Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
The Stories I Chose
A few days ago I wrapped up my series of MetaFilter posts recommending short scifi/fantasy stories. That post links to 40+ magazines, and in particular their RSS/Atom feeds, in case you'd like a fresh and plentiful supply of short speculative fiction. All in all, out of my 242 front page posts to MetaFilter, I believe 143 of them have recommended short fiction you can read for free online, almost all of it sf/f. I did a daily series of these posts for several weeks in 2020 and then again for several weeks this year. (In case that's been useful to you and you're putting together your nomination lists for next year, I am eligible for Best Fan Writer.)
Jacob said he'd love to read my curatorial thoughts -- why did I choose these? What is my aesthetic? What do I look for in a story?
First, some MetaFilter-specific constraints. First, I only linked to stories you can read for free online, and generally I avoid sites where there's a per-month per-user free article limit. As I noted at greater length in this comment, that means that I generally don't link to several magazines because they make few or no stories available to read for free on the web. Some only make digital issues available for purchase, such as Andromeda Spaceways Magazine. Some share a selection of stories as free-to-read on the web and sell digital issues containing additional content, such as Cossmass Infinities. And some are primarily print magazines but also sell digital issues, such as Analog Science Fiction and Fact or Asimov's Science Fiction or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. And of course this means I also can't link to stuff in fine anthologies such as Consolation Songs or It Gets Even Better: Stories of Queer Possibility (specific story recs), unless they publish the stories online un-paywalled as Leonard and I did with Thoughtcrime Experiments. Two of the stories I nominated for Best Short Story on my last Hugo Awards ballot came from Consolation Songs; this limitation has absolutely stopped me from sharing some of the stories I love in my recommendation series.
Also, MetaFilter has a guideline against making posts where you link to your own work -- and you have to tread carefully when linking to the work of your friends and loved ones. My spouse writes short speculative fiction and I have several friends who write or edit short speculative fiction. And they discourage duplicate posts that re-link to a URL that's already had a MeFi post about it. So that's of course affected my selections.
I love fan fiction, but some fan fiction authors would prefer that others not link to their work outside fan-specific spaces. After I learned this, I started asking for permission, and I only linked to fanfic in my MetaFilter posts if the author said okay or if they'd preemptively given permission in their platform profiles. So there are fanfics I love that I haven't shared in my MeFi recs.
And MetaFilter comment threads can get contentious and quite negative when certain sensitive topics come up, so I've sometimes thought "I like this piece but the conversation around it will be a depressing headache" and so I haven't linked to it. The thread about "Retriever" by Stephen Kearse turned into a conversation of people being pessimistic about gun violence and gun control in the US. Linking to an author or venue that was linked to the Sad Puppies (example) will probably lead to conversation about that rather than about the story. Relatedly, the conventional wisdom among MetaFilter commentators is that certain authors or publications are transphobic, homophobic, racist, or similarly bigoted, and thus linking to them is a recipe for an angry thread.
OK, so, given those constraints -- why did I select these? What do I like?
In case you haven't ever run into Nancy Pearl's approach to reader advisory, she mentions four main pleasures readers seek:
the headlong rush to the last page, the falling into a character’s life, the deeper understanding we’ve gotten of a place or a time, or the feeling of reading words that are put together in a way that causes us to look at the world differently....It seems to me that all works of fiction and narrative nonfiction are broadly made up of four experiential elements: story, character, setting, and language.
I do enjoy all these things but mostly, of her four "doorways," I like short fiction in which character and story appeals. In particular, I like fiction in which we watch relatable characters learning how to connect with others, how to adjust to change, how to be brave, and how to stand up for themselves, and I like suspense that gets me curious about how needs or problems will be resolved.
I do tend to enjoy short stories centering on personal stakes, especially around labor and healing: will this craftsman find the materials he needs to make his masterpiece violin? will this careworker find a way to understand and connect with her patient? will this aunt successfully make the cake that she wants to serve as a gesture of reconciliation with her family? If the stakes are more existential -- our protagonist's life or death, their family's freedom, the survival of a species -- then I either want a perfectly done Golden Age-pulp-style story or I want an approach that very much isn't that. Perhaps humor and genre-savvy, or plotless style experiment, or character-light/characterless thought experiment, or a political point of view I wouldn't have seen in the pages of midcentury pulp mags, or an epistolary narrative from an unreliable narrator.
Like Sigrid Ellis, "I dislike narrators who lie to ME," but I do enjoy narrators "who lie to themself.... a narrator lying to himself while telling the reader exactly what is happening.... unreliable narrators who are unreliable because they do not understand their own feelings" as long as they do eventually figure it out (or if they never figure it out but they were the villain of the piece so their incomprehension is part of the justice of the resolution). This is something you get from Ann Leckie's Breq and Martha Wells's Murderbot, and from some authors of genre romance. There's a related approach I enjoy perhaps more in which the point-of-view character at first misunderstands a situation because they're from a different culture or because of neuroatypicality, and eventually resolves the misunderstanding, but we the readers got enough clues to understand what they didn't throughout.
And that speaks to an age-old theme that I always always always adore: the struggle, and eventual triumph, to understand and connect with the Other, ideally leading to a relationship of solidarity and love. Robots, gods, robots, people on the other side of the class boundary, monsters, clones, aliens, did I mention robots? I am a sucker for this. It's like Brendan with chimes. It's like John Rogers says: the "meet, fight, team up" plot is a classic.
I do enjoy the language and setting doorways as defined by Pearl, but they're not as appealing to me as story and character. On a fundamental level I care about language on the level of verismilitude and craft. I need realistic dialogue, including self-talk in first-person stories. I struggle to appreciate particularly experimental stories that dispense with traditional narrative to foreground innovations in language use. And while I enjoy stories with unusual settings and speculative premises that structure what our characters assume, notice, and can do, I need the graphical or sociopolitical descriptions of those settings to infuse character, point of view, theme, mood, plot, or some other charge beyond "here are some pixels to render" or "here's the org chart."
A few years ago I noted down some things I like and don't like in fiction. Many of those apply to my MetaFilter selections too.
Oh, and I like for a story to have a resolution at its ending. Often the major problem is solved. Sometimes in a tragedy it's resolved in a destructive way, but the point-of-view character has definitively finished wrestling with it. Or sometimes the problem in the story has been solved, but at the close of the story we see that it's about to lead to a different, possibly larger unsolved problem; I can be satisfied with that sort of twist if it's elegantly done.
In the aggregate of my selections, I aimed for balance on a few dimensions. One was publication venues. I wanted to help readers notice venues they might not have heard of before, so I tried to sprinkle the more well-known magazines lightly and offer heartier helpings from less-famous magazines. So I sometimes skimmed the recent Uncanny table of contents, but opened up all of khōréō's and Mermaids Monthly's stories to give them a try. And there are very skilled writers publishing engaging stories on Tumblr, in Twitter threads, on Patreon, and on the fan fiction platform Archive Of Our Own, so I highlighted those alongside. It was also cool to find the occasional niche venue like the actuarial scifi contest.
I sought balance among authors in a few different ways. I have a sense of which authors are already well-known, and while I didn't ignore stories by them, I balanced those with stories by less-famous authors. And I did try to seek some demographic diversity among authors among various dimensions although this was a mixed success; I could have done better on this, especially if I'd made targeted goals.
Speaking of demographic balance, I feel like I didn't have to try particularly hard to find stories featuring characters who reflect the world. But, as with the previous item, I haven't run the stats so I'm going on feel here.
I aimed for a balance in the age of stories, recommending lots of new stories (and explicitly noting if they were published in the current year and thus awards-eligible), but also pointing to vintage web magazine archives or even a story from the 1830s. Mixin' it up! A special shout-out to the decades of Strange Horizons publication history which include several of my favorite stories.
And I tried to balance emotional tone in the stories I recommended. I wanted more triumphs than tragedies, more silly or heartwarming stories than melancholy ones, and I tried to space out the downers with sweet or exuberant ones. Interestingly, I've come to better understand the pleasures of the horror genre as I've done this project; as I said in discussing one story about fear, some readers found it useful to read these stories and, in them, find a useful reflection of the inside of their heads, or a lens to understand or consider people in our lives. I think that is one of the valuable dimensions of reading fiction, especially horror stories of dread, because so often the dread itself comes with some shame or obligation or other constraint that stops us from sharing our internal worlds with others. But overall I love stories of hope more.
I wanted to help readers find fun, solace, escape, beauty, wonder, mirrors, camaraderie, or at least a few minutes of engaging distraction. Based on the comments I got, I did! So that's nice.
29 Dec 2021, 10:01 a.m.
30 Dec 2021, 7:11 a.m.
Notes on this project from last year, especially on what I found helpful in the process.
A compilation from last year put my recommendation posts together into an ebook in case that's of interest to anyone reading this!