Rachel Swirsky's Short Story Recommendations, 2011
There were a lot of knockout short stories this year. I could easily have nominated 10 without changing my standards.
After talking to friends and acquaintances, emailing authors, aggregating year's best lists, and asking editors and critics for their recommendations, I came up with a list of 152 stories I wanted to read (not counting short stories I'd read earlier in the year). I managed to get through 120 of them. A further five turned out to be unexpectedly unavailable to me, and the last 25 I just didn't have time to get to. I prioritized my reading based on a very precise algorithm calculated from my prior experience with the author, the number of sources that recommended the story, and whim.
To one degree or another, I enjoyed about 75% of the stories, which is a pretty good hit rate for me. Of course that's not surprising given that the list was already a winnowing down of this year's field. I mention that partially by way of suggesting that I probably enjoyed any given story that I read but am not mentioning on this list. I had to winnow down my recommendations to a smaller number than the number of stories I enjoyed reading.
Part of how I evaluated material this year was to think about which stories evoked strong emotion and full immersion. I favored stories that hit my emotions. Don't get me wrong. I love stories that can be intellectually analyzed; Kij Johnson's "Evolution of Trickster Stories" is one of my favorite stories. So is Kelly Link's "Magic for Beginners." These are stories that flirt with the brain, that tease with meta-fiction and ambiguity and the sense of wonder that comes from using a magical slant to deconstruct the world we think we know, and then reassembling our vision into something recognizable but slightly different—a new way of looking. What is adolescence? What is the boundary between love and slavery?
Charles Yu's "Standard Loneliness Package" is a story in the intellectual mode, like those, although (also like those) it certainly evokes emotions. Many, perhaps most, good stories will evoke both emotions and intellect, of course.
But this year I found myself primarily focusing on the experience of the emotional over the intellectual, stories like "Ponies" by Kij Johnson, and "The Isthmus Variation" by Kris Millering. Stories that swept me away, stories that left me with vivid images and moods and characters, stories that bypassed my thinking brain so that I wasn't analyzing as I read, just experiencing.
PONIES by Kij Johnson – Last year, when Spar was nominated (and won), I found myself in the minority, wondering what the heck was so controversial about the story. Don't get me wrong; I love Kij's work. I just didn't see Spar as others seemed to, as a visceral punch in the gut. Ponies, though? Visceral. My stomach knotted as I began to read and stayed knotted. It's still kind of knotted. I want to give a synopsis, but I'll refrain—I think the story says what it's about in just the right length of time it takes to say it.
THE HISTORY WITHIN US by Matt Kressel - A stunning, emotionally resonant far-future apocaclypse, in which the alien setting only serves to enhance the questions the story poses about genocide, humanity, and memory.
THE ISTHMUS VARIATION by Kris Millering– This eerie, chilling mystery about a destroyed theater troupe evoked its mood so strongly that I had to pause reading afterward to digest. Subtly built, intelligent, and evocative.
THE GHOSTS OF NEW YORK by Jennifer Pelland – Another viscerally emotional story for me, this one ponders grief and memory in the wake of 9/11. What I like about it is the distance it brings to the events; the perspective of years gathering between then and now gives this piece a historical slant, looking not quite at what 9/11 was, but what it will eventually mean.
STANDARD LONELINESS PACKAGE by Charles Yu – This story was less emotionally evocative for me than the others, but like Charles Yu's masterful novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, this story employs a fresh, intelligent, and insightful interpretation of science fictional tropes, combined with excellent character work and skillful control of the prose, to create something unique and worthy of rereading and reconsidering.
Highly Recommended (Stories I'd nominate if I had a couple more slots!)
ON THE BANKS OF THE RIVER LEX by N. K. Jemisin – Jemisin's stories about all-powerful beings are shockingly evocative; she writes breath into gods so that they occupy both an epic, mythical, archetypical role, but also become strange and fascinating characters. It was lovely to see her bring this talent into a post-apocalyptic story about Death and other human gods, struggling to cope in a world without people. (Interestingly, the story shares many elements with Richard Parks's "Four Horsemen at Their Leisure." Although Parks is taking on the problem of evil,
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.
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.
AMARYLLIS by Carrie Vaughn – This is the story I had most trouble breaking off of my nominations list. When I was reading it, the emotion swept me entirely; I was fully immersed by the characters and world in a way I rarely achieve in a short story. Carrie Vaughn does a brilliant job of creating sympathetic characters in a meaningful situation, while elucidating an ambiguous world that is simultaneously more oppressive than ours and more free.
THROWING STONES by Mishell Baker – Well-plotted fantasy with intriguing world building and creature details.
STEREOGRAM OF THE GREY FORT, IN THE DAYS OF HER GLORY by Paul M. Berger – Another well-plotted fantasy with an intriguing structural premise.
OAKS PARK by M. K. Hobson – A ghost story of loss and nostalgia.
SINNERS, SAINTS, DRAGONS AND HAINTS, IN THE CITY BENEATH THE STILL WATERS by N. K. Jemisin – Brilliant dialogue and swift pacing underpin this story of Katrina and its aftermath. The speculative element is prettily described, but not entirely satisfying.
IN-FALL by Ted Kosmatka – A hard science fiction story that incorporates some of the theoretical details about black holes into an emotional narrative about anger, grief, redemption and eternity.
AMID THE WORLDS OF WAR by Cat Rambo – Strange, intriguing story of an alien exiled from her people.
CONDITIONAL LOVE by Felicity Shoulders – Character-driven near future sf.
NOTABLE (at best, a partial list)
LOVE WILL TEAR US APART by Alaya Dawn Johnson
I'M ALIVE, I LOVE YOU, I'LL SEE YOU IN RENO by Vylar Kaftan
THE SPEED OF DREAMS (podcast) by Will Ludwigsen
ASTRONAUT DRAG QUEEN by Sandra MacDonald
SEVEN SEXY COWBOY ROBOTS by Sandra MacDonald
NOT WAVING, DROWNING by Cat Rambo
TU SUFRIMIENTO SHALL PROTECT US by Mercurio D. Rivera
ALIENATION by Katherine Sparrow
THE CHILDREN OF MAIN STREET by A. C. Wise
SO DEEP THAT THE BOTTOM COULD NOT BE SEEN by Genevieve Valentine
FINISHING UP with a few observations about magazines: Usually I find at least a few stories from F&SF that I really like; this year, I had trouble connecting with most of the F&SF stories I downloaded from the SFWA forums, even ones by authors I really like. I don't know whether that's because F&SF is moving more toward a particular tone I'm not especially fond of, whether I just ended up selecting for the wrong stories, or whether the change has to do with JJA's departure. I also didn't end up nominating much from Asimov's, although I expect that's because I had trouble (my fault) with my subscription so I discovered at the last minute that I didn't have access to a number of the stories I wanted to read, including work by Alice Sola Kim, James Kelly, Michael Swanwick, Carol Emshwiller, Sara Genge, and others.
On the plus side, I felt like this year's Clockwork Phoenix may have hit its stride; all the stories I picked up from it this year were vivid and imagistic. Clarkesworld remains both stylistically distinct and strong, Beneath Ceaseless Skies is publishing stuff that's distinguished by sharp plotting, and Lightspeed is publishing an astonishing number of really excellent stories.
I'm really excited about these. I hope people read and enjoy—if not these stories, then others. I'm happy to get to talk with people about fiction. :D