The Best Short SFF – April 2018

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. If the story is available to read online, clicking on the name of the story will send you there; subscription/donation/purchase information is available at each site. For stories that are not available to read online, there is a link to that zine’s subscription page. Thank you for reading and supporting the short SFF market!

Must Read

Lightpeed 95“What is Eve?”, Will McIntosh (Lightspeed Issue 95, April 2018) Novelette
Ben is one of the “good kids” who gets high grades and doesn’t cause trouble and generally trusts the authority figures in his life, though that doesn’t mean he lacks the finely-honed bullshit-o-meter tweens are naturally gifted with. It comes in handy when he and a bunch of similarly inclined 12-year-olds are shipped off to a new school where they are forced to follow very detailed instructions on how to interact with a unique and completely terrifying classmate. Will McIntosh is already well established as a master of quirky, high-concept sci-fi, and “What Is Eve?” may be among the best short works he’s ever written. His caustic wit and generosity of spirit are on full display here, housed in his instantly loveable adolescent hero.
“Strange Waters”, Samantha Mills (Strange Horizons April 2, 2018) Short Story
Mika is lost at sea, afraid she will never be with her children again. Her problem isn’t that she can’t find her home city of Maelstrom, it’s that she can’t find the right year to arrive. Every time she slips through the timestream she ends up in a year well before they are born or well after they are dead. Mills creates a world of wonders viewed through the eyes of a protagonist who has had enough of wonders and just wants to get home. “Strange Waters” is a nice balancing act, pitting the epic sweep of history against one person’s personal desires. The ending hits all the right notes.
“One for Sorrow, Two for Joy”, LaShawn M. Wanak (Fireside Magazine Issue 54, April 2018) Short Story
LaShawn M. Wanak’s wistful, gothic-tinged fantasy “One for Sorrow, Two for Joy” is painted with light and shadow, shrouded in mist. It is the story of an undertaker who can “soften the edges of grief”, if the bereaved are willing to make a sacrifice. Not everyone is. Wanak’s story illuminates a corner of our existence that we can all relate to but rarely wish to discuss – the pain of losing a child – and imbues in it a mythopoetic noblesse. Like the best magic, its spectral invocations are both practical and symbolic, material and metaphysical. The author presents us with a vision of a harsh world where a proper balance of empathy and self-reliance is the key to perseverance.

Highly Regarded

“Carouseling”, Rich Larson (Clarkesworld Issue 139, April 2018) Short Story
In Larson’s tragic tale, Ostep is preparing to visit his girlfriend Alyce in Mombasa, where she is working on a revolutionary breakthrough in quantum mechanics. During her residence there, the couple simulate physical contact via the use of “linkwear”, which they use to dance together even though they are living miles apart. Just prior to his arrival, there is an accident at the lab, and Alyce and the other scientists are killed. Upon reaching the site, Ostep discovers that due to the nature of Alyce’s experiment, she might not be 100% gone. Larson does a brilliant job of quickly endearing Alyce’s and Ostep’s relationship to the reader, setting up an emotionally cathartic finale, even if the outcome is expected. I was reminded a little of the 2017 Best Picture Oscar nominee Lion – a touching and expertly made film that succeeded despite having its most important plot development feel like a blatant advertisement for Google Maps. In this case, Larson’s story shamelessly plugs a gadget that hasn’t been invented yet, which I suppose is the whole point of science fiction, or one of them anyway. In any case, it’s nice to see a well-crafted story about technology reshaping the human experience in a positive way.
“The Thought that Counts”, K.J. Parker (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #250, April 26, 2018) Novelette
The title of K.J. Parker’s latest story – “The Thought That Counts” – basically telegraphs its intentions to the reader: we can be fairly sure that we’re in for a “no good deed goes unpunished” kind of story, but does that necessarily mean the punishment is undeserved? Parker’s narrator, as instantly charming and ingratiating as he is, is so cocksure as he easily and successfully defends an artist from charges of witchcraft that you could write “but, actually” backwards in black permanent marker on his forehead and he wouldn’t see it in the mirror. This is one of those stories where you can guess at what’s coming and still enjoy the ride.
Fireside 54“50 Ways to Leave Your Fairy Lover”, Aimee Picchi (Fireside Magazine Issue 54, April 2018) Flash Fiction
Flash fiction is a trickier beast than it seems: often these works just cough up a snippet of a clever premise or a jokey aside with an ironic zinger for an ending. Reading DSF every day can give you punchline fatigue. The best short stories are the ones that feel like the tip of the iceberg, like there are whole worlds and lives and emotions sprouting and spiraling endlessly from every pore on its surface – when a flash piece achieves this it feels like some kind of miracle. There is a touch of the miraculous in Aimee Picchi’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Fairy Lover”; its premise is compacted in a short letter of advice from grandmother to granddaughter, essentially boiled down to “So you’re trying to break up with your fae beau don’t worry same thing happened to me here’s what you do.” Aside from creating the grandma we all wish we had, Picchi’s energetic tale is chock-full of sentences and paragraphs that could have filled pages worth of stories on their own. Economy of expression is generally valued in fiction at any length; in flash fiction it is a must. Picchi has a novel’s worth of material here and tossed it off in less than a thousand words, like she has ideas to spare. That’s just showing off.
“Angry Kings”, Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #250, April 26, 2018) Novelette
“Angry Kings” is like a good glass of Scotch whisky: a lot of big, complex flavors distilled to their boldest essences. Lady Magritte is a princess trying to reconcile the kindly, loving father she knew as a child with the paranoid, belligerent monarch he became. Upon escaping the confines of the castle, she discovers the truth about his change of character, and embarks on a quest to save him from himself. The story is told in first person, in the kind of non-linear way people often relate personal anecdotes, where getting at the emotional truth of the story is more important than arriving at the end.

Also Recommended

The Dark 35“Without Exile”, Eleanna Castroianni (Clarkesworld Issue 139, April 2018) Short Story
“Nitrate Nocturnes”, Ruth Joffre (Lightspeed Issue 95, April 2018) Short Story
“Weft”, Rahul Kanakia (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #249, April 12, 2018) Short Story
“Fireskin”, Joanne Rixon (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #249, April 12, 2018) Short Story
“Snake Season”, Erin Roberts (The Dark Issue 35, April 2018) Short Story
“The Other Side of Otto Mountain”, Ivy Spadille (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 6, Spring 2018) Novelette

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