Friday, February 11, 2011

Rachel Swirsky's Recommended Reading: 2011

Since it's award season, I've been busily reading science fiction and fantasy published in 2011 to figure out what I plan to nominate.

On my own livejournal, I've made extensive posts about the work I'm nominating in each category, along with other work from each category that I enjoyed or recommend. They're available here:

Short story
Young adult novel

(Notes about how I selected my reading are available on those pages.)

For Alas, a Blog, and Ambling Along the Aqueduct, I thought I'd do a shorter, aggregate post, pointing out what I consider to be the highlights.

This year, all of the short stories I really swooned over were available online. I love that because it makes it easier to share them with other people. Many of the other works I loved were also online.

Short Stories

"On the Banks of the River Lex" by N. K. Jemisin - Jemisin's stories about all-powerful beings are shockingly evocative, occupying an archetypical role and also becoming fascinating characters. It was lovely to see her bring this talent into a post-apocalyptic story about Death and gods coping in a world without people.

"Ponies" by Kij Johnson - Visceral. My stomach knotted as I began to read and stayed knotted. I'd synopsize, but I think the story says what it has to say in exactly the amount of time it takes to say it. Highly recommended for feminist readers.

"Hwang's Billion Brilliant Daughters" by Alice Sola Kim - In brief, scattered flashes, a narrator tells the story of a time traveling man who visits his descendents through many generations. Beautiful, fun fragments of science fiction futures, combined with interesting characterization and thoughts about time.

"The History within Us" by Matt Kressel - Stunning, emotionally resonant far-future apocaclypse, in which the alien setting enhances the story's questions about genocide, humanity, and memory.

"The Isthmus Variation" by Kris Millering - Eerie, chilling mystery about a destroyed theater troupe, evoking a strong mood. Subtly built, intelligent, evocative.

"The Ghosts of New York" by Jennifer Pelland - Ponders grief and memory in the wake of 9/11 with a historical slant.

"Surrogates" by Cat Rambo - A future in which people can interact with robotic substitutes for their loved ones. A touching portrayal of a relationship disintegrating, of alienation growing between people, of joy that's disappearing and must be seized. Particularly recommended for feminist readers.

"Amaryllis" by Carrie Vaughn - Sympathetic characters in a meaningful situation, elucidating an ambiguous world that is simultaneously more oppressive than ours and more free. Particularly recommended for readers interested in radical politics.

"Standard Loneliness Package" by Charles Yu - Fresh, intelligent, and insightful interpretation of science fictional tropes, combined with excellent character work and skillful control of prose. Particularly recommended for readers with a mainstream literary aesthetic.


"Flying in the Face of God" by Nina Allen - The standout in this category: Nina Allen's affecting story of alienation, a beautiful and intelligent examination of what it means to be left behind. The story is masterful; it's told from the perspective of a woman who is making a documentary about the biological reprogramming her best friend, Rachel, is undergoing so that she can embark on a no-return mission into space.

"The History of Poly-V" by Jon Ingold - A beautiful story of memory, nostalgia, and the narrative construction of self-consciousness, tied together with intelligent hints of meta-fiction.

"Plague Birds" by Jason Sanford - A far-future in which genetic engineering has merged human and animal DNA. AIs enforce the rules of civilization. This story shares the features of Sanford's other work: vivid, strange imagery underpinned by a well-structured plot.

"Stone Wall Truth" by Caroline Yoachim - The loss of high technology has left people with limited understanding in control of powerful artifacts such as the wall—when convicts are flayed and pinned to the wall, the shadows of their guilt ooze out of their chests, allowing them to be sewn up again without sin. Another vivid, surreal story, underpinned by a strong plot—although I found the resolution of this one less satisfying than Sanford's.


"The Life-Cycle of Software Objects" by Ted Chiang - When a company develops AI with malleable intelligence, intending them to be pets, they're unprepared for the consequences of releasing learning, sentient beings that are dependent on hardware that can out-evolve them and customers who are easily bored. Ambitious, detailed, pitch perfect in its integration of technical details in a way that supports the character, stories and ideas.

"Alone" by Robert Reed - Eerie and epic in all sorts of good ways, the kind of really neat far-future SF that draws you into an entirely unknown world and seems to be much longer than it actually is—in that it provides a plethora of things to think about.

Young Adult Novels

SHIP BREAKER by Paolo Bacigalupi - Immediately visceral. SHIPBREAKER follows the story of Nails, a boy living in subsistence-level poverty by working a dangerous job at a ship salvage yard. When he and a friend find a possible way off of the beach and out of poverty, they must defend their opportunity from the tough men who work the heavy salvage crew, ill-intentioned corporations, and Nails' abusive father. Bacigalupi's world is desperate, convincing, and immersive, and inhabited by smartly rendered characters. Particularly recommended for readers with radical politics.

HEREVILLE by Barry Deutsch - - A graphic novel detailing the adventures of Mirka, a ten-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl who lives in a Yiddish-speaking, Hassidic enclave, and who wants to get a sword and fight monsters. The graphic novel is free and fun and sometimes silly with occasional breaks into emotional depth and the explorations of Mirka's family. Disclosure: I know the author and was involved in helping to edit early drafts of the book. I still think it's genuinely amazing, though.

THE BONESHAKER by Kate Milford - Circa 1910, set in Arcane, a crossroads town with a ghost town from an earlier era beside it. When a strange medicine show comes to town, a mechanically inclined young girl tries to investigate their strange remedies and even stranger machines. Knockout novel with a series of chilling, well-sustained reveals. Situated in American mythology, but written with a unique voice that makes it surprising and compelling. Particularly recommended for feminist readers.


THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS and BROKEN KINGDOMS by N. K. Jemisin - Jemisin's writing is lovely, and this is particularly clear from her novels which are a fascinating take on epic fantasy, written with a post-colonial aesthetic.

THE DERVISH HOUSE by Ian McDonald - The DaVinci code told through Islam. Follows a number of very interesting characters and explores a rich setting with affection. Interesting material about historical artifacts, some mythological.

STORIES OF IBIS by Hiroshi Yamamoto - A frame story about the interaction of AIs and humans in the far future ties together seven previously published short stories about the evolution of artificial intelligence. Some of the shorts tend toward sentimentality. But I liked the effect that all the pieces created together, as well as the unexpected handling of the relationship between the AIs and humans.

HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE by Charles Yu - A time machine repairman has spent the past decade trying to avoid living by keeping himself in a perpetual now. The novel skillfully taps the metaphorical wealth of science fiction tropes, and in particular the way they've seeped into the popular cultural imagination. Particularly recommended for readers with a mainstream literary aesthetic.


Update: A previous version of this list included Atwood's THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD as a recommended novel. Niall Harrison kindly pointed out to me that FLOOD was published in 2009. I shuffle my feet in embarrassment.

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