Rachel Swirsky's Novelette Recommendations from 2011
Some of the pieces listed as novelettes may actually be short stories. 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.
MY HARD PICKS:
I haven't entirely decided on my ballot yet, but I'm absolutely sure these two will be on it.
"The Way Station" by Nathan Ballingsrud (Naked City) - A man, haunted by the city of New Orleans, navigates the world in which he is part streets and levies and the wreckage from floods. Haunting imagery and setting details build an eerie, well-fleshed character and tone. This is the kind of story that shows the power of surrealism in illuminating emotional truths. It exposes the heart of grief.
"What We Found" by Geoff Ryman (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) - The protagonist of this story has discovered that stress levels affect subsequent generations through the male line, meaning that the tragedies of the past are literally passed down into the bodies of the present and future. Now considering his own marriage and the prospect of passing on the stresses his line has endured, the narrator relates his experience of growing up. It's intense, often sad, but also brilliant in the way that it delineates character and setting detail. This story does what I've noticed I seem to want from fiction--it brings both literary tools and genre tools to bear in a way that sharpens both.
3 of these 6 will be on my ballot, but I'm not yet sure which three. I wish I could nominate all of them.
"Six Months, Three Days" by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor.com) - Two precognitives meet and fall in love. Their relationship is fraught by the fact that one of the precognitives is a determinist (seeing the future as a single stream) and the other believes in free will (and sees possibilities branching from most moments). The philosophical contrast and science fictional premise provide an intriguing philosophical flavor to the human romance; the two work exquisitely in synchrony.
"Gap Year" by Christopher Barzak (Teeth) - Like Kelly Link at her best, this story of a girl who discovers herself to be an emotional vampire not only deploys surreal, disconcerting imagery in service of emotional truth--but also does so in a satisfying, story-shaped structure.
"The Summer People" by Kelly Link (Steampunk!) - Kelly Link has a genius for characters and beautiful, strange imagery. Both are here. The character is strange and immediately compelling, her situation likewise. Strange events unfold in a way that's both disorienting and completely intuitive; she has an amazing talent for calling for the suspense of disbelief, for welcoming the reader into strageness. Unfortunately, I sometimes feel that Link's stories are structurally weak, although this makes the ones that aren't ("The Constable of Abal," "Magic for Beginners," etc.) even more striking. This one manages a compelling plot through to the abbreviated end. It's still striking and wonderful, but I'm left with an unresolved hollowness that disconnects me emotionally from the rest of the story. (Endings are of course controversial, and I'm a big fan of endings that leave you at the perfect moment, even if that moment is an unresolved chord--Tim Pratt's "Cup and Table" oh my God--but this one missed for me.)
"Slice of Life" by Lucius Shepherd (Teeth) - Another story that reminded me of Kelly Link. (I don't know what to say. I love her writing. Maybe Kelly Link is one of the paradigms in my brain against which All Others Will Be Judged.) The vampire in this story is unusual and compelling, but the most striking thing about this story is the non-magical protagonist, whose self-resolve--and sometimes bitterness--rise off the page to make her a fully fleshed, compelling figure.
"The Migratory Patterns of Dancers" by Katie Sparrow (Giganotosaurus) - In a future without birds, men ride through the country, wearing wings and dancing, doing the dangerous work of sustaining memory. Near-future science fiction with an unusual premise and absolutely gorgeous imagery and voice.
"Work, with Occasional Molemen" by Jeremiah Tolbert (Giganotosaurus) - Although there's a joke at the center of the piece that I'm not fond of; ignoring that, this is a visceral, emotionally intense piece with scarily good characterization and setting. It's dark, almost hopeless, but not in a sci-fi dystopia-way, but in an emotionally unflinching way like Dorothy Allison. It's a very unusual combination of voice and genre; it's distinctly itself in a striking way. I'm not sure I've ever read anything else like it.
"The Silver Wind" by Nina Allan (Interzone) - So, I read this novelette in the context of a linked short story collection, in which it was story #2 or #3, so I have trouble separating it entirely from the rest of the collection in my mind. Allan is a strikingly talented writer with a facility for taking complex ideas (time travel, alienation, exploration) and using extremely detailed characterization to reveal their emotional truths. The characters and premises in the collection are interesting and the read is often surprising and gratifying, but as a whole, I thought it was overwritten. Pruning back some of the contemplations and repetitions would have given the emotional moments and character revelations more of a chance to stand out. The novelette itself is the most highly structured piece of the collection and it's odd and compelling while also providing intellectual fodder.
"The House of Aunts" by Zen Cho (Giganotosaurus) - The story of a girl who is a variety of vampire from a non-western mythology and her first experiences with love. The relationships between the main character and her titular aunts manage to be tender, compelling, and creepy all at once. The main character, likewise, is easy to invest in, and yet has an edge of the gruesome. The story as a whole maintains this balance well, mixing the familiar and the revolting, in a way that I think most vampire stories fail to. Perhaps it's because the main characters aren't vampires in the traditional sense that allows their methods of killing and eating to feel freshly frightening in a way that blood-sucking doesn't. This story was very good, but I felt like it flinched away from the ending rather than facing the emotional complexity it had set up.
"Anticopernicus" by Adam Roberts (Amazon e-book at .99) - I didn't get very emotionally involved with this story, although I liked the cynical main character. However, the ideas and the action were pretty cool. It's somewhere between near- and far-future SF, and takes place at the time of first contact with aliens.
"The Skinny Girl" by Lucius Shepherd (Naked City) - Although i didn't think this piece held together very well structurally (particularly at the end; endings are so slippery), the strangeness and eeriness of it were very compelling. A photographer, obsessed with death, meets death's avatar. Their spine-shivering of their interaction--particularly when it's erotic--is skillfully crafted.
"Flying" by Delia Sherman (Teeth) - An aerialist who has been forbidden to practice her trade since she began dying of leukemia runs off to join a strange, timeless circus. There's an eeriness to circuses, of course, which gives all writing about them a boost when it comes to evoking the odd, but I especially liked the descriptions of this circus and its acts. I was compelled by the main character's hardened resolve. Sherman's voice is, as ever, exceptionally sharp.
"Slow as a Bullet" by Andy Duncan (Eclipse 4) - Nothing too deep, but a really entertaining tall tale in a characteristically entertaining Andy Duncan voice.
"Afterbirth" by Kameron Hurley (Amazon e-book at .99) - A tie-in with Hurley's GOD'S WAR.
"A Small Price to pay for Birdsong" by K.J. Parker (Subterranean Magazine) - Amadeus v. Salieri, fantasy style.
"Sauerkraut Station" by Ferret Steinmetz (Giganotosaurus) - While the voice of the protagonist--a young girl--rings false in places, this is fun, traditional space opera.