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February, 2005 : Feature:

The Best Short Stories of 2004

Whew! The effort of trying to winnow my list of favorite stories down to something manageable is hard work. I have to say at the outset that, in review, 2004 was a very, very good year for short fiction, and there are a great many good stories that I simply couldn't fit onto my best-of list this year.

While I am making excuses, I should also explain that the reading for this list is by no means comprehensive. In 2004 I read every issue of Realms of Fantasy, Analog, Asimov's, Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF), Paradox, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (ASIM), SciFiction, and Strange Horizons. I also came across one copy of On Spec, one of Talebones (although I got the second issue recently, just not in time for this list). I don't know if I saw all the copies of Interzone or The Third Alternative that came out this year, but I did see all the ones they sent me. Seems like a lot, right? Well, this completely excludes all the DNA publications magazines, the new Amazing, and dozens of other internet magazines I simply didn't have time for. Moreover, a quick scan of Locus' Recommended Reading List quickly identifies some additional publications: Argosy, Conjunctions, Black Clock, Electric Velociped, Alchemy, Lenox Avenue, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, as well as a great number of anthologies and non-genre publications (for example, they include a Vinge short story published in the IEEE Spectrum Online, and a Miéville story from the Socialist Review). Conclusion: there is no one-stop shopping when it comes to best-of retrospectives.

It is historically popular to classify lists by story length, especially observing the Novella, Novelette, and Short Story lengths as recognized by the Hugo and Nebula awards. I don't think short fiction is well served by those divisions. Moreover, not all publications broadcast the story lengths. Accordingly, I am classifying by a few broad thematic categories in my first pass at identifying the very best. Length categories, where discernable, have been included in the final list.

A quick word on methodology. Of all the fiction I read this year, I kept a running list of stories that I thought were better than average for the venue. For this list I put that list into the computer and reread my reviews of the story, and in some cases the story. Those stories that I thought deserved to be in contention made the first cut. Next I trimmed each magazine's list down to under twelve stories. (The second cut, the full list of which is at the end of this article.) Next I classified the genre of each story, to the best of my ability. Finally I winnowed each genre-specific list down to a top three or four, with a few more honorable mentions. For some categories this was much harder than others. Each story is linked to my original review of it.

So, here it is. By category, the Best of 2004!

Science Fiction

Science Fiction alone is the largest category, and although I break out "Near Future," "Humor," and "Genre Busting" categories, Science Fiction is still the biggest. This means the competition is fierce! Apparently, F&SF had my number for science fiction this year, as that magazine is disproportionately represented on this list.

  • The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigulpi (F&SF, February) — A grotesquely plausible future, an antidote for the "Rapture of the Geeks" post-human utopians.
  • My Mother, Dancing by Nancy Kress (Asimov's, June) — A beautiful and heartbreaking story about post-human interstellar colonization...and abandonment.
  • Pervert by Charles Coleman Finlay (F&SF, March) — Finlay turns the tables on heterosexuality (the perversion of the title), and does so with enormous sensitivity and delicacy.
  • The Clapping Hands of God by Michael F. Flynn (Analog, July-August) — Analog loves a story about human-alien misunderstandings, and this is, hands-down, the best of the year for the type.
  • Someone Else by Karen D. Fishler (Interzone, September-October) — Fishler combines the ability to create a creepy sense of unease with magnificent characterization.
  • Leviathan Wept by Daniel Abraham (SciFiction, July) — Abraham combines the worst moral confusion of the War on Terrorism with a fascinating examination of the Searle's Chinese Box problem.

Near Future

Some science fiction is less about science, or far-flung fantastical futures, and more about right now, or just a little ahead. Following are my picks for the best stories of the year that could almost happen today.

  • Sergeant Chip by Bradley Denton (F&SF, August) — "Bloody, awful, treacherous war, narrated by a smart, loving, faithful dog."
  • Inappropriate Behavior by Pat Murphy (SciFiction, February) — "Murphy cranks the tension up to eleven in this nail-biting story about the struggle to communicate."
  • Weapons of Mass Distraction by Richard A. Lovett (Analog, January-February) — Lovett takes this catchphrase of the left and uses it to project a frighteningly plausible new dimension to terrorism.

Genre Busters

It doesn't really matter how you define your categories, people are going to play on the borders. If you go by length, some stories will sit right on that fence. At least by some measure, however absurd and arbitrary, that is a quantifiable distinction. When it comes to genre and sub-genre, however, there some of the most interesting work takes place in places that are intentionally hard to classify.

  • Embracing-the-New by Benjamin Rosenbaum (Asimov's, January) — Or is it science fiction? Or social satire? Whatever it is, it's brilliant.
  • Genderbending at the Madhattered by Kameron Hurley (Strange Horizons, February) — Another work where post-human sci-fi and fantasy blur, this could also have been a direct ploy for the Tiptree award. However you want to view it, it's thoughtful, thought-provoking stuff.
  • Arabian Wine by Gregory Feeley (Asimov's, April-May) — If there were a category for Historical Science Fiction, this might fit that category: a love of engineering informs what is otherwise barely an alternate history.
  • The Word that Sings the Scythe by Michael Swanwick (Asimov's, October-November) — Centaurs and fighter jets and social satire. Oh my!
  • Embers by Rudi Dornemann (Realms of Fantasy, October) — A beautiful fantasy land, vividly imagined, and a robot forged in dragon's breath. Classify that!
  • Of Imaginary Ships and Miniscule Matter by Gary W. Shockley (SciFiction, November) — Another possible candidate for Historical Science Fiction: the story of Heloise and Abelard retold in the context of the end of the Newtonian era.
  • Magic Makeup by Ray Vukcevich (Strange Horizons, April) — Vukcevich deals a shattering blow to concepts of identity.

Fantasy

Once I factored out contemporary fantasy, historical fantasy and "dark fantasy" (stuff which might also be found in horror magazines), not to mention the genre busters above, I really didn't come across a lot of material that seemed exceptionally noteworthy in the fantasy field. Indeed, none of the following recommended stories strike me as traditional fantasy, High or Low or anything in between. Maybe once I get reading Black Gate in the upcoming year, that will change. (I should mention that I also started out with Space Opera as a category, only to find nothing in it after the second cut.)

  • Metal More Attractive by Ysabeau S. Wilce (F&SF, February) — Totally unique vision and voice define Wilce's wild story of a young rock star plotting the death of the Queen (his own Grandmama!).
  • A Christmas Tree by Peter Friend (Asimov's, December) — If a Christmas tree eats maggot-ridden goat carcasses, that's fantasy, right?
  • The Secret of Making Brains by Joe Murphy (Realms of Fantasy, December) — "The secret of making brains is to use good quality glass."

Contemporary Fantasy

Well, here's how I define it: if it sort of takes place in this world, as opposed to some totally imaginary world; and if it sort of takes place in the present day, or nearly so, but crazy magic stuff happens, then it must be contemporary fantasy. I am not sure that's the formal definition.

  • Fairytale by Dirk Flinthart (ASIM, #12) — An accountant destroyed by beauty.
  • Gwendolyn Is Happy to Serve You by Eliot Fintushel (Asimov's, July) — A waitress in love with a moose?
  • Many Voices by M. Rickert (F&SF, March) — A typically elusive Rickert piece, a meditation on freedom.
  • Flight Risk by Marc Laidlaw (SciFiction, April) — A memorable work; this story of an orphan in trouble stuck with me all year.
  • The Anatomist's Apprentice by Matthew Claxton (SciFiction, July) — A delightfully gruesome, and also touching story about Molly, who is a disembodied head.
  • Terrible Ones by Tim Pratt (The 3rd Alternative, #37) — This story sets up some delightful expectations, and then knocks them down even more delightfully.

Historical Fantasy

Historical Fantasy is sort of like Contemporary Fantasy and Alternate History poured into the same soup bowl. If I didn't happen to read Paradox, which describes itself as "The Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction," I probably wouldn't have enough to make this a category.

  • Milk in a Silver Cup by Meredith Simmons (Paradox, #6) — Outcasts among outcasts fan the flames of love and hope, but outcasts have little tolerance for outcasts in their midst.
  • Rapture by Sally Gwylan (Strange Horizons, March) — Anna is going to bring people freedom, even if she has to use mind control. Uh...
  • The Ill-Fated Crusade by Charles Coleman Finlay (Paradox, #5) — There were a rash of stories this year about super-intelligent aliens confounded by ignorant humans. In some the aliens were benificent, in others they were not. This was the best of the ones I read.

Dark Fantasy

When it's in Cemetary Dance it's called horror. When it's in Fantasy and Science Fiction we call it Dark Fantasy. Note: although Talebones emphasizes dark fantasy, I only got to one of their two issues this year.

Humor

And when it's funny, we call it humor. Science Fiction, Fantasy, whatever. If the main intent is to make the reader laugh, then it gets into the humor category here. Note that Andromeda Spaceways makes a point of publishing light, fun, funny stuff, and thus their disproportionate presence here.

  • My Father's New Wife by Shauna Roberts (ASIM, #11) — A charming and well-crafted story about step-parents. Alien step-parents.
  • Welcome to Justice 2.0, by George Tucker (F&SF, January) — In the future, Microsoft products will replace the tedium of actual court cases.
  • A Small Blue Planet for the Pleasantly Insane by Douglas A. Van Belle (ASIM, #16) — Another story in which super-advanced aliens don't entirely get the better of humanity, although in their defense, they're just trying to be inconspicuous. The key word is trying.
  • A Little Learning by Matthew Hughes (F&SF, June) — Guth Bandar just can't seem to get himself out of a jam.
  • 2:30 by Leslie What (Strange Horizons, December) — A person with a colony of aliens in his tooth and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Talk about bad luck.
  • Jumpstart Heart by Michael Brockington (On Spec, Spring) — "Steve Aylett imagining William S. Burroughs writing Henry Miller as spoken by Steven Wright."
  • Air Cube by Antony Mann (Interzone, September-October) — Marketing at its best. "Reduce. Improve. Prevent."
  • The Elves Hate You by Matthew Bey (ASIM, #12) — Mayhem ensues when an elf comes into a bar wearing the same shirt as Vlad the Grater (so-named because he once executed an entire village with a cheese grater).

The Chart

For a little more information on the above stories, as well as the honorable mentions, here's the chart of everything that made it past the second cut, organized by magazine. The key to the categories is:

  • SF   =   Science Fiction
  • NF   =   Near-Future Sci Fi
  • GB   =   Genre Busting
  • F   =   Fantasy
  • CF   =   Contemporary Fantasy
  • HF   =   Historical Fantasy
  • DF   =   Dark Fantasy
  • H   =   Humor

Cat

Length

Level

Title

Author

Issue

Analog

NF

Nvlt

Best

Weapons of Mass Distraction

Richard A. Lovett

Jan-Feb

SF

Short

Hon

The Liberators

Scott William Carter

Apr

NF

Nvlt

Hon

Promises

Richard A. Lovett

May

SF

Short

Hon

Harpoon

G. David Nordley

May

SF

Short

Hon

The Bistro of Alternate Realities

Kevin J. Anderson

June

GB

Nvlt

Hon

PeriAndry's Quest

Stephen Baxter

June

SF

Nvlt

Best

The Clapping Hands of God

Michael F. Flynn

July-Aug

SF

Nvla

Hon

Layna's Mirror

Rajnar Vajra

Oct

Andromeda Spaceways

H

Short

Best

My Father's New Wife

Shauna Roberts

#11

CF

Short

Best

Fairytale

Dirk Flinthart

#12

H

Short

Best

The Elves Hate You

Matthew Bey

#12

H

Short

Hon

Hitler's Ghost Possessed My Cat

Ben Cook

#14

H

Short

Hon

The Munchausen Papers

Stuart Barrow and Mark Bruckard

#14

H

Nvla

Best

A Small Blue Planet For the Pleasantly Insane

Douglas A. Van Belle

#16

Asimov's

F

Short

Best

Embracing-the-New

Benjamin Rosenbaum

Jan

SF

Nvlt

Hon

Nectar

Brian Stableford

Jan

SF

Nvlt

Hon

A Plague of Life

Robert Reed

Mar

SF

Short

Hon

Pulp Cover

Gene Wolfe

Mar

SF

Short

Hon

Tammy Pendant

Chris Beckett

Mar

GB

Nvla

Best

Arabian Wine

Gregory Feeley

Apr-May

SF

Short

Best

My Mother, Dancing

Nancy Kress

June

CF

Short

Best

Gwendolyn is Happy to Serve You

Eliot Fintushel

July

SF

Short

Hon

Moon Wolf

Tanith Lee

Aug

F

Short

Hon

The Biography of a Bouncing Boy Terror!

Y.S. Wilce

Sept

CF

Short

Hon

Sleeping Dragons

Lynette Aspey

Sept

GB

Nvlt

Best

The Word that Sings the Scythe

Michael Swanwick

Oct-Nov

SF

Short

Hon

Scatter

Jack Skillingstead

Oct-Nov

F

Short

Best

A Christmas Tree

Peter Friend

Dec

SF

Short

Hon

Echoing

James Van Pelt

Dec

F&SF

H

Short

Best

Welcome to Justice 2.0,

George Tucker

Jan

SF

Nvlt

Hon

The Seal Hunter

Charles Coleman Finlay

Jan

SF

Nvlt

Best

The People of Sand & Slag

Paolo Bacigulpi

Feb

F

Nvlt

Best

Metal More Attractive

Ysabeau S. Wilce

Feb

CF

Short

Best

Many Voices

M. Rickert

Mar

SF

Short

Best

Pervert

Charles Coleman Finlay

Mar

SF

Short

Hon

Gas

Ray Vukcevich

Apr

DF

Short

Best

The Masked City

Melanie Fazie

May

H

Nvlt

Best

A Little Learning

Matthew Hughes

June

SF

Nvla

Best

Sergeant Chip

Bradley Denton

Sep

SF

Short

Hon

A Paleozoic Palimpsest

Steven Utley

Oct-Nov

SF

Nvla

Hon

The Bad Hamburger

Matthew Jarpe and Jonathan

Dec

Interzone

SF

?

Best

Someone Else

Karen D. Fishler

Sep-Oct

H

Short

Best

Air Cube

Antony Mann

Sep-Oct

On Spec

H

?

Best

Jumpstart Heart

Michael Brockington

Spring

H

?

Hon

Reunion

Jack Skillingstead

Spring

Paradox

HF

?

Best

The Ill-Fated Crusade

Charles Coleman Finlay

#5

HF

?

Best

Milk in a Silver Cup

Meredith Simmons

#6

Realms of Fantasy

H

?

Hon

Rattler

Gene Wolfe and Brian Hopkins

Feb

F

?

Hon

Israbel

Tanith Lee

Apr

HF

?

Hon

Portrait of an Unidentified Angel

Wendy Shaffer

Apr

F

?

Hon

Falling With Wings

Devon Monk

Aug

CF

?

Hon

They are Girls, Green Girls

Ian McDowell

Oct

GB

?

Best

Embers

Rudi Dornemann

Oct

F

?

Best

The Secret of Making Brains

Joe Murphy

Dec

SciFiction

CF

Nvla

Hon

Zora and the Zombie

Andy Duncan

Feb

NF

Nvlt

Best

Inappropriate Behavior

Pat Murphy

Feb

SF

Short

Hon

The Baum Plan for Financial Independence

John Kessel

Mar

CF

Short

Best

Flight Risk

Marc Laidlaw

April

SF

Nvlt

Best

Leviathan Wept

Daniel Abraham

July

CF

Nvlt

Best

The Anatomist's Apprentice

Matthew Claxton

July

GB

Nvla

Best

Of Imaginary Ships and Miniscule Matter

Gary W. Shockley

Nov

DF

Short

Best

Clownette

Terry Dowling

Dec

GB

Short

Hon

Luciferase

Bruce Sterling

Dec

Strange Horizons

SF

Nvlt

Hon

St. Ailbe's Hall

Naomi Kritzer

Jan

F

Short

Best

Genderbending at the Madhattered

Kameron Hurley

Feb

HF

Nvlt

Best

Rapture

Sally Gwylan

Mar

GB

Short

Best

Magic Makeup

Ray Vukcevich

April

SF

Nvlt

Hon

Unfinished

Jason Stoddard

May

H

Short

Hon

The Great Old Pumpkin

John Aegard

Oct

H

Short

Best

2:30

Leslie What

Dec

Talebones

DF

?

Best

To Crown a Sand Castle Just Right

T.J. Berg

Summer

The 3rd Alternative

DF

?

Best

You Will Hear the Locust Sing

Joe Hill

#37

SF

?

Hon

Mission Memory

Karen Fishler

#37

CF

?

Best

Terrible Ones

Tim Pratt

#37

Please note...if you have official length classifications for anything listed with a "?" here, please feel free to post that information to the forums!


Copyright © 2005, 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.

COMMENTS!

Jan 31, 20:55 by Bluejack

Who does this bluejack guy think he is, anyway, making a list like this. Don't let him get away with it.

(The list is here.)
Jan 31, 22:06 by Jay Swartzfeger
Great list, Blunt! "The Anatomist's Apprentice" was also one of my favorites of the year.
Jan 31, 22:11 by Jed Hartman
Good lists! I'm especially pleased to see you list "Embracing-the-New" and "Arabian Wine", two of my favorites from Asimov's this year. (Others included "The Third Party" and "The Pasho"; I haven't yet gone through all the issues to see what others I'm forgetting.) ...Quibble: I think "A Christmas Tree" was meant to be science fiction rather than fantasy.

I'm a little surprised not to see "The Voluntary State" on your list; I don't remember what you said about it, and don't have time to go back and look for your review at the moment.

When I'm ready to sit down and put together my Hugo noms list, I'll definitely be using your lists for pointers to stuff I've missed.

If you're looking for non-magazine things to read, I highly recommend the latest RatBastards anthology (don't remember if you reviewed it or not), and Ben Rosenbaum's brilliant story in the zeppelin anthology.

Here are the length categories for the SH stories:

St. Ailbe's Hall: Novelette
Genderbending at the Madhattered: Short Story
Rapture: Novelette
Magic Makeup: Short Story
Unfinished: Novelette
The Great Old Pumpkin: Short Story
2:30: Short Story

Thanks for the lists!
Jan 31, 22:29 by Bluejack
Thanks. Updated with those sizes.

Re: "Voluntary State" -- well, my own review is not a particularly competant one. I remember enjoying the opening of the story, but sort of losing the thread of it towards the end -- the character motivations that hooked me in the beginning became subsumed by the bigger story, but that was a story I was less involved in.

Re: "Christmas Tree" -- far future? alternate universe? wacked out imagination? does it matter? it was a delightful lala land, wherever it was.
Feb 1, 05:12 by David Eland
Thanks for all the work that must have gone into this list. Of those on your list that I have read, 80% would be on my own list of favs for 2004. Some that you liked didn't grab me in the first page or two so I skipped past them--due to limited time to read. You've given me a good reason to go back and try them again.
Feb 1, 06:09 by Lois Tilton
Bluejack, you obviously need more to read! What about the short fiction in anthologies?
Feb 1, 07:09 by Gregory Feeley
I greatly enjoyed two stories that Bluejack has omitted: Lois Tilton's "The Gladiator's War: A Dialogue" (Asimov's) and Noreen Doyle's "Ankhtifi the Brave is Dying" (The First Heroes). Tilton's story is deceptively complex -- many commentators have failed to notice, to take only its most obvious level, how profoundly an alternate history it is -- while Doyle's is right-out-there peculiar, the dramatization of a consciousness that comes from a profoundly alien culture.

Both stories -- I think they qualify as "novelettes" -- merit much more attention (and, in Tilton's case, publication in book form) than they have so far received.
Feb 1, 08:19 by Bluejack
Lois...

Anthologies... anthologies... a few people have sent me anthologies to review, but I simply haven't been able to squeeze them in (sorry Ken! sorry Polyphony! sorry Fairwood Press!). Until I learn how to read faster &/or review more efficiently (or increase the time spent on reviewing), I am running at or close to capacity.

In 2005 I am going to go back to the original format of the column where I review a few stories in depth rather than all the stories in brief. It's hard because if I read a story, I like to say something about it, but it takes time and one person just can't be comprehensive all by himself.
Feb 1, 08:19 by Bluejack
Gregory...

Thanks for those additions. Anyone else read something they loved & I missed?
Feb 1, 08:21 by Dawn Burnell
Good list. I was surprised by the omission of Jay Lake's "The Angel's Daughter" (Short Story, ROF).
Other notables that I enjoyed: "The Best Christmas Ever", James Patrick Kelly, SCIFICTION; "Her", by Tobias Buckwell, Fortean Bureau; & Gree Glass Sea, by Ellen Kadges, Strange Horizons.

My full list of recommendations [with less bredth & no reviews] can be found on my LJ.
Feb 1, 09:17 by Bluejack
Hehe. Thanks for listing us in your recs for best website.

It does look like your taste and mine differ, Zhaneel, so it's always interesting to see where they overlap.
Feb 1, 12:34 by Zara Baxter
FYI, A Small Blue Planet is a Novella (20k words on the dot)

Thanks for the lists - good stuff in there, and not just because you included two of my favourite ASIM stories :)
Feb 2, 04:48 by Michael Swanwick
I second "Green Glass Sea" by Ellen Klages. A beautiful story which, technically speaking, is neither science fiction nor fantasy, but which genre readers will love.
Feb 2, 15:04 by Robin Mayhall
Feb 2, 16:11 by Bluejack
Thanks for those recommendations, Hieran, I do hope to be able to broaden the net a little this year.

Feb 2, 19:01 by Aleta Daknis
Hi Bluejack and all--

First of all, thanks for your list! I have a lot of reading to do!

Second, I hope that in 2005 you will consider adding Abyss & Apex to your list of publications to read for next year's best-of. :-)

A couple of stories we published in A&A that I think merit mention on your list are:
Jay Lake's Clown Eggs;
Ryan Robert Mullen's Grey Head and Them Big Black Eyes; and,
Steve Wilson's My Duties Aboard Ship, which we've nominated for the SLF's Foundation Award.

All best,
Aleta Daknis
Feb 2, 21:43 by Bluejack
A little forum oddness here; sorry for any confusion; my reply to Hieran was meant for Aleta's post which is after mine; which somehow happened because of some lingering bug in my software, for which I apologize, and am working to fix.
Feb 4, 15:42 by Gregory Feeley
People should take a look at the Tor anthology The First Heroes: New Tales of the Bronze Age. It's "Edited by Harry Turtledove and Noreen Doyle," but it was Noreen's project, with Turtledove agreeing to lend his name to the project (and some editorial input) in order to secure a publisher.

It contains a number of strikingly good stories, including Doyle's own (mentioned earlier) and a long narrative poem (in Byronic stanzas) by poet Larry Hammer -- his first genre sale, I believe. Also good stories by Gene Wolfe, Lois Tilton, Katharine Kerr, and others.
Feb 4, 16:08 by Ellen Datlow
Hi Bluejack.
Zora and the Zombie is a novelette (by the skin of its teeth) and so is "Of Imaginary Airships and Miniscule Matter."
Feb 4, 17:33 by Bluejack
Thanks... I don't know where I got the idea Zora was a short story! I *remember* it being long.
Feb 5, 08:45 by twosheds
I don't read nearly as much as bluejack, but I did see two of my favorites on the list, both in ROF: Green Girls and Embers. Both are very different from each other, yet they're great reading. I've been reading a quarterly called Black Gate. Most of the stories are novelette length. Great reading.

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