Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. Last time around we looked at the first half of the intriguing new Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy collection, helmed by John Joseph Adams as series editor and Joe Hill as guest editor—and this week, I’d like to round that out with the last ten stories in the 2015 edition.
Three of these last ten pieces are from mainstream publications (two from The New Yorker and one from McSweeney’s), while the rest are from various anthologies and magazines published in-genre. The Kelly Link story also appeared in her recent collection, Get in Trouble; I had read it first there. None of them had I previously written about in this column, unlike a couple in the first half of the collection.
While most of the stories in the 2015 edition have been of middle-length, “Windows” by Susan Palwick is brief: it has one concept, one emotional framework to lushly illustrate—and it does that well. The protagonist’s concept of using up her family’s luck, capped off with the witness of the other prisoners and visitors when she shows her incarcerated son her daughter’s birthday message, is evocative. This one, as they say, hits right in the feels.
The next piece, “The Thing About Shapes to Come” by Adam-Troy Castro, is weird enough to balance out some of the intensity of “Windows”—though it’s also about family, and children, and loss. I admit I had some trouble staying stuck to the story, because the idea seemed so bizarre and such attention was lavished on it, but I was glad for the payoff at the end. The cube welcoming her mother in was a nice closing scene, offering no answers in a story with no answers; it’s something I appreciate from time to time, and in this case, wasn’t frustrating.
“We Are the Cloud” by Sam J. Miller is deals with boys becoming men in the foster care system in the near-future: a story to do with love and loss as well, those big human narrative arcs, but with a distinctly youthful touch. (If I were quantifying it, I’d say it falls right on that “new adult” genre cusp that’s gotten such attention lately.) I thought the protagonist’s speech issues and the emotional conflict of his lover—who betrays him, but clearly not without personal cost—were handled deftly, as well.
I was more on the fence about “The Blue Afternoon That Lasted Forever” by Daniel H. Wilson than “Windows.” Both manipulate the readers’ sense of emotional investment and loss to pack a heavy hit at the end; however, I found this one treaded a little too close to having the seams showing. There’s a fine line to walk between provoking the reader’s investment and letting them see you doing it, and this story teeters on the edge. The part I appreciated most was the protagonist’s attempt to quantify the failure of his relationship with his wife, juxtaposed with the care he has for his daughter. The inevitable end-of-the-world via slow black hole consumption was interesting, but somehow didn’t quite do it for me.
The only story I flatly didn’t care for, though, was “Skullpocket” by Nathan Ballingrud—though I can see where this might be more of a reader’s issue than a story issue. I found it to be too carnivalesque and over-the-top in its grotesquerie. It was exhausting to read and the pacing felt off-kilter. Ballingrud is a writer I often quite adore, but this piece wasn’t at all satisfying for me. A deeper fan of horror, though, might potentially get a lot from it; I’m not that reader.
I did, though, love “I Can See Right Through You” by Kelly Link. Combining ghost story tropes with contemporary media fandom, it follows a realistically broken protagonist who needs to get himself together and can’t quite seem to manage it. The treatment of relationships, guilt, and persona are all spot-on. Link’s prose is also sharp and clean. It’s a story I was glad to re-read when I saw it here. I’d certainly count it among the best of the bunch; it’s very deeply human, with all of our less flattering bits on display, and engaging because of that.
The next piece, “The Empties” by Jess Row, is another from a mainstream publication, this one an exploration of a post-disaster America. (The characters themselves debate whether it’s post-apocalyptic or dystopian, to the conclusion that it’s neither—there’s no story left to have that kind of designation.) The prose is solid and the rumination on the act of writing or recording narratives is the center of attention in a way I definitely appreciate. It’s a slow piece, more a portrait than a moving-parts-plot yarn, and it works well. The ending is rather dystopian in approach, though.
“The One They Took Before” by Kelly Sandoval moves us to another story of after-effects: this time, of a woman who was let go from faerie and is trying to convince herself not to go back. Treating the loss of faerie as something like PTSD is clever, and Sandoval does a good job illustrating the manner of trouble it causes in the protagonist’s life: the teetering edge of desire and fear, loss and healing. In the end, her decision to be there for someone else when they escape it believable—though the choice is also convincingly difficult.
The second-to-last story, “The Relive Box” by T. C. Boyle, is one I didn’t care for as much as I might have. It feels dated and stale; the ideas here aren’t something fresh to me, or to most sf readers, and the execution isn’t doing much to make them feel intriguing again. I was moderately interested to see another story of a father raising his daughter after a seemingly-callous unsatisfied wife left him. However, this story doesn’t do as much with that as I’d like, either. The sharpest part is the exploration of that college-age love he relives, but overall, I wasn’t won over.
The closing piece, “How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps” by A. Merc Rustad, is about an asexual woman in a complex relationship with a gay man; she is both in love with and wants to be a robot, as a sort of metaphor—or not—for being a better put together human. There are some queer poly dynamics that are interesting here, as well as the protagonist’s effort to seek help for her depression; it did feel a little shallow on the character front, but I can forgive that due to the relatively short length and broad idea it’s working with.
Overall, I thought this was a highly promising first installment in a different sort of best-of series. While I love the closely curated series edited across the genre—Dozois, Horton, Strahan, Guran, and so on—there is something to be said about having a dual system with a blind end. It definitely gives a different and seemingly broader perspective on the type of work that’s appearing under the “sf” umbrella around the literary sphere.
I look forward to seeing what comes through with the guest editor for 2016, certainly.
Brit 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.