I have always wanted to do a year’s best roundup, but this is the first year I have read enough releases from a single year to make it worthwhile. In 2014, I read approximately 500 SFF short stories from a range of online zines, paper magazines, and anthologies, representing maybe half of the published fiction that came my way. There is such a sea of worthwhile material being published today that it is a wonder any of it gets the readership it deserves, let alone that any of it can manage to rise above the rest and stand candidate for the best of the year.
Despite a brain crammed full of worthy candidates, I did find a handful of stories had stuck with me better than others. A little painful weeding later, I am pleased to share with you my favourite 6 SFF short stories of 2014.
“The Litany of Earth” by Ruthanna Emrys (Tor.com)
In a year that was rife with flare-ups over whether the work of H.P. Lovecraft could be salvaged from its bigotry, “Litany of Earth” was a revelation. All Emrys had to do is change the point of view and the entire Lovecraftian enterprise is turned on its head. Told after the events of The Shadow over Innsmouth, Emrys has us reconsider whether the worshipers of Cthulhu are truly as sinister as we’d been led to believe without changing a single fact of the original novella. Exposing the humanity and persecution of the “impure” R’lyehn sect, Emrys makes plain the paranoid, racially-charged veil that hangs over Shadow. But equally clear is that the underlying mythology built by Lovecraft can be as strange and enticing without his obsession with racial purity.
“The Earth and Everything Under” by K.M. Ferebee (Shimmer #19)
Birds and women. Bird women. Birds as metaphors for women. I’ll be honest: I’m a little tired of it, but I must make an exception for “The Earth and Everything Under.” Ferebee’s story manages to be at once a whole lot stranger than the average bird woman story and a good deal more earthy. Dead birds push up out of the ground, and some of these contain letters from Elyse’s dead husband, Peter. Rather than ruminate on her grief, Elyse is very pragmatic about her plague of birds. She cleans them up, plucks them and eats them, wonders how the local law enforcement is going to treat her. There is blood and dirt and honest concern among the townsfolk about Elyse and the emotions that have brought the birds forth. The result is a story more vivid and tangible than the flighty imagery of many bird stories. The quiet connection between Elyse and the town sheriff is a bonus.
“We Are the Cloud” by Sam J. Miller (Lightspeed #52)
Miller is one of only a few contemporary short story writers whose work excites me sight unseen. When I hear he has a new story out, I drop everything to go read it. “We Are the Cloud” is everything I love about Miller’s work: socially-insightful, near-future realism with raw, authentic characters and the kind of emotional payload that sneaks up behind you and stabs you in the back. His characters carry their hurt close, struggling to balance the challenges laid out by the plot with their personal entanglements. The story’s protagonist, Sauro, is strong in as many ways as he is vulnerable and Miller masterfully weaves the tension between the reader’s sense of creeping doom as Sauro inches towards the awful future he can’t see around, and our desperate need for him to persevere.
“Hold Back the Waters” by Virginia M. Mohlere (Mythic Delirium 1.1)
There is a core of hope that runs through Virginia Mohlere’s “Hold Back the Waters” that is hard to shake. Though the plot covers the nearly-catastrophic attempts of a force of nature (Lake Michigan) to overcome it’s guardian (protagonist Annabeth) with stakes as high as the potential death of thousands of Chicagoans, the story is ultimately about the strength of family and community, in this case the sort-of-fictional neighbourhood of St Bran’s. There’s a comfort to Mohlere’s approach that we rarely see in SFF: despite the enormity of Annabeth’s task, we know that, someday, someone else will take up her mantle and carry on with the loving support of the same strong communities. The struggle to protect each other is a source of strength rather than a cause for despair. It’s a sentiment that’s dear to my heart.
“How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps” by A. Merc Rustad (Scigentasy #4)
How This Story is Amazing:
- It is a list story that doesn’t distance us from the protagonist.
- It perfectly captures the cognitive dissonance between a detached itemization of ones problems and the actual bloodletting behind the need to make the list.
- It also perfectly captures the numbness of a suicidal impulse.
- It is full of complicated personal relationships that don’t fall into the usual categories, e.g. Boyfriend, boyfriend’s boyfriend, robot.
- It will help you realize you know more robots than you thought.
- And depressed biological machines, too.
- It has the best ending of any story this year.
“Nennorluk Goes Down Deep” by Chris Tarry (OnSpec #96)
I missed my chance to review this one properly when it was released and was surprised when I found myself coming back to it month after month, wishing more people had read it so that I could use it as an example. I’ve reviewed more than a few stories of this type this year: stories about hard men who have lived hard lives, who get sent to hard places to do hard work and through it find some kind of deliverance, often in supernatural form. Tarry’s story is right at the heart of this genre, but exceptionally well done. Sammy’s a barely-functional alcoholic housed temporarily at a men’s shelter in St. John’s, Newfoundland, until he is recruited to work on a fishing-boat-turned-monster-hunting-ship, the Carmanah. They’re seeking the titular Nennorluk, and in his weeks at sea, Sammy finds meaning and solace in the hard work. He cleans up and thinks straight, right up until they actually find the monster. There is nothing new in the story, but Tarry has taken the thing and done it exactly right. I’m not going to be able to discuss Absolution Via Monster again without bringing this story into it, so I recommend adding it to your vocabulary.
I can’t sign off 2014 without adding a list of honourable mentions, however. I hope you’ll give these fine specimens some consideration as well:
“Break! Break! Break!” by Charlie Jane Anders (Lightspeed #46)
“Going Solo on a Goldilocks” by Mary Alexandra Agner (Bastion #5)
“Jon Carver of Barzoon, You Misunderstood” by Graham J. Darling (Sword & Mythos ed. Silvia Moreno-Garcia)
“The Stone Horse of Flores” by Michael J. DeLuca (Betwixt #2)
“A Tank Only Fears Four Things” by Seth Dickinson (Lightspeed #48)
“Francisca Montoya’s Almanac of Things That Can Kill You” Shaenon K. Garrity (Lightspeed #47)
“The Girls Who Go Below” by Cat Hellisen (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction July/August 2014)
“When Swords Had Names” by Stephen Graham Jones (The Dark #5)
“The Dryad’s Shoe” by T. Kingfisher (Women Destroy Fantasy)
“My Life as a Lizard” by David Stevens (Crossed Genres #15)
“In Winter” by Sonya Taaffe (Lackington’s #3)
“Bonfires in Anacostia” by Joseph Tomaras (Clarkesworld #95)