I used to review short stories. Critiqued a ton of them on the sadly defunct The Fix, back when Eugie Foster edited that wonderful website of short story reviews. Also reviewed them on this site, where I tried to bring attention to great stories by recommending short stories worth reading each week.
Then I slacked off. Which is shame on me, because I still read so many short stories. But instead of sharing them I stayed silent.
No longer. Inspired by the superb work K. Tempest Bradford is doing at io9 to highlight genre short fiction I'm again picking stories of the week. And my first is "Calved" by Sam. J. Miller in the September 2015 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction.
Sam J. Miller is a new author whose stories have been published in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Shimmer and many other places. He's also been nominated for a Nebula Award, won a Shirley Jackson Award, and has a novel coming out next year.
His first story for Asimov's is a near-future tale set on Earth after a global environmental disaster. The narrator, Dom, is an ice-grunt, a poor immigrant cutting ice from glaciers for use as drinking water around the world. When he's not working under horrific conditions on an illegal ice boat he lives on the floating Swedish city of Qaanaaq, where he battles those who hate him because he is poor and doesn't speak the city's main language.
If this sounds like a familiar tale of an immigrant being exploited and discriminated against, that's because it is. But Miller inverts the trope by having Dom be an immigrant from New York City, who fled the USA right before the environment there went to hell and back.
If the plot I've described was all there was to "Calved," then what we'd have would be the set-up for a decent science fiction story, a tale which offers nothing more than a cautionary warning to readers against becoming too comfortable with the benefits they've been blessed with by both history and power. But the heart of Miller's story doesn't come from the backstory described above. Instead, the story derives its true power, as do all great stories, from the relationships between the characters.
You see, Dom is trying and failing to maintain a relationship with his son. Because he must spend so much time at sea harvesting ice, his son has grown up without him. Now a teenager, his son is beginning to see Dom as the rest of the citizens of Qaanaaq see him — a poor piece of trash not worth saving or helping.
Dom is desperate to change his son's opinion. And to accomplish this he ... does something which will haunt me for years to come.
When I finished this story I wanted to scream. I wanted to punish Miller for writing something which so gut my emotions. I wanted to hug him for creating a story so beautifully captivating and so perfectly devastating to read.
"Calved" by Sam. J. Miller is one of the year's best stories and will likely be on my Hugo and Nebula Award short list. Seek this story out and read it.