The Best Short SFF – May 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 short form SFF!

If this list looks a little slight, it is due to the fact that three of my regular reads (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone, Shimmer) have not been fully chewed and digested yet. They will be included in June’s reading.

Must Read

The Wait is Longer Than You Think”, Adrian Simmons (GigaNotoSaurus, 5/1/2018) Novelette
John the Human and Colophinanoc the Kinri are marooned on a distant planet. Rescue is coming, but it’s going to be awhile – years in fact – and for John, survival means more than just having enough to eat: he needs a friend. Unfortunately, the Kinri are a fundamentally solitary race, who can’t comprehend humans’ obsession with socializing. Adrian Simmons funny, lyrical, heartfelt (and heartbreaking) novelette “The Wait is Longer Than You Think” is the kind of story where the characters figure out how to do everything right, but it still goes wrong because the universe is a shitty and unforgiving place. Far from cynical or pessimistic, though, it evinces a healthy stoicism about the fate of its heroes, and revels in the small victories that make life worth the effort.
The Freeze-Frame Revolution (Sunflower Cycle), Peter Watts (Tachyon Publications 5/29/2018) Novella
After sixty-five million years of trekking across the galaxy building gates to facilitate human expansion, some of the crew of the Eriophora want to stage a mutiny against the AI that runs their lives. It’s a tough thing to manage when they spend nearly all of the journey in cold sleep and they don’t even know who or how many of their allies will be awake at the same time, at intervals stretching several millennia or more. The most striking thing about the scope of “The Freeze-Frame Revolution” is the way it makes the scale of the universe and the wonder of discovery feel like more of a prison than a liberating experience. Watts falls within the lineage of classic hard SF writers who can make far-future science magic seem tangible, but his true gift lies in how personable he makes it. Heavy themes like alienation, the value of existence, and the nature of consciousness are woven into the brisk narrative with humor and pathos.
murderbot 2Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries Book 2), Martha Wells (Tor.com 5/8/2018) Novella
When Artificial Condition opens, Murderbot has won a dubious kind of freedom thanks to the human allies it made in All Systems Red. Still ever wary of the protocols it must follow to allay the suspicions of the humans it encounters, Murderbot sets off to learn the truth about the massacre it had been held responsible for but has no clear recollection of. It takes a job running security for a group of disgruntled scientists as a cover to infiltrate the company but soon realizes that dealing with other AI can be trickier than dealing with humans. Tightly plotted with more personal stakes than its predecessor, Artificial Condition an even more satisfying work of brainy, funny, compelling sci-fi action. I highly recommend this series, starting with All Systems Red, to anyone who has not picked it up yet.

Highly Regarded

The Root Cellar” by Maria Haskins (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #251, May 10, 2018) Short Story
Haskins’ weirder-than-weird tale features a pair of child siblings – older sister/narrator Amadine and baby brother Jeremy – who suffer a gruesome ritual at the hands of their father, who insists he is protecting them from someone much worse. They later discover that he wasn’t kidding. Running on pure nightmare-logic, “The Root Cellar” sneaks under your skin with ghastly imagery and a beautifully sustained atmosphere of creeping menace.
Blessings”, Naomi Novik (Uncanny Magazine Issue 22, May/June 2018) Short Story
Noble-born baby Magda’s parents invite six fairies to a dinner party hoping to secure at least one blessing for their child. The guests have a little too much to drink and the blessings get hilariously out of hand. The story skips forward to Magda as an adult, to show us the result of their shenanigans. Novik shows off her dynamic grasp of fairy-tale narratology in a very short story that is both perfect the way it is and makes you wish there was more.
Fleeing Oslyge”, Sally Gwylan (Clarkesworld Issue 140, May 2018) Novelette
This military-colony SF story follows Senne, who escaped from her home city of Oslyge after it was sacked by the invading Tysthänder and is now a refugee travelling with four resistance fighters searching for the rest of their camp. They are constantly on guard because of the tech the Tysthänder can use to track them, and the group’s highest-ranking officer, Gunter, suspects there may be a traitor among them. I was impressed with how the author kept me as disoriented as Senne, who is not a soldier and understands nothing about war or the army. Since the soldiers come from two different camps and don’t know each other, Senne doesn’t know who to trust – and the one soldier who is the most threatening toward her is allied with Gunter. And no one seems to know much of anything about the Tysthänder – if they are human invaders from another colony, or human proxies fighting for alien invaders. Estrangement is an important component of science fiction; we readers immerse ourselves in the strangeness of unfamiliar worlds, and often the stranger the better. Gwylan adds another layer to this by making her characters as estranged from their own reality as we are, which is as potent a statement about the condition of war one can find.
Lightspeed 96Our Side of the Door”, Kodiak Julian (Lightspeed Issue 96, May 2018) Short Story
The Narrator of this story is a fantasy writer who has wished his whole life to find a portal to another realm. As an adult, he still wants such a door to appear, though only so his young son can find it and go through to the other side. There is a wonderful balance between the daily uncertainties and anxieties the narrator copes with and the fantastical hopes he carries for his son. Is it even fair for him to nudge his son toward a door that the boy himself may have no desire to walk through? It is also unclear if his belief in doors is reasonable or a product of self-delusion, or something in between. Lyrical and tender, “Our Side of the Door” is not so much a fantasy story as it is a story about how people internalize fantasy.

Also Recommended

“When the Rains Come Back”, Cadwell Turnbull (Asimov’s Science Fiction, May/June 2018) Short Story
Now Watch My Rising”, A. Merc. Rustad (Fireside Magazine Issue 55, May 2018) Flash Fiction

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