What makes a great story? Plot? Suspense? Characters? Dialogue? Each of these is present in The Year’s Best. Some of the stories are perfect snapshots of an unseen world. Others develop like flowers: bud swelling and expanding, bursting open into an explosion of petals, and then the whole thing folding in on itself. Dark, violent tales like Vonda N McIntyre’s Little Sisters and And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of the Dead by Brooke Bolander. Those are balanced by cheerful, sweet stories such as Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer. My favourite story was Catherynne M Valente’s remarkable The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild. Valente’s writing is rich and delicious; she takes the dictionary, rips all the pages out and replaces them with her own. The countries in Valente’s world are described and delineated by their colours: blue, red, yellow, orange, green, and purple. Violet Wild has grown up in the country of purple with her wealthy parents on their estate, but after a tragedy occurs when she is watching the herds one day she abandons her home to search for healing in the country of red. Her journey takes her through each of the other colours and their exceeding strange customs and wildlife. Valente deftly straddles the line between an overwhelmingly complex fantasy, and one you can flip through with only half your brain registering sentences. It’s a truly magical universe.
The rest of my favourite titles were (in no particular order):
Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer
-a helpful AI discovers its favourite thing about people. LGBTQ characters.
Mutability by Ray Nayler
-wherein people live centuries but don’t get better at chess.
This Evening’s Performance by Genevieve Valentine
-explores the possibility of robots replacing actors.
Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro.
-wealthy art collectors vie to create the most perfectly beautiful painting. Only male characters, fails the Bechdel test.
The King in the Cathedral by Rich Larson
-classic fantasy with an exiled king who plays war games with his robot guard. LGBTQ main character, fails the Bechdel test.
Hello, Hello by Seanan McGuire
-a scientist and her deaf sister are fine-tuning the ASL-speech translation program they created, when they discover it has unexpected abilities. LGBTQ main characters, majority female characters.
The Heart’s Filthy Lesson by Elizabeth Bear
-a bitter scientist denied funding to find ancient aboriginal settlements on Venus strikes out on her own. LGBTQ characters, disdains binary gender systems.
The Deepwater Bride by Tamsyn Muir
-Lovecraftian fantasy with a twist. All female characters, LGBTQ.
Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan by Ian McDonald
-the lost diary belonging to a famous artist is finally found. LGBTQ characters. Gets my award for most complicated title.
The Two Paupers by CSE Cooney
-an author and a sculptor team up to stop a coup in the fairy realm.
Content warnings for the following:
And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of the Dead by Brooke Bolander
-a mercenary and a programmer take a job rescuing a mob boss’ kid whose consciousness has gotten trapped in cyberspace. As the title suggests, there’s violence and gore. Fails the Bechdel test.
My Last Bringback by John Barnes
-a neuroscientist specializing in rebuilding the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers reconstructs her own memories. Not just violence, but reveling in the commission thereof.
Please Undo This Hurt by Seth Dickinson
-a burned out paramedic looks for a reason to keep going. Depression, some gore, and suicides. Fails the Bechdel Test.
The Game of Smash and Recovery by Kelly Link
-a brother and sister on a lone planet discover the real reason for their existence. One instance of violence against a child.
Little Sisters by Vonda N McIntyre
-a galactic conquerer returns disgraced and bankrupt to the company that bankrolls his expeditions, where the chairman makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Coercive reproduction/childbearing scenes. Only male characters.
Drones by Simon Ings
-a dystopian future where bees and women don’t exist. Respect and honour are shown through spitting in someone’s mouth and drinking pee. Only male characters.
The Ashtrakhan, The Homburg, and the Red, Red Coal by Chaz Brenchly
-a group of men join an experiment to try to contact an alien species. Only male characters. Drug use.
Asymptotic by Andy Dudak
-in an era of space travel, speed traps have evolved to stop violations in faster-than-light travel, in case they collapse the universe. One instance of murder. One female character, fails the Bechdel test.
Acres of Perhaps by Will Ludwigsen
-a washed-up writer of a once popular television series reminisces. Alcoholism. LGBTQ characters, fails the Bechdel test.
Consolation by John Kessel
-an activist questions her support for a cause. Bombings.
Other Interesting Notes:
The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club by Nike Sulway
-anthropomorphized animals grapple with finding value in life, knowing their species is going extinct. LGBTQ characters.
Unearthly Landscape by a Lady by Rebecca Campbell
-a governess remembers a student’s childhood and her unsettling artwork. All female characters.
The Graphology of Hemorrhage by Yoon Ha Lee
-a magician and her trainee work to cast a spell to crush a rebel army. Reverses the traditional mentor-trainee dynamic: male trainee and female mentor.
Stories that didn’t fit in other lists:
Capitalism in the 22nd Century, or Air by Geoff Ryman
-twin sisters embark on a long-awaited escape to a different planet, when one backs out at the last minute.
Time Bomb Time by CC Finlay
-a university student experiments with social activism by creating a bomb that loops time.
Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu
-a pauper smuggles messages into Beijing’s upper class regions.
Today I Am Paul by Martin L. Shoemaker
-AI provides homecare for dementia patients
The Daughters of John Demetrius by Joe Pitkin
-a mysterious wanderer searches Mexico for the children of a god
Twelve and Tag by Gregory Norman Bossert
-Ice miners on Jupiter’s moon Europa swap stories and play word games in the bar to unwind after work
And that is it! If you want any more information on a particular story, you’ll have to read this yourself.