Distillations, 2005

For the past three weeks I’ve been reading short fiction from 2005 so that I’d have something to nominate for the Hugos, and later the Locus Poll, as well as to respond to an invitation to nominate stories for the Theodore Sturgeon Award (I’m running a bit late on that). As most readers here know, I used to read lots and lots of short fiction every year, and reviewed stories in a monthly column in Locus Magazine. That ended at the end of 2001, and since then, without that monthly obligation, I’ve read far less, though personal circumstances that have constrained my reading time in recent years is also partly to blame.

I’d meant to post comments about stories from 2005 I particularly liked out of this remedial reading, for what it might be worth to other belated readers looking for stories to read and nominate; I’m a bit late on that too, with only a few hours left for anyone to nominate. Well, there’s still the Locus poll, if you haven’t already voted.

So in those three weeks I read 34 short stories, 10 novelettes, and 3 novellas, guided by tables of contents of forthcoming best-of-the-year anthologies that have been posted online, Rich Horton’s lists, and Locus’ own recommended reading list. I’m not done — I’ll read more before filing my own Locus poll vote — but here’s my summary so far.

So, short stories: my two favorites are Michael Swanwick’s “Triceratops Summer” (Amazon Shorts), a charming and clever story about dinosaurs in a small town that craftily provides an answer (“ten weeks or 3 months”) and the implications of that answer before revealing what the question is, and Robert Reed’s “Finished” (Asimov’s Sept.), which explores the social and personal consequences of a variation of immortality (in which the personality is left forever unchanging) with remarkable efficiency (for a short story), complete with an ironic semi-surprise ending.

I also liked two stories by Stephen Baxter, “The Children of Time” (Asimov’s July), about the future of the human race, and “A Signal from Earth” (Postscripts Autumn), about the last member of an alien race, both involving potential explanations of Fermi’s paradox (if aliens exist, where are they?). Joe Haldeman’s “Angel of Light” (from the Australian science magazine Cosmos, fiction edited by Damien Broderick) imagines a future Islam society in which an old magazine and a visiting alien provide moments of wonder, while Gene Wolfe’s “Comber” (Postscripts Spring) imagines a surreal city floating atop waves in which a threat to the city and marital tensions collide. Mary Rosenblum’s “Search Engine” (Analog Sep) extrapolates electronic tagging of merchandise and people into a complex tale of a drug sting gone bad.

My favorite fantasy short stories include two extrapolations of religious myths, both stylish in very different ways, Jeffrey Ford’s “Boatman’s Holiday” (F&SF Oct/Nov), about Charon, and Neil Gaiman’s “Sunbird” (from the Noisy Outlaws etc. etc. anthology), about–but that would be telling. M. Rickert’s “Anyway” (Sci Fiction Aug) is a moving contemporary fantasy that considers a profound moral question about sacrifice. Carol Emshwiller’s “I Live With You” (F&SF Mar) is a playfully subjective story about a lonely woman and an unseen presence. Theodora Goss’ “Pip and the Fairies” (Strange Horizons Oct 3rd) is a sweetly subjective tale about the daughter of a popular children’s writer that considers where fantasies come from. Kelly Link’s “Monster” (Noisy Outlaws etc) is a wryly surrealistic tale of boys at summer camp who discover what really happened to the kids from another bungalow. And Joe Hill’s “Best New Horror” (Postscripts, Spring, and his book) is a remarkably assured tale about a horror anthology editor confronted by new experiences that play off his sense of cliche.

A few others left me less than completely satisfied; sometimes it’s hard not to build expectations of where a story should go that then result in frustration, due to no fault of the author. I wanted a more substantial climax to James Morrow’s “The Second Coming of Charles Darwin” (Amazon Shorts), for example, in what for the most part is a potent confrontation between Charles Darwin and a time-traveling cyborg sent by religious fundamentalists to disrupt his visit to the Galapagos islands. Ken MacLeod’s “A Case of Consilience” (Nova Scotia) considers religious proselytizing aboard a space station devoted to extra-terrestrial contact, with an ending too patly ironic. A few others are just extended jokes–Charles Stross’ “Snowball’s Chance” (Nova Scotia), Jeff VanderMeer’s “The Farmer’s Cat” (Polyphony 5), Neal Asher’s “Mason’s Rats” (Asimov’s Apr/May). Amusing, but not stories I’d nominate for awards.

There are quite a few more novelettes I need to read, and of those I have read it’s been more difficult to find any I can’t quibble with a least a bit. My favorites include Wil McCarthy’s “The Policeman’s Daughter” (Analog June), a recomplicated tale set in the author’s Queendom of Sol future about two people whose careers and relationships are threatened by young, immature copies of themselves — fascinatingly extrapolated, though it’s one of those stories where the complications it explores verge on undercutting its entire premise. Cory Doctorow’s “I, Robot” (Infinite Matrix) has a lot of fun undercutting the verities of Asimovian robotics, conflating them with a repressive social state, in a detective tale about a missing teenaged daughter and an ex-wife who defected to Eurasia. Vonda McIntyre’s “Little Faces” posits, somewhat grotesquely, a fascinating far-future space culture of women in which competition for reproductive rights persists, via elaborate social interactions and millennia-long relationships, even without males. Howard Waldrop’s “The King of Where-I-Go” (Sci Fiction) is filled with evocative personal reminiscence of growing up in Alabama, though its change-the-past story is fairly routine. Michael Swanwick’s “Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play” (Asimov’s July) is more fun with Darger and Surplus, this time dealing with satyrs and mad scientists. A couple stories popular with list-makers left me cool. Alastair Reynolds’ “Zima Blue” (Postscripts, Summer) is a fascinating discussion of art and memory, with a revelation that is, ah, anticlimactic, if not outright silly. Somewhat similarly, Daryl Gregory’s “Second Person, Present Tense” has some fascinating infodumps about brain functioning, but the human story of a teenaged girl and her parents could equally well describe a case of total amnesia… couldn’t it? Did I miss something?

I liked all three novellas I’ve read so far. Connie Willis’ “Inside Job” (Asimov’s, Jan) is classic Willis screwball comedy about psychics, debunkers, and a famous psychic presence, that manages to have its premise and debunk it too. Ian McDonald’s “The Little Goddess” (Asimov’s Jun) is a detailed and evocative tale of a girl in 21st century Nepal who journeys from figurative goddess to something more literal, courtesy time, chance, and technology. And Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners” is great metafictional fun about five friends and their favorite TV show; despite its playful allusiveness, it’s the most substantial story I’ve read by an author whose stories, for my taste, often talk about their subjects more than they are about them.

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