Every year, I try to binge read short fiction and make recommendations on it. I am not able to do a very comprehensive job this year. First, because I’m on the jury for the Norton Award (given to science fiction and fantasy young adult and middle grade speculative fiction) which ate a lot of my reading time. Secondly, my health has been poor.
Novellas are the one reading category which I didn’t have to significantly abridge. I admit that’s because I never read too many of them. This year, I looked at eighteen, although if I had another day or two, I’d expand that to at least twenty. I gathered these novellas by:
1) Requesting recommendations directly from other writers, and looking at their posts recommending stories. This year, I did a lot of reading from lists by Ken Liu and Aliette de Bodard.
2) Reading the year’s run of Asimov’s, which is a regular novella publisher.
3) Picking up the most commonly recommended novellas on the SFWA message boards. Also, I went through the (relatively short) list of novellas which had been placed in the forums, and downloaded several.
4) Asking individual authors to send me things they were particularly proud of.
I tried to put priority on looking at the newer, less established authors that my process turned up, though I also picked up very highly rated works by authors like Nancy Kress. (It’s why I put low priority on Scalzi’s novella, though, which I didn’t get to… sorry, John.) I also admit to having given priority to novellas I could easily get my hands on, with the exception of the Valentine novella, which I had to go buy. (The horrors! It was completely worth it.)
“A Necessary Being” by Octavia Butler (in her collection, Unexpected Stories)
I didn’t think I’d ever get to read another new piece of writing by Octavia Butler and I am astonishingly grateful for being able to do so.
This novella deals with many of Octavia Butler’s accustomed themes. She often wrote about communities formed and maintained by biological necessity. This appears here, also, as the aliens*, who are vaguely reminiscent of insects, have biologically determined castes, including rare individuals born to be rulers. Ruler-class infants are born so rarely that cities vie to make sure they have one; if none are born in a generation, they’ll kidnap and mutilate one in order to force it to stay.
Another of Butler’s common themes–in her more optimistic stories, particularly–is finding ways to navigate biological necessity in order to create better, more peaceful outcomes. Rather than simply breaking the rules, characters have to find a way to get what they want within them. In the SF tradition, iconoclastic rule-breaking is probably more common, but in real life, people are almost always constrained by biology and culture. I value Butler’s attempts to ask: if we have limits, how can we negotiate them anyway? Since I invariably read these as, on a distant level, parables about the biological tendencies toward hierarchy, conflict and xenophobia that appear in human societies, I find her writing very delicate and hopeful. Despite a realistic, bleak view of the terrible things those qualities can force, Butler often writes her way out of the biological traps she poses, imagining strange, often ambiguous, ways through.
This is one of the more unabashedly optomistic stories. I’m not going to say it’s one of her best — it lacks the fast, emotional gut punch of “Bloodchild,” for instance — but it’s still strong. The science fictional elements are interesting; the narrative is intriguing; and her ever-insightful eye is present here, and a wonder to see again.
“Hath No Fury” by Kat Howard (Subterranean Online)
In this urban fantasy version of New York, wherein magical and mythical creatures coexist in a surreal way with mundane ones, Medea and her furies continue their work from the Greek tragedies. The main character is a woman who was murdered by her abusive boyfriend, and now — as a fury — avenges other women murdered by their intimate partners. (I appreciate that Howard explicitly includes trans women.) When omens indicate that something is very wrong, she works with Medea, the fates, Odin, and others to chase down the monster at the heart of the labyrinth.
I have a low tolerance for urban fantasy settings wherein mundane things exist alongside mythical ones, which I have no particular excuse for. It’s just a thing I don’t usually like, perhaps because it often seems glib or cute. Kat Howard’s mythical New York City works for me–I think I like that the story takes the presence of the mythical figures as accepted fact, and moves from there. It doesn’t try to reconcile the two views of the city, or make the process make logical sense (a lot of urban fantasy loses me when it tries to make logical sense out of something inherently illogical). It’s surreal; that’s it; the reader is now invited to move on with the story.
Some of Kat Howard’s descriptions of the city and its surreality are lovely, for instance, when the main character describes a section of the city which is perpetually stuck in Tuesday mornings. I also found a number of stand out lines like this one: “The hidden meaning of vengeance is too late” which I feel perfectly encapsulates both the temptation of vengeance and the howling, despairing uselessness of it. This is particularly resonant for me in the context of uncovering some terrible things that were done to a loved one. I furiously want to attack it, avenge it somehow, while knowing it would be fruitless; it wouldn’t change things for my loved one or protect them. The time when I could have interfered to stop the damage is decades past.
I also thought she did a really good job of describing the dynamics of abuse. In particular, I liked the main character’s attempts to reconcile herself as the strong, avenging fury she is in the present with the person who had been thoroughly isolated and wrecked by her boyfriend.
Then I saw myself. My self as I had been, before I became a Fury, before I gave myself a new name. Hollow-eyed and hunched, and walking like I was waiting for a blow to fall.
Near the end of things, I thought, but I couldn’t be sure—I hadn’t recognized how bad things were when I had been living them. I tell myself now that if I had, I would have asked for help, but that’s probably a lie. I see that girl now, and I am embarrassed to have been her, shamed, that I let someone else turn me into that shadow of a thing. We’re supposed to be strong, and it feels like failure to realize you’re not.
“Yesterday’s Kin” by Nancy Kress (published solo by Tachyon)
In this novella, a scientist who has recently discovered a new subgroup of mitochondrial DNA, is summoned by the government to participate in meetings with the aliens who have established an embassy in New York. The aliens, it turns out, are humans, transplanted 150,000 years ago to a new world. They are also members of that mitochondrial subgroup and want to identify their relatives, who turn out to include the scientist’s adopted son.
The aliens also reveal that earth is in the path of a catastrophic event, wherein a cloud of “spores” (like those theorized by panspermia) will infect humans with a fatal disease. Many human scientists go to live in the embassy where they can collaborate with the aliens to research a vaccine. The main character’s adopted son also goes to live there, where he can learn more about the alien’s culture, and decide whether or not to join them.
This was a fairly typical Kress novella for me (that’s not a bad thing)–if you like them, you’ll probably like this. If not, I have no idea (since it depends on why you dislike them). It’s grounded in classic science fictional speculation, merging a number of ideas and theories to generate a plot. However, the characters and details are sharply grounded enough that the stories don’t feel dry; there’s emotional resonance, too. There are also a lot of genuinely surprising plot turns, and those that I can anticipate are well-executed. I also appreciate the ways that she creates difficult, upsetting situations, but always leaves a note of benevolence. Characters–and species–are often good faith actors, even if they don’t always seem to be, and even if bad outcomes result from their good intentions. As some writers say, she demonstrates generosity to her characters.
As in many Kress stories, there are a few moments that make me eyeroll a tad–mostly, amid her interesting science fictional speculations, she often includes one or two that I consider ungrounded enough to break the illusion that the story is hard science fiction. I don’t have a problem with stories that aren’t hard science fiction, but when all the signals in the story are saying “this is!” then I get a little frustrated with things being included that are seriously unlikely because they end up being wrapped up in this veneer of truthiness. In this novella, my eyeroll moment was that one of the characters was somehow sensitive enough to people’s physiology to be able to pick up other people’s mitochondrial groupings; he immediately, viscerally feels a loving connection with those who share his mitochondrial DNA. This is eyerolly for me because it’s extremely improbable, and it also plays into some weirdness about the inherent importance of “real” families that I expect would aggravate some of my friends who have strong, nonbiological family ties. (I don’t mind the portrayal of a difficult adoption in this at all, but the implication that it would have automatically been better if the people were more closely related irks me somewhat.) I have some friends who are very sensitive to this theme; they might not enjoy the novella. But I did, a couple eye rolls aside.
I’m not doing much of a thematic analysis here, but it’s a strong work, and very successful at being the kind of story it sets out to be (not an easy task). I enjoy its complex plot and all the intellectual bells and whistles that keep my science fictional brain happy.
“The Mothers of Voorhisville” by Mary Rickert (Tor.com)
I have often had trouble immersing in Rickert’s work, although I admit that I was usually trying in high school so my reading taste was suspect. I acknowledge this as entirely my issue, given the number of people with really good taste who adore her writing. But that’s why it was especially nice to sit down to this story and find it absorbing.
It tells the story of a number of women — the mothers of Voorhisville — who were all seduced and impregnated by the same man. They all gave birth to pretty baby boys with metal wings. They tried to hide this, fearing societal reactions, aided by the fact that the babies could retract their wings. Once they got old enough to start flying, though, the women were no longer able to hide the secret. They form a frightening, creepy collective to try to protect the increasingly sinister babies.
The story is told in a sort of consensus format, with the idea being that one of the women is transcribing events, flipping points of view frequently. There are periodic interjections from the group as a whole, speaking in second person. Occasionally, someone else writes a section. There are a large number of characters to keep track of, and I sometimes failed, but several of the stories are interesting and distinctive. (I expect that which ones resonate with which people will differ.)
Rickert does a masterful job of weaving in disturbing details so that the reader is overwhelmed by an increasing sense of doom. This is where I confess I’m a bad horror reader; in the moment when I’m reading it, I am very engaged by all that disturbing stuff. But once I’m done, when I think back on the story, I remember that oh-so-successfully evoked sense of anxiety, and that makes me not want to think about the story. It’s like I get the emotional impact of disliking it, even though what I disliked wasn’t the story, but the emotion which it was supposed to (and did) evoke. I have that problem a little bit with the Valentine below, too. Rickert was just too successful. ;)
I think I would have preferred the story to be pruned by one or two threads, as it would have helped my tracking, and I think the story got weighted down by so much detail at points– the number of characters meant that the pacing of less interesting parts of the story (to me, at least) still had to be quite slow. But that was a minor feeling, and mostly (again, for me) concerned the middle. The beginning was intriguing and pulled me in, even while it spun a mood of trepidation; the ending was fast and visceral and horrifying.
I’m not sure I would read this again (because: disturbed), but it was an interesting read, and is definitely an extremely well-crafted piece that I admire for its skill.
“Dream Houses” by Genevieve Valentine (list of where to buy on her website)
The main character is a trucker whose impatience with staying still has eventually driven her to becoming auxiliary crew on a cargo ship that transports goods to an outlying colony. When the crew’s hibernation pods are sabotaged, only the main character survives, leaving her both awake (because she cannot return to the sabotaged pod) and alone. She calculates the time she’ll have to stay awake during the trip — six years — and prepares for a grueling journey of isolation and deprivation, alone with the ship’s AI, Capella, who appears to have been sabotaged itself so that it can’t (or won’t) tell her what the cargo is that apparently inspired someone to murder the crew.
The novella weaves the present timeline of the main character’s journey with revelations about her past. There’s a theme about choral music as well, which made me wonder if Valentine might be writing in response to Leckie’s ANCILLARY JUSTICE, although it could also be a coincidence. I found some of the relationships in the flashbacks hard to sort at first in a way that didn’t feel like it necessarily served the story, and I also question the placement of the first one — which is about choral music — as I found myself unpleasantly disoriented for a bit in terms of big questions of setting and timeframes which I didn’t want to be thinking about. So personally, I had to push a little bit before I got into the story, but that may well be an idiosyncratic reaction.
This is a deeply disturbing novella with lots of visceral, painful moments. There’s a lot to like here, including Valentine’s impeccable skill with craft and language, but I think the thing I most appreciated was the main character. She had a very strong, distinct presence, which was informed by her traumatic past without being overwhelmed by it. I also loved the touches of surreality where the main character started to get confused–for instance, when she begins to believe that one of the dead crew members is alive — they are presented with utter frankness. The main character believes this impossible thing; she also understands the limitations of reality (like, that the crewmember can’t respond to her); she can’t reconcile these things and doesn’t even try, they’re just part of her life. It felt like a refreshing and realistic way of talking about breaks with reality.
I keep going back and forth on which of these novellas is my favorite, but this one may be it. It’s very distinctive and worth chasing down even though it’s harder to access than many of the others on this list.
“The Regular” by Ken Liu (list of where to buy the anthology Upgraded on Clarkesworld’s website) – There seem to be at least one or two science fiction mysteries every year in my novella reading. This year, there were two–Liu’s and Murphy’s–and I’ve listed them both. Science fiction mysteries are a harder sell for me than many other forms, as I think the two genres can mix in a glib fashion that I find predictable, and/or the science fiction conventions can actively get in the way of the murder mystery conventions. I prefer a mystery in which I can track the clues and, on reread, see how the author has cleverly left a trail that would have lead me to the correct conclusion. In science fiction, the turning point is often on clues that the reader would have no way of deciphering, because they depend on advanced technology (or, worse, unpredictable fantasy rules); this can work if the writer does enough foreshadowing, but sometimes they don’t.
Liu manages the combination deftly here, producing a good story that is very satisfying in both genres. There’s an emotional arc of character development here, too, which distinguishes the story. It’s much more action-oriented than most Liu and an engaging, fast-paced read. For some reason, it seemed like it would adapt very well into a graphic novel.
My favorites of Ken Liu’s work are distinctly him — they’re stories which just couldn’t have been written by anyone else. For me, this wasn’t one of those stories; it’s not unique. But it’s a deftly done, satisfying science fiction mystery, and I definitely recommend it for people who like those and want a good, entertaining read.
“Claudius Rex” by John Murphy (list of where to buy on his website) – This is a good complement for the Liu. The Ken Liu mystery is more emotionally resonant; the Murphy mystery is more funny and just plain *fun.* It’s a really energetic and compulsive read with a hellaciously obnoxious AI whose voice I really liked. There were a couple places where I felt like it got bogged down in details and back-and-forth, particularly in the ending sequences, but it was just really fun to read. And when it got a bit dry for me, or there was a trope that felt a little too baldly inserted, all I had to do was wait a bit–there were always more treats coming.
“The Things We Do For Love” by K. J. Parker (Subterranean Online) – A few of the Parker stories I’ve read have been about diffident, talented-but-rebellious young men. This one is, too–a Duke’s son, turned thief, meets a witch who loves him with disturbing obsessiveness and won’t let him age, leave or die. The thief is therefore sentenced to a sort of monotonous, unending ordeal of carrying off heists that he doesn’t want to do, and that they don’t need to do, because the witch thinks that’s the way to make him happy. I liked this; the voice is engaging; it had lots of interesting moments. I felt that the ending dragged (my guess is that’s because he had two timelines going at once, and one ended a lot earlier than the other), and I found myself less willing to suspend my disbelief about the witch character as the story went on; once she was given a(n interesting) history, I had trouble believing in her vapid, unchanging obsession with the thief. But definitely fun, and strongly in Parker’s ouvre (assuming what I’ve read is representative).
“Boar and Apples” by Ursula Vernon (in her collection Toad Words) – This is a pretty straightforward Snow White retelling, leavened with humor and practicality. There are substantial changes to the ways the characters interact, and the dwarfs have transformed into delightful, magical boars. This isn’t a deep thematic intervention like many of the more serious fairy tale retellings, so people shouldn’t go in with that in mind; it’s not trying to be Valente’s “Six Gun Snow White.” It’s quite successful at its aims: it’s a charming, fun read, enriched by Vernon’s witty dialogue and turns of phrase.
*It’s possible there’s some backstory that makes these genetically modified humans or something, since someone told me this novella connects to one of Butler’s novel-length works. But, at least in the story, they seem like aliens.