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Phew! I'm finally done. I kept acquiring more stories and novels that I wanted to read, so I had to set a limit for myself. Technically, that limit was "whatever I finish by Sunday night," but I bent it so that I could read a bit more this morning.

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.


Nominations

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.

Recommended

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

Comments

( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
mariadeira
Feb. 2nd, 2011 12:42 am (UTC)
I'm very behind on my reading, so this list will be a great start for me.

Congrats on your story in Clarkesworld!
rachel_swirsky
Feb. 2nd, 2011 01:56 am (UTC)
Thanks, Maria!
apexjason
Feb. 2nd, 2011 01:34 am (UTC)
Ghosts of New York
Hi Rachel,

Glad you enjoyed "Ghosts of New York." Jen is an amazing writer.

I noticed that you didn't list Apex Magazine as one of the zines you read. I know it's impossible to read everything, but Cat is doing some awesome stuff with the zine. Hope you can give it a try.
(Anonymous)
Feb. 2nd, 2011 01:51 am (UTC)
Re: Ghosts of New York
I don't read any magazines regularly per se, so much as scattered issues, supplemented with stories that I find through authors, recommendations, years bests, and so on? I did read a number of Apex stories this year since a number of them were recommended, e.g. "The Green Book," "Fair Ladies," "Portage" (by one of my former students). "Still Life (A Sexgasmical Fairy Tale)" was on my reading list, but I haven't gotten to it, unfortunately.

My impression of what I've read from Apex is that it tends to publish strongly voiced stories with well-rounded plots and unusual central ideas.

One of the ways I've been gathering material is to poke a few editors with whom I'm acquainted and ask them to recommend to me their favorite three or four stories they published this year. I feel like reading what editors consider the best of their best gives me a sense of the magazine's aesthetic as a whole that's different from just the random impressions I get from picking up a story here and there. I try to limit my pestering to people who I'm pretty sure wouldn't mind, since everyone's busy, and I don't want to be a nuisance.

Anyway, that's a prelude to saying that if you and/or Cat would be interested in kicking a few story titles my way next year, I'd be super pleased to read them. I could add you to my mental list of people to bug next year. No worries if you'd rather not.

Best,
Rachel
mercuriodrivera
Feb. 8th, 2011 05:55 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for the mention, Rachel!
pingback_bot
Feb. 9th, 2011 01:05 am (UTC)
A Few Personal Updates
User mattkressel referenced to your post from A Few Personal Updates saying: [...] others. Rachel also lists “The History Within Us” in her 2011 Story Recommendations [...]
elusis
Feb. 12th, 2011 04:28 am (UTC)
I'm looking forward to reading as many of these as I can.

FWIW, the Machine of Death folks are requesting consideration for one of their chapters in the "novelette" category and one in "short stories," so I hope it's OK if I pass their request on. A pdf of the book is downloadable for free.
rachel_swirsky
Feb. 12th, 2011 11:47 pm (UTC)
I'll try to take a look--I bought an e-copy of MACHINE OF DEATH. I might not have time before the Nebula deadline (health issues continue to slam hard), but there's still the Hugos.
rachel_swirsky
Feb. 12th, 2011 11:48 pm (UTC)
BTW, are you coming to Fogcon, perchance? http://fogcon.org/

Or Potlatch?

If not, I'll be in the bay area both weekends, so if you'd be interested in meeting up, it'd be fun to do coffee or something.
elusis
Feb. 14th, 2011 08:00 am (UTC)
I wish I could say yes to Fogcon, and I don't yet have anything on the calendar for that weekend, but I've been running so behind all quarter and am afraid to commit to anything else. And yet, being friendly directly or indirectly with several organizers, I feel torn, plus I am just about to finish "Shriek: an Afterword" and start "Finch" and so yeah.

I also feel incompetent to participate in things because I am just not fannish enough any more.

Don't know what Potlach is.

I'd be glad to have a drink or whatnot!
rachel_swirsky
Feb. 14th, 2011 01:16 pm (UTC)
Potlatch is another science fiction convention, literary-themed, that will take place the weekend before Fogcon: http://www.potlatch-sf.org/

I wonder which organizers you know?
elusis
Feb. 14th, 2011 06:36 pm (UTC)
vito_excalibur and wordweaverlynn. And I don't know imnotandrei but I know his partners and their children.

Edited at 2011-02-14 06:37 pm (UTC)
faerye.myopenid.com
Feb. 12th, 2011 07:10 am (UTC)
Thank you!
Thank you for recommending "Conditional Love"!
rachel_swirsky
Feb. 28th, 2011 05:00 am (UTC)
Re: Thank you!
Apparently, I'm not the only one! :D
gatetree
Feb. 26th, 2011 10:41 pm (UTC)
Cat's Story in RSF
Thanks for mentioning Cat Rambo's "Not Waving, Drowning" from Redstone Science Fiction. As unknowns starting up a pro market we were fortunate to get some quality submissions during our first few months, including stories by Mary Robinette Kowal and Vylar Kaftan. You can find all our stories in one place at: http://redstonesciencefiction.com/fiction/.

Yours,
Michael Ray
Editor
Redstone SF
rachel_swirsky
Feb. 28th, 2011 05:00 am (UTC)
Re: Cat's Story in RSF
Hi Michael,

Thanks for the note! I'm glad your magazine is doing so well.

If you'd like me to contact you next year when I start my reading to ask for a few recommendations of your favorite short stories you've published, as I ask some other editors, I would be happy to do so.

Best,
Rachel
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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