During my twelve years as a fiction editor at Strange Horizons, we published over 500 stories. In 2016-2017, I did a sort of a retrospective, posting links to some of the stories (one story at a time), with brief comments.
This page gathers together all of my Strange Horizons Flashback recommendations in one place. My story descriptions on this page don't include significant spoilers; for my spoilery discussion of each story, follow the link to the corresponding blog post.
- “In the Cold,” by Kelly Jennings
- It's about a girl on a wintry colony world; it's about responsibility and leadership, and hard choices; it makes me cry every time I read it. We published it in early 2012, and I feel like it didn't get nearly as much attention at the time as I'd hoped it would. (3,000 words) (My spoilery comments)
I've worked with Sid on budget, balancing heat against food against power for the tanks; I know how tight our numbers are. I know another bad mold or one more wicked flu could break us. Plus, without anyone ever exactly saying so, I know I'm top of the stack for Chair of Executive when the time comes for Second to take charge: the obvious choice, the only one of us with the math and the mouth and the will to step up.
Which does not mean I like the idea.
- “Valiant on the Wing,” by Chris Szego
- I'm having a hard time describing this in a way that will make it sound as compelling as it is. It's a slow, quiet sort of story: a family of siblings, grieving a loss of their own, nurses a lost young woman back to health. But it's lovely. I cry every time I read it; there's sadness in it, but also healing. Published in 2008. (4,300 words) (My spoilery comments)
We all of us smiled a lot, that evening, or maybe it just felt that way because we hadn't smiled often since . . . well, since.
- “The Welsh Squadron,” by Margaret Ronald
- During the Blitz, a beleaguered British air squadron acquires some mysterious and unexpected new members. I'm not normally much into war stories, but when I do like them, this is the sort I like. I particularly love the last third or so of this. (Published in 2006, in two parts.) (7,200 words.) (My spoilery comments)
"Hitler's sent them to London. We should expect to scramble in a half-hour at most." He paused, then added, "There's a lot of them."
- “Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs,” by Leonard Richardson
- Most of these Flashback stories are Very Serious Stories. This one is a change of pace: it makes me laugh every time I read it. Dinosaurs! From Mars! Riding motocross! Driving a monster truck! Cracking jokes! (Published in 2009.) (3,900 words.) (My not-particularly-spoilery comments)
"Humans won't pay to watch dinosaurs ride motocross bikes forever," said Tark. "I'm gonna branch out. Target shooting. I'll be like those tough guys in the action movies."
- “Inventory,” by Carmen Maria Machado
- Gorgeous, slow-building, devastating story in list form, and I feel like saying much more than that would be spoilery, so I'll hold off 'til after the spoiler warning in my post. NSFW; explicit sex scenes. (Also: trigger warning for one brief scene of attempted sexual assault.) (Published in 2013.) (3,500 words.) (My spoilery comments)
"Do you have people there?" I asked, and she nodded, her eyes filling with tears.
- “Who in Mortal Chains,” by Claire Humphrey
- This is one of the most compelling stories I've read about the dynamics of violence. It's also about other things: community, history, breaking things, stories we tell ourselves, and more. Parts of it literally take my breath away every time I read it. (Potentially triggery for violence, including domestic violence.) (Published in 2010.) (4,700 words.) (My spoilery comments)
- If you want to listen to this story in audio form, Julia Rios did an excellent reading of it for Podcastle. (37-minute audio.) But I recommend ignoring Dave Thompson's intro; this is not the lighthearted story about drinking beer in the 1960s that his description seems to me to imply. (Also, I'm disappointed to see that the reader comments on the Podcastle version seem to have disappeared; there was some interesting discussion there.)
They offered violence. It's an offer I can't help but accept.
- “Until Forgiveness Comes,” by K. Tempest Bradford
- Another unusual format: An NPR-like radio news report from a very alternate history, about the anniversary of a devastating train-station bombing. This is another one that makes me cry every time I read it. (Published in 2008.) (2,000 words.) (My spoilery comments)
Marcus has only seen his father's face in pictures and on the anniversaries when Titus's ghost returns to relive those final moments.
- “Late for Dinner,” by Ursula Pflug
- A compelling and lovely magical-realist story about a young liberal woman (whose mother committed suicide) who crosses the border to live with the once-enslaved rebels in a nation at war. Among other things, it looks at the difficulty of communication across gaps of privilege and of culture and of experience. (Published in 2001.) (5,000 words.) (My spoilery comments)
It was [my father] who'd first told me about the war, dragging me to a rally when I'd wanted to stay home and watch television: “This country is knee-deep in bones.”
- “Jimmy's Roadside Cafe,” by Ramsey Shehadeh
- A heartbreaking story about life after an apocalyptic plague, and about trying to find a certain kind of grace amidst devastation. (Published in 2008.) (4,400 words.) (My spoilery comments)
After the world ended, Jimmy set up a roadside cafe in the median of I-95, just north of the Fallston exit.
- “A Private Unbinding of Time,” by James Allison
- A slow-building lyrical story about loss and grief and things falling apart. (Published in 2001.) (3,000 words.) (My spoilery comments)
"The whole thing is tearing apart," Nathan whispered. "Feels like there's nothing to hold onto."
"That's why we have to stick together," said Maggie. "Help each other through."
"Most of the time I think I'm over it. Then I see things more clearly."
- “Rapture,” by Sally Gwylan
- A slow-building story of idealist leftist anarchists in Chicago in the 1890s, and of what can happen when preachers and other leaders have too compelling a message. (Published in 2004.) (7,800 words.) (My spoilery comments)
A small man whose gestures & intonation burned with fevered zeal, Owings exhorted his audience to Pray! Pray for the Holy Spirit to lead them into the ways of righteousness! As he shouted, the air inside the hall began to sparkle, golden motes drifting down. I doubted my eyes, but others were seeing it too, looking up, gaping.
- “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra,” by Vandana Singh
- A lovely multilayered story about the power of storytelling; about what stories mean; about narrators; about things breaking apart and about fragments coming together to form a whole. (Published in 2010.) (5,400 words.) (My spoilery comments)
In all this, I have drawn on ancient Indic tradition, in which the author is a compiler, an embellisher, an arranger of stories, some written, some told. He fragments his consciousness into the various fictional narrators in order to be a conduit for their tales.
In most ancient works, the author goes a step further: he walks himself whole into the story, like an actor onto the stage.
This is one way I have broken from tradition. I am not, myself, a participant in the stories of the Kathāsaritsāgara. And Isha wants to know why.
- “The House Beyond Your Sky,” by Benjamin Rosenbaum
- In the far future, as the universe is winding down, a creator of simulated worlds is creating a truly new universe; but a visitor's arrival changes things. (Trigger warning for abuse.) (Published in 2006.) (3,900 words.) (My spoilery comments)
- You can listen to this story in audio format from Escape Pod, though I'm not sure this is a great read-aloud story. (And the well-meaning (unrelated to this story) editorial comments about diversity-in-sf at the beginning of the podcast strike a couple of unfortunate notes.)
Now our universe is old. That breath of the void, quintessence, which once was but a whisper nudging us apart, has grown into a monstrous gale. Space billows outward, faster than light can cross it. Each of our houses is alone, now, in an empty night.
And we grow colder to survive. Our thinking slows, whereby we may in theory spin our pulses of thought at infinite regress. Yet bandwidth withers; our society grows spare. We dwindle.
We watch Matthias, our priest, in his tiny house beyond our universe. Matthias, whom we built long ago, when there were stars.
- “Algorithms for Love,” by Ken Liu
- An exploration of artificial intelligence, free will, and predictability, focused on a woman in the near future who programs interactive AI dolls. Arguably kind of a horror story, I suppose. (And potentially triggery in various ways.) (Published in 2004.) (5,600 words.) (My spoilery comments)
Every interview followed the same pattern. The moment when Clever Laura™ first turned to the interviewer and answered a question, there was always some awkwardness and unease. Seeing an inanimate object display intelligent behavior had that effect on people. Then I would explain how Laura worked and everyone would be delighted. I memorized the non-technical, warm-and-fuzzy answers to all the questions until I could recite them even without my morning coffee. I got so good at it that I sometimes coasted through entire interviews on autopilot, not even paying attention to the questions and letting the same words I heard over and over again spark off my responses.
- “The Book of Things Which Must Not Be Remembered,” by C. Scavella Burrell
- About a girl in Ancient Egypt learning to be a scribe; about writing, and remembrance, and whose stories get preserved. (Published in 2003.) (5,700 words.) (My spoilery comments)
I told Neb, “All our family are scribes.”
“It's man's work,” Neb answered sharply.
I shrugged. “I'm not doing man's work. There are things men don't write about.”
- “L'Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars),” by Dean Francis Alfar
- A young woman sets out on a quest to find all of the impossible materials needed to build a kite that can carry her. A story about unrequited love, making very complicated plans, taking on impossible challenges, “the truth about quests,” and the magical world of Hinirang. (Published in 2003.) (3,500 words.) (My spoilery comments)
Maria Isabella said, “What I need is a kite large enough to strap me onto. Then I must fly high enough to be among the stars themselves, so that anyone looking at the stars will see me among them.”
“What you need,” Melchor Antevadez replied with a smile, “is a balloon. Or someone else to love.”
- “The Fountain and the Shoe Store,” by Paul Steven Marino
- A hilarious and heartbreaking story about grief, loss, art, responsibility, atonement, and fantastical architecture. (Published in 2011.) (5,200 words.) (My spoilery comments)
“This place can take away any disease out there for an hour at a time,” I said. “People are going to keep coming, press conference or no press conference.”
“I don't know,” he said. “There's a county fair over in Moretown right now that's got a seven-headed cow.”
“Can their seven-headed cow bring back the dead?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “but can your archway moo all the parts of the Ninth Symphony?”
- “Archipelago,” by Anil Menon
- On an artificial island where everyone has embedded high-tech “sensoriums” that let them share experiences and perceptions, Tommy falls for a new arrival who doesn't have the implant. More or less NSFW. (Published in 2005.) (5,500 words.) (My spoilery comments)
The idea was to get a group of people to hook up their sensoriums in a certain way and then use a data feed—the “stim”—to trigger a synchronization of minds; a firefly swarm, as it were, of minds all blinking, signalling, and responding in unison.
- “Talisman,” by Tracina Jackson-Adams
- A story about touch-hunger, and violence, and coming of age in one of the old families, and a dangerous kind of magic. (Published in 2002.) (5,400 words.) (My spoilery comments)
It's getting worse and worse these days. Nobody understands how hard it is to stop at just hitting. Nobody gives me any credit for that.
And nobody understands how damned good it feels to touch someone.
- “The Red Bride,” by Samantha Henderson
- A bedtime story told to a human child by an alien slave. (Published in 2010.) (1,800 words.) (My spoilery comments)
The story of the Red Bride is a slave's tale in slave speech, which I do not generally hold in my head around humans lest my face betray me, so I must shift words around from one meaning to another like stones on a reckoning-board, each stone taking meaning from a square where another stone was a moment before.
- “Planet of the Amazon Women,” by David Moles
- A man goes to a planet of women, to examine a causality anomaly. (Content warning: elides trans and nonbinary people.) (Published in 2005.) (10,600 words.) (My spoilery comments)
A century ago on Hippolyta, something called Amazon Fever killed thirteen hundred million men and boys. Hundreds of millions of women and girls died as well, slain indirectly, by the chaos that came in the Fever's wake.
No one knows now who started the Fever, or what they were trying to do: whether it was intentional—an attempt at an attack, or a revolution—or accidental—an industrial mishap, or a probability experiment gone awry, or even an archaeological discovery. But when it came it came suddenly, sweeping across Hippolyta in less than a year, in its progress less like a disease than like a curse. It defied drugs and vaccines and quarantines, brushing past exploration-grade immune enhancements as if they were so many scented medieval nosegays.
- “Textual Variants,” by Rosamund Hodge
- Adventurers seeking across worlds, plus multiple versions of a multiverse creation story, all in an unusually brief form. (Published in 2006.) (2,700 words.) (My spoilery comments)
She couldn't even tell him the truth about why she felt weak. Because then she would have to tell him who the Warders really were, and who she was, and why she had spent the last three years fleeing across worlds and hunting for shards of the Crystal.
- “Prisoners of Uqbaristan,” by Chris Nakashima-Brown
- A dizzying post-cyberpunk melange of media psyops, Borges, pop culture, reality alteration, and the Global War on Terror. (Published in 2004.) (6,000 words.) (My not-very-spoilery comments)
Captain Womack recruited me as Hollywood's liaison to the military-entertainment complex, saying they needed more Tinseltown savvy over at Task Force Loki: the only covert operations team with its own reality show. I mean, in addition to the news, which we help program without even asking for credit.
- “Start with Color,” by Bill Kte’pi
- In a world where everyone's dreams come alive, a strong dreamer tells his family that he's finally being allowed to retire. Lovely and sad. (Published in 2003.) (3,500 words.) (My spoilery comments)
Her dreams have been lazing at her elbows, small white elephants and green giraffes, grazing from invisible trees. They move aside, harrumphing at her as the paper interrupts their breakfast.
- “Greetings from Kampala,” by Angela Ambroz
- During an interstellar war between Hindustani and Chinese forces, an African-Hindustani soldier with PTSD is stuck on a ship carrying refugees from both sides of the war—and the ship’s captain is her former boyfriend, who’s now forty years older than she is. (Content warning: includes portrayal and discussion of PTSD.) (Published in 2009.) (4,800 words.) (My spoilery comments)
Ghada picked up her pencil and wrote, "They are all fuckers."
No. Doctor Rai said she shouldn't write statements like that, she had to write feelings. The category was called Feelings, after all. So she clicked the pencil once, pushing lead through the little hole (just like the Drops pushed steel through human bodies; splat), and wrote, squishing it in the margin, "IfeelthatThey are all fuckers."
- “Origin,” by Ari Goelman
- A human superheroine who’s dating an alien superhero discovers that shes pregnant. (Published in 2009.) (5,600 words.) (My spoilery comments)
"I should never date other supers," I say, not for the first time. I put my hand on my stomach. Crap. I can barely keep a spider plant alive. There's no way I'm ready to be a mother.
- “The Disappearance of James H___,” by Hal Duncan
- In a British boarding school a la Tom Brown's School Days, a certain James H___ has an encounter with a mysterious boy. (NSFW.) (Content warning for brief description of a rape.) (Published in 2005.) (1,000 words.) (My spoilery comments)
In his white breeches and shirt open to the waist but still tucked in, he looks like some prince kidnapped by pirates to serve as cabin boy.
- “How to Hide Your Heart,” by Deborah Coates
- A man who hunts monsters meets a woman who’s really good at driving. (Somewhat NSFW.) (Content warning for hints of bad things in character backstory.) (Published in 2008.) (5,300 words.) (My spoilery comments)
He’s a hunter. And the things he hunts live in the shadows in every town he comes to. So he watches people and files them away and he’s become an expert in who will help because he asks, who he can con or threaten into helping, who will help and never know they did it. And he never finds, in all those little bits of help that come his way, what he’s forgotten he ever wanted, someone who knows the score and stands up with him anyway.