Monday, March 30, 2015

Review: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho at Strange Horizons

Today at Strange Horizons, I review Zen Cho's Crawford-winning short story collection Spirits Abroad.  This is something of a milestone for me--the first review I've had published in Strange Horizons since stepping down as a reviews editor.  It's also a welcome return to writing full-length book reviews, and for both of those occasions I couldn't have chosen a better subject with which to mark them than Cho's vibrant, funny, brilliantly-written collection.  The stories in Spirits Abroad are remarkable for how they capture their worlds--be they Malaysian villages, ex-pat communities in the UK, or fantastical worlds--in a few well-chosen sentences, and for the equal weight that Cho gives to folklore and more hard-nosed worldbuilding elements such as politics and history.  Cho uses fantasy to shed a light on her stories' worlds, and on the relationships that drive her plots, but her fantasies are also coherent and engaging in themselves.  Spirits Abroad is easily one of the best short story collections of the last few years, and hopefully promises a bright future for Cho's career.

Monday, March 09, 2015

The 2015 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Best Novel and Cambpell Award

With just under a day and a half left to nominate for the 2015 Hugo awards, I have an embarrassing confession to make: I don't actually have any best novel nominations.  I don't tend to keep up to date with my reading, and in 2014 I fell seriously behind--there are more than a dozen Hugo-eligible books that I hoped to get to before the nominating deadline, but that is clearly not going to happen.

Which is a particular shame because 2014 seems to have been a very good year for genre novels, with a large number of interesting-looking books that I'd very much like to see on this year's ballots, and whose public reception makes a nomination not at all unlikely.  Books like Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (in theory, the entire Southern Reach trilogy could be nominated as a single work, but I'm fundamentally opposed to such an approach; if a book was published as a single volume, it should be judged as a single volume when it comes time to nominate it for awards), Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley, City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Peripheral by William Gibson, Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor, and Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie.  I wouldn't be very surprised to see a best novel ballot made up of some configuration of these titles, and judging by their public reception, if not yet my own judgment, I think that the resulting shortlist would be quite strong.

Some lesser-known but well-received titles that I would be very happy to see on this year's shortlist include The Stone Boatmen by Sarah Tolmie (which I'm reading right now), The Race by Nina Allan, The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne, Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson, Elysium by Jenfifer Marie Brissett, and A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias.  If only because being on a shortlist would light a fire under me to finally get to some of these intriguing-sounding titles.  In the meantime, however, I'll leave this category to the better-informed, and proceed to the final part of this ballot.

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer:
  • Octavia Cade - In the absence of best novel nominees, it might not come as a surprise that I'm using my best novella selections as a guide for this category.  Cade's Trading Rosemary is a beautiful, assured piece of writing that is all the more surprising given that she's so new to the publishing scene.  Second year of eligibility.

  • Carmen Maria Machado - I'm with Sofia Samatar--Carmen Maria Machado has had a remarkable year, with some half a dozen stories in multiple venues, all of them cementing her as an exciting new voice in the tradition of Kelly Link.  Second year of eligibility.

  • Sarah Tolmie - I'm in the middle of Tolmie's debut novel The Stone Boatmen right now and enjoying it very much, but her novella NoFood would have been enough to put her on this ballot, a delicious exploration of future technology from a unique and thought-provoking perspective.  First year of eligibility.

  • Joseph Tomaras - Tomaras is a new-new writer, and I've only read one story by him ("Bonfires in Anacostia" in Clarkesworld).  But that was an impressive work with a sharp, timely perspective, and precisely the sort of writing that I think the Campbell should be recognizing.  First year of eligibility.

  • JY Yang - Yang had a very good 2014, with several stories that made it to the lower rungs of my best of year--"Storytelling for the Night Clerk" in Strange Horizons and "Patterns of Murmurations, In Billions of Data Points" in Clarkesworld.  She's a writer to watch.  First year of eligibility.
Previous posts in this series:

Friday, March 06, 2015

The 2015 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Media Categories

Last year when I wrote about this group of categories, I noted that it consisted of two categories in which I didn't feel that my vote mattered much, and two in which I didn't feel knowledgeable enough to nominate well in.  That hasn't changed much this year--in the case of the Dramatic Presentation, Long Form category, in fact, my vote feels even more useless than usual.  2014 was full of so many high profile, well liked genre films that the final ballot feels predictable from here (for the record: Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Lego Movie, Snowpiercer, and either Mockingjay Part 1 or Edge of Tomorrow) and just as unexciting.  On the other hand, other categories in this group, like Best Graphic Story, feel as if they're coming into their own.  After several years of feeling as if the category was being voted on exclusively by a small and cliquish group while the rest of the membership looked on with indifference, there's been a growing consensus in the last few years around some fun and interesting work.  I'm still not convinced that the category is justified--we're not, I think, doing a better job rewarding genre comics than the awards specifically designed to recognize excellent in that medium--but it's also not obviously a waste of time anymore.

One word about the Best Related Work category: after Kameron Hurley's victory last year for the essay "We Have Always Fought," I've been seeing a lot of people suggesting blog posts as nominees.  I understand why that's a popular approach--especially among online fandom, a single blog post reaches a lot farther and a lot faster than a book.  But though I've personally benefited from the stance that individual blog posts are fair game in these kinds of awards categories (two blog posts of mine were nominated for the BSFA's best nonfiction award in 2011 and 2012), I have to say that as a nominator, that's not something I'm comfortable with.  I would like to see the Best Related Work category reserved for longer works of nonfiction (and other indefinables), and my own nominations are along those lines.  If you're looking for a way to recognize online writing, one way to do so would be to nominate Speculative Fiction 2013, edited by Ana Grilo and Thea James (full disclosure: I have an essay in the book, but it also has a fantastic table of contents, and Amazon is offering the ebook version free of charge today [US, UK]).

Previous posts in this series:
Best Related Work:

Having said the above, it should be noted that I haven't actually read any nonfiction books from 2014, and that my two selections in this category are there because I've already read large portions of the material in them when it was published online.  Other works that I haven't read, but which I'd be very interested in see nominated in this category, include The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore, Greg Egan by Karen Burnham, Call and Response by Paul Kincaid, and Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, edited by Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson.
  • Sibilant Fricative by Adam Roberts - I don't think I'll surprise anyone (and I hope I won't get much disagreement) when I say that Roberts is one of the top genre reviewers working today.  Sibilant Fricative collects reviews from the blog of the same name, including his epic (and increasingly despairing) read-through of the Wheel of Time series.  Roberts's work is smart, erudite, thought-provoking, and extremely funny, and he deserves to be recognized for it.

  • Stay by John Clute - A reviewer of no lesser stature but a very different style from Roberts, Clute has practically invented his own style of writing.  It can sometimes be exhausting to make one's way through his reviews (and often requires a thesaurus), but it's never anything less than enlightening, and his way of looking at the genre has opened my eyes as a reader and a reviewer.
Best Graphic Story:
  • Saga, volumes 3 & 4 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples - I'm repeating my nomination from last year here, but Saga remains a thoroughly engrossing and delightful story.  Volume 4 is perhaps less successful than the previous entries in the series, with more focus on mundane settings and happenings, but even in that part of the story there are interesting things happening with the peripheral (but never less than fascinating) characters, and throughout both volumes Saga's world remains vibrant, funny, and exhilarating.  It's a truly impressive piece of genre storytelling that, even in its weaker moments, remains a brilliant accomplishment.

  • Sex Criminals, Volume 1: One Weird Trick by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky - I was underwhelmed by Fraction's beloved Hawkeye comic, so I wasn't expecting much from his strange-sounding non-superhero effort.  But Sex Criminals--about two people who have the power to stop time when they orgasm, and who decide to supplement their romantic relationship with some bank robbery--was an unexpected delight.  Funny, smart, full of rude but often quite witty humor, but also quite meaty in its discussion of societal attitudes towards sex and its depiction of its central relationship, it accomplishes quite a lot already in its first volume, and I can't wait to see what happens next.  I'm hardly breaking new ground in calling this one of 2014's best new comics, and I think that it should be recognized by the Hugos.

  • Steve Rogers's American Captain by Robyn E. Kenealy - I'm a little hesitant about this nomination, because this webcomic updated relatively rarely in 2014 (I wish I'd been reading it in 2013).  Nevertheless, the story is ongoing, which I think makes American Captain eligible, and as a work of fiction I think that this is exactly what the best graphic story was created to recognize--a webcomic, and a work of fanfiction, that is also a meaningful genre work.  Presented as comic strip drawn by the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Steve Rogers as a way of coping with the anxiety of being transplanted to the 21st century, the comic follows him as he tries to adjust to his new life, cope with the experiences of the old one, and work out the role he wants to play as a symbol and a superhero.  Other MCU characters show up and are as richly drawn as Steve (though the comic was begun in 2012 so doesn't take into account the events of films after The Avengers), and their and his story are a careful blend of humor and a serious examination of depression and PTSD.  You can read the story so far in chronological order starting here.
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:
  • Snowpiercer (review) - The only one of my nominations that has any real chance of making it onto the ballot, I found Bong Joon-ho's anti-capitalist fable a tad overpraised when it opened in Israel last spring, after having been spared Harvey Weinstein's scissors.  Nevertheless, there's no denying that Snowpiercer is different, extremely well made, and fully committed to its bonkers genre premise.  It's precisely the sort of movie the Hugos should be recognizing.

  • The One I Love (review) - A relationship drama that uses the fantastic to explore (and then destroy) a marriage, The One I Love is impeccably made and acted, and utterly unafraid of its fantastic components.  We should see more movies like this one, that remind us that science fiction doesn't have to mean explosions and space battles.

  • Coherence (review) - An ultra-low-budget production that is nevertheless good looking and effective at depicting its strange happenings, Coherence uses the concept of alternate universes to poke at the psyches and relationships of its middle class, suburban characters.  It's a tense, smart movie that does a lot with very little.

  • Over the Garden Wall - This Cartoon Network miniseries from the makers of Adventure Time is unlike anything I've ever seen, and utterly engaging.  Two brothers, nervous Wirt and carefree Greg, find themselves lost in the forest, guided only by a talking bluebird called Beatrice and fleeing a mysterious beast.  How they ended up in the woods, and what the forces menacing them want, is something that is only slowly revealed, but in each episode the three characters have adventures that straddle the divide between horror, humor, and surrealism, the show completely unafraid to leave its viewers completely lost, presumably because it knows that they will be utterly charmed by its beautiful animation, dreamlike tone, and impeccable voice work (including such names as Christopher Lloyd, John Cleese, and Tim Curry).  Over the Garden Wall is a reminder that some of the best genre work nowadays is being done in animation, and it should be watched by more grown up fans of weird fiction.
(It's not on the list because I haven't seen it yet, but another movie that I'm hoping to watch before the tenth in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, if only because Scarlett Johansson's triumphant year of transhumanism should be represented here somewhere.)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form:
  • Gravity Falls, "Sock Opera" - I've said it before and I will say it again: Gravity Falls is, bar none, the best genre show on TV right now, and if you're not watching it you're depriving yourself of great characters, funny jokes, and one of the most intelligently and intricately constructed fantasy worlds out there.  "Sock Opera" is a major mythology episode, reintroducing one of the show's major antagonists, the evil triangle Bill Cipher (just go with it), who takes over the body of protagonist Dipper Pines in a turn of events that is genuinely scary even to an adult viewer who has seen this trope a million times before.  But it is also, like all the best episodes of the show, about the relationship between Dipper and his twin sister Mabel, who spends the episode trying to win over her latest crush by convincing him that she shares his passion for sockpuppet theater.  The mixture of silly humor and deadly serious horror sounds impossible to carry off, but Gravity Falls, as usual, manages it with aplomb.  (Since I have extra nominating slots, I may also give one to "Blendin's Game," which advances the show's time travel storyline and has a lot of old school genre references.)

  • Person of Interest, "Nautilus" - Person of Interest is an odd duck, a conventional and often dreadful procedural wrapped in one of the most innovative and thought-provoking SF stories on TV (or perhaps it's the other way around).  This makes it difficult to nominate in this category, since most of the show's individual episodes are terrible even as its overarching story, about emergent AIs warring with each other over the future of a largely oblivious humanity, remains brilliant.  "Nautilus" is about as close as the show comes to an exception, largely sidelining its action storytelling to focus on its best character, Michael Emerson's Finch, as he tries to persuade a young woman not to ally herself with Samaritan, an evil AI that wants to control humanity.  The exploration of how the certainty and sense of purpose that the AI offers might appeal to a certain kind of intelligent young person makes excellent use of the show's premise (and along the way suggests an origin story for the show's other best character, Amy Acker's Root, who is herself an acolyte of another AI), suggesting how the existence of such beings might change our lives and what it means to be human in the most profound ways.

  • Penny Dreadful, "Séance" - Penny Dreadful's first season never quite lived up to its promise, getting tangled up in the show's witty commingling of famous 19th century genre characters without ever quite finding a story worthy of them.  But the show's execution was often enough to make up for this aimlessness, particularly when it focused on its best character, Eva Green's haunted Vanessa Ives.  "Séance" features Vanessa's first tour-de-force scene, in which she chews the scenery, the other characters, and possibly the camera crew when she's possessed by a demon at the titular gathering.  It's the episode that makes it clear just what sort of show you're in for, and just in case you were still unclear, the twist reserved at its end for the character of Victor Frankenstein seals the deal.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The 2015 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Publishing and Fan Categories

With only a week left to the nominating deadline, let's continue swiftly to the publishing and fan categories.  As I did last year, I'm going to be skipping the best editor categories, because I don't feel that I have enough of a sense of what each editor does to know which one of them deserves an award.  I also don't listen to podcasts, so I'll be leaving the best fancast category blank as well.  Unlike the short fiction categories, I have several blank spaces here, especially in the best fanzine category.  So if you have recommendations, I'll be happy to hear them.

Speaking of recommendations, a very good source is the Hugo Spreadsheet of Doom, a crowdsourced recommendation document that anyone can read and edit.  I found a lot of ideas for the artist categories there, for example.

Previous entries in this series:
Best Semiprozine:
  • Strange Horizons - This is the last year that nominating this magazine counts as voting for myself, but even leaving aside the reviews department I think that Strange Horizons has had an excellent year, with fiction, columns, articles, and roundtables (including the new Strange Horizons book club).

  • GigaNotoSaurus - I remain wowed by the accomplishment of this magazine, whose unassuming appearance and modest publishing rate belie the exceptional work that editor Rashida J. Smith does in soliciting and editing stories, creating a magazine that can hold its head up among behemoths like and Clarkesworld.

  • Lackington's - This new arrival, edited by Ranylt Richildis, has been a revelation.  Two stories from it ended up on my Hugo ballot, which is even more impressive considering that it only publishes quarterly issues.  The emphasis on weird fiction means that I tend to have love/hate relationships with most of the stories published here, but that's impressive in itself--very little here feels like more of the same.

  • Lightspeed - Last year's winner probably doesn't need my help to get back on the ballot, but Lightspeed had a very good 2014 (and I say this without having read their much-heralded anthology Women Destroy Science Fiction).  With great stories from well-loved names like Sofia Samatar, Carmen Maria Machado, and Theodora Goss, and newer writers like Sam J. Miller and Jessica Barber, the work being done by the editors deserves to be recognized.
Best Fanzine:
  • SF Mistressworks - Ian Sales's SF Mistressworks project continues to be a great example of how to use the internet to crowdsource a greater engagement with the genre that emphasizes neglected areas.  Still going strong after four years, the blog features reviews of classic SF by women by a variety of reviewers.

  • Lady Business - The group blog edited by Renay, Ana, and Jodie continues to examine pop culture and genre from a feminist perspective.

  • People of Color in European Art History - The genre connection for this project, which collects depictions of people of color from art throughout history, might initially seem tenuous.  But the purpose and ultimate usefulness of the blog (aside from being a great tool for learning about art and history) is to act as a response to people who believe that historical art shouldn't portray people of color because "they weren't around back then."  That's an argument that you see a lot coming from fans of quasi-historical fantasy, and the mountain of counter-examples is not only proof that they're wrong, but a reminder that fantasy should only wish to be as vibrant and multifaceted as reality.
Best Professional Artist:

As I did last year, I took advantage of the Hugo Eligible Art(ists) project in finding nominees in a field that I'm not very knowledgeable about.
  • Anna and Elena Balbusso - The Balbussos continued to contribute illustrations for stories in this year, and their work continues to be playful and evocative.  They also illustrated the cover for Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor.

  • Jeffrey Alan Love - Love's cover illustration for Simon Ings's Wolves was one of the more striking images I've seen this year, and he's gone on to design covers for Ings's entire back catalog, as well as for Peter Higgins's Wolfhound Century trilogy.  He's also been illustrating stories for Tor, in his inimitable cutout style.

  • Victo Ngai - I'm wild for Ngai's illustrations, which combine elaborate inkwork with playful compositions.  He's illustrated several stories for this year.

  • Yuku Shimizu - Another artist whose work is both elaborate and playful.  Shimizu has drawn several book covers (for The Melancholy of Mechgirl and the anthology Monstrous Affections), as well as posters, such as this promotional piece for the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which is surely better than the film.

  • Sam Weber - I like the idea of recognizing designers as well as painters, and Weber's book covers and story illustrations are clean and witty.
Best Fan Artist:
  • Sascha Goldberger - A little uncertain that he belongs in this list, since Goldberger is a professional artist.  But the project for which I think he should be recognized, Super Flemish, was a fan work that was made freely available.  These photographs of superheroes dressed and posed in the style of Old Masters were not only a funny idea, but beautifully and painstakingly executed.

  • Mandie Manzano - Repeating this selection from last year because I still find Manzano's pop-culture-as-stained-glass work funny and well done.

  • Autun Parser - Parser's Fantastic Travel Destinations series continues to go strong, and to be a perfect combination of fannishness and artistry.

  • Kuldar Leement - A last-minute addition to this list based on Aiden Moher's recommendation.  Leement's paintings are striking in both composition and execution, with subject matters that recall beloved SF tropes while still being strikingly original.
Best Fan Writer:
  • Nina Allan - Still one of the best book reviewers around even as her own writing career heats up, Allan is also a gifted blogger (check out her project to review all the stories in The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women) and commentator on the state of the genre.  She deserves recognition in several Hugo categories, and this one not the least.

  • Liz Bourke - Liz's reviews and her column, Sleeps With Monsters at, continue to be smart and entertaining, with a strong feminist sensibility.

  • Natalie Luhrs - The science fiction community did not stint on scandals and slapfights in 2014, and for each one, the tireless Luhrs was there to report on it with links and commentary.  Hers is a much-needed voice and deserves to be rewarded.

  • Sarah Mesle - This is probably not a name that many of you recognize, but Mesle's reviews of Game of Thrones for the Los Angeles Review of Books are, bar none, the best writing on the show out there.  She was the only reviewer to grasp the full import of the infamous "Breaker of Chains," and her humorous takedown of the tedious "The Watchers on the Wall" was a welcome respite from the episode's lack of tension.  And check out her responses to LARB's year-in-television poll.

  • Genevieve Valentine - Most of Valentine's nonfiction work is in pro venues, where she continues to be one of the smartest critics of SF and fantasy filmmaking around.  But if you've been reading her blog, in which she comments on movies and trashy TV shows, you know that she's invaluable.  And to my mind, her essay in Strange Horizons, "A Thing That Lives on Tears: Goodness and Clarice Starling," is one of the most essential pieces of pop culture writing from 2014, even if it's only genre-adjacent.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

The 2015 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Short Fiction Categories

With only ten days left before the Hugo nominating deadline, I'm cutting these posts a little close.  And the truth is, I could have done with another two weeks to round out my Hugo reading this year, which between the absence of free time and a two week vacation in the middle of February that didn't leave me much time for reading, has not been as comprehensive as I would have liked.  Even as I sat down to make the final lists from which I would cull the selections for this post, I kept remembering stories I'd wanted to get to, venues I'd wanted to at least skim.  But here we are on March 1st, the deadline I set myself, and it's time to admit that I've seen as much of the vast field of last year's genre short fiction as I am going to, and to get to the work of picking out my favorite reads.

As it was last year, my reading was concentrated in online venues, of which there is an ever-increasing amount that ranges in style and focus.  It was a particular delight, this year, to discover Lackington's, a new quarterly magazine whose selections hardly ever failed to elicit a strong reaction from me, and usually a positive one.  One change from last year was that my reading in novellas was concentrated more in stories published as self-contained volumes, rather than in magazines.  I'm seeing more and more authors turning to that approach, publishing longer stories with small presses, and many of those volumes are easily available as ebooks.  As magazine venues for novellas dry up (Subterranean, which used to publish novellas often, closed its magazine this year, and is presumably collecting works for their forthcoming novella imprint, as they published only two this year), these ebooks because a rich source of material.  In fact, as much as I appreciate the wealth of new online venues for short fiction, it's worth noting that they overwhelmingly publish fiction at the shorter end of the range.  It's not just that novellas are hard to come by--novelettes are getting scarce as well.  I imagine that there are financial considerations involved for both authors and editors, but it would be good to see more magazines publishing even slightly longer works next year.

The preamble done with, here are my provisional selections for the 2015 Hugo short fiction categories, sorted by the author's surname:

Best Novella:
  • Trading Rosemary by Octavia Cade (Masque Books) - The title character in Cade's story is a collector who prides herself on her careful stewardship of her family's library of recorded memories.  When what had seemed like a savvy trade arouses the ire of Rosemary's difficult daughter, she sets out to retrieve a family memory by trading her own life experiences.  The story becomes a journey through Rosemary's life (and through Cade's rich worldbuilding), but also an examination of a perhaps irreparably damaged mother-daughter relationship, with Rosemary seemingly unaware that by trading away her memories she is making it harder for her daughter to ever truly know her.

  • Sleep Donation by Karen Russell (Atavist Books) - Russell is far from the first author to play with the trope of a plague of sleeplessness (or in this case, dreamlessness), but her spin on the material is unique, focusing on aid workers who try to alleviate the plague by soliciting "donations" of sleep.  The narrator, who uses the story of her sister's death from the disease to guilt people into donating, discovers a baby who is not only a universal sleep donor, but whose utterly pure sleep can sometimes cure sufferers.  Her struggles with the baby's family, with her perhaps unscrupulous supervisors, and with her own conscience have the feel of a nightmare, as she floats from one to the other, increasingly disconnected from any part of her life but the quest for more donations.  While there are some obvious real-world parallels to the novella's events--some of the descriptions of the disease and its public perception reminded me very strongly of the AIDS crisis--Russell never fails to make her world and its troubles feel like their own, very strange entity.

  • NoFood by Sarah Tolmie (Aqueduct Press) - Told from multiple points of view, NoFood imagines a world in which people--though mostly just the rich--can eliminate the trouble, mess, and potential for disease involved in their digestive system by having it replaced with tubing, a procedure known as Total Gastric Bypass.  Tolmie's focus is first on how the relationship with food changes in the wake of this development, and NoFood is full of lush descriptions of food matched with profoundly ambivalent reactions to that food by characters who have or haven't had the procedure.  More broadly, NoFood is about the meaning of humanity, to which end it imagines something that is almost posthuman, a race of people whose biology has been scooped out and who then have to work out how to relate to the world and to each other.

  • Dream Houses by Genevieve Valentine (WSFA Press) - A short way into a five-year interstellar journey, the narrator of this story wakes to discover her crewmates dead, her hypersleep pod irreparably damaged, and her supplies for the rest of the journey barely sufficient for a long, drawn-out starvation.  With only an increasingly uncooperative AI for company, she beds down for an effective piece of space horror, struggling to understand the reasons for the accident and to gain the upper hand over the AI who may have been responsible for it.  The setting is a departure for Valentine, but she inhabits it with ease, and creates a tense, creepy story.

  • The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories) - I'm indebted to Nina Allan for pointing me towards this story in her own excellent recommendation post.  Without her, I probably wouldn't have discovered Whiteley's disturbing mixture of fungus-based body horror and shifting gender roles.  In the wake of a plague that has killed all the women in his settlement, the story's young narrator ventures into the wilderness and returns with something that is like, but clearly isn't, a woman.  Soon all the men in the settlement have been paired up with these "Beauties," in a relationship that is part-romantic, part-parasitic.  With reactions in the settlement ranging from rage to deep infatuation, the very meaning of what it is to be a man is soon questioned--and then altered in some deeply disquieting ways.
Best Novelette:
  • "The Bonedrake's Penance" by Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) - In a story whose detailed, imaginative worldbuilding and sardonic tone reminded me very strongly of Iain M. Banks, Lee tells the story of a child raised by an alien war machine.  As the narrator grows older, she learns more about her "mother's" past and true nature, and the relationship between the two characters is as powerful and affecting as the story's elaborate and inventive setting.

  • "I Can See Right Through You" by Kelly Link (McSweeney's) - We have a whole new collection from Link to celebrate this year, but this story was an early harbinger.  A ghost story in which the ghosts are those of failed relationships, younger selves, and images on a movie screen, this story is told in inimitable (and much-missed) Link style, as she combines the mundane, the strange, and the genuinely otherwordly into her own unique mix.

  • "Saltwater Economics" by Jack Mierzwa (Strange Horizons) - A sad variant on the mermaid story, this story follows a scientist studying the Salton Sea who meets a lonely, teenaged merman who loves comic books and dreams of a girlfriend.  The quasi-parental relationship she forms with him is threatened by both her own problems and imminent ecological catastrophe, in a story that has death looming over it.

  • "We Are the Cloud" by Sam J. Miller (Lightspeed) - Set in a world in which the poor rent out portions of their brains so that the rich can have a fast network services, Miller's story focuses on a taciturn, friendless boy about to age out of the foster system.  Even knowing that it's probably a bad idea, he falls in love with a charming new resident in his group home, and the inevitable unfolding of that relationship forces him to make choices about the kind of life he wants to live.  A bleak, powerfully told story with an ending that holds out a little bit of hope.

  • "Spring Festival: Happiness, Anger, Love, Sorrow, Joy" by Xia Jia, translated by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld) - A slice of life story, this piece imagines how technology changes the traditions of Chinese family and communal life, and yet also leaves them fundamentally the same.  Beautifully told, and fascinating both as a glimpse of Chinese culture and an extrapolation of future technology, it's one of the more engaging stories I read this year.
Bubbling Under: (stories that might still end up on the ballot, depending on my mood on March 10th)
  • "The Husband Stitch" by Carmen Maria Machado (Granta) - A strange, energetically told portrait of a marriage that is happy (and cheerfully sexual) but haunted by the wife's secret and the husband's refusal to respect it.  Machado is channeling Kelly Link in this piece, which references pop culture, fairy tales, and urban legends.  But she does so very well, and without losing her own voice.

  • "One, Two, Three" by Patricia Russo (GigaNotoSaurus) - A bunch of aimless, drunk twentysomethings set out on an errand and end up stumbling into the numinous and the dangerous.  The premise has been done before, but what makes Russo's story work is the narrator's voice, which is funny even in the midst of his obvious distress, and the well-drawn personalities of the young, lost characters.
Best Short Story:
  • "Elephants and Omnibuses" by Julia August (Lackington's) - This delightful alternate history drily explains the history of the omnibus by taking us back to ancient Rome in the time of Julius Ceasar's rebellion, and the female engineer who comes up with this necessary invention.  The character, her relationship with her husband and children, and her voice are all instantly winning, and one finishes the story almost convinced that this is the real history.

  • "The Breath of War" by Aliette de Bodard (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) - A pregnant woman journeys into a war zone to find her familiar, without whom her child will be stillborn.  The rather elaborate system by which the story's world operates is introduced with very little fuss, and the emphasis is on drawing the main character and her society, and explaining why she's been separated from her familiar, leading to a powerful revelation and conclusion.

  • "Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology" by Theodora Goss (Lightspeed) - As a lark, a group of anthropology grad students decide to invent a country and its culture, and then find that it has come to life.  When one of them marries the crown princess, he finds that the customs that he and his friends invented impose strange rules on his life.  There's a lot going on in this story--elaborate worldbuilding, complex relationships, palace intrigue, psychological horror--and Goss balances it all so lightly that it's almost impossible to believe she's done it all in only the length of a short story.

  • "Death and the Girl From Pi Delta Zeta" by Helen Marshall (Lackington's) - As the title has it, the protagonist of this story meets Death at a sorority mixer and falls in love with him, but their happy marriage is threatened by jealousy and infidelity.  A strange, funny piece that doesn't outstay its welcome, it also has a sad undertone that gives it weight.

  • "Bonfires in Anacostia" by Joseph Tomaras (Clarkesworld) - The timing of this story--which touches on race, police brutality, and government surveillance, and was published last August--adds a great deal of force to it, but the work itself is quite powerful.  A series of innocent-in-themselves events, when viewed by a paranoid, authoritarian government, lead to a tragic outcome, in a world in which the haves can only hold on to what they have be refusing to see the have-nots.
Bubbling Under:
  • "Coma Kings" by Jessica Barber (Lightspeed) - Narrated by a teenager heartbroken by the loss of her sister, this story is notable both for the main character's voice and for the way it uses and describes futuristic gaming.

  • "Childfinder" by Octavia E. Butler (Unexpected Stories) - One of two rediscovered Butler stories published this year (this one was originally intended for Harlan Ellison's Last Dangerous Visions) this short but powerful piece can best be described as introducing a sharp racial awareness to the X-Men story.

  • "Brute" by Rich Larson (Apex Magazine) - A pair of grifters come across a piece of technology that enhances their abilities.  The progression of the story is predictable, but the narrator's voice, and the nasty specificity with which Larson tells this familiar tale, are what sell it.

  • "Mothers" by Carmen Maria Machado (Interfictions Online) - A sad, haunting piece about an obsessive love story that turns abusive.  This one is just barely genre--it was published in Interfictions, a magazine that aims at the very boundaries of the fantastic--but is so well told that I couldn't leave it off the list.

  • "The Innocence of a Place" by Margaret Ronald (Strange Horizons) - One of the very first stories I read in my quest for Hugo nominees this year, and one that has stuck with me in the months since.  A chilling ghost story about the disappearance of a school full of girls, and of the journalist who investigated that disappearance, this one works because of its atmosphere, and because of the vividness with which Ronald draws the women who are caught in the slipstream of this tragedy.