Reminder: While many of the stories in this column are available to read free online, these venues pay the authors for their work and rely on income from readers to do so. If one or more of these zines consistently publishes fiction that you like, please consider buying a subscription. Or, if you read a story or stories that you especially like, consider purchasing the issue it appears in. On this page I have provided links for all the available options. If the story is available to read online, clicking on the name of the story will send you there; clicking on the name of the magazine will get you their subscription page, and clicking on the number/date of the issue will send you to a single issue purchase page. Thank you for supporting the short SFF market!
“Umbernight”, Carolyn Ives Gilman (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 137, February 2018) Novella
Gilman excels at Colony SF, and Umbernight is one of the most thrilling she has ever produced. The settlers on Dust didn’t know they were migrating to a binary system, the second, smaller sun (since dubbed Umber) hides behind a cloud of gas for most of the year, except for one night when the tilt and position of the planet exposes it to Umber’s deadly radiation. The earliest settlers learned this the hard way. Their descendants are careful to protect themselves from Umbernight, but this year an automated supply ship (sent before Umber’s discovery) will make its drop just out of the settlement’s reach, and retrieval of the capsule will be cutting it close. Michiko and a “suicide team” are conscripted by the governing committee to make the journey; most of their explorations of Dust have confirmed that the planet is not suitable for long-term human habitation, so the new supplies are sorely needed and waiting out the long winter to retrieve them is a politically unpopular move.
Once the tension starts, it doesn’t let up. It quickly becomes clear that they won’t make it back to the settlement in time, so the question turns to how they (and how many of them) will survive the long night. Since there have never been any survivors to attest to what exactly happens to the planet on Umbernight, they become the first witnesses. What they learn inspires equal measure of wonder and terror. The story is unputdownable and offers genuine old school sci-fi thrills to accompany Gilman’s canny character insights. A classic.
“Penitents”, Rich Larson (Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue 245, February 2018) Short Story
Mara lives a relatively privileged life in an underground habitat after the Earth is ravaged by invading aliens. When her best friend is captured by aliens on the surface, she hires a scavenger to help find her. She soon discovers the truth about why the aliens attacked and took over the planet, and what they are doing with the humans they abduct, and she is faced with a difficult choice.
Larson consistently produces quality fiction in the objective sense (solid pacing, good action and suspense, solid characterization), and the fact that he does so while producing such a large quantity of work is truly impressive. Hardly a month goes by that does not see three or more new Larson stories hitting the shelves. That is not to stay every story is a masterpiece – subjectively speaking, quite a bit of his output is middling-to-fair, if generally well-composed and well-structured. “Penitents” definitely qualifies as one of his more memorable offerings. Early on, Larson judiciously illustrates a post-apocalyptic landscape that left deep scars outside (nothing but “fused glass and cooled lava”) and in (Mara imagines the environment “seeping into her body, rotting her bones”). But even in the best-rendered setting, stories always come down to character motives and choices – and the wider the gulf between what the protagonist wants and what she needs, the more there is to gain or to lose. “Penitents” succeeds because Mara’s journey from selfish to selfless is perfectly suited to the world Larson deposits her in, and that is one of the best formulas for success we can measure short fiction by.
“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington”, Phenderson Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine Issue 52, February 2018) Short Story [Single issues available only through subscription/Patreon]
“You Know How the Story Goes”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Tor.com, February 21, 2018) Short Story [Purchase links at bottom of linked story page]
“The Starship and the Temple Cat”, Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies issue 244, February 2018) Short Story
“Work and Ye Shall Eat”, Walter McKight (Apex Magazine Issue 105, February 2018) Short Story
“How I Got Published (12 Tips from a Bestselling Author)”, Dominica Phetteplace (Fireside Magazine Issue 52, February 2018) Short Story [Single issues available only through subscription/Patreon]
“Obliteration”, Robert Reed (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 137, February 2018) Short Story
“Where Would You Be Now?” Carrie Vaughn (Tor.com, 2/7/2018) Novelette [Purchase links at bottom of linked story page]