From what I've seen--and the effects of the last decade in the genre short fiction scene have been to render it even more diffuse than it already was, so I really can't say that I've had a comprehensive view--2018 was a strong year for SF short fiction, with venues including Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and Uncanny delivering strong slates of stories. I was interested to observe how easy it is to discern an editorial voice, and a preoccupation with certain topics, when reading through a magazine's yearly output. Uncanny, for example, had a strong focus on disabled protagonists in 2018, with stories that often turn on their struggles to achieve necessary accommodation, with which they can participate and contribute to society.
One topic that I expected to see a great deal more of in my reading was climate change. Only a few of the pieces I've highlighted here turn on this increasingly important topic, and very few stories I read dealt with it even obliquely. Given how much climate change has been in the public conversation recently (and not a moment too soon) it's possible that next year's award nominees will deal with it more strongly, but I was a bit disappointed not to see SF writers and editors placing an emphasis on it already.
The nominating period for this year's Hugo Awards closes on March 15th. If you're eligible to nominate, there are, as ever, a large number of resources you can draw on when making up your ballot, chiefly the Hugo nominations wiki, and the Hugo spreadsheet.
- Tentacle by Rita Indiana, translated by Achy Obejas (And Other Stories) - This utterly exhilarating novella is like a gonzo, Latin American twist on "All You Zombies", with a much better attitude towards its transgender protagonist, and a sharp handling of environmental, anti-colonial themes. It's also a hell of a lot of fun to puzzle out, the various timelines, and the story's use of science and magic, coming together beautifully in an ending that packs a definite punch.
- The Barrow Will Send What It May by Margaret Killjoy (Tor Novellas) - The previous volume in Killjoy's series about a troupe of demon-hunting anarchists, The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion, packed a bit more punch with its tale of an off the grid community coming up with a demonic solution to the problem of authoritarianism. This 2018 sequel is a little more mild in its subject matter, a town where people have started coming back to life, with our heroes caught in the crossfire. But its theme of small-town conformity confronting the weird in ways that can bring out its worst qualities is worth exploring, as is Killjoy's no-nonsense embrace of the itinerant, gender-bending protagonists, who reject stability and embrace a radical form of justice and compassion.
- Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson (Tor Novellas) - Robson had a great year in 2018 (see her again further down the ballot), and this novella is her crowning achievement. Come for the refreshing focus on project management, efficient workflows, and resource allocation when traveling to the distant past, but stay for a gutting depiction of generational strife. Our heroine is an aging environmental remediator slowly coming to terms with the fact that her life's work has come to nothing because of circumstances outside of her control, and clashing with her young assistant, whose generation blames the heroine's for leaving them in an economic and environmental lurch. It's a busy, chewy story whose time travel plot might almost get lost in the shuffle if it weren't so interesting in its own right.
- "Requiem" by Vandana Singh (from Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories) - Leave it to Singh to write one of last year's few climate-related stories. "Requiem" follows a young woman who travels to an Inuit village in Alaska to collect the belongings of her aunt, an engineer and environmentalist who disappeared during a storm. It's a stately piece that is as much about capturing a moment as it is about telling a story, but its discussion of the depredations that climate change has wrought on the Arctic, and the way those changes (and the encroachment of resource-extracing corporations) have affected the Inuit way of life, are unsparing. Though the ending offers a modicum of hope, it's the story's images of irrevocable change that stay with you.
- "Through the Flash" by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (from Friday Black) - Friday Black is an exceptional collection that leans towards the fantastic in several places, but this story, its concluding piece, is as blatant a work of SF as you can imagine. In a nameless neighborhood in an authoritarian future, the tween narrator and her friends and family repeat, again and again, the hours before they died from a nuclear explosion, and tell us how they've coped (or failed to cope) with this kind of horrific immortality. It's a funny, horrifying, beautifully constructed piece that shouldn't be ignored.
- "If at First You Don't Succeed, Try Try Again" by Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog) - Cho's short fiction tends to draw unexpected connections between mythology and everyday life, and this story, in which she parallels a common demon's repeated attempts to achieve the enlightenment sufficient to become a dragon, and an academic's struggles with her thesis and tenure, is a typically brilliant juxtaposition. That the demon and the academic end up falling in love is both delightful and, ultimately, extremely moving, leading to an absolutely perfect ending.
- "The Thing About Ghost Stories" by Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny) - It's a familiar premise--a chronicler of ghost stories experiences her own haunting--but Kritzer's handling of it is sublime, both in the narrator's voice and her descriptions of her ethnographic research, and in her more painful memories of life with her mother as she slowly succumbs to dementia.
- "A Study in Oils" by Kelly Robson (Clarkesworld) - A refugee from the moon hides out in a remote village in rural China while his case is decided by an immigration committee. The story is slight, but what makes it sing is Robson's worldbuilding--the defiantly traditionalist village where artists come for retreats; the violent, hyper-conformist society on the moon, which has chewed up the main character and left him with a brutal memento of his career as a hockey thug. The contrast between the serene setting and the protagonist's guilt and anxiety is extremely well-handed, leading to a cathartic and rewarding ending.
- "Orange World" by Karen Russell (The New Yorker) - An unusually down to earth story for Russell, which is saying something given that involves demons bargaining for mother's milk. The topic of maternal anxiety, and the way society works to intensify it, has been well-covered by fiction, but Russell finds a fresh angle here, which she covers with her typical humor and inventiveness.
- "The Fortunate Death of Jonathan Sandelson" by Margaret Killjoy (Strange Horizons) - More anti-establishmentarianism from Killjoy, who here writes about a white hat hacker who finds herself on the hook for murder, and has to scramble to save her own ass without screwing over anyone who doesn't deserve it.
- "Recoveries" by Susan Palwick (Tor.com) - The friendship between a perennial screw-up and the more stable friend who actually has much better reasons to be dysfunctional is a familiar trope, but it's mixed here with an alien abduction story in a way that makes it entirely its own thing.
- "The Wait is Longer Than You Think" by Adrian Simmons (GigaNotoSaurus) - A human stranded for years with an alien whose social norms fall well beneath our needs for companionship comes up with various strategies to keep from losing his mind to loneliness, until one of them has disastrous consequences.
Best Short Story:
- "The House on the Moon" by William Alexander (Uncanny) - This piece starts from an irresistible premise--what if the 19th century plutocrats who transferred entire European castles to the US, brick by brick, had future analogues who did the same thing on the moon?--and takes it a much darker, thematically richer direction than I had expected. The heroine, a disabled girl in a society that only barely tolerates such people, is the only one to see through the alleged eccentricity of the project to recreate a bygone era where it doesn't belong, which allows her to solve the house's mystery.
- "Waterbirds" by G.V. Anderson (Lightspeed) - An old woman dies, and her robot companion is suspected of foul play. The story starts out like a cozy mystery, but soon becomes something sadder, then infuriating, and then hopeful, as we learn more about the life of the artificial main character and her efforts to eke out happiness in a world that denies her very personhood.
- "We Feed the Bears of Ice and Fire" by Octavia Cade (Strange Horizons) - This environmental piece packs a punch that almost makes up for the rarity of this subject in 2018. Juxtaposing the equally parlous conditions of the North Pole and Australia, and the dangers that this environmental degradation poses to the local wildlife, Cade spins a fable about nature striking back that is equal parts furious and magical.
- "Strange Waters" by Samantha Mills (Strange Horizons) - A fisherwoman lost at sea struggles to return to her family, in a city where the currents traverse not just space but time. It's a fantastic premise whose details Mills works out in a completely satisfying way, but equally satisfying is the heroine's determination, mingled with her knowledge that her quest might be futile, and that she's turning away chances to build new lives in the time periods where she fetches up.
- "The Kite Maker" by Brenda Peynado (Tor.com) - Alien refugees land on Earth, we take them for invaders, and then we all have to live together in the aftermath. It's a bleak premise whose harshness Peynado faces head-on, grappling with the impossibility of forgiveness, and the need to try anyway.
- "Ruin's Cure" by Vajra Chandrasekera (Big Echo) - A medieval king and the time traveling historian sent to ensure his triumph regard one another in a story that grapples with power, justice, and how to fix history.
- "What Gentle Women Dare" by Kelly Robson (Uncanny) - An 18th century prostitute robs a corpse, which comes back to life and insists on interrogating her about her life. This is a story that keeps changing its shape, until it reaches a conclusion that is utterly shocking, but which works perfectly with everything that came before.
- "Super-Luminous Spiral" by Cameron Van Sant (Lightspeed) - A new twist on the familiar trope of the alien lover as a literary muse. An aspiring writer sleeps with an alien and finds their literary output shifting. Then they learn that others in their writing group have been experiencing the same thing.