Because they come late in the year, stories published in November and December are often overlooked for awards and reviews. This year, I tried to make a special effort to read more stories from November and December and, while I was not able to get to as many as I would have liked, here are a few of my favorites. Read them! Love them! Nominate them for awards if you’re able to.
If you want to see my favorite stories from the rest of the year, you can find them here.
The Last Caricature of Jean Moulin , by Andrea Kriz
The protagonist and her friend Mathilde have invented a time machine, to go back and try to recover lost art. Particularly, they want to recover the perhaps-mythical last caricature of Jean Moulin, a French Resistance leader, writer and artist who drew a caricature of his torturer before being murdered by the Gestapo.
But it turns out that they have made, somehow, the only time machine. And the rest of the world is not willing to accept a time machine used only to recover lost, perhaps-mythical art. The consequences for the two characters, and the narrator’s recollection of their bond, become a time machine of their own accord.
Time travel stories don’t often work for me, because when they are presented as fiction I try to make sense of them (and they do not make sense). This story, though, is poetry, in the best possible way. Ever since I read it I’ve been turning it over and over in my mind. I think you will too.
The House at the End of the World, by Ashley Deng
Yi’s family house has stood for hundreds of years, protecting the family within and providing for them in ways both mundane and magical. Outside, the world is falling apart with deadly heat waves, famines, and the like, but the house has always provided enough food, enough coolness, enough to maintain everyone inside of it.
As Yi comes of age, and begins to realize that her family and house are different, she begins to question the things she has always been told not to question, and investigate the nature of the house and what her family’s collaboration with it means. What she discovers is horrifying, and changes everything and nothing at the same time.
The House at the End of the World is unfortunately behind a paywall, but it alone is well worth the cost of the issue. It is heartbreaking and fascinating. It is also a wonderfully drawn look at what the “business as usual” future of climate looks like, without being an “issue story” or about collapse, simply seeing this world from the point of view of a child who has grown up in it. It is also an effective and unsettling horror story, one which does not offer easy answer or straightforward morals.
A Living Planet, by Benjamin Kinney
While his wife Liza is aboard a years-long mission to Mars, Ethan is stuck on Earth, working an unglamorous mission-control job for NASA and trying not to worry that his wife’s spacecraft has been out of communication for a week (it’s probably just a damaged antenna! right?)
But Ethan’s “boring desk job” takes a turn when NASA detects an unidentified space object, not behaving like any asteroid or comet, and trying to communicate with one of their satellites.
What I think is really well done about this story is that it is a “realistic” alien contact story. There’s no big spaceships, no invasions, no face-to-face meetings. There isn’t really even any communication. Just “Oh. Someone exists and knows we exist.” It’s also a well-done slice-of-life-in-the-future story, which I greatly appreciate.
(Note for award nomination purposes this story was published in December 2021 but was in the January 2022 issue of Analog, making it qualify as a 2021 story for the Nebulas and a 2022 story for the Hugos.)
Coiffeur Seven, by Kiran Kaur Saini
The eponymous robot is an automated hairdresser for hospice patients. Despite its work being primary about getting hair “easy to work with” and the hospice primarily warehousing dying patients, Coiffeur Seven takes pride in its work, in its emotional connection with the patients and in the artistry of the task of hairdressing. But for a particular catatonic patient, it starts to go the extra mile, trying to research who she is, what her connection is to her hair, and how her life has unfolded. What it discovers in the process will change both of them, forever.
Coiffeur Seven is an excellent story. It is simultaneously specific to the Sikh and Sikh immigrant experience of hair and difference, but also dealing with absolutely universal issues of aging, death, and isolation. If all that sounds like a lot for a story about a hair-dressing robot, don’t worry. You’re in good hands. The story stays light and fun and fascinating while taking you through a whole rollercoaster of emotions.
White Rose, Red Rose, by Rachel Swirsky
This is a wonderful, poetic, incredibly short story that defies easy summary. The protagonist’s home is occupied by some invading government. To suppress the populace, the invaders use re-animated dead bodies as their police force, including the protagonist’s brother. Not that this stops her from joining the resistance. But the dead men do not seem to be not entirely gone… perhaps there is something of her brother left? Or maybe he’s just a puppet of their mutual oppressors.
This story feels like a novel in 1700 words. Brilliant, touching, with incredibly deft world-building.
Dreamports, by Tlotlo Tsamaase
Kefilwe is a young woman in a near-future Gaborone, making more money than is good for her by hacking men’s Dreamports for the aggrieved women in their lives. While busy in the virtual world accessible by the Dreamports, she rents out her body to others who want to experience life through it. But things begin to go awry when an older British couple offers her way too much money for a simple weekend sex getaway, and nothing is quite as it seems.
Tlotlo Tsamaase’s work is all extraordinary, and Dreamports is no exception. She has a specific oeuvre of cyberpunk, set mostly in Botswana, which is startling, original, and uniquely her own. Her protagonists are jaded, strange, and amoral, but completely sympathetic and compelling. Her work represents the absolute best that the cyberpunk genre has ever been. I highly recommend Dreamports and also all the rest of her stories.
Special Mention: Centaurworld
I don’t normally nominate or comment on the “media categories” for awards. I just don’t watch enough TV and movies to be able to make a good assessment. But I wanted to direct your attention to Megan Nicole Dong’s Centaurworld, which is available to stream on Netflix.
Centaurworld is a self-contained cartoon show about a (regular, non-sentient) warhorse from a grimdark fantasy world who at the moment of her death is transported into a sunshine-rainbows-and-glitter fantasy world. She discovers that she can talk now, falls in with a weird group of misfit centaur creatures, starts trying to find her way back to her home, and her rider, and the show spirals from there, both into her own development and into the history of the two worlds and how they became separated.
It’s a bizarre, hilarious, heartfelt fantasy show, with a lot of fart jokes and a lot of really good musical numbers. It is utterly unlike anything I’ve ever seen, while at the same time paying homage to its “weird kids animation” heritage. Just when you think it cannot get weirder, it gets weirder. It’s just a wonderful show.