Rachel Swirsky's Novelette Recommendations, 2012
To begin the entry, I'm going to list, without reviews, the novelettes that are definitely on my ballot, those which I'm considering for my ballot, and those which I highly recommend. Reviews will follow, along with shorter reviews of recommended novelettes. At the end of the post, I'll list other novelettes I found notable.
As always, there are many more novelettes that I read and enjoyed, and that deserve recognition, than I can list.
Definitely on Ballot
"Mating Habits of the Late Cretaceous" (excerpt) by Dale Bailey (Asimovs)
"Fade to White" by Cathrynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld)
Possibly on Ballot
"Swift, Brutal Retalliation" by Meghan McCarron (Tor.com)
"The Finite Canvas" by Brit Mandelo (Tor.com)
"Aftermath" by Joy Kennedy O'Neill (Strange Horizons)
"Hold a Candle to the Devil" by Nicole M. Taylor (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
"The Ghosts of Christmas" by Paul Cornell (Tor.com)
"Firebugs" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (Eclipse Online)
"The Indifference Engine" by Project Itoh (THE FUTURE IS JAPANESE)
"Tattooed Love Boys" by Alex Jeffers (Giganotosaurus)
"Unsilenced" by Karalynn Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
"The Waves" by Ken Liu (Asimovs)
"Golden Bread" by Issui Ogawa (THE FUTURE IS JAPANESE)
"Scry" by Anne Ivy (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
"Small Towns" by Felicity Shoulders (Fantasy & Science Fiction)
"Static, and Sometimes Music" by David Schwartz (Unstuck #2)
"Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Giganotosaurus)
"Astrophilia" by Carrie Vaughn (Clarkesworld)
Definitely on Ballot
"Mating Habits of the Late Cretaceous" (excerpt) by Dale Bailey (Asimovs) - I hadn't heard of Dale Bailey before reading this story; when I was finished, I immediately looked him up and wrote him a fan letter. I read this very late at night when I had insomnia and it took me in completely and was unexpectedly intense and wrenching. In this story, a couple with a troubled marriage spend more money than they can afford to go to a resort in the Cretaceous. They are supposed to see the dinosaurs together, but the husband displays little interest, and the wife disconnects from him, finding more passion in the ancient sights. I found the characters and emotional journey extremely vivid and well-wrought. The science fictional backdrop intensified the emotional story. It's not an original emotional journey--especially in lit-fic--but it was a very good treatment. This story doesn't seem to have gotten a lot of review love, perhaps because reviewers weren't interested in the kind of emotional journey that is classically the domain of literary fiction. But I loved it. (Tolbert's "The Yeti Behind You" which I published in PodCastle explores a similar thematic link between extinction and emotion, although from a less character-intense space.)
"Fade to White" by Cathrynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld) - Like Valentine, I think Valente is having an amazing year. This story just dropped me flat. It was probably my favorite piece of fiction published this year. Read it. Read it. Read it. In this novelette, Valente creates a dystopian world that might have occurred if the world had ended in the 1950s. Its retro feel--enhanced not only by the character development and setting, but by cleverly placed interludes that contain scripts from commercials--allows Valente to comment on the cultural heritage of the 1950s, both in our everyday lives and, particularly, in science fiction. By looking at the breakdown of that world--as so much classic SF does--from a modern perspective, she deconstructs the assumptions of the era and of its stories in an intelligent, striking way. The story isn't easily reducible to its politics, though; Valente clearly establishes the characters within her world and follows their unsettling stories with a relentlessly clear eye.
Possibly on Ballot
"Swift, Brutal Retalliation" by Meghan McCarron (Tor.com) - This exquisitely well-written story is about two little girls whose brother has just died of cancer. His ghost appears when they play pranks on each other. Like many of the other novelettes I'm passionate about this year, this story thrives on its intricate characterization and the way in which its speculative content highlights the characters and emotions. The family in this story is described intensely and unflinchingly with finely woven POV shifts and sharply observed family dynamics. It's a chilling, bitter story in many ways, and reminds me of the work by an MFA classmate of mine, Jenny Zhang, who created obsessive, clear-eyed family portraits through fragmented POVs. It also has shades of Klages's clear, non-nostalgic eye for the good and bad of childhood, as well as shades of Kelly Link's use of mystery in the voice.
"The Finite Canvas" by Brit Mandelo (Tor.com) - A woman who was exiled from her home in space has ended up on earth where resources are scarce and people live without modern conveniences. She works as the local doctor, barely able to scrape together enough money for medicines, let alone to cure her worsening breast cancer. Her circumstances worsen when another refugee comes to earth, an assassin who is being chased by the government, and who recently killed her partner. The assassin promises money to the doctor if the doctor will scarify her arm in memorial of her last kill. "Finite Canvas" weaves both women's stories with the present as they're falling in love. Mandelo is a writer to watch, I think. Her stories are incisive and her characters have an unusual edge. She's exploring themes of gender, but also themes of passion--its tangles, its brightness, its viciousness. Of writers I enjoy, I think her writing most reminds me of Nicola Griffith's.
"Aftermath" by Joy Kennedy O'Neill (Strange Horizons) - O'Neill is another writer who's new to me, and this is one of the few zombie stories that I've really liked. It's about the process of reconciliation that occurs after the zombies recover and how they reintegrate into society. The novelette intelligently references and builds on real-world situations like the post-apartheid recovery in South Africa. Mending the sociological rifts left by genocide or other atrocities requires a sort of willful social blindness, a denial of what has happened. In the novelette's case, the zombies did not have control over their actions, so the story necessarily removes the question of responsibility for the atrocities, which does make the reonciliation process less intense than it is in real life. Nevertheless, I think O'Neil intelligently explores the ways in which people act to protect themselves psychologically: denying what has happened, denying what they did, the ways in which the socially mandated silence creaks and cracks. There is a sentimental element here, but it didn't overwhelm the story for me.
"Hold a Candle to the Devil" by Nicole M. Taylor (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) - Another writer who is new to me. This is a story woven through multiple POVs of a woman who is inheriting the bawdhouse where she works from the woman who took her in as a young child. She is learning the craft of protecting her workers with magic, which she must use when one of them is attacked by a client. The story doesn't tread any new conceptual ground, but I quite liked the voice, and particularly the way that the unusual but careful structure allowed it to develop with a vivid emotional tone, which has now (months after I read the story) distilled for me into a mix of melancholy and dread.
"The Ghosts of Christmas" by Paul Cornell (Tor.com) - A woman develops the technology to project herself mentally backward into the past or forward into the future, but only to watch from her own perspective what has happened. On the day when she is about to give birth, she is the first person to test the new technology, and she witnesses a string of her past Christmases, and another string going into the future as she divorces her husband and uncovers her uneasy relationship with her daughter. This story felt deeply endowed with personal emotion (which makes sense since Cornell recently became a father) and I was particularly struck by the kinds of details that Cornell employed in establishing the characters' relationships.
"Firebugs" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (Eclipse Online) - A future in which clone groups are raised with established personality patterns, e.g. a group of six Chloes who are all raised with the same personality profile, and in which the clones are kept together as closely as possible so that they will develop as few diverging experiences (and thus traits) as possible. The main character is part of an experimental clone group that would establish a new personality. Consequently, they're under close supervision to see whether they will be approved. The main character turns out to have a propensity toward arson that would scuttle her group's chance and so she has to figure out how she can proceed without endangering her sister/twins. I usually find Hoffman's work charming, and this was no exception. It's a fun plot to follow and an interesting world/question posed.
"The Indifference Engine" by Project Itoh (THE FUTURE IS JAPANESE) - After a truce is declared in a war-torn African country, the two factions from the civil war are unable to reconcile. Child soldiers who have never known anything but the conflict are unwilling to stop fighting. An American NGO experimentally treats many of them so that they can no longer visually tell the difference between their tribe and the other, but this solution proves simplistic and inadequate. I thought this was an interesting and politically intriguing way of engaging with contemporary political situations that are often ignored in western literature (although I have no idea how they're treated in Japanese literature).
"Tattooed Love Boys" by Alex Jeffers (Giganotosaurus) - A tattoo artist is able to change a person's sex, desires, and life story by engraving them with different tattoos. The main character, who starts out as a discontented girl who is attracted to gay men, eventually is turned into a man, and her whole relationship with her brother changes. Really smart and weird play with gender. Fun, strange experiments, written lightly, with tongue a bit in cheek, the kind of thing you want to watch because you want to see where the author is going to dart next.
"Unsilenced" by Karalynn Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) - This is a strangely beautiful story wherein an empress whose father has just died makes a deal with a mage so that she can take over her father's power along with his throne. In order to accomplish this, the mage steals the voice of another magic-worker for her, and with the voice comes the gift of prophecy. The story's not entirely coherent which is a point against it, but it's particularly lovely, and has the sense of being longer than it is, not in terms of feeling boring or overdone, but in terms of feeling as if you're experiencing so much that it must be longer. Imagistic loveliness reminds me of Tanith Lee.
"The Waves" by Ken Liu (Asimovs) - Humanity reaches a post-human state--but it's not without complications. On a generation ship where the stores are calibrated carefully to support only a certain number of people, is it moral to choose immortality when you know that means your kids can never grow up? When the generation ship lands, they find that uploading is possible, and enhanced consciousness, and traveling through space in waves. The story documents the different choices that people make. Mostly an idea story, but I was willing to let the ideas and the images wash past.
"Golden Bread" by Issui Ogawa (THE FUTURE IS JAPANESE) - A soldier from a colonial empire lands on an asteroid where people attempt to live without significant expansion or consumption. He is convinced that the differences between their cultures is caused by genetics, but eventually, they demonstrate that it is not. There's some (a lot of?) heavy-handedness in the theme here, but I really enjoyed it a lot, partially because of the description of the asteroid, and the characters who people the story. While the writer tilts his hand to force the theme, the characters' reaction to living in that world seems true to me, and the main character's reaction to the epiphany seems emotionally real.
"Scry" by Anne Ivy (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) - A wife has always scried for her husband and served him well, but nevertheless, when he is sieged, he abandons her to the enemy because he has no way to hide her acid-burned face. Rather than committing suicide as her husband no doubt wants, she goes to the alien enemy and offers to serve him in return for a stay of execution. The character and world here are nice and it's a fast-paced, well-rendered epic fantasy that, like "Unsilenced," feels fuller than its word count would seem to allow. However, it didn't quite transcend its well-worn territory for me. A fully enjoyable, well-done story.
"Small Towns" by Felicity Shoulders (Fantasy & Science Fiction) - A miniature girl (a Thumbelina analog) is born to a seamstress during a war. After the seamstress dies, the miniature girl is sent to the mother's hometown; however it was recently destroyed by a natural disaster that killed her grandparents. The girl discovers a miniature town that was built by a toymaker to look like the one that was destroyed. She moves into the model houses and eventually meets him. I just thought this was charming, imagistically, and I really enjoyed the voice that Shoulders used to tell the story.
"Static, and Sometimes Music" by David Schwartz (Unstuck #2) - Schwartz is another writer I'm starting to watch. This surrealist novelette places a corporate building under a literal siege by its creditors. The story wanders between genres, swinging from contemporary satire to surrealism to epic fantasy. Schwartz has a disarming ability to establish the reader on what seems like solid ground and then break it down, changing the rules completely, and building up another seemingly stable space which he then also breaks down. The rules are constantly changing and yet the disorientation is never unpleasant; there's always a sense of being tossed about by a confident, playful hand. There are shades of Vandermeer here ("Secret Life") but as I write this review, I realize that what it really reminds me of is absurdism as it manifests in playwriting, e.g. Ionesco's The Chairs.
"Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Giganotosaurus) - In this piece, Sriduangkaew rewrites a story from Chinese mythology, casting the hero Houyi as a woman. I really grooved on this retelling, both because of the way that it developed as a story, and also because of the interesting gender plays.
"Astrophilia" by Carrie Vaughn (Clarkesworld) - Set in the same world as Vaughn's Hugo nominated "Amaryllis," this is the story of a love affair between a weaver who has been adopted into a new house after her old one has dissolved, and a would-be astrologer. Vaughn is very good at these peaceful, almost pastoral science fiction stories, and I like their quietness and character development.
"After Compline, Silence Falls" by M. Bernardo (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) - A colony of ascetic monks confronts hunger as their supplies drain. Each sins by eating more than his share, but only nettles himself with his sins, rather than trying to resolve them communally. The story is complicated when a wraith made from hunger begins attacking the monks' stores. This is well-written and well-structured. The monster story doesn't do anything surprising for me in itself, but I liked this for the voice, setting, and the emotion behind the conclusion.
"The Stone Witch" by Isobelle Carmody (UNDER MY HAT) - A woman who hates kids is seated next to a young girl on an airplane. When the plane crashes, she's pulled into an alternate universe where, in order to save the girl's life, she takes her as a familiar. Honestly, I read this story near the beginning of last year, and I have strikingly little recollection of it. My notes suggest I really liked it a lot at the time. I think it was one of those fun, let-it-all-go adventure stories.
"Join the High Flyers" by Ian Creasey (Asimovs) - A former runner is genetically modified so that he has wings and can fly. He joins a clan of other bird-men and ascends into the sky, revealing the competitive culture of the bird-people. This was really just intense and strange, and it was a lot of fun to discover the unusual imagery and world-building. I also like stories about flying people; sue me. But seriously, it was pretty and fun.
"Close Encounters" by Andy Duncan (Pottowatomie Giant) - One of the original "alien abductees" has been trying to hide from reporters ever since the moon landing has made his story seem like a joke. He still believes it is real, though, and is forced to interact with the outside world again when a reporter coaxes him into talking about the old days. The character is interesting, with Duncan's wonderful skill for voice, and I was mostly happy to go along with an interesting read. I didn't like the way that it resolved--which I've seen several times before and which seems indulgent to me--but I'm not sure what ending would have managed to avoid cliche of some sort.
"Hive Mind Man" by Eileen Gunn and Rudy Rucker (Asimovs) - The funny story of a woman who takes in a deadbeat boyfriend who has endless projects that he wants to accomplish with new technologies. This is another story about the anxiety produced by changing technology (there were a number of these in Asimovs this year, and generally speaking, they don't speak to me), but it's also just charming and very amusing and full of fun eyeball kicks. The story feels light and energetic and just sort of runs along at a jovial speed, grinning.
"Old Paint" (excerpt) by Megan Lindholme (Asimovs) - The story of a family and its sentient car. After a virus gives independence to the AIs in cars, a woman lives vicariously through her old station wagon. Good detail and characterization; the whimsy of the premise ameliorates the serious tone. I enjoyed it despite being divided about the story: on the one hand, the "what if cars could be sentient" motif felt stale... but on the other hand, I liked the way that it created an effect of nostalgia for the past, and I also liked the relationships between the characters.
"Possible Monsters" (excerpt) by Will McIntosh (Asimovs) - A failed minor league baseball player returns home after his father's death and discovers that an alien monster has taken up residence in his childhood home. He makes an uneasy home with the creature, only to discover that it has given him an unwanted gift--the ability to see his possible future selves walking, like ghosts, through the town. Nothing profoundly new here, but McIntosh is a very talented writer, and it's interesting to watch his take on this unfold.
"The Contrary Gardener" by Christopher Rowe (Eclipse Online) - In a world that has reacted to environmental devastation by enacting strict rules limiting consumption, a woman has broken all the social rules by figuring out ways to increase her yield above the government-mandated subsistence level. Her father who is part of a group that hates the current government--and its artificial intelligences--tries to recruit her and her gardening skills to their cause. The main character's acerbic personality and love for gardening come through in the story, and the world itself is interesting.
"Mirror Blink" by Jason Sanford (Interzone) - Sanford writes science fictional worlds that have really striking, unusual imagery, so that there's a sense of combining surrealism with hard science fiction with metaphor that I really love. This story--about a post-apocalyptic world wherein humanity is ruled by capricious alien beings that limit their knowledge and periodically burn whole towns--had many of the signature Sanford elements; my favorite was that one could look into the sky with a telescope and discern moments from history, strung up like stars. For some reason, it didn't transcend itself for me; I did like it a lot, but I felt something was missing.
"Juggernaut" by Megan Arkenberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
"The Sweet Spot" by A. M. Dellamonica (Lightspeed)
"Fake Plastic Trees" by Caitlin Kiernan (AFTER)
"In the Library of Souls" by Jennifer Mason-Black (Strange Horizons)
"Golva's Ascent" (excerpt) by Tom Purdom (Asimovs)
"Missionaries" by Mercurio D. Rivera (Asimovs)