As it was last year, my reading was concentrated in online venues, of which there is an ever-increasing amount that ranges in style and focus. It was a particular delight, this year, to discover Lackington's, a new quarterly magazine whose selections hardly ever failed to elicit a strong reaction from me, and usually a positive one. One change from last year was that my reading in novellas was concentrated more in stories published as self-contained volumes, rather than in magazines. I'm seeing more and more authors turning to that approach, publishing longer stories with small presses, and many of those volumes are easily available as ebooks. As magazine venues for novellas dry up (Subterranean, which used to publish novellas often, closed its magazine this year, and Tor.com is presumably collecting works for their forthcoming novella imprint, as they published only two this year), these ebooks because a rich source of material. In fact, as much as I appreciate the wealth of new online venues for short fiction, it's worth noting that they overwhelmingly publish fiction at the shorter end of the range. It's not just that novellas are hard to come by--novelettes are getting scarce as well. I imagine that there are financial considerations involved for both authors and editors, but it would be good to see more magazines publishing even slightly longer works next year.
The preamble done with, here are my provisional selections for the 2015 Hugo short fiction categories, sorted by the author's surname:
- Trading Rosemary by Octavia Cade (Masque Books) - The title character in Cade's story is a collector who prides herself on her careful stewardship of her family's library of recorded memories. When what had seemed like a savvy trade arouses the ire of Rosemary's difficult daughter, she sets out to retrieve a family memory by trading her own life experiences. The story becomes a journey through Rosemary's life (and through Cade's rich worldbuilding), but also an examination of a perhaps irreparably damaged mother-daughter relationship, with Rosemary seemingly unaware that by trading away her memories she is making it harder for her daughter to ever truly know her.
- Sleep Donation by Karen Russell (Atavist Books) - Russell is far from the first author to play with the trope of a plague of sleeplessness (or in this case, dreamlessness), but her spin on the material is unique, focusing on aid workers who try to alleviate the plague by soliciting "donations" of sleep. The narrator, who uses the story of her sister's death from the disease to guilt people into donating, discovers a baby who is not only a universal sleep donor, but whose utterly pure sleep can sometimes cure sufferers. Her struggles with the baby's family, with her perhaps unscrupulous supervisors, and with her own conscience have the feel of a nightmare, as she floats from one to the other, increasingly disconnected from any part of her life but the quest for more donations. While there are some obvious real-world parallels to the novella's events--some of the descriptions of the disease and its public perception reminded me very strongly of the AIDS crisis--Russell never fails to make her world and its troubles feel like their own, very strange entity.
- NoFood by Sarah Tolmie (Aqueduct Press) - Told from multiple points of view, NoFood imagines a world in which people--though mostly just the rich--can eliminate the trouble, mess, and potential for disease involved in their digestive system by having it replaced with tubing, a procedure known as Total Gastric Bypass. Tolmie's focus is first on how the relationship with food changes in the wake of this development, and NoFood is full of lush descriptions of food matched with profoundly ambivalent reactions to that food by characters who have or haven't had the procedure. More broadly, NoFood is about the meaning of humanity, to which end it imagines something that is almost posthuman, a race of people whose biology has been scooped out and who then have to work out how to relate to the world and to each other.
- Dream Houses by Genevieve Valentine (WSFA Press) - A short way into a five-year interstellar journey, the narrator of this story wakes to discover her crewmates dead, her hypersleep pod irreparably damaged, and her supplies for the rest of the journey barely sufficient for a long, drawn-out starvation. With only an increasingly uncooperative AI for company, she beds down for an effective piece of space horror, struggling to understand the reasons for the accident and to gain the upper hand over the AI who may have been responsible for it. The setting is a departure for Valentine, but she inhabits it with ease, and creates a tense, creepy story.
- The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories) - I'm indebted to Nina Allan for pointing me towards this story in her own excellent recommendation post. Without her, I probably wouldn't have discovered Whiteley's disturbing mixture of fungus-based body horror and shifting gender roles. In the wake of a plague that has killed all the women in his settlement, the story's young narrator ventures into the wilderness and returns with something that is like, but clearly isn't, a woman. Soon all the men in the settlement have been paired up with these "Beauties," in a relationship that is part-romantic, part-parasitic. With reactions in the settlement ranging from rage to deep infatuation, the very meaning of what it is to be a man is soon questioned--and then altered in some deeply disquieting ways.
- "The Bonedrake's Penance" by Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) - In a story whose detailed, imaginative worldbuilding and sardonic tone reminded me very strongly of Iain M. Banks, Lee tells the story of a child raised by an alien war machine. As the narrator grows older, she learns more about her "mother's" past and true nature, and the relationship between the two characters is as powerful and affecting as the story's elaborate and inventive setting.
- "I Can See Right Through You" by Kelly Link (McSweeney's) - We have a whole new collection from Link to celebrate this year, but this story was an early harbinger. A ghost story in which the ghosts are those of failed relationships, younger selves, and images on a movie screen, this story is told in inimitable (and much-missed) Link style, as she combines the mundane, the strange, and the genuinely otherwordly into her own unique mix.
- "Saltwater Economics" by Jack Mierzwa (Strange Horizons) - A sad variant on the mermaid story, this story follows a scientist studying the Salton Sea who meets a lonely, teenaged merman who loves comic books and dreams of a girlfriend. The quasi-parental relationship she forms with him is threatened by both her own problems and imminent ecological catastrophe, in a story that has death looming over it.
- "We Are the Cloud" by Sam J. Miller (Lightspeed) - Set in a world in which the poor rent out portions of their brains so that the rich can have a fast network services, Miller's story focuses on a taciturn, friendless boy about to age out of the foster system. Even knowing that it's probably a bad idea, he falls in love with a charming new resident in his group home, and the inevitable unfolding of that relationship forces him to make choices about the kind of life he wants to live. A bleak, powerfully told story with an ending that holds out a little bit of hope.
- "Spring Festival: Happiness, Anger, Love, Sorrow, Joy" by Xia Jia, translated by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld) - A slice of life story, this piece imagines how technology changes the traditions of Chinese family and communal life, and yet also leaves them fundamentally the same. Beautifully told, and fascinating both as a glimpse of Chinese culture and an extrapolation of future technology, it's one of the more engaging stories I read this year.
- "The Husband Stitch" by Carmen Maria Machado (Granta) - A strange, energetically told portrait of a marriage that is happy (and cheerfully sexual) but haunted by the wife's secret and the husband's refusal to respect it. Machado is channeling Kelly Link in this piece, which references pop culture, fairy tales, and urban legends. But she does so very well, and without losing her own voice.
- "One, Two, Three" by Patricia Russo (GigaNotoSaurus) - A bunch of aimless, drunk twentysomethings set out on an errand and end up stumbling into the numinous and the dangerous. The premise has been done before, but what makes Russo's story work is the narrator's voice, which is funny even in the midst of his obvious distress, and the well-drawn personalities of the young, lost characters.
- "Elephants and Omnibuses" by Julia August (Lackington's) - This delightful alternate history drily explains the history of the omnibus by taking us back to ancient Rome in the time of Julius Ceasar's rebellion, and the female engineer who comes up with this necessary invention. The character, her relationship with her husband and children, and her voice are all instantly winning, and one finishes the story almost convinced that this is the real history.
- "The Breath of War" by Aliette de Bodard (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) - A pregnant woman journeys into a war zone to find her familiar, without whom her child will be stillborn. The rather elaborate system by which the story's world operates is introduced with very little fuss, and the emphasis is on drawing the main character and her society, and explaining why she's been separated from her familiar, leading to a powerful revelation and conclusion.
- "Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology" by Theodora Goss (Lightspeed) - As a lark, a group of anthropology grad students decide to invent a country and its culture, and then find that it has come to life. When one of them marries the crown princess, he finds that the customs that he and his friends invented impose strange rules on his life. There's a lot going on in this story--elaborate worldbuilding, complex relationships, palace intrigue, psychological horror--and Goss balances it all so lightly that it's almost impossible to believe she's done it all in only the length of a short story.
- "Death and the Girl From Pi Delta Zeta" by Helen Marshall (Lackington's) - As the title has it, the protagonist of this story meets Death at a sorority mixer and falls in love with him, but their happy marriage is threatened by jealousy and infidelity. A strange, funny piece that doesn't outstay its welcome, it also has a sad undertone that gives it weight.
- "Bonfires in Anacostia" by Joseph Tomaras (Clarkesworld) - The timing of this story--which touches on race, police brutality, and government surveillance, and was published last August--adds a great deal of force to it, but the work itself is quite powerful. A series of innocent-in-themselves events, when viewed by a paranoid, authoritarian government, lead to a tragic outcome, in a world in which the haves can only hold on to what they have be refusing to see the have-nots.
- "Coma Kings" by Jessica Barber (Lightspeed) - Narrated by a teenager heartbroken by the loss of her sister, this story is notable both for the main character's voice and for the way it uses and describes futuristic gaming.
- "Childfinder" by Octavia E. Butler (Unexpected Stories) - One of two rediscovered Butler stories published this year (this one was originally intended for Harlan Ellison's Last Dangerous Visions) this short but powerful piece can best be described as introducing a sharp racial awareness to the X-Men story.
- "Brute" by Rich Larson (Apex Magazine) - A pair of grifters come across a piece of technology that enhances their abilities. The progression of the story is predictable, but the narrator's voice, and the nasty specificity with which Larson tells this familiar tale, are what sell it.
- "Mothers" by Carmen Maria Machado (Interfictions Online) - A sad, haunting piece about an obsessive love story that turns abusive. This one is just barely genre--it was published in Interfictions, a magazine that aims at the very boundaries of the fantastic--but is so well told that I couldn't leave it off the list.
- "The Innocence of a Place" by Margaret Ronald (Strange Horizons) - One of the very first stories I read in my quest for Hugo nominees this year, and one that has stuck with me in the months since. A chilling ghost story about the disappearance of a school full of girls, and of the journalist who investigated that disappearance, this one works because of its atmosphere, and because of the vividness with which Ronald draws the women who are caught in the slipstream of this tragedy.