There was so much excellent fiction this year, or perhaps this is the first time I’ve really tried to pay attention to what’s being published in the short fiction realm. For those of you following along, I’ve attempted (not always faithfully) to keep track of my reading habits in monthly “What I’ve been reading” posts. Which is pretty handy, now that award season is upon us. If you are a member of SFWA, please take the time to nominate your favorite works of fiction.
I have two eligible stories for awards. “The Shape of My Name” is a story about time travel, family, love, heartbreak, and identity. “Let Down, Set Free” is a letter about getting over a divorce, getting free, and strapping yourself to goddamn flying tree and sending yourself into the unknown.
Onto other people’s stories. Please note that these were my favorite stories of the year, not “the best”; there’s no way I could ever hope to read all the amazing short fiction that’s put out every month, nor am I pretending to measure these stories objectively. Some were written by my friends, others by writers who have taught or mentored me, and some just blew me away when I read them.
“Evidence” by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, published in Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements.
As I wrote in my review for Strange Horizons: ‘Evidence’ plays with the structure of its own narrative: a series of exhibits, in the courtroom sense, of a future that has already, hasn’t yet, is in the process of happening. The trail of evidence is nonlinear, and the story that it tells isn’t clear in its details…Alandrix lives some time in the future, trying to sort out the events that led to what she calls, ‘the time the silence broke.’ She and her ancestor, Alexis (also the name of the author), engage in a sort of cross-generational communication, with Alandrix gathering the small scraps that Alexis has left behind: letters, emails, poems, and writing on the wall. ‘Evidence’ is a moving experiment in form, hopeful and a little heartbreaking.”
“The Half Dark Promise” by Malon Edwards, published in Shimmer
Steampunk urban fantasy with monsters, prose that hopscotches between English and Haitian Creole, and a narrator who can form a chrysalis out of her own skin and fights with two machetes: this story has everything I didn’t know I wanted. “The Half Dark Promise” is a gorgeous and unique story, full of striking imagery and rhythmic language, complicated and beautiful.
“Orange Dogs” by Marian Womack, published in Weird Fiction Review
I loved the setting of this story, a shabby Oxford that’s been worn down and transformed by climate change: hot, humid, prone to floods, and home to strange new species. The eponymous Orange Dogs are giant, carnivorous butterflies, and they mean something more to the protagonist, who struggles to provide for his family while also grieving for a stillborn child. This story felt restrained, almost reticent, to me, while still being carried by a strong emotional current. You can read Marian’s thoughts about her writing process here.
“The Ticket Taker of Cenote Zací” by Benjamin Parzybok, published in Strange Horizons
A story full of creeping dread and dreamy prose. Eduardo is a poet who has come to a small town to finish a manuscript; he’s found a job to occupy his days, taking tickets for visitors to town’s cenote–an entrance to an underground cavern and pool. He’s troubled by the tourists that don’t return from the cenote, who seem to take all traces of their existence with them, save for the small paper ticket stub Eduardo keeps. Parzybok weaves nightmares, creativity, and the supernatural together in this story.
“Android Whores Can’t Cry“ by Natalia Theodoridou, published in Clarkesworld.
“It’s not an android thing. It’s an existential thing.” To me, this line neatly sums up Theodoridou’s story, about a journalist investigating the political turmoil of an unnamed country. Androids in the country are second-class citizens, kept as domestic aids and whores, and were swept up in recent protests that were violently quelled by the autocratic regime. “Android Whores Can’t Cry” meditates on death, violence, and existence; a well-crafted epistolary story that incorporates notes, definitions, interviews, and narration.
“The Language of Knives” by Haralambi Markov, published in Tor.com
Another meditation on love and death. The narrator dissects his husband’s corpse with his daughter, in order to bake it into a sacrificial cake. The prose is unsparingly graphic, but careful, beautiful, and loving. I like to think of “The Language of Knives” as existing in the space between the two definitions of “tender:” demonstrating gentleness and care, and something that is easy to cut, already in pain: a bleeding valentine of a story, a fresh bruise.
“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jinfang, translated by Ken Liu, published in Uncanny Magazine. (Note: this would technically be in the Nebula’s novelette category.)
So much contemporary fiction–not just in genre, but in all fiction–bypasses the experiences of the poor and/or working class. When it doesn’t, poor characters rarely stay that way: they become bootstrappers or Cinderellas, navigating their way out of the peasant class and into the high towers of riches, fame/infamy, nobility, or at least a steady income. “Folding Beijing” focuses on the trials of an impoverished waste processing worker as he navigates a Beijing that’s stratified its social classes in a concrete way: the city is divided into three distinct spaces, each of which mechanically folds away like a Murphy bed to make room for another. As a concept or image, it’s great; in Jinfang’s hands, it’s a staging ground to write about class, materialism, gender, and capitalism in China through the eyes of her protagonist. Lao Dao is only trying to get enough money to get his young daughter into a decent school; to break, if you will, the curse of their poverty. It’s the sort of journey worthy of a fairy tale.
“And You Shall Know Her By the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander, published in Lightspeed. (Note: this would technically be in the Nebula’s novelette category.)
You know that feeling after watching a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road, where when you walk out of the theater, you’re still so high on adrenaline that you’re convinced you could backflip off the hood of a burning car, punch a thousand creeps in the mouth, then nail the high notes on “Under Pressure” at the karaoke bar, all without ever spilling your drink? Yeah. It’s that kind of story. The last line deserves an ovation, or maybe a totally unironic slow clap, or just a hundred fists pumping the air.
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