The 53rd annual edition of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America take on the best short stories written by SF, fantasy, horror and genre writers, awarded at their 2018 convention and featuring stories mostly written in 2017.
Having been published by Roc, Tor and Pyr over the last decade or so, Parvus Press are the publishers of this volume. Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s introduction is a personal take on her 10+ years experience as a Latino writer in the Latin American magical realist market and then the SFF market, and then the volume consists of a baker’s dozen stories, author biographies and that’s it. No commentary, listings or anything else. Previous volumes have gone to the other extreme, with the fiction almost taking a backseat to the other material, but for this volume the reader/collector/historian is left with but one option – reading the selected stories.
I’ll fill in the story details and make my (leisurely) way through the volume, adding my ‘reviews/notes’ on the stories as I read them. At my current rate of reading, I reckon I might manage to read this volume and the one 2019 Year’s Best SF anthology by the time the 2020 volumes appear. Or maybe not.
Rebecca Roanhorse. Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experiencetm was the winner in the Best Short Story category and was originally published online in Apex Magazine 8/17 and where you can read it. The story features native Americans, rather than citizens of India. It’s near future, with the protagonist a guy working in the entertainment industry, hooking into a VR rig to give paying customers the virtual experience they choose from. He’s of native American descent, which is good for the titular experience, but he has reservations with playing up to the stereotype and appropriating more of a lineage than he actually has. The story twists around a friendship offered by a customer, a white guy, who (spoiler alert) appropriates his identity and his house (!) – the twist at the end isn’t a clear one, but it’s of a PKDickian/GeneWolfian type as the protagonist and the reader are left a little unclear as who is or was who or was what. I found it a reasonable story, but having read a lot of VR-type stories back in halcyon days of cyberpunk in the 80s, this story a quarter of a century later just didn’t feel it had enough for me to be a standout. And, somewhat tellingly, none of the four editors of the Years Best SFF anthologies included the story in their take on the best of 2017.
Vina Jie-Min Prasad. A Series of Steaks. appeared in ClarkesWorld Magazine in January 2017 and it’s still online there. I read this in it’s magazine appearance, as I was getting the monthly magazine through the Amazon UK POD route, and I noted that ‘..it was a story from a (young?) Singaporean writer, new to me, which shows a lot of promise’ and that it ‘..doesn’t read like one from a novice writer, the characterisation is excellent, and I’d be keen to read more from this writer.’ Full review here. This was a nominee in the Best Novelette category. The story was included 3 of the 4 annual Year’s Best SFF anthologies, so a degree of consensus on this one!
Jonathon P. Brazee. Weaponized Math. appeared in The Expanding Universe Volume 3, and was a nominee in the Best Novelette category. I was surprised to find myself reading a military SF story in this volume, as this type of story hasn’t largely been featuring on SFWA ballots of late. Yes, the protagonist is a female sniper, but that’s a marginal angle in the story and TBH the fact that she avoids being killed at one point by dint of her being physically small and the enemy sniper choosing the bigger male soldier as being the likely ranking officer isn’t an ideal way of showing the personal capabilities through which she has risen to her high rank. I’m not a big fan of military SF and I found the story rather tedious in the extensive fine detail about weaponry, ammunition, military kit, the math and mechanics of sniping etc etc. And, more importantly, I struggled to see any SFnal elements. The weaponry was a bit more advanced than we have now, and it was set on an alien world, but you could strike out a couple of sentences and pretty much pass the story off as being set in Iraq or Afghanistan. Anyhoo, I skimmed the last half dozen pages. And as with the opening story, this one also failed to be included in any of the four Years Best SFF anthologies.
Jamie Wahls. Utopia, LOL? appeared in Strange Horizons, 5th June 2017 and is still online there. A humorous story, a nominee in the Best Short Story category, whose humour really didn’t work for me, as I found one of the main characters so irritating I couldn’t get past the first couple of pages. I also found the textspeak a) exasperating and b) rather too early 2010s than far future. I do have a good sense of humour, but about to enter my seventh decade, I found myself wondering if it was a generational thing, and maybe if I was half my age then I would have engaged more with it. Anyway, FWIW of the four annual Year’s Best SFF anthologists, it only tickled the fancy of one : Rich Horton.
Martha Wells. All Systems Red. was published by Tor.com and won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella. More about the story here including lots of words of praise. It’s a lengthy story (natch) and it’s intro states “..On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.” I read the first section but felt that I wasn’t up for another 100 pages or so.
Sarah Pinsker. Wind Will Rove. appeared in Asimovs September/October 2017, when I was still reading a lot of magazine SF and I enjoyed it, a generation starship story of which I noted : “..All in all a gentle story, no drama, no military bods or scientists, no committee meetings, no real mention of tech.”
Richard Bowes. Dirty Old Town. appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2017. In my days of reading F&SF, Bowes’ semi-autobiographic stories were always a big treat, even without major SFF elements, and this is another lovely story from him. A successful writer has a dream about a young boy from his schooldays and the ‘story’ sees the author reflect on his relationship with this boy, and with his grandparents, in a housing project in Boston in the 50s. His grandmother, like himself, had a wee bit of magic drawn from the land of their forefathers (Ireland), and we see how his relationship with than school companion grows and comes to a conclusion in a sweet and gentle story.
Matthew Kressel. The Last Novelist (or a Dead Lizard in the Yard) appeared online on Tor.com and is still online there. I read the story in it’s appearance in Neil Clarke’s volume of the Year’s Best SF, and enjoyed the depth and warmth in the story. If you follow the link above to read the story, do yourself a favour and try to skim the editorial introduction and dive straight into the story (there’s a bit of a spoiler in the intro).
Caroline M. Yoachim. Carnival Nine. appeared online on Beneath Ceaseless Skies #225 May 11 2017, and is still online there, and here I am reading it almost two years later (reading it during lulls in selling my beers at a farmer’s market FWIW). I’ve liked the few stories by Yoachim that I’ve read (making this statement having checked previous reviews on the site, rather than from memory) and this is no exception. Zee is a clockwork creation, perhaps a toy, although their world isn’t quite like that of Toy Story. The clever conceit it that the daily wind that each of them gets, affects how much they can do during the day. And their central spring has only so many daily winds before it starts to gradually weaken and finally stops working. Against this backdrop we follow Zee as she leaves home, joins a carnival, finds love, and has a child – but it’s not a fairy tale ending. Altogether a memorable creation and lovely story. [March 6th 2020]
K.M. Szpara. Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time. orginally appeared in Uncanny Magazine May/June 2017 and still online. It’s a contemporary, urban vampire story, which counts as SF/F in terms of the Nebula Awards. I liked the cut of it’s jib though (perhaps the ‘What We Do In The Shadows’ film/tv series left me minded so to do) as it opened with some explicit trans/vampire sex, and kept that facet of the story up throughout. The society is one in which vampires do live amongst us, although their are constraints on their behaviour (and blood banks especially for them). The story uses the lens of becoming an immortal vampire to look at issues around gender and identity and relationship, and it’s modern take on these themes meant I enjoyed the story. [March 7th 2020]
Fran Wilde. Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand. Originally online on Uncanny Magazine, and still there. I sat down to read some SF for the first time in a few weeks and quickly read this short personally guided tour of a carnival freakshow. Creepy indeed, and reminded me of a freakshow at a carnival I went to some almost 50 years ago as a young child and whose exhibits in glass jars totally freaked me out then, and I can *still* remember the nightmares I had. Jeez. [March 27th 2020]
Kelly Robson. A Human Stain. won the Best Novelette, but I was in the mood to read SF and after a page or two a quick google identified this is another horror story, and so that was the end of this year’s volume, and onto the shelves with all the other Nebula Award volumes, with the now-usual nostalgic sigh for when they were choc full of great SF. [March 27th 2020] Now, where to find some SF…..?