Monday, December 29, 2008

2008, A Year in Reading: Best Short Stories of the Year

I made a startling discovery when I sat down to put together this list: at a very rough estimate, I've read in excess of 200 short stories this year. And, with a very small group of exceptions, they were all genre stories. And, with a slightly larger group of exceptions, I read them all in the last few months, as I started gearing up for the Hugo nomination deadline. The results of this glut are both rewarding and slightly disappointing. There are nearly twice as many stories on this list as there were last year (including honorable mentions), and each one of them is a fine, exciting piece of writing. For each excellent story, however, my slowly-accumulating list of potential Hugo nominees contains two or three pieces which I found interesting or well crafted but ultimately not that special, and in order to find each one of those I had to wade through several others which were mediocre, predictable, or just plain bad. I'm starting to get a feel of just how exhausting it would be to have one's finger on the pulse of genre short fiction, and though I wouldn't quite say that the rewards aren't worth all that work, the fact remains that I found most of the stories on this list not in genre magazines or original story anthologies but as a result of someone else having done the work of separating the wheat from the chaff--in single-author collections, best-of-year anthologies, and even awards shortlists. Still, in the short-term, it's quite fun to dive into the raw (for which read post-slush pile, post-editorial staff) mass of new genre short fiction. Here's what I've come back with.

As ever, these are the best short stories I've read for the first time this year, not the best short stories published this year, though I've noted year of publication for those of you who, like myself, have a Hugo ballot to put together. The stories are listed by order of their author's surname.
  • "The Fluted Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi (2003), from Pump Six and Other Stories

    "The Fluted Girl" isn't really representative of Bacigalupi's exceptional debut collection (about which more in the forthcoming best books of the year post). It's probably the closest thing Bacigalupi has ever written to a fantasy story, for though there's a carefully explained SFnal explanation for every one of fantastic elements within it, it has the feel of a particularly dark fairy tale: the young girl who grows up in a feudal system, who is stolen away to the evil witch's castle, befriending some of its enchanted denizens and making enemies of others. Despite which, it is a quintessential Bacigalupi story--furious at the exploitation of the weak by the strong, and tinged with horror at what human beings do to one another and themselves. The revelation of the transformation wrought on Lidia and her sister ranks as one of the most startling moments in my reading this year, and the ending, in which Lidia is poised on the brink of a break for freedom, is perfection itself. I've read lots of good stories by Bacigalupi this year (in addition to Pump Six he has a piece in Fast Forward 2, "The Gambler"), but "The Fluted Girl" is the one that continues to haunt me.

  • "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang, from Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 2007

    Would you believe it, I very nearly left this story off the list. My excuse is, I was sure I'd read Chiang's universally lauded, Hugo-winning novelette last year. And the fact is, "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" does feel a little like yesterday's news (Chiang has already got a new story out, "Exhalation" in Eclipse 2, which for him is a breakneck pace of publication). Buckets of virtual ink have already been spilled in praise of this story, culminating with its winning both the Nebula and Hugo awards earlier this year. In light of which, it seems like stating the obvious to say that this was one of the best short stories I read this year, but here goes: Chiang's story is the perfect fusion of his trademark love of science and good storytelling, which combine into a sad, haunting piece about free will and predetermination that more than earns its place on the short list of truly excellent time travel stories.

  • "Drown" by Junot Díaz (1996), from Drown

    Díaz's debut collection didn't quite get a fair shake from me when I read it very soon after being blown away by his excellent novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Fine as they all were, too many of the stories within it felt like dry runs for or outtakes from the novel. The title story, however, while still hewing close to Díaz's recurring theme of the life of Dominican immigrants in America, is something quite different to the novel, a raw, heartbreaking narrative with little of the linguistic gymnastics that characterize so much of Díaz's writing. Narrated in the first person, "Drown" is the story of a young man who knows that he has squandered most of his opportunities to get out of his neighborhood and off a path that leads to a lifetime of poverty and petty crime, but who can't quite work up the courage to change his life. The material is familiar and depressing, but in Díaz's hands it becomes fresh and utterly devastating.

  • "The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm" (2008) by Daryl Gregory, from Eclipse 2

    There have been so many attempts in recent years to tell superhero stories with weight and substance and relate them to the concerns of real people and the real world, but in my experiences of this burgeoning subgenre Daryl Gregory's decision to tell a superhero story from the point of view of the people on the ground is unique. It is also brilliant, as is Gregory's decision to parallel the antagonism between superheroes and supervillains with the East/West divide during the Cold War. "Grimm" is told from the point of view of Elena, a young woman who has grown up under a regime that might be Soviet were it not for the fact that her fearless leader is the supervillain Lord Grimm, whose glorious exploits are recounted in song, story, and comic book for the edification of his country's citizens. When a troupe of American superheroes launches another attack against Grimm, Elena and her friends and neighbors have to scramble for safety in a direct and deliberate parallel to the all-too-familiar plight of civilians during wartime, and as result their attitudes towards the superpowered beings who torment and champion them are similarly tinged with realism. I can't think of a single story or novel I've read that's done a better job of placing superheroes in the real world.

  • "Stories for Men" by John Kessel (2002), from The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories (free download)

    I've gone on at great length about this thought-provoking, meaty novella, so I'll just quickly recap: "Stories for Men" packs more, and more interesting, thoughts about the role and trappings of gender into several dozen pages than many full-length novels. This is a clever, impeccably crafted story about the reversal of gender roles and life in a female-dominated society that pushes itself far beyond the often simplistic depictions one tends to find of both these concepts, and which forces its readers to ask difficult, thorny questions to which there are no easy answers. It may very well be the smartest story I've read this year, and certainly the one that hews closest to the classic definition of science fiction as a genre that ponders how technology might change humans and human society, while still focusing on characters and communities.

  • "The Goosle" by Margo Lanagan (2008), from The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy

    Like the Chiang, this is a story that's gotten a lot of virtual ink this year. If there's any justice, it'll follow in "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate"'s footsteps and earn, at the very least, nominations for the Hugo and Nebula. Lanagan's dark sequel to "Hansel and Gretel" drew criticism for its frank depiction of sexual abuse, but it should be clear to anyone who reads it that her goal, at which she was entirely successful, was to depict not only the physical but emotional toll of such abuse, which grinds down its victim's soul to the point where they depend on their abuser for their sense of self. From this grim premise, Lanagan crafts the closest thing she can to a happy ending--the triumph of anger over self-loathing, with only the faintest hints of hope for the future. This is a punishing story, but also one of the most remarkable I've read this year.

  • "Days of Wonder" by Geoff Ryman, from Fantasy & Science Fiction, October/November 2008

    SFnal invention as only Geoff Ryman can do it--surprising, exhilarating, clever, and benevolent. "Days of Wonder" starts from a Tiptree-esque premise, set in a future in which the world has been inherited by animals who are both sentient and ruled by biological imperative. When a throwback horse begins to question the natural order of things, she arouses both suspicion and new kinds of relationships, including a short-lived but strong alliance with one of her predators. Ryman's depiction of the costs and advantages of biological determinism is nuanced and thoughtful, and the SFnal McGuffin driving the story is a delight to uncover. I've had problems with Ryman's short fiction in the past, and particularly with his tendency to write happy endings which sometimes offer cheap, false consolation to victims of real hardship and atrocities, but this story's happy ending is impeccably crafted, and feels organic and well-earned.
Honorable Mentions:

5 comments:

Jonathan M said...

I think that's a very robust list.

Interesting that you went for "The Fluted Girl" as I get the impression it's one of the less admired stories in the collection though it is probably my favourite after "Pump Six" itself.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

It's not exactly my favorite story in the collection. That would be either "Yellow Card Man" or "The People of Sand and Slag," but I read both of them before 2008, and of the Bacigalupi stories I wasn't previously familiar with this was definitely the one I liked best.

I wasn't too crazy about "Pump Six" itself. I'm not sure humor, and particularly broad humor, plays to Bacigalupi's strengths. He does seem to be extending himself - along with "Pump Six", other recent stories of his like "Softer" and "The Gambler" have experimented with tones and settings different from the ones he's become associated with - which can only be applauded.

Eric said...

My wife and I read most of "Pump Six" over the holidays, and we spent a while talking about "The Fluted Girl" last night. We were both blown away by how deftly Bacigalupi juggles SFnal ideas and fairy tale infrastructure in service of a story that out-horrors most horror stories I've encountered.

Jackie M. said...

"Stories for Men" lost my interest as an exploration of gender roles when a character mentioned that most of the poetry and science in this gender-flipped future was created by men. So, in the most radical re-imagining of gender roles Kessel could imagine... the two things I care about the most, I would still be considered intrisically handicapped at? Brilliant.

Also, his mis-use of Fight Club offends me.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Are you sure, Jackie? Because when Erno reflects on the authors he knows from school, they are "Murasaki, Chopin, Cather, Ellison, Morrison, Ferenc, Sabinsdaughter." It's shocking to him to find so many men's names in the Stories for Men anthology. It's one of my favorite reversals in the story because it so perfectly reflects the way that real-world reading lists are biased towards men - all worthy writers, but, taken as a whole, missing an important perspective.

Also, how do you see Fight Club being misused? Because I'd argue that it's Tyler who doesn't understand it, who is perverting the book's ideas (or wherever he came across those ideas) rather than the story, though it's true that his misreading is a common one and that the fact that he has misunderstood FC specifically isn't something the story dwells on. Except, that is, inasmuch as FC is the quintessential story for men, and therefore Tyler's dysfunction is in itself evidence that it's been misread.

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