I read a ton of fantastic stories in 2017, some new, some old; we really are living in a Golden Age of short speculative fiction, with so many really excellent stories available to read, most of them for free! These are the ones that have stuck in my mind throughout the year:
One of my favourite writers this year was Natalia Theodoridou. I read her story The Nightingales in Plátres in the October issue of Clarkesworld and was just blown away by the pathos and poetry of her writing. The story is about a population of Greeks on a stranded generation ship, and deals with themes of faith and sacrifice, paternal love and leaderly obligation. Another of her stories, Every Black Tree in the October issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is a dark and haunting story of a man, cursed with immortality, trying to find a way to die, and a woman, cursed with a never-ending pregnancy, desperate for a new life. Finally, The Birding: A Fairy Tale in the December issue of Strange Horizons is a marvellous melding of post-apocalyptic fiction and metamorphosis—set in a world where a plague has turned most people into birds. They’re all fantastic stories that you should check out as soon as you can.
I also really enjoyed Das Steingeschöpf by G.V. Anderson, which was first published in 2016 in Strange Horizons, but which won a World Fantasy Award in 2017. The story is about a Jewish sculptor of “living stone” in inter-war Germany, and his first commission to reconstruct a crumbling, half-blind living statue. It’s certainly worth a read and well deserving of its award.
I’m a big fan of flash fiction, and two of my favourite magazines for flash—Flash Fiction Online and Fireside Fiction—provided some excellent reading last year.
From Fireside: If We Live to be Giants by Allison Mulder, which poses the question: What if your absent father were a giant and your current guardian a zealous heightist? Also, We Who Stay Behind by Karl Dandenell–a beautiful little piece about the quiet painful love of a technician for a dimension-exploring pioneer.
From FFO: Marking the Witch by Lina Rather–I’ve read this story several times, and am still enchanted by the magical and yet almost insidious nature of love that it paints between a young college student and a mysterious outsider known as The Witch. Similarly, That Dark, Sweet Magic by Travis Burnham blurs the lines between true love and magic, both of which linger on even after a loved one’s death–a theme which is explored with equal aplomb in Claire Weinraub’s Top Five Sea Monster Stories (For Allie) by Evan Berkow, where love lingers on in the recollections of fantastical stories shared together.
I read a cluster of “benevolent AI” stories this year, too, a trend kindled by Naomi Kritzer’s 2016 Hugo-award-winning story Cat Pictures Please—about a benevolent AI and its sometimes frustrated attempts to “prevent harm” to people by showing them the targeted ads they most need to see. From there I read Bruce Sterling’s Maneki Neko (which is mentioned in “Cat Pictures Please”), a fascinating look at what an altruistic AI armed with a consenting network of human members could achieve, both positive and sinister. They All Have One Breath by Karl Bunker explores how art might survive a post-scarcity, AI-managed Earth. And finally, a short, very beautiful story by Alex Acks, .subroutine:all///end, in Shimmer Magazine, which deals with an AI carer of the elderly and shows how kindness and compassion can exist in a non-human mind, sometimes more perfectly than in a human one.
A quick rundown of the rest:
Twisted Knots by D.A. Xiaolin Spires—a wonderful story about mothers and daughters, creation, creativity, and storytelling that blends Taiwanese puppet theatre, conscious lab-grown meat, and the legend of the Golem into one big beautiful mishmash of grand ideas, poignant moments and prose that performs mind-bending acrobatics. I also read two poems by Spires, Atomic Numbers and a battleground courses in jingfei, both of which showcase her ability to combine lavish language, hard science and emotional resonance into a limited number of lines and syllables.
A Taste of Time by Abby Goldsmith—an interesting time travel story where taking a swig of a mysterious wine named “Tabula Rasa” lets the main character hop back in time and fix her disappointing life.
Exhalation by Ted Chiang—a slow-paced but beautifully written story about a member of a race of mechanical creatures, whose souls are powered by air, who makes a terrible discovery about his domed-in universe.
This World is Full of Monsters by Jeff VanderMeer—a challenging but ultimately rewarding read. VanderMeer’s style is sometimes quite difficult to penetrate, but once you give yourself over to it you’re in for a magnificently weird journey of metamorphosis and invasive alien biology.