The SFF world has been buzzing with the release of the 2023 Hugo Awards longlist for all the wrong reasons–the release is riddled with errors and inexplicable ineligibilities, and the administrators have absolutely refused to provide tangible information in response to the slew of questions. That topic has been pretty well-covered by a ton of others, but I have plenty else to talk about. I’ve been catching up on some Best of 2023 lists, as well as getting going on fresh new 2024 fiction. And the long slush stage of SPSFC has ended, and Team Tar Vol On has sent two books forward and received four more to read for the semifinals. That and more in my January 2024 round-up.
This may be my last long magazine review of the year, but I posted a review of four periodicals, and the three stories I highlighted at the end are undoubtedly among the best I read this month. But I also found some real gems digging back into 2023 fiction. And I’ve been digging into the Life Beyond Us anthology that will get a full review in February or March, but which contributes a story to my favorites list here. Finally, I posted a review of Wole Talabi’s Convergence Problems. My favorite story of that collection was one I’d read before, but the three new-to-the-collection entries were all very good.
- Memories of Memories Lost (2023 short story) by Mahmud El Sayed. The story of alien invaders who tax memory is poignant and remarkable in its detail work–from how giving up a mediocre night of karaoke leads to losing a favorite band to the inability for anyone to remember anything meaningful about alien encounters. It’s a story that hooks the reader quickly with the setup and then builds tension as the lead wonders just what the giving up of a family heirloom will cost.
- Nextype (2023 short story) by Sam Kyung Yoo. A young girl’s parents give her a neural implant to help her navigate a world with fierce competition for desirable careers, but it’s years later before she realizes just how much she’s lost. There’s a quality setup, a gut punch, and enough denouement to leave the reader with something to hang onto.
- “The Dog Star Killer” (2023 short story) by Renan Bernardo, published in Life Beyond Us. A Brazilian grows up with single-minded focus on rescuing a mother who never returned from exploring a strange celestial phenomenon. But the rescue mission can’t consume an entire life, and it forces her to balance her long-standing goals and a burgeoning relationship. It’s a story that grabs the reader from the start and delivers the kind of deeply personal tale I so often love.
- On the Fox Roads (2023 novelette) by Nghi Vo. A period piece about small-time bank robbers escaping pursuit using a shifting series of questionably-real pathways. As always, Vo’s facility with the language is exceptional, and this one is a ride from start to finish. One of my favorites of the year.
- Give Me English (2022 short story) by Ai Jiang. Another story about memory that unfortunately suffers in comparison to “Memories of Memories Lost.” This one describes a world in which linguistic ability can literally be bought and sold, with a Chinese immigrant losing her native language and trying to scrape together enough English to survive in America. The emotions are impeccable, but the more time it spends trying to make the worldbuilding make sense, the more it breaks immersion. It’s a story that delivers strong themes as long as you don’t try to parse it too finely.
- Useful and Beautiful Things (2023 short story) by E. Saxey. The story of sorting through uncanny objects in the possession of a deceased Englishman reminds me a little bit of Krista Ball’s A Magical Inheritance, though on a smaller scale. It’s a fun story of discovery, both magical and interpersonal.
- To Be a Happy Man (2024 flash) by Thomas Ha. A very short, generational horror story that does a tremendous amount of work in only 800 words.
- Bruised-Eye Dusk (2023 novelette) by Jonathan Louis Duckworth. An engaging adventure fantasy in a swampy secondary world may not provide a lot of surprises for experienced genre readers, but the main character is delightful and the narrative engaging regardless.
Other January Reads
- Patsy Cline Sings Sweet Dreams to the Universe (2023 short story) by Beston Barnett. Another memory-heavy story (it was one of a couple running themes in my January reading), this is ostensibly the story of a message to a theoretical extraterrestrial audience, but it’s truly the story of a man’s life told through one key memory and the web of supporting memories propping it up. Engaging and hopeful.
- Disassembling Light (2023 short story) by Kel Coleman. A master creator of automatons, infused with the magic of life, puts a talented would-be apprentice to the test. The details of the creation are interesting, and the tests reveal more about the master than the aspirant.
- Spar (2009 short story) by Kij Johnson. It feels strange reading the wildly controversial winner of the 2009 Nebula Award and having a fairly lukewarm opinion, but I was neither wowed nor appalled. Certainly the tale of a woman having endless, questionably consensual sex with an incomprehensible alien following a space crash is just as disturbing as it’s meant to be, and the ending offers a degree of closure without providing too definitive an answer to the big questions the story raises, but I’m not sure it really does more than force the reader to consider uncomfortable themes and the alienness of aliens. It’s done well enough to make it good, but I’m not so sure about greatness.
- Stitch (2023 short story) by Kathleen Schaefer. Another theme in my January reading was parents modifying the minds of their offspring. In this case, it was an unintentional psychic bond between a new father and a daughter, one that’s proving very difficult to break. It’s a quality story with an interesting premise that hits plenty of the new parent feels.
- Joy (2023 short story) by Dale Smith. Not a mind-blowing offering, but helpful robots in a post-apocalyptic landscape often make for fun reads, and this one is no exception.
- 440 Broad Street, Apartment 4C (2023 short story) by P.A. Cornell. Lots of uncertainty but lots of community in this story about people coming together to try to escape invading aliens.
Novels and Novellas
- Three Eight One (2024 novel) by Aliya Whiteley. A story about someone from the far future reading a 21st century novel, but more than that, a story about meaning. I’m not sure it’s quite focused enough for my taste, but there’s a lot here.
- The Tusks of Extinction (2024 novella) by Ray Nayler. Part an angry response to poaching and trophy hunting, part an exploration of memory, this has the combination of plot and meditation that I always love to see from Nayler.
Other January Reads
- The Tainted Cup (2024 novel) by Robert Jackson Bennett. There are a lot of books that bill themselves as fantasy murder mysteries, but this one actually is, with a Holmes/Watson dynamic in a world with a deeply alien ecology, leviathans threatening the seawalls, and a political morass behind the murders. It’s a fun one. Full review to come.
- The Book of Love (2024 novel) by Kelly Link. A literary-leaning novel about four teenagers returned from the dead to find themselves trying integrate back into their ordinary life while slowly learning about the centuries-old conflict they’ve been put in the middle of. Excellent prose, but not long on compelling characters. Full review to come.
- Refractions (2023 novel) by MV Melcer. A “sabotage in space” novel with an international crew divided along national and religious lines. Wears its theme on its sleeve, but it’s a thrill ride that doesn’t let up. Full review to come.
- Moon of the Turning Leaves (2023 novel) by Waubgeshig Rice. Something of a post-apocalyptic travelogue, as a group of Anishnaabe survivors travel a landscape full of natural and unnatural dangers to determine whether their ancestral homeland may again support their community. Short but slow-building, it’s engaging throughout. Full review to come.
My judging team in the third annual Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC3) has finished reading our seven quarterfinalists, and has sent Tim Hawken’s Thrill Switch and Erin Ampersand’s Apocalypse Parenting through to the semifinals. Additionally, our third-place book, Tasmanian Gothic by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky has been picked up as a Senlin Net option by the Space Girls and sent forward to their semifinal group.
- Sunset by Arshad Ahsanuddin
- Kenai by Dave Dobson
- Replacement by Jordan Rivet
- Any Minor World by Craig Schaefer
Keep an eye out over the next two months for our reviews of these books. We will be deciding together with Edpool and Peripheral Prospectors which two of our six semifinalists will advance to the finals.