Tag Archives: recommendations

What I’ve Been Reading Lately: Short Fiction Edition

I don’t read a huge amount of short fiction, but I read a lot more than I used to, usually stories I see linked on Twitter and save to the Pocket app. For the last couple of years I’ve taken to sharing each story I read on Twitter myself, but today I felt like collecting some of my recent favourites into a post.

Before I get to the links, though, I had a thought to share. I found myself thinking this morning that most of the really great short fiction I read, while it’s SFF genre, centres not the genre concepts or the plot, but the relationships between characters, romantic and otherwise. And it occurred to me that this is, in part, what the Sad Puppies were reacting against, way back in the early years of that kerfuffle.

Larry Correia’s stated purpose in starting Sad Puppies was to get award nominations for “unabashed pulp action that isn’t heavy handed message fic[tion]”. The second half of that has gotten plenty of attention (there is indeed a large part of this which is a reactionary response to the increase in inclusive and diverse works being recognised for awards, for which see Foz Meadows’ excellent breakdown of where they’re getting it wrong), but it’s more to the first part my thoughts went today. In addition to the diversity backlash, the Puppies often set up a conflict between this “unabashed pulp action” and the supposedly more ‘literary’ work which was appearing on award ballots. And it seems to me that this part of it was about exactly what I observed above: the stories they object to are the ones that do not place action or cool SFnal ideas at their centre, but the interpersonal relationships of characters; where character and relationships are the main throughline and focus.

It does feel like there has been a popular shift toward that kind of fiction in recent years (in novels also – look for example at the popularity of The Goblin Emperor and Ancillary Justice), but it’s hard for me to make a solid claim on that. The short fiction market has changed dramatically with the growth of online publishers, and many people – myself included – just did not read much short fiction before that change. I also can’t say what short fiction the Sad Puppy supporters have been reading now or in the past, but having been exposed to their complaints on and off for the last few years, it certainly seems like part of the trigger for their lashing out was seeing award-nominated stories which had their focus in a different place from what they were used to.

Personally, I’m one of the apparent majority who is very much enjoying these stories. Even the weirdest of weird SF is about people in some sense, and human relationships and emotions are a familiar point for readers to hold on to while experiencing the utterly unfamiliar. In addition, SFF concepts are and always have been a great tool for exploring ordinary human issues, whether large-scale social concepts, or just the way two people relate to one another. The small stuff is just as important as the large, and (IMO) can be a vehicle for more emotionally poignant stories.

I guess I’m just not in it for the action.

Anyway, that (long) tangent aside, let’s get to the story recommendations. I can’t say all of these will fit the type I’ve referred to above, but I can say that I greatly enjoyed every one. These have all been read in the last month or so, mostly while I was on holiday (when I did a lot of reading in airports and on planes). Listed in alphabetical order.

Android Whores Can’t Cry, by Natalia Theodoridou, in which a reporter visits the Massacre Market, where people engage in illicit trading of evidence of the government’s atrocities (and then things get much weirder).
Candidate 45, Pensri Suesat, by Pear Nuallak, in which an agender art student struggles with their place at a demanding school.
Infinite Skeins, by Naru Dames Sundar, in which a parent searches through infinite alternate worlds for their missing child.
Meshed, by Rich Larson, in which a talent scout has to convince a young athlete to have a “nerve mesh” installed, but his father objects.
Morrigan in Shadow, by Seth Dickinson, in which the question is posed of whether achieving victory is worth making monsters of ourselves.
The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley, in which a darker and weirder take on Star Trek transporter tech is used for war.
When Your Child Strays From God, by Sam J Miller, in which a mother sets out to find her son, who has taken a strange new drug.
Without Faith, Without Law, Without Joy, by Saladin Ahmed, in which three brothers are trapped in another man’s story, robbed of their own name and nature.

Your Favourites Are Not Objective

Title is stating the obvious, right? You’d think.

First up, go read this post on Tor.com by Liz Bourke. It’s an old story: a couple of famous white male authors listed their favourite writers. Their lists were entirely white and male. Liz Bourke argues, quite rightly, that this was avoidable, and that people have a responsibility to think about who they’re including or excluding when they make such lists.

Cue the comments, which were flooded with (presumably) white, male readers making the oh-so-predictable response: why should the authors’ identities affect what is their favourite? It sounds reasonable, until you actually apply some thought to the issue.

If I asked you to name your ten favourite authors, could you do so easily, without hesitation? All ten? I couldn’t. Thing is, a lot of authors have very different things that make them good, that are hard to rank directly against one another. I dare say that after the first few names, most people would be stopping to consider whether to include author A at the expense of author B. I myself would probably name author A on one day, and then author B when asked the same question a week later – and both lists would be equally true. “Favourite” is a tricky thing to narrow down, and any list of favourites is going to be, on some level, a deliberately curated selection, not an absolute answer.

So, your list of ten favourites is not actually a list of favourites. But what does this have to do with the diversity of the list? Well, a lack of diversity in your list of favourites can mean a few things. The article above points out that, statistically speaking, a list is unlikely to be entirely white and male by chance alone. If the identity of an author did not factor in at all, lists like that would be far less common. So what are the reasons your favourites are all white men?

1) The books you read are all by white men. This is unlikely to happen by accident – 51% of the population is female – so a bias must exist somewhere. This could be systematic bias in publishing and marketing. It could be that you yourself have a bias – conscious or not – when choosing what to read. And of course it could be because these recommendation lists we’re talking about already disproportionately favour white male authors. (It’s actually all three.) In any case, this suggests you’re not choosing your “favourites” from a representative sample, and you should maybe start to think more about who you’re choosing to read.

2) You like the books you read by white men more. Say this the wrong way and it sounds bad, right? You’re not sexist or racist, it’s just that these books you like happen to be by white men! Think, however, about what this really implies. As I’ve said above, it’s unlikely to happen by chance. There are two explanations: either you’re saying that white men are just better at writing good books, or you’re not reading the right non-white and/or non-male authors. The answer, again, is to pay more attention and try to read more diversely.

3) You enjoy writers of all backgrounds, but you’re choosing to only include white men in your list of recommendations… for some reason. You like author B well enough, but you’re going to put author A on your list. Truth be told, there’s not much between the two, and a list with author B wouldn’t really be less representative of your tastes, but you want to be as close to your absolute top ten favourites as possible. Why should it matter if you then look at the list and realise that decision means your list has no women on it? It’s your favourites, right? Because of points 1 and 2, that’s why. When you could publish a list that included some diversity, without really compromising your tastes, but choose not to, you’re adding to the bias that leads to other people not reading those diverse voices, which continues the cycle of bias in recommendation and reading choices and keeps non-male and non-white writers underrepresented.

Point 3 is why Liz Bourke talks about people having a responsibility to include diversity. The fact that recommendations completely lacking in diversity are so common demonstrates that there’s a widespread bias that goes against the common sense that writers of different backgrounds should all be equally capable of writing good books. This bias is not something that will correct itself, spontaneously, but it something that can only be countered by being more conscious of what we read, and what we recommend others read.

It should be weird to look at the books you’ve been reading and realise they’re all by men. If you write down your favourites and, against all probability, they’re all white men, it should make you wonder what’s been missed out.