I’ve been planning to make a big reading push for November and December 2021, because those stories are often overlooked in awards and “best of the year” anthologies and so on. I’m in the process of reading a great wave of stories (if you have stories published in November or December, please e-mail me!)
But before I start on that, I want to talk about some of my favorites from the other ten months of this year. So, here’s a rough list of my favorite short fiction from January through October of 2021 (note that I didn’t include the stories that appeared in previous blog posts, because I’ve already written a fair amount about them):
I am splitting flash fiction out because it often gets lost amongst the short stories, despite being an entirely different form. It’s 2021! Flash fiction should be it’s own award category! Anyway.
A Serpent for Each Year by Tamara Jerée
A gorgeous, touching, strange little story about dating someone covered in snakes, because her parents gave her a serpent on her birthday each year. A poetic meditation on upbringing, love, and relationships across cultural lines. The imagery stayed with me a long time.
My Sister is a Scorpion by Isabel Cañas
Lucia’s sister Mimi has died. But Lucia knows that she isn’t really dead. She’s been brought back to life in the body of a scorpion.
An absolutely beautiful and heart-breaking story. I love how it stays strongly rooted in Lucia’s perceptions and experience, trusting the reader to bring their outside context.
Gosh, there have been a lot of good short stories this year.
Amber Dark and Sickly Sweet by Lulu Kadhim
A story set in a tea house / temple, where teenage girls who are infested with bee hives–as girls are, sometimes, in this world–are imprisoned and forced to work as prostitutes. The prose in this story is gorgeous and bizarre, which makes the awful situation and events of the story all the more horrifying. It’s an absolutely heart-felt and heart-breaking portrait of a world where being eaten alive by a bee-hive is not nearly the worst thing that is happening to these girls.
It is hard to pick my favorite part of this story. The whole thing is wonderful and awful, just like the title promises.
Bride, Knife, Flaming Horse by M. L. Krishnan
Kalavati has just turned 26, so her parents place an arranged marriage advertisement on her behalf. But the suitors who respond–strange and terrifying mythological creatures–are not what anyone expected. But, strange as they are, they might just be what Kala is looking for.
I love the matter-of-factness of the supernatural in this story, the tender moments between Kala and her suitors, and most especially the strange and delightful ending.
Innocent Bird by Rachel Swirsky
Shoko is falling in love, and her wings are coming in. Abandoned by her bird-winged mother, raised by a single father on the coast of rural Japan, she spends her time swimming in the ocean and with her friends at acapella club. But she is terrified that, when she grows her wings, she will have to take to the skies like her mother and leave her father, her friends, and the sea behind her.
This story is touching and heartbreaking, about both the awful self-compromises of adolescence and the trauma of abandonment, and yet also wholly about its own strange magic. I particularly like how well Ichika is painted with a handful of sentences: you can see why Shoko loves her deeply despite her stand-offish and prickly personality. “We’re better off without people like that” makes me tear up every time.
Naomi’s friends at her girls school are all getting interested in boys, whether secretly dating a boy from the posh school across town, or claiming to have trysts with American college students. Naomi, however, is focused on boys from the lunar colony that she calls moon-boys. She secretly reads trashy moon romances, learns everything she can about lunar life, and dreams of migrating to the moon colony to meet a moon-boy of her own. It gives her an escape from her frustrating life and her tyrannical father. But when she has a chance to meet a family from the lunar colony, will they live up to her expectations? And will she even be able to go?
I love this story so much. It manages to portray a teenage romantic fixation without being condescending or dismissive, while at the same time acknowledging that these fixations aren’t usually tied to reality. And, furthermore, we see how Naomi’s love for the moon and for moon-boys allows her a little space of autonomy and control in her own life; autonomy she desperately needs. The ending, where Naomi both has a chance to meet a real moon-boy and a chance to act on her own accord, is perfectly pitched.
It is a kind and lovely story, even when it is portraying some awful things, deeply committed to its characters’ humanity and hidden depths.
Proof by Induction by José Pablo Iriarte
Paulie’s mathematician father has died. All that’s left of him is a brain recording from the moment of his death: an image that cannot learn or grow but can have short conversations. Paulie goes back to the simulation again and again, not to mourn, but to get his dad’s help on a proof they were working on before he died.
I particularly love the way that this story shows the relationship between Paulie and his dad: awkward, stilted, marred by some very poor choices in life, but still with an underlying affection. It felt incredibly true to life. The mathematics were also very well done: convincing without making real mathematical claims. This story already has a ton of attention, which is completely well-deserved. Read it and see what all the fuss is about.
There Are No Hot Topics on Whukai by Andrea Kriz
Life is hard on the Whukai space colony, and even harder since the Terrans brutally put down an uprising a generation ago. Illegal gold-farming in Terran MMOs is one of the only reliable source of income. So when prominent fanfiction writer xXButterflyDragonEmpressQueenXx offers to pay teenage gold-farmer Esko to pretend to be her Whukain friend and sensitivity reader, she has little choice but to agree. Things escalate from there, until it becomes clear that xXButterflyDragonEmpressQueenXx is intending to steal Esko’s entire identity.
This is a really thoughtful story about who “owns” a story, the literary institution of “sensitivity readers,” the way that American culture attributes authenticity to oppressed groups, and how privileged people try to steal and sell that authenticity for their own.
After her army loses the war against the Empire, Janaki hides her past as a female soldier and gets a job as a maid in an imperial household. The terms of the conquest forbid her people from operating any kind of engine, and we see her struggling to adapt to her new life, both as a servant and as a member of an engineering culture forbidden from using her own skills.
A steampunk version of the Bengal Famine, this story handles its historical atrocities with thoughtfulness and care. This story is notable for being actual steampunk, which is to say that it’s about how access to technology is used as a means of subordination, and it’s actually opposed to, not nostalgic for, imperial hierarchies.
That alone is notable enough, but Chand, in her characteristic style, takes things deeper than that. This is not merely a good guys vs bad guys story. Janaki’s army is not pure and noble–they’re misogynistic and perpetrate oppressions of their own. Similarly, despite the truly atrocious actions of the Empire, the imperial people we see are actual people, with their own thoughts and ideas and opinions. Janaki and the woman who employs her even manage to have some moments of connection and consideration, before the oppression and lies at the base of their relationship bring everything tumbling down.
“Woman, Soldier, Girl” is thoughtful, moving, and concise. It, alone, is absolutely worth the cost of the issue.
Concerto for Winds and Resistance by Cara Masten DiGirolamo
The new dictator wants a triumphal symphony to celebrate his impending conquest of Labadi. In an environment of paranoia, nationalism, and rebellion, the symphony practices under a new conductor (after the old one vanished over night.) The story follows the members of the orchestra–informants, paupers, patriots, rebels, immigrants, and more–as they practice a new piece of music and try their best to stay clear of the secret police. And what about the rumors of incenti, the music of Labadi that can create magic and miracles merely by playing it?
This story is a wonderful slice of all the characters’ lives, as they struggle to assemble a concert even as their city-state is falling to paranoia and totalitiarianism. It’s a wonderful intersection of politics, art, and humanity, which does not present easy answers or simple solutions. I loved, in particular, the deep humanity that it gave to all of it’s characters, even the ones whose behavior is detestable, and how the story was focused on the symphony itself, collectively.
The Demon-Sage’s Daughter by Varsha Dinesh
In the existential battle between the gods and the demons, Devayani’s father is well-respected on both sides. But, also, he is vital to the demonic war effort. His resurrection magic allows him to revive the demonic armies fresh after every battle.
There is nothing that Devayani wants more than to earn her father’s respect, and with it his resurrection magic. But he refuses to teach her, because she is a girl. When a god arrives to study with her father and steal his magic, it opens opportunities for both her, and the captive princess she uses as her servant.
This is just a straight-forwardly great adventure story, well-paced and well-written, drawn from the Mahabarata but from a different perspective and with a different viewpoint. It’s an incredibly fun time.
Flowers for the Sea, by Zin E Rocklyn (buy)
After the world flooded, a few surviving humans built themselves an ark and now try to eke out an existence on the unforgiving sea. Their crops are dying, their children as stillborn, and they have placed their hope on Iraxi or, more specifically, her pregnancy. A member of a despised ethnic group, the sole survivor of a pogrom that took her family, Iraxi somehow is carrying her pregnancy to term. She hates it. She hates the people who hope for her and killed her family. She hates the prince who fathered the child. She most of all hates her child-to-be, who she sees as an interloper, an imposition, a parasite. But the child is not what anyone expects, and brings with it new demands and new opportunities for Iraxi.
This whole story takes place in no more than a couple of days. It is so deeply rooted in Iraxi’s perspective that it is almost stream-of-consciousness, and the writing is so thick and vivid that you cannot help be feel her resentment, confusion, and despair. This is not a nice story. Everyone in this world is awful. But it is richly realized and wonderfully framed, an incredibly intimate portrait of a horrible two days, perhaps the last two days in all the world.
Submergence , by Arula Ratnakar
In an environmentally ruined future, where humanity is dying off from a deadly gastrointestinal disease, scientists desperate for a cure start plundering the sea floor trying to find an answer in what little remains of the natural world. They find an answer in Panaceius meyeri, a sea sponge with truly miraculous properties including, perhaps, consciousness.
In order to investigate the death of Noor, one of the scientists specializing in P. meyeri, Nithya volunteers to re-experience two years of her memories, recorded by brain implants and replayed from her corpse. Nithya doesn’t become Noor through this experience, but she doesn’t not become Noor either. The story follows her as she replays Noor’s memories, becomes emotionally involved with both Noor’s daughter and her ex-girlfriend, and uncovers the bizarre truth about P. meyeri and the company exploiting it.
Despite its length, this story is absolutely jam-packed with ideas. The above two paragraphs barely covered half of them. And, notably, just as in all of Ratnakar’s work, the ideas in this story are taken directly from current scientific research. In the end, my experience of Submergence was educational, alienating, and bizarre. I came out of it feeling like I had run a marathon. It is wholly unlike anything else that anyone is writing right now. The closest I could compare it to is a Golden Age Science Fiction story, but unlike those stories, the science is real and accurate, the characters have real interiority, and not everyone is a straight white man. It is a fantastic story, and I would recommend it to anyone.
I dislike the term “Hard Science Fiction,” not the least because it makes a promise (stories based on real science) that it almost always fails to deliver, instead delivering pseudoscience and claiming that it’s real. Ratnakar, though, actually delivers on the promise of Hard Science Fiction: real science, realistic futures, and realistic characters. For that, alone, Submergence is more than worth your time.
One more thing
While it’s not eligible in any award category, every issue of the zine “fuckit” has enthralled me. Good essays, good poetry, absolutely fantastic stickers. A great zine made in the classic zine tradition. I really enjoy it.