by Sarah Pinsker
Favorite Fiction of 2012 in three mini-lists:
1. The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
This is a hideously beautiful, harrowing work of imagination. It's hard to tell which atrocities come from the mind of the writer and which are real. It illuminates a North Korea that seems all too real, while telling the story of a man whose feats of survival would turn him into a folk hero in any other context. Jun Do chooses his own identity from the beginning. Is he ever told he's the orphan master's son, or does he assume it because he gets the worst punishment? Which stories that he tells himself are true, and which are true enough to get him through the situation he faces? He plays many roles in this novel, some of which he chooses and some of which he is forced into. Through all of it, there is a theme of the stories people tell to get themselves through harsh realities. From early in the novel the protagonist is shown the machinery behind the magic. He harbors no illusions. That and his identity as the lowest of the low - an orphan, or a perceived orphan - allow him to what it takes to achieve his goals and maintain his own code of honor. In doing so, he attains mythic status himself. Only he and the reader are privy to the true story, and even that story is subject to question. This one's going to stick with me for a while.
2. The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan
Imp is a fabulous, fascinating narrator. She explains in the opening chapter that she has schizophrenia. This makes the entire story suspect. What is truth? What is fact? Is it possible for something to be true without being factual? Two of Imp's own short stories become chapters of the book, but they are part of her own processing of reality. Her ghost story is peppered with references to paintings and painters and writers who may or may not exist. The lines seem sharply drawn at first but blur as the piece goes on, particularly whenever Imp's mental health deteriorates. This is a brave, bizarre, poetic, confusing, haunting book.
3. In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
This is a poignant fictionalized autobiography. It chronicles the ways the author/protagonist's life changed after the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia. At first I thought the language a little flowery and overwrought, but it gradually came to represent the lush beauty of the country, in contrast to the atrocities taking place. The author has written a beautiful tribute to her lost family members, and to everyone killed during the violent changes in her birth country.
4. After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall: A Novel by Nancy Kress
This novel is pretty much summed up by the title. As always with apocalyptic books, and especially near-future ones, I was terrifically disturbed by the premise. Kress did a great job of weaving timelines and characters. I loved the structure; she managed to create suspense despite telling us the (almost) end right in the title. She is a master of structure and pacing, and she literally wrote the book on beginnings and endings. A moving cautionary tale.
Anthologies and Collections:
1. The Unreal & the Real by Ursula K. Le Guin (two volumes)
My parents have all of Ms. Le Guin's books, including every previous collection, and I grew up reading her stories. When I bought these at Atomic in December I planned to read them all again in Ms. Le Guin's curated order. I haven't made it through yet. I have them by my bed, and I'm reading one story every night, except sometimes I go back and reread one from the night before or the night before that. 'Cause here's the thing: these are GREAT stories. I notice something new every time.
If you had asked me about "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" I would have said yeah, yeah, I've read it a million times. That's the story with the beautiful city hiding an ugly secret about how they can have their happiness as long as they keep a child caged and abused beneath the city. And sure, that is what it's about, exactly as I remembered from reading it in 8th grade. I wasn't expecting to be absolutely floored by the language, the way I was this time. The first sentence is exquisite: "With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city. Omelas, bright-towered by the sea." The early passages of the story are poetry in prose. Then, as the narration turns to the child, the words close down like a prison. They become ugly, harsh, oppressive. I didn't remember any of that from reading this as a kid. The other stories are like that too, revealing new prizes and new challenges on my return.
2. Signs and Wonders by Alix Ohlin
Beautifully written. I often find my interest in a collection flagging if I read it in a straight shot, but these stories held my attention from beginning to end.
3. Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury (anthology)
The timing of this book might make you think that it's some hastily compiled posthumous tribute to Bradbury. Not so. The loving introduction and the even more loving opening essay by Bradbury himself show that this was meant as a living tribute. And it's excellent. The Kelly Link ghost-stories-on-a-spaceship story is beautifully done. There are a number of stories by authors I wasn't really familiar with that I would count among my favorites here: "Children of the Bedtime Machine," by Robert McCammon; "Young Pilgrims," by Joe Meno; "The Companions," by David Morrell; "By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain," by Joe Hill.
At museums, I often get so distracted by the great text on the walls that I forget about the works themselves. I like the sculpture, but I like it even more in conjunction with the story of how it is the only sculpture that its maker ever made, carved out of a log of applewood that he found in the woods on the grounds of the asylum. The notes that accompany these stories are like that. I particularly like that there are multiple writers in the anthology who describe having written to Mr. Bradbury at a young age and getting personal responses. This is a quality anthology that shows the depth and breadth of Mr. Bradbury's influence on contemporary fiction.
4. Near + Far by Cat Rambo
Two excellent collections under one binding. It's a clever conceit: one collection of near future SF, one collection of far future SF, bound back to back. Flip the book over for a whole second set of stories. The gimmick wouldn't be worth anything if the stories didn't hold up, so it's a good thing that they do. Cat Rambo's fiction runs the gamut from character-based to tech-based, with all of the stories grounded in her clear and lovely prose.
Most of my favorites were on the Near side, including "Peaches of Immortality," "Ms. Liberty Gets A Haircut," "Memories of Moments, Bright as Falling Stars," and "Long Enough and Just So Long." "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain" is my favorite on the Far side, and they all get bonus points for great titles as well.
5. Astray by Emma Donahue
I've never read Donoghue's longer fiction, but I love her stories. In this collection, as in The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits: Stories, she includes detailed story notes. Each piece jumps off from a news clipping or other factual source. It's great fun to try to figure out what the grain of truth is inside each work of fiction. Most of the stories are somewhat bittersweet; after all, who makes the news? A few are from the other type of news, surprising deceptions carried out on an individual or group. I did feel a bit of distance from most of the stories, even as I enjoyed them, but a few were very moving, particularly those in the last section of the book. The last story in particular - the only one set in the latter half of the twentieth century - had a very Alice Munro feel to it, a comparison I consider to be a high compliment.
All the Flavours by Ken Liu (Published February 1st 2012 by giganotosaurus.org)
A well developed, evocative novella that nests stories of the Chinese God of War within a story about a mining town in the 19th century American west.