Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. Last time around we discussed Nalo Hopkinson’s new collection, Falling in Love with Hominids. Now, I’d like to spend a couple of columns on a fresh new best-of annual: The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015, first installment from series editor John Joseph Adams with guest editor Joe Hill. The Best-American series uses a particular blind reading model that I’ve always found intriguing—the series editor gathers a large group of stories and the guest editor reads them all blind to pick the top twenty—and here, it definitely produces interesting results in terms of the “year’s best” sf.
The thing I found pleasing in specific about this collection of stories published in 2014 is that, despite the blind-read aspect, it’s still—no surprise—rather diverse. There are writers of all stripes, both fresh faces and familiar; while the obvious caveat is that one will recognize some of these stories with names-off (the Gaiman, for instance), the end result is one of the most balanced and consistently intriguing best-ofs I’ve read in some time. I don’t love it all, but it all makes sense together.
The first ten stories include some that I had read on their original publication, but several I had not. Of the ones I’d read before, “How to Get Back to the Forest” by Sofia Samatar was covered in a previous installment of the Short Fiction Spotlight on Lightspeed Magazine while Cat Rambo’s “Tortoiseshell Cats are Not Refundable” I discussed in its original publication in Clarkesworld #250. However, the other eight from the first half were either fresh to me or I had never talked about them before—and they range from stories I quite liked to stories I wanted to like, but didn’t quite. There’s a good range, regardless, of tones and topics and types of prose.
“Help Me Follow My Sister Into the Land of the Dead” by Carmen Maria Machado has a twist that a reader sees coming from a mile out; somehow, though, it’s still got punch. That’s likely because of the particular manipulation of the tropes of the crowdfunding blog: the protagonist shares her discoveries with us through blog posts, and we also see the reader comments trying to help before it’s too late. Ultimately, I thought it was clever and I liked the flat realism of treating going to the land of the dead as something so mundane that it could be Kickstarted for.
One of the stories I found most lingering was “The Bad Graft” by Karen Russell, from The New Yorker. The prose is lush and a bit twisty, as I expect from a piece with its roots—pun intended—in both the speculative and literary soil. The graft of the tree spirit and the woman, the strange hopeless romance between the woman and her equally-displaced male partner: both of these emotional arcs are balanced well together, commenting sharply on issues of connection, isolation, and intimacy at the same time. It’s immersive and intense, with strong execution.
Then there’s “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i” by Alaya Dawn Johnson, a dystopian vampire story that I found compelling and fraught—despite the fact that it is, in fact, a dystopian vampire story. I am reminded most strongly of the recent re-reading I’ve done of Octavia Butler and similar genre works: there is a particular examination of the grey areas and horrors and complexities of power dynamics, oppression, and survival when survival is unethical that is echoed here. The piece is smart and the world in it is appropriately unpleasant and ugly. I appreciated that.
The shift to “Each to Each” by Seanan McGuire takes us over to “mermaids” but also a piece exploring politics, power, and ethics. I found the premise a little over-explained; the story seems to be trying too hard to justify the neat-idea-thing driving the plot (the genetically altered Navy-women), and it bogs down the narrative. I thought the ending lines were engaging and some of the imagery was delightful, but overall, I thought it read a bit more shallow than I’d have liked—interesting, but not necessarily gripping.
However, “The Ogres of East Africa” by Sofia Samatar—her second piece in the collection!—is fantastic. It’s one of the best of the first half of the book, utterly different from the opening piece by Samatar. This is a list-piece, where the protagonist records histories of ogres for his colonialist boss so he can go on a hunt for one. However, it leads to the realization that he himself is able to rebel against this colonial imperative with the woman who is telling him the stories. This piece is understated, poetic, and vivid in its descriptions without losing its sense of forward narrative movement.
Another story about stories is “Cimmeria: from The Journal of Imaginary Anthropology” by Theodora Goss—and I’m rather on the fence about it. This is a longer story, and it seems to be doing two different things at once. I’m not entirely sure it succeeds, though I did find it interesting enough to continue reading along. On the one hand, we have the imaginary anthropology that has created a culture as a background plot mostly told through reflection; on the other, we have the story about the culture’s treatment of twins and the narrator’s marriage. Those ends join, but not as neatly as might be necessary to make the pacing flow smoothly throughout.
“Sleeper” by Jo Walton is a straight-up idea piece: the protagonist is making interactive biographies for a heavily corporatized future in the hopes of something better. She sneaks in a sleeper agent for communism, from back in the Cold War. He agrees to be sent out into the world as an active AI, so he can convert people and make some change. It’s neat and short and interesting; perhaps a little forgettable, in the end, but fun enough to read.
The last of the first half of stories is “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back” by Neil Gaiman—something that will speak greatly to fans, I suspect, who want to read about the Marquis de Carabas. It’s a little adventure yarn, and it’s charming, but it didn’t strike me as such a “best-of” except in that it will certainly make folks happy. Though, to be fair, perhaps that’s plenty enough.
Next week: more stories from publications outside the field that definitely add context and richness to those stories from within it. Come back then!
Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.