Some terrific short-stories of 2016

You do something two or three times, suddenly it’s a tradition. Here now is a non-exhaustive list of stories I loved in 2016. I may add to it in the coming weeks.

“Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0,” by Caroline Yoachim: Is this a funny sci-fi choose-your-own adventure, or a maddening documentary about our health system? ¿Porqué no los dos? Read this and laugh through your tears! Caroline is a regular in my year-end faves lists.

“The First Confirmed Case of Non-Corporeal Recursion: Patient Anita R.,” by Benjamin C. Kinney: The premise of this one is immediately engaging. It’s a ghost story, but it’s a science story. Figuring out the rules was a compelling puzzle. The characters have heart, and the ending left me smiling.

“Left Behind,” by Cat Rambo: Don’t worry, this isn’t some end-of-days rapture story. This story checks off a lot of elements that push my personal buttons–it’s an emotional story about aging, how we treat people when they become old enough to depend on us, and it features uploaded consciousnesses and virtual worlds, which are among my favorite spec tropes to read about.

“Four Haunted Houses,” by Adam-Troy Castro: I don’t consume very much horror. I generally don’t like horror movies and actively detest gore and jump scares. Lately, though, I’ve started to read a little bit of short horror fiction as I start to grasp that the literary genre of horror fiction is a very different thing from the film genre. This story is a perfect case in point. I love how this story begins breezily, self-aware, almost tongue-in-cheek, and lures the reader in, and I love how the actual horror at the end is rooted in real-world emotional trauma, how the story seems to say, Why are you afraid of these silly things, when the real scary things are the ones you allow into your life without even being conscious of it.

“When You Work for the Old Ones,” by Sandra McDonald: I seem to be developing a taste for horror stories as my years advance–or maybe it’s that the world is becoming so horrifying. In any case, I really enjoyed this creepy short. Like “Four Haunted Houses,” it starts off more amusing than horrifying, before taking a rather chilling turn, and I couldn’t help wondering if “working for the old ones” was a metaphor for being a freelance fiction writer. This story is a great example of what you can do in a very small space.

“Of Sight, of Mind, of Heart,” by Samantha Murray: If you know me, you know I love the stories that punch you in the gut. This story gave me all the parental feels. My daughters are about to finish high school this year and move on to whatever comes next, and I get emotional just thinking about graduation. This story encapsulated that journey into just a couple thousand words, against the backdrop of an interstellar war.

“Every Day Is the Full Moon,” by Carlie St. George: At first I read the mentions of werewolves, oracles, etc to be magic realism, which I love. Gradually it became clear that this was more straight fantasy in a contemporary setting, but with the fantasy elements still being used to illuminate the characters–the werewolf who is also just an asshole, the Valkyrie who can’t stand up to the asshole, the oracle who doesn’t see what’s coming for her, the girl with suicidal ideation who turns out to be . . . well that would just spoil things. The characters here felt real and I ached for them and loved them and wanted them to muddle their way through. I found this story unflinching but ultimately hopeful.

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My 2016 Award Eligibility Post

I was going to pass on doing an award eligibility post this year, though I’ve had several publications I am very proud of. I felt like all the information on my publications was already available elsewhere on this site, so I just wrote a facebook post pointing readers toward my favorite of my stories this year. But then it was beaten into pointed out to me that people who were unlikely to see my facebook post and who were unlikely to go digging through my bibliography were much more willing to follow a link to a post such as this one, so here we are.

These are the stories of mine that are eligible for awards for 2016. I would not want to receive an award on the basis of anything other than people’s genuine love of a story I wrote, so please don’t think of this as me asking for nominations or votes. If you are nominating for short fiction awards or are voting for short fiction awards, please nominate and vote for the best stories you have read. But if you haven’t read any of my stories, I would like to at least be in your consideration.

“Life in Stone Glass and Plastic,” published in Strange Horizons in June. This is my favorite of my stories. It’s gotten nice reviews from the various websites that report on the short fiction scene, and was even the subject of a lengthy discussion on the Literary Roadhouse podcast. It’s a story about the power and purpose of art, and about love and loss and aging. If you like stories with a hint of magic and a lot of emotion, then you might like this one.

“The Curse of Giants,” published in Daily Science Fiction in March. This is my most popular stories; it’s the first story for which I ever received “fan mail.” It’s a very short piece with a lot of punch, so if you prefer to read something flash length, this might be the story for you.  This is a story where the spec element is left ambiguous in meaning, which doesn’t appeal to some readers but does appeal to me. It’s also the story of mine which I think is most poetic in craft. Content warning: child abuse.

“Spirit of Home,” published in Terraform in June. This is a very personal little story using the popular trope of colonizing Mars as a metaphor for my own complicated relationship with Cuba. If you are particularly seeking out #ownvoices stories dealing with issues of ethnicity—like, say, if you’re reading for the Carl Brandon Society Awards—then this one might be up your alley.

“The Vampire’s Stepdaughter,” published in September in Fantastic Stories. This is my most approachable story if you like more traditional spec-fic. Vampires! That said, this story pleased me for other reasons. This is the first story I’ve succeeded in selling with QUILTBAG characters. It also deals—obliquely—with childhood sexual abuse, which is a topic that has touched my life, and which I have struggled to write about with any subtlety.

“Of Unions, Intersections, and Empty Sets,” published in Fantastic Stories in July. This is a short little story wrestling with questions of intentionality and free will. It’s a very quiet story. I’m proud of the fact that it has a story arc which is entirely one person’s internal emotional journey—virtually nothing “happens,” but there’s still an emotional arc. This story also marks the first time I’ve played with mathematics—the field in which I spend my days—in a story.

If you do choose to read any of my stories, I thank you. If none of them are your cup of tea, then I hope maybe next year or the one after that I will write something that appeals to you more.

Be well. 🙂

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New Publication: The Vampire’s Stepdaughter (also, my first reprint!)

My new story “The Vampire’s Stepdaughter” is live today at Fantastic Stories of the Imagination. Check out this cool artwork they put together for it!

vampire-tocSo anyway, I hope you’ll give it a read and let me know what you think. You can find the story here!

Also this week, my very first reprint went up. My story, “Cupid and Psyche at the Caffé Sol y Mar,” originally published in Spring 2015 at Fireside Fiction, is in the inaugural issue of Spirit’s Tincture magazine. You can grab a copy here!

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In-Depth Discussion of “Life in Stone, Glass, and Plastic”

The folks over at Literary Roadhouse did an entire podcast on my Strange Horizons story from last June. It’s nearly an hour of about the most in-depth discussion one of my stories has ever gotten. 🙂

I stumbled across it over the weekend and just about had a heart-attack. I was all like, Nah, they’re not seriously going to . . . oh my god they’re really going to! And then I was sure they were going to just trash the story, because . . . well, just because, I guess. But really they were thoughtful and very gratifying. I’ve talked before about how all I really want to know as an author is that somebody is out there reading and caring and receiving what my heart is sending out. So this was about the best surprise I could get.

Anyway, you can find the podcast here on their website. Or you could experience it the way I experienced it–watching the discussion on YouTube!

Of course, if you haven’t already read the story, the conversation won’t mean much to you. Luckily, you can rectify that right here! 😉

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New pub day!

Pleeeeeease read my story, he begged!The new issue of Fantastic Stories is now available for non-subscribers, and it contains my story, “Of Unions, Intersections, and Empty Sets.” This story was inspired by my friend Pete, who kept giving me grief saying I should write a story with math in it, since I’m allegedly knowledgeable about the subject. As I said then—and as I still believe—I know enough to know how much I DON’T know. Somebody who knows less than me would be happy to use a lot more handwavium, but I’m super conscious of the possibility of being called out for my BS, and of being embarrassed by it. So in this story, the math is all off-stage, but still, it’s at least “math-adjacent.” *grin*

As usual, Fantastic Stories made an absurdly cool cover image to go along with the story. I love the pics they put together!

This issue also contains stories by Caroline M. Yoachim, Sunil Patel, and Beth Davis Cato, all of whom I am a big fan of. I can’t wait to read the other stories!

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So let’s talk about teacher unions

As the Republican National Convention lurches on, teachers are once again under attack as one of the Republican party’s favorite whipping boys. In his speech Tuesday night, Donald Trump Jr. claimed that schools are currently set up to serve teachers and administrators, not students. He went on to say that Democrats “are more concerned about protecting the jobs of tenured teachers than serving the students in desperate need of a good education.”

This is a familiar talking point: the problem with education is that it is too hard to get rid of bad teachers, and so Johnny doesn’t learn because he has some lazy slob at the front of the room who won’t teach him. Why is it so hard to get rid of bad teachers? Well, teachers’ unions, naturally.

Except there’s an obvious hole in that logic.

The following is basically back-of-napkin calculation. It’s not intended to be a comprehensive study, just something I threw together in a few minutes of internet research.

In the table below are the 50 states ranked in order from best K-12 ranking to worst. I got the rankings from Quality Counts’s 2016 rankings, as reported in EdWeek. Don’t like that source? Feel free to substitute your own—from an organization without an obvious axe to grind, ideally—and see if the results are very different. This list is reasonably consistent with what I’ve always heard about which states provide the best and worst education in the country.

State K12 rankings 2016

As you can see, I highlighted some of the states—specifically, the states listed in orange are “Right-to-Work” states. These are the 26 states that have passed laws weakening unions. If the Republican talking point is correct, if unions are the biggest problem with education today, you’d expect the states with strong unions to be at the bottom of the list, and the states with Right-to-Work laws to be at the top.

That correlation is pretty plainly not there. In fact, if anything there is a slight indication that the opposite correlation is there. Nine of the top thirteen states are not Right-to-Work states, while ten of the bottom thirteen states are.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this is evidence that strong teacher unions make schools better. Many of the higher-ranked states are also wealthier states. There are likely to be other confounding factors as well. But I am saying that at a quick glance, the claim that teacher unions are the great boogeyman of education doesn’t appear to match the data.

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Two new stories published this month!

June was a pretty good month. I had two new stories come out, and they both have been quite well-received.

On June 2, Motherboard/Terraform published my story “Spirit of Home.”

There is a scene in the story where the protagonist visits her father in a hospital. That scene is straight out of my real life, sixteen years ago, when I visited my father in the ICU right after his quadruple bypass. My father was always formidable, larger than life in personality and temperament. In the ICU, with tubes running into him, I could hardly recognize him. I thought I was going to lose him right there–he was fighting the treatment, and it did not look good.

Cuba looms hugely in my life. My first language was Spanish, I was raised within the Cuban expat culture, and I think of myself as Cuban. My heart hurts for the tragedies that have befallen my people over the last sixty or so years. I wish more than anything else that I could visit my father’s Cuba, but I know that this isn’t possible. If I visit Cuba, I will be a tourist, a stranger.

I think it can be hard for people who are not part of an immigrant experience to identify with those of us who are. (You’re in this country now! Speak English! Be American! OR You’re Cuban! Explain/justify everything Cubans do! Why don’t you dance better?) But spec-fic readers seem to have no trouble inhabiting other planets, the Serenity, Middle Earth. I myself have been to Mars numerous times, through the books of Kim Stanley Robinson, Ben Bova, Greg Bear, and others. I know the planet well. I thought if I set my story on Mars, it might be easier for people who were not born into diaspora to put themselves into it.

So basically, there’s a lot of me in this one.


Then, on the thirteenth, I made my second appearance in Strange Horizons—a market that’s just the pinnacle of what I love in short stories—with “Life in Stone, Glass, and Plastic.” I think this story is some of my very best work. It’s the first time folks have indicated that they found something I wrote to be surprising in the direction it took. It may not be as personal as “Spirit of Home,” but in a way that makes it a bigger accomplishment to me, to be able to generate any kind of power without plumbing my own experience.

You can read it here, or listen to the podcast here.

And let me take a moment to gush about the artwork they commissioned. Isn’t this wonderful?

OMG OMG OMG it's ART!!!!

© 2016 Sandro Castelli “Life in Stone, Glass and Plastic”

I’ve had art attached to my stories before, but this is the first time original non-composite (Is that a word? Do you get what I’m saying?) artwork has been commissioned  for one of my stories, and it’s definitely a career bingo square checked off.

So there you go–June was a pretty awesome month for me! How was your month?

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New publication: The Curse of Giants

My story, “The Curse of Giants” went live today on Daily Science Fiction and has already garnered some nice feedback. Go check it out!

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. . . And my own 2015 recap and award eligibility post

In this post yesterday, I told folks about stories by other writers that I loved this year. Now I’d like to take a moment to reflect on my own writing year. Nobody reads my blog anyway, so I know nobody will mind. *grin*

2015 was a pretty terrific year for me. I sold more stories than ever before, for more writing income than in any other year, but that’s not really a reflection of the year—or if it is, it’s a reflection of me being lucky, and of past investments paying off. It takes a fair amount of time, usually, for a story to make it into print, so the stories of mine that came out this year were almost all written in prior years.

What made it a great year for me was the things I actually did, not the decisions other people, like editors, made. I learned to manage my dayjob workload better than I ever have before, and I believe being less stressed out than before has made me a friendlier, better teacher. And it’s left me more energy for writing at the end of the day. I wrote seventeen stories, a record for me. More importantly, I figured out which bits of process work for me right now, and which ones don’t. Writing has always been difficult for me. I believe I’m good at it, and I find myself drawn to writing—I want to write and I am satisfied by having written. But the writing itself has almost always been a slog for me. I kept doing it anyway and managed to write hundreds of thousands of words’ worth of completed manuscripts, including three novels, before this year, so I’m not merely somebody who talks about writing without doing it. But it was always incremental struggle without feeling like I knew how to flip the switch that made the words flow.

If there was a theme for 2015 for me, it was Embrace the Great YMMV. Lots of people will give you writing advice. A fair percentage of them will tell you they’re sharing with you the “right” way to do things. And I realized this year I’d internalized a lot of B.S. about what was not legitimate. I was fighting against what worked for me because I believed that “real” writers didn’t do this or that. Well anything that gets words written is a thing that real writers do. This was the year I started paying attention to myself, finding the path of less resistance, and getting the words to flow. I also started collecting all the tips, techniques, and observations that were effective for me, and put them all in an Evernote file I could use to remind myself. And finally I started to feel like I knew how to operate my creativity. My real accomplishment in 2015 wasn’t stories written or stories told: it was learning to stop trying to be a different writer. It was learning that there isn’t a Way To Be A Writer, there’s The Way You Write.

Now I know how I brainstorm, and I know that I can generate a new story any time I want to. Now I know how I get words flowing, and I know I can do that any time I want to. And now I know how I revise. I believe I’m writing the best stories I’ve ever written, and I think the best writing and publishing days are ahead of me, FSM-willing.

But yeah, on to the stories that saw publication this year:

My best received story, far and away, was “Weight of the World,” published in the February issue of Fantastic Stories. You can download this issue—currently free!—here. It’s an emotional story about a man bringing his son down to Earth for treatment for a life-threatening disease. K. Tempest Bradford on io9 had this to say about it:

This flash piece doesn’t fall into over-sentimentality, which I appreciate, yet is a touching exploration of what parents go through when they have a very sick child. The last paragraph nails it.

If stories exploring gender roles and deconstructing traditional fairy tales is more your thing, you might like my story “Cupid and Psyche at the Caffé Sol y Mar,” published in Fireside Fiction in October. You can read it here. It’s basically revisiting the story of Cupid and Psyche a few thousand years later, when Psyche’s had enough time to figure out that maybe she got a raw deal.

A story of mine that I’ve been quite fond of, “The Flood,” found a home in Grantville Gazette this November, and I’m delighted that some folks have really responded to it. It’s the story of a former soldier raising a war orphan after all the battles have been fought, and trying to figure out what it means to be a parent. You can buy the issue containing my story here.

Finally, the most “normal” story I’ve sold, I think, is “Message from Beyond,” published in the July-August issue of Fantastic Stories, available for purchase here. Charles Payseur had this to say at Quick Sip Reviews:

It’s a nice story, biting and darkly funny, with Ray an interesting main character, a man bitter and entitled and yet with tragedy hounding him through no real fault of his own. A story worth checking out.

I had a fifth sale in November that will come out in 2016 from Daily Science Fiction. I’m really excited about that one and look forward to sharing it next year!

And it’s that time of year where we do the award eligibility thing, isn’t it? Honestly, I’m not high profile enough to expect to make a run at any awards anyway, but what I would like is to get more people reading my stories, because connecting with readers is a big part of why I do this. So whether you nominate or not, I hope you’ll check out something by me. And if you read something of mine but it wasn’t your cuppa, thank you anyway for taking the time.

If you are reading with award nominations in mind, then I believe I am eligible to be nominated for the Hugo Award (short story), the Nebula Award (short story), the Tiptree Award (assuming those nominations have reopened when you read this), and the Carl Brandon Parallax Award. Naturally, you should only nominate works you think are excellent and deserving.

Thanks for being a part of my 2015, and here’s to a wonderful 2016 for all of us!

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Some Terrific Short Stories of 2015

For the past few years, I’ve posted year-end recaps of some of my favorite stories, and friends have told me they found my recommendations helpful. I read short speculative fiction—particularly online short spec fiction—pretty voraciously, so I may have run across some wonderful stories that you don’t already know about. This blog post is not an exhaustive list of every terrific story I’ve read in 2015; follow me on Twitter or Facebook if you want that, because I share links to stories pretty much year-round. Rather, it’s a list of stories that have stuck with me even in the weeks or months since I read them.

There are no doubt plenty of amazing stories I haven’t run across. I’m not done reading yet for the 2015 award season, and I know I’ve saved some of the best for last. But right now, on December 31st of 2015, these are stories that have haunted me. I hope you’ll enjoy them.

In no particular order:

  • “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead,” by Brooke Bolander
    I’m a sucker for stories about women who kick ass, but this story had a tender heart too.
  • “Limestone, Lye, and the Buzzing of Flies,” by Kate Heartfield
    What if Walt Disney World’s Frontierland had real ghosts, who played out their ongoing dramas by possessing the castmembers? I thought this story was fantastic–beautiful at first, then chilling and foreboding by turns, and oh-so-atmospheric.
  • “The Ways of Walls and Words,” by Sabrina Vourvoulias
    This story is sweet and bitter and beautiful and unflinching. It’s a story of friendship, of self-sacrifice, of honoring your traditions, of honoring your loved ones, of finding commonality in your differences. It’s a story of surviving in the face of oppression, of bending but not breaking. There’s a raw honesty in this story. Check it out.
  • “The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History,” by Sam J. Miller
    I only discovered Sam J. Miller’s stories in the last twelve months or so, but everything I’ve read by him has been terrific, so when I ran across this story, I was looking forward to reading it. Then, about three paragraphs in, when I realized he was writing about the Stonewall Riots, I felt a literal frisson–what an amazing concept. This is like a documentary (or an oral history, as the title notes) of the riots that touched off the modern form of the LGBT rights movement–only in this version the fires were lit not physically, but by a mass psionic polykinesis. Which is freaking cool as hell. I’d read about the Stonewall Riots several times before, but this science fictional account made it more real for me, because it gave me characters to attach to and care about, so it became more than a dry history, but something to really get invested in. This story also raised in my mind interesting questions about to whom historical events belong–especially historical events that were experienced by and are meaningful touchstones for people who are still alive. (That sounds like a criticism. It’s not, though. It’s just another way this story made me think.)
  • “. . . And I Show You How Deep the Rabbit Hole Goes,” by Scott Alexander
    If you don’t normally read short stories, read this one. It counts, dammit. Sometimes you find fiction in the most unexpected places. This looks like nothing more than Tumblr silliness, but it’s a double dose of amazeballs, is what it is. No, DON’T just read the picture here. That’s not the awesome part. The awesome part is everything that comes after!
  • “Nothing is Pixels Here,” by K. M. Szpara
    I’ve often thought about what it would be like if our e-lives and virtual reality became so ubiquitous that it was possible to live your whole life in a virtual existence, like Second Life, only much more so. When I see other people play with this conceit, they always seem to come down on the side of treating this as some sort of horror story scenario, but I’ve never been quite convinced. Maybe because I’ve always been an early adopter–I feel like I grew up on computers and then online anyway. Anyway, this story explores the trope in a more nuanced way than I’ve seen before. This story wins the Damn I Wish I’d Written That Award for 2015.
  • “Madeleine,” by Amal El-Mohtar
    This one explores grief and sanity and reality and delusion. And more than anything else, loneliness. One thing that struck me in this story is the way support systems sometimes—often—edge away if you start to need TOO much support, or start to need support for TOO long. Like, okay, this bad thing happened, and here is the narrative for how you should feel the pain, and for how long, and when it’s time to get over it already. That’s not What The Story Is About, but it’s a thread running through the story that stood out to me. I’ve read a few stories by Amal El-Mohtar, but this is my new favorite.
  • “Forestspirit, Forestspirit,” by Bogi Takács
    This story had all the tense skiffy action, out-there inventiveness, high stakes, and big thematic ideas you could want, but at its heart (for me) was a touching relationship between a soldier and a child.
  • “When Your Child Strays From God,” by Sam J. Miller
    This story is a masterclass in writing an unreliable narrator, but beyond that it’s a great lesson in taking a deeply flawed central character and treating them with a ton of compassion and fairness as they come to some self-awareness. This is the second story I’ve recommended this year by Sam J. Miller; you really should just read everything he writes.
  • “It Brought Us All Together,” by Marissa Lingen
    I can see this story considered for Kaleidoscope’s Best YA stories of the year anthology. It features yet another unreliable narrator, skewering the faux-grief that tragedies sometimes bring out in a spot-on weary teen voice. The narrator, of course, is SO BEYOND it all . . . except that she’s not.
  • “Descent,” by Carmen María Machado
    I don’t generally do horror, but this is really more dread than horror, and this story is smart. I love how we get this image of concentric semicircles in the amphitheatre and then the story itself has pretty much the same structure, and story within a story within a story. And then the last three paragraphs gave me chills. (This story is sadly all too topical too.)
  • “Let’s Tell Stories of the Deaths of Children,” by Margaret Ronald
    If we care so much about children, why do we (as a society) seem to love stories in which they’re endangered so much? This story had so much going on. It’s a critique of such stories, while ironically participating in the genre. It’s delightfully creepy, it’s meta as all hell. And from a writing standpoint, it made me see how it’s possible to use deconstruction as an element within fiction. I’ll have to try that soon.
  • “And We Were Left Darkling,” by Sarah Pinsker
    I seem to be a sucker for impossible baby stories–my favorite story of 2014 was just such a tale. It might touch a nerve for me because I don’t and won’t have genetic offspring of my own. I love how real the characters are. Taya and Jo. No good or bad guys. Just people in a crazy situation doing their best. And I love the ending, in that it’s really a beginning. Wonderful story. Check it out if you haven’t read it. And then check out everything else by Sarah Pinsker.
  • “When We Were Giants,” by Helena Bell
    This is the sort of using-spec-metaphorically story that I just eat up. For me, this was a story of how we raise girls as a society, how we try to train them to be meek, to not be “big and loud.” And how we use the fear of bad things happening to reinforce this–how when somebody gets hurt it’s not, “It happens,” not a necessary risk, but “You shouldn’t have.” And ultimately, I thought it was a story of the women who internalize patriarchy, who give up the things that make them feel alive before somebody can take them away, and who end up resenting the women who refuse to do so.

So anyway, I hope you find something to enjoy here that maybe you hadn’t read before. There’s a lot of great short spec fiction being published these days, and it breaks my heart how many of my friends seem totally unaware if this short fiction golden age we’re living through. So give these a look, and let me know if you find something you love!

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