Year in Review

Mid-Year Check-in: Best SFF Short Fiction

One of my reading goals this year was to read more short fiction. Way back in January, I set myself a goal of 75 short stories or novelettes in a year, with a stretch goal of 150. In mid-June, I’m at 88, well on my way to exceeding even my stretch goal. And I’ve found some great stuff! So I’d like to take the time to highlight the best I’ve read of the shorter works of speculative fiction. I’ve split my reading into trying to stay current with what’s being published right now while also catching up with renowned stories that I might’ve missed back when I was neglecting this format. So I’ll split out my favorites by 2021 publication, 2020 publication, and backlist.

Best 2021 Publications

So far this year, I’ve read 26 pieces of short fiction that were published in 2021, and I have four works set aside on my favorites list, which also doubles as the “keep these in mind for award nominations at the end of the year” list.

  • Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker. This experimental short gradually unravels the mysteries of a haunting (fictional) folk ballad as the reader progresses through comments on a (fictional) lyrics website. It’s clever and atmospheric and going to be very hard to top for favorite of the year.
  • Mr. Death” by Alix E. Harrow. A really touching story about a reaper who just can’t bear to usher one of his assignments into the afterlife.
  • Man vs. Bomb” by M. Shaw. A powerful and sometimes unnerving story in which deer have ascended to power and force humans to compete in survival games for cervine amusement.
  • For Lack of a Bed” by John Wiswell. Like Wiswell’s Nebula winner, which we’ll see in the next section, this is all about twisting horror tropes, centering here around a woman struggling with chronic pain.

Best 2020 Publications

I spent the first part of the year catching up on 2020 publications in order to make informed Hugo nominations, and then once the Finalists were released, I spent another couple weeks reading through the nominees, which has led me to reading more 2020 publications (47) than all other publication years combined. This category has far and away the most works in that I’d put on a long list for favorites of the year but wouldn’t make a short list. Which is a good place to be, because it makes for a lot of enjoyable reading, but I still had four that stood out at the top.

  • “The Pill” by Meg Elison (novelette). This is a tough story to read, and I’m not sure I could call it a favorite, but it’s a terrifying fatphobic dystopia that’s all too grounded in real-world treatment of disfavored demographics, and it’s hard to argue against its place on any list of the best stories of 2020. It’s been nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and they’re well-deserved.
  • Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell. A touching subversion of horror tropes, with a haunted house who just wants a family and a single father who needs a home. Already won the Nebula Award and has a shot at the Hugo as well.
  • If You Want to Erase Us, You Must Be Thorough” by L. Tu. This is another heavy one, in which one of the few survivors of genocide encounters the ghosts of her ancestors. And after how heavy the Hugo Finalists were last year, I’m a little surprised a story like this didn’t get more momentum. It’s excellent.
  • Two Truths and a Lie” by Sarah Pinsker (novelette). This reads like a creepy urban legend, but just masterfully done. Perhaps the most immersive of any story I read this year. It already won a Nebula Award and has a shot at the Hugo.

Honorable Mention: Mist Songs of Delhi” by Sid Jain, “The ThoughtBox” by Tlotlo Tsamaasse, “Express to Beijing, West Railway Station” by Congyun “Mu Ming” Gu, “Little Free Library” by Naomi Kritzer. I did read two others right at the end of December that would’ve been in contention for my favorites list, and I certainly continue to recommend “Proof of Existence” by Hal Y. Zhang and “A Guide for Working Breeds” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad.

Backlist

I’ve only read 15 short stories so far that were published before 2020, but this category has the far and away the best hit rate. This is not especially surprising because I’ve spent so much time reading through the already-curated lists of past award winners or finalists as opposed to picking through the overwhelming onslaught of new work.

  • STET” by Sarah Gailey (2018). An absolutely stunning experimental short where the meat of the story takes place in the comments of a draft of a short, technical polemic against self-driving cars. It’s conceptually fascinating, stylistically bold, and becomes incredibly personal as the dialogue between author and editor develops. This one deserved its Hugo nomination back in 2019, and I’m baffled as to how it didn’t win.
  • Mono no Aware” by Ken Liu (2012). Hauntingly beautiful and heartfelt tale of humanity’s escape to space as a giant asteroid threatens Earth. Effortlessly taps emotions in a way that I’ve begun to associate with Liu, even after reading just two of his Hugo-winning shorts.
  • Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” by Rebecca Roanhorse (2017). Just a little bit of a mind-bending tale of cultural appropriation. But that doesn’t make it sound great, and it is. Go in without knowing too much, but definitely read this one. Well-deserving of its Nebula and Hugo wins in 2017/18.
  • The Regression Test” by Wole Talabi (2017). A centenarian woman is tasked with determining whether an advanced artificial intelligence still thinks like her departed genius mother. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but it well exceeded whatever those expectations were. This won a Nommo Award (for speculative fiction by African authors), and it’s plenty good enough to have been on the Hugo or Nebula lists as well.

Honorable Mention: I read a pair of extremely short pieces, bordering on flash fiction, that were nonetheless excellent in “The Marriage Plot” by Tendai Huchu and “Search History for Elspeth Adair, Age 11” by Aimee Picchi. Additionally, I read “Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad the last week of December, and it would’ve been good enough to fit among this year’s favorites had I waited a week.

My first few months of seriously digging into short fiction have yielded plenty of gems, but it’s a wide world out there, with plenty more to read. So if you have favorites, go ahead and share!

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