My Best Short Fiction of 2013
by Sam Tomaino
Review by Sam Tomaino
Date: 03 March 2013 /
I thought I would go through all my reviews for 2012 magazines and excerpt out all those that got a Hugo-worthy rating from me. Perhaps this might assist you in making your Hugo nominations.
I gave that recommendation to 5 novellas, 7 novelettes and 5 short stories. The publication of those stories was distributed this way: Asimov's Science Fiction 8, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction 5, Analog 1, Interzone 1, Abyss & Apex 1 and one chapbook from PS Publishing.
Here are the excerpts of the my reviews of the stories by category:
"Murder Born" by Robert Reed. When I read in the introduction that the story was inspired by the author's thinking about people who witness the executions of convicted murderers, I was expecting something interesting. I had no idea how great a story this would be. Our narrator, Shawn, is a photo-journalist. When his daughter, Kaylee, is first missing, and then found murdered, he heads home. Kaylee's boyfriend, Elijah, is convicted of the crime. At the same time, a man named Gordon Tran has invented a device called the Elysium Chamber. It can wipe out the existence of anyone put into it. When it is used on a murderer, a surprising thing happens. The murderer's victims appear at the site of where they died, just as they were, except naked and hairless, with no memory of where they had been in the intervening time. Very soon, laws are rewritten to execute criminals that way so their victims might return. I'm not sure such laws would be constitutional, but I'll leave that quibble aside. Shawn becomes involved with Gordon, taking pictures of the newly returned, and even developing a romantic relationship with one. As you might expect, the story builds towards the execution of Elijah. Since that happens half way through the story, you'd also expect this does not solve matters. The story just gets better and better until the end. It deals with a lot of the ramifications of such a device. This one will be added to my Hugo short list. Asimov’s Science Fiction – February 2012
"The Yellow Cabochon" by Matthew Hughes. The esteemed Mr. Matthew Hughes was kind enough to send me a word document copy of his latest novella, "The Yellow Cabochon", now available as a limited edition from PS Publishing. This is one of his wonderful stories set in Old Earth's penultimate age. These stories have one of three heroes and this one features Luff Imbry, the corpulent master criminal specializing in thievery, forgery, and anything else he might need to do. As the story opens, he has been working at the lucrative endeavor of replacing the jewels of the dead with forgeries just before they are buried with them. His contact informs him that someone wants the Yellow Cabochon of Lord Frons Elphrate, who actually isn't dead yet. To take advantage of his connection to the mortician who switches the gems that Imbry has forged, he must arrange the demise of the lord. To save money, he decides to take on that additional job himself.
The only problem is that when he attempts to ambush the lord at a shrine, he finds the tables turned and himself the prisoner of the lord. To prevent himself from becoming the lord's slave, he agrees to tell the lord everything, and realizes that he may have been set up for some other reason than the acquisition of the cabochon. By the way, I had to look this up, so I'll tell you: A cabochon is a precious stone in a convex shape that is polished without being faceted. This one is the size of a child's face. When Imbry and Elphrate go to question Imbry's contact, they find him dead. More complications arise and the chase is on.
Reading Hughes prose is a delight, as I have written many times. I have called him "Vancian" before and that comparison to the author of The Dying Earth still holds. Hughes also adds many historical details to his stories which make this world of his all the more real. My only regret is that I have finished this story. I hope to be sent another soon. I absolutely recommend this to anyone who likes great stories and beautiful prose. It's worth the price. It will also be on my Hugo short list for novella next year.
"The Conquest of the Air" by Rob Chilson. The "conquest of the air" in the title is not that of earth or even done by humans. It is the dream of Shellshaper the Bright Dreamer of Ocean-the-World and his followers. This was thought to be the dreams of drunkards until "air bubbles" appear above the surface of their planet. Air bubbles that are not natural but made by someone. Meanwhile, humans, supervised by a mining engineer named Chanarong Chalmers, unaware that there is intelligent life beneath the world's oceans have set up a camp on the planet as a base for asteroid mining around their sun. The problem is that, even for this, they have to have a treaty with the indigenous peoples. They set up communications relatively quickly but things get complicated. The superiors of both Chalmers and Shellshaper set up roadblocks. What will the two groups who want contact do? This was a great story and the culture of Shellshaper and his people is imaginatively detailed. It also doesn't have the clichéd villains that we see in certain Hollywood movies. This novella will make my Hugo short list! Analog Science Fiction and Fact – July/August 2012
"The Fullness of Time" by Kate Wilhelm. Mercedes (Mercy) Haas makes her money doing anonymous research for writers. Her old college friend, Cat (Caitlin Alexis Thorne) is a successful documentary filmmaker. Cat asks Mercy to help her with her next project, a film about a mysterious man named Hiram Granville who, before he died, got rich from inventions that he patented and collected huge royalties on. His son, John, is a financial genius. Hiram invented "gadgets there's no use for only to find an overwhelming demand for them within a few years" and John predicts "the market eighteen months ahead of time with infallibility." How can they do this? They find out about a family genetic trait, narcolepsy, and that begins to unravel the mystery. But that's just half the story. Then, Cat, Mercy, and crew have to find a way to stop a monstrous plot, and how they do that is what makes this story great. This will be a novella for my Hugo Short List, next year. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Jul/Aug 2012.
"Sudden, Broken and Unexpected" by Steven Popkes. I did not know what to expect when I started reading this story. I got more than I bargained for. Jake Mulcahey is an aging rocker. He had his big day, twelve years ago, with his band Persons Unknown, a one-hit wonder song called "Don't Make Me Cry" and a lady friend named Rosie. On a big tour, he threw it all away, first Rosie and then, the band. Since then, he's earned a living releasing the occasional solo album and fixing songs for other people. When his ex, Rosie, comes calling and wants him to fix a song, he actually finds it a pleasurable experience. Rosie introduces him to the original writer of the music, an artificial construct named Dot. Dot is a divaloid, a really complicated computer program that can become a visual appearance on stage and play music. Dot looks like a young girl and plays the very young crowd. Rosie, a software engineer, has developed a Dot 2.0 and wants to do something special with it. I won't say more, the story really grows in telling. Some of it grows in expected ways, some surprise you. I loved this story and read it slowly, savoring it. You do that, too. Needless to say this will be on my Best Novella Hugo short list for next year. Asimov’s Science Fiction – December 2012.
"Small Towns" by Felicity Shoulders. Set at the end of World War I, in France, Jacques Jaillet returns to his home town to find it devastated by war. The people want to rebuild it larger and more planned. Jacques, a toymaker, misses his old small town and starts a secret project, hidden from his toy shop. Meanwhile, in another town, a girl born in 1904 has grown only to a height of twenty centimeters. Her mother shields her, showing her only to one friend and the town priest. These stories come together in a beautiful way. This was great little story and will be on my Hugo short list. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Jan/Feb 2012
"The Way of the Needle" by Derek Künsken. Set on a world that orbits a pulsar, this novelette starts out slow but builds to a truly great ending. Mok is a warrior and a Follower of the Needle. He is normally a warrior that has great honor. Now, he has been sent to be an assassin and must look lowly to infiltrate the enemy's lair. He manages to get on the estate of his victim but getting close to him is difficult. He meets another lowly creature named Rag and manages to make a friend of him, even though he knows nothing of true friendship. I will tell you that he completes his mission, but something more important happens and that (along with its brilliant picture of an alien culture) is what really makes this story a fine one and one that will make my Hugo short list. Asimov's Science Fiction – March 2012
"Fearful Symmetry” by Tyler Keevil. In another future, in which Earth is pretty much one world-state dominated by America. Nicole works for some conservation bureaucracy and has been sent to Siberia to check out the report of a tiger-like wild animal that has torn a man to shreds. Her superiors do not want the creature killed in case it is an endangered species or something new that is viable. With two local men, Vargas and Sam, Nicole goes in search of the creature that has killed another man. This one had very well-drawn characters and a great sense of place. It also had a good beastie. This was a good enough novelette to make my Hugo Short List for next year. Interzone – Issue #238 – Jan/Feb 2012.
"Something Real" by Rick Wilber. Rick Wilber has become well-known as a science fiction writer and baseball enthusiast and sometimes those interests have intersected. He comes by the interest in baseball naturally as his father, Del Wilber, was a catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Boston Red Sox. "Something Real" does have a bit to do with baseball, specifically about a real-life catcher, Moe Berg, for a number of major league teams. Even Wilber describes him as a mediocre player but he was also a Princeton educated scholar, knew many languages and was a spy for the O.S.S. during World War II. It's that career that the story focuses mostly on and the actual time when he attended a lecture by Werner Heisenberg in Zurich in December, 1944. He was under orders to assassinate Heisenberg if anything he said indicated that the Nazis were close to developing an atomic bomb. Berg concluded that they were not and did not shoot Heisenberg. That's what really happened. Early on in the story, we realize that we are in an alternate history in some very significant ways. According to his Wikipedia bio, that's true for Berg, too. The story told from Berg's point-of-view is fascinating and even involves a femme fatale. Since this is alternate history, we don't know what will happen. Even me calling it "alternate history" isn't quite accurate, so as not to spoil anything. But this was a great story and one that I will put on my Hugo short list for next year. Asimov's Science Fiction – April/May 2012
"Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls" by Rachel Pollack. The title character in "Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls" is also known as Journeyman Jack, Jack Sad, Handsome Johnny, Jack Summer, Johnny Poet, Jack Thief, Jack Gamble, and Jack Spade (that one not to his face). He runs a private poker game out of a room in the Hotêl de Rêve Noire on 35th Street in New York City. He knows he has a winning hand but folds, because he receives a card described as thus, "a cream-colored card that contained only four lines: John Shade, and below that, Traveler, then Hôtel de Rêve Noire, New York, and in the final line no words, only a silhouette of a chess piece, the horse-head knight in the classic design named for nineteenth-century chess master Howard Staunton" (Sound familiar?). The rule is that everything stops when he receives that card. You could not ask for a better opening. A man named William Barlow has found his card in his wife, Alice's belongings after her death. He had been haunted by hearing many voices whispering and a vision of a dense forest and a cold fire. After that, he had found the card. Jack recognizes this place as the Forest of Souls and Alice is trapped there. Jack agrees to help her find her way out. This starts a great dark fantasy with other elements I won't mention and a major surprise. A great story and another I'll add to my Hugo Short List (for novelettes). And please, more tales of Jack Shade. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Jul/Aug 2012
"Close Encounters" by Andy Duncan. Buck Nelson was a contactee of a flying saucer in the 50s. It's the late 70s now and a young woman who identifies herself as "Miss Hanes of the Associated Press" comes to his door and wants to talk to him. Back in the day, Nelson had written about a visit from an alien named Bob Solomon who had given Nelson a dog he called Bo. Nelson had held regular "Spacecraft Conventions"/Picnics on his ranch in Missouri. Now, the dog has died and he lives like a hermit, watching soap operas for the pretty girls. With the new movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind sparking interest in alien visits, Miss Hanes invites him to come to a gathering of scientists doing serious research on UFOs. Nelson goes to where they are but things don't go well -- at first. What really makes this story is the end and that's why it will be on my Hugo Short List for novelettes, next year. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Sep/Oct 2012
"The Waves" by Ken Liu. Maggie and her husband are passengers on a generational ship, headed on a 400-year journey to a distant star. She tells their children creation myths as bedtime stories. The plan had been that their descendants would be the ones to walk on that distant colony planet. That changes when a message from Earth gives them the secret of eternal youth and life. The catch is that, because of the cold equations of their voyage, both parents and children could not be immortal. Two out of the four would age normally and the other two age and die. This happens for the next 400 years, with Maggie and her son, Bobby, choosing the immortality. Bobby remains a ten-year old. But when they reach their destination, there are people waiting for them, changing further the concept of humanity. This all results in a beautifully told story, with the creation myths really adding to it. I think this will be a nominee for next year's awards and I will put it on my Hugo short list for novelette. Asimov's Science Fiction – December 2012
"Mrs. Hatcher's Evaluation" by James Van Pelt. In the story introduction, we learn that James Van Pelt teaches high school and college and that helped me frame the story. The review PDFs that I get don't always include the introductions. This is the only story in this issue that did, and I'm glad I lucked out in that case. It's set in present day in a typical American high school. The only thing different from the high schools in my state (of which I have some familiarity) is that the state had eliminated teacher tenure. That is not unlikely and sets up the whole story. Vice Principal Salas is a former gym teacher who now spends his time disciplining students, fending off parents and evaluating teachers. The principal of the school is obsessed by all the newest methods of evaluating performance, all set by educators to measure student performance. The principal wants Salas to sit in on the classes of a history teacher named Mrs. Hatcher, who does nothing but lecture from tardy bell to dismissal bell. The principal has to eliminate a position and wants Mrs. Hatcher to be it. You can tell where the story is leading but the way that Van Pelt pulls it off is pure genius and he throws in a plus that you are not expecting at the end. I’m going to add this short story to my Hugo short list, too. Asimov's Science Fiction – March 2012.
"City League" by Matthew Corradi. I’m always a sucker for a story that involves baseball and so when "City League" opened talking about the game, I was hooked. This wasn't even a story that involved professional players. Our narrator played a little minor league ball, but he was primarily a fan with wonderful memories of attending Detroit Tigers games at Comerica Park with his dad, This takes place in a future some years into the 21st Century and the game has changed a bit. Our narrator works at a job in which he can analyze bits of people's memories to see if they have been tampered with. This is useful in legal cases where these memories are used as proofs in legal proceedings. In the course of such an analysis, he finds something wrong with his own memories. I won't spoil more of the story but what makes this is how it ends. I liked it so much, I will be putting it on my Hugo Award short list for short story next year. The story also has heart, another thing I'm a sucker for! The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction May/Jun 2012.
"Star Soup" by Chris Willrich. In the introduction, we are told the author has worked as a children's librarian and that this may have inspired the story. So we may not be surprised when a visitor from Earth, named First Mate Switch, visits the village of Veiltown on the planet of Dimhope and, when initially rebuffed by the villagers, asks for a cauldron to make a soup in. Since this is a science fiction story, he adds to it what he calls a "star stone". The soup does begin to emit an aroma, and the village people gradually become interested and, of course, add things to the soup. But they add more than vegetables and meat. They begin to see images in the soup and First Mate Switch tells them a story. They start adding stories of their own and see them reflected in the soup. We are told some lovely little tales and thus, the people are enriched intellectually as well as physically. "The soup was good." So is this story, and it will be added to my Hugo Short List for Short Story for next year! Asimov’s Science Fiction – September 2012.
"Crazy" by Sarah A. Drew. I did not know what to expect when I stared reading the story. It begins with the line "The brontosaurus is following me to work." It turns out that our narrator is Jennifer, who was diagnosed as a schizophrenic when she was younger. Apparently, in this near future, people with personality disorders can use them to be useful. Jennifer begins working for a consulting firm that looks at the country's current military situation. Her schizophrenia helps her have insights that a normal person would not. But Jennifer just wants to be normal and buys pills that will make her so. I won't say how this all ends, but I was so impressed with it that it gets added to my Short Story Hugo Short List for next year. Abyss & Apex Issue 43: 3rd Quarter 2012.
"The Wizard of 34th Street" by Mike Resnick. Well, you always know you're going to get a great story from Mike Resnick and "The Wizard of 34th Street" is no exception. Our narrator is a guy named Jake who has an unexceptional job at an import/export company. When his friend, Milton, runs into financial difficulty and gets a good stock tip from a man who calls himself The Wiz, he strikes up a friendship with this character. He is the only friend of the Wiz, the rest are supplicants. Having an absolute predictive ability is not entirely a good thing and the conversations between Jake and the Wiz are quite poignant and touching. You might see where this story is going, but the last word puts a different perspective on it and that’s why this will be on my Hugo short list for short story. Asimov's Science Fiction – December 2012.
So that's it, my Hugo Short Fiction nomination recommendations for 2012. I'll leave it to you to decide which 5 out of the 7 novelettes to choose. I haven't figured that out myself, yet!