“As the unreality readings spike, the ghost by her side becomes sharper and sharper,”
– “A Salvaging of Ghosts” by Aliette de Bodard, (Loc 2088)
Jonathan Strahan’s latest collection of the best science fiction and fantasy stories of the year features 28 short stories from 2016. His selected stories include works of hard sci-fi, space opera, dystopia, alternate history, future noir, cyberpunk, steampunk, fantasy, grimdark, and reimagined fairy tales. Such a wide range of short stories makes this an ideal collection for readers who are looking for variety in their speculative fiction. And the talent on display is quite staggering.
Volume Eleven includes two Nebula Award-nominated short stories: “Things with Beards” by Sam J. Miller, and “Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar. It also contains the Nebula Award-nominated novelette: “You’ll Surely Drown Here if You Stay” by Alyssa Wong. The remaining 25 stories are by Catherynne M. Valente, Naomi Novik, Paolo Bacigalupi, Joe Abercrombie, Rich Larson, Aliette de Bodard, Daryl Gregory, Alex Irvine, Alice Sola Kim, Seth Dickinson, Carolyn Ives Gilman, Delia Sherman, Genevieve Valentine, Geoff Ryman, Nina Allan, Caitlin R. Kiernan, N.K. Jemisin, Theodora Goss, Lavie Tidhar, Yoon Ha Lee, Paul McAuley, E. Lily Yu, Ken Liu, Ian R. MacLeod, and Charles Yu.
In his introduction, Strahan writes about some of 2016’s SF&F short story trends including the “reaction to climate change,” “the novella boom,” as well as more exposure for “writers from Asian and African nations”. It was nice to see the editor including stories by some of these writers whose names and works I am now familiar with. This has led to a more diverse and entertaining reading experience for me, and gives us some idea of just how much quality there is out there.
I have kept my summaries very short and spoiler-free, and refrained from giving each story a rating. All I will say is that every story in this volume is worthy of your attention. Here are some brief comments on each one:
“The Future is Blue” by Catherynne M. Valente – On a flooded Earth, a 19-year-old girl sets off on a journey across “garbage towns” to find her name. For some reason, the people she encounters on her journey seem to hate her.
“Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik – An intelligent retelling of the fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin” in which we discover if “fairy silver” is worth more than gold. With a strong and intelligent female lead, this is a fine reimagining. The descriptions of the Elf King are particularly memorable.
“Mika Model” by Paolo Bacigalupi – An attractive female robot confesses to a murder. The investigating detective struggles to keep his protective feelings in check.
“Two’s Company” by Joe Abercrombie – An amusing and bloody tale of a female warrior and her companion. They meet a male warrior on a narrow rope bridge and neither party wants to give way.
“You Make Pattaya” by Rich Larson – Set in a near-future Thailand, a con man and his girlfriend have a plan to get rich at the expense of a holidaying celebrity. Worth reading twice to fully appreciate the plot twists and turns.
“You’ll Surely Drown Here if You Stay” by Alyssa Wong – Set in the American West sometime in the past. A young boy is drawn to the desert and mesas where the ghosts of dead miners are rumored to wander. Beautifully written with a second-person narration.
“A Salvaging of Ghosts” by Aliette de Bodard – “The Azure Serpent” is a “mindship” whose crew dive for “gems” which are more than just jewels. One of the crew is a mother searching for her daughter. The deeper underwater they travel, the more reality distorts.
“Even the Crumbs were Delicious” by Daryl Gregory – A bizarre and funny story with a memorable opening line: “Maybe, just maybe, it had been a mistake to paper the walls with edible drugs.” Two friends, Tindal and El Capitan, try to get rid of “two white teenagers” who have wandered into their apartment and licked the walls.
“Number Nine Moon” by Alex Irvine – Three people get stranded on Mars after problems with their lander. Can they find shelter before a deadly sandstorm hits?
“Things with Beards” by Sam J. Miller – MacReady returns from working in Antarctica after a terrible accident at his base. He experiences strange dreams and seems to be missing time. Uses characters and themes from John Carpenter’s movie The Thing.
“Successor, Usurper, Replacement” by Alice Sola Kim – Four writer’s group friends are sitting out a rainstorm in Lee’s apartment, debating the news that “the beast had been sighted” nearby. When a fifth member shows up, Lee has trouble remembering her name. Fine character writing in this one.
“Laws of Night and Silk” by Seth Dickinson – Imagine using a magical weapon that takes years to produce. What would you do if that weapon used to be your child? Strong roles for female characters and some atmospheric prose. There is a distinctive feeling of otherness to this fantasy tale.
“Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman – The aliens have arrived but hardly anybody has seen one. What do they want? This story poses some deep questions about sentience, consciousness, need, and experiences. It also puts the “alien” into aliens.
“The Great Detective” by Delia Sherman – A steampunk detective story set in 1880s London. Can Mycroft Holmes solve the mystery of the missing “illogic engine”?
“Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home” by Genevieve Valentine – Told in a series of letters to and from “Themis”, this story has some interesting ideas about gaming, virtual reality, and greed.
“Those Shadows Laugh” by Geoff Ryman – Set on a small, self-sufficient island of women. Ms. Vargas, a genetic specialist, wishes to help the women with their reproduction problems. But can she follow the strict rules?
“Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar – A brilliant reimagining of two lesser-known fairy tales. Tabitha is on a quest to wear out seven pairs of iron shoes. Amira sits alone on a glass hill waiting for the right “suitor” to climb it.
“The Art of Space Travel” by Nina Allan – A human story involving a sick mother, her hardworking daughter, and a mysterious father. The daughter works in a hotel which becomes famous thanks to the impending visit of two Mars-bound astronauts.
“Whisper Road (Murder Ballad No.9)” by Caitlin R. Kiernan – After a dark act on a farm, two women are pursued by something unknown. In this strange road trip, there is a gradual reveal of the characters’ stories. I got drawn into this one by its movement and eerie atmosphere.
“Red Dirt Witch” by N.K. Jemisin – Set in the time of racial segregation in the American south, this is a fairy tale-like story of a single mother fighting to protect her children. It’s also about power, sacrifice, and magic.
“Red as Blood and White as Bone” by Theodora Goss – A young girl working in the kitchens of a baron’s house gives shelter to a beautiful woman with long, black hair. The woman plans to dance with the prince at the upcoming ball, but does she have an ulterior motive?
“Terminal” by Lavie Tidhar – A “swarm” of single-pilot spacecraft leaves Earth on a one-way trip to Mars. The pilots’ loneliness is broken by radio chatter as they begin to share their motivations for taking this journey.
“Foxfire, Foxfire” by Yoon Ha Lee – In the middle of a war-torn city, a fox is searching for one more kill in order to become “fully human”. Jong, the pilot of a giant mech-fighting machine, has other ideas.
“Elves of Antarctica” by Paul McAuley – Global warming is melting Antarctica’s ice revealing a number of stones covered with strange carvings. Mike believes they are written in the language of Elves.
“The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight” by E. Lily Yu – In this story of a young witch seeking adventure, the physical cost of magic and spells plays an important role. It also has a creepy depiction of dragons, as well as a warning about ignoring advice freely given.
“Seven Birthdays” by Ken Liu – Hard sci-fi with a family twist. Liu’s tale starts with geo-engineering as a reaction to global warming. It then expands to the solar system. The author explores ideas concerning consciousness, machines and families.
“The Visitor from Taured” by Ian R. MacLeod – This story was inspired by an urban myth about a possible traveller from another universe. MacLeod examines multiple universes, the double-slit experiment, and the importance of a good library.
“Fable” by Charles Yu – Attempting to tell his therapist a story, a man travels the path of his life and discovers heroes can be angry, too. This is a lovely, moving story to close the collection. (You can find this online here.)
Well, if you’ve made it this far I salute you! What do I think about Strahan’s latest collection? After reading this brilliant anthology, I am a changed reader. This is the kind of book I was never really interested in before. I rarely read short stories, preferring to focus on novels as I saw them as a longer, more rewarding reading experience. But this book has opened my eyes to the potential, as well as the quality, of short stories. Having a variety of authors is a definite plus here, as I am sure that reading 28 stories by the same author would not have made the same impression on me. As I mentioned earlier in this review, this book has introduced me to a number of new-to-me voices from the world of speculative fiction, and for that I am very grateful.
Very highly recommended.
[Many thanks to Rebellion Publishing and NetGalley for providing an eARC. All opinions are my own.]