Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009, A Year in Reading: Best Short Stories of the Year

Even more than 2008, 2009's short story reading was dominated by genre fiction (aided and abetted by the Torque Control short story club) and by reading specifically directed at finding worthy Hugo nominees for the 2009 and 2010 awards, which is to say recent stories.  I read only one non-genre collection this year, Jumpha Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, and though it was an excellent read and is highly recommended, no single story from it lingers strongly enough in my mind to make it onto this year's best short fiction list, which is thus populated exclusively by recent genre stories.  I'm deeply fond of all of the stories on this list--I have nominated or plan to nominate all of them for the Hugo--but I feel the absence of mainstream and older fiction, or for that matter of reading fiction just for the pleasure of it and not in order to meet a deadline and do my duty by the Hugo award.  I plan to remedy that oversight in 2010 (once, that is, the Hugo deadline passes--I have some catching up to do on several online short fiction sources, and haven't even gotten around to the print magazines yet).  For 2009, however, these, in alphabetical order of their authors, are my favorite short stories.
  • "True Names" by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum (Fast Forward 2, available here)

    In my review of 2009's Hugo-nominated novellas, I wrote that "True Names" "combines both authors' strengths and favorite topics--Rosenbaum's penchant for surrealism and literary pastiche, not to mention the basic building blocks of his Hugo-nominated short story "The House Beyond Your Sky," and Doctorow's fascination with the way that social structures and conventions both shape and are shaped by politics and economics, and with post-singularity concepts of self ... This, no doubt, is to make "True Names" sound extremely strange, which it is, dizzyingly so at points. But it is also, fundamentally, a swashbuckling adventure, complete with sneering villains, threats of world domination and destruction, doomed love, a prince on the run from his guardian with his wise tutor, and battles to the death. ... on top of being a genuinely exciting adventure ["True Names"] is both clever and cleverly put together--the sheer mass of information required to fully grasp the rules under which the characters operate is nearly overwhelming, but Rosenbaum and Doctorow not only make it easy for us to learn their world, they make it fun."  There's not much to add to this praise, except that, having read Doctorow's Little Brother and the reviews of his latest novel Makers, I appreciate all the more just how remarkable and fruitful the collaboration between him and Rosenbaum was--it not only preserved his strengths as a writer, but eliminated the weaknesses that have festered in his solo fiction in recent years.

  • "It Takes Two" by Nicola Griffith (Eclipse 3)

    Griffith's novelette is the kind that benefits from as unspoiled a reading as possible, so I'll try to be vague: a female executive at a technology company, desperate to close a deal and frustrated by the boys' club mentality that has stymied her in the past, hacks her own brain to get ahead in business and has to deal with the consequences.  "It Takes Two" is flawed--its premise doesn't bear close scrutiny, and its construction of the men the protagonist tries to do business with is so simplistic as to verge on offensive--but these flaws are overshadowed by the Griffith's masterful control of the tension between the protagonist's revulsion at what she's done to herself and her desire to give in to artificially induced feelings and cravings.  The balancing act is maintained all the way to the story's end and the protagonist's final choice, making for an ending that is simultaneously sweet and horrific.  I can't think of a single story I've read this year that has better captured the way that technology, and its ability to change us, can inspire both awe and terror.

  • "A Journal of Certain Events of Scientific Interest from the First Survey Voyage of the Southern Waters by HMS Ocelot, As Observed by Professor Thaddeus Boswell, DPhil, MSc; or, A Lullaby" by Helen Keeble (Strange Horizons)

    Hands down my favorite story from 2009, this is a mermaid story with several interesting twists.  As the very long title indicates, the narrative alternates between the journal of a 19th century naturalist on a sea voyage, and a lullaby sung by his mermaid prisoner, so the first thing to say is that Keeble manages the two voices--the naturalist's fussy arrogance, the mermaid's lyricism--beautifully, but beyond its technical accomplishments, "Journal" is impressive for its nuanced construction of the two characters.  Both are flawed, both are prejudiced, both are trapped within assumptions--about race, gender, and culture--that blind them to the truth of their situation, and both are capable of kindness and of rising above their limitations.  And if that weren't enough, this is simply a good story, with several plot threads that carried me along--the mermaid's predicament, the ship's distress as other mermaids begin harrying it, the mermaid fairytales which are woven into the lullaby half of the story--and which the ending tied together in a very satisfying fashion.  Highly recommended.

  • "Lester Young and the Jupiter's Moons' Blues" by Gord Sellar (Asimov's, July 2008)

    "Back in those days, we were like mad scientists when it came to sounds," Robbie, the narrator of "Lester Young," tells us at the beginning of the story.  Which is what "Lester Young" feels like--the application of the same passionate intensity and sharp dissecting tools SF often turns to science to music.  "Lester Young" is a story about making music, listening to music, learning to play music, loving and growing disenchanted with music.  There's music in the language, too--in Robbie's cool-as-ice, dripping-with-jazz-slang narrative voice.  The story takes place in an alternate 1948 in which aliens have arrived on Earth, gifted humanity with technology that has changed if not quite improved our fortunes, and settled down to enjoy themselves.  Robbie is a jazz musician who is hired to tour on one of the aliens' spaceships as it makes its round of the solar system, but things, of course, are not all they seem.  There's a plot here that hangs together pretty well, but the beauty of "Lester Young" is in the scenery--the glimpses of a world simultaneously altered and depressingly the same in the wake of the aliens' arrival--and, of course, in the music. 

  • "The Moon Over Tokyo Through Leaves in the Fall" by Jerome Stueart (Fantasy Magazine)

    This is precisely the kind of story--melancholy, sedate, focused on its protagonist's angst--that I tend to recoil from, if only because they crop up so very often.  Stueart, however, makes this all too common approach his own with a combination of strong writing, a compelling main character, and an interesting and original SFnal McGuffin (I'd wonder about the presence of a clearly SFnal story in Fantasy Magazine's archives, but there are at least two other stories there which are purely mimetic, so).  Yumi is the much-younger wife of Matsui, a maker of piku-wines--wines that cause their drinkers to experience complete immersion in another person's memory.  The marriage has been floundering for some time, as Matsui's tastes and opinions become those of an old man's, leaving behind a woman with whom he'd previously had much in common, and Yumi finds a focal point for her frustration when Matsui becomes obsessed with his latest creation, a recreation of one of his memories which features a woman whom Yumi becomes convinced was Matsui's lover.  The contrast between a technology that allows one to experience another's memories with the growing alienation between the couple is obvious but well-done, and as foreign as they are to each other Stueart makes sure that we understand Yumi and Matsui's frustrations.  This is a quiet piece--the quietest on this list--but also an effective and moving one.

  • "The Island" by Peter Watts (The New Space Opera 2, available here, chapter 2)

    One might call "The Island" a distillation of Peter Watts's essence as a writer into a few thousand words.  There is a boatload of scientific jargon, a truly inventive concept of alien life, a lot of space-exploration technogeekery, some musings about the nature of consciousness and selfhood, and a profoundly dim view of human (or rather, sentient and even semi-sentient) nature.  It's a whole lot of fun and rather thought-provoking besides, all the more so because it takes for its template a rather prosaic premise--a road crew discovers that they are about to pave over a rare indigenous lifeform.  Sunday is a centuries-old crewmember on a spaceship sent ahead by humanity to seed the galaxy with space-gates, grown jaded and alienated by the monotony of her job and loss of contact (and perhaps even a common frame of reference) with humanity.  She's awakened from cryosleep on the latest build to discover that the site for it is the home of a strange new alien species which will be killed by the gate's activation, and must persuade the ship's AI and her fellow crewmember to save its life.  There's a lot of fun to be had following the trail of breadcrumbs Watts leaves us as Sunday puzzles out the alien's nature, but "The Island" tickles the emotion as well as the intellect--Sunday's ennui at the beginning of the story, and her anxiety at its end, are palpable.  This is a fine, extremely satisfying piece of good old fashioned hard SF with some distinctly modern, distinctly Watts-ian touches.
Honorable mentions:
Discoveries:
  • Beneath Ceaseless Skies - BCS started publication in the fall of 2008, and 2009 is the first year that I've read through its archives.  After a rocky start--I described one of the first stories I read as "Inigo Montoya learns a valuable lesson about the futility of vengeance from a magical negro"--Beneath Ceaseless Skies turned out to have one of the highest hit-rates of any genre magazine, print or online, I've followed in the last two Hugo seasons.  The magazine's focus is on fantasy, and specifically the epic, secondary-world, steampunk and magical Western variety.  This is quite a departure from what one tends to find in online genre magazines, which as a rule veer towards literary fantasy and surrealism.  It's not my favorite brand of fantasy, but the novelty alone is noteworthy, and besides that BCS's editors have shown good judgment in picking out well-written, playful, imaginative stories.  Standout stories include "Kreisler's Automata" by Matthew David Surridge, a nicely convoluted tale involving fairies, mechanical men, and a cameo appearance by the young Mozart, and "The Alchemist's Feather" by Erin Cashier, in which an alchemist's homunculus becomes self-aware enough to understand that he is being used for evil.  BCS is also notable for publishing the only novella I've encountered in my trawl through online fiction sources, "To Kiss the Granite Choir" by Michael Anthony Ashley, a meaty tale about the culture clash between a deposed prince and the warrior culture in which he seeks sanctuary.

  • Genevieve Valentine - Up until a few weeks ago I knew Valentine mostly as a contributor to Tor.com whose hilarious film- and TV-related posts were one of the blog's highlights, and as the author of an equally hilarious LJ.  She is also, it turns out, a writer, and 2009 was an extremely prolific year for her, with more than a dozen stories appearing in venues like Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, and anthologies like Federations and Last Drink Bird Head.  Though no single story by Valentine made it onto my year's best list, all of were well written and worth my time, showcasing a strong control of voice and a quirky sensibility.  "Light on the Water," from Fantasy Magazine, is a love story between an office building and a hotel that manages to be touching despite its twee premise; "White Stone," also from Fantasy, is a nicely creepy story about Russian soldiers lying in wait for deserters during WWII, one of whom conceives an obsession with a snow sculpture; "Carthago Delenda Est," from Federations, is an interesting spin on the first contact scenario with a very well done narrative voice.  Taken together, they mark Valentine out as an author to watch. 

6 comments:

Matt said...

My only problem with the Torque Control club was that I felt like one of the grumpy old man characters on the Muppets, always complaining about each week's story, so it's nice to be able to say: I hadn't seen the Keeble story until now and wow, that was fantastic.

Alexander said...

Thanks for the recommendations, a lot of new stories to look at. The two on this list that I'd read before--True Names and the Island--I found interesting, but didn't enjoy nearly as much as you appear to. I found True Names intriguing and well plotted, but too in love with it's own clevereness and the characters--getting past all the strangeness of setting--to be overly stock. "The Island" struck me as far too predicible and familiar from Watts' other stuff: the excesive pessimism on humanity covered old ground, the intrigue seemed to be just filling space and I knew as soon as the narrator launched that long praise of the alien lifeform that it would prove to be malevolent, would die, or both. Watts seriously needs to vary his stock patterns more, I see him as doing a similar base story and identical theme in every work since Starfish. He has the potential to be one of the most innovative voices in the genre, but as is he's one of the more predicitlbe--picking up a Watts story I know I'll get cynicism, despair, paranoid intrigue, an Outer Limits Ending twist and lots of details based on aquatic environments. I see only the last element as worthwhile in itself, and everything would benefit from more real story.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

You may very well be right about "The Island," Alexander. Besides it, the only other piece of writing by Watts that I've read is Blindsight, but even so I could see the similarities between them, hence my point that "The Island" felt like quintessential Watts. I can certainly understand feeling jaded by this repetition, though I think that for a new reader "The Island" is a great way to become acquainted with this author.

rushthatspeaks said...

It's really nice to see someone else liking the Keeble story. Have you read Kit Whitfield's In Great Waters? It's the only non-twee novel about mermaids I've read since I don't know when, a plausible set of quite non-human viewpoints.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

In Great Waters is on my to be read list after having received some very positive responses from several friends. It's one of the books I'm hoping to read before the Hugo deadline, in fact.

Matthew David Surridge said...

Hi,

I'm sorry I'm late in commenting on this (I was off the internet for a while earlier this year, and so missed this post), but just wanted to say that I'm glad you liked "Kreisler's". I was also happy to see the good words for Beneath Ceaseless Skies in general; not only was my own experience with them wholly positive, I think that site's published a lot of good work. I'm pleased that they're going strong.

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