Monday, January 18, 2016

2015 Short Fiction Round-Up: Novelettes

I've always avoided doing best-of-year posts in the past, because a) nobody reads this blog and b) no matter how much I read, it never feels like enough. But then I realized that everybody feels the second thing, and views to this blog have grown steadily, so yes, let's have some best-of-year posts up in here.

First up is the novelette category. This is a length of story that I really like, because it allows for a more involved narrative but without the scene-stretching that defines many novellas. Also, there are fewer of them published every year, so it's a lot easier to make a decision! Submitted for your approval, six "little novels" that I really dug:

"Asymptotic" by Andy Dudak (Clarkesworld): Weird is stacked upon weird in this strangely riveting story of a far-future universe where a nebulous Collection Bureau is the only thing protecting the laws of physics. Nuhane is a cop of sorts, punishing those who exceed the speed of light. But traveling beyond c is its own sort of high, one that Nuhane becomes quickly addicted to... and every time he apprehends a violator, he adds to his own time debt, which can be repaid only by locking down the perp for an unthinkable span of time. There's a novel's worth of ideas packed into this short novelette, but because it's so short, it's actually good! Dudak spins an electrifying tale that seems to say something about addiction, but is mostly just a bunch of cool stuff that happens.

"Blow the Moon Out" by E. Catherine Tobler (Giganotosaurus): The only fantasy story on my list follows four girls living in the shadow of the Cold War. A magical traveling circus (referenced in several of Tobler's other stories) has just come to town, and Lucy and her friends make their way there. But a dog who may or may not be possessed by the spirit of a just-launched Laika the Space Dog attacks one of their crew, things get very weird very fast. A night of freedom at the circus, perhaps even their last night of freedom before the constraints of boys and societal expectations, awaits the girls as they stand on the cusp of adulthood, and the bitten girl's only salvation lies in a magic marmalade with transformative powers. This skillfully-told coming-of-age story is a slow burn that really pays off in the end, as the image of Laika comes full circle.

"The Servant" by Emily Devenport (Clarkesworld): I'm a sucker for generation ship stories. In this long novelette, the Olympia guts the resources from its sister ship Titania, then destroys the ship and everyone on it. But main character Oichi and a few other "worms" have already emigrated to the Olympia, and what follows is a murder-soaked political struggle between dueling clans of Executives. Servants like Oichi are cyborgs, whose senses and voices can be modified by the Executives. Oichi's secret -- that she is not entirely subservient to the whims of her oppressors -- allows her to act as a spy and murderer for the worms' cause. Through the use of a device invented by her dead parents, she seeks to free the residents of the generation ship from their rigid caste structure, and embrace the future as equals. This is a sweeping story of intrigue, betrayal, and revolution, and though perhaps there's a bit less moral grayness than I'm used to, it's well made up for by the scope of the story and Devenport's crisp prose.

"The Stars, Their Faces Uplifted in Song" by Maggie Clark (Giganotosaurus): SF mystery featuring an AI detective who tries to figure out who murdered all but one monk on a planet with a rigid class system. When the monks stop singing, the universe dies, or so the planet believes. But things aren't quite what they seem (well, obviously, otherwise there's no story) and the monks' murder turns out to be part of a much longer game. Like most of the fiction I admire, this is a political story, with profound insights as to the social function of religion and the making of martyrs. I'm not sure if this story is set in a larger world or not, but with its richly textured setting it feels like it could be, and I love the term "Natural Intelligence" (NI) as a contrast to the AI. And how nice it is to see a story starring an AI that isn't about the AI trying to become human!

"Twelve and Tag" by Gregory Norman Bossert (Asimov's Science Fiction): On a Europa mining station, a group of workers play an icebreaker game to pass the time. The new kids on the crew each tell two stories: one true, one false, with the old-timers deciding which is which, in order to establish trust. Bossert's story takes us into a world of neural backups, drugs that give you a flash of someone else's personality, abusive families, and manipulative lovers: a dark future. This is a story about telling stories, which has been done before, but the slick, jargon-filled writing style keeps it fresh up to the ending, where the veteran crew reveals the true purpose of the game. (Note: link goes to an audio version of this story at StarShipSofa. As far as I know there's no online link to this story, which appeared in a print magazine.)

"We Never Sleep" by Nick Mamatas (The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk): What is Industrivism? An unnamed female pulp writer seeks to find out the identity of the old man who's paying her to write copy for his new political philosophy, and enlists the help of the Pinkerton agent who anonymously submits her manuscripts for her to find out the truth. The "reveal" is telegraphed early -- "nobody wants to be a factory" -- but the pleasure is in the telling, as straight narrative is interspersed with snippets of the pulp writer's political tracts, which paint a rosy picture of a world where man never has to die, as long as he buys in. Fans of Mamatas' work might notice a parallel here with his previous machine-man steampunk story "Arbeitskraft," and both stories turn the blankpunk fad on its head, delving into the politics of this era instead of just adding gears and shit to things.

Next week: novellas!

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