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Wed, Jan. 5th, 2005, 05:01 pm
coalescent: 2004: Stories

I read quite a bit of short fiction in 2004, from quite a few sources; but I didn't read any of the major magazines cover-to-cover, so this is definitely a list of personal preferences rather than a comprehensive overview of what was published. I'll divide the stories by length, because it's convenient.

Novellas

I read 24 novellas this year. 10 were published in collections or anthologies, 3 were standalone publications, and the remainder appeared in either F&SF or Asimov's, or at SCIFICTION.

Of these, 3 seem to me a cut above the rest. Gregory Feeley's 'Arabian Wine' (Asimov's April/May) is a long, dense, evocative alternate history, dealing with the coffee trade in medieval Italy. I've heard it's going to be expanded into a novel; if so, it would definitely be something to watch out for. My other two picks are both hard SF. Nancy Kress' 'Shiva in Shadow' (Different Worlds) is a powerful study of personal dynamics in a confined environment. A ship with a crew of three is sent to investigate the black hole at the heart of our galaxy; because a close approach is not conducive to human life, they send a probe carrying their uploaded consciousnesses as well. The unstable balance between the three--two scientists, and their captain--resolves in two different and affecting ways in the two different ships. And Stephen Baxter's Mayflower II (PS Publishing) is a generation starship story as told by HG Wells; over the very long timescales the ship's journey involves, selection pressure begins to affect the crew. As ever, Baxter captures the sense of deep time passing with deft strokes, but I think the story also contains some of his strongest character work.

Two good novellas took other fictional worlds as their starting point. Adam Roberts' 'Eleanor' (Swiftly) is set in the same world as his SCIFICTION story 'Swiftly', which is to say a world in which Gulliver was real and did travel. The Liliputians have been enslaved to work in factories; the Brobdingnagians make terrifying soldiers. In 'Eleanor', however, most of this is far in the background--the story is of the titular character's arranged marriage to an industrialist, and how it affects her. It's a good story, let down very slightly by its ending. Gary Greenwood's Jigsaw Men (PS Publishing), on the other hand, throws everything into the mix; the Jigsaw Men--Frankenstein's monsters, mass-produced--are just the start. The result is an entertaining collage of ideas and wild invention, but not a truly compelling story. However, it ends with the suggestion of a sequel, and I for one would be glad to read it.

I also greatly enjoyed Charles Stross' 'The Concrete Jungle' (The Atrocity Archives), a followup story to The Atrocity Archive in which ... well, it would be spoiling things to tell you quite how Milton Keynes becomes a focus for occult activity, but it's worth the ride. If you liked the earlier novel, you'll certainly like this. Two novellas from F&SF were also fun: 'Sergeant Chip' (September), by Bradley Denton about an intelligence-enhanced dog, has a remarkable control of voice and tone, and 'The Bad Hamburger' (December) by Matthew Jarpe and Jonathan Andrew Sheen, spins a police procedural tale out of the 'murder' of an AI. At SCIFICTION I particularly enjoyed 'Shadow Twin' (June), which provides a novel twist on the story of a man going up a mountain to find himself.

Disappointments: neither of the Lucius Shepard novellas I read this year seemed to be his best work. 'Hands Up! Who Wants To Die?' (Trujillo) is the better of the two, a story of maybe-alien contact in Florida. 'The Blackpool Ascensions' (Polyphony 4) I thought a little confused; excellent in its evocation of Blackpool, less so in its evocation of England. I wanted to like Albert Cowdrey's 'The Tribes of Bela' (F&SF August), since I have a soft spot for stories about interestingly different alien species, but it somehow never quite came together for me. And Allen Steele's later Coyote stories in Asimov's seemed increasingly bland; I'm not sure whether they were just not to my taste, or reflective of an actual decline in the quality of the series.

Novellettes

I read 70 novellettes this year; they came from just about everywhere. Even Analog.

My favourite is the same as everyone else's: Christopher Rowe's 'The Voluntary State' (SCIFICTION May), a rich and weird post-singularity story set in Tennessee. It's one of those stories that feel new; as though it's saying 'look! This is what 21st-century science fiction can be like!'

After that, it gets a lot tougher to pick favourites. I think this was a fairly weak year for novellas, but a strong one for novellettes, both science fiction and fantasy. Paolo Bacigalupi, for instance, had two good stories published: 'The Pasho' (Asimov's September), which also feels new, but at the same time echoes classics like A Canticle for Lebowitz and Foundation; and the less polished but, for me, more striking 'The People of Sand and Slag' (F&SF February), which shows a world in which technology really can solve any problem, and asks what that might do to human values. Two stories by Daniel Abraham are also noteworthy. 'Leviathan Wept' (SCIFICTION July) is a nonstandard singularity story with a powerful, if very slightly clunky, central metaphor; 'Flat Diane' (F&SF October/November) is an excellent, and profoundly creepy, dark fantasy. Rounding off the authors whose name begins with 'B', Stephen Baxter's story 'PeriAndry's Quest' (Analog June) was in some ways a departure for him (a more fantastical, poetic style than usual) and in some ways not (it's a tale of life in an extreme environment, in this case one in which the rate at which time passes varies with altitude).

To continue the theme of pairs, I'll have two from:

  • Postscripts: Peter F Hamilton's 'Footvote' (issue 1) is a recent-past alternate history in which an entrepreneur opens up a wormhole in the middle of rural England, and offers an escape for those dissatisfied with the Blair government ... but an escape with conditions, naturally. And Zoran Zivkovic's 'Compartments' (issue 2) features a passenger on an increasingly surreal train. Many of the images in the story are beautiful, memorable, and not-quite-comprehensible.

  • The Faery Reel, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling: 'The Annals of Eelin-Ok' (and I still don't know whether that 'Ok' should be pronounced as one sound or two letters) by Jeffrey Ford is the enchanting, slightly melancholy story of a fairy who lives for a day in a sandcastle on a beach. 'The Faery Handbag' by Kelly Link (about a handbag that contains faeries (and possibly other things) rather than a handbag owned by a faery, obviously) was also a delight to read.

  • Polyphony 4: I particularly liked 'The Wings of Master Wilhelm' by Theodora Goss', about a musician striving to reach a beautiful and magical flying city. Alex Irvine's 'Down in the Fog-Shrouded City' was also good.

  • Asimov's: Robert Reed is insanely prolific; my favourite story by him this year was 'A Plague of Life' (March), about family relationships in a world where people live much longer. Judith Berman's 'The Fear Gun' (July), which uses a large number of viewpoint characters to examine a small american community in the aftermath of an alien invasion, is a story that didn't grab me on first reading, but worked a lot better for me when I went back to it recently.


Lastly I'll note Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow's 'Appeals Court' (Argosy 2), which is mad and wonderful, and Gary Shockley's 'Of Imaginary Airships and Miniscule Matter' (SCIFICTION November), which puts Heloise and Abelard in 1880s Paris (sort of), and is one of those sf stories that prefigures later scientific ideas. But with zeppelin-shaped UFOs!

Short Stories

I read 119 short stories this year. In absolute terms, I probably have the same number of standouts as I do for novellettes, but proportionally it's somewhat less.

I did gain a new name to look out for, though: Karen Fishler, who published 'Mission Memory' in The Third Alternative (spring) and 'Someone Else' in Interzone (issue 194), as well as a novellette, 'Safe Haven', at The Infinite Matrix. All of them are good; I like 'Someone Else', which dramatises one potential effect of biotechnology both honestly and effectively, the best.

M. Rickert was also new to me this year, and I enjoyed both 'Many Voices' (F&SF March) and 'Cold Fires' (F&SF October/November). Kristine Kathryn Rusch didn't publish anything that quite matched last year's 'June 16th At Anna's'--one of my favourite stories--but I liked both 'Forest for the Trees' (Asimov's July) and 'Collateral Damage' (Asimov's August).

Chris Beckett's 'Tammy Pendant' is the story that one school fussed over when it was published in Asimov's in March, but it's a good story, and feels worryingly true in its depiction of some parts of British youth culture. Alan DeNiro's 'Tetrarchs' (Strange Horzons May) is a linguistic firework of a story and I love it; but strangely 'A Keeper' (Electric Velocipede 6) didn't work for me nearly as well. M John Harrison's 'Tourism' was published on Amazon.com in August, to coincide with the US publication of Light; it's set in the same universe as that novel and is a good story in its own right.

Some of the most fun stories I read this year were at this length. David Moles' 'Five Irrational Histories' (Rabid Transit: The Petting Zoo) is a bit like Joe Haldeman's 'Four Short Novels' on lots and lots of high-quality drugs. The fifth and final history, in particular, which brings together Marx, Cthulu, Philip K. Dick and more, is wonderful. Bruce Sterling's 'Luciferase' (SCIFICTION December) features fireflies with a knowledge of biochemistry and evolutionary biology, which should be enough for anyone. And John Aegard's 'The Great Old Pumpkin' (Strange Horizons October) is an inspired duel riff on Lovecraft and Peanuts.

Some stories still got new mileage out of old tropes. Dale Bailey's 'The end of the world as we know it' (F&SF October/November) plays with, and defies, end-of-the-world story conventions, to good effect. 'Being With Jimmy' (Asimov's December) by Aaron Schultz is a very powerful story about three telepaths living on an island. Iain Rowan's 'Lilies' (Postscripts 2) is a finely written fantasy about a city where the dead aren't moving on. And Daniel Kaysen's 'The Opposition' (The Third Alternative Summer), an urban fantasy about a diner that balances Good and Evil, felt resonant and moving.

I'm running out of adjectives now, so I'll list two more stories and stop. Jeff Vandermeer's 'Three Days in a Border Town' (Polyphony 4), a far, far future sf story about a Traveller searching for a City, is one of the few things written in second person that has worked for me. And Gene Wolfe's 'Pulp Cover' (Asimov's March) is another of those reflexive sf stories that is about sf. I still love it.

Collections and Anthologies

I somehow managed to make it to the end of the year having not read Jeff Vandermeer's Secret Life, which I feel I really should have managed to fit in at some point. On the upside, I did read the (definitive UK edition) of City of Saints and Madmen, which is one of my favourite books of the year.

The other notable single-author collections I read this year were by Ian Macleod, Lucius Shepard and Adam Roberts. Breathmoss and Other Exhalations is excellent, and 'New Light on the Drake Equation', 'Isabel of the Fall' and 'The Summer Isles' in particular are superb. Trujillo is very good, but very long--don't read it all at once. Two Trains Running is a much smaller Shepard collection--only two stories--but interesting reading nonetheless, as it presents a non-fiction account of the Freight Train Riders of America alongside the fictional ones. Plus, 'Over Yonder' is a great novella. Swiftly by Adam Roberts is a little uneven, but contains enough good stories to be worth reading.

I didn't read many anthologies. Polyphony 4 was interesting but, I think, ultimately unsatisfying. Similarly, Between Worlds has two good stories, one excellent story, and three average ones. The Faery Reel, however, was consistently enjoyable, over and above the two stories I highlighted earlier.

A Note on Reading Strategies

In 2004, I had subscriptions to: Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone, The Third Alternative, and Postscripts. I also read some chapbooks, like Electric Velocipede, some original anthologies and some collections, as well as most of SCIFICTION and a reasonable chunk of the material at Strange Horizons.

If I liked everything in all the magazines, I still wouldn't have time to read them all. In point of fact, however, I didn't like everything; the only magazine that I found reliably satisfying was SCIFICTION. Moreover the number of subscriptions I currently hold is not financially sustainable. With some regret, then, I've decided that I'm going to change my short fiction reading habits in 2005.

I won't be renewing any of my subscriptions. This doesn't mean that I'll stop buying the magazines: what I'll do is pick up individual issues that look interesting to me, or that I've heard particularly good things about--one or maybe two issues a month. I think I'll probably also get hold of a few more anthologies. I will try to read more of Strange Horizons, and still try to read most of SCIFICTION.

I do feel guilty about this, because I know that subscriptions are important--and because I know I'll miss out on some good stories! But for 2005, I'm just going to have to try a different approach.