Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 3/Conclusion)

For previous installments, please see Part 1 and Part 2.

To the best of my figuring, Clarke, Dozois, Horton, and Strahan selected thirty-eight stories from the web for their year’s bests and those total 289,888 words by my software’s count. I’d previously read two and I’ve decided to pass on one but read the rest since late last month. Assuming the whole is equal to the web part, Dozois is still the king. But this post concludes the project with Horton and Strahan.

Horton’s eight solo selections are overwhelmingly fantasy and, even when they’re SF, they’re fantasy. Chaz Brenchley’s “In Skander, for a Boy” starts well with a salty seaman narrating his tale of his rough, virtuous home and the decadent big city to which he sails and paints a picture of what could almost be a neighbor of Lankhmar but then basically undoes it all in an abrupt and unsatisfying ending. Kameron Hurley’s “The Plague Givers” seems more interested in its four genders and invented pronouns than the story seems to require but narrates some action pretty well, if only I could care about the characters enacting it. “Plague” hunters fight plague givers while magical talismans and alligators abound in this swampy tale. There’s a dose of humor in Helena Bell’s “I’ve Come to Marry the Princess” and A.T. Greenblatt’s “A Non-Hero’s Guide to The Road of Monsters.” The Bell is a surreal bit about an abandoned boy, eternally at camp, and the play he and his girlfriend practice, and his dragon’s egg. A free-association of whimsy that has its quirky, funny moments. Greenblatt’s is about a modern, tweeting, unheroic adventurer showing us how to face a dragon in postmodern fashion. Again, not a very strong story in most ways but not without its humor. Perhaps the strongest of these fantasies is “Gorse Daughter, Sparrow Son” by Alena Indigo Anne Sullivan which may draw much of its strength from being a retelling of a fairy tale (precisely which one I can’t recall) involving the princess spinning incessantly to deal with her grief and causing her kingdom to be overgrown by impenetrable vegetation. The hero (who reminds me somehow of the elf who wanted to be a dentist in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in terms of his “leading nebbish” character) is interested in saving her in this utterly sexless tale.

Moving into things which might not strictly be fantasies, Jason Sanford’s “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories” (from BCS‘s “science fantasy” issue) is a posthuman “might as well be magic” coercive environmental sermon though it is uncomfortable with its coercion. Again, it ends in an unsatisfying way even if arguments can be made for its in-story logic. I’d previously reviewed “The Bridge of Dreams” by Gregory Feeley which is another “indistinguishable from magic” tale. Finally, while seemingly the most grounded, Paul McAuley’s “Something Happened Here, But We’re Not Quite Sure What It Was” is basically a space western in which the big bad railroad company sets up a telegraph station the townspeople take a disliking to and about the mayor’s and sheriff’s efforts to keep order. Of course, it’s a radio telescope to be used for SETI and does have an interesting argument for why this could be useful even after first contact has been made but it ultimately feels like an interstitial chapter in a fixup rather than a story in its own right.

Moving to Strahan’s eight solo choices, his are all fantasy (except one mainstream piece) and a pretty strong bunch they are, overall. The only two I really didn’t care for were his two selections from Uncanny. E. Lily Yu’s “The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight” makes me wonder why it’s hard SF that routinely gets criticized for poor characterization as these seem like fantasy cutouts placed before a sketchily rendered background in this tale of a good witch, a knight, a femme fatale, and a dragon or three. Alyssa Wong’s “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” is a Weird Western that, by contrast, seems over-elaborate and somewhat confusing but seems to have some good aspects (creative phantasmagorical imagery and an interesting mood) which are completely buried in the mistake of second-person present tense narration. “You turn your head and spit a brown, dusty gob into the dirt. You hope she doesn’t notice the fur and tiny bone fragments caught in it. ‘Who do you take me for?'” Apparently she takes you for me, dude, but I’m not spitting any gobs anywhere.

Two more were okay. Charles Yu’s “Fable” is not fantasy but has a man talking to his psychiatrist with fantasy imagery. It’s emotionally effective at times and there’s nothing really wrong with it beyond it not being speculative and not really seeming like a “year’s best.” Swirsky’s famous/infamous “Dinosaur” was the same “emotional, mainstream, but with imagery” story, but better. Delia Sherman’s “The Great Detective” is a steampunk fantasy with AI robots and ghosts (in and out of dolls) as well as a bizarre origin story and isn’t my cup of tea but, as a stylistic exercise, it was pretty good.

In “honorable mention” territory, Joe Abercrombie’s “Two’s Company” is a funny and entertaining tale of a female Fafhrd and Grey Mouser making love and war against and with an apparently famous character from Abercrombie’s other works and the two groups of people who don’t want any of the three wandering freely. It just doesn’t feel especially significant, though. Theodora Goss’ “Red as Blood and White as Bone” is nine-tenths superb with slight flaws and one-tenth flawed. The initial tale of the orphaned servant girl and the “princess” she lets in from a storm is very effective and then the WWII-era stuff bolted on at the end is thematically apt but the wrong length (either too long for a coda or too short for a second part) and destroys the mood. The first part was really good, though. Yoon Ha Lee’s “Foxfire, Foxfire” has a really excellent style which is fairly elaborate but never trips over its own feet in an action tale about a shapeshifting fox and a mecha pilot. (This is another from BCS‘s “science fantasy” issue but true science fantasy is more fused while this is an SF and F mashup.) It would be an easy recommendation except it is also shaky on the dismount. The blatantly spelled-out non-ending basically makes the entire story feel like an excerpt or serial installment where, without really changing a thing, the ending could have been more implied and would have made a much better story to me. But this, too, for the bulk, was really not my kind of thing but was really good.

The Strahan story I was thoroughly delighted with, though, was Alice Sola Kim’s “Successor, Usurper, Replacement.” (Extra credit to Strahan for pulling this from outside the usual haunts as I’d never have seen it otherwise and I’m really glad I did.)

Four friends in a writing group get together immediately prior to a storm. When a fifth person shows up, things get strange. While this is a story that works in basically every way, the style/tone/perspective is superb. I’m very likely to love any story that can describe the aftermath of the power going out and a moment of sitting in the dark like this:

Then everyone remembered that they had their phones and one by one they appeared in the dark as busts glowing delicately blue in a far-future museum, the unspecified museum they were trying to make it into with their writing, as stupid as that sounded and whether they admitted it to themselves or not, because it wasn’t as if their jobs or families or stations in life or beauty or kindness or cruelty would get them there.

Then a drinking game is initiated in which they all tell stories about themselves, all of which are quirky and interesting, even – perhaps especially – the story that doesn’t get told. This also serves as an excellent signaling of what lies ahead in terms of pacing before the final section where it gets weirder still. I love that it’s in third-person, past tense and that the narrator sounds like a sixth character who would fit right in. I love the fact that this is utterly mainstream except that (a) it’s not at all stuffy and (b) it’s completely a fantasy, with a couple of wonderfully casually handled elements, the second of which is the snuffleupagus in the room. I love the understated darkness to the whole thing. The “ha ha, only serious” aspects. Go! Read! Enjoy!

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Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 2)

Following on from Part 1, I’ve now read the eleven stories that only Clarke or Dozois selected. Part 1 left off with a question about whether multiple quality Dozois selections and a slower start from Clarke would continue.

As far as Clarke’s selections, I didn’t care for Margaret Ronald’s talky alien infonet tale “And Then, One Day, the Air was Full of Voices” and I previously ambivalently reviewed Lettie Prell’s artsy post-human “The Three Lives of Sonata James.” I couldn’t go for a full-tilt recommendation of Karin Lowachee’s “A Good Home” (paraplegic vet adopts PTSD android) or Sarah Pinsker’s post-apocalyptic “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea” but they’re certainly reasonable selections to me and you probably wouldn’t go wrong to give them a try.

The only solo Clarke selection that really impressed me was Rich Larson’s “Extraction Request and that in a very specific way. It is undeniably effective but if you don’t wish to read nihilistic military horror SF (The Dirty Dozen economized to an Evil Eight and then dropped in a blender with Aliens and The Blob) then you can safely give this a pass. I wouldn’t have wished in advance to read such a thing but, as I say, it does effectively draw the reader in and is quite creative, especially in certain sadistic details.

I would also recommend Dozois’ selection of Rich Larson’s “Jonas and the Fox more generally but with reservations. Jonas is the older brother of Damjan. They’re living through a revolution when a distant relative, the Fox, who had helped start the revolution prior to being deemed an enemy by it, arrives and hides out with them. Damjan later falls to his brain-death and the Fox has his mind sideloaded into Damjan’s body to hide more effectively. Our story picks up at this point as starry-eyed and contrary (and guilt-plagued) Jonas and his parents and the Fox deal with their situation and try to survive informant teachers and bloodhound soldiers and so on. The reservations come from this being a gripping story throughout yet not especially satisfying in the end. The ending is certainly apt enough and prepped for but somehow the story overall feels like a slight letdown. Also, I’m perfectly happy to swallow the personality/consciousness/soul backups and several other things but, even in that context, the plausibility of aspects of what can and can’t be detected (at least three things) bothers me. Still, quite good and just as gripping as “Extraction Request” with psychological horror but without the visceral horror and nihilism.

Dozois’ other selections were pretty solid. I was least impressed by Maggie Clark’s “A Tower for the Coming World” (interconnected sketches dealing with a variety of people connected to a space elevator) but it wasn’t bad. Eleanor Arnason’s “Checkerboard Planet” wasn’t great, but was a pleasant good ol’ planetary exploration tale starring her recurring Lydia Duluth character. Like Larson’s tale, only more so, Mercurio D. Rivera’s first contact tale, “Those Brighter Stars,” suffered from a somewhat unsatisfying ending (albeit by design) in a tale of abandonment on both small and large scales but was mostly brisk and vivid.

James Patrick Kelly’s “One Sister, Two Sisters, Three” – a tale of siblings, jealousy, mortality, religion, and the Fibonacci sequence – is an embarrassment for me since I have to confess I don’t get it. It seems really superb until the end where I think I understand what happened and why but then simply do not understand the lack of response to it in the denouement. I understand why there wouldn’t be much focus on a certain kind of response but an absence? So I don’t know what to say about it. If the whole thing does hang together and is as good as the bulk, it’d certainly be recommended.

Along with the Larson, the other tale I can clearly recommend is Ted Kosmatka’s “The One Who Isn’t which stays confusing and disorienting for almost too long but finally crystallizes into a remarkable story. As such, it’s one I hate to say anything about because even a simple characterization would spoil the journey. The setup “starts with light. Then heat.” It goes on with a woman “in a porcelain mask” testing a child on his perceptions of colors. Given his inability to distinguish blue and green, she informs him he’s “getting worse.” Then she tells him a bedtime story and I encourage you to go find out about it.

For awhile now, I haven’t been thrilled with Dozois’ annuals but, if the parts I’ve read are at all reflective of the whole, this seems like a very good anthology. One of my major complaints has been an excess of depression, death, destruction, and dystopia in the annuals of late. This certainly has some of all that but in more tolerable quantities and with a lighter or more nuanced touch. Of the nineteen stories from the volume I’ve read thus far, I especially liked eight of them and disliked or wasn’t interested in only a handful with the rest at least being okay. That’s a pretty strong batting average.

Next up, the Horton and Strahan solo selections to finish up this little project!

Edit (2017-01-29): And here’s that conclusion.

Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 1)

I’ve finished reading the stories with multiple “year’s best” appearances as listed in Links to Stories the Big SF/F Editors Picked As Their Favorites of 2016. My reactions pretty thoroughly undercut the gist of Year’s Bests and My Recommendations, that gist being that I was on the same page with the big editors with just a couple of reasonable exceptions.

It’s not that I hate the stories (I actually like a surprisingly high percentage of them) but that I don’t love them and wouldn’t have recommended very many. At least, I don’t think I would have. Given that I come at these stories as “bests” there is an assumption that someone thought they were good which is a bias in favor of them coupled with a higher chance of unfair expectations and disappointment which gives them an extra liability. It’s hard to say what my reaction would have been if I’d encountered them in the wild.

First, my idiosyncrasies: I didn’t read the de Bodard as I seem to have some blind spot there (at least with the Xuya stories) that I’ve experienced often enough to cause me to give up. And I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed a Tidhar story but have come close enough to keep trying but this one wasn’t especially close. I much prefer Dickinson’s SF to the fantasy story from this list. The three or so Miller stories I’ve read have been about the same, though this one probably was the best but seemed derivative of a derivative (Miller via Watts via Campbell). The Campbell and Watts were sufficient.

As mentioned in the second post linked above, I didn’t recommend the Gilman when I read it last year, but its pick (by Clarke, Dozois, and Strahan) is explicable to me. (Even so, that doesn’t much affect the irony of preferring the stories two editors selected to those three or four editors selected.) The Valentine was perhaps in Gilman territory and the DeLancey was good, but read like an excellent episode of a TV show more than a great story.

I’m not sure if I would have recommended Nina Allan’s “The Art of Space Travel (Dozois, Strahan) but I certainly would have thought about it. Stories published as science fiction which have titles like this and turn out to be about the head of housekeeping of a hotel wondering who her father is tend to really disappoint and annoy me but Allan had previously caught my attention for her somewhat oblique stories and this is another one of those. It is a long story and has relatively little action, yet reads quickly. The protagonist is compelling (her blindness to the obvious strains credulity but Allan doesn’t seem to be hiding it from the reader and it would obviously look different to the protagonist) and the story is about a sort of space travel, ultimately, and in a broad way. All in all, I’m glad I read it, so I suppose that’s a recommendation.

Carrie Vaughn’s “That Game We Played During the War (Dozois, Horton) is also in that borderland of good/honorable mention/recommendation. Taken literally, as actual capital “S” science fiction, this is quite a silly story. Two societies of apparently basically the same species in the same part of a world have just concluded a war. One of them is telepathic and the other is not. If you swallow this premise for its metaphorical purposes, you get a very nicely done story about a non-telepath and a telepath who had been each others’ prisoners at various times during the war. During one of these times, the telepath had learned chess from the other. The game and their situation is then exploited for its thematic richness. Again, not an action-packed riot of hard SF adventure, but an interesting tale.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Mika Model (Dozois, Strahan), however, is certainly recommended. Sexbot stories are nothing new and this is a very brief handling of the subject but idea- and emotion-packed concision is a virtue to me and this additionally has a rather extraordinary event near the end. My only problem with the story is that, no matter what you think of the status of the robot regarding her sentience, liability, or crime, there is a crime the other main player in the story should have been charged with, but I can’t get into that without spoilers. Either way, it’s a very effective dramatization of a very interesting issue.

Finally, there’s Steven Barnes’ “Fifty Shades of Grays (Dozois, Horton). It’s a story about aliens who arrive on Earth and don’t want to blow us up or steal our resources or even invite us into a galactic federation. They just want to have sex with us. Problem is, they are really, really ugly. But, after our ad exec protagonists succeed in their job to “make ugly sexy,” it turns out the aliens are pretty sexually satisfying, too. This has apocalyptic ramifications (in the nicest way).

My reading of this was a comedy of errors. I went to this story directly, so didn’t realize it was part of Lightspeed‘s “People of Colo(u)r” issue. While I know there is a Steven Barnes and there is a John Barnes who both write science fiction and one collaborates with Niven and I have a couple of books by the other, I can never keep them straight for some reason and thought Steven Barnes was John Barnes until I got to the author blurb at the end. (And the errors may still not be over: I get at least some aspects of the punning title but have never read or seen Fifty Shades of Gray so, if there are any important allusions to that in this story (beyond the bondage references), I’ve missed them.)

I tend to read (or want to read) the science fictional aspects of SF much more literally than seems fashionable. So I just read this story as a wildly conceived, briskly told tale of one of the stranger alien invasions ever and enjoyed it immensely. The ad execs reminded me of Pohl and Kornbluth’s classic The Space Merchants, the ugly aliens and the efforts to make them acceptable reminded me of Foster’s The Man Who Used the Universe. The blurb eventually informed me that Steven Barnes has written for television which may help explain the lack of faux literary pretension and the vigor of the dialog and storytelling, though this story is far more than your average TV fare.

So then I got to the end, saw the author blurb, and realized one mistake, then read the “Spotlight” interview and it told me that the story was written “for a non-white audience” and was supposed to depict “the sickness of being human and trying desperately to fit in with a dominant culture.” Some of that further puzzled me until it dawned on me that this may have been from the PoC issue so I looked and, indeed, it was. In retrospect and knowing that this was for an ideological issue of a magazine, I see that there were all sorts of racial references in the story and that they should apparently have greater weight than I realized but, even on a re-read, I still see many things in the allusions and symbolism that don’t fit and/or are offensive if they do. To me, if the aliens have to symbolize anything, they’d better serve as corporations which, after all, are the ugly things advertisers sell and which provide the products we “need” and which wish to dominate all things. Either way, as a didactic piece it becomes much less interesting and more problematic as a story but is still obviously loaded and interesting (however much one may agree or disagree with it). As a story, it’s much more interesting and enjoyable to me. And, again, either of those ways, it’s certainly a fascinating and provocative something that shouldn’t be missed.

(This doesn’t really fit above or bear mentioning, but it bothers me (and, given my recent Elvis birthday post, that should come as little surprise). The lead alien calls himself “Elvis” and it’s explained that the aliens learned about us by picking up 50s television broadcasts. There are innumerable SF stories involving Elvis so I just took it as one of those quirks. My only problem with the story, on a first reading and apart from the “transmissions” cliche itself, was that the alien Elvis was depicted as wearing the rhinestones of 70s Elvis. While the aliens certainly could have continued to follow his career through the transmissions of Aloha from Hawaii and beyond, this was never made explicit and it still gave the appearance of an error in the story. Beyond that, if we’re to take this story as a racial metaphor, then the alien’s being “Elvis” could be more significant than I initially supposed. If anything, in racial terms, Elvis could work as a symbol of interracial harmony. Yet now I have the disturbing feeling that he may have been intended as a symbol of the current meme of “cultural appropriation” which I wouldn’t appreciate.)

An interesting thing to me about these four stories is that, while Horton and Strahan picked two each, Dozois is the only editor common to all four. Also, while I often like a lot of Clarkesworld stories (and really hate an occasional one) Clarke is the only one who picked none of these (or any twofer story). Next up will be the stories that only appear in one anthology, so we’ll see if those trends continue or change.

Edit (2017-01-21): Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 2)

Links to Stories the Big SF/F Editors Picked As Their Favorites of 2016

The following is a list of the stories Clarke, Dozois, Horton, and Strahan have picked for their annuals that come from (or at least have) web sources. It’s arranged by the number of “votes” by our esteemed “jury,” and then alphabetical by source and story title (more or less). I hope to read as many of these as soon as I can and hope other folks will take a look, too, and let me know what they think of them.

Edit (2017-01-29): For my readings of, reactions to, and recommendations for these stories, see Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 1), (Part 2), and (Part 3/Conclusion). Stories I was particularly struck by are now in bold font.

Four Annuals: Clarke, Dozois, Horton, Strahan

Three Annuals

Two Annuals

One Annual: Clarke

One Annual: Dozois

One Annual: Horton

One Annual: Strahan

_____

Source: the File 770 ToCs mentioned in the Year’s Bests and My Recommendations post for the stories and lots of web searches for the links.

Edit: (2016-12-28) For a complete list—including print stories—which ranks by a combination of annual appearances and reviews, see 2016 Best SF/F Anthologies at Rocket Stack Rank.

Edit (2017-01-10): As promised, this has been updated with Clarke’s picks (via File 770).

Year’s Bests and My Recommendations

Edit (2017-01-30): This post discusses only a few, mostly print, items and the webzine picture is much different and more complete. Please see Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 1), (Part 2), and (Part 3/Conclusion) for that.

The contents of three of the four main “year’s bests” have been announced (awaiting only the Clarke) which enables me to compare my recommendations with their anthology picks. I’ve read very little of this year’s short fiction, so there’s not much I’m familiar with, but there are some pieces I know. It would give me pause if my recommendations were identical because part of the fun is people having unique points of view. But it would also give me pause if every year’s best editor agreed that some one story was great and I didn’t. It wouldn’t necessarily cause me to change my opinion, of course, but would cause me to at least rethink it. This year neither extreme occurred.

Of the three stories I recommended from Bridging Infinity, Strahan (the editor of the original anthology, itself) picks the one I thought might have been best (Ken Liu’s “Seven Birthdays”) and Dozois picks the one I thought was probably second best (Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty’s “Cold Comfort”). However, no one picked my third favorite (Benford & Niven’s “Mice Among Elephants”), with Dozois picking Alastair Reynolds’ “Sixteen Questions” instead. I did note that the Reynolds was an artsier story and might appeal to some folks based on that and that the Benford/Niven did have a significant flaw but was a lot of fun. The only other stories appearing from that anthology were Horton‘s picks of Charlie Jane Anders’ “Rager in Space” which, aside from the first paragraph, I didn’t like and Karin Lowachee’s “Ozymandias” which I liked okay but which only made the edge of “good work” and didn’t seem like year’s best material to me. (But then I didn’t recommend any of the three stories I was familiar with from Horton’s picks – his other being Cat Rambo’s “Red in Tooth and Cog” from the March/April F&SF, about which I said, “[t]his story is relatively long for its content and features a rather overwrought end sequence and unsurprising conclusion but the depiction of the ‘teeth and cogs’ is quite imaginative and entertaining.”)

Dozois also picked a couple of stories from the two issues of Asimov’s I read. From December, we both recommend/pick Karl Bunker’s “They Have All One Breath” which was all I recommended from the issue. There is a rather pointed irony regarding the January issue, though: I recommended only Ted Kosmatka’s “Chasing Ivory” from that issue. (Dozois does pick a Kosmatka, by the way, but a different one.) Dozois picked Ian McHugh’s “The Baby Eaters,” about which I specifically said, “[b]asically, it is the familiar bio/sociological tale of a human trade agent on an alien world who suffers culture shock…. All in all, high-grade magazine filler: probably not likely to be in a Year’s Best or win any awards, but a good read.”

So I’m content with the overlaps and, even with the oddity of the McHugh, I’m also good with the discrepancies. Picking the fun and concrete Benford/Niven over the artsier and ethereal Reynolds is actually par for my course.

Edit (2016-12-23): I missed a couple that I’d reviewed from the April Clarkesworld: Dozois and Strahan picked “Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman and Horton picked “The Bridge of Dreams” by Gregory Feeley. As can be seen in the review, I grappled with “Touring” as a serious, quality story but saw some problems and just didn’t click with it, so couldn’t recommend it. But I get what they saw in it and it was easily the best story in the issue. “Bridge,” though, was just not Year’s Best material, in my opinion.