Short Fiction in 2018

It’s nomination time once more! The BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction is open to any shorter work of science fiction or fantasy (40,000 words or under) first published in 2018.

These days, alongside the formal nominations, we also crowdsource a list of suggested reading. Anyone may suggest SFF works they think are worth checking out. The suggestions so far are listed below. Is there a brilliant story missing from this list? Add it here, or mention it in the comments and we’ll add it for you.

Formal nominations for the awards are also now open. To nominate and vote you must be a BSFA member (join here). If you’ve recently joined and don’t yet have a membership number, don’t worry! You’re still eligible to nominate and to vote.

So what was the most exciting short SFF in 2018? Let’s find out …

  1. ‘Parental Control’ by Mazi Nwonwu (AfroSF v.3) → search
  2. ‘Drift-Flux’ by Wole Talabi (AfroSF v.3) → search
  3. ‘Body Drift’ by Cynthia Ward (Analog) → search
  4. ‘The Bridge’ by Joyce Chng (Anathema) → search
  5. ‘Versions of the Sun’ by A.J. Hammer (Anathema) → search
  6. ‘White Noise’ by Kai Hudson (Anathema) → search
  7. ‘A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies’ by Alix E. Harrow (Apex) → search
  8. ‘A Night Out at a Nice Place’ by Nick Mamatas (Apex) → search
  9. ‘Cherry Wood Coffin’ by Eugenia Triantafyllou (Apex) → search
  10. ‘This War of Ours’ by Timandra Whitecastle (Art of War anthology) → search
  11. ‘Flesh and Coin’ by Anna Stephens (Art of War anthology) → search
  12. ‘Mother Tongues’ by S. Qiouyi Lu (Asimov’s) → search
  13. ‘The Grays of Cestus V’ by Erin Roberts (Asimov’s) → search
  14. ‘The Starship and the Temple Cat’ by Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) → search
  15. ‘Court of Birth, Court of Strength’ by Aliette de Bodard (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) → search
  16. ‘It’s Easy to Shoot A Dog’ by Maria Haskins (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) → search
  17. ‘Speak Easy, Suicide Selkies’ by E. Catherine Tobler (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) → search
  18. ‘Don’t Be Evil’ by Tim Maughan (Big Echo) → search
  19. ‘A Saddening Bore (from Munchausen by eproxy resin)’ by Robert Kiely (Big Echo) → search
  20. ’44 Fields’ by Will Ellwood (Big Echo) → search
  21. ‘Tet Tet Tetramina’ by Ahimaz Rajessh (Big Echo) → search
  22. ‘Plantation / Springtime’ by Lia Swope Mitchell (Big Echo) → search
  23. ‘The House of Y’ by Joanna Parypinski (Black Static) → search
  24. ‘Marrow’ by E. Catherine Tobler (Black Static) → search
  25. ‘Water Babies’ by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff (Bridge Across the Stars anthology/Sci-Fi Bridge/ http://www.scifibridge.com) → search
  26. ‘The Persistance of Blood’ by Juliette Wade (Clarkesworld) → search
  27. ‘The Miracle Lambs of Minane’ by Finbarr O’Reilly (Clarkesworld) → search
  28. ‘The Gift of Angels: an introduction’ by Nina Allan (Clarkesworld) → search
  29. ‘Dandelion’ by Elly Bangs (Clarkesworld) → search
  30. ‘Deep Down in the Cloud’ by Julie Novakova (Clarkesworld) → search
  31. ‘Sour Milk Girls’ by Erin Roberts (Clarkesworld) → search
  32. ‘The Dying Glass’ by Cameron Johnston (Deep Magic) → search
  33. ‘Down Where Sound Comes Blunt’ by G V Anderson (F&SF) → search
  34. ‘Other People’s Dreams’ by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (F&SF) → search
  35. ‘The New Heart’ by Natalia Theodoridou (Fireside) → search
  36. ‘Cleaning Up’ by Brian M. Milton (Fireside) → search
  37. ‘Dust to Dust’ by Mary Robinette Kowal (Fireside) → search
  38. ‘Stet’ by Sarah Gailey (Fireside) → search
  39. ‘One for Sorrow, Two for Joy’ by LaShawn M. Wanak (Fireside) → search
  40. ‘With These Hands: An Account of Uncommon Labour’ by LH Moore (FIYAH) → search
  41. ‘Survival Lies’ by Irette Y. Patterson (FIYAH) → search
  42. ‘Yard Dog’ by Tade Thompson (FIYAH) → search
  43. ‘Furious Girls’ by Juliana Goodman (FIYAH) → search
  44. ‘Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie Sing the Stumps Down Good’ by LaShawn M. Wanak (FIYAH) → search
  45. ‘Balloon Man’ by Shiv Ramdas (Giganotosaurus) → search
  46. ‘The Blitz of Din Barham’ by Cameron Johnston (Heroic Fantasy Quarterly) → search
  47. ‘Longing for Earth’ by Linda Nagata (Infinity’s End) → search
  48. ‘Talking to Ghosts at the Edge of the World’ by Lavie Tidhar (Infinity’s End) → search
  49. ‘Intervention’ by Kelly Robson (Infinity’s End) → search
  50. ‘Last Small Step’ by Stephen Baxter (Infinity’s End) → search
  51. ‘Death’s Door’ by Alaistar Reynolds (Infinity’s End) → search
  52. ‘The Synchronist’ by Fran Wilde (Infinity’s End) → search
  53. ‘Prophet of the Roads’ by Naomi Kritzner (Infinity’s End) → search
  54. ‘Territory: Blank’ by Aliya Whiteley (Interzone) → search
  55. ‘So Easy’ by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (Interzone) → search
  56. ‘Baleen, Baleen’ by Alexandra Renwick (Interzone) → search
  57. ‘Zen’ by Eliot Fintushel (Interzone) → search
  58. ‘Schrödinger’s’ by Julie C. Day (Interzone) → search
  59. ‘The Purpose of the Dodo is to be Extinct’ by Malcolm Devlin (Interzone) → search
  60. ‘Looking for Landau’ by Steven J. Dines (Interzone) → search
  61. ‘The Fate of the World, Reduced to a Ten-Second Pissing Contest’ by Erica L. Satifka (Interzone) → search
  62. ‘Grey Halls’ by Rachael Cupp (Interzone) → search
  63. ‘Singles’ Day’ by Samantha Murray (Interzone) → search
  64. ‘The Mark’ by Abi Hynes (Interzone) → search
  65. ‘Waterbirds’ by G V Anderson (Lightspeed) → search
  66. ‘Golubash, or, Wine-War-Blood-Elegy’ by Catherynne M. Valente (Lightspeed) → search
  67. ‘The Eyes of the Flood’ by Susan Jane Bigelow (Lightspeed) → search
  68. ‘Cosmic Spring’ by Ken Liu (Lightspeed) → search
  69. ‘When Leopard’s-Bane Came to the Door of Third Heaven’ by Vajra Chandrasekera (Liminal) → search
  70. ‘The Prisoner’ by Robert S Malan (Luna Press Publishing) → search
  71. ‘Kingfisher’ by Marian Womack (Luna Press Publishing) → search
  72. ‘Stones’ by Marian Womack (Luna Press Publishing) → search
  73. ‘The Land of Somewhere Safe’ by Hal Duncan (Newcon Press) → search
  74. ‘Crooks Landing, By Scaffold’ by G V Anderson (Nightmare) → search
  75. ‘The Advantages of Unofficial Consultation’ by Brian M. Milton (Otter Libris) → search
  76. ‘The Cut’ by Elsie Donald (Primordial) → search
  77. ‘All the Time We’ve Left to Spend’ by Alyssa Wong (Robots vs. Fairies) → search
  78. ‘Write ME’ by Emily Bowles (Shoreline of Infinity) → search
  79. ‘#NoBadVibes’ by Katy Lennon (Shoreline of Infinity) → search
  80. ‘Domestic Violence’ by Madeline Ashby (Slate) → search
  81. ‘The Gophers of High Charity’ by Kimberly Unger (Strange Fuse) → search
  82. ‘Wishes Folded into Fancy Paper’ by Kimberly Unger (Strange Fuse) → search
  83. ‘Some Personal Arguments in Support of the BetterYou (Based on Early Interactions’ by Debbie Urbanski (Strange Horizons) → search
  84. ‘Walking’ by Der Nister trans. Joseph Tomaras (Strange Horizons) → search
  85. ‘Asphalt, River, Mother, Child’ by Isabel Yap (Strange Horizons) → search
  86. ‘Obscura’ by Yoon Ha Lee (Strange Horizons) → search
  87. ‘Toothsome Things’ by Chimedum Ohaegbu (Strange Horizons) → search
  88. ‘The Athuran Interpreter’s Flight’ by Eleanna Castroianni (Strange Horizons) → search
  89. ‘The Tea Master and the Detective’ by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean/JABberwocky) → search
  90. ‘The Treatment’ by Koren Shadmi (Terraform) → search
  91. ‘Robot Story II’ by Sheaquan M. Datts (Terraform) → search
  92. ‘A Most Elegant Solution’ by M. Darusha Wehm (Terraform) → search
  93. ‘Telling Stories’ by Ruth Booth (The Dark) → search
  94. ‘Snake Season’ by Erin Roberts (The Dark) → search
  95. ‘Being an Account of The Sad Demise of The Body Horror Book Club’ by Nin Harris (The Dark) → search
  96. ‘The Built New Jerusalem on the Ruins of the Old’ by William Squirrel (The Future Fire) → search
  97. ‘Six Kilometers Around’ by Meghan Cruickshank (The Future Fire) → search
  98. ‘Ashen Wings and Lightless Skies’ by Amelia Sirina (The Future Fire) → search
  99. ‘Last Address’ by Brian Olszewski (The Future Fire) → search
  100. ‘Requiem for Kingkillers and Queenmakers’ by Andrea Tang (The Future Fire) → search
  101. ‘Little Grey Weirdos’ by Anna Ziegelhof (The Future Fire) → search
  102. ‘AI and the Trolley Problem’ by Pat Cadigan (Tor.com) → search
  103. ‘Into the Gray’ by Margaret Killjoy (Tor.com) → search
  104. ‘The Need for Air’ by Lettie Prell (Tor.com) → search
  105. ‘The Only Harmless Great Thing’ by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com) → search
  106. ‘Meat And Salt And Sparks’ by Rich Larson (Tor.com) → search
  107. ‘How to Swallow the Moon’ by Isabel Yap (Uncanny) → search
  108. ‘The Things I Miss The Most’ by Nisi Shawl (Uncanny) → search

Note: this list hasn’t been thoroughly checked or anything, so there’s a chance some things have slipped in that aren’t actually eligible (let us know if you spot any errors)! We’ll follow up soon with posts for the other three categories. We’ll also update this post every now and then as new suggestions roll in.

One last thing: Donna Scott, esteemed and most high Chair of the BSFA and general Ace-of-all-trades, is editing The Best of British SF 2018 for Newcon Press, currently open for submissions. This is a reprint anthology, and defines ‘British’ as born in the UK and/or resident in the UK.

3 thoughts on “Short Fiction in 2018

  1. The ‘trolley problem‘ is a philosophical thought experiment (and in a way, it’s also a little SF story in itself). There’s a train heading down a track where it will kill five people. You can switch the train to another track, where it will kill one person. Do you do nothing? Or pull the lever?

    It gets interesting when you start to introduce variants. What about pushing someone off a bridge onto the train track, if you knew it would save five people further down the line? What if there are five people in mortal need of organ donations — and suddenly a stranger with just the right five healthy organs inside rocks up in town? Such thought experiments are generally pretty annoying. They can be a useful way to map out our moral intuitions, and identify contradictions and biases in our moral reasoning we might not otherwise recognise.

    The trolley problem has been getting a lot more press recently. But it’s a new kind of fame: now it’s become a practical problem, a real challenge for AI programmers. How should we program AI to act in situations like these?

    At least two stories on this year’s list deal with AI and the trolley problem: Sarah Gailey’s ‘Stet‘ (Fireside) and (as you might guess) Pat Cadigan’s ‘AI and the Trolley Problem‘ (Tor.com). I read both stories as responses to the increasing role of AI in our everyday lives, but I also think they’re responses to the way SF has handled the trolley problem in the past. Actually, SF has long been in love with the trolley problem … and it’s a grisly, nasty kind of love. I’m talking about tales like E.C. Tubb’s ‘Precedent’ (1949), Tom Godwin’s ‘The Cold Equations’ (1954), Robert Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold (1964), Larry Niven’s The Ringworld Engineers (1980), and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985). These are fantasies carefully set up to celebrate difficult but supposedly necessary sacrifices. “Yeah but imagine a situation where you HAD to commit genocide,” *vigorously rubbing the tops of his thighs* “.. in order to avert WORSE genocide!” No thanks! — not least because that’s exactly how actual perpetrators of genocide generally narrate their actions. Cory Doctorow has a nice article about ‘The Cold Equations’ and Farnham’s Freehold which makes similar points.

    In very different ways, Gailey’s ‘Stet’ and Cadigan’s ‘AI and the Trolley Problem’ deliver clapbacks to this tradition…

  2. Cadigan’s story is a kind of whydunnit? or whatwillitdunnext? The AI in Cadigan’s story is a bit more your traditional science fictional AI: Felipe is like a starship’s computer, except this time the starship is a US military base set in desolate fenland somewhere in the east of England. Felipe is an entity, a subjectivity, an agent, like us but not like us. I heard him speak in the voice of Lieutenant Data from Star Trek: TNG. (Data-ed but not dated — in Cadigan’s hands, the trope of the calm, hyperrational, introspective AI mind remains an effective tool for exploring the present and future of real AI).

    On a normal day on the open road, you probably won’t encounter THAT many classic trolley problems. It’s not really something they cover in driving lessons, like parallel parking. In fact, there’s an argument that the obsession with trolley problems is a distraction from the real issue with smartcars. Machine vision will probably never be smart enough to navigate safely in today’s traffic conditions, especially in cities … so we’re likely to see a push from developers to redesign our entire city infrastructure around the technology. Does it sound too far-fetched and dystopian to imagine a law that everyone carry their phone at all times, broadcasting their location to all nearby vehicles? And if your battery dies and so do you, that’s sad but too bad.

    But Cadigan’s story says, hold on, maybe we are surrounded by trolley problems after all? Maybe we choose to construct our world out of negative sum games? What if more and more data gathering and analysis makes these relations more and more visible? The true ‘cold equations’ are probably nothing like the fantasies of Godwin and Card. Markets, corporations, and governments can all be likened to AI programs, and we know how they’re programmed: to relentlessly sacrifice the many vulnerable for the few privileged. Felipe’s refusal of their logic kind of reminds me of the elegantly straightforward ethics of the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. Often our ethical conundrums aren’t really as complicated as we make them out to be … we know what the right answer is, and we overstate the complexity to hide our self-interested actions.

    ‘”Felipe . . .” Helen sighed. “Felipe, you must not kill our people. People on our side. People who are fighting to—” She was about to say make the world a safe place, but it sounded lame even just in her head. What, then? Fighting to prevent an enemy from attacking us? Fighting to rid the world of terrorism? Fighting to defend people who can’t defend themselves? Fighting to free the enslaved and the downtrodden?’

    Spoilers: OK, personally I felt ‘AI and the Trolley Problem’ wound up satisfyingly, but some folk in the comments disagree. I guess this is a story which turns on two reveals — the reason Felippe destroyed the ground control station, and the reason Felippe isn’t talking to anyone. Maybe Cadigan could have been a BIT more heavy-handed about pretending that they were connected … having everyone running around working like they’re living in the early days of Skynet? Then when they aren’t connected, that might feel like more of a twist in its own right. Even better if the reader could be persuaded to have almost forgotten about the Cora incident by the time it becomes relevant again — but maybe that’s asking the impossible. Overall, I felt it was timely and slick. The setting was great: a cosy yet chilly atmosphere evoked with economy, mainly through the actions and relationships of the characters. More SF should be set in US military bases. There are enough to choose from: something like 600 outside the US, across 70ish countries. (Those we know about).

  3. If you didn’t already know what stet meant, you’d probably gather its meaning by the end of ‘Stet’: disregard a change proposed by the editor. It’s a Latin word that means “Allow it” or “Let it stand.” Compared with Cadigan’s story, Gailey’s ‘Stet’ is more directly informed by contemporary AI research, especially machine learning. This kind of AI research isn’t so interested in replicating minds: it’s more like the offspring of computer science and statistics, crunching huge data sets to find useful patterns that humans would never be able to see for ourselves. Our inability to see them, in fact, proves to be a big problem. This algorithmic ‘reasoning’ is opaque, unintuitive, and not something we can interact with though a philosophical dialogue, however strange or uncanny.

    Is there a word for a story like this, that purports to be a document or documents? — in this case, the draft textbook entry with a copyeditor’s comments and the author’s responses? Apparently ‘epistolary fiction’ is supposed to cover all this kind of stuff, but with writers telling stories in wiki talk pages or Kickstarter pages, the inkpot-and-quill vibe of ‘epistolary’ doesn’t feel quite right. Not sure about ‘scrapbook story’ either. (Then again ‘digital’ comes from counting on your fingers and toes, so maybe I just need to give the vibe time to change).

    ‘Stet’ is a story about resistance and about saying no; it’s about solitude and loss. The voice is wrought in grief and venom, although there is somehow also bleak humour here as well, both in the bumbling inadequacy and emotional awkwardness of the editor who tries to contain Anna, and a few other touches (I bet Elon Musk DOES call his autobiography Driven. Driven: What Makes The Muskrat Guard His Musk). I even wondered if the ‘woodpecker’ thing might be some sort of weird ‘got wood’ porno pun, since people don’t really spend all their days gazing at rare woodpeckers online, but they do look at lots of stiff dicks … I’m definitely reading too much into it. Maybe the woodpecker just had an unlikely viral friendship with a piglet. With its mixture of erudition and boiling-but-controlled personal witnessing, ‘Stet’ has the energy of a virtuoso Twitter thread (maybe the kind that ejects interjecting mansplainers with enough kinetic energy to reach escape velocity. No more trolly problem).

    Introducing any automated process, but perhaps machine learning in particular, into decision-making can create serious ripples in the way responsibility and accountability work. Anna is desperate to find responsibility, and maybe a semblance of justice, in a system which thoroughly disperses and confuses it. She even makes the intriguing provocation that we are responsible for the unintended outcomes of the data we generate. After all, who else is there to be responsible? Our machines don’t just hold up a mirror to our nature, so that we can trace in fine detail what we attend to, what we care about: the image can now step out of the mirror and start to act in the world alongside us.

    “Per Foote, the neural network training for cultural understanding of identity is collected via social media, keystroke analysis, and pupillary response to images. They’re watching to see what’s important to you. You are responsible.”

    The idea has a kind of appealing theological relentlessness to it.

    But it also makes me think there is special providence in the fall of a woodpecker. Even if he can’t wonder what is past the clouds. Could cherishing an endangered woodpecker be part of a necessary ecological consciousness which ultimately ameliorates suffering and averts death on a massive scale? But I wouldn’t and shouldn’t suggest such a thing to Anna, or write a smug short story where the equations are carefully calibrated to produce that result. And anyway, am I just overstating the complexity of this moral question?

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