Before we get started, a few comments on methodology, and observations on the state of the field. Almost all of these stories were published in magazines that are freely available online, largely because that makes them easier to access whenever I have some free reading time. As I did last year, I ended up skipping the print magazines completely, as well as most of the for-pay online magazines. The one exception is the novella category, where the e-book boom continues to be extremely rewarding for both authors and readers, creating a new market for slimmer volumes and more contained stories that you can enjoy for just a few dollars apiece.
Second, I should say that I debated for a long time over reading stories published on Tor.com, or in the publisher's new novella line. The behavior last year of Tor editor Tom Doherty, in which he all but aligned himself with the Rabid Puppies and their leader Vox Day, was to me completely beyond the pale, and the fact that Doherty has not retracted or apologized for his words is a black stain on the entire company he runs. It was, in addition, extremely frustrating to see how Tor's position within the genre, as one of its central publishers and, as of 2015, one of the main markets for novella-length fiction, essentially insulated it from any blowback for Doherty's behavior--some parts of fandom even rallied to "protect" the company when Day and his cronies decided to boycott it, the rather predictable outcome of linking one's fortunes to an unstable bigot. In the end, however, I found that I couldn't justify leaving the market and its authors out, especially considering that Tor remains one of the few venues for longer fiction. And though that decision turned out to be a rewarding one--Tor published some of the more important and interesting stories in the last year--I remain frustrated by the fact that Tor is effectively too big to feel the consequences of its actions.
As to the state of the field, I have to say that what I saw of the short fiction of 2015 was less exciting than in previous years. I like all the stories I've listed below, but compared to last year there are fewer of them that I was blown away by, and whose omission from this year's shortlist would strike me as a true injustice. I also couldn't help but notice that fewer venues are publishing stories in the novelette length (which may or may not be related to the above observation, since the novelette category has historically been the strongest of the three short fiction categories). On a happier note, it was interesting--and for the most part, gratifying--to see so many stories in the space opera genre, and particularly ones that focused on AI protagonists, ship's minds, and people who have been turned into spaceships (and vice versa). I can only assume that this is the influence of Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy trickling down to authors and editors.
So, with all that preamble out of the way, let's get to the stories I'm nominating this year. In alphabetical order of the author's surname, they are:
- "The Bone Swans of Amandale" by C.S.E. Cooney (from The Bone Swans: Stories) - Cooney's "Martyr's Gem" (also included in this collection) was an unexpected delight last year, a lyrical, witty fairy tale whose fairly meat-and-potatoes plot was elevated by smart writing and engaging characters. "Bone Swans" does much the same with a retelling of The Pied Piper of Hamelin that also incorporates elements of several other fairy tales, and features some truly interesting characters and creepy turns of plot. The narrator, a shape-changing rat named Maurice, witnesses the murder of a flock of magical swans, and bands with the survivor, Dora Rose--for whom he has for years nurtured an infatuation--to get revenge by enlisting the help of the Pied Piper. Maurice is a familiar sort of scoundrel, good-hearted but ultimately amoral and out for himself, but his relationship with Dora Rose--who pretends to be above his sort of scrounging but possesses her own capacity for ruthlessness--is interesting and complex. Best of all, however, is the Piper himself, a sort of innocent who is nevertheless capable of tremendous cruelty and damage. "The Bone Swans" is frequently funny, but it also gets at the dark, bloody origins of many fairy tales, and Cooney ensures that the combination never feels less than perfectly entertaining. (Nebula nominee.)
- Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand (PS Publishing) - Perhaps the one criticism that you could make of this novella is that it's the most Elizabeth Hand story imaginable. The music scene of the 60s and 70s? Check. Middle aged people looking back on their bohemian youth with mingled horror and nostalgia? Check. The supernatural impinging on the rational world in ways the continue to haunt the people who witnessed it decades later? Check to infinity. The thing is, though, these are all really compelling ingredients, to me at least, and what Hand does with them is typically excellent. Made up of the intercutting narratives of the former members of a folk rock band, their manager, and other hangers-on, Wylding Hall describes the summer the band spent in the titular house, creating their most famous and influential album but also awakening something hungry and sinister. Even if Hand's characters didn't tell us right from the start, we'd know exactly where this story is going, so familiar is it not just from Hand's fiction but from millions of other ghost stories like it. But what matters here is the execution, the recreation of a particular time and milieu, and of the characters' love of music, combined with their dysfunctional relationships. It makes Wylding Hall, for all its familiarity, effortlessly engaging and fascinating.
- "The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn" by Usman T. Malik (Tor.com) - Malik's story seems at first like a familiar nested narrative, a tale told by a grandfather to a grandson about life in post-independence Pakistan, and the last remnants of the fantastic he witnessed there. Very soon, however, the story's first narrative closes down, and we realize that it was only a prelude to the real business of the tale, the grandson's exploration of his family history and connection to magic. The details are really well done, particularly the relationships between the various family members, but what's truly winning about this story is the way it incorporates the fantastic and the mundane, as in a scene in which an official of the newly-independent nation explains to the last remnant of the Mughal dynasty that the eucalyptus tree that, as she believes, houses a jinn must be brought down because it represents British imperialism. There are a lot of cool moments like this in the story, as well as a very nicely realized fantastic McGuffin at the core of it, and together they make it quietly remarkable. (Nebula nominee.)
- Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor Novellas) - Like Malik's story, Okorafor's twisty and rich novella begins as one type of story, in which the heroine, a member of a reclusive, discriminated-against Namibian tribe runs away to attend an alien academy for the best and the brightest. Then, a very short way through, it becomes a tale of survival, as the heroine's transport to school is attacked by aliens who blame the university for looting their cultural treasures. Using these two conflicts, between the aliens and the university, and between Binti's people and the dominant culture on Earth, Okorafor weaves a tale about empire, the weight of history and tradition, and trying to find the right balance between kowtowing to the dominant culture and shutting yourself off from the world in order to protect yourself from it. It's also a tense and thrilling adventure, with Binti having to use all her wits to survive and prevent a massacre when her ship arrives at its destination. One of the most interesting stories of the last few years. (Nebula nominee. See also Vajra Chandrasekera's recent, insightful review of Binti at Strange Horizons.)
- The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor Novellas) - The biggest problem with starting to praise Wilson's phenomenal novella is that it's so rich and so full of interesting aspects that you don't quite know where to start. With the fascinating, science-fantasy-esque world, which is glimpsed only partially through the characters' eyes and document fragments, but which clearly has a wealth of other stories that could be told about it? With the fearless intercutting between different time periods and settings, which forces the reader to pay close attention to Wilson's twisty narrative? With his equally fearless use of voice, and particularly the way in which he has some of his fantasy world denizens speak in AAVE or Afro-Caribbean vernacular with an insouciance that forces the reader to ask, "well, why not?" With the central love story between the title character and his fellow mercenary, two superhumans in a world that doesn't want either their power or their sexuality? Sorcerer of the Wildeeps turns on its head much of what we take for granted about epic fantasy--including, of course, that it is possible to do important work in this genre in such a slim volume. It deserves every accolade it can get. (Note: at 43K words, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is outside the wordcount range for the novella category. However, the 20% rule allows it to be nominated here, where I think it belongs--this is clearly a novella, not a novel, albeit a long one.)
- "Sacred Cows: Death and Squalor on the Rio Grande" by A.S. Diev (GigaNotoSaurus) - There's a deceptively simple concept here--a journalist chronicling the way that the underclass is trampled by the rich in a future even more unequal than our present moment--that is brought to life by the sheer strangeness of the technological developments that this future brings with it. It's impossible not to laugh at a story whose central conceit involves flying cows, but by the time you reach the end it'll be a bitter sort of laughter.
- "Fabulous Beasts" by Priya Sharma (Tor.com) - Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this story about the coming of age of two girls in a UK council estate is how thoroughly it earns its happy ending. Throughout the story, as the girls are trapped by circumstances, by their dysfunctional family, and by something monstrous within them, you keep expecting the worst to happen, especially as Sharma ratchets up the tension. When the girls find their escape route, it's an ending that could have seemed cheap, if not for Sharma's effortless steering of the narrative.
- "Ambiguity Machines: An Examination" by Vandana Singh (Tor.com) - I always feel a little guilty about recommending list stories, because it's a format that can mask a lot of sins (see also: fairy tale retellings). But the best of them, as Singh's story undeniably is, use the list format to enhance their narrative rather than conceal its absence. This strange, elliptical story asks (in the form of an examination question, no less) what the meaning of a machine is, and how machines can end up reflecting and shaping the humanity of the people who create them.
- "The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild" by Catherynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld, part 1 and 2) - Valente wasn't very prolific in the short fiction scene in 2015, but what she did publish shows a writer who is not content to rest on her (many) laurels, but instead pushes against the boundaries of what she's capable of and known for (see also "Planet Lion," from Uncanny, which I think represents Valente's first foray into space opera). "Goodnight," in which, to simplify a rather complicated story, a young woman travels to the land of the dead to retrieve her lover, feels a great deal as if Valente is channeling Kelly Link, particularly the way in which the story swoops in and out of surrealism, juxtaposing it with the mundane in a way that makes the latter seem all the stranger. The dry voice in which the story is told helps us to keep our bearings in a world in which nothing, not even the meanings of words, remains fixed.
- "Drinking with the Elfin Knight" by Ginger Weil (GigaNotoSaurus) - Once again, this is a simple conceit--a gay teen is discriminated against not because she's gay, but because she's a witch--that is impeccably done. The descriptions of the heroine's struggles with her powers are scary, both for her inability to control them, and for the way they alienate her from her family and friends. And the titular elfin knight, who is both a friend and a potential predator, is a wonderful creation that only intensifies the strangeness of the story's world.
- "Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight" by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld) - It isn't news that de Bodard has a unique and interesting approach to space opera, and this story is no exception. It examines how three different people work through grief, where those people are the son of the deceased, the woman who received her recorded memories, and the ship mind that she gave birth to. It's a story about the universality of grief, even in a post-human world. (Nebula nominee. Note that at 7K words, this actually a short story, but it's on the cusp and to me feels more like a novelette.)
- "An Evolutionary Myth" by Bo-Young Kim, translated by Gord Sellar and Jihyun Park (Clarkesworld) - As the title says, this is a myth retold through the lens of evolution--or rather a fantastical sort of evolution, in which individuals, not species, change in response to their environment. The narrator, the son of a deposed king who fears being assassinated by his usurping uncle, flees into the wilderness and undergoes many different kinds of metamorphosis, each of which reflect his state of mind and personality. It's a trippy, strange story, which nevertheless feels completely assured and under the control of its author.
- "Madeleine" by Amal El-Mohtar (Lightspeed) - From the Proustian reference of this story's title to its obsession with memory, this is the sort of story that could have been twee but instead works because El-Mohtar is so good at making the title character, and her grief for her recently-deceased mother, real and compelling. (Nebula nominee.)
- "The Game of Smash and Recovery" by Kelly Link (Strange Horizons) - A new Link story in the wild is always a happy occasion, and this piece, which is straight-up SF with Link's inimitable touch, is an utter delight. The narrator's wry but slightly deranged voice slowly clues us into the wrongness of her world, but the truth she ends up discovering about it still comes as a surprise.
- "Descent" by Carmen Maria Machado (Nightmare Magazine) - This is a deceptively simple horror story, whose architectural structure might, in the hands of a lesser writer, have been schematic. Happily, Machado, one of the best writers currently working in genre, has her hand firmly on the tiller, and produces a story that is both creepy and deeply affecting.
- "The Ticket Taker of Cenote Zací" by Benjamin Parzybok (Strange Horizons) - If there's one story this year that I desperately would have liked to see get more attention, this is it. Every line here is perfect, and the slow build-up of horror as the main character realizes that he's witnessing something monstrous continues to be effective even on a second or third read.
- "The Closest Thing to Animals" by Sofia Samatar (Fireside Fiction) - This genuinely brilliant piece of writing from Samatar hasn't received nearly as much praise as it deserves. Initially the tale of a chronic hanger-on who wants to be an artist but only ever seems to hang out with them, it slowly reveals the strange SFnal circumstances of the heroine's life, and the reasons for her desperation to leave something lasting behind her.
- "Restore the Heart Into Love" by John Chu (Uncanny) - I really like the premise of this story--an astronaut whose mission is to preserve archives containing as much of Earth's culture as his ship can carry at a time when war and upheaval threaten humanity's cultural heritage. The hero discovers a problem in his ship's systems that might seem innocuous to an outsider, but Chu slowly makes us believe that it matters, and understand why the hero risks everything to preserve one small part of his heritage.
- "Here is My Thinking on a Situation That Affects Us All" by Rahul Kanakia (Lightspeed) - This very short piece offers an interesting, well-done twist on the ship mind trope that appeared so often in 2015 short fiction. The narrator's voice is unusual, and the dilemma pondered in the story is compelling despite its short length.
- "Things You Can Buy for a Penny" by Will Kaufman (Lightspeed) - An extremely clever nested fairy tale about wishes and their pitfalls. There's nothing here you haven't seen before, but perhaps not so impeccably well-done.
- "Variations on an Apple" by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com) - Lee had an excellent 2015 in short fiction, but this retelling of the story of Troy and the apple of discord that caused all its trouble is my favorite of a very strong bunch of stories. It zeroes in on the misogyny at the heart of the story, and goes about finding interesting, unexpected ways of dismantling it.
- "Tear Tracks" by Malka Older (Tor.com) - A smart, interesting first contact story that avoids fireworks in favor of constructing a convincingly strange and different alien race, and then delivering a complete gut-punch of an ending when the heroine's encounter with them forces her to reexamine her life.