Rachel Swirsky's Short Story Recommendations from 2011
Some of the pieces listed as short stories may actually be novelettes. I double-checked the ones I'm voting on, but for the rest of my reading, where it wasn't immediately obvious what category the work belonged to, I guessed.
"Her Husband's Hands" by Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed) - A war widow receives bad news from the front--that her husband is dead--however, they've managed to save his hands and only his hands. This is pretty much the height of metaphor-as-story. In that, it's not dissimilar from last year's "Arvies" in which Troy-Castro created a physicalized metaphor about abortion, but in my opinion, this piece does a much better job of pulling it off. It's dark, intensely written, and intimately and compassionately characterized. I was seriously awed.
"Old Habits" by Nalo Hopkinson (Eclipse 4) - Ghosts relive their deaths in a mall. The concept of ghosts reliving their deaths isn't unusual, of course, but Hopkinson brings unusual storytelling to the ensemble cast. Her characters are generously and sensitively portrayed, their stories interesting, and the plot pitch-perfect in terms of pulling the reader forward without sacrificing characterization or tone.
"Hero-Mother" by Vylar Kaftan (Giganotosaurus) - Kaftan's story of the alien physiology of sex is reminiscent of Tiptree's "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death," in the way it confronts the viscerally physical. Unlike Tiptree's story, however, "Hero-Mother" is also a story about love, sacrifice and limitation.
"Simulacrum" by Ken Liu (Lightspeed) - A father and daughter, unable to relate to each other in the real world, find their relationship (voluntarily and involuntarily) mitigated by computerized simulacra. This story is told in sharp, sweet flashes that are vivid in detail and characterization. The science fictional concept in the story provides an excellent means for Liu to explore lost connections and alienation between parent and child.
"The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees" by E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld) - Sometimes people manage to pull off surrealism and whimsy in a way that feels like they've discarded narrative conventions and, damn it, are just going to wander wherever they feel like it. It doesn't usually work, but sometimes it does. Cartographer fucking wasps and anarchist fucking bees.
"Three Damnations: A Fugue" by James Alan Gardner (Fantasy Magazine) - Three characters are stuck in a loop, dancing around each other, making each other miserable. Each of the characters and stories is interesting, and there's an admirable flesh on the story, giving it more depth than the (clever) idea alone. There are also some striking, unusual images.
"The Axiom of Choice" by David Goldman (New Haven Review) - This is the best reinterpretation of choose your own adventure stories I've seen so far. The story brings up philosophical and mathematical issues that provide intellectual interest, but also creates an emotionally compelling story.
"Story Kit" by Kij Johnson (Eclipse 4) - As Always, Kij Johnson has an amazing ability to tell stories, not only with an author's usual tools, but using the structure of the story itself to fascinate and move her audience. This meta-fictional story about love and loss is, in many ways, brilliant, and certainly noteable for its energy and ideas. However, I think the story doesn't quite come together--at one point, the narrator wonders whether what she's talking about is so personal that she can't even endure talking about it at one remove. It seems as if the whole story is a remove away from its subject matter, as if it's being held at arm's length. Each of the metaphorical threads in the story has its brilliance, but I didn't feel they all came together to make the story what it could have been.
"The Bricks of Gelecek" by Matt Kressel (Naked City) - One of the spirits of destruction falls in love with a human girl. Kressel creates absolutely stunning imagery in this story. It has the scope and breadth of an epic story in a way that really worked for me. Descriptions of ancient, fallen cities are gorgeous. Kressel has a talent, I think, in depicting the weight of history, even in short form. The ending faltered for me, but in some ways, the events and characters weren't my primary concern to begin with; this story is a delight in setting and cinematography.
"Valley of the Girls" by Kelly Link (Subterranean Online) - Kelly Link does her usual thing, weaving together several disparate but striking concepts. They come together here in a far-future story with unusual ideas and striking imagery. I didn't find this piece particularly emotionally involving, but it was beautiful and interesting to read.
"The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) - This story does a really interesting job of relaying the second-generation immigrant experience, creating discomfort and alienation through specific, suburban details. It reaches its pinnacle when the main character reads a letter left by his deceased mother. Unfortunately, the denouement doesn't sustain the emotional climax; the main character's emotions read as assumed, rather than fully realized on the page. This prevents the story from being outstanding rather than very good.
"Defenders" by Will McIntosh (Lightspeed) - McIntosh's story poses an ambiguous relationship between humans and aliens in a post-apocalyptic world. The way that the text deals with the ambiguities around power, alliances, violence, redemption, sacrifice, and yearning for connection remind me very much of the way Octavia Butler handled these themes, particularly in one of her later published stories, "Amnesty."
"Smoke City" by Christopher Barzak (Asimov's) - Beautiful, surrealist imagery, in a story that doesn't fit easily in genre categories.
"In the Gardens of the Night" by Siobhan Carroll (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) - Immersive fantasy with an interesting character and tone and genuinely well-created tension.
"Selling Home" by Tina Connolly (Bull Spec) - An emotionally evocative story in a far-future dystopia.
"Staying Behind" by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld) - An upload story from the perspective of those who stay behind that includes some striking, unusual images, such as kids bicycling in their evening dresses through the post-apocalyptic world to prom.
"Houses" by Mark Pantoja (Lightspeed) - A clever, well-structured far-future story.
"Long Enough and Just So Long" by Cat Rambo (Lightspeed) - A wistful far-future.
"Tethered" by Mercurio D. Rivera (Interzone--eligible only for the Hugo) - In a far-future story with aliens, Rivera explores the boundaries of love and physiology.
"The World Is Cruel, My Daughter" by Cory Skerry (Fantasy Magazine) - A surprisngly emotionally evocative retelling of Rapunzel.
"The Future When All's Well" by Cat Valente (Teeth) - A clever way of talking about the experience of growing up in the '8os (with Just say no! and after school specials), using vampires as a metaphor, that pulls off character and emotion as well.
"The Sandal-Bride" by Genevieve Valentine (Fantasy Magazine) - A fantasy that feels much longer than it actually is, with evocative setting details and an interesting plot.
"Lessons from a Clockwork Queen" by Megan Arkenberg (Fantasy Magazine)
"Needles" by Elizabeth Bear (Blood and Other Cravings)
"Sunbleached" by Nathan Ballingsrud (Teeth)
"Join" by Liz Coleman (Lightspeed)
"The Double of My Double Is Not My Double" by Jeffrey Ford (Eclipse 4)
"Younger Women" by Karen Joy Fowler (Subterranean Magazine)
"Steam Girl" by Dylan Horrocks (Steampunk!)
"History" by Ellen Kushner (Teeth)
"And Neither Have I Wings to Fly" by Carrie Laben (Bewere the Night)
"This Strange Way of Dying" by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Giganotosaurus)
"How Maartje and Uppinder Terraformed Mars (Marsmen Trad.)" by Lisa Nohealani Morton (Lightspeed)
"The House That Made the Sixteen Loops of Time" by Tamsyn Muir (Fantasy Magazine)
"All That Touches the Air" by An Owomoyela (Lightspeed)
"The Fish of Lijiang" by Chen Qiufan (Clarkesworld; may or may not be eligible as it's a translation)
"Whose Face This Is I Do Not Know" by Cat Rambo (Clarkesworld)
"Woman Leaves Room" by Robert Reed (Lightspeed)
"The Landholders No Longer Carry Swords" by Patricia Russo (Giganotosaurus)
"The Panda Coin" by Jo Walton (Eclipse 4)
"All You Can Do Is Breathe" by Kaaron Warren (Blood and Other Cravings)