My story recommendation of the week (only the third one since December, but "Story Recommendation of the Month" would sound stupid) goes to Beauty Belongs to the Flowers by Matthew Sanborn Smith, posted in January at Tor.com.
Most of the stories I recommend here grab me from the opening line, and often I start composing an SROTW post in my head halfway into the story. It didn't happen that way with "Beauty Belongs to the Flowers." I found the piece well-written from the outset and Smith's future Nagasaki nicely imagined. But the story of a young woman's unrequited love did not grab me at first. I felt the love story could as easily have been set in the present day or even Victorian England; it seemed to me disconnected from the futuristic setting.
Sometimes it's nice to be completely, gobsmackingly wrong.
By the end of the tale, Miho's love story proves wonderfully revealing of this all-too plausible future Nagasaki. In this future, young people are so tied into the "feeds" to the video strips over their eyes that our protagonist Miho transmits a photo of someone she just met at a party to a friend, rather than simply pointing him out. Smith conveys the feel of this future through some wonderful imagery, such as an advertisement overlay to Miho's feed, by which a huge version of Aimi, the anime-dream-girl robot, seems to be emerging from the bay like Godzilla.
This society values the artificial above the natural, so Miho only feels sad for the misguided old man who tells her a real flower is more beautiful than a man-made one. Naturally then, when the narcissistic young man Miho loves falls instead for a shiny new Aimi model, it doesn't occur to Miho to tell him to grow up. Instead, she wonders how she can be more like a robot. Her solution to the problem is memorably disturbing.
I urge you to check out "Beauty Belongs to the Flowers," and if it doesn't grab you at first, keep going -- you'll be glad you did.
The only bad thing about "Beauty Belongs to the Flowers" is it led me to Smith's blog, where I read that he named his protagonist after the lead singer of Cibo Matto, and now I will have "Know Your Chicken" bouncing through my head for the rest of the day. Oh, well, small price!
I am glad to see Tor.com publishing more fiction by promising new authors, rather than just promoting its existing corps of novelists. Matthew Sanborn Smith's fiction has appeared at ChiZine and GUD, among other publications. He's also big into podcasts, at StarShipSofa and his own Beware The Hairy Mango. He has vowed to write nearly 900 more stories in the next ten years, so we will either be seeing much more of him or he will soon be institutionalized.