Sunday, February 10, 2013

Rachel Swirsky's Short Story Recommendations, 2012

I read approximately 540 pieces of short fiction this year. I didn't separate those into short story, novelette, and novella until after I had selected which pieces I wanted to recommend. I used some of my normal techniques for finding stories, including recommendations and picking up stories by specific authors. I didn't spend as much time looking for reccs this year, though, because I decided to spend my time reading whole magazines. I read all of: Asimovs, Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Eclipse Online, Giganotosaurus, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Strange Horizons, Subterranean and Tor, as well as several anthologies. I would have liked to have read more anthologies, and I was also hoping to read Electric Velocipede and Interzone, but alas did not end up being able to incorporate them.

I may continue to do some reading, especially of anthologies, for the next few weeks. If I find anything remarkable, I will post about it then.

I'm trying to find the best format for these posts. I'm going to try listing, without reviews, my favorite fourteen stories of the year, for easy reference (these will include stories that are on my ballot, stories I'm considering for my ballot, and highly recommended stories). Reviews will be below, along with shorter reviews of recommended stories. At the end of the post, I will list some of the other stories I found notable this year.

As always, there are many more stories that I read and enjoyed, and that deserve recognition, than I will actually be listing. This year, since I did my reading spread out over a large chunk of time, I'm also contending with my fading memory--stories that I read early on may be less likely to make the list because I've forgotten their emotional impact. While the overall quality of stories that I read this year was lower than in previous years (because in previous years, I relied on recommendations to sift out the best stories for me), as always I enjoyed doing the reading, and I look forward to talking about stories and authors.

Definitely on my ballot
"Immersion" by Aliette deBodard (Clarkesworld)
"Mono no Aware" by Ken Liu (THE FUTURE IS JAPANESE, Haikasoru)

Possibly on my ballot
"Mantis Wives" by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld)
"Education of a Witch" by Ellen Klages (UNDER MY HAT)
"Searching for Slave Leia" by Sandra McDonald (Lightspeed)
"The Great Loneliness" by Maria Romasco-Moore (Unstuck #2)
"The Segment" by Genevieve Valentine (AFTER)

Highly Recommended
"Wild Things" by Alyx Dellamonica (
"Beautiful Boys" by Theodora Goss (Asimovs)
"Valedictorian" by N. K. Jemisin (AFTER)
"Afterlife" by Sarah Langan (Nightmare)
"One Breath, One Stroke" by Cat Valente (THE FUTURE IS JAPANESE)
"Armless Maidens of the American West" by Genevieve Valentine (Apex)


Definitely on my ballot

"Immersion" by Aliette deBodard (Clarkesworld) - Somewhere on social media, Aliette described this as a story that happened because she was angry. Apparently, Aliette being angry is a beautiful thing. Not only is this story intense and interesting and all that other good fiction stuff, but it's one of the smartest political pieces I've read in a while, a savvy and complex investigation of dual consciousness and the way that colonialism occupies minds as well as external spaces. I'm really glad this one is on Clarkesworld so that everyone can access it. I'd love to see it incorporated into curricula.

"Mono no Aware" by Ken Liu (THE FUTURE IS JAPANESE, Haikasoru) - I really love the concept of the anthology in which this appeared; there are both stories by Japanese authors and stories by non-Japanese authors about Japan. Full disclosure--I am in the anthology--but my work aside, it still featured some of the best work of the year. I highly recommend picking it up, not least for this story by Ken Liu of the last Japanese man's experiences on a generation ship after the earth is destroyed. If you'll forgive me for turning to Wikipedia, it defines mono no aware as "an awareness of the transience of things, and a gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing" which is one of those beautiful concepts that has no direct English equivalent. Liu evokes the emotion beautifully in this piece.

Possibly on my ballot

"Mantis Wives" by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld) - Kij is one of my favorite short story writers, and I admit that for me, none of her work has transcended "The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park after the Change." (I also admit that I will link to that story at every opportunity.) In the last few years, Kij has been writing very intense, emotionally charged, brief punch-in-the-jaw stories that operate as metaphors for human relationships. Spar, about the ways in which sex is adversarial; Ponies, about the pruning of self that's required of girls in adolescence; and "Story Kit" (Eclipse 4) which, alas, is not available online. These stories are almost like poetry in their condensed ability to evoke emotion through metaphor in a very, very small space. All of them are brilliant in their own ways ("Ponies" made me sick with recognition as I read it), but "Mantis Wives" is my favorite so far, about the viciousness of love gone wrong, described intensely and evocatively through a metaphor about the imagined culture of praying mantises.

"Education of a Witch" by Ellen Klages (UNDER MY HAT) - Ellen Klages has told me that she thinks this is possibly her best story so far, and she may be right, although I admit to an enduring affection for "In the House of the Seven Librarians" (audio link). Klages often conceals really bitter, sharp-edged narratives beneath stories that project a veneer of sweetness (see last year's "Goodnight Moons" in LIFE ON MARS). She's also one of the best writers I've ever read at really evoking childhood from the perspective of children, nailing the ambiguous balance of sensory pleasure and learning about the world with the actual nastiness that children experience--the lack of power, and the way that casual cruelty can play in their minds. Her children are never idealized. This story is perhaps the best mix of a sweet veneer over a bitter story, with an excruciatingly well-defined child who exists in a likewise excruciatingly well-defined world. When Lizzie sees Sleeping Beauty, she identifies with the evil witch Malificent instead of the beautiful but passive Aurora. She wants to become like the witch; she want to possess the ability to affect a world in which she too often finds herself powerless.

"Searching for Slave Leia" by Sandra McDonald (Lightspeed) - In the past few years, Sandra MacDonald has written several stories about outre sexual politics in a science fictional setting. This year, she's turned her mastery of wry meta-fiction toward other subjects--sometimes political such as in her recent Asimovs story, "The Black Feminist's Guide to Science Fiction Film Editing" (which I honestly did not know what to make of), but often moving into an exploration of regret and lives not well-enough-lived. "Searching for Slave Leia" is one of the latter, a story that makes use of meta-fiction and humor to poke at the bitterness of a mid-life crisis. A writer who's worked on several science fiction TV series has a heart attack and finds herself wandering through the wilds of a bottle episode about the losses, wrong-turns, and once-loves of her life. The story's humor and willingness to look frankly at unpleasant detail allows it to avoid the maudlin, and even the TV-happy ending fits well with the narrative.

"The Great Loneliness" by Maria Romasco-Moore (Unstuck #2) - This is one of the last stories I read this year, and I almost skipped it, but a recommendation from Meghan McCarron (one of the editors of Unstuck Magazine, and an excellent writer in her own right) weighs heavily with me. Unstuck is a magazine that aims to occupy the boundary where literary and science fictional aesthetics spill into each other. One thing I like about it is that while it includes slipstream, strange and undefinable pieces, it also includes some straight-up science fictional work that evinces a literary aesthetic, such as this piece which could easily be at home in Clarkesworld or Asimovs but is also affecting for literary readers. In a future where much of humanity has died off and those people who remain are near-immortal, the new battles for humans are loneliness and apathy. I'm not sure how much that concept persuades me, but it provides the underpinning for an unusually well-told story about a woman who was genetically engineered as a scientist but found herself more of an artist, who fulfills her artistic goals by creating children who merge the DNA of plants and animals and humans, in an attempt to creatures who will transcend loneliness and apathy. There are some neat science fictional conceits in the background, including some interesting notions about cloning, and a lonely suggestion of alien life.

"The Segment" by Genevieve Valentine (AFTER) - Genevieve is always a talented writer, but I think this year's short stories have packed a particular punch. This one was my favorite. It was published in Ellen Datlow's AFTER, an anthology of stories about dystopian futures for YA audiences. Of course, just because stories are pleasing to young adults doesn't mean that they're not also pleasing to broader audiences as well. This one is a simply structured but compellingly voices story about an orphan (in a dystopian future, obviously) who's been adopted by a production company that creates fake news clips. The main character comes across as sharp and interesting which is the reason why the story works; what could be a ridiculous concept, Genevieve pulls off with sharp, persuasive, confident detail and voice.

Highly Recommended

"Wild Things" by Alyx Dellamonica ( - The luxuriously detailed, sensory story of a romance between a woman and a scientist who was merged into the swamp by a surge of magic. Intriguing setting, characters create an immersive sauna of a story and enhances the relationship between the characters whose palpable emotions are what make the piece work.

"Beautiful Boys" by Theodora Goss (Asimovs) - In a surreal, unsettling story, Goss describes the compelling pull of "alien" beautiful boys. This is the kind of slipstream story that deliberately denies sense, but does it persuasively, much in the way that a dream's lack of sense nevertheless feels real. It rocks you back on your feet a bit, demands that you consider the gap between your logical interpretation of what you're reading and its emotional evocation. My only complaint about this story was that it was not as memorable as I'd have liked it to be, perhaps because its tones shaded very similarly, to me, to Kelly Link's "Most of My Friends are Two-Thirds Water" (included in the linked collection). They're both lovely stories and well-deserving of sharing space, but for me, the similarity rang in such a way that I didn't love "Beautiful Boys" quite as much as I could have. In subject matter, though not tone, I was also reminded of Gaiman's "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" (which may have been deliberate; I could easily read this piece as a feminist reply to Gaiman's which I don't read as sexist but does create women as other. I would see this as a thought-provoking reply, not a rebuke, a sort of "yes, and also").

"Valedictorian" by N. K. Jemisin (AFTER) - Nora (Nojojojo to Alas readers) is one of my favorite writers, although I think she's a better novelist than she is a short story writer. This story is sharp and smart, like all of Nora's work, and extremely aware of how power flows and what power means. In this story, I also see her as contemplating the shifting definitions of "what is human" in a way that only a writer who's interested in the power dynamics of race and colonialism (and to a lesser extent other social justice issues) would do; in a way that reminds me of Octavia Butler, she looks at how social groups create the concept of other, and both the ways in which that is legitimate and illegitimate, xenophobia mixed with preservation. The main character in this piece has a sharp voice and a memorable perspective. In a world where everyone tries to stick safely to the middle of the pack, the main character has no patience for curbing her talents and dazzles academically, even though she knows that each year's Valedictorian will be taken by the alien "other" outside her city's walls, along with the bottom 10% of each graduating class.

"Afterlife" by Sarah Langan (Nightmare) - There's nothing too complex, political, or unlike-anything-I've-ever-seen about this relatively simple story of a woman who has never been able to move away from her childhood home and her possessive, agrophobic, hoarder mother. She sees the ghosts of children who have failed to move on to the afterlife and tries to help them move on before they fade out of existence. Her household is in tumult as they are about to be thrown out for lack of paying the mortgage, and the main character is placed at a moment of change, forced, like her ghost children, to brave a new course of action. As I said, there's nothing extremely unusual about the concept, but it's just drawn in a way that caught me; I was interested in the main character, with her passive uncertainty mixed with her desire to do good in the world, and I was interested in the world of ghosts. I liked that even though it was clear that there was a metaphorical element to a house full of hoarded objects and stifled, unhappy people, being haunted, that element didn't feel like it was being too strongly underlined. The story also had a pleasing structure.

"One Breath, One Stroke" by Cat Valente (THE FUTURE IS JAPANESE) - As I mentioned above in my review of Liu's "Mono no Aware," this anthology contained a number of stories that I really enjoyed. It's incredibly hard to describe this one. It's sort of a drift of intense, beautiful imagery, delicately and gorgeously written, a lyrical fascination woven of the surprising and strange. The experience of it can't be easily summarized, I think.

"Armless Maidens of the American West" by Genevieve Valentine (Apex) - Again, Valentine's having a strong year in short fiction. In this piece, which was the best of Apex Magazine's this year, she looks at a genre of story which I hadn't been familiar with before--apparently, there's a trope in fairy tales about armless maidens who have been mutilated by loved ones who should have protected them. Valentine relocates this trope from fairytales into American mythology and creates real armless maidens who live on the fringe of society, observed but denied. They are victims of a kind of violence that no one knows how to acknowledge, and thus they reject the girls whose bodies are evidence of it, refusing to confront what frightens them. The main character tries to bridge this gap, to see the deliberately unseen. Analogies are clear but not heavy-handed. This story was linked on IO9 which apparently drove a lot of well-deserved web traffic to the story.


"Tornado's Siren" by Brooke Bolander (Strange Horizons) - Lilting story of a tornado that falls in love with a girl. Bolander is new to publishing in the genre, but smart, strange in a way I enjoy, and excellent on the prose level. I'm very interested in seeing how she continues to develop as a writer. I expect to nominate her for the Campbell. See also her Lightspeed story: "Her Words Like Hunting Vixens Spring" which isn't entirely successful as a story qua story, but is more unusual in structure and content than "Tornado's Siren."

"Synch Me, Kiss Me, Drop" by Suzanne Church (Clarkesworld) - I haven't seen anyone else writing excitedly about this one which confuses me a bit. I found it really intense. There were a couple of stories this year that dealt the effect of technology on music in the near future that I found quite effective, this one and one in Asimovs ("Kill Switch" by Benjamin Cromwell), both of which evoked intense sensation through their description of the effects of music on the listener. This was one of those stories that I felt intensely immersed in as I read--very sensorily involved.

"Flash, Bang, Remember" by Tina Connolly and Caroline Yoachim (Lightspeed) - Connolly and Yoachim are both writers I enjoy. Connolly's prose is character-inflected and wry; Yoachim's is dark, strangely structured, and intensely imagistic. Somehow, together, their work is neither edged with humor nor woven through disjunctive imagery, but instead it becomes both direct and heavily structured. In this story, clones on a generation ship are imprinted with the same childhood memories--memories created by The Child, a boy who lived a long time ago. The ship is now trying to raise a new Child, a female version, but they want to make sure that her memories are perfectly appropriate, that she's just the right kind of person, even as she navigates a world in which everyone but her shares the same memories. The treatment of this idea is straightforward, but I liked it quite a bit.

"Shades of Amber" by Marie Croke (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) - The main advantage this story has is being very pretty, which is actually something that Beneath Ceaseless Skies specializes in. The story is about aliens (or the fantastical equivalent) who show their emotions through the colorful shading of their skins, with respect given to those who shade most deeply and with the most range. The main character has little range, but her brother is gorgeously colored. The story follows the way this influences their life paths.

"Sexagesimal" by Katherine E. K. Duckett (Apex) - In a strange, not-entirely-explained (in a good way) afterlife where memories and time are traded to fulfill wants and needs, a dead woman tries to figure out why her husband has fallen asleep, suffering from the only disease that afflicts the dead. This is lovely and intriguing, although it's a story that doesn't fulfill its promise: I ended up being less interested in the events of the plot than I was in the setting and the set-up.

"On Petercook 2046" by Andy Duncan (Tor) - Why doesn't science fiction have more stories about people doing regular, boring work in the asteroid belt? Duncan answers the question with this story: because the work isn't very interesting. But he does it in a way that's remarkably funny and entertaining. The quirky characters talk with a lightness of dialogue that made me think of P. G. Wodehouse, although I think Duncan must have been referencing "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" are dead.

"Breaking the Frame" by Kat Howard (Lightspeed) - One of Kat Howard's projects appears to be metafictionally deconstructing the structure of fairytales. In the past, some of her work on this theme has struck me as too skeletal, relying on the reader to supply emotional content rather than evoking that content itself. In this one, wherein a woman and a photographer collaborate on taking photographs that represent feminist interventions with traditional fairy tales, I feel that she's found a compelling stride. The story creates its own imagery and material to place in conversation with the originals.

"What Everyone Remembers" by Rahul Kanakia (Clarkesworld) - This is a story of a post-apocaylptic future in which some of the last human survivors are trying to create a new race of sentient species to continue after them. I really liked the way that Kanakia handled the POV of the emerging sentience--both in the tight POV that described its acquisition of knowledge, and in its alienness.

"Good Hunting" by Ken Liu (Strange Horizons) - Ken Liu almost always tackles subjects of interest to me; in this case, the story is metaphorically about how the colonial influence on the far east changed its culture. A demon hunter's son finds himself out of work when western industry and trains displace old magic; his friend, a fox-girl, loses her ability to transform until she allows herself to be remade in metal. Lots of stories have handled the metaphorical transition from magic to industrialization, but I think Liu's depth of interest in colonialism and the cultural pscyhology of both the Sinitic Cultural Complex and the colonial West makes this story more interesting than most.

"Maxwell's Demon" by Ken Liu (Fantasy & Science Fiction) - Yes, Ken Liu again. :P In this story, he looks at the history of how Americans mistreated and manipulated Japanese citizens during World War Two, not only incarcerating them in internment camps, but using threats of mistreatment to force them to take on "patriotic" tasks. (This is not to say that there weren't many Japanese citizens who genuinely wanted to serve in the army and so on, but the way in which the American forces created untenable situations in order to force some people into doing so was disgusting.) An American citizen of Japanese descent is forced into spying on Japan for the United States. Some criticism has painted the main character of this story as passive, a characterization I emphatically object to--part of the story is about the way in which huge cultural powers crush the individual's ability to make free decisions, even those (like America) that claim to support it. Liu's main character navigates her foreclosed options in a compelling way that, as always, reflects Liu's cultural and historical interest.

"Virtue's Ghosts" by Amanda Olson (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) - Another Beneath Ceaseless Skies story, another odd and lovely world wherein the setting is as (or more) important than the plot. In this world, each person is assigned a "virtue" at their coming of age, and with it a pendant that forces them to adhere to it. The main character's aunt, who had been a talented singer, is forced into silence. The plot is simple--the main character learns about the pendants and how to navigate their restrictions--but I found the concept and the surreal style compelling.

"If the Mountain Comes" by An Owomoyela (Clarkesworld) - In a world lacking water, the main character is the daughter of a rich merchant who has made his fortune by controlling the modest water source. She joins forces with those who want to use technology to bring water more democratically to the people, even though her father is reacting violently to this assault on his power. This story is more traditional than many of An's--it's less disjunctive and has stronger characterization. In style, it reminds me most of hir story "All That Touches the Air."

"Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain" by Cat Rambo (Near + Far) - One of the reasons why Cat is one of my favorite short story writers is how much beautiful, unusual imagery she can evoke with only a few perfect details. Planet Porcelain is ideal in this regard. The main character works for the tourist bureau, writing lists of striking places and events, and the unusual descriptions of the setting are breathtaking. The lists themselves create a strong and thematically appropriate backbone for the story. The main character lives on the titual Planet Porcelain, where citizens are built from porcelain; as someone from the lower classes, she is built from inferior clay, which the richer citizens she works among never forget. The story starts in spring, the season of love, with the main character refusing to give into the romance of the weather. The reason why she is too jaded for love fall into place as the story progresses. This story is lovely, and the background events are compelling and odd, but I wanted something a touch stronger from the frame story in order for the piece to feel complete for me; I felt unfinished when the story was over, a sensation which was thematically appropriate to the story, but didn't quite strike the right note. From the author's note in the collection, it seems this story is in dialogue with a piece of work with which I'm not familiar; it's very possible that if I knew that work, the story would not feel unfinished to me.

Notable Stories

"Pinktastic and the End of the World" by Camille Alexa (WHEN THE VILLAIN COMES HOME)
"Intestate" by Charlie Jane Anders (
"Final Exams" by Megan Arkenberg (Asimovs)
"Birthdays" by Chris Barzak (Birds and Birthdays) "Great-Grandmother in the Cellar" by Peter Beagle (UNDER MY HAT)
"The Marker" by Cecil Castelucci (AFTER)
"Aquatica" by Maggie Clark (Clarkesworld)
"Kill Switch" by Benjamin Cromwell (Asimovs)
"Give Her Honey When You Scream" by Maria Dahvana Headley (Lightspeed)
"Sic Him, Hellhound! Kill! Kill!" by Hal Duncan (Subterranean)
"Luck Fish" by Peta Freestone (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) "Murdered Sleep" by Kat Howard (Apex)
"Lion Dance" by Vylar Kaftan (Asimovs)
"To the Moon" by Ken Liu (Fireside Magazine)
"People of Pele" by Ken Liu (Asimovs)
"Winter Scheming" by Brit Mandelo (Apex)
"Lovecraft in Brooklyn" by Meghan McCarron (The Revelator)
"Sexy Robot Mom" by Sandra McDonald (Asimovs)
"The Carved Forest" by Tim Pratt (UNDER MY HAT)
"The Mote-Dancer and the Firelife" by Chris Willrich (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
"The Three Feats of Agani" by Christie Yant (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
"The Philosophy of Ships" by Caroline Yoachim (Interzone)
"Bear in Contradicting Landscape" by David Schwartz (Apex)

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