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January, 2004 : Review:

The Most Interesting Short Fiction of 2003

In 2003 I read every issue of Asimov's, Analog, F&SF, and Realms of Fantasy. I also read one issue of Talebones and one of Challenging Destinies (each magazine also published an issue just at the end of the year that I did not get to). Inexcusably absent from my reading list was SciFiction, and I am sure there was top notch fiction published elsewhere as well.

But, now is the time at which we reflect upon the year gone by. Various awards committees are thinking through the fiction of the year, Gardner Dozois and Ellen Datlow are sketching out the table of contents for their Year's Best collections.

Rather than provide my list of 'bests' I decided to select what I thought were the most interesting. Most interesting in construction, in theme, in execution, or in the ideas. What follows is not a mere compendium of what I thought was best, and in fact, many of these stories were not my pick for best of issue at the time. And, obviously, some of my picks for best of issue at the time are not here: perhaps they were simply good at entertaining, which is certainly an important part of our genre, and perfectly award-worthy when that time rolls around. But for these, something about each lingered unexpectedly, or perhaps, despite the flaws of the writing, the story simply remained Most Interesting.

Only Partly There by Lucius Shepard. Asimov's, March.

By March of 2003 there had already been a few awkward attempts in the science fiction magazines to deal with 9/11 and its aftermath, and there would be more. Exactly how awkward most attempts turned out is demonstrated by this breathtaking story. Shepard has created a masterpiece of magical realism set among the cleanup of the wreckage of the World Trade Center.

"Only Partly There" is a profound, keenly observed treatment of the experience of working in those ruins; every sentence is at once deeply resonant with what is known and yet brings some unexpected insight.

One of the much discussed phenomena associated with this event was the shock of common reaction, the sudden renewal of the bonds of shared citizenship. Much ink has been spilled discussing the nation-wide, even the global scope of Our National Tragedy. Shepard shows no interest in this phenomenon, and indeed disputes it. "Only Partly There" explores in a very powerful way the personal, the psychological, the spiritual repercussions of the event. Of the hundreds, or thousands, or millions of stories that could be told, however sincerely, all too many are mere reformulated platitudes. A gush of raw emotion, however deeply experienced is neither art nor wisdom. Shepard, however, goes deep instead of broad. He finds ancient wisdom, and remembers it for us; he places it in the context of burnt steel and shattered concrete and human labor; he brings it forth like a difficult birth, a new and age-old truth born of the banal, repetitive punditries we immersed ourselves in that long, confusing fall.

While pondering the power of this story, I wondered how much of the power came from the depth of emotion already attached to the whole, awful event itself. I had to ask: is Shepard being manipulative here? My conclusion is that these pivotal historical moments offer writers an opportunity to get at the deeper truths, but only the very best, the most insightful, the most honest, the most observant authors will actually be able to make use of this latent emotional power. Pretty much everyone had something to say about September 11th in the months after it happened. Blogs, web journals, and newspapers were crammed with everyone's honest effort to make sense of it. Most of it, to be honest, is beautifully sincere drivel. The fiction that I have encountered has been generally weak. My conclusion is that it takes a rare and exceptional spirit to create art that works out of such powerful stuff. Lucius Shepard may be such a person.

The Apocalypse According to Olaf by Barth Anderson. Asimov's, March.

Also in the March issue of Asimov's was this unusual story. It was a bit of a surprise—but a very pleasant one—to find something like this in Asimov's. "The Apocalypse According to Olaf" is a contemporary fantasy very much in the tradition of Tim Powers.

Anderson makes it clear that he is using the term Apocalypse in the pre-classical sense of the term, meaning divine revelation, but it is not entirely clear that the revelation in question is not—in fine Jewish tradition—going to be a prediction of the end of the world.

The narrator here is a homeless man, an itinerant fellow given to 'spells'—ie., periods of incoherence during which his life falls apart, and he sees the usual kinds of paranoid schizophrenic things. Only, unlike the usual paranoid schizophrenic, our narrator is in touch with some deeper forces. And they with him.

The Apocalypse is either a fascinating fantasy in which good and evil are difficult to identify, and identity is a very fluid concept, or else it is a subtly-built metaphor for the affliction of the human spirit. And don't rule out both: this piece works either way. Taking either approach, what is clear is that the narrator is profoundly unfit to make the kinds of decisions he is being called upon to make. The help of those who pity him is appreciated, but it is useless—his problems are far beyond their reach. In the end, it is not kind-hearted generosity that can save him: it is pure Ayn Randian selfish altruism—and his own hard choice.

Hunger: A Confession by Dale Bailey. F&SF, March.

A beautiful, classic scary story. Horror, we call the genre, and this story does play with the contemporary images of the horror genre, but it is a richly psychological piece. The editors warn you in the intro that it's scary, and you can see what's coming—the title doesn't leave much latitude. But, even so, it's scary. Scary, and sad.

I think what kicks this a notch above the usual horror story is the tragic element. The desolate existence of an ugly child with a glamorous older brother; the loneliness of a deteriorating family in a squalid childless corner of a beat-up old town. Bailey captures all this, and then some.

Young Simon is teased, and tormented, and bereft with only his teddy bear for reliable companionship. When the family moves to a ramshackle old house, he finds something strange in the basement (hint: there is always something strange in the basement of an old house). Older brother Jeremy loves to tease Simon with scary stories at night. Finally, he tells one story that is, perhaps, just a little too realistic.

There is an art to the terrifying short story, and Bailey has mastered this art. Lesson to us all: don't go camping with this Dale Bailey.

Babies by Leslie What. The Third Alternative, Spring.

Ronie Sue is pregnant. She's also in a troubled relationship with a fellow who doesn't seem to be particularly keen on fatherhood. What he doesn't know—what none but Ronie Sue and her doctor knows—is that this fellow isn't just going to be a father, he's going to be a father of six... six somethings. Ms. What explores the borders of madness and the nightmarishly surreal.

In due course we learn that just before the onset of pregnancy, an exterminator did his work in the little apartment. Cockroach poison, in case you had any doubt, is not good for the genetic integrity of one's progeny. But is that all there is to it?

Ms. What deftly builds a psychological portrait through the use of incremental, specific detail. Ordinary detail, and yet before things even start to get creepy, something's already creepy. By the time we learn that the exterminator clued Ronie Sue on to the museum of misshapen babies (ala Philadelphia's Mutter Museum), and that one of his own children is in a jar there, it's already no surprise at all.

The author drives this story by playing two tensions off each other: the troubled marriage of our main character, and the resolving picture of her frightening pregnancy. (Not being female, I have never been pregnant myself, but I understand that even an ordinary pregnancy feels a little too close to the film Alien for comfort.)

Ms. What brings these two tensions together, and the result is a story that stuck with me all year long.

Bread and Bombs by M. Rickert. F&SF, April.

M. Rickert departs from her recent history of retellings of ancient myth in favor of a very darkly imagined future.

We are familiar with utopian futures, and all-too steeped in range of dystopian futures from the cyberpunk sprawl to the Orwellian dictatorship.

In "Bread and Bombs" Rickert does something daring—and frighteningly plausible. She imagines the future as a sort of projection of Tom Ridge's worst nightmares.

There is nothing explicitly 9/11 in this story, and yet every paragraph is informed by a world in which the ordinary implies terror, and distrust of the foreign has become primary. Among the terrors visited upon the people of her future are a snowstorm that carries some chemical or biological attack.

The sound of an airplane is an occasion to put on protective headgear and head for the basement.

But like all good stories, the context is not the story. The story is about children, children growing up in this future, children who in their childhood innocence do something terrible. Rickert builds this awful action with a perfect balance of incremental revelation and forward reference. You know what is coming, and you dread what is coming, and you do not look away. Excerpt:

"I mean you kids, that's just the world we gave you, so full of evil you didn't know the difference."
"We knew, Pop."
"You still don't know. What do you think of when you think of snow?"
"I think of death."
"Well, there you have it. Before that happened it meant joy. Peace and joy."
"I can't imagine."

Although personally I suspect the most probable future is a slow decline due to environmental degradation, Rickert's vision of the gradual disintegration of civilization under constant threat of war or terrorism is a terrible thing, a warning to our future, an inspired prophecy to our present.

A Good Offense by Don D'Ammassa. Analog, May.

"The Pulagi Ambassador and his life partner were barbecuing their children on the patio again."

Such a hook dreams are made of. And yes, that sentence means exactly what you think it does. The title of the story, however, does not. Nathan Shaver is a diplomatic officer assigned to work with the Pulagi, an alien species with some decidedly alien approaches to their offspring. The Pulagi are difficult to communicate with because, above and beyond actual translation, they communicate via complex variations on negative statements. A compliment, for example, would be taken as a terrible insult (unless it was delivered under circumstances that it could be seen as a particularly deep and ironic attack, which, if delivered in the right circumstances, would be perfectly appropriate). Attempting to give offense, then, a good offense as it were, is the normal mode of pleasant conversation.

There is terrific potential for humor in such a premise. It's this kind of thing that made James Morrow's City of Truth so uniquely hilarious.

But Nathan has been selected as local guide for a Pulagi bigwig whose impression of humanity will be critical in maintaining good relations with the Pulagi, and this bigwig is not favorably inclined toward our race. Each attempted insult on Nathan's part seems inadequate to the moment. From the outset, things don't go well and although Nathan may be the most experienced human he needs a dramatic victory if he wants to save the relationship between the species.

In a setup like this, you would normally expect some particular twist ending, but D'Ammassa blows past expectations with a marvelous, exquisite conclusion that lofts this story into award-winning territory. Throughout the year, I found myself holding other alien-relations story up to the standard of "A Good Offense," and none could match up.

Etamin at East 47th by A. R. Morlan. Challenging Destinies, June.

Stories about aliens have always made terrific terrain for writers to explore the difficulties of cultural contact, the dangers of communication, the solipsistic under-truth of existence as a conscious being. A. R. Morlan makes use of all this rich, human experience to craft an intensely psychological—and intensely weird—alien contact story.

The aliens are on Earth for the usual sci-fi reasons. Share some of their technology, etc. etc. They've been around New York long enough that they're no longer any weirder than anyone else in New York.

Young Masahiro lives in the Y at 47th street, and strangely enough, so are a bunch of the aliens.

Masahiro, however, is dealing—or, rather, not dealing—with a pretty strange situation. He is tormented by dreams of his mother leaving. An old Japanese notion of an 'untouchable' class caused his mother to leave, and left a terrible scar on Masahiro. The burakumin class in Japan is apparently an ongoing stratification, but the young man is obsessed with it, even here in America. He believes himself to be unclean, tainted. It has already destroyed one relationship, and it is the reason he lives in a place like the Y. (Interesting aside: burakumin literally means 'village people'—a Japanese euphemism, apparently. But, Village People? YMCA? Cute, eh? Probably coincidence.)

All this comes to a head when he learns the other room in his suite is to be occupied by one of the aliens. They will share a bathroom. At first he is fixated on whether he should confess his unclean state to the alien. This alien culture, we learn, has extremely rigorous protocols of communication, personal space, and cleanliness.

But his roommate doesn't seem to live by the published code of the aliens, and subsequent revelations spiral Masahiro's obsession into what seems to be a truly tragic madness.

Morlan plays with some very interesting ideas of alienation and cultural stratification here. At first I thought Morlan was disappointingly vague on descriptive detail, but it soon becomes clear that we are seeing the world through Masahiro, and Masahiro is so self-absorbed and narcissistic (or its negative) that he doesn't see much beyond his own unclean-ness, his own unworthiness.

Etamin is a synonym for burakumin, and literally means 'unclean non-human'.

As a tragedy of madness and missed-opportunity for communication and even healing, this story was powerful. But be prepared: although intriguing and complex, this one's a bit of a downer.

Aloha by Ken Wharton. Analog, June.

Ken Wharton asks the reader to swallow a lot here, but if you can get all the premises down, boy is the story fun to digest!

Premise (A): time-symmetry. Ok, this isn't such a hard one. I don't think it's the current dominant model in particle physics, but that's Wharton's home ground. If Wharton asks me to accept the possibility of a time-symmetric universe, I'm willing to go along.

Premise (B): free will is an illusion. To a certain degree, depending on what you mean by 'free' and by 'will' and by 'illusion' I agree with this. However, Wharton repeatedly anthropomorphizes the universe, describing the way the universe 'conspires' to make 'fate' happen. This describes a world view that I don't naturally accept. Still, I'm willing to take it as a given for now.

Premise (C): This is the hardest to swallow. Wharton describes the universe as a sort of bidirectional thing, with one arrow of time starting at our big bang and moving forward, and another starting at the big crunch and moving (from our perspective) backwards. They meet at the middle, which, for each frame of reference is more or less the end, particularly if you are a conscious agent. At the point of time reversal, your forward motion will cease to be. You will meet and merge with your time reversed mirror person, and, well, that's the end. Now, all of this is fair enough. The hard part is that the midpoint is not the same for all particles. In particular, it is not the same for all people. A person will be walking along, and then from the perspective of an observer in the same frame of reference, will suddenly start walking backwards. The whole person has now merged with his counter-clock self.

However, if you get behind these premises, there is a delightful reward. Ken Wharton has written two stories—one read forward, and the other, complementary story, emerges if you read the events in reverse!

No, it's not an enormous palindrome—that would be a feat too staggering to contemplate. (Although the female character, the one we see experiencing time reversal is named Hannah, and the palindrome here is surely no accident.)

But Wharton has gone to great pains to make sure that the conversations between Barry—who is time-forward, and has just lost Hannah to time reversal—and the time reversed Hannah work both from his time forward perspective, and also from her time-reversed perspective, if you take the story from back to front, noting physical description of actions and the order of things said. A magnificent game of a story, and clearly one of the most interesting achievements of 2003.

The Cookie Monster by Vernor Vinge. Analog, October.

It is hard to say whether Vernor Vinge is better known as the creator of the concept of The Singularity, or as author of acclaimed sci-fi novels A Fire upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. Of course, some may know him best as having been a professor of Comp Sci at San Diego State.

Although I am sure Vinge has written fiction about his concept of the singularity before, this is my first encounter with it. "The Cookie Monster" is at once a delight to read, and an important exemplification of how the Singularity might come about.

First, a brief word on his concept of the singularity, because it is often inflated to become some sort of apocalypse, armageddon, or mystical transformation of humanity. In fact it is a very simple, very reasonable proposal: if (Vinge says when) we create software that can intentionally improve itself, it will rapidly improve itself beyond the human capacity to match it... or possibly even understand it. Vinge says: "the human era will be over"—in the sense that right now we are the smartest thing we know of, and we dominate all that we see.

From a comp sci perspective this is not only reasonable, it is practically inevitable. With the speed of computers, and the possibility for iterative improvement over a matter of seconds, or fractions of seconds (rather than human generations), this machine intelligence will not only improve itself rapidly, but it will improve its own ability to improve itself, resulting in exponential acceleration of improvement—following a curve similar to the gravity well of a black hole.

There is a good deal of debate as to whether humanity will ever be able to get such an improvement cycle started: material constraints being what they are. "The Cookie Monster" does nothing to lay such questions to rest, as it relies upon a fabulously speculative (but neither impossible nor inherently ridiculous) hardware technology. But hey, this is science fiction—we can do that in science fiction.

Here's how it goes:

Dixie Mae receives a disturbing email her first day on the job. Where did this email come from? How could the sender know her well enough to send this intensely personal, very invasive message? She works for the conglomerate Lots-A-Tech, somewhere in the midst of a vast campus of shiny office buildings. A clue in the message sends her out of her own building to seek out the possible perpetrator. Vinge clearly captures the character of a feisty, no-nonsense woman who is not too likely to keep her job, but is determined to go down in style. She refuses to be bound by the campus norms.

But before long she, and a couple of curious sleuths she picks up along the way, start noticing some strange things... about time, for example. Every building appears to be on a different calendar. And then other oddities begin to surface.

What makes this work so brilliantly is that Vinge knows you know what he's writing about; he knows his science fiction as well as you do (or better); he knows you have seen the Matrix; and he makes no bones about referencing these things. (In fact, one of the characters mentions Vinge's own work in the text.) He does this without ever coming across as self-indulgent, self-referential, or running with the in crowd. His characters at all times retain their natural voices.

So even though you think you know where he's going, he keeps enough possibilities juggled in the air that you can't quite predict how he's going to get there, or even precisely where there is going to be.

Best of all, in a magazine that all too often prints stories with painfully ignorant comp-sci underpinnings, despite the speculative nature of the computers in this story, the principles are dead-on accurate. Vinge did teach this stuff, after all.

It is no surprise that Vinge would end up on this list: as an accomplished and entertaining writer, and as an important thinker, any offering by Vinge is likely to be important. "The Cookie Monster" managed to be both important and fun.

The Door Gunner by Michael Bishop. Realms of Fantasy, October.

The Viet Nam War may have been a low point in American history, foreign policy, domestic politics, and military integrity, but it seems to be a wellspring for creativity.

Michael Bishop describes one bad-ass soldier in absolutely exquisite detail. Not only does D.G., the Door Gunner, represent just about everything that was ugly and spiritually corrupt about the war... he also happens to be dead. Caught a sniper bullet in the head one day. They packed him up, and signed the papers. And then he got up and kept doing his job.

Not only that, but every mission he runs is blessed. He may stink to high heaven, but when the soldiers see D.G. in the chopper, they know they're going to make it home. You can't love him, but it settles a man's heart to know a man so rotten even Hell won't take him is your side.

Bishop does a nice job with voice here, alternating between POV characters as things develop to a new level with D.G. He's been running his missions well enough, but now he's starting to get a hankering to move on to the next world—or one like it. The mythical island of Black Syphilus seems like a reasonable vacation home if he can't get into Hell itself. Oh, and he wants his pay.

Bishop excels in verisimilitude. His nouns hit hard! His language is convincing, and it comes across with the rhythm of the war. It's ugly poetry, perfect in its own horror.

I am not quite sure that the ending delivered quite the punch it was building to, but some of that may be because the alternating POV, previously quite clear, started to confuse me. The header informed us it was one character, but the events and the voice sounded like another, and the whole thing left me a trifle perplexed. Suspicion: another typographical error on the part of the Realms team may have diminished this story just a trifle.

Nonetheless, this was a memorable and challenging story.

Mortal Engines by Michael Bateman. Asimov's, December.

A mountain rescue team is dispatched to the site of an airplane crash... except it turns out not to be a human craft that has ploughed into the mountainside.

In the course of attempting to rescue the aliens, Bateman's characters run into difficulties that transcend the physical challenge of extreme conditions and the medical problems inherent in approaching completely unknown body-chemistries and physiologies. The dying aliens cannot speak English, of course (apparently those primitive aliens don't know a thing about Star Trek), but their touch imparts a certain psychic resonance that triggers painful memories in the minds of the rescuers. The aliens are trying to talk about fear and death the only way they can, and it turns out to be a pretty powerful language.

This is a fascinating and haunting tale, although at the conclusion I felt that strength of the story could have sustained a deeper foray into the darkness. There was a tremendous amount of emotion jammed into what was, in essence, little more than an anecdote. It felt like there's a tightly-wound spring here, and Bateman quietly boxes it up at the end.

Nonetheless, I don't consider this a lapse in authorial judgment, but rather a somewhat difficult choice. The character knows exactly what he is doing when he makes his decision at the end, and if anything, that spring is even more tightly wound at the end of the story than at the beginning. Perhaps it's the tremendous potential energy here that makes the story linger so.

Peace on Suburbia by M. Rickert. F&SF, December.

This was the Christmas story in F&SF, but not exactly a tale of candy and pretty lights. Rather, "Peace on Suburbia" is a Christmas story that doesn't quite fall into any of the usual categories. There appear to be very big claims: that a boy in suburbia is, somehow, the Christ-child; that wise men appear, bringing gifts.

Although the mother fearfully calls the police on the wise men, and has the wrapped gifts removed as possible bombs, Rickert doesn't play any of this for laughs. The mysterious developments are never clarified or brought to any decisive conclusion. The fearful mother does not appear to find peace. There is no apparent moral or other didactic message.

But it is a Christmas story, nonetheless. Rickert captures something real, and subtle about the nature of the Christmas story. Despite the POV-character's unwillingness to participate, a sense of hope still emerges from the tale. Even though we know the boy is not going to live long enough for "eating healthy" to be worth the effort.

Honorable Mention

"The Grass and the Trees" by Eliot Fintushel. Asimov's, February.

"Stegosaurs Boy" by Steven Popkes. Realms of Fantasy, February.

"Hard Times" by Neal Barrett, Jr. Asimov's, March.

"Scabbing" by Mark W. Tiedemann. F&SF, April.

"Graylord Man's Last Words" by Gene Wolfe. Asimov's, May.

"555" by Robert Reed. F&SF, May.

"The Fluted Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi. F&SF, May.

"The Super Hero Saves the World" by M. Rickert. F&SF, May.

"Bernardo's House" by James Patrick Kelly. Asimov's, June.

"Dead Worlds" by Jack Skillingstead. Asimov's, June.

"The Tale of the Golden Eagle" by David D. Levine. F&SF, June.

"Our Günther Likes to Dig" by Lee Allred. Asimov's, July.

"Dragonhead" by Nick DiChario. F&SF, July.

"The Acquaintance" by Patricia Russo. Talebones, Summer.

"Pale Horse" by Kevin Levites. Analog, September.

"First Principles" by Edd Vick. Asimov's, September.

"Alfred Bester is Alive and Well and Living in Winterset, Iowa" by Bret Bertholf. F&SF, September.

"The Only Known Jump Across Time", by Eugene Mirabelli. F&SF, September.

"The Automatic Circus" by David Ira Cleary. The Third Alternative, Autumn.

"Halloweentown" by Brian Plante. Analog, October.

"The Census Taker" by Dale Bailey. F&SF, October.

"Born Under the Sign of Bonanza" by Robert Scherrer. Analog, November.

"Ariel", by Lucius Shepard. Asimov's, November.

"Pagliacci's Divorce", by Daniel Abraham. F&SF, December.

"Romanticore", by Tim Pratt. Realms of Fantasy, December.

Copyright © 2004, Bluejack. All Rights Reserved.

About Bluejack

Bluejack resides in Seattle. In addition to publishing the Internet Review of Science Fiction, he herds cats for an Internet startup, designs and develops distributed software applications, and dabbles in a broad range of less useful endeavors.


Feb 21, 00:00 by John Frost
Most importantly, what did he miss? What else was important in 2003?
Feb 22, 14:06 by Chris Dodson
Glad to see this get mentioned. This was one of the most underrated stories of the year, and I'm very surprised that it didn't get more attention.

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