The OF Blog: 2008 in Review: Anthologies, Short Story Collections, and Novellas

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 in Review: Anthologies, Short Story Collections, and Novellas

For many years, the short story or novella were the basic staples of SF writing. Rarely did stories go past 60,000 words and a great many authors, from Isaac Asimov to Gene Wolfe to all sorts in-between, got their start in writing by writing short fiction for the pulp magazines. Today, most of the coverage of SF writing on blogs such as this one or even in print magazines goes to novels. One may be forgiven if the presumption that SF short fiction had gone the way of the dodo. While doubtless its impact has lessened over the years, there is still quite a bit of relevancy to the SF short fiction form. In fact, when I compiled the longlist for this category earlier this month, I had no less than 19 separate bound volumes on it!

What I decided to do is this: there will be a pictorial representation of these volumes, followed by discussion of a few works that I found to be the most important or captivating for 2008. There will be a mixture of reprint and original anthologies. If an anthologist's name is repeated, then it means that I found that s/he did outstanding, prolific work in this field for this year. I will not, sadly, have the time I would like to devote to discussing individual stories at length. Just know that I enjoyed each of these quite a bit and that in 2009, I'm looking at expanding my reading by subscribing to a few magazines in hopes of doing a separate Short Story feature this time next year.

This year, I read all or part (in the case of the John Joseph Adams-edited The Living Dead) of nine different anthologies. Of these, four (the above-mentioned Adams, plus his Wastelands, the two Ann and Jeff VanderMeer-edited The New Weird and Steampunk anthologies) either contained a majority or were entirely composed of reprinted stories. Each of these four were "themed," either grouped around an important "movement" (as in the case of the anthologies devoted to steampunk and New Weird works) or focused on a particular story theme (the various strains of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic imagery and setting, zombies). There is little to add to my earlier reviews of the two VanderMeer anthologies, other than the approach the two took in organizing The New Weird anthology, with its more "historical" approach to this sometimes amorphous but always-intriguing "new" movement is one that I suspect will be emulated by many other anthologists in the future, as that format really added to the sense of importance that the chosen stories had.

There were also five original, mostly-themed anthologies in my reading this year as well. Lou Anders' Fast Forward 2 is a SF-mostly anthology focusing on "futuristic" stories. What struck me when I read this anthology last month was just how diverse and multicultural these future-oriented stories were; not something often associated with SF, perhaps due to its spotted past. Despite my general antipathy towards pirates (argh? ack! ), I do have to compliment the two VanderMeers for selecting a wide range of stories in their Fast Ships, Black Sails anthology that for the most part made this inveterate pirate hater (for the record, I'm equal opportunity, as I could care less about ninjas, cowboys, Pee-Wee Herman, and that fat kid from The Goonies) pay attention to the stories contained within. If I had more time (which I don't, as this holiday has kept me busier than many work weeks), I would write a review of it.

Ellen Datlow's The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, the only non-themed anthology in this group, contains one of the best short stories I've read this year, the "controversial" Margo Lanagan tale, "The Goosle." The rest of the stories are, for the most part, solid, if not as memorable as Lanagan's retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story. "Solid" might be the best term to describe both the Jay Lake and Nick Mamatas-edited Spicy Slipstream Stories and the Ekaterina Sedia-edited Paper Cities - both contained several good, entertaining stories, but on the whole, neither collection was as memorable as the Anders one was, for example.

Edit: Try as I did to have a list in front of me before I began writing these articles, I noticed this morning that I somehow forgot to write down the Nick Gevers-edited Extraordinary Engines anthology. It is an original anthology of steampunk stories, featuring stories by Margo Lanagan, Jeffrey Ford, Jeff VanderMeer, Jay Lake, and Ian MacLeod that I enjoyed quite a bit. While there were a few dull works in this anthology (I never really could get into the James Lovegrove or Marly Youmans stories, for example), on the whole it was a good, solid anthology, one that complements the Steampunk anthology nicely.

Short Story Collections:
As with the anthologies, I found most of the short story collections that I read this year to be solid, if not spectacular works. Kelly Link's third collection, Pretty Monsters, was a mixture of stories from her first two collections along with five other tales, many of them with a YA bent, or at least that was how it was marketed. In the end, it was another Kelly Link collection, meaning if you enjoyed her previous two collections (as I did), then you likely liked this one. No surprises there. Same holds true for Jeffrey Ford's third collection, The Drowned Life. This is the second of two 2008 Ford releases I read this year and while I preferred his novel over this collection, The Drowned Life was a solid, enjoyable effort.

John Langan's debut collection, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, was one of two debut collections I read this year. The other, Paolo Bacigalupi's Pump Six and Other Stories, possibly might be the most varied and enjoyable of the collections that I read this year. I expect more great stories from him in the near future and in fact, he has one in the Fast Forward 2 anthology I mentioned above.

I read two short story collections that were originally published in Greek and Hebrew. Amanda Michalopoulou's I'd Like was very excellent, with each of her stories flowing nicely into the succeeding tales. Etgar Keret's The Girl on the Fridge, while not as good as the Michalopoulou, still was a funny, engaging read for the most part, with few lulls.

Rikki Ducornet's The One Marvelous Thing was a very nice collection of microfictions, most of which read well thanks to her poetic prose. Jeremy C. Shipp's debut collection, Sheep and Wolves, is more of an acquired taste. I think I need to read more of his fiction before I can decide what it is about his work that I like and what annoys me about it.

I only read two novellas that were originally released in 2008 (I bought a signed, hardcover copy of Gene Wolfe's Memorare that was released this summer, but the story originally appeared in 2007), Jeff VanderMeer's The Situation and Hal Duncan's just-released Escape From Hell! While I enjoyed both stories quite a bit (and I think Duncan's story is a bit more accessible for those put off by his storytelling style for Vellum and Ink - although I loved it), VanderMeer's story perhaps is one of the finer short fiction works I've read the past couple of years. What worked for me was how mundane the office politics weirdness seemed to the characters; it highlighted even more the insanity and strangeness of that office while also reminding me just how weird my own office climate is. Certainly one of my favorite stories of the year.

Any other anthologies/short story collections/novellas that I missed out on reading that you think I and others would enjoy?

And with this post, I conclude the series of short essays (OK, almost 3000 words for some of those articles isn't that short, but still, that's only about 10 printed pages, right?) on the several categories of 2008 releases that I have read. Shortly, I will post a list of my overall favorite fictions for 2008, minus any explanations (outside what you might find in these posts), for those who like lists rather than reflective discussions.


Charles said...

I think I kinda specialized on anthologies so I ended up reading more of them than you (although some of them were published before 2008).

In that department, stand outs for me were Nemonymous: Cone Zero, Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Best American Fantasy, Fantasy: The Best of the Year 2008, among others.

Just wondering, did you read a lot of magazines as well or did you strictly stick to books?

Lsrry said...

I stuck mostly with books this year, but starting next year, I'll be reviewing a few of the magazines, as I just began subscriptions to Weird Tales and Electric Velocipede. Never did get around to reading the various year's best issues, in part because I was interested more in themed anthologies and original ones. Might do that next year. Would have loved to have been able to read Best American Fantasy 2 (who knows when that will ship) and Eclipse 2 (shipped this evening) before now, but oh well...maybe later.

Elena said...

which of these would you recommend to someone who doesn't especially like short stories (or at least not modern ones)? i want to like them...i try periodically to like them...

...but if i read a magazine cover-to-cover, or if i buy an anthology because one of my favorite writers has a story in it and read the other contributions, i generally find myself left kind of bored. and with a sense of "really? that's all you have to come up with to get a story published?"

no doubt i'm just picking up the wrong publications or anthologies that are offering something besides what i want in shorts. which i'm not even sure what i do want, i just know that i liked a lot of the literaty shorts i read in high school (not so much in college, as those were current stories and i felt the same malaise toward them) but don't like most of the current stuff i've encountered.

thoughts on which might change my mind about current short fiction?

Lsrry said...

Well Elena, my personal favorite was The New Weird and its structure might be appealing to those who are uncomfortable with reading just a bunch of short stories thrown together.

Elena said...

i will check that one out, then. thanks!

Lsrry said...

No problem!

Unknown said...

I found Peter Straub's reprint collection, Poe's Children: The Her Horror, to be full of interesting stories, many of which I hadn't read before and many others I was happy to reread, like Elizabeth Hand's "Cleopatra Brimstone" and Joe Hill's "20th Century Ghost."

Reading Thomas Ligotti's contribution, "Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story" led me to finally pick up Songs of a Dead Dreamer, which is giving me lovely nightmares. "The Two Sams" by Glen Hirshberg led me to read his collection by the same name, in which I was a touch disappointed, but then, that particular story is a little masterpiece, and it would be hard to sustain that level of writing for an entire collection.

Lots of other great stuff here -- M. Rickert's "Leda," Ramsey Campbell's "The Voice of the Beach" -- just go read it already.

I also enjoyed The Baum Plan for Financial Independence by John Kessel this year. I actually sorta kinda reviewed that one here:

I also loved Laird Barron's The Imago Sequence, which wins my award for Most Lovecraftian Book I've Ever Read That Wasn't Written By Lovecraft.

It's starting to look like I'm not going to need to write my own list at this rate, even though that's what I had planned for this weekend -- I'll just point readers to your comments section, Larry.

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