessary tasks and engaging in other entertainments to make these moments last. As Urashima’s tale unfolds, the reader is shown how the stories of these two men intersect, and E. Lily Yu leaves her protagonist with a decision that will have the reader contemplating the options for days to come.
E. Lily Yu has crafted a story that focuses on a man in isolation which manages to beautifully convey the importance of relationships and the costs that must be paid in the name of progress.
“This is Why We Jump” by Jacob Clifton (Clarkesworld, June 2013)
The futuristic rhythm of Clifton’s prose is told through the poetic voice of his protagonist, an unnamed young lady living in the interstitial places of a planet-shaped city. The setting of the story is Oberon, a moon of Uranus, that has been mined so heavily that all that remains is the world constructed around it. The majority of people live on the surface but the deep places of this world are also occupied. Clifton riffs off this theme of living between the spaces and in doing so does a number of things well: he creates an interesting world, populates it with various cultural groups who evolved as Oberon itself evolved, and creates a protagonist who is as much a mystery to the reader as she is to the people she comes in contact with in the story. This is story with layers that reward a close examination, but the story is also quite accessible in large part because Clifton manages to create a protagonist whose experiences may be wholly unlike our own but whose wants, needs and desires…and whose voice…finds a kinship within us all.
“A Window or a Small Box” by Jedediah Berry (Tor.com)
Jim and Laura, a young couple with plans for a wedding, find themselves on the run from semi-amorphous goons in a surrealistic alternate America. Armed with the knowledge that their way home lies either through “a window or a small box”, Jim and Laura travel from one slightly-off locale to the next, occasionally stopping to get a bite to eat or to catch a movie, as they struggle to stay one step ahead of the pinstripe-suited goons. Along the way they discuss their pending wedding, making plans for it to be out of the ordinary, while wondering quietly if they really do love one another. The couple is unaware of exactly how they crossed over to this version of the United States, but they cannot help but be charmed and amazed at their weird and wonderful experiences while at the same time battling the anxiety that accompanies being on the run for one’s life.
Berry’s prose paints an imaginative surrealist landscape held together by this couple who are every bit as mysterious as their present surroundings. “A Window or a Small Box” is the kind of story that could easily go off the rails, getting lost in its fantastical descriptions, sacrificing story for spectacle. Instead Berry provides the reader with a familiar narrative thread–that of a protagonist on the run from an identified threat–and wraps it up in description to delight the imagination. The story is populated with many unexplained certainties, like the fact that the appearance of the goons is preceded by a “smell like fried eggs”, which the reader just accepts, smiling and nodding because he/she soon realizes that this makes perfect nonsensical sense in the (alternate) world that Berry has created. What Jedediah Berry does so masterfully here is ground the absurdity in the mundane, ensuring accessibility while offering up wonder.
“A Visit to the House on Terminal Hill” by Elizabeth Knox
The year is 1953. Tom Teal and Albert Barnes are government employees tasked with visiting a hard-to-reach house to convince its reclusive inhabitant, a member of the Zarene family that controls the entire valley, that a large dam project is a good idea for both him and the greater community. But the Zarenes have their own way of doing things, and they don’t take kindly to outsiders. The house they seek is so remote that it takes them the better part of the day, by car and on foot, to make their way to the front door. As the story begins the reader is informed that the agents will be staying the night. This was not part of the plan, but both men see the advantage of having another chance, come morning, to persuade their host of the benefits of the government’s scheme. It is apparent early on that this is a story in which things will go bump in the night, or rather one that will produce midnight screams. When morning comes and one of the two men is missing, the other goes on a search that will lead him to a window seat and some deep, claustrophobia-induced, confession.
On a nice Spring day a stray dog sets in motion a series of unexpected events when he digs up and runs off with the forearm of Mr. Liu, a resident of the village’s old cemetery. In his pursuit of the purloined appendage, something he is too attached to (or was until recently) to easily part with, he brings the dead in contact with the living in a manner that is far too familiar and discomforting for those still imbued with their mortal coil. As the villagers and the deceased meet to come to terms that will return the dead to their proper place, events unfold that demonstrate that a lot can be learned from those who have gone before.
Carrie Cuinn’s story mixes the humorous and grotesque with the manners, and the prejudices, of an earlier time. The treatment of the “outsider”, of those “not like us”, is both historical and fantastical in this tale but will be familiar to anyone who has lived long enough to understand this behavior is alive and flourishing today. The dead here are as charming as those in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride; the story appeals when read on a surface level though it contains something more for those willing to look a little closer.
“Monsters, Monsters Everywhere” by Carrie Cuinn (Woman and Other Constructs)
Culinary delights mix with grand adventure in this tale of a monster hunter traveling through remote Mexican villages, dealing with monster troubles big, and small. There is something of a Lost World feel to the jungle the unnamed protagonist finds herself in, and as she takes in her surroundings, providing description to the reader, the suspense builds towards the inevitable confrontation. The jungle touches off reminiscences of her youth and time spent with her grandmother and these are intertwined with the more intense moments of the story creating an even greater degree of tension. There are no wasted moments in this story, even its denouement surprises.
“About the Mirror and its Pieces” by Carrie Cuinn (Woman and Other Constructs)
If you have ever read fairy tales with their stock evil stepmothers, princesses or queens, or viewed film adaptations of the same, and found yourself wondering about the villain’s motivation, Carrie Cuinn provides a possible explanation. This story is the least obviously fantastical of the collection and it explores some difficult subject matter in regards to the treatment of children by parents who, in an ideal world, should know better. Concepts like “entertainment” and “pleasure” that play at least some part in the story choices of readers are misplaced inducements when it comes to stories of this nature. This is not the realm of fiction in general, let alone genre fiction, where most readers want to dwell consistently on their reading travels. Which is what makes issues like those raised in “About the Mirror and its Pieces” ideal for short fiction.
The story is powerful, visceral, and left me feeling quite raw. I work in the mental health field with broken families and stories like this, which remind me thematically of the work Charles de Lint does in his Newford stories, humble me. They take me to a place that I am grateful I have never experienced personally and they help me to develop a more tangible empathy with the people I come into contact with on a daily basis. Stories like this awe me in their ability to open readers’ eyes and they become a foundation upon which one can begin to build understanding and healing.
“Cry of the Kharchal” by Vandana Singh (Clarkesworld, August 2013)
Stories exist within stories in Vandana Singh’s work of original fiction. In a hotel build on the ruins of an abandoned fort a young boy, a poet, a mysterious girl and the hotel manager have the threads of their lives woven together by the manipulations of an ancient Queen with her own particular agenda. Elements of fantasy and science fiction blend together in this contemporary story that feels as if it could be at home within a modern Arabian Nights. The various characters are each interesting in their own individual stories and become more so as those stories come together. There is a sense of time and history present in the story which lend it heft and the main crux of the story, which will not be revealed for fear of spoilers, works well in bringing the various elements together for a satisfying whole.
“Dry Bite” by Will McIntosh (Lightspeed, September 2013)
Author Will McIntosh takes the zombie story and turns it on its ear with this short tale of alien invasion and the effect it has on humanity. Josephine and Bella are two of a relatively small number of people who remain free of the infection spread by alien invaders, an infection that for all intents and purposes transforms humans into monsters. The effect is all the more hideous because these people generally maintain their existing facial structure. Josephine, Bella and the rest of their band of survivors protect their encampment and forage for food and supplies while trying desperately to maintain a safe distance from these creatures so as not to be infected themselves. When Josephine comes across her transformed husband and son one day and realizes that they are staying together, she begins to suspect that there may be more to these abominations than they at first suspected.
“Come Back to the Sea” by Jason Vanhee (Tor.com)
Yukio is a young teen girl who hears the sea calling out to her, asking her to return. She lives with other young people in a house on the shore where she attends to daily chores and is taught by proctors who have given her to believe that it her destiny to control the sea. But as the voice from the tide grows more insistent, intruding on her sleep with tangible nightmares and whispering to her during her waking moments, Yukio begins to wonder if she will ever be able to master that control, let alone ignore the beckoning siren call.
Vanhee’s story reflects a sense of melancholy and loss not uncommon with stories about the sea. Though it smacks of hyperbole to say that you can practically hear the lap of the waves and smell the salt on the air, reading “Come Back to the Sea” was a fresh reminder of how words, skillfully used, can touch off sensory memories within. Jason Vanhee presents a protagonist trying to cope with increasingly disturbing experiences, one who is confused about the events playing out around her. She appears to be a very genuine character and while the majority of the story has the reader also questioning what is real and what is imagined, the story never feels unapproachable. It is well grounded in the realm of many coming of age stories and it is not hard to see Yukio’s experiences as both a part of a greater fantasy story unfolding around her and also as symbolic of the tumult of adolescence and the search for independence and stability amidst the chaos of physical and social change.
“Brimstone and Marmalade” by Aaron Corwin (Tor.com)
There are gift items wished for on one’s birthday that have become traditions over the years and certainly the most popular for girls is the desire for a pony. With Mathilde’s birthday fast approaching she is not shy about letting all and sundry know what she wants. When she is told “no” and is offered a demon for a pet instead, she is less than enthused, a feeling that continues even after she is given a path to make her wishes come true. Like many good stories for, or featuring, children, there is a valuable life lesson here. In the case of “Brimstone and Marmalade” that life lesson is poignant regardless of age. Aaron Corwin offers up a sweet, delightfully off-center story that feels as if a thread of 1950’s nostalgia is woven skillfully throughout. There is an “everyman” feel to the story and Mathilde never ventures near the line of being an annoying protagonist. Corwin’s world-building is crafted in a way that you cannot see the seams. Within a matter of lines it seems perfectly acceptable to see a world in which small demons are sold in specialty pet stores. The prose flows well, the story is artfully crafted, the humor is subtle and nuanced and the sentiment has just the right level of sweetness.
Martha is the adult daughter of talented doctor, a man whose work in brain repair eventually saved her life after a terrible accident left her with severe cerebral damage. Her father is now long dead and Martha lives on, and though she has a purpose and is surrounded by others, she is very much alone. In this indeterminate future a virus has infected humanity, one which worked on the brain in a way that created a manner of communal living, known as entanglement. Unfortunately the fixes in Martha’s brain do not allow her to be one of the entangled and so she goes through life being treated well by those who know her but without the sense of connection they all share.
MacLeod’s story is beautifully told, unfolding with a glimmer of information here and another there so that the reader is slowly drawn into Martha’s world, understanding dawning slowly as to this new and different world and how Martha does not fit in. The novelette length gives time for this story to develop at just the right pace which makes events near the end surprising in their revelation. This is the final story in the final issue of the year and it combines just enough sense of wonder with feelings of melancholy that it could not be more fitting as a way to say goodbye to another year.
“Dignity” by Jay O’Connell (Asimov’s, December 2013)
Those who haven’t experienced how a few thousand words, a mere handful of pages, can incite emotions are missing out on one of the many reasons that short stories are so special. If you happen to be one of those people, Jay O’Connell has crafted one for your initiation. In the future of O’Connell’s story, young Melissa is being lectured by her father for doing the unthinkable–feeding and caring for a “hopeless” girl. This girl, Lena, is described by Melissa’s father as being “worthless” because she is unenhanced and proposes to send her off somewhere that she won’t be a “stupid, dirty little girl growing into a stupid, dirty woman with nothing to offer”. I tell you, this story will get you riled up. Asimov’s very wisely points out in the introduction that the genesis of the story was a piece of flash fiction with an axe to grind and that knowledge is helpful in allowing the story to unfold as O’Connell intended.
Melissa’s order are to rid herself of the girl and if followed she will be given a reward. It is not hard to see exactly where Melissa’s thought train is going as her options are placed before her but that knowledge in no way lessens the impact of the story. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the ending leaves you with some very conflicted feelings. “Dignity” is a great story because it has applicability for a lot of what continues to go on in today’s world socially, politically, and economically. This one begs to be part of a group discussion.
“In the Greenwood” by Mari Ness (Tor.com)
A new take on an old story of romantic love, a heroic band of merry men and a sheriff living near the woods. The beginning of Ness’ story captivates with its conflicting account of how the two met, instantly drawing the reader into the enchantment of her prose. Despite Allen Williams’ accompanying art, it took me a moment to realize who these characters were, and when I did, the whole story opened up before me. What makes a story like “In the Greenwood” so successful is that fact that the reader comes in with an understanding of the world-building, the characters, the general idea of the story culled from its very familiarity. Ness then takes it to a different place, allowing for a deeper reflection on this well-known story, a reflection that allows the reader to see these characters from multiple angles, to realize that, like real people, they are far more complicated and multifaceted than the archetypes they have become. “In the Greenwood” has a strong emotional resonance, this is re-imagination of a familiar story done right.
“House of Dreams” by Michael Swanwick (Tor.com)
As two vagrants travel across the frozen German countryside conversing about death, it becomes apparent to the one that the other is not the person he seems. When the first vagrant, Ritter, awakens he finds himself in a bed being watched over by an old woman and a man with a benevolent smile. These prove to be mere facades as Ritter discovers that he is undergoing a very particular kind of psychological interrogation by two proclaimed experts determined to not only find out his mission but also the identity of his mysterious companion.
The setting of this tale feels like a WWII era tale set in a cold, forbidding place both familiar and strange. Ritter is an engaging character and the way in which Swanwick paints his captors as kind and confident gives the reader chills while sparking a desire to see Ritter triumph. “House of Dreams” conjures up great visual imagery as the story unfolds.
Whew! What a year. And these were stories I rated a 4.5 or 5. There were countless other worthy contenders with slightly lower ratings that I would highly recommend. But perhaps what I should recommend more than anything else is that you take advantage of the abundance of short genre fiction available in print and online. So much of this fiction either begins its life free online or is later released free online and you certainly do not get what you pay for. There is gold in them there hills and it is yours for the taking. I am interested in knowing what short fiction captured your imagination this year, so please feel free to take over the comments section with your recommendations.
As I close allow me to wish everyone an early “Happy New Year”. My wish for all of us includes that our reading will reveal even more treasures than we have discovered this year.