The Best SHORT Science Fiction & Fantasy of 2016

Saturday , 11, March 2017 17 Comments

Novels get the glory. Movies get the eyeballs. Television gets the binge-watching. And video games are probably bigger than all three put together! But for my money… short fiction really is where the action is.

That really is the most striking things about how times have changed since the seventies. Tabletop games of the period are practically built out of bits and pieces taken from short works: Vancian magic, alignment, displacer beasts, great old ones, cyber-tanks– the list goes on and on! When people sat down to throw dice and pretend to be fantasy and science fiction heroes, short fiction was the primary driver in how they understood the genres to really work.

Even at that late date, science fiction and fantasy were not divorced into their own arbitrary and hermetically sealed genre bins. With their brains filled to the brim with pulp and New Wave fiction, gamers of the period seemed to reflexively mash countless stories together to forge hilariously awesome “anything goes” kitchen sink universes.

I think people have had enough of getting burned by authors like Donaldson, Brin, Jordan, and Martin. People are tired of authors not bothering to finish their epics before they die. They’re sick of the bloat. The cruft. The padding. Doorstopper novels that go on and on and on only to end on a cliffhanger for the next unsatisfying installment. Oh, there’s a market for this stuff, sure. But there’s also an alternative.

People don’t have to choose from a handful of big time authors serving up the same old same old anymore. They can sample all kinds of different stories in all kinds of different styles from all kinds of different authors. They can quickly find new stuff to like that they didn’t even know they would like!

Short fiction rocks. And with gatekeepers finding themselves with significantly less influence and control, we’re set to see a market correction that will create a return to the kind of vibrancy and diversity that fantasy and science fiction could take for granted in the twenties and thirties.

These are the authors that are making it happen. And these are the stories they’re doing it with.

Here’s my list of the best works of 2016:

  • “Athan and the Princess” by Schuyler Hernstrom (review here)
  • “A Hill of Stars” by Misha Burnett
  • “In The Days of the Witch Queens” by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt (review here)
  • “The King’s Dragon” by Jon Mollison (review here)
  • “Only a Signal Shown” by L.E. Buis (review here)
  • “The Product” by Marina Fontaine (review here)
  • “The Spaces Between” by Pete Rawlik (review here)

If you don’t see your favorite there, please mention it in the comments…!

17 Comments
  • Cambias says:

    There’s a head-shaking conversation SF writers often have about short vs. long-form fiction. We hear readers complain that they don’t have time to read (and short fiction magazine sales continue to slump) — but the best-selling novels are umpty-volume series of big thick books!

    • Jeffro says:

      The flagship fiction magazines and anthologies are godawful. Of course no one reads short fiction right now!!!

      The conventional wisdom of working authors today– ie, “don’t bother with short fiction it’s not worth the effort”– is predicated on the assumption that today’s editorial gatekeepers are a permanent feature of the greater sff scene. They are not.

      If big time IMPORTANT authors that write for a living are too busy to set things right in this particular sphere, then it will be enthusiastic and prolific amateurs that step in to do the job. Either way, it’s happening.

      • Cambias says:

        If an “amateur” steps up and does the job — writing stories that readers enjoy — then he becomes a “working author” and a pro by definition. Come over to the Dark Side, we have . . . well, free coffee in the convention Green Room. And maybe some cookies.

      • Jay Barnson says:

        The problem right now is more of an economic chicken-or-the-egg issue. The market’s not there yet (and may never be there again), but it can’t possibly be there until the right kinds of authors are willing to take a pay cut and write the right kinds of stories for … a long time.

        Even a somewhat popular indie-published author who releases an anthology will see only half (at best) the sales of the anthology as they will with a novel. They write the short stories *because*. Because they need a break between novels. Because they have an idea they want to play with but don’t want to commit to a novel. Because a friend asked them to contribute to an anthology. So they do it even though it won’t make any real money. They’d be far better served spending that wordcount on a novel… but they do it anyway. And I’m glad they do.

        And elsewhere… the “pro rate” payments for short stories – the very exclusive markets that pay that much – when you adjust for inflation, are only paying what pulp rates were in the 1940s (which comes out to around $0.10 a word today).

        And on the other side… the readers. Why do people seem *less* likely to read a short story these days than a novel? If I were to hazard a guess… more my own gut feeling theory than any research… the problem today is that too much fiction seems hard and intimidating. You have to work for your entertainment (unlike most mobile games or TV shows). After you have taken the work to really invest in the characters and world-building, THEN you get the payoff from the story. And nowadays, it’s all in trilogies and series, so you get to keep getting payoff for that initial investment.

        Short stories (all the way up to novelette length) are done before most books are done with those challenging first chapters where the reader is still trying to understand what’s going on. So… from the perspective of a “casual” reader, the feeling may be that the payoff never happens… by the time a short story is finally “getting good” it’s over and that’s the end of everything. (And yeah, I’ve read too many short stories like that… I’m still waiting for the story to “get good” when it ends, wondering what happened to the rest of the story…)

        In the pulp era, far healthier of a short story market than today, I think that was less of a problem. Those stories seem (to me) to be far easier to get into. Pulp-era (or modern pulp-style) fiction intended to be one-time blind date. Although to make things easier, they often had stories with repeat worlds and characters. But yeah–you just show up to party on Mars or Aquilonia, have a good time from the first minute, and go home happy later that night. Modern-era fiction feels like it demands a steady relationship first.

        • TPC says:

          Indie novellas are starting to see a brisk market even in sff (sci-fi and fantasy).

          20k-30k is a length that many readers feel is enough that they “did something” reading it, but not so long it feels like binging to finish.

          I wouldn’t count the middle lengths out just yet, the seeds of revival are there.

          • Jay Barnson says:

            That’s good to hear. A few years ago, novellas would get slammed for… well, for pretty much not being full novels.

            Things are definitely changing, so there’s hope for a much more exciting SFF landscape when the dust clears.

          • deuce says:

            We can always hope! Good comments, Jay.

  • Anthony says:

    “God, Robot”! All of those stories.

  • Anthony says:

    I didn’t realize you had reviewed L.E. Buis. Her story in “Tales of the Once and Future King” is one of my favorites.

    • Jeffro says:

      Lela’s cool. I’ve heard a lot of defenses of Campbellian science fiction the past few weeks. I have not heard ANYONE raving over any stories as good as hers. Hard sf fans: do better!!!!

      • Anthony says:

        I think you’ll find her story in “Tales” interesting. It’s straightforward fantasy, but she pulls off an interesting trick in the dialogue and narration that I think makes the whole thing really fascinating.

  • Mike says:

    “But for my money… short fiction really is where the action is.”

    Here, here! To quote Ambrose Bierce, a novel is nothing but a padded short story.

  • D.M. Ritzlin says:

    “Images of the Goddess” by Schuyler Hernstrom
    “…Where There is No Sanctuary” by Howie K. Bentley
    “Into the Dawn of Storms” by Byron A. Roberts

  • Jon Mollison says:

    My suspicion is that doorstoppers are largely an artifact of the minimum price point for physical works. The cost of materials, advertising, cover art, etc. are all fixed costs and represent a cost floor for the publishers. The cost per page for writing/editing pales in comparison to those. So publishers are trapped into offering thick books.

    They are handcuffed into offering an extra 400 pages of words in order to justify the cover price, to the detriment of the market.

    The self-publishers can writer stories that are as long as they need to be and no longer, because their price-floor constraints aren’t so iron-clad. Which is another positive thing to come out of the digital revolution.

    • Nathan says:

      Looking at some of the columns in the 1980s, the longer books were more profitable for the publishers. It made more sense to publish an 80k novel at a higher price point than a 60k, and later, a 100k novel was more profitable than an 80k novel. This then trained readers to expect and demand longer works. This expectation extends to fan and free original fiction, where stories shorter than a novel don’t get the looks that a book of endless pages does.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter (Wright) says:

    Longer books were profitable..until some point fifteen or twenty years ago, when the big bookstores stopped offering shelfspace to any big books that didn’t sell significantly more than a shorter book.

    Then, suddenly, the big house publishers reversed course, and books got a bit smaller.

    But whether the stories are good at a certain length depends on the author… different authors write well at different lengths.

    Also, you may notice that most of the earlier books are shorter than modern books. This is because of a change in storytelling style.

    Most modern books act out the majority of scenes with full dialogue. Earlier books, before the 70s or 80s told much of their story and “showed” less.

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