The Best Short SFF: Winter 2017

The Very Best

Novellas
And Then There Were (N-one), by Sarah Pinsker; Uncanny Magazine, Issue 15 (Mar/Apr 2017)
At a trans-dimensional conference of Sarah Pinskers, insurance investigator Sarah Pinsker must find out who was responsible for the murder of DJ Sarah Pinsker as an Agatha Christie style-storm confines all the Sarah Pinskers to an island hotel. You don’t have to be a longtime Sarah Pinsker admirer to enjoy this supremely engrossing meta-mystery, but if you are, this is basically the greatest piece of fan service ever written. Pinsker’s stories have always centered around protagonists who are willing to pursue their personal obsessions well beyond the limits of reason, exploring the unstable ground that lies between narcissism and self-awareness. And Then There Were (N-one) is easily the most explicit rendering of this theme, and possibly her most entertaining.
Novelettes
Concessions, by Kaalidah Muhammad-Ali; Strange Horizons (March 6, 2017)
An emotionally complex and satisfying tale of a doctor living in exile who must make sacrifices to help her community and herself, in a future where a worldwide catastrophe has greatly increased the number of pregnancies that result in stillbirth. Interesting world-building, with a memorable protagonist.
The Dark Birds, by Ursula Vernon; Apex Magazine, Issue 92 (January 2017)
A vicious little folk tale, grotesque and disquieting, about sisters who suffer horrifying abuse – and an even more horrifying fate – at the hands of their monstrous parents. I loved it, but read at your own risk.
Extracurricular Activities, by Yoon Ha Lee; tor.com (February 15, 2017)
Set well before Ninefox Gambit in Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, Shuos Jedao must infiltrate an enemy station to retrieve an old friend, and the intelligence they’ve gathered. Casting Jedao in a James Bond-type role is a stroke of genius – also, if you are unfamiliar with the character and the universe, this story will make an excellent primer.
A Series of Steaks, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad; Clarkesworld, Issue 124 (January 2017)
Helena is a criminal living in hiding, printing counterfeit steaks for high-end restaurants who pass them off as the genuine article. When she is blackmailed by Mr. Yongjing, she must find a way to get out from under his thumb. A quirky idea set in a brilliantly realized near-future, with memorable characters and a perfect ending.
Soulmates.com, by Will McIntosh; Asimov’s Science Fiction (Mar/Apr 2017)
This one plays like a dark counterpoint to the Spike Jonze film Her. Here, a grad student thinks he has found the perfect girlfriend online, only to discover she is not who she appears to be. A cat and mouse revenge game ensues. An excellent deconstruction of the self-pitying, lovelorn male romantic hero.
Short Stories
Necessary Illusions, by Tom Greene; Analog Science Fiction and Fact (Jan/Feb 2017)
A galactic empire uses unusual tactics to persuade a colony world to join the fold. Old-school space opera packs a lot of epic into a small space, while unpacking a lot of complex layers as it goes along. Also somehow manages excellent characterization. An exhausting but rewarding read.
Nine-Tenths of the Law, by Molly Tanzer; Lightspeed Magazine, Issue 80 (January 2017)
A very funny tale of multiple self-deceptions. Donna is bored with her routine marriage to her scientist hubby, Jared. She discovers a way to spice things up when he inadvertently brings his work home with him. A most original take on the cuckold genre.

Also Worth Reading

Short Stories
Alexandria, Monica Byrne; The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (Jan/Feb 2017)
Auspicium Melioris Aevi, J.Y. Yang; Uncanny Magazine, Issue 15 (Mar/Apr 2017)
Crimson Birds of Small Miracles, Sean Monaghan; Asimov’s Science Fiction (Jan/Feb 2017)
In the Shade of the Pixie Tree, Rodello Santos; Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 221 (March 16, 2017)
Queen of Dirt, Nisi Shawl; Apex Magazine, Issue 93 (February 2017)
The Scholast in the Low Waters Kingdom, Max Gladstone; tor.com (March 29, 2017)
Seven Salt Tears, Kat Howard; Lightspeed Magazine, Issue 80 (January 2017)
Soccer Fields and Frozen Lakes, Greg Kurzawa; Lightspeed Magazine, Issue 82 (March 2017)
The Torchman’s Tale, Edward M. Lerner; Galaxy’s Edge (January 2017)

 

Hugo Nominated Novelettes 2017

I’m pleased that two of the four works that I nominated made the final ballot; sadly, the two that didn’t make it were my personal favorites. I did not find the other four nominated stories to be award worthy (one of which cannot even be taken seriously enough for me to bother reading), therefore only Gilman’s and Wong’s will be included on my final ballot. However, I will not be using the “No Award” option, out of respect for the three serious authors who I plan to leave unranked.

Rating Scale: 1[godawful]-10[godlike] (DNR=Did Not Read)

“Touring with the Alien”, by Carolyn Ives Gilman (Clarkesworld 115, April 2016) 8.7
Gilman is one of my very favorite writers, and this “soft” alien invasion story was absorbing from the get go. Gilman has a talent for creating characters that can digest extraordinary events and adjust quickly to the new normal, without losing their innate human curiosity of the unknown. Avery, a bus driver hired to take a recently landed alien being on a tour of America, is one of her best. The catch is, the alien is highly intelligent but lacks consciousness, and can only relate to the world through its bond with a human abductee. Gilman’s other gift – forging the emotional center of a story in secret and letting it sneak up on the reader – is put to good use here, providing a surprisingly poignant finale. Great storytelling, even if the author hand-waves past some of the science.
“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay”, by Alyssa Wong (Uncanny Magazine 10, May/June 2016) 8.3
Wong’s weird western is probably the most beautifully written story I’ve read all year; I can even forgive the second person narration, which I usually find bothersome. It is the story of Ellis and Marisol, two children orphaned by a mining accident. Ellis is a necromancer, and he is forced to journey back to the site of the accident where his parents and scores of others were killed, when men claiming to be assessors for the mining company come to town. The plot unfolds at a little too deliberate a pace, and the villains are strictly formula, but it is still a compelling read thanks to the author’s stark gothic imagery and incomparable prose.
“The Art of Space Travel”, by Nina Allan (tor.com, 7/27/2016) 7.3
A pleasant story with a nice hook. A woman employed as a housecleaner where two mars-bound astronauts are staying is led to believe – by her own mother – that her father was one of the astronauts on an earlier mission to the red planet that ended in disaster. That the claim has a sliver of credibility leads her on an investigation to uncover the truth. A good set-up with nice character moments and an engaging plot is hampered by an ending that is too pat and convenient.
“The Tomato Thief”, by Ursula Vernon (Apex 80, January 2016) 7.1
I am not as big a fan of Vernon’s writing as some others, but I do admire how she has carved her own niche among the wide stable of genre writers. “The Tomato Thief” is a sequel to her popular story “Jackalope Wives”, and follows Grandma Harken’s quest to save a pair of young shapeshifters from an awful curse. The strength of the story is in Vernon’s expert grasp of her particular brand of American folk storytelling. Vernon’s stories have always felt a little too tidy to me, engaging for their aesthetic qualities but never reaching me on an emotional level. “The Tomato Thief” is no different, but is an entertaining tale nonetheless.
“The Jewel and Her Lapidary”, by Fran Wilde (tor.com) 4.4
This is the first piece I’ve read by this author, whom I’ve heard a great many things about the last couple of years. Perhaps this was not the best introduction to her writing. Very few things about the story worked for me. I was not invested in the characters or their plight, and the plot was weighed down so heavily by exposition and info-dumping that I very nearly DNF’d it. I realize that short form epic fantasy is difficult to do, but I have seen it done well on several occasions. I think this world could have benefitted from a bigger canvas to paint on, but as it stands it invokes that rare feeling of being simultaneously rushed and bloated – a unique and baffling path to misadventure.
“Alien Stripper Boned from Behind by the T-Rex”, by Stix Hiscock DNR
The latest (and presumably the last) pathetic troll from the sad clown behind the Rabid Puppies “movement.” It’s even more pathetic when you consider that this was his second attempt at the same joke, after the Chuck Tingle nomination backfired on him. I have better things to do with my time.
The other two novelettes on my nominating ballot (aside from Gilman’s and Wong’s) were “The Visitor from Taured” by Ian R. Macleod and “Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea” by Sarah Pinsker. I thought these two were the strongest stories from this category I read last year, and I am disappointed they did not make the final ballot. I highly recommend you give them a read, even if neither of them will bring home a Hugo this year.