Welcome to Smugglivus 2016! Throughout this month, we will have guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2016, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2017, and more.
Short fiction is at its best when it surprises you. By refusing to use endemic genre conventions in order to show something new or questioning our most basic assumptions about what storytelling is, I feel that these stories do just that.
Some of the best fiction I read this year recontextualizes the Black Lives Matter movement. In “u wont remember dying” by Russell Nichols, the government “resolves” extrajudicial executions of African-Americans by making black bodies literally disposable, which horrifically illustrates the logic of power. Epistolary stories like Nichols’ are always intimate, and the text-messaging format disarms and resensitizes us:
mom sed its gods will but idk that dont make sense 2 me but im scared 4 u bruh
straight up all that pressure u gonna feel
2 make ur life matter
2 show u deserve a 2nd chance
2 prove u alive for a reason
Tochi Onyebuchi’s “Screamers” anthropomorphizes racial trauma as horrors, dealing with the conflicts of people that white supremacy selects to act as middlemen. “The Red Thread” by Sofia Samatar is more hopeful — “standing your ground was the old way, not the new” — treating apocalypse not as an end unto itself, but as renewal.
This hope in transformation is also one of the recurrent themes found in Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, not just between ways of life but between technology and magic; despite what we call it, despite how “real” we consider it across culture and time, magic never truly leaves us. About half my favorite stories that I read this year are found in this collection, most thought-provoking in the way it explores how language, thought, society, and storytelling shape each other and are shaped by each other.
Portal fantasies tend to focus on world-saving or similar deeds, rather than on the more banal aspects of economic survival. However, in Sarah Tolmie’s “The Dancer on the Stairs,” the protagonist faces mundane dangers like going hungry and being socially isolated. That society’s bizarre and arbitrary intricacies highlight how bizarre and arbitrary our world’s are, as well as how much we have to integrate those intricacies for our mere survival. Meanwhile Ethan Robinson’s near-future “One Way Out” employs similar themes, with a main character who is tragically no longer capable of such performances, on one level. On another, it’s metafiction, a story that interrogates narrative itself and questions not only whether we are all unreliable narrators, but also which — and whose — stories we have the right to tell.