The OF Blog: 2010 in Review: Short Fiction Collections and Anthologies

Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 in Review: Short Fiction Collections and Anthologies

Before I beginning writing about the 2010 short fiction collections and anthologies that I read, I want to encourage readers to read the list I posted of stories I had longlisted for possible consideration for Best American Fantasy 4, as there are several stories published in the first half of 2010 that are contained in several outstanding literary journals and magazines that deserve greater attention and readership from those who enjoy fictions that blur the boundaries between realist and speculative fictions.

It is difficult to discuss collections and anthologies in short paragraphs.  Either I'd devote most of that space to a single story or two, or I would end up failing to cover anything specific.  What I've chosen to do here is to choose Scylla over Charybdis and discuss impressions over specific stories; themes over individual plots, more or less.  Many of these books contain original fictions, while a few will be reprint anthologies.  Must note that as much as I enjoyed reading the Kevin Brockmeier-edited Best American Fantasy 3, I do not include it in the discussion below because of conflict of interest.

Back in January, I received a review copy of the George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois-edited anthology Warriors, an original anthology consisting of various takes on what it meant to be a warrior.  There were several stories that I enjoyed here for their takes on the subject matter and I chose Peter Beagle's "Dirae" to be on the BAF 4 longlist.  Simply put, this anthology was one of the strongest original anthologies I read this year and several other stories would have been under consideration for BAF 4 if they weren't over 15,000 words.

Another original anthology read this past spring was the Lou Anders and Jonathan Strahan-edited Swords and Dark Magic.  This was a more uneven anthology than Warriors, with Caitlín Kiernan's "The Sea-Troll's Daughter" being by far the best of a mixed bag of stories.  I have a love/hate relationship with Sword & Sorcery tales and I felt that many of the newer authors published in this collection focused too much on the fighting aspects and missed some of the subtler elements often found in the best S&S stories.

I have already covered my thoughts on the Luso-Brazilian original steampunk anthology, Vaporpunk, in my previous essay, so just read that essay rather than expecting me to copy/paste here.

One reprint anthology that I did read (besides BAF 3) this year was Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's Steampunk II:  Steampunk Reloaded.  I wrote a review of it earlier:

In both anthologies, the VanderMeers do not attempt to provide a definitive description of what constitutes "steampunk"; it would be a Sisyphean task.  Instead, what they do is cull a selection of representative short stories (and in addition, a steampunk comic and steampunk-inspired layout) and present these to the readers.  Some fictions, such as the Kiernan story I quote above, tackle the social inequalities inherent in the 19th century societies from whence most steampunk fiction draw their inspiration.  I quote Kiernan's first paragraph to her excellent "The Steam Dancer (1896)" because I found her story to be exemplary of the particular subtype of steampunk fiction I prefer most:  the social commentary that uses the dressings of alt-steam to explode myths from the Victorian and Edwardian eras of Anglo-American history.  Behind the mixture of the familiar and exotic found in Kiernan's story lies a shrewd commentary on social and gender stratification, one that is all the more effective because of its alt-world setting.
 Speaking of Jeff VanderMeer, I also read and enjoyed his short fiction collection, The Third Bear.  I discussed the overall collection and two stories in particular in an e-book that was recently published as a sort of festschrift.  So read that, okay?

I mentioned this book earlier when I covered debut authors, but Rachel Swirsky's Through the Drowsy Dark is an excellent debut collection that ought to delight quite a few regulars here at this blog.  Slightly more in-detail thoughts found at the link above.

Earlier this month, Richard Parks had his third fiction collection, On the Banks of Heaven, published.  His second collection, Worshipping Small Gods, was my favorite collection when it came out a couple of years ago and this latest effort matches it in tone and quality of prose.  Parks mixes humor in with frail, gossamer-like vistas that feel like the stuff on which dreams are made.  Simply a delightful collection to read and re-read in the years to come.

I also read some short, almost flash fictions (not all of them are of that length, I should note) this year.  This month alone, I read Amelia Gray's Museum of the Weird, which was a bit uneven for me.  There were times that I thought she nailed a particular mood and juxtaposed that with some very weird settings and events, but the prose was a bit uneven, creating stories that were at times on the level of "Oh, that's interesting, I guess" rather than anything that truly grabbed my attention.
Robert Lopez's Asunder, however, was borderline brilliant in how adroitly he used the English language to create scene and character.  In this 179 page collection, several characters would reappear.  We would see into their thoughts and the strange events occurring around them, and then things would shift, often in surprising and yet understandable fashions.  One of the best interconnected short fictions I have read this year.

Lopez's use of language reminded me somewhat of Matt Bell's How They Were Found, which I co-reviewed back in November with Jeff VanderMeer and Paul Smith.  There was a measured pace in both that when utilized properly can create a disturbing effect within the reader.  Here is an excerpt from my review of Bell's collection, which I found to be good but more uneven than Lopez's:

The highlight of this collection definitely is the first tale, "The Cartographer's Girl."  Originally appearing in the journal Gulf Coast, this story immediately captured my attention soon after I began my series editorship for Best American Fantasy 4.  From the first paragraph, with the cartographic symbols used to signify the narrator's relationship with his ex-girlfriend and the times and places where they moved into, through, and out of each other's life, to latter passages where it felt as though narrative was beginning to dissolve into an intense, interior mindscape, Bell's story captivated me.  The deliberately formal, detached narrative set the stage well for the story to explore an interior vista where the symbols expressed on a map correlate precisely with the emotions that the narrator experiences as he explores where he became "lost," both in the symbolic landscape of his romantic past and also in regards to his current position.  Bell's more intense, forceful conclusion reinforces the sense of distant confusion and slight obsession that are hinted at in the beginning.  "The Cartographer's Girl" is one of the better-structured and executed short stories that I have read this year and it certainly is a testament to Bell's potential as a writer.

However, several of the other stories in this thirteen story collection are much weaker than "The Cartopgrapher's Girl."  The second story, "The Receiving Tower," starts off promising, as there is a hint of a deceptive identity within the first-person narrator's point of view, but Bell drags out its execution, weakening the power of the narrative.  "The Receiving Tower" is also emblematic of some of the weaknesses in Bell's short fiction here, as there is so little variation in the PoVs of the characters that populate his stories that after reading several of them in a sitting, the overall effect can be monotonous, dulling the impact that might have been felt if some of his narrative techniques (detached, cool characters, horrific situations couched in ordinary language, intense moments clouded by off-hand, sometimes wry narrative asides) had not been repeated so many times in these stories.
 All in all, a fairly good group of writers here.  I hope to continue reading short fiction like I've managed the past couple of years, although I do plan on shifting my focus a bit for the upcoming 2011 reading cycle.

1 comment:

Carl V. Anderson said...

I am mid way through The Third Bear and am most impressed by it. I don't often harbor a desire to be a writer, but when I read Jeff Vandermeer's short fiction it makes me want to write. There is something special going on there that I cannot quite put my finger on.

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