The Best Short SFF – October 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 home page. Thank you for reading and supporting short form SFF!

No time for zine reviews this month, but I still managed to squeeze in plenty of reading. Here are the stories that stood out for me:

Must Read

Nine Last DaysNine Last Days on Planet Earth”, Daryl Gregory (Tor.com 9/19/2019) Novelette

At first glance, the title of Daryl Gregory’s novelette implies a countdown. It might take a moment to realize that the particular ordering of the first three words – “Nine Last Days”, not “Last Nine Days” – robs it of its urgency. All our days are among our last. We peek in on nine of them strewn throughout the long life of LT, who at the age of ten witnesses a meteor shower that seeds the earth with alien flora, an event that shapes the course of his life as well as the planet’s history. LT has no use for the reactionary narratives that often guide stories of alien invasion; he seeks only knowledge and understanding and in doing so he makes a lasting positive impact on the world. Gregory’s masterful, impressionist epic offers an optimistic course-correction for our cynical times.

Highly Regarded

interzone 277“Inscribed on Dark Water”, Gregor Hartmann (Interzone #277, Sept 2018) Novelette

Another outstanding entry in Hartmann’s Zephyr story cycle. Olani is an intern at a fuel refinery on the frontier planet of Zephyr, but instead of being a stepping stone to greater things she mostly just cleans up after people who either resent or ignore her. Two women at the refinery take an interest in her; religious “Pather” Tessa is always plying her with advice that seems to have little to do with a successful career path and more with personal fulfillment, while lawyer Mingzhen pursues a dalliance with Olani that promises connections with the “right” people. Mingzhen offers the surer path to career advancement; Olani finds it easy to dismiss Tessa’s advice as fanatical religiosity, but she may have a point underneath all that pretense. “Inscribed on Dark Water” is the definition of grown-up sci-fi: intricate worldbuilding, intimate and insightful character detail, a perfect balance of hard and social SF.

We Ragged Few”, Kate Alice Marshall (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, 9/27/2018) Novella

Now that the rothounds have crossed the warding stones at the boundary, Reyna knows her late sister’s prophecy will come true and the village will be destroyed. Talgren, the village chief, has his own soothsayer who offers a more convenient counter-explanation for the prophecy’s claims. Reyna and her band of believers must act against Talgren’s wishes and plan their flight in secret, but with so much preparation required their chances of escaping diminish with each passing day. “We Ragged Few” offers classic Sword-and-Sorcery feels with a modern flavor. The details of the setting and backstory (mythology, history, social structure, etc.) are as refined as a story of this length can possibly offer, yet Marshall keeps everything moving at a tight pace. I enjoyed the fact that while Talgren was clearly the story’s antagonist, his willingness to indulge Reyna’s transgressions and hope that she will come to accept his truth makes it hard to hate him, at least for a little while. Great characters and an engrossing narrative make for one of the year’s best novellas.

Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries), Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing) Novella

Everything comes full circle for Murderbot in the conclusion to Wells’ quadrilogy of novellas. The GrayCris Corporation takes Doctor Mensah hostage, believing her responsible for the difficulties Murderbot has caused them. Murderbot must affect a rescue of its friend without giving up the goods it has on GrayCris and while almost certainly walking into a trap. Wells weaves together all the elements that have made this series such a rousing success: caustic humor, lightning-paced and suspenseful storytelling, and a deeply human emotional core. The action in Exit Strategy is almost non-stop, but the true reward for readers is the completion of Murderbot’s character arc, its journey from self-serving anti-hero to selfless hero; a transition it achieves without losing the edge that made it so endearing in the first place.

Lightspeed 101Super-Luminous Spiral”, Cameron Van Sant (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 101, Oct 2018) Short Story

The protagonist is an undergraduate creative writing student who hasn’t written anything worth a damn until he falls for “galaxy boy” – a classmate whose “blue and green skin is speckled in spirals of twinkling light.” Profundity pours from him until galaxy boy moves on to his next catch, leaving our hero to chase the dragon. I keep telling myself that I don’t like stories told in the second person, then one like this comes along that utilizes it to good effect. A convincing and compelling journey of self-discovery seems to be what second person was built for.

Thirty-Three Percent Joe,” Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld Issue 145, October 2018) Novelette

The hero of Palmer’s tragicomic novelette is a terrible soldier who is so incompetent he can’t even die on the battlefield when he tries. He keeps getting injured enough to require mechanical limbs and organs to replace the ones he loses, all of which are “smart” enough to conspire to keep him out of harm’s way. Similar in theme to Palmer’s  sardonic enough Hugo-winning war story “The Secret Life of Bots”, “Thirty-Three Percent Joe” practically irradiates the reader with melting-point level sardonicism. A depressingly cynical, absurdist take on the future of warfare; the kind of story you want to kick yourself for laughing with but you just can’t help it.

Also Recommended

BCS 261The Horror of Party Beach”, Dale Bailey (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 101, Oct 2018) Novelette

The elderly narrator recalls his first high school girlfriend, fellow science nerd Elaine. Something wasn’t quite right with Elaine, and it all leads back to her mad-scientist father. Some of Bailey’s best stories deliver on the promise of their retro b-movie titles; this one has a nice slow burn leading to the titular event and ends with a great kicker.

The Tragedy of Zayred the Splendid”, Grace Seybold (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #262, 10/11/2018) Novelette

War-bards Zayred the Splendid and Meriri the Undying were friends who fought in battle together; now they are locked in rival campaigns to publicly discredit the other. Great characters in a fun setting, spiked with an air of light but ghoulish humor.

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