Short stories hold a special place in the modern history of science fiction and fantasy—from the Golden Age, when sci-fi and fantasy magazines gave birth to legendary careers, to today, when they’ve proliferated across digital media, introducing us to up-and-coming talent and revealing new facets of established writers we love. Here are our favorite science fiction and fantasy collections (the work of a single author) and anthologies (collecting work by multiple authors) released in 2016.
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu
Earlier this year, we were thoroughly impressed by Liu’s collection of short stories, which use a variety of styles and viewpoints to explore rituals, culture, and empathy for other beings. But while Liu’s command of style is reason enough to read Menagerie, he also fills each tale with striking images—souls stored in a variety of objects, the eponymous menagerie who serve as toy companions to a young boy, a recurring theme of a Go board—and swells of genuine emotion, giving each a very human core. With Liu’s novel-length work gaining more and more attention, there’s no better (or faster) way to sample his unique style and vision.
Standout stories: “State Change,” “The Paper Menagerie”
Slipping: Stories, Essays, and Other Writing, by Lauren Beukes
In two lean, lethal sci-fi novels and two murderous, fantasy-tinged mainstream thrillers, Lauren Beukes has become one of the most exciting voices in genre writing to emerge over the last decade. Now, she’s released her first collection of short fiction, she brings the same verve for black humor, sharp satire, and mind-altering tech to stories of living artwork attacking Tokyo, corporate raids on other worlds, tears that mysteriously fall upward, and near-future marketing schemes in which brand loyalty becomes entirely literal.
Standout stories: “Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs,” “Ghost Girl”
A Natural History of Hell, by Jeffrey Ford
Jeffrey Ford is probably writing your dreams. It’s the best way to describe his surreal style, which frequently relies on an internal structure and logic to convey images that teeter between odd fantasy and unsettling horror, while remaining impossibly grounded in a tangible reality. A Natural History of Hell (out in July) goes to some odd places, with genre-bending stories about artists trapped on a rocket ship, imaginary serial murderers, and God being torn apart by an angry mob, but it leaves plenty of room for beauty, however dark. It also contains one of my personal favorite stories from last year, “Word Doll,” in which children are lured into a world of make-believe. If you’re looking for something you haven’t seen before, look no further than these 13 stories.
Standout stories: “A Rocket Ship to Hell,” “The Blameless”
Hardcover $21.60 | $24.00
The People in the Castle, by Joan Aiken
Renowned fabulist and children’s author Joan Aiken had a long and prolific career, and it’s easy to see why her career endured across decades. Her stories have a timeless feel, whether screwball romantic comedies about ghosts, or tales of confounded faerie royalty. If you’re an Aiken neophyte, this offers an amazing starting point, with stories running the gamut of fantasy, horror, comic fantasy, reimagined fairy tales, and legends. If you’ve experienced Aiken before, this is a selection of her best work. Either way, The People in the Castle is a great example of why her stories still hold up.
Standout stories: “Sonata for Harp and Bicycle” “Some Music for the Wicked Countess”
Dreams of Distant Shores, by Patricia A. McKillip
Patricia McKillip writing style ranks with the most beautiful and lyrical in fantasy or elsewhere. In her long and celebrated career as a fantasist, she has written some of classics of the genre—The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, The Riddle Master series, and Ombria in Shadow. This recent collection records some of her best shorter work, including stories about an artist and his peculiar muse, an odd storytelling session during a massive storm, haunted houses, and mermaids. McKillip excels at layering sensory details into her work, but beyond that, her prose is just gorgeous to behold, with each word embellishing an ever richer tapestry before your eyes. Even if you’re a long-time fan, Dreams of Distant Shores delves into never-before-seen territory; it’s a chance to rediscover the work of a master, all over again.
Standout Stories: “Weird,” “Something Rich and Strange”
Not So Much, Said the Cat, by Michael Swanwick
Living SFF legend Michael Swanwick has won just about every award in the genres, including five Hugos, for his novels and short stories. This new collection brings together 17 tales, originally published between 2008 and 2014, and four exclusive to this book, that prove he still has what it takes to enrapture readers with his lyrical prose, off-beat humor, and wild ideas, from a tale of time travelers to prehistoric times who seem less than interested in studying the dinosaurs, to a story of a Matrix-like future in which artificial minds battle for dominance while humans are kept sedated and happy in fairy tale worlds, an story of humans and aliens living together with a most unusual narrator—the A.I. living inside of a dead woman’s spacesuit. Also here: Darger and Surplus, a conman and his talking dog companion, anti-heroes of many of Swanwick’s stories and novels.
Standout stories: “Steadfast Castle,” “The Woman Who Shook the World-Tree”
Hardcover $22.50 | $25.00
Sharp Ends, by Joe Abercrombie
Though all the stories in this collection are set in the world of Abercrombie’s grim, gritty, and celebrated fantasy series The First Law, they offer much to recommend even if you’ve never before encountered his bloody bands of barbarians before. With prose as sharp as an axe blade, Abercrombie’s stories are uncompromisingly dark, but far from mere exploitation. Instead, they through richly defined and deeply flawed characters, they revel in the undeniably bloody truth of humanity as motivated by self-interest and survival—and celebrate that, even so, heroes walk the earth.
Standout stories: “A Beautiful Bastard,” “The Fool Jobs”
Arcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection, by Brandon Sanderson
Much more than fan service for readers of his expansive epic fantasies, this collection of short fiction serves to underline the connections between all of the worlds Brandon Sanderson has created, ordering them into a single, unified universe. Along the way, favorite figures from his novels make appearances, including a minor character who might not be so minor after all. These tales aren’t sure belabored exercises in world-building, mind you; they’re rich in action and character, and purposeful in the way they balance the use of magic from story to story. Sanderson has long been considered the gold standard of world-building, and this collection brings that skill to the forefront, revealing unifying elements that will surprise even die-hard fans of his work. It’s a great primer, especially considering we’ll be seeing the Cosmere on the big screen sooner rather than later.
Standout stories: “The Emperor’s Soul,” “The Hope of Elantris”
Just Over the Horizon: The Complete Short Fiction of Greg Bear, Vol. 1, by Greg Bear
One of the most-lauded sci-fi authors of his generation (one of the fabled “Three Bs” of the 1980s, alongside Gregory Benford and David Brin), Greg Bear has been churning out award-worthy novels and short fiction for decades. This week, Open Road Media has assembled the latter in the three-volume collection The Complete Short Fiction of Greg Bear. From the same-titled story that inspired the terrifying tech apocalypse in his novel Blood Music, to a disturbing tale of mucking about in parallel worlds (“Tangents”), this books—and the companion collections, Far Thoughts and Pale Gods and Beyond the Farthest Suns—are a must for the short SF aficionado.
Standout stories: “Dead Run,” “Silicon Times E-Book Review”
Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens, by Eleanor Arnason
Collected for the first time, these stories are a few decades old at this point, but no less powerful or imaginative for it. Ostensibly taken from the stories of an alien race known as the Hwarhath (people), the only other intelligent species encountered by humanity, and translated for our consumption, these anthropological tales explore different aspects of a fictional culture in fascinating ways, from their creation myths to their attitudes about sex and love. Legendary editor Gardner Dozois called these “some of the best stories published by anybody during the last two decades,” and we tend to agree.
The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer
Whether you’re a life-long fan of science fiction or layperson diving deep into a new genre, this incredible anthology offers a comprehensive genre education between two covers. In more than 1,000 pages and upwards of 100 stories, the VanderMeers have compiled a truly representative history of SF from its early beginnings to its myriad modern incarnations. They offer up examples of how the genre has dealt with issues from racism, to sexism, to every “ism” in-between. Almost a third of the stories are translated, offering a glimpse of the genre at a remove from the smothering effect of the English-language market. Even if you put aside any pretension of studying genre history, this is an unparalleled achievement, and undoubtedly one of the most important books you’ll buy this year.
The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, edited by Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien (October 18, Saga Press—Hardcover)
Fairy tales are, in many ways, the lingua franca that every culture shares—and as such, they serve as fundamental building blocks for all the stories that stories that follow them. In this remarkable collection, writers from around the world use classic fairy tales—drawn from a wide swath of cultural traditions—and retell them with their own personal flair. The result is an incredible array of stories that transform these fundamental tales into modern powerhouses of surprise, excitement, and social commentary. The table of contents, featuring names like Genevieve Valentine, Sofia Samatar, Catherynne Valente, Amal El-Mohtar, and Naomi Nivik, is reason enough to add it to your list; their stories are predictably magical.
Mash Up, edited by Gardner Dozois
A few years ago, a group of authors got together to record an audiobook collection called Rip-Off!. The idea was simple: take the first line of a famous work, and use it as a jumping-off point for an original science fiction story. The results are now being released in printed format as Mash Up, allowing those who might have missed it to experience the insanity firsthand. While the gimmick offers a quirky genesis for a story idea, the resulting stories transcend novelty through their sheer originality and range, from a conspiracy thriller using the first line of Edward II, to a story about an aging astronaut that shares a first line with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The list of contributing authors reads like a “who’s who” of SF talent, including Elizabeth Bear, Nancy Kress, John Scalzi, Mary Robinette Kowal, Tad Williams, Lavie Tidhar, and many others.
Standout stories: “The Big Whale,” “Lady Astronaut of Mars”
Unfettered II, edited by Shawn Speakman
This sequel to the astonishing Unfettered, the anthology Speakman released in 2013 as a way to help him raise money to fight the cancer that was attacking his body, again provided its contributing authors only one rule: they could contribute any sort of fantasy story they wished, with no rules or format to follow. The result is as fascinating and freewheeling as fantasy itself, featuring contributions from well-known authors and newcomers alike, including Brandon Sanderson, Bradley P. Beaulieu, Sarah Beth Durst, Anthony Ryan, Michael J. Sullivan, Janny Wurts, Rachel Caine, and many more, all of who donated their work; all proceeds from the sale of this volume will be donated to authors facing medical debt or cancer research facilities fighting for a cure. The book is dedicated to the memory of Speakman’s mother, who passed away from stomach cancer this year.
Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, by Ken Liu
In the year since Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem picked up the Hugo Award for Best Novel, English-speaking readers have enjoyed an influx of SF-in-translation from China. Translator/editor Ken Liu (who has translated two of Cixin Liu’s novels) delivers perhaps the most essential volume yet: a collection of 13 science fiction stories by Chinese writers, along with three perceptive, instructive essays about the significance of SF within Chinese culture. The stories range from award-winning previously translated pieces to Liu’s personal favorites, including recent Hugo winner “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang. In short, these are some of the best stories from a culture many readers will find unfamiliar—and the unfamiliar is what SF is all about.
Paperback $13.46 | $14.95
The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016, edited by Karen Joy Fowler and John Joseph Adams
We could name any number of Year’s Best collections to this list, but after two editions, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy has become a standout. The initial entry was a huge success, and 2016 editor Karen Joy Fowler (author of the SFnal novels Sarah Canary and Nebula nominee We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves) brings a unique, refreshing perspective to this curated collection of the year’s best sci-fi and fantasy short stories. Salman Rushdie, Charlie Jane Anders, Kelly Link, and Dexter Palmer lead a strong field of contributors who offer up some of modern genre’s best writing and most intriguing ideas.
Iraq +100, edited by Hassan Blasim
One of the year’s most important speculative anthologies is also a venue for voices that most Westerners have likely never encountered before. The stories here each envision Iraq in the next century, 100 years after a U.S./British-led invasion that totally reshaped the course of a nation’s future, for good or ill. Blending the realistic with the fantastic, prognostication with outright science fiction, from time travel to angelic visitations, these tales offer a powerful consideration of the weight of conflict across time, and illustrate the universal power of genre to comment on the present.
People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction, edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Kristine Ong Muslim
Not a traditional anthology, but with the page count to more than justify its inclusion here, this special issue of Lightspeed Magazine, guest edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Kristine Ong Muslin, features stories and editorial contributions exclusively by those voices often underrepresented in genre publications. The intent is not to check a politically correct box, but to reveal the true breadth of science fiction to incorporate ideas born out of a multitude of cultural experiences and identities. This year also saw similar collections of horror and fantasy.
Nightmares, edited by Ellen Datlow
Culled from a decade’s worth of dark and disquieting fiction, Ellen Datlow’s followup to her essential collection Darkness offers another helping of terrifying short reads, spanning black comedy, Lynchian fever dreams, absurdism, gothic fiction, and more besides. Datlow assembles a host of horror’s heaviest hitters for Nightmares, and the collection finds them at their best, spinning tales of outsider art, murderous writers, vengeful fairies, and deadly urban legends. The result is a perfect roadmap for where to start getting into dark fiction, with entries to suit just about any taste.
Cyber World: Tales of Humanity’s Tomorrow, edited by Jason Heller and Joshua Viola
This collection of near-future tales explores how reasonably plausible technological change will alter society, from omnipresent government survillence, to attempts to copyright human biology, at the rise of artificial intelligence, benign and otherwise. Neither uniformly utopian nor as grim as the cyberpunk sheen of the cover might suggest, these stories show us the future, with all its human imperfections intact. Contributors include Isabel Yap, Nisi Shawl, Cat Rambo, Paolo Bacigalupi, Madeline Ashby, Saladin Ahmed, Chinelo Onwualu, Sarah Pinsker, Alyssa Wong, and more.
What The #@&% Is That? edited by John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen
A collection of stories named for a Mike Mignola drawing that got captioned and passed around the internet, What The… finds some of the best in horror, science fiction, and fantasy all trying to outdo each other for WTFery. In this hallucinatory volume, you will find haunted hotels, mad science, a million year-long vengeance enacted by something beyond human understanding, and other dark delights, each one calculated to make you speak the title aloud. But beyond that, you’ll find old and new favorites trying to break new and bizarre ground here, making it an incredibly enjoyable read from the dedication page (“For Cthulhu…”) on.
What’s your favorite short story collection of all time?