The Best Short SFF – January 2018

shimmer 41Must Read

“An Incomplete Catalogue of Miraculous Births, or, Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita”, Rebecca Campbell (Shimmer Magazine issue 41 January 2018) Short Story
A story that feels at once like a controlled experiment and a wild surrender to the muse, Campbell’s collage of tales interlaces a selection of myths, fables, and legends about amazing/monstrous pregnancies and births. The guiding narrative is a fictionalized account of a famous hoax in which a woman named Mary Toft supposedly convinced several doctors that she had given birth to a succession of rabbits. Ducking traditional plot structures in favor of juxtaposing grotesque imagery and emotional/spiritual subjective realities, Campbell depicts how horrors in the world are internalized and transmogrify in the womb. The story’s momentum, somehow both ecstatic and melancholy, feels like eggs cracking and spilling across the world.

Highly Regarded

“The Ghoul Goes West”, Dale Bailey (Tor.com, 1/17/2018) Novelette
Bailey’s tale of two brothers growing up with a love of cinema hit close to home for me. Ben Clarke travels to Hollywood upon learning that this brother Denny, a failed TV writer, has died of a drug overdose. Once there he uncovers an unproduced screenplay Denny wrote – a biographical script about Bela Lugosi that veers considerably from the facts of Lugosi’s life – as well as a stack of videotapes for movies that simply shouldn’t exist. Bailey doesn’t pander to the reader; Ben’s regret over his broken relationship with his brother feels genuine, and Bailey wisely avoids resorting to melodrama or overt sentimentality. The fantastical element, involving a search for the elusive video store where Denny rented the impossible films, is the reddest of red herrings, but expresses the theme of the story, and the point of Ben’s journey, perfectly.
“Blurred Lives”, Adam-Troy Castro (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Jan/Feb 2018) Novella
The third story in Castro’s Draiken cycle, though there is more than enough backstory provided to assist new readers. Draiken and his frenemy Thorne track down the sadistic Silver, who offers a devil’s bargain for the information they seek. This is the most intimate, and moving, of the Draiken stories so far, with an exciting, James Bond-like villain and plot, and a heartbreaking (and believable) twist ending.
“Mother Tongues”, S. Qiouyi Lu (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Jan/Feb 2018) Short Story
Jiawen can sell her native language of Mandarin to a Language Broker, but the procedure that copies the language pathways would also erase them in her own brain. The deal pays her enough to put her daughter through Stanford, but is it worth the loss of her mother tongue? Outstanding characterization and plotting elevate the story, but its depiction of what the loss of Jiawen’s native language means to her perception of the world, as well as her own identity, is what sets it apart. Only some nagging questions about the premise keep this story from being a Must Read.
“The Hydraulic Emperor”, Arkady Martine (Uncanny issue 20 Jan/Feb 2018) Short Story
Far-future science fiction rarely addresses the value of art in its worldbuilding; Martine’s story does an exceptional job of it. Mallory is an art collector obsessed with finding a lost “immersion film” called The Hydraulic Emperor, by the reclusive artist Aglaé Skemety. A shipping company offers her information on the whereabouts of the film if she enters a strange auction on their behalf. The catch is that the alien race behind the auction, the Qath, will only accept the personal sacrifices of it participants as payment. How much is Mallory willing to give up to win her heart’s desire? A clever and well realized story, though I can’t help but wish the Qath box was more than just a mcguffin.
beneath the sugar skyBeneath the Sugar Sky, Seanan McGuire (Tor Novellas, January 2017) Novella
McGuire’s sequel to her Hugo and Nebula winning novella Every Heart a Doorway is just as charming, and even more adventurous. A girl named Rini falls from the sky claiming to be the daughter of Sumi, a former student at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. But Sumi was murdered as a teenager, and had no children, so how can Rini even exist in the first place? A madcap, portal-hopping adventure ensues, taking McGuire’s heroes from our world to the land of the dead, then to Sumi’s and Rini’s nonsense homeworld of Confection, where the world is constantly being baked into existence. Exactly the kind of wickedly playful joyride McGuire excels at.
“Black Fanged Thing”, Sam Rebelein (Shimmer Magazine issue 41 Jan 2018) Short Story
An eerie, unsettling fable of a generic suburban town where every evening, at sundown, the titular creature drags its collection of glass bottles clanging through the streets. At any time, any adult resident can approach the creature and ask it for their bottle, to read the supposedly life-changing slip of paper tucked inside. Middle-aged husband and father Jude is disaffected with his humdrum existence and considers asking for his bottle. Well-written and atmospheric, though definitely a young man’s take on a mid-life crisis. I am curious to know how Rebelein will reflect on this story when he reaches Jude’s age.
“Sour Milk Girls”, Erin Roberts (Clarkesworld Issue 136, January 2018) Short Story
Ghost is a teenage foster, one of the “third-floors” at the Agency, an orphanage whose inhabitants have the memories of their prior lives temporarily removed until they age out. The new girl, Princess, arrives on the third floor with memories intact, and Ghost wants to know why. Ghost’s remarkable voice, which renders the peculiar culture and environment of the third floor in bitter, wary terms, is the story’s big selling point. The other girls are given unique voices as well, while also speaking in a common vernacular. A steady and engrossing tale, that meets with a sharp but poignant end.                         “Me, Waiting for Me, Hoping for Something More”, Dee Warrick (Shimmer Magazine issue 41 January 2018) Short Story
A surprising and heartwarming ghost story, told from the perspective of the offending poltergeist. Who and what the ghost is, and what he means to the person he is haunting, is the hook that makes this story more affecting than the standard haunted house yarn. No spoilers here, just give it a whirl and you won’t be disappointed.

Honorable Mention

fiyah 5“The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls”, Senaa Ahmad (Strange Horizons January 2018) Short Story
“A Cigarette Burn in Your Memory”, Bo Balder (Clarkesworld Issue 136) Short Story
“Nneamaka’s Ghost”, Walter Dinjos (Beneath Ceaseless Skies issue 243, January 2018) Short Story
“The Heaven-Moving Way”, Chi Hui [trans. Andy Dudak] (Apex issue 104, January 2017) Short Story
“A Night Out at a Nice Place”, Nick Mamatas (Apex issue 104, January 2017) Short Story
“The Epic of Sakina”, Sheri Paul (Fiyah issue 5, Winter 2018) Novelette
“An Aria for the Bloodlords”, Hannah Strom-Martin (Beneath Ceaseless Skies issue 242, January 2018) Novelette

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