OK, this is the last list for a while. Probably.
As was the case last year I read a ton of really good short stories mainly, it has to be noted, in magazines rather than anthologies. This is a reversal of the previous year where I was pretty much blown away by Joe Hill’s Twentieth Century Ghosts – a book I still consider to be one of the best anthologies of a single author. The other difference is that most of this year’s list comes from stories actually published this year, this is not intentional, merely a reflection of what chimed with me. This list is ranked by preference (10 being the bottom of the scale, 1 being my favourite of the year). Here goes:
10. Little Gods by Tim Pratt (Strange Horizons 4/2/02) – OK, so this isn’t from this year but there we go. This beautiful bittersweet tale packs a hard emotional punch as it explores human reactions to grief all wrapped up in a well thought out piece of fantasy. Pratt’s prose is tight, well imagined and perceptive. A master class in how to write intelligent fantasy that has at the reader whilst entertaining at the same time. Hopefully I’ll learn the lesson in 2009.
9. When Thorns are the Tips of Trees by Jason Sanford (Interzone 219) – Don’t let the title put you off. Truthfully, it was Vincent Chong’s artwork that caught my eye on this one but once caught the story really appealed to me. It’s a strange story – halfway between science fiction and fantasy without openly emulating the sci-fantasy works that seem to be growing in popularity. The central protagonist is well drawn creating a realistic account from a teenager’s perspective; there’s a nice blend of action, story and underlying theme without verging into triteness. Smart, deeply imagined and well told it stood out from a strong issue that also included a strong piece from Aliette de Bodard.
8. The Disappearance of James H___ by Hal Duncan (Strange Horizons 13/6/05) – I may have mentioned this tale before. Not written this year but another one that blew me away. A masterful riff on a number of other works that led me to a sharp intake of breath and the realisation that fiction works best when the author pretty much opens up a vein into the story. Hal does it here.
7. The Reason for the Season by Bruce Holland Rogers (Black Static 7) – To be honest, I think the quality of Black Static has been variable since its launch, possibly more to do with the quality of horror writing in general at the moment and if you pay attention you can find the good stuff. There were a couple of pieces I considered for this years list but this was the one I liked most, largely for its inherent oddness underpinned by a narrative that hangs like a dark cloud throughout, warning that it’ll all end in tears. That this piece is almost (if not actually) flash also had a bearing.
6. Dry Frugal with Death Rays by Alex Wilson (Futurismic 1/8/08) – Futurismic returned to publishing fiction this year (hurrah!). Editors Paul Raven & Christopher East’s focus has been on quality and as such they’ve sunk advertising revenues into paying authors a rate that has attracted a consistently high calibre of work. This is the first but not the last appearance by a Futurismic writer on this list. Wilson’s deliciously dark treatment of the office environment has a masterful blend of black humour, science fiction and twisting commentary on the grind of 9-5. The sheer grim reality of office life is an over used theme in short stories and the fact Wilson makes it work is a testament to his skill.
5. Remorse ® by Adam Roberts (disLocations, Newcon Press) – Featuring the likes of Hal Duncan, Pat Cadigan, Andrew Hook, Ken Macleod and Chaz Benchley I picked up disLocations quite by accident, Ian having cornered me before I got to the bar at the launch for The Last Reef :). I wasn’t disappointed but for me it was Robert’s tale of a drug called Remorse that stood out. It’s a dark, visceral story told in the first person and, depending on how you read it, a picture of the failure of drugs to treat a sociopath or drugs creating a sociopath. Not for the faint hearted but worth the effort.
4. Arches by Gareth L Powell (The Last Reef and Other Stories, Elastic Press) – Having followed GLP’s work for a little while (and knowing him via Friday Flash) I’d read many of the stories in this collection before. Arches was a new story, written I think for the collection, and is a strange tale of brothers that appealed to me for a number of reasons. Focussing on two brothers, Arches is a story about the tangled nature of relationships and sibling guilt that is told in GLP’s trademark tight lyrical prose and really shows off his development as a writer.
3. The Woman who Loved Pigs by Stephen Donaldson (Reave the Just and other Tales, HarperCollins) – An older story. This tale appealed to me largely because it’s weird, dark and makes its point without compromise. Sure it has problems but I don’t know many writers who do grim fantasy in quite as entertaining a way as Donaldson. Worth a look.
2. The Radio Magician by James Van Pelt (Realms of Fantasy) – A late entry! I read this – quite by chance – a few days ago and technically it’s from the first issue of 2009 but it’s clearly December for a few more hours and so I think it qualifies. This story tells the tale of Charlie, an American polio victim, at the start of the Second World War and his love of a radio show charting the skills of the magician Professor Gilded. Beautifully crafted prose, subtle story telling and a brilliant thematic delivery that frankly delighted me on first reading. Bravo.
1. Willpower by Jason Stoddard (Futurismic 1/12/08) – I promised you more from Futurismic and here it is, at number one no less. Jason Stoddard walks the walk with his offering to the world of positive SF with Willpower. Set in a future where technology has created an underclass of people made redundant by technological advances, in a conceit frighteningly close to reality in the UK Stoddard has this underclass earning credits from the Willfare system by doing odd jobs for those lucky enough to still be working. Willpower is essentially a story of the man sticking it to the system but that doesn’t seem to do it justice. Stoddard’s tale is a masterful riff on existing SF tropes, distilled down to a well thought out world and blended into something rather special. Brilliant.