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Paul Jessup’s Best of 2020 Short Story Roundup

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Winter. Cold snow blowing through, that dark hours of nature that mimic death. These are the days of isolation, and long hours of darkness. The sun barely exists in the winter. Add in the raging pandemic, and going outdoors becomes more fraught and terrible than ever before. In these hours of our own warm hearth and lights lit to keep the dark away, we need short stories more than ever before. It is our protection against despair and emotional fragmentation. Put on a cup of tea or hot cocoa, curl up under several blankets, and read the outside world away.

How else are expected to survive all this? Far apart from family, friends, loved ones. Distanced by the nature of the disease and the frost that licks our windowpanes. In fiction we can talk to new friends, old friends, and play games with these characters in our mind. It is like a simulation in that way, or a holodeck. The characters and places exist in a way that cannot be achieved in video games or film or even television. There is a strange kind of reality, when wrapped up in a good story. 

And 2020 was a really good year for shortstories. For starters, we saw the return of Apex Magazine and Fantasy Magazine. We had amazing issues of Fiyah, F&SF, Strange Horizons, and so many others. There was also the release of so many great anthologies, it was hard to keep up. I guess that’s a great place to start as any, isn’t it? The anthologies.

So, Mister Jessup, what are the best anthologies published this year? So glad you asked! Terra Incognita: New Short Speculative Stories from Africa, Vernacular Books’ own The Way of the Laser and Evil in Technicolor, Wired Magazine’s The Future of Work, From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back, Cursed: An Anthology, LatinX Rising, and The Book of Dragons are my personal favorites from this year. I would highly suggest just going out and buying these and reading them from cover to cover, every story in each of these were fantastic, and well worth a glance or two.

Staying in the physical print space, our classic genre magazines also had a pretty good year, too. My favorite story in Asimov’s this year is We have Bereft, I Come to the Nameless World by Benjamin Rosenbaum (published in July/August’s issue). There is so much to love about this story, the way it uses negative space, the poetic language, and the awesome sfnal concepts. It’s worth tracking down a copy and buying it, and I would really be surprised if it doesn’t end up in a few Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies for 2020.

In The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction we have In the Eyes of Jack Saul by Rick Bowes, published in the May/June issue for 2020. And wow, is this a short story. I keep returning to this one every month or so since it’s publication, and it really was a no brainer when deciding which one was the best of F&SF for 2020. A gay prostitute and rebel from history crosses paths with Dorian Grey in a fantastic bit of magical realism that is perfection. 

Now, moving away from the print magazines, we turn to our nascent online community of webzines and the like. What are the bests of each of these? And in the end, which of these will be the best of the year and take home the Amazing Awesome Short Story Crown for 2020? Oh, the tension, it is so thrilling, no? 

First up, we go to Clarkesworld magazine. The best of this year goes to Nine Words for Loneliness in the Language of the Uma’u by ML Clark. It speaks to the loneliness of our pandemic with poetry and interesting techniques when it comes to prose. I also highly enjoyed the wild and fun approach to worldbuilding that takes risks where a lot of science fiction play it safe.

From Clarkesworld we move to Beneath Ceaseless Skies, with the best of this year being The Honey of the World and the Queen of Crows By Dimitra Nikolaidou. Very much a magical realist story, with a theater of the absurd (think The Flies, Waiting for Godot, Rhinoceros, etc) kind of vibe. This story takes place in the waiting room in hell, and does some fantastic things with nested stories. A tricky thing to pull off, and even though a few short stories published this year used the same basic technique, this was the best one to use it. And that is saying a lot.

From BCS, we go to Uncanny Magazine, and the best short story they published this year- Dresses like White Elephants by Meg Elison. Story in conversation with a famous Hemmingway story, and reveals the bones beneath it that I’d always found unsettling. It takes something taught in most college courses and acts like an x-ray to what is really going on, taking the subtext, making it text, and then layering in another subtext of its own. 

Now we turn to the year’s best for Lightspeed, with Marie Vibbert’s Single Malt Spacecraft. An interesting time travel story, using the way faster than light travel dilates time in a way I’d never seen used in science fiction before. After that, we have the best story published in Giganotosaurus, which is A Long Tango across a Canopy of Whispering Leaves by Nin Harris. Another fantastic story involving a sentient forest, this time we have interesting gender approaches to dynastic blood lines and the concept of the sacrificial king in mythology and folklore.

The best of Daily Science Fiction would be the poetic tour de force, It Only Takes a few Months for the Poet to Position it’s Jaws by Mitchell Shanklin.  The best short story in Three Lobed Burning Eye has to be At the End of this Song a Ghost is Waiting by Cat Rambo. And the best thing published at Tor.com is Lavie Tidhar’s Judge Dee and the Limits of the Law, hands down. And finally, we have the best that Psuedopod published this year with Wendy Wagner’s The Smell of the Night Basement

And with that, we now move away from each individual publication, and tackle our best of the best for the year of 2020. Which short story will be crowned king? Oh that is a tough one, for certain. I could cop out and just say all the stories were the best, but how lame would that be? I need to not pull a Chidi on this one, and actually make a decision, as hard as that seems to be.

So which is it?

After much deliberation, I finally settled on White Cloth, Red Giraffe by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu, in FIYAH number 15. This is the story I return to so much, a story I think about quite often. It sticks with you, and really just amazes me on every level. This is the best story of 2020, which was very difficult to say, since there were so many great stories. Read it and see for yourself.

So, that’s it for 2020! Let’s see what awesome stuff 2021 will bring. I’m ready and waiting.