Monday, June 6, 2016

A Few Short Fiction Reviews (AKA Authors to Watch)

Once upon a time, I tried to keep current with short fiction, but have failed miserably in recent years. Therefore, when the urge to read these stories strikes, I seize the moment. Recently, I dove into a pile of unread sf/f magazines, most of them freebies from the Nebula Awards weekend, World Fantasy Con, and similar events.

Why should you bother to read reviews of short fiction, that most evanescent form, gone once the magazines have been pulled from their racks to make room for the next issue? (Setting aside online magazines, which number among their virtues the ability to keep back issues available indefinitely, and the ease with which authors can now publish collections of their work.) The answer is author discoverability. Reading short fiction is a great way to find new authors, with relatively little investment in time and the price of an entire book.

Back in the dawn of time, when I began writing professionally, conventional wisdom stated that the way to begin a career was with short fiction, crafting one’s literary skills and building an audience in preparation for that first novel sale. For some, this advice worked well, but for others, it turned out to be nonsense. Some authors are natural novelists; that’s the size story their brains come up with. They can on occasion “write short,” but it’s not their preferred length. The other pitfall was for the magazine editors. They’d discover a new author, delight in publishing increasingly ambitious stories, and then have the source dry up when the author switched to novels and no longer had time for short fiction (or at the same level of production). Magazines remain the point of professional entry for many writers, and because established writers do continue to write short fiction, they’re still a great place to find new authors to love.

Here are some of my favorites, presented in reverse-chronological but idiosyncratic fashion. I’ve picked one or two stories from each magazine that stood out for me. Others were marvelous and well-received, so their omission should not be taken as criticism.

Analog, July/August 2014. “Mind Locker,” by Juliette Wade. Wade is a rising star in the field, blending superb world-building, thoughtful treatment of issues, and some of the best alien races I’ve read recently. “Mind Locker” is a weird blend of near-future dystopia, VR zombies, mind-linked communities of outcasts, and a bunch of other nifty stuff. One of the things I like best about Wade’s work is how much she trusts the reader to figure things out.

Asimov’s, June 2014. “Ormond and Chase,” by Ian Creasey. Since my husband is an avid gardener, this tale of botanical genetic modification was especially amusing, especially creating plant dummies of the entire government. Come to think of it, I am not entirely sure that hasn’t already happened. “Murder in the Cathedral ” by Lavie Tidhar. The story begins, “The year is 1888 and in London the Lizard-Queen Victoria reigns supreme… Meanwhile in France, sentient machines joined by humans form the Quiet Consort, maintaining French independence…” Steampunk and lizards, how delicious!

F & SF, May/June 2013. “Grizzled Veterans of the Many and Much,” by Robert Reed. Another very fine entry in the subgenre of retirement home folks doing world-changing things. “Directions for Crossing Troll Bridge,” by Alexandra Duncan. A short-short, but mention-worthy for its humor and because I didn’t previously know the author; I’ll be watching for her in the future.

Asimov’s October/November 2011. “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” by Kij Johnson. One of my favorites in the bunch, and worth re-reading. The Empire is split by a river upon which sits a corrosive, almost sentient mist. Cross it at your own risk. So of course, this being an Age of Industrialization tale, the river must be bridged. Subtle world-building, drama, and heart. And a touch of romance. This double issue contained a number of very nice stories, (“Free Dog,” by Jack Skillingstead, “The Pastry Chef, the Nanotechnologist, the Aerobics instructor, and the Plumber,” by Eugene Mirabelli, and “Stealth,” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch) but the Johnson story blew me away.

Analog, July/August 2011.  “Coordinated Attacks,” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. This novella might well have been a novel, or a series, with its gritty, engaging blend of near-future police procedural, interwoven lives, and unintended consequences. Definitely left me wanting more.

Analog, April 2010. “Sword and Saddles,” by John Hemry. Wild West cavalry troop gets catapulted sideways into not-exactly alternate history. I wished the new cultures had been better worked out, especially the gender roles and women characters, but the piece was engaging and innovative enough to keep me interested and make me want to check out more of Hemry’s work. “The Robot’s Girl,” by Brenda Cooper. The sadness of disposable lives (human or robotic) touched me; we humans project our own humanity and sometimes create it in others by the same process.

Asimov’s, September 2009. “Away From Here,” by Lisa Goldstein. Goldstein is one of my favorite authors, so it’s no surprise I loved this tale of wanting to run away and join a weird time-bending cosmic circus. “Broken Windchimes,” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. This and the Kij Johnson were the absolute stand-outs in the pile of magazines. A human reared and trained to perform alien music so exacting that a single missed note means the end of a career discovers the wonderful inventiveness of human music. Beautifully done.

F & SF, Feb 2009. “Winding Broomcorn,” by Mario Milosevic. A bit of witchcraft, a bit of folk art, and a sweet, breezy story that’s just right. Most of the issue was taken up by reprinted Jack Cady’s “The Night We Buried Road Dog,” something of a classic but well-worth discovering. Or re-discovering. Even if, like me, the love affair between men and classic cars leaves you baffled.

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