2017 Recommended Reading List and Notes

Wow but this list is coming out way later than I’d planned. And is consequently no longer an awards recs list, just a recommended reading list in general. Because there was some great shit out in 2017, and I still want to talk about it.

So why is this so incredibly late? I found myself time and again stepping back from working on compiling the list. It was a full year, sure. But putting this thing together was consistently rage-inducing. The stories I saw last year were excellent, partly because I was actively trying to look at free-to-access publications and those that were doing interesting things or catering to underrepresented and marginalized communities. That part was great.

The racist stuff I found in some of the more mainstream publications and wider was not. And it crosses multiple lines. And I’m not naming names right now, no. Though all or majority-white editorial staffs led to some pretty awful shit slipping through in 2017, let me tell you.

I’ve got a partial State of the Field section down below. I was also going to talk about the mags I was reading this year in brief, as I have tried to do the last few years, but I can’t. Every time I’ve tried I’ve not been able to step back from calling out several mags as actively racist, or enabling. And I just don’t want to go there right now.

So. I’m breaking this thing up in stages: Methodology. The Recs. And the State of the Field.

There are larger conversations to be had. But for this moment I’m afraid what’s here will have to do.

That said, let’s start by talking:

METHODOLOGY

This part is a little long, so if you want to skip down to the recs, I won’t be offended.

For my sanity’s sake, I only ended up covering comics (partly because I read a lot of TPB collections during the year to relax) and short(/er) fiction.

Given that I had limited funds going into 2018 I decided to read only free-to-read online mags for the list this year. More and more my annual recs are drawn from online venues. And as I’m co-running a free-to-read online venue (Anathema), I spend a lot of time thinking about what’s freely accessible in the field vs. what isn’t, how that affects a mag’s readership, reach in general, representation/inclusion/decolonization, and how all of those concerns are reshaping the field.

With that in mind, I made a list of mags I wanted to look at. I couldn’t remember who was free-to-read entirely, so made my list and read what of it I could. I’m not aware of everything in the field, so I’m sure I missed things — and from a lot of what I’ve seen as the year carried on, I’m going to be looking at more mags for the 2018 list. But from January through mid-February, I looked at the following mags:

ApexArsenikaB&N SFF OriginalsBeneath Ceaseless SkiesThe Book SmugglersBrackenCast of WondersClarkesworldDaily Science Fiction;
Diabolical PlotsThe DarkEscape PodFiresideThe Future FireGigaNotoSaurusGlittershipJaggeryKaleidotropeKoru;
Lackington’sLightspeed/FantasyLiminalLuna Station QuarterlyMirror DanceMonsteringMythic DeliriumNightmareOmenana; PodCastlePseudopodSamovarShimmerThe SockdolagerStrange HorizonsTerraform; Tor.comTruancyUncanny

Other mags I’d wanted to look at were paywalled (partially or fully; and if partial I read what I could from them), had closed down, or ran no(/no original) 2017 content:

AE SciFi (no new content in 2017, though reopened?); Augur (all 2017 content was reprints); Capricious (partial paywall); FIYAH (paywall; but will be reviewing the 2017 issues this October, alongside other reviews in prep); Gamut (paywall); Lontar Journal (paywall); Mithila Review (paywalled from #9 on); Pantheon (partial paywall); Reckoning (2017 content inaccessible at time of reading, unlocked throughout 2018); Shattered Prism (closed, material off website); Shoreline of Infinity (paywall); Three-lobed Burning Eye (no 2017 issues); Unlikely Journal (still on hiatus)

DSF could technically have been filed in that second list. As usual, I managed about three months worth of their content before giving up. I know a lot of people love the mag, but I’m just not a fan.

I’m also looking forward to a couple things I want to catch up with next year:

ForeshadowHanging Garden Stories (already going, by the time I came to it there was too much 2017 content to wend my way through — it’s a deep dive into some absolutely amazing writing, just carve out a large chunk of time for it); Ruru Reads

All told, I looked at 55 mags in some respect. I also came across individual stories courtesy of their authors or other people promoting them, and haven’t read the whole of the 2017 output from the venues they appeared in (Hazlitt and Gulf Coast, for example).

As noted above, I’ll be covering mags like FIYAH elsewhere. FIYAH‘s amazing, and you should 100% be supporting them, their authors, and the work that they are doing in broader spectrum. Talk about them, and you can support them more directly form their shop.

A couple of quick disclaimers before we hit the actual list:

  • Anathema stories are not on this list because I don’t feel comfortable playing favourites as co-publisher/co-EiC. But you can read the mag’s entire first year’s worth of content from 2017 here.
  • Everything on the list is something I enjoyed. Everything bolded is something I consider worth special note.
  • My recs are completely subjective. It’s inevitable that something you loved isn’t on the list, and that something you hated is.
  • There are great stories I read that aren’t on the list, and that’s entirely about whether or not they stuck with me. Never assume one list covers everything worth reading. Always read a mag’s output to find your own favourites as reviewer/reader tastes never align 1:1.
  • Errors in the entries are on me. I’ll correct them as I/others note them.

There’s a ton of other stuff to look at, and so many amazing works to find online. Start with A.C. Wise and Cat Rambo’s metaposts on award fiction to find more extraordinary works:

A.C. Wise – What Have You Done, What Have You Loved? 2017 Edition
Cat Rambo – 2017 Award-Eligible Work Blog Posts & Roundups for F&SF

THE RECOMMENDATIONS

2017 Recommendations (Long Form)

Comics (TPB)/Graphic Novels

  • Afar – Del Luca & Seaton – With beautiful art and a well-paced, slow burn story there’s a lot to recommend Afar. It’s large-scale storytelling using at times intimate framing, and acts well as a window onto a larger world that feels real and well-fleshed out despite our seeing only a fragment of that whole canvas.
  • America, Vol. 1: The Life and Times of America Chavez – Rivera, Quinones & Villalobos – I have structural issues with the arc of the story, but I love a lot of what this volume’s doing nonetheless.
  • Bitch Planet, Vol. 2: President Bitch – DeConnick & De Landro
  • Black Hammer, Vol. 1: Secret Origins – Lemire, Ormston, Stewart – I have mixed feelings about how a lot of things are handled in this volume, but it’s still worth recommending for the broader approach to what it’s doing, and I feel like Vol. 2 makes up for some of what doesn’t work here.
  • Castoffs, Vol. 1: Mage Against the Machine – Reed, Smith, Ostertag & Yates – This is excellent despite fairly early on utilizing something I have a lot of trouble with as a trope. For those who will hit the same issue I did: yes, there is a subversion of the trope and the framing of it is intentional. And the book is excellent overall, and I like the larger worldbuilding it’s working with.
  • Clean Room Vol. 2: Exile – Simone & Davis-Hunt
  • Clean Room Vol. 3: Waiting for the Stars to Fall – Simone, Davis-Hunt & Anwar – Clean Room covers a lot of ground over its three volumes, and I’d recommend picking up the entire run. Volume three feels a little rushed (while the first two volumes feel almost too slow at times). And though I wish the series had been given the slower burn/longer length it needed, that conclusion is perfect for the larger arc of the series. And Simone’s writing is, as always, exceptional.
  • Elsewhere University (1) (2) – Cornerwitches – I’ve gotten out of the habit of reading a lot of webcomics/online comics, mostly because of lack of time. But I came across this while putting together the post and these are absolutely fantastic. I love the way this reminds me of Emily Carroll’s work, though this is absolutely its own thing and only one facet of Cornerwitches’ storytelling. Highly recommended.
  • Gotham Academy, Second Semester, Vol. 1: Welcome Back – Fletcher, Cloonan, Kerschl & Archer
  • Gotham Academy, Second Semester, Vol. 2: The Ballad of Olive Silverlock – Fletcher, Cloonan, Kerschl & Archer – The first volume of the Second Semester arc stumbles slightly, but the second half (and the conclusion of Gotham Academy) comes to a satisfying, well-earned close.
  • Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood – Lu & Takeda – From the art to the shift in arc to the slow reveal of its wider worldbuilding and mythology, Monstress remains compelling and gorgeous. Absolutely worth picking up.
  • Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Vol. 3: Reeder, Montclare & Bustos – The first two volumes are stronger than this third arc (the latter part of which feels like forced crossover work), but Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur continues to be hilarious and totally worth picking up.
  • Ms. Marvel Vol. 8: Mecca – Wilson, Failla, Olortegui & Herring – Eight volumes in the series has had its ups and downs. And while not the strongest volume in the series, volume eight is definitely worth reading. Not least of all because Wilson continues to use the series to reflect the world as we’re living it, with a strong dash of hope thrown in.
  • Paper Girls, Vol. 3 – Vaughan, Chiang, Wilson & Fletcher – The story starts coming apart in volume three, but I think this volume’s still worth reading to see where the story wanders. Volume four will decide whether I keep reading Paper Girls — Vaughan’s work has a tendency to lose cohesion as it progresses. Saga‘s an excellent example: I gave up at the start of volume eight, though I’d initially debated stopping at volume six with the poor handling of Trans content. We’ll see how this series continues.
  • The Witch Boy – Ostertag – While occasionally overly on the nose in its execution, this is some excellent allegory, beautifully rendered. It’s also a lovely paean to self-discovery and an excellent take on family and community.

2017 Recommendations (Short Form)

Again this year, Fantasy Magazine entries have been filed under Lightspeed Magazine.

Novellas

Novelettes

Short Stories

THE STATE OF THE FIELD

Despite an excellent year of fiction in various corners, you know what was really depressing about the 2017 output of the field? That in the wake of all these public movements toward redressing the systemic imbalance of white-authored work dominating the field in the last few years; in the wake of all this very showy rage about not allowing the staggering imbalance of representation (authorship, editorial, and in illustration/art as well), and an inordinate number of people calling for change quite vocally, the majority of speculative fiction mags appear to have said: “Increase diversity? That’s easy, we’ll just publish more stories about POC written by white people!”

I like how Ellen Oh put it in this thread (thread continues after these tweets) I ran across when I started writing this post:

Ellen Oh’s comments are the tip of the iceberg. And it looks like publishing, at all levels, is still going to be having this fight until I don’t even fucking know when at this point.

But we can also address certain aspects of this racist shitstorm immediately. Because the problem with white writers writing diverse content and white editors publishing it without either party having an eye on the interiority of the characters or a sense of lived experience and background on/of the cultures involved is that you’re going to get stereotypical, racist, and frequently misogynist depictions cropping up in that content:

  • I’d love to never again have to see the word “creature” used to describe a woman of colour. (See: the historical — and present — dehumanization of people of colour by comparing or referring to them as animals.)
  • I’d love to never again have to see white writers depicting the barbarous, monstrous Other as dark-skinned/uncivilized/”savage tribes.” I’m fucking done with having to read another version of the bogey-man/-people with dark skin trope.
  • I’d love to see Black women not written as one-dimensional characters, or overburdened with stereotypical understandings of what being a woman of colour is like. Especially in Fantasy settings.
  • I’d love to see Asian/Pacific Islander characters not written as mythical/magical/engaging a version of the Magical Negro trope.
  • I’d love to never again have to see white authors writing African/Asian fantasy and fucking up the mythology and the voices and cultural significance of the elements they cherry pick. Once again for the fuckwits in the back: Africa is not a country.

I’m not naming names, but none of those are abstracts. And several of those showed up multiple times in semi-pro and pro venues. All from white writers.

Also, more and more I’m of the opinion that most white cishet men just … shouldn’t write women. So many of them are so unutterably bad at it. It’s almost as though there were some larger structural understandings of women as people absent from much of their experience…

*cough cough*

Moving on.

Mag editing is something I’ve been thinking about a lot this last year. Obviously. I’m often thinking about the act and craft of editing anyway — this is a function of doing so in order to make my living along with the writing. But. Throughout 2017, I have been looking at how magazine editors (largely in North American context since many of the English language venues that currently dominate the spec field are based here) approach their final products. And it’s not good.

There’s the obvious point that the field is not going to broaden into less white-focused output until more Black/POC/Indigenous editors are given the same opportunities/allowed to wield the same level of power as white men. And, yes, I can name two reasonably powerful/well-published white women editors in spec, thank you for preemptively asking. Now ask yourself why it’s only two, and why that alone is often considered progress since the entire slate of major Year’s Best spec editors remains white. (Not counting guest editors of Year’s Best series.)

This is not a remotely new point, and quite a number of editors, readers, writers, and librarians of colour have been making this point eloquently for years. Eventually the industry is going to have to listen, or it’s going to fall apart. Publishing is an industry of slow growth and slow change, but that stagnancy is aided by an authorial and editorial class that benefits deeply from a legacy of systemic oppression of non-white voices. A system of structurally designed and passively (and often actively) enforced white supremacy, one might say…

And, no, guest issues aren’t going to be the answer to this. They’re a good start and I’m always happy to see them. But they’re a minor redress in a field where the power wielded by white editors is oh so graciously gifted to someone else for an issue, and then reclaimed post haste. For all that those temporary spaces are excellent for giving people the space to see themselves represented in fictional spaces, a temporary transference of power does not alter the status quo. Does that mean we should stop doing them as an industry? No, it does not, those guest-edited issues give us some fantastic shit while we’re working at decolonizing the industry.

So what’s the answer?

More North American magazines run by people of colour/Indigenous/Aboriginal editors. More North American-produced Year’s Best books helmed by people of colour/Indigenous/Aboriginal editors — and not just as guest editors under a series director’s guiding hand.

Look. I’m tired of reading stories from the same ten fucking magazines in Year’s Best anthologies, the majority of those works authored by white writers.

I’m aware I’m supposed to care about the output of Asimov’s and Analog and other mags with the same level of history. But for the most part I really don’t. F&SF runs some beautiful work, and occasionally there are things in Analog and Asimov’s that are absolutely worth reading. Mags like Interzone and Black Static, too.

But when you have one or two writers of colour in your anthology, sometimes topping out at as many as six or seven (gasp, amazing!) and you’re running several (it was far more in many mags I read this year) stories from white writers that are boring as fuck, I question your editorial choices.

Also, other quick points I’m just going to bitch about. Because why the hell not at this point?

1. Magazine publishers: Hire. Some(/More). Fucking. Copyeditors.

Pro mags, I’m looking at you, too. My eyes bleed every time I compile these posts. 2017 was especially bad for this. I’m not sure why, but it was profuse this year.

2. Websites are meant to be read: Design them for use, especially mobile interaction.

If your website is a clusterfuck of 1998-style GeoCities abstraction, variable text styles, and hideous formatting, I can’t read your publication. I’m serious about the mobile version thing — I’m reading most mag content on my phone at this point, because I’m doing so in transit. Design your websites so they’re clean and readable, especially for readers with vision issues. And provide transcripts of your audio content.

Accessibility is as much an issue in virtual spaces as it is in physical ones. If you’re not designing your mag with consideration as to how (and who) is going to read it, you need to fix that.

There are so many ways to create exceptional content, or to make room for it to happen. And the questions at the forefront of those choices have to be: Are we making space for/supporting/providing opportunities for the least heard among us? Are we doing better by people historically divested of opportunities to tell their stories?

If you’re not, take a hard look in the mirror and ask yourself why the fuck you’re not.

And while all sides of the industry are working on that, go read something amazing. Go create something amazing. Go make space for amazing people. And I’ll see you all back here for the 2018 recs, hopefully released in a more timely fashion next year. :)

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