Daniel Alarcón, "The Provincials". From Best American Short Stories. First published in Granta 118.
I liked seeing a story with a non-North American setting in the anthology, and I appreciated the knowing yet smooth way the author handled the unreliable narrator. Whether this inspires me to go out and read the just published novel of which it is a portion is yet to be determined.
Kate Bachus, "Things Greater than Love". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First published in and available online at Strange Horizons.
The depiction of hazardous labor and the esprit de corps that develops during such labor is a bit too rare in science fiction, both for good reasons (the utopian desire for the elimination through automation of labor's necessity) and bad ones (a Randoid libertarian disdain for those who work with their hands instead of--or more accurately, as well as--their brains). This story is a welcome exception to that, with the added challenge of interspecies, interplanetary comprehension.
Tom Barlow, "Smothered and Covered". From Best American Mystery Stories. Originally published in Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Spring 2012.
Unlikable characters and a not-entirely-trustworthy narrator, a sharp commentary on the disposability of children in the U.S.--especially black girls, but working-class children in general--and a vivid recreation atmosphere of a late night shift at a Waffle House.
Andrea Barrett, "The Particles". From The O. Henry Prize Stories. Originally published in Tin House.
An effective story that intertwines the personal and theoretical aspects of scientific rivalries. At points it adopts the matter-of-fact tone of a paper's methods section, so readers less accustomed than I to reading scientific prose may find it hard going. Might have been even stronger if the protagonist were depicted making an ahead-of-his-time discovery, such as an early finding of epigenetic inheritance, that doesn't get published at all because of Mendelian hegemony. As the story stands, he seems like a once-promising student who, through some bad luck and unfortunate career choices, has ended up a mediocre scientist, so the stakes of his emotional turmoil for anyone but him are unclear. Having him be as brilliant as he imagines himself to be, yet incapable of being recognized due to the nature of the research process, would have been more tragic. I would have liked that story better--and may try to write something like it one day--but I liked this story anyway.
L. Annette Binder, "Lay My Head". From The O. Henry Prize Stories. Originally published in Fairy Tale Review.
The creative writing program emphasis on strong openings results in stories that begin powerfully and then fade out, like a newspaper article, and thus which do not quite work as stories. This story is one such, though the beginning is strong enough, and the fade slow enough, that it sustained my interest throughout, its structural weaknesses only becoming apparent in hindsight. "Babies weren't frightened of her face" is a great first sentence.
Aliette de Bodard, "Heaven under Earth". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. Originally published in and available online at (the soon to be late and lamented) Electric Velocipede.
Future possibilities of gender plasticity are often imagined as utopian, and in some ways that is good: Gender is a cage. Yet technological ease neither negates the oppressiveness of social relations nor the at times painful resistance of the body. This story captures those well, with emphasis on the emotional journeys and contradictions of the protagonist.
Ayşe Papatya Bucak, "The History of Girls". From The O. Henry Prize Stories. Originally published in Witness.
Effective intertwining of the phantasmatic and the real, bringing the reader into the pain that is too often glossed over with journalistic clichés about "tragedy".
Eileen Dreyer, "The Sailor in the Picture". From Best American Mystery Stories. Originally published in Crime Square (Vantage Point Books, 2012).
Well-drawn period piece cum domestic violence revenge story.
Karl Taro Greenfield, "The Horned Men". From Best American Short Stories. First published in ZYZZYVA No. 95.
The U.S. housing bubble and collapse was fueled by the big sociopaths of Wall Street, but its development required the active collaboration of small sociopaths scattered in subdivisions throughout the nation's suburbs. Several of those small sociopaths got burned. This is one of the better stories I have read capturing the social and spiritual implications of that.
Clark Howard, "The Street Ends at the Cemetery". From Best American Mystery Stories. Originally published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, August 2012.
A multiple-cross noir, which by ably keeping up with the multiple threads of conspiracy makes up for having a corrections officer as the protagonist.
Gish Jen, "The Third Dumpster". From Best American Short Stories. Originally published in Granta 120.
This story holds up to multiple readings, for me at least. Though set in southern California, it brought me back to my former home of Flushing, Queens. It is not evocative of "the" immigrant experience, for there is no singular immigrant experience, but of one of many possible ways in which intergenerational tension can be complicated by cultural drift.
Xia Jia, "One Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight" (translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu). From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First appeared in and available online at Clarkesworld.
If Ken Liu had done nothing but translate this story, it would have been sufficient. (Of course he did much more, and I find it odd that no stories by Liu himself appeared in Horton's anthology--for example, the amazing, Hugo award winning "Mono no aware".) In several important senses, the future is Chinese: the very survival of the human species may well hinge on events in factories in megalopolises whose names most Americans and Europeans do not know. If science fiction can encode rebellious messages under dictatorial regimes, as it so often has (in Eastern Europe, South America), then this story deserves close reading. That it is also imaginative, emotionally precise and, as translated by Liu, linguistically gifted, makes it all the more deserving.
Bret Anthony Johnston, "Encounters with Unexpected Animals". From Best American Short Stories. First published in and available online at Esquire.
This could well have fit in a crime fiction anthology. While, if read with a certain type of critical lens, this story could be presented as an exemplar of "rape culture" (the accuser as Machiavellian confabulator), nonetheless it is an excellently composed piece.
Kevin Leahy, "Remora, IL". From Best American Mystery Stories. Originally published in The Briar Cliff Review, 2012. Available online (pdf).
One of the best written stories I've read, in any year, of any genre. Makes effective use of first-person-plural narration to explore the moral compromises and social disruptions on one end of the prison-industrial complex.
Ursula K. LeGuin, "Elementals". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First appeared in Tin House.
Every one of LeGuin's sentences in this masterwork carries as much weight as some of the other stories on this list. A transcendent must read.
Kelly Link, "The Summer People". From The O. Henry Prize Stories. First published in Tin House.
To escape your bondage, would you entrap someone else? This is the moral question posed by this fantastic--in both senses of the word--story.
Kelly Link, "Two Houses". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First published in Shadow Show: All New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury.
With strong attention to the emotional and social complexities that would go along with the technical prerequisites of interstellar travel, pitch perfect writing and a good sense of the uncanny, if I had read this story blind I would have attributed it to LeGuin.
Nick Mamatas, "Arbeitskraft". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First appeared in The Mammoth Book of Steampunk. Available online.
I would be a sucker for something with Friedrich Engels as the main character. But every time I read this story, I uncover another nuance, an aspect in which it critiques various types of vulgar Marxism, or the technological fetishism of much of the science fiction genre. In this story, steampunk and Marxism face one another as antitheses and thus find themselves aufgehoben.
Nick Mamatas, "Thy Shiny Car in the Night". From Best American Mystery Stories. Originally appeared in Long Island Noir (Akashic, 2012).
Bit players from The Sopranos meet Jack Kerouac in a tale of family, the American Dream, murder and betrayal.
Emily St. John Mandel, "Drifter". From Best American Mystery Stories. First published in Venice Noir (Akashic, 2012).
Acutely observed psychological study of a disconnected protagonist who meets a dark end.
Meghan McCarron, "Swift, Brutal Retaliation". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First published in and available online at tor.com.
Combines the ghost story and suburban, domestic realism to good effect. For what is more horrifying, really, than a suburban middle-class American family?
David Means, "The Chair". From Best American Short Stories. First published in The Paris Review No. 200.
If you read this piece in the anthology, do not read the author's note on it, for I think there is more going on in it than the author even realizes. Probably best appreciated by parents.
Steven Millhauser, "A Voice in the Night". From Best American Short Stories. First published in and available online at The New Yorker.
I suspect every Jewish writer has to write a story like this at some point. Makes effective use of a quasi-Talmudic structure--text, commentary, meta-commentary--marking out different stages in the protagonist's life. Eminently quotable. My version of this story, when it comes, will likely involve the binding of Isaac.
Melinda Moustakis, "They Find the Drowned". From The O. Henry Prize Stories. Originally published in Hobart No. 12.
I'm not sure how I went this long in my life without reading anything by Moustakis. This piece--non-linear, imagistic, collaged--works on so many levels--natural, scientific, familial, social. An amazing feat of writing.
Linda Nagata, "Nahiku West". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First published in Analog.
What if it were a crime to be no-longer-quite-human? Good blend of hard SF and crime fiction that helped me look past the fact that it was told from the point of view of a cop.
Micah Nathan, "Quarry". From Best American Mystery Stories. Originally published in Glimmer Train.
A well-plotted exposition of how coming-of-age can be mediated through violence.
Antonya Nelson, "Chapter Two". From Best American Short Stories. Originally published in The New Yorker.
I had already read this story--I'm not sure where, since I don't subscribe to The New Yorker--but did not realize it until after I was a few pages in. It crept up on me slowly, like a feeling of deja vu. A humorous story that survives a second reading is rare enough to merit a first reading, at least.
Joyce Carol Oates, "So Near Any Time Always". From Best American Mystery Stories. Originally published EQMM; also appears in her novella collection Evil Eye.
Not all crime stories need end in murder. Stalking is also a crime. Uncanny description of the psychological terror to which half the population routinely subjects the other half.
Jamie Quatro, "Sinkhole". From The O. Henry Prize Stories. Originally published in Ploughshares, and also available in her collection, I Want to Show You More.
As many evangelical Christians as there are in the United States, one would think that their lived experiences would be better represented in fiction. The coastal bias of the literary world prevents that. Of Quatro's many good stories exploring this dimension of our culture, this is one of the better ones.
Suzanne Rivecca, "Philanthropy". From Best American Short Stories. Originally published in Granta 120.
I loved this story when I first read it. I loved it even more when I read it a second time. Maybe it's because, like the author, I work in the philanthropic industrial complex as a grant-writer, albeit in a more richly endowed sector. Maybe it's because I like unbridled class hatred. I also love the fact that she used her author's note in the anthology to put in a plug for the Homeless Youth Alliance in San Francisco. If you have some cash to spare, support them--especially since they are losing the lease on their drop-in center--or find an organization in your area that has a similar mission.
George Saunders, "The Semplica-Girl Diaries". From Best American Short Stories. First published in and available online at The New Yorker. Also in Tenth of December.
I had already read this in Saunders' new collection and didn't feel the need to read it a second time. What it has to give, it gives up readily: a sharp critique of consumerism, transnational labor exploitation, and the eerie convergence of the paterfamilias role and the cop-in-your-head. Also, a great example of good science fiction that gets more respect from the "literary mainstream" than from the SF ghetto.
Asako Serizawa, "The Visitor". From The O. Henry Prize Stories. Originally published in The Antioch Review.
American liberals have managed to reconcile the hegemonic image of World War II as "the good war" with a touch of regret at such monstrosities as the internment of Japanese-Americans and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whether the mass slaughter of Japanese conscripts or the firebombing of civilian targets in Tokyo, other monstrosities that went with the war in the Pacific--the more obviously imperialistic of America's war theaters--are barely known, acknowledged only reluctantly, and dismissed as so many eggs in the omelet of bringing peace and democracy to the world. This story, focusing on the mother of a missing soldier and one of his former comrades, brings the horror of the "enemy's" war home.
Jim Shepard, "The World to Come". From Best American Short Stories. First appeared as One Story No. 161.
Murder mystery and 19th century lesbianism. I think the voicing wobbles a bit early on, with phrasings that don't seem quite consistent with the period, but it finds its footing and becomes gripping.
Randall Silvis, "The Indian". From Best American Mystery Stories. Originally published in EQMM.
A small-town family caper ends badly for all. Not terribly profound, but well paced and plotted.
Lavie Tidhar, "Under the Eaves". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. Originally published in Robots: The Recent A.I., 2012.
Sociologically complex telling of a post-colonial world, in a post-Zionist Tel Aviv / Jaffa.
Catherynne Valente, "One Breath, One Stroke". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. Originally published in The Future Is Japanese (Haikasoru, 2012).
When I first read this piece in its original printing, I couldn't get into it. It seemed too precious. Perhaps because I have done more writing since that first reading, in this second reading I grasped its central metaphor, of a writer's divided consciousness and the impossibility either of being outwardly understood or of being internally satisfied. I suspect one must be a writer to appreciate this story.
Genevieve Valentine, "The Gravedigger of Konstan Spring". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First published and available online in Lightspeed Magazine No. 21.
Neither alternate histories nor secondary world fantasies usually excite me. The strong writing in this piece, and unique combination of the two genres, overcame that for me.
Maurine Dallas Watkins, "Bound". From Best American Mystery Stories. Originally published in The Strand, February-May 2012.
A nice posthumous discovery from the playwright of Chicago. Formally smart, exposing how confessions often reveal more about the confessor's desire to please those in authority than the facts of who did what to whom.
Robert Charles Wilson, "Fireborn". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First published in Rip-Off! (ed. John Scalzi).
Earlier this year, Zadie Smith and The New Yorker made a bit of a splash by publishing what appeared, at first glance, to be a science fiction story. As is Smith's want, it explored structures of class, but this time in a speculative fashion, extrapolating from present trends toward decreased social mobility and the gamification of the upper reaches of the economy. The only problem was that it wasn't a story; there was no problem or arc. It was just a vignette or scenario. As it turns out, a year earlier Robert Charles Wilson had already written the story about class and stagnation that Smith's piece wanted to be, and if his use of language is not quite as opalescent as hers, its narrative path was much more compelling.
Callan Wink, "Breatharians". From Best American Short Stories. First published in The New Yorker.
My tweet about this story was "pleasantly twisted". As I think back on it, I realize that is all I have to say. If you like screwed-up stories about screwed-up people, you'll enjoy this one. If you don't--and I know many otherwise intelligent people who don't share that taste with me--you won't.
Caroline M. Yoachim, "The Philosophy of Ships". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First appeared in Interzone #243.
A solid philosophical exploration of the implications of machine consciousness, told in an affecting way.