My first bit of short fic reading for the New Year includes a Must Read debut!
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #268, January 3, 2019
When the folded paper icons that sustain her people fail, Dreya realizes she is losing her power and the Company will soon unmake the town. The setting is the strength of Beth Cato’s “The Blighted Godling of Company Town H”, where a factory town on one of many worlds run by the Company sustains itself by the power of its godling. The Company hasn’t reached out to Town H in a long time, and the surrounding towns, along with their people and their godlings, are disappearing. Only Mother has the power to unmake the town, but Dreya and her people may not be strong enough to stand up to her. This is an engaging underdog narrative for a time, though the solution to Dreya’s and the town’s problems comes too easy. Cato builds a fascinating mythological framework to hang the story on.
Toronto-based debut author Morgan Al-Moor continues this issue’s theme of a people faced with extinction in “The Beast Weeps with One Eye”. The author wastes no time getting down to business: when his story opens, the last of the Bjebu have already fled their homeland, pursued by a murderous swarm of ravens determined to finish them. High Sister Nwere is desperate to end her people’s plight and strikes an ill-advised deal with Babawa-Kunguru, the Keeper of Sorrows: Babawa-Kunguru will call off the ravens and give ownership of his land to the Bjebu in exchange for three offerings of sorrow. After collecting the first of his offerings Babawa-Kunguru promises that once he has collected them all, the Bjebu will know the deepest of sorrows. Al-Moor strikes a perfect balance between narrative momentum and expansive world-building, distilling a wide-ranging history and mythology into its essential parts and parsing it out among the various plot points and character moments. It’s a skill even the most experienced authors falter at from time to time, so kudos to a first-time author for pulling it off so well. This is an exciting parable of triumph and loss, with great characters in an inspired setting.
Uncanny Magazine Issue 26, January/February 2019
Delilah S. Dawson’s new novelette “The Willows” gives Algernon Blackwood’s famous 1907 novella of the same name a modern-day makeover. Rather than a journey down the Danube beset by a supernatural menace, in Dawson’s redux The Willows is an old family estate where its inhabitants journey back through its troubled family history. April and O’Leary are music stars who sojourn at O’Leary’s remote family home to record their new album. Steeped in generations of O’Leary ancestors, the property and its surroundings emanate a spectral presence causing physical and psychological transformations in the young couple. The strongest element of Dawson’s narrative is the dissociation – from time, place, self – April both experiences herself and witnesses in her partner. April acts the role of an “O’Leary woman”, a change she is as conscious of as she is absent from: “This place is wriggling under my skin like worms turning soil, like little carrot roots grasping deep. I realize I’m wearing someone else’s old, faded apron over my dress, over the growing bump of my belly. I don’t know where I found it, don’t recall putting it on. But it feels like mine.” And O’Leary soon assumes the character of the O’Leary men, who have specific expectations of how an O’Leary woman behaves. An effective exercise in atmosphere and tone, offset by a sometimes too hurried pace.
Whether she is writing hard SF or fantasy, Marissa Lingen’s stories focus on the ordinariness of things we might find extraordinary. It is fortunate that worlds of ordinary magic are no less enjoyable for readers to escape to. In “The Thing, with Feathers”, Val is a lighthouse keeper in a post-disaster world where not so pleasant things come crawling out of the water. She can also heal with magic, and one day a man with a connection to her past comes looking for help, disrupting her solitude. I always enjoy Lingen’s nimble prose and her pragmatic world view.
Senaa Ahmad offers a sweet-natured tale of sibling bonding titled “Nothing to Fear, Nothing to Fear”. 11-year-old Amina obsesses over Amelia Earhart, her older sister Huda is a mad scientist, and their younger brother Sameer is a pestering third wheel. Huda builds a mysterious “mechanical marvel” in their garage she wants to test on Amina, though she’s not sure how dangerous it might be. There’s a gentleness to this story that distinguishes it, and the prose is graceful and poised. Sibling rivalry magnifies little conflicts while the adult characters and their myriad concerns fade into the background; there is an authenticity of perspective here that stories of childhood often lack.
In Inda Lauryn’s “Dustdaughter”, the nine-year-old title character (“Dust” for short) sneaks into her Grandma’s funeral where her presence causes Big Gram to take a deep breath and open her eyes. Dust thinks she is being punished for what happened at the funeral when her mom sends her away to the home of a woman named Star, but she soon comes to realize Star can help her better understand her unique lineage and special gifts. A hopeful story of self-realization and community support.
Weathermen battle the tempestuous climate by naming and defining different weather disturbances in Fran Wilde’s “A Catalog of Storms”. When her oldest daughter Lillit shows her aptitude, her mother has to send her away to live with the other weathermen. She then tries to hide evidence that her youngest daughter Sila has the same gift as her sister. A very cool premise that literalizes the term “weatherman” and has fun with the concept. I was taken by the fate all weathermen face – to one day become weather themselves, a concept that works its way into the stirring climax. On the downside, the characters were suitable but never got their hooks in me. Not even Sila, who narrates: her voice is often too weary and wizened to be convincing as a child’s.
Civilization has collapsed, and people have broken up into various collectives and tribes in Natalia Theodoridou’s “Poems Written While”. A trans man known as Daddy looks after the kids and recites for them long lost poems about the stars, which are no longer visible in the sky. His favorite of the kids, Luz, likes to bring home strays. Her latest, a woman named Nora, sets Daddy’s heart aflutter. Details of the story’s setting are sparse; there were wars and climate change, etc.; now Daddy’s people appear to live in an abandoned factory. The generic aspect of this post-apocalyptic backdrop doesn’t do the story any favors, though its depiction of the concerns facing trans persons in such a future is noteworthy, and I found the characters’ relationships gratifying. Young children enthralled by the literature of the distant past sans the allure of mass entertainment might be a tad idealistic, but it pecked at my heartstrings, anyway.
Some of the more interesting shorter works in this issue are covered here; next week I will review the two novellas by Alexander Jablokov and Robert Reed.
“You” are traveling through a system in the Barrens when you happen across a damaged pod with a barely alive passenger in it, in Suzanne Palmer’s sobering rescue story “Taking Icarus Home”. You trace it to a station occupied by “Sunrunners”, thrill-seekers who pilot ships close to the local star for sport. Your encounter with the callous Sunrunners takes up the bulk of the word count and trying to get information about your nearly dead passenger from them is like pulling teeth. Palmer’s story has a sturdy structure and pacing. There is a lack of urgency to the narrative that is unusual and refreshing unless you consider that someone’s life is at stake. The second person POV didn’t work for me here.
The HR Director of Sensus, Inc. fears losing Murphy, the company’s most productive (and underpaid) employee, while Murphy fears something far worse in Jay O’Connell’s “The Gorgon”. Tension builds at a nice pace in the story, as HR guy probes for Murphy’s reasons for wanting to quit, and information about an AI known as The Gorgon comes trickling out. After all that buildup, though, I found the ending abrupt and unsatisfying.
“What if” speculations are a staple of science fiction, and especially in time travel stories. One such “what if” has haunted the narrator of Leah Cypess’ “All the Difference”: what if she had married Steve instead of Jason? It is fortunate that technology exists allowing people to visit themselves in a different timeline, so she gets to peek in on her marriage to Steve to see what she was missing. The premise begs a lot of questions (like: what happens to you from the other timeline while the “real” you steers the ship? Wouldn’t the choices you make alter that timeline? Etc.), though it’s for the best that Cypess hand waves past them. It’s a decent enough yarn, even if it tilts a little toward the melodramatic (Was he holding me back, or was I the one holding him back?!?!).
Middle-aged Miriam makes her way through a sprawling future Middle-Eastern metropolis in Lavie Tidhar’s sci-fi vignette “Neom”. The first two-thirds of the story are an imaginary travelogue, mostly a descriptive account of daily life in the city, littered with goose eggs connecting it to the greater Lavie Tidhar Expanded Universe. The story, when it arrives, concerns Miriam finding the battered carcass of her robot friend Hameed, and everyone else’s indifference to his demise.
In Sean Monaghan’s “Ventiforms”, Tailé travels to the remote planet Zephierre where her son Brendon toils away on a massive art installation for the famous artist Shilinka Swintalla. Some weeks before, Brendon locked himself inside his robot and now refuses to stop working, risking his health. Swintalla takes Tailé to her son so she can convince him to return with them. The ventiforms, enormous wind instruments shaped from the natural environment, are very cool creations. This is an awfully long story that places few obstacles in the protagonist’s path to achieving her goal. It’s more like a series of minor inconveniences culminating in a slightly less minor inconvenience. Swintalla and her people come across as decent folk, though the fact they let Brendon continue doing what he was doing for so long without launching a serious effort to retrieve him makes them all look like assholes.
Recommended Stories (***Must Read; **Highly Regarded; *Also Recommended)
* “Nothing to Fear, Nothing to Fear” by Senaa Ahmad (Uncanny 26)
*** “The Beast Weeps with One Eye” by Morgan Al-Moor (BCS #268)
* “The Willows” by Delilah S. Dawson (Uncanny 26)