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 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.
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.
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.
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."
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 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.
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.
- You Will Hear the Locust Sing by Joe Hill (The 3rd Alternative, #37) — And when you do hear the locust sing? Run.
- To Crown a Sand Castle Just Right by T.J. Berg (Talebones, Summer) — What if Luck were a zero sum game?
- The Masked City by Melanie Fazie (F&SF, May) — This is not the Venice the tourists see.
- Clownette by Terry Dowling (SciFiction, December) — It's just a blotch on a hotel wall...isn't it?
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).
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
Please note...if you have official length classifications for anything listed with a "?" here, please feel free to post that information to the forums!