Zine Review: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #313 – Special 12th Anniversary Double Issue

It’s not surprising that K. J. Parker often appears in these Special Double Issues of Beneath Ceaseless Skies: his wry wit and adept deployment of dramatic irony have the “literary” part of “Literary Adventure Fantasy” locked up. Nor should it surprise that he continues to find novel ways of expressing the themes that weave throughout his fiction. “Many Mansions”, like many a Parker story, is a first-person narrative. The narrator, Father Bohenna, is a scholar (NOT a magician, he insists) from an institution called the Studium, dispatched to a remote region to investigate accounts of a witch bedeviling residents at an alarming pace. There are two early indications in the story that Bohenna isn’t the most reliable voice: his casual misogyny and inflated self-regard (“I reserve my conversation for the select few who can understand and appreciate it. I most certainly don’t chat up women in taprooms”). That his adversary in the story turns out to be a woman—referred to as a witch because society doesn’t afford women the benefit of a scholarly education—suggests that he will suffer some comeuppance for his hubris. In Parker’s best stories, though, meeting the reader’s expectations is often a red herring, and this story is exceptional. Parker lays a lot of pipe in its first act and keeps piling on new layers throughout, so that its matryoshka doll of an ending leaves one to ponder if Bohenna’s punishment is equal to his sin.

Richard Parks is also no stranger to BCS anniversary specials, also being an author of considerable skill and stature. His new story “A Minor Exorcism” is part of his Yamada no Goji series, and follows demon hunter Lord Yamada, who for lack of anything better to do with his time, joins his associate Kenji on a matter of slight concern. They soon learn the concern is anything but small, and as the danger compounds, so diminishes their chances of their survival. “A Minor Exorcism” distinguishes itself with colorful characters, generous humor, rising tension, and an exciting climax.

There’s an old adage for fiction writers, that it is better for your protagonist to get what they need, rather than what they want. This has been the gold standard approach to character growth for much of our history as a storytelling civilization, though current trends in popular entertainment lean toward wish fulfillment fantasies that conflate ‘need’ with ‘want’. In her stunning weird western romance “The Heart That Saves You May Be Your Own”, Merrie Haskell uses the second person to tether the reader to her hero, Tabitha, and in doing so we feel her wants as deeply as she does. Tabitha wishes to court her intended, Roland, the traditional way—by hunting and butchering a ‘corn (an abbreviation for unicorn). This ritual means to establish a young woman’s purity and comes with a significant elevation in social status. It impressed me the way Haskell constructed a society and culture that at first glance notably skews from our own (and not just because it’s normal for unicorns to walk through extra-dimensional doors and hang out with virgins who want to kill them), while a deeper look reveals a little less skew. Women may court the men in this scenario, but the pressure to perform their gender roles—and the stigma of failing to do so—is just as oppressive. Heterosexual norms are still paramount, while the polite acceptance of queerness is grudging. The choice Tabitha faces at the end is to decide whether her goals align with her community’s goals, and this is where Haskell’s use of the second person enhances the story’s emotional intelligence: we can’t help but recognize her anguish, and her accedence, as our own.

The issue closes with “A Tally of What Remains”, by R.Z. Held. It is the story of Helena, a blood mage who watched her entire family die from a disease that continues to ravage the land. She now uses her farmhouse to care for the sick and dying, but an antagonistic survivor forces her to confront the way she has dealt with her grief. It’s a smart and compassionate story, on a subject that resonates in light of current events.

This is a fine issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies from start to finish, with the Parker and Haskell stories of particular distinction.

The Best Short SFF of May 2020

I am growing very frustrated with the new wordpress editor, which erased the content of the original post for no reason I can fathom. Here are the recommended stories, but unfortunately I didn’t back up the text so the reviews are lost forever.

Burn, or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super“, by A.T. Greenblatt (Uncanny Magazine Issue 34, May/June 2020)

Decorating with Luke“, by Adam-Troy Castro (Nightmare Magazine Issue 92, May 2020)

Driving with Ghosts“, by Clara Madrigano (The Dark Issue 60, May 2020)

Martian Cinema“, by Gabriela Santiago (Strange Horizons, May 11, 2020)

Salt and Iron“, by Gem Isherwood (Podcastle #625, May 6, 2020)

Out of Body, by Jeffrey Ford (Tor.com Publishing, May 26, 2020)

Sleeping in Metal and Bone“, by Kristi DeMeester (The Dark Issue 60, May 2020)

Sea Change, by Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications, May 22, 2020)

Clever Jack, Heavy with Stories“, R.K. Duncan (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #304, May 21, 2020)

“Eyes of the Forest”, Ray Nayler (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2020)

The Best Short SFF of April 2020

Featured Image from the cover of Mithila Review Issue 13, by John Glover

Must Read Stories

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Art by Flavio Bolla

The Hummingbird Temple“, by C.C. Finlay [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #300, March 26, 2020] Novelette

All nine heirs to the throne are conveniently gathered at the castle when the king dies, setting off an assassination free-for-all expected to produce a new Dynast by morning light. Lin, the so-called “Orphan Dyness” and least likely to inherit the throne even if she survives the night, is looking to do just that as she battles her way to safety in spite of an increasingly outrageous series of attempts on her life. There is a novel’s worth of world here, but Finlay keeps things fleet and fun all the way through to a gratifying payoff. Watch out for those blood ants!

The Breaking“, by Vanessa Fogg [Mithila Review Issue 13, March/April 2020] Short Story

Fogg’s best stories are about the always frustrating, occasionally illuminating inconstancies of communication. In “The Breaking”, she fashions her pet theme into a breathtaking cosmic horror allegory for our time. Years ago, the sky split open and the Angels arrived to wreak havoc on civilization. Not everyone could see The Breaking when it happened, and those who couldn’t refused to believe those who did. Jenny and Jamie were among those who witnessed it, while their parents could not. Several years on civilization has changed dramatically, but has at least figured out how to keep the Angels at bay. Now Jamie says he can hear the Angels speaking, though Jenny knows that’s impossible and he seems to be the only one. Is he deluded or is history repeating itself?

To Balance the Weight of Khalem“, by R.B. Lemberg [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #300, March 26, 2020] Novelette

When Belezal was a child, they were forced to flee one war torn country, only to settle in Khalem – another land consumed by war – when denied their last best option for life in a peaceful land. Older now, Belezal has earned the right to study in Islingar, the place that had once turned them away.  The journey there forces them to confront the uncertainties about who they are and where, if anywhere, they can call home. Lemberg’s fluid prose is captivating, but that should come as no surprise to their readers. The depth of feeling it invokes is particularly resonant in this story.

 

More Recommended Stories

The Pride of Salinkari“, by Elizabeth Crowe [Strange Horizons, April 6, 2020] Short Story

Salinkari is a land of rigorous educational discipline, though their ethical principles detour slightly from the Aristotelian path. They take the teaching profession very seriously in Salinkari, so when a former student from a well-connected family takes his own life before he is deemed to have reached his “pinnacle”, it may cost ethics instructor Ekeithan his reputation and his career, possibly even his life. A beautifully paced philosophical page turner with great characters and an enticing dilemma at its core.

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Art by Chorazin/Adobe Stock Art

A Moonlit Savagery“, by Millie Ho [Nightmare Magazine Issue 91, April 2020] Short Story

A ghost called a “pop” haunts a hostel in Bankok, feasting on the entrails of sleeping tourists. One day, to her surprise, she befriends a traveling artist names Seb who isn’t afraid of her at all. With little experience in matters that don’t involve gorging on human viscera, can our spectral narrator trust her feelings for him? A delectable little supernatural fantasy that cleverly reverses the usual ghost story formula.

Our Souls to the Moon“, by Tamara Jerée [Strange Horizons, April 20, 2020] Short Story

The climate is poisoned and inequity is rampant at every turn, but hey, at least rich people can get high looking at the Neptunian moon Sao through a specially designed telescope(!!!). Bimi and Adal are fired from their job assembling said telescopes, though for entirely arbitrary reasons. Adal has been meeting with some eerie lunar cultists who are promising something far greater than a cheap high – for a steep price, of course. And it takes quite a leap of faith to trust they can deliver on their word. Jerée conjures a vivid dystopia with full-bodied, expressive prose.

Foie Gras“, by Charles Payseur [Fireside Magazine Issue 78, April 2020] Short Story

With little room to establish setting and character (much less tell a story), hitting your targets through very tight widows is the only option when writing flash fiction. Payseur nails the bullseye in this quickie about a holographic Napoleon trying to conquer the galaxy and the civilian techno-wiz standing in his way. It also made me laugh out loud, which I assure you is no mean feat.

As the Shore to the Tides, So Blood Calls to Blood“, by Karlo Yeager Rodriguez [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #301, April 9, 2020] Novelette

A tale of brothers and betrayal, which I guess is kind of the norm in brother-centered stories.  What sets Rodriguez’s apart is the depth of the worldbuilding – a myths-inside-myths bloody layer cake of a mini-epic where the very world was created by such treachery, so that its people can’t help but follow suit.

 

2020 Hugo Nominations – Impressions, Surprises, Disappointments

Here we are again with my second annual post on the final Hugo ballot! First of all – Congrats to all the nominees! Of course, as nominators, things only rarely go the way we hope, but that doesn’t mean every single work and human on this list isn’t well-deserving of the honor (except Rise of Skywalker – honestly, what a complete turd pile of movie that was). So, on to my personal reactions.

Best Novel

The Nominees:

The City in the Middle of the Night, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan)
The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow (Redhook; Orbit UK)
The Light Brigade, Kameron Hurley (Saga; Angry Robot UK)
A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (Tor; Tor UK)
Middlegame, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com Publishing)

My Ballot:

The Light Brigade, Kameron Hurley (Gallery/Saga Press)
Tiamat’s Wrath, James S.A. Corey (Orbit)
A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (Tor)
Edges, Linda Nagata (Mythic Island Press)

Impressions

It’s impossible to look at this list of nominees and not point out that this is the first time the category is made up entirely of novels written by women. This should, of course be contrasted with the fact that the best novel category has fielded a male-only slate of nominees 21 times in the award’s history, as recently as 2009. For those keeping score, an all-woman list needs to happen at least 20 more times for the playing field to be equalized.

I should also point out that the six novels on the list are all quite excellent: unique, diverse, exciting, entertaining and compelling. Overall, a phenomenal group of choices for ConZealand voters to pick from.

Some other firsts:

Though she has been nominated 4 times as Mira Grant, this is the first time Seanan McGuire has been nominated in this category under her own name. I personally feel that Middlegame is her best work under any name, so I’m pleased to see it honored here.

With the additional exception of Anders, who was also nominated for  All the Birds in the Sky in 2017, all the other nominees are Best Novel first-timers. Kameron Hurley’s The Stars are Legion just missed the cut a couple of years ago. As with McGuire’s, I think The Light Brigade is her best-to-date and I’m very excited about the nomination.

The other three first timers – Martine, Muir and Harrow – also happen to be their authors’ debut efforts. Quite a feat for each of them!

Surprises

Maybe Middlegame a little – though it shouldn’t be a surprise considering how popular McGuire is with Hugo voters. Same with Hurley. The Light Brigade is easily my favorite of the bunch, and Hurley has gotten some love from Hugo voters in the past. Perhaps due to my own overwhelming preference for it, I’ve felt that it hasn’t received nearly the attention it deserves. I thought it was on the bubble, so I’m very mildly surprised it got through.

Disappointments

Tiamat’s Wrath, obviously. As much as I’m a fan of The Expanse I haven’t nominated every book – previously, only Abaddon’s Gate and Nemesis Games have made my ballot. I thought this one was especially deserving, possibly the best in the series.

Certainly I was rooting for Edges, too, but its chances were so low it’s hard to classify it as a disappointment. Nagata has her fans among the Hugo crowd so there was definitely a chance, but it was still the longest of long shots. Indie-pubs don’t get as much attention and have never had any traction with Hugo voters. I only put it on the ballot because it was among the most thrilling and imaginative sci-fi novels I’ve read in recent years, and I felt it deserved to be there.

My fave – The Light Brigade, obviously. Fingers crossed.

If I were a betting man – City in the Middle of the Night. One cannot underestimate Anders’ sway with the Hugo crowd. Her debut All the Birds in the Sky came very close to overtaking The Obelisk Gate in 2017, only dropping a smidge behind it on the 6th pass:

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In a year that, for now, appears to have no clear favorite, I’ll go with the horse that lost her last race by a hair’s breadth.

This is the first time in my personal voting history that more than one of my picks made the final tally, so I hope I’m wrong and one of them takes home the rocket!

Best Novella

The Nominees:

To Be Taught, If Fortunate, Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager; Hodder & Stoughton)
“Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”, Ted Chiang (Exhalation)
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
This Is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (Saga)
In an Absent Dream, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
The Deep, Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes (Saga)

My Ballot:

“New Atlantis”, Lavie Tidhar (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction May/June 2019)
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com)

Impressions

Excellent work in this category, and a laudably diverse list to boot. Happy to see old pro Ted Chiang – whose first Hugo nomination dates back nearly 30 years to 1991 – nestled among the more recent Hugo luminaries. Seanan McGuire would otherwise be the godparent of this group: her first nomination/win was for the Not-a-Hugo formerly known as the Campbell, all the way back in 2010, which seems like an eon ago in Hugo time.

Tor.com has dominated this category so thoroughly for the last several cycles. I like seeing other publishers get a slice of the pie.

Surprises

None. Four of the nominees in this category also scored Nebula nods, and the other two – McGuire and Chambers – are well-established Hugo favorites.

Disappoinments

Next to Clark’s story, “New Atlantis” was my favorite of the year in this category. Standalone novellas have been the trend for the last few years, only a handful of magazine-published entries have made the cut recently. This year there were none.

My fave – The Haunting of Tram Car 015, obviously.

If I were a betting man – This is How You Lose the Time War. I don’t even think it’ll be close.

Best Novelette

The Nominees:

“For He Can Creep”, Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com 7/10/19)
“Omphalos”, Ted Chiang (Exhalation)
“Away with the Wolves”, Sarah Gailey (Uncanny 9-10/19)
“Emergency Skin”, N.K. Jemisin (Forward)
“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye”, Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 7-8/19)
“The Archronology of Love”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed 4/19)

My ballot:

“By the Warmth of Their Calculus”, Tobias S. Buckell (Mission Critical; Solaris)
“Sacrid’s Pod”, Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 112, September 2019)
“For He Can Creep” Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com July 10, 2019)

Impressions

Chiang scoring dual nominations is further evidence that he is one of the true SFF luminaries of our time. Very few authors inspire this level of devotion among multiple generations of fans. It is especially impressive for someone whose output is so sparse; he has published only 17 stories in 30 years time, nine of them nominated for Hugos (and there would have been a tenth had he not turned it down for personal reasons).

Surprises

Gailey is no stranger to Hugo nods, but I’m a little surprised to see this particular story here. It’s perfectly fine, but didn’t make that much of an impression on me when I first read it. I am looking forward to revisiting it.

Considering she’s the only Hugo newbie of the bunch, one might classify Carroll’s nomination as a surprise, though after also scoring a Nebula nomination it’s hard to call it that.

Disappointments

I always thought the Castro story was a longshot, but I was really pulling for Buckell to make the list. “By the Warmth of Their Calculus” has all the makings of a modern day classic, and also serves as a welcome rejoinder to Tom Godwin’s excessively cynical Golden-age classic “The Cold Equations”.

My fave: “For He Can Creep”, obviously.

If I were a betting man: This category is a tough one, but I’d put my money on Carroll ftw.

Best Short Story

The Nominees:

“Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, Alix E. Harrow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 1/31/19)
“As the Last I May Know”, S.L. Huang (Tor.com 10/23/19)
“And Now His Lordship Is Laughing”, Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons 9/9/19)
“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”, Nibedita Sen (Nightmare 5/19)
“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger”, Rivers Solomon (Tor.com 7/24/19)
“A Catalog of Storms”, Fran Wilde (Uncanny 1-2/19)

My Ballot:

“Such Thoughts are Unproductive”, Rebecca Campbell (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 156, December 2019)
“The Message”, Vanessa Fogg (The Future Fire 2019.48)
“The Robots of Eden”, Anil Menon (New Suns; Solaris)
“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger”, Rivers Solomon (Tor.com July 24, 2019)
“A Bird, a Song, a Revolution”, Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 112, September 2019)

Impressions

Voting in this category usually finds the widest dispersion among the largest number of works, so it’s hard to be either surprised or disappointed by any of the results. That said…

Surprises

I’m more surprised by what didn’t make it than what did. I really thought the Bolander story was a shoe-in. Shows how much I know.

Disappointments

Again, hard to gauge disappointment in this category. Along with Bolander, I thought “The Message” was a beautiful story and a very relevant one. I can probably count the number of Hugo voters who have even heard of The Future Fire on one hand, so really another longer than long shot there.

My fave – “Blood is Another Word for Hunger”, obviously. Honestly it’s so rare that any of my Short Story picks make the final list, for me it’s already a win.

If I were a betting man – High-concept stories usually grab the most attention from Hugo voters, so for me it’s a toss-up between Sen and Wilde.

Other Categories of Interest (to me, at least)

I only voted in two other categories:

Best Series, where enough of us Expanse fans got together to pull off a nod for the authors Corey. I also drop Cherryh’s Foreigner on my ballot every year, and every year I hang my head in despair.

The other was Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form, where there were a few unexpected pleasantries. Us was the only one from my ballot to make it, but I’m happily surprised to see two streaming series – Russian Doll and Good Omens – grab nominations. I hope this trend continues. I also had Claire Denis’ High Life on my ballot, along with two uneven but commendable indie films, Fast Color and Starfish. Personally, I would like to see more films like these make the Hugo Ballot. Marvel and Star Wars are fun (usually) though they hardly represent the best that genre filmmaking has to offer. Yeah, I’m one of those snobs. Big studio franchises get their awards at the box office; Hugos should be for artistic merit. Don’t @ me.

That’s all for now. I look forward to perusing all the remaining works and people on the ballot before casting my final votes.

The Best Short SFF of March 2020

Featured Image from “Investigate” by Andis Reinbergs, cover art for Beneath Ceaseless Skies #298-299

Must Read Stories

 

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Cover by Patila/Adobe Stock Art

A Study in Shadows“, Benjamin Percy [Nightmare Magazine Issue 90, March 2020] Short Story

“A Study in Shadows” is a grim, phantasmagoric character study of the appropriately named Dr. Harrow, a psychology professor who engages in a field study “on the belief in the invisible”. He has a penchant for manipulating his subjects to induce a state of terror, unleashing deadly havoc but always escaping the consequences of his actions. The calmly anecdotal tenor of the prose is what really twists the knife.

“Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars”, Mercurio D. Rivera [Asimov’s Science Fiction, March/April 2020] Novelette

A tour de force of old-fashioned Outer Limits-style existentialist sci-fi, “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” follows internet reporter Cory, who is handed the story of a lifetime when his ex-girlfriend Milagros creates an extraordinarily complex simulated reality. Milagros generates a race of beings more suited to problem solving than humans, and by throwing one cataclysm after another at them she uses their virtual solutions to solve real world problems like climate change and cancer. Things go horribly wrong, of course, when her creations turn out to be even better at solving problems than she could have anticipated.

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Cover Art by chainat

Escaping Dr. Markoff“, Gabriela Santiago [The Dark Issue 58, March 2020] Short Story

I love stories that create their own rules and teach the reader how to follow them. Santiago’s second-person narrative deposits you in a mad scientist b-movie, where you pine for the nefarious and charismatic Dr. Markoff while you are both complicit in and victimized by his dastardly schemes. It’s a flick with a flexible fourth wall, continually re-shooting and re-editing itself, wandering offscreen and backstage at its leisure and blurring the line between performance and reality.

Tend to Me“, by Kristina Ten [Lightspeed Magazine Issue 118, March 2020] Short Story

Nora is stuck in a pattern of taking on the interests and hobbies of whomever she is dating at the time. She has no real interest in any of these activities (which include rock climbing, scuba diving, beekeeping, gardening, auto repair), in fact she often actively disdains them. Her life shifts gears in a totally unexpected but weirdly logical way when she starts dating an acupuncturist. Ten’s very short story is propelled by sly, ticklish prose and a generous empathy for its characters.

More Recommended Stories

The Amusement Dark“, Mike Buckley [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 162, March 2020] Novelette

A sober and engrossing story about people looking for meaning in life after humanity loses the war against the AI. The peculiar, murky relationship that develops between the humans and their new “benevolent” oppressors is fascinating.

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Cover by Mondolithic Studios

“A Feast of Butterflies”, Amanda Hollander [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2020] Short Story

A constable is instructed to arrest, without evidence, a young girl from another town who may be connected to the disappearance of five local boys. The girl has some unusual habits and is definitely hiding something, but she’s not the only one. An eerie little dark fantasy, and a devilishly satisfying one.

“The Last Legend”, Matthew Hughes [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2020] Novelette

Ever down-on-his-luck Ardal flees town after assaulting his bully of a co-worker. After a sequence of further misadventures he stumbles upon a house in the woods beset by mysterious enchantments, its sole inhabitant afflicted with a strange kind of memory loss. Hughes charming, episodic meta-adventure lives up to its title in the literal sense.

Rat and Finch are Friends“, Innocent Chizaram Ilo [Strange Horizons, March 2, 2020] Short Story

Izuchukwu is in trouble with his school and his family when he is caught kissing a boy. He is also an “amusu” who can transform into a finch, and he’ll be in more serious trouble if they find out about that. A smart, well-crafted and poignant coming-of-age fantasy.

Where the World Ends Without Us“, Jason Sanford [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #299, March 26, 2020] Novelette

This exciting and suspenseful novelette draws together the characters and storylines from Sanford’s two previous “Grains” stories. This time, Alexnya is being prosecuted for Frere-Jones’s crimes (from “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories“) by the inflexible grains, who zealously “protect” the earth from the people who would harm it. A glimmer of hope arrives when she crosses paths with Colton’s day-fellow caravan (from “The Emotionless, In Love“). There’s enough context to anchor new readers, but the other stories are well worth investing your time in.

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Cover Art by Thomas Chamberlain-Keen

Coffee Boom: Decoctions, Micronized“, by D.A. Xiaolin Spires [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 162, March 2020] Short Story

A fun caper story about a coffee-obsessed waitress who discovers she can create the perfect cuppa joe, if she can just get her hands on a newly invented mini-collider. A fresh and quirky concept, well-realized.

The Spoils“, Aliya Whiteley [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #298, February 27, 2020] Short Story

Citizens of an underground-dwelling civilization covet pieces of a massive, recently deceased creature known as an Olme for its magical properties. Most have little idea what to do with their cut, but Kim knows exactly what she wants and how to get it. Or, at least she thinks she does. “The Spoils” is the kind of story that gradually peels back its layers to reveal a wider and deeper world than it shows at first glance.

 

The Best Short SFF of February 2020

Featured Image from the cover illustration by Alyssa Winans for “St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid”

Must Read Stories

Prosper's demon
Cover art by Sam Weber

Prosper’s Demon, by K.J. Parker [Tor.com Publishing, January 2020] Novella

The unnamed narrator of K.J. Parker’s delightfully cynical novella is an exorcist in a world where demon possession is  common – though, tragically, the ritual to remove them almost always results in the death of the host. When he learns that the greatest genius of their age, philosopher/scientist/artist Prosper of Schanz, is possessed, he must choose between turning a blind eye to his duty and risking the gallows by causing the beloved man’s death. Parker’s kaleidoscope approach to world-building, where fractured mirror pieces of our own history and culture are combined to create new patterns, is always a joy to dive into. And I can’t get over that sucker-punch of an ending.

St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid“, by C.L. Polk [Tor.com, February 5, 2020] Short Story

The fortune teller’s daughter Theresa is deeply smitten with her schoolmate Lucille. Just as Theresa is about to seize her chance, Lucille is targeted by the abusive, controlling Gerry. The bees (yes, bees!) can help, for a price. This author quickly became one of my favorite fantasists when her novel Witchmark arrived a couple of years ago. “St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid” serves as a great reminder why: the refined prose and emotional intelligence stand out, but most impressive is the way she makes the mythic and the magical feel at once both common and uncanny. A wise, generous take on first love and the meaning of sacrifice.

More Recommended Stories

If you take...
Cover art by Robert Hunt

If You Take My Meaning“, by Charlie Jane Anders [Tor.com, February 11, 2020] Novelette

Anders new novelette is set on the planet January,  following the events of her terrific novel The City in the Middle of the Night, as the seeds of Sophie’s dream of unification are being planted and the accompanying moral dilemmas are explored. There is enough context for unfamiliar readers to catch the drift of what’s going on, but if you haven’t read the novel (and are planning to) you may want to hold off on this for spoilery reasons. Which also means to say, if you weren’t already planning to you should definitely read The City in the Middle of the Night.

Ngozi Ugegbe Nwa“, by Dare Segun Falowo [The Dark, Issue 57, February 2020] Short Story

The title character is an aspiring model who, while stuck in an hours long traffic jam, buys an ornate mirror from a strange old woman. The sinister looking glass shows Ngozi parts of herself she would otherwise want to keep hidden. The sustained tone of eeriness and dread is impressive, as is the genuinely ghoulish imagery.

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Cover Art: “Ice Road III” by Rytis Sabaliauskas

The Moneylender’s Angel“, by Robert Minto [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #296, January 30, 2020] Short Story

The narrator and his partner Gareth – the former money collector of the title – find a valuable magical object that could change their fortunes for the better. First they must confront the secrets they’ve been keeping from each other. I really enjoyed the sensory details in the prose and the nice, fluid world-building. A tender and open-hearted queer romance.

The Aetherised Chamber“, by Stewart Moore [Pseudopod #690, February 21, 2020] Short Story

Late 17th-century natural philosopher Mr. Waites – who is NOT the greatest scientist of his age thanks to the incomparable Mr. Newton – is trying to perfect his God-Machine. Waites wishes to glean the secrets of the universe with his invention, using his nearly dead (and perpetually disappointed) father as a conduit to the vast reaches of the unknown. Surely, nothing could go wrong. Old school weird fiction at its best: grisly in all the right places, with an appetizing garnish of grim humor. (Podcast narrated by Alasdair Stuart.)

The Cliff of Hands“, by Joanne Rixon [Diabolical Plots #60B, February 17, 2020] Short Story

This quick but inspiring fantasy adventure follows Eešan’s journey to fulfill an important rite of passage – leaving her mark on the fabled Cliff of Hands – in spite of the disability that makes it nearly impossible for her to do so. An exciting, suspenseful tale with a hero you can root for.

The Best Short SFF of January 2020

Cover Art for FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue #13 by Steffi Walthall

The list is a little light this month. Due to time constraints a few of my regular reads – Interzone, Uncanny, Fantasy & Science Fiction – will be pushed to February.

Must Read

Le Jardin Animé (1893)“, by Victoria Sandbrook [GigaNotoSaurus, January 1, 2020] Novella

Dr. Zaynab Murad comes to the home of the mechanist Mme. Lefevre, whose “children” – the sentient automatons she created – are training to perform the ballet Le Corsaire in front of an audience. Lefevre, whose own ballet career was ruined by a devastating injury after her debut performance, wishes “to prove that my dancers are as exquisite as the Imperial Russian Ballet. More exquisite.” Zaynab has been hired to surgically repair Madame’s legs so she can be ready for the performance, but the mechanist’s attitude is frustratingly obtuse and much of Zaynab’s medical advice goes unheeded. The thematic and narrative parallels between Le Jardin Animé (1893) and H.G. Wells’ classic The Island of Dr. Moreau are too evident to be a coincidence, though it can be said that Sandbrook’s novella is far less cynical, and less gruesome. It is just as phantasmagorical and compelling, and perhaps – with its laser-sharp eye for visual and emotional detail – more exquisite.

 

More Recommended Stories

The Ancestral Temple in a Box“, by Chen Quifan, translated by Emily Jin [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 160, January 2020] Short Story

A refreshingly optimistic sci-fi story, in which Sonny visits the virtual Ancestral Temple, and learns his late father’s plans for the family business may not be as conservative as he feared. It’s nice to read a story that embraces the changes new technologies will bring, and demonstrates that with the right approach these changes can be beneficial to everyone. Sinophiles will also enjoy its glimpse into one of China’s distinctive regional cultures.

Nightmare 88
Cover art by Ddraw / Fotolia

Familiar Face“, by Meg Elison [Nightmare Magazine Issue 88, January 2020] Short Story

Annie’s wife Cara was murdered, and the suspect still at large. Now Annie and a group of hers and Cara’s closest friends plot a way to trap the killer with the help of the facial recognition system she uses for home security. The story features a spot-on depiction of ASL grammar, integrated nicely into the tension and pacing of the narrative. A suspenseful tale flavored with a pinch of near-future speculation.

The Candle Queen“, by Ephiny Gale [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #295, January 16, 2020] Short Story

A short, sweet, and very original story of a queen who must wear enchanted candles on her head to keep the world from ending, and her handmaiden, Anne, who devises ways of relieving the queen of her burden.

How Quini the Squid Misplaced His Klobučar“, by Rich Larson [Tor.com, January 15, 2020] Novelette

A hacker plans to steal a precious work of “gene art” from the titular crime boss – not for money, but as revenge for getting stiffed on a job. Larson’s futuristic heist story is full of all the usual sleights-of-hand and double crosses one expects; it is the author’s talent for mixing outrageous future technology with genre tropes that gives it a jolt of the unexpected.

Asimov's Jan 2020
Cover Art by Dominic Harman

“The Antidote”, by Dominica Phetteplace [Asimov’s Science Fiction, Jan/Feb 2020] Short Story

The narrator works for a company called The Antidote, which offers “Aspirational Betterness” through psychotropic drug therapies tailored to the specific genetic makeup of each client. She agrees to help an hacker who wants to steal the code to the company’s drug fabricators. A darkly funny story of a gene-edited future.

“All That the Storm Took”, by Yah Yah Scholfield [FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 13, Winter 2020] Short Story

Winifred and her sister Alicia tried to ride out hurricane Katrina in their home, and Alicia paid with her life. But that doesn’t mean she was gone for good. A deeply felt and haunting story.

Claudette Dulac and the Devil of the North“, by Genevieve Sinha [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #294, January 2, 2020] Short Story

When Claudette’s father disappears while hunting the Devil of the North, Claudette straps on her mother’s trusty ‘Lectric Oathkeeper and heads north to find him. She joins forces with an inventor seeking fame for besting the Devil. This story is a rollicking good time, lightning-paced and spilling over with colorful characters.

The Best Short SFF of 2019 – Part 3: Fantasy

My “Best of 2019” is split into three parts: Part 1: Dark Fantasy/Horror; Part 2: Science Fiction; Part 3: Fantasy. My choices in each category are not ranked; they are presented in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. Each title is accompanied by a quick introductory statement and a short excerpt from the story. Excerpts may contain mild spoilers. For the purposes of this column, short fiction is defined as less than novel-length, or under 40,000 words.

The Best Short Fantasy Fiction of 2019

BCS 287One Found in a World of the Lost“, by Shweta Adhyam (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #287, September 26, 2019) 6979 words

Pavitra blames herself for her twin sister Gayatri’s death at the hands of a wild boar. While Pavitra reckons with her guilt, the departed Gayatri finds herself in a strange world, in the company of a mystical creature called a yakshini.

“I am… Gayatri,” said the girl, and it felt wrong. As if she were lying. No, worse. As if she were stealing. “Who are you?”
The creature sighed. “I have been under a curse so long I have forgotten my name. But I am a yakshini, and I remember the way back to my home. Will you accept a reward for having saved me?”
The girl bit down the ready refusal on her tongue and said, “What kind of reward?”
“What would you like? Safety and stability, escape from Bhoomi’s wrath? Beauty? Immortality? Simply name it.”
Desire exploded in the girl’s heart at the mention of safety and stability, rest… She quashed it. What would she do in such a world? She was a hunter. But she’d been right, these were gifts that would benefit her pack, gifts worth taking risks for. Even if they came with a large sense of foreboding.
“Can you make me invulnerable?” she said, giving in to the image of her death, the boar’s tusks sinking into her and what it would mean for them all if she did indeed die.
The yakshini’s deer-face grinned; she nodded eagerly. She plucked a handful of leaves from a nearby bush and murmured some words over them. As her shloka reached its crescendo, she crushed the leaves and drew a shimmering circle, vertical in the air, with the juice they left on her fingers. The shimmer covered the circle for a moment, then retreated to its edges. Through it, the girl looked into a whole other world, one that was as hard and dry and scrubby as her own was green and wet and mossy, with stone pillars taking the place of trees as far as her eye could see.

BCS 268The Beast Weeps With One Eye“, by Morgan Al-Moor (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #268, January 3, 2019) 6663 words

High Sister Nwere leads her people on a perilous flight from their homeland as they are menaced by a murderous onslaught of ravens. Exhausted and all but defeated, she strikes a devil’s bargain in a last ditch effort to save them all.

I dropped to my knees and pressed my hands to the moist grass. I drew in a deep breath and twisted my tongue and lips to match the breath of the earth beneath me. “Heed my call, Ancient Land, and lend me your wisdom. My people need shelter.”
The land sighed under my palms. The old voice filled my head. “I hear you, High Sister, and I have what you seek. Though the ravens fade into oblivion when compared to what lies here.”
“I have lost many lives on the road, Ancient Land. Show me this sanctuary, whatever it may be.”
“You stand upon the abode of the Keeper of Sorrows, and of him and this place, I shall speak no more.”
My fingers dug into the dirt. “You must talk. By the will of the twin Elders, Arowo-Ara and Ufefe, Striders of Thunder and Lightning, I implore you to show your secrets.”
The voice grunted in pain. I hated my cruelty, I hated to use the Elders’ names to threaten another being, but time was of the essence.
“So be it,” whispered the land.
A sudden quake rushed beneath our feet. Gasps filled the air, and I clung to the dirt as my body swayed. Above us, shades of crimson spilled across the sky, as if the clouds had bled. Screams erupted. Our hunters jumped to their feet while the children wriggled into their mothers’ arms.
Across the river, three trees burst into smoke, and behind them stood a walled structure that had not been there before.

Lightspeed 112A Bird, a Song, a Revolution“, by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 112, September 2019) 5224 words

Whistlecage – so named because of the caged songbird she carries around – meets an old witch who promises to teach her a thing or two about making songs.

“Would you like to hear my bird?”
Now the witch is mocking her, Whistlecage thinks. It’s almost a relief. But when she looks up at her, prepared to take her lumps as best she can, the witch is fumbling with one of the bits hanging at her belt. A smooth, hollow spar of bird bone, bored through with holes. She catches Whistlecage’s eye and holds it fast as she raises the thing to her lined lips. Her fingers dance spider steps down its length.
And the bone sings to the bird.
It starts as an imitation at first, good enough that the bird whistles back. But it doesn’t stop there. It takes the bird’s song and expands it like an unfurling pelt, twisting all sorts of new sounds and flourishes and ups and downs into the tune. The girl has never heard anything like it. There are drummers among her people, and those who sing stories on special days, but this is different. This is a sound that fills the contours of her insides like it was carved from ivory for the purpose, something she has never known she needed. It is an instant connection between her heart and the old woman’s. Just like that they are the same, because of the song.
The feeling wells up in her and spills out of his eyes.
“There are more singers and whistlers in the world than you’ll ever be able to meet, child,” the witch says, “and each one carries as many songs within them as stars in the sky. You’ll never be able to hear them all, and when you grow woman-sized you’ll lie awake at night haunted by that. All you can do is learn how to sing your own and hope that someone somewhere remembers.”

for he can creepFor He Can Creep“, by Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com, July 10, 2019) 7903 words

The poet Christopher Smart is locked away in an asylum with his faithful cat, Jeoffry. Years before, Smart made a deal with the devil, and now the devil has come to collect his due. Though Jeoffry might have something to say about that.

Jeoffry is curled at his usual spot on the sleeping poet’s back when the devil arrives. The devil does not enter as his demons do, in whispers and the patterning of light. His presence steals into the room like smoke, and as with smoke, Jeoffry is aware of the danger before he is even awake, his fur on end, his heart pounding.
“Hello, Jeoffry,” the devil says.
Jeoffry extends his claws. At that moment, he knows something is wrong, for the poet, who normally would wake with a howl at such an accidental clawing, lies still and silent. All around Jeoffry is a quiet such as cats never hear: no mouse or beetle creeping along a madhouse wall, no human snoring, no spider winding out its silk. It as if the Night itself has hushed to listen to the devil’s voice, which sounds pleasant and warm, like a bucket of cream left in the sun.
“I thought you and I should have a chat,” Satan says. “I understand you’ve been giving my demons some trouble.”
The first thought that flashes into Jeoffry’s head is that Satan looks exactly as Milton describes him in Paradise Lost. Only more cat-shaped. (Jeoffry, a poet’s cat, has ignored vast amounts of Milton over the years, but some of it has apparently stuck.)
The second thought is that the devil has come into his territory, and this means fighting!
Puffing himself up to his utmost size, Jeoffry spits at the devil and shows his teeth.
This is my place! he cries. Mine!

Haunting of Tram Car 015The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing, February 19, 2019) 28576 words

Hamed and Onsi are agents of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, investigating a haunting in an unusual location. They soon learn this particular spectre might be more than a minor nuisance.

“Good morning, unknown being,” he said in loud slow words, holding up his identification. “I am Agent Onsi and this is Agent Hamed of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. We hereby inform you that you are in breach of several regulations governing paranormal persons and sentient creatures, beginning with Article 273 of the criminal code which forbids trespass and inhabitation of public property owned by the State, Article 275 on acts of terrifying and intimidation of citizens . . .”
Hamed listened stupefied as the man rattled off a series of violations. He wasn’t even certain when some of those had been put on the books.
“ . . . and given the aforementioned charges,” Onsi continued, “you are hereby instructed to vacate these premises and return to your place of origin, or, barring that, to accompany us to the Ministry for further questioning.” Finishing, he turned with a satisfied nod.
Rookies, Hamed grumbled quietly. Before he could respond, a low moaning sounded in the car. There was little doubt where it came from, as the gray smoke had stopped its slithering and gone still.
“I think it understood me!” Onsi said eagerly.
Yes, Hamed thought dryly. And you probably bored it to death. If it was already dead, you might have just bored it back to death.
He was about say as much when there was a sudden terrible screeching.
Hamed moved to cover his ears at the sound, but was sent stumbling back as a jolt went through the tram. He might have fallen flat had he not reached out for one of the stanchions—catching the vertical pole by a hand. He looked up to see the gray smoke swirling furiously like an angry cloud, screaming as it swelled and grew. The lamps that lined the walls flickered rapidly and the tram began to tremble.

augur-cover-issue-2.1Clear as Quartz, Sharp as Flint” by Maria Haskins (Augur Magazine 2.1) 1009 words

Jenna doesn’t like to heed Grammy’s warnings, not before she was with child, and certainly not now.

In early summer, before solstice-night, when the child is not yet so heavy inside her, Jenna climbs the hill to the ring of stones. She knows she shouldn’t, but it’s the kind of day when nothing seems perilous, not even those pale-grey sarsens looming on the tor. The breeze is soft, and the first bees, drunk on nectar, buzz through the pink sheen of heather spread across the moor. Father’s sheep graze on the hillsides while the herding dogs lounge in the sun, their keen eyes on the lambs and ewes.
Jenna climbs the hill because she hears the stones sing.
Don’t listen to that old stone-song, Grammy told her. That’s what everyone says. Yet it is hard to ignore that call once you’ve heard it.
The first time Jenna heard the stone-song was in midwinter, that night when she let Keff into her bed while everyone was at the sun-feast. Only Grammy’s wooden god watched them from the wall. When Keff moved inside her, the song thrummed so low and deep within she thought it was her own heart beating.
She heard that same song the day the baby quickened. Heard it again when Grammy laid her hands on her belly, shaking her head, muttering of ill-made children, saying that the stones would claim what the wooden god would not.

FIYAH Issue10_150“In That Place She Grows a Garden”, by Del Sandeen (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 10: Hair, Spring 2019) 5290 words

When a new principal takes over at her mostly white high school, Rayven is forced to cut her four-years-long locs because they suddenly violate the school’s dress code. Then something other than hair starts growing in their place.

Kids milled around her, some grabbing books out of their lockers, others walking to class. She peeked at her reflection in the small mirror stuck inside her locker door, wondering why she continued to look for something hopeful.
A pop of yellow caught her eye.
Rayven reached up, expecting the worst because it wouldn’t be the first time one of Queen Mary’s finest had snuck an object into her hair—the end of a broken pencil once, a hermit crab shell another time.
“Ow,” she breathed. When she’d pulled on the yellow thing, whatever it was, it stung, as if she pulled her own hair.
Rayven rifled through her bookbag until she found the compact. She held its mirror behind her as she gazed into her locker door reflection.
A yellow flower poked from her ‘fro.
Even the shrill bell went unheard.
She tugged at it and again, felt that sting. Her fingers burrowed deeper, straight to the roots. And indeed, the base of the flower felt like roots. Plant roots. Growing from her head.

Apex 117The Crafter at the Web’s Heart“, by Izzy Wasserstein (Apex Magazine Issue 117, February 2019) 6071 words

In the city of Traverse, magic users become what they practice. Danae is all about spiders, and when she takes a delivery job for some extra cash, she runs afoul of a dangerous fly-cult.

A shiver from the web reached me before I’d registered the sound. I didn’t need to turn around to know the knife had missed me by less than a meter.
I leapt forward, threw myself through the back window of the nearest shack. Shocked, dirty faces stared back at me. I didn’t have time to explain. I darted across, ducked out a side window onto a disturbingly uneven platform.
It shifted, tilted above the void. I didn’t look down. Brought it back into equilibrium. My balance has always been good.
Flies might not be the brightest, but it wasn’t like there were a lot of places I could’ve gone. They’d find me if I didn’t keep moving. I scrambled through a gap in the wall of the next building—empty, thankfully—and out onto the web in front of it. Fortune smiled: the commotion I’d sensed in the web was a caravan, a cheap one, just departing from a hovel of an inn. I rolled under one of the carts, grabbed onto the undercarriage. Not a comfortable ride, but I was out of sight of the flies.
The cart moved slowly, and that bought me time to catch my breath and to think. Back then, I wasn’t used to attempts to murder me, especially when they could’ve just stopped creeping and taken the damn book.
By the time my heart stopped feeling like it wanted to cut its way free, I’d had time to come up with a plan. I needed to know what I was carrying, and why these scum-feeders were willing to kill for it.

many-hearted-dog_FINAL_sm-323x500Many-Hearted Dog and Heron Who Stepped Past Time“, by Alex Yuschik (Strange Horizons, June 17, 2019) 5869 words

Dog and Heron have been business partners for a long time, but Heron experiences time in a different order, and this complicates their relationship.

“There is the past and the not-past,” Heron said, blood dripping from their arm onto the nightingale floor. “Which is this?”
“The not-past, you idiot.” Dog grunted as he peeled back Heron’s sleeve. He was in Heart of Storms, shoulders tense and eyes alive with lightning. With a tsk, he tore off a clean strip of bandage. “Hold still.”
This often happened when Heron stepped through time, the uncertain landings. It surprised them, frustrated Dog, and had caused an assassin hiding behind a shelf of scrolls to loose a throwing star that had grazed Heron’s left arm. But Heron was not a master of the deadly arts for nothing: their knife caught the assassin’s ear at more or less the same time Dog’s knife stabbed the assassin’s hand to a pillar.
Lacquered cabinets gleamed in the next room, shelves full of scrolls stacked in neat columns, a brush and ink still perched on their stands obediently even though it was the dead of night. The last time Heron had visited the not-past, they had been stealing a chicken for their and Dog’s dinner. “Well, I see we are currently embroiled in at least one shenanigan.”
The assassin moaned weakly at their hand, still pinned, and Dog carefully brushed debris away from a noblewoman’s body. “This magistrate job was the stupidest thing we ever did. If you sashay off into the past again, kindly tell my former self I’m an amateur and a fool.”

 

You can find Part 1 – Dark Fantasy/Horror HERE

You can find Part 2 – Science Fiction HERE

Additional Reading:

The above choices are based on my own personal tastes from my own reading experiences, and are meant to be taken as such. There are many other “best of” and “recommended reading” lists that offer up quality reading choices for short SFF. Here are a few:

Maria Haskins, author and translator

Charles Payseur, author and proprietor of Quick Sip Reviews

Eugenia Triantafyllou, author

A.C. Wise, author

Locus Recommended Reading List 

Rocket Stack Rank 2019 YTD (aggregate list), compiled by Greg Hullender and Eric Wong

More links will appear as I find them!

The Best Short SFF of 2019 – Part 2: Science Fiction

My “Best of 2019” is split into three parts: Part 1: Dark Fantasy/Horror; Part 2: Science Fiction; Part 3: Fantasy. My choices in each category are not ranked; they are presented in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. Each title is accompanied by a quick introductory statement and a short excerpt from the story. Excerpts may contain mild spoilers. For the purposes of this column, short fiction is defined as less than novel-length, or under 40,000 words.

The Best Short Science Fiction of 2019

mission critical“By the Warmth of Their Calculus”, by Tobias S. Buckell (Mission Critical, editor Jonathan Strahan; Solaris Books) 7586 words

A civilization survives among the icy, rocky ring of a great planet, hiding from alien predator drones determined to destroy them. Fiana commands a dustship trying to harvest genetic material from an ancient seedship, but when a rival nation’s meddling inadvertently sets off a trap, the mission turns into a slow, measured survival flight where the slightest miscalculation could lead to their deaths.

“How fast can we get out of here?”
“Using consumables, it’s dangerous, Mother. We need to coordinate with Ops. The margin will be thin, if we want to get out of here before the Hunter-Killers.”
Fiana swept the transparent sheets around her away. “I’ll get Ops ready to follow your commands.”
To stay put would be to wait passively for death, and she wasn’t ready to welcome the Hunter-Killers onto her ship.
Within the hour, the far side of the dustship was venting gases as crew warmed the material up (but not too much, or the heat signature would be suspicious and hint at some kind of unnatural process), compressed the water and hydrogen in airlocks through conduits of muscular tubes that grew throughout the ship, and blasted it out in timed dumps at F&O’s orders.
Slowly, faster than the natural differential drift already there, Fiana’s dustship began to move away from the seedship. It trailed a tail behind, gleaming like a comet.

Clarkesworld 159Such Thoughts are Unproductive“, by Rebecca Campbell (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 159, December 2019) 6584 words

In this post-climate disaster, post-truth dystopia, Mar is coping with separation from her mother, who has been interned for engaging in subversive activity. It’s clear Mar herself is under suspicion by association, and the authority’s duplicitous strategies to keep her in line hit where it hurts.

Sophie talked about grad school and Mom, about parties they threw together, about staying up late crying over deadlines and supervisors, about graduation, and how Mom had blown hers off for the government job, but been there the next year for Sophie’s, already pregnant with me.
“So you were at my graduation. Good luck charm.”
I slid into this the way we slid into so many things: the loss of cities to the encroaching waters and deserts, the swamps and the Zika virus creeping north along the Mississippi, as the days grew hotter and the mosquitoes adapted. A kind of compliant quiet—pleasant, safe—overtook me as I thought yes, of course I had an aunt named Sophie. Of course.
She slept that night on the couch. It was the obvious thing to do. Curfew.
That night I lay in bed and recited the facts of my life: I do not have an aunt named Sophie; my mother did not have antibiotic-resistant TB and was not in a sanatorium on one of the quarantine islands. My mother is in an internment camp with yellow cinder block walls, somewhere in the mountains, far enough north that she’s surrounded by tamarack, maybe by black spruce. At the end of the road with no exit.

Lightspeed 112Sacrid’s Pod“, by Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 112, September 2019) 8741 words

Sacrid Henn planned to leave the repressive society she was born into as soon as she came of age, so her parents contracted AIsource to imprison her for life as punishment for rejecting their faith. Inside her pod, her AIsource caretaker tries to make her as comfortable as possible and to accommodate her needs, but Sacrid won’t give up on obtaining her freedom. The caretaker is oddly encouraging of this attitude.

It is virtually impossible for you to escape your pod, escape its extensive support system, find your way to some access corridor, and subsequently find your way out of that portion of this deep-space facility that is devoted to the care of guests, a distance that is itself the size of a small country. Even then you would have to worry about escaping this artificial world, without cooperation from us, and somehow making it back to the nearest human habitation, a further distance of fifteen light years. It would be like escaping a jail cell, only to then face the necessity of escaping the prison, only to then have to escape the surrounding city, only to then have to escape the surrounding landscape, only to then find yourself with an ocean separating you from your homeland. It is virtually impossible.
I can tell you that this feat has been accomplished one hundred and fifty-eight times in our many years of operation. This represents a fraction of one percent of our current detainee population. Still, it remains a remarkable testament to human ingenuity.
This interests you.
We have not plugged that hole in our security in large part because of its usefulness as a form of recreation, and as a source of hope.

f48coverThe Message“, by Vanessa Fogg (The Future Fire 48, February 2019) 4221 words

Sarah has as normal a life as a teen can have in world where everyone is a climate refugee and world politics is mired in a state of perpetual brinksmanship. Her favorite activity is writing fan fiction with her best friend Chloe, who lives on the other side of the world and whom she has never met in person. Sarah also has a direct connection to the most culturally significant event in human history.

I hear the new special aired, she says. Have you seen it?
She means the new documentary special on the Message. Timed to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of its reception. The moment fifteen years ago when my mother looked at a pattern of radio signals and realized she was seeing a message from a distant star.
Yeah, I write back. It was okay. There was nothing really new.

That’s part of the reason my mom’s in a funk: because there’s nothing new. That’s why it’s hard to drum up private funding. Well, that and the ongoing economic recession and the fact that the Message is publicly available, all of it freely accessible to the world, and thousands of experts and hobbyists have taken a crack at it and thousands of research papers and blog posts have been written, but still no one knows what it means. Scientists have tried to analyze it in all kinds of ways, programming deep neural networks to comb through the signal, applying various models, taking it apart bit by bit. Artists have played with it, translating patterns to musical notes or colors. There are those who still say that the signal is dangerous, that it’s a viral code, that if you look at it too deeply it will take over and reprogram your mind. There are those who think it’s the key to salvation. And from the start, there’ve been those who insist that it’s all an elaborate hoax.
The newest documentary special has a lot of recycled footage. Old interviews from fifteen years ago. Shots of those first hectic press conferences. Mom doesn’t speak in the first big briefings. She wasn’t director of the Institute then. She was a new postdoctoral fellow, fresh from her Ph.D. Her group leader and the Director are the ones at the podium. But Mom was the one who recognized the signal for what it was. She saw it in real-time.

FIYAH Issue12_150“Corialis”, by T.L. Huchu (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 12: Chains, Autumn 2019) 7019 words

Like all colonists on the distant moon of Corialis, Thandeka underwent an arduous process of microbial adaptation to prepare for her new life there. Thandeka suspects that something about the moon – some unseen system or presence – is rejecting them, and if her family is to have any future there she needs to find out what it is and how to make peace with it.

“I’m looking at?”
“I’m measuring the impulses running through the biomass, and it’s incredible.” Garande brings up another graph, squiggly lines running through. “See that correlation with a standard neural map? This is far more complicated. For a start, the level of activity far exceeds anything a single brain could do. The info here is overlaid, multiple processes running parallel to one another, but fully integrated with sophisticated feedback loops.”
“Inga.”
“Now, if I—” He takes a crude device, a low voltage battery and wires, and shocks one of the strings. “See how the multimeter peaks, right? That’s my signal going through, but then the natural signals stop after the interruption. The reading on my meter goes to zero… wait for it… there it is; do you see that? A low intensity signal passes one way, and then the other. And it’ll keep doing this, almost like it’s testing for something. If I shock it again, the test signals change in frequency. Check that one out—it’s exactly the same as my input.”
“So it reacts to stimulus. Every living thing does.”
“I think the data points to some kind of non-sentient intelligence built by all these interlinked unicellular life forms, Thandeka. Information flows that span the entire moon.”

FSF 7-8“Mighty Are the Meek and the Myriad”, by Cassandra Khaw (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July/August 2019) 6375 words

The war between machine and man ended with a peace treaty, but that doesn’t mean everyone has moved on.

It was death by a thousand small grievances. The French were making a national sport of maligning British cuisine, while the Italians and the Greeks busied themselves privatizing transportation, education, automotive export, luxury import. Music now pivoted on the approval of the Spanish. Worse still, the Nordic countries, much to Henrietta’s despair, were taking over the airwaves with their suicidally bleak comedies.
And China.
Henrietta didn’t even want to think about China or how the country had oh-so-politely excused itself from the debacle that was the rest of the world, content to be self-sufficient, the insufferable twats.
Treasonous as the thought was, Henrietta missed war and she missed being an apparatus of war. Conflict was honest. The protocols weren’t half as byzantine. There was no need to asphyxiate in endless meetings or equally endless dinners, the menus fastidiously tailored to minimize risk of offending the collective palate. Henrietta wasn’t an alcoholic when armistice began, but now she had a wine cabinet in her office. It distressed her.

New Suns“The Robots of Eden” by Anil Menon (New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, editor Nisi Shawl; Solaris Books) 6482 words

Life goes along swimmingly for the “Enhanced”, whose brain implants seem to make them happier, more well-adjusted people than the un-enhanced. The narrator’s close friendship with his ex-wife’s fiancée Sollozzo – despite his disappointment over the end of their relationship – attests to that. But having a brain that spackles over your negative thoughts may have unintended consequences.

“Are you working on a new novel? Your fans must be getting very impatient.”
“I haven’t written anything new for a decade,” said Sollozzo, with a smile. He stroked Padma’s cheek. “She’s worried.”
“I’m not!” Padma did look very unworried. “I’m not just your wife. I’m also a reader. If I feel a writer is cutting corners, that’s it, I close the book. You’re a perfectionist; I love that. Remember how you tortured me over the translation?”
Sollozzo nodded fondly. “She’s equally mad. She’ll happily spend a week over a comma.”
“How we fought over footnotes! He doesn’t like footnotes. But how can a translator clarify without footnotes? Nothing doing, I said. I put my foot down.”
I felt good watching them nuzzle. I admired their passion. I must have been deficient in passion. Still, if I’d been deficient, why hadn’t Padma told me? Marriages needed work. The American labor theory of love. That worked for me; I liked work. Work, work. If she’d wanted me to work at our relationship, I would have. Then, just so, I lost interest in the subject.
“I don’t read much fiction anymore,” I confessed. “I used to be a huge reader. Then I got Enhanced in my twenties. There was the adjustment phase and then somehow I lost touch, what with career and all. Same story with my friends. They mostly read what their children read. But even kids, it’s not much. Makes me wonder. Maybe we are outgrowing the need for fiction. I mean, children outgrow their imaginary friends. Do you think we posthumans are outgrowing the need for fiction?”

Asomovs 092019Winter Wheat“, by Gord Sellar (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2019) 22559 words

Jimmy grew up on a farm in the small town of Biggar, and plans on continuing the family business when his time comes. When an agricultural mega-corporation introduces a new patented strain of wheat to the market, young Jimmy fails to fully grasp the implications.

“Lemme put it this way: they’ve gone in and messed with how the starches stack together, twisted them all around the opposite direction to usual. Nothing on Earth has the right enzymes in its guts to break those carbs down into sugars – not you, not me, not the bugs, nothing,” he said, pausing briefly as if hesitating to wade too deep into the science. Then he continued: “If it doesn’t go through the industrial processing they use on it in the mills, well: you take this wheat and grind it into flour in your kitchen, and then bake yourself some bread, and I’m telling you that you can literally starve to death on a full stomach of that bread every day. It’s not just pests: anyone can starve off it, like rabbit meat. They made it that way, so we’re dependent on them for processing and distribution and everything. Now, what that means is that growing this wheat may give you a better yield, but it also locks you farmers into working with specific buyers, into a specific distribution model. And then you gotta deal with the ecological collapse that comes when all the vermin dies out, and if the genes they’ve spliced in transfer to other plants, or if it mutates… Well, it’s just not so simple as they’re saying, that’s all.”
Jimmy noticed his dad nodding, but he seemed to be the only one who was. All the other farmers were mumbling among themselves, and honestly, Jimmy didn’t really get what the big deal was either.

Clarkesworld 155Your Face“, by Rachel Swirsky (Clarkesworld Issue 155, August 2019) 1327 words

Abigail’s mom is happy to see her daughter’s face, but once the elation passes, she realizes things are a little off.

But you can’t really go home. You know that. Right, Abigail?
Obviously.
You’re only in the computer. You can’t come out.
I know.
I don’t know. Maybe this was a bad idea. Is it cruel? Am I just bringing you back to kill you all over again?
You’re freaking out, Mom. Stop it.
I realized I’ve been putting this off for almost five years. It would have been your thirtieth birthday last week. Maybe I should have come earlier, but I just wasn’t—sure if it would be cruel—
It’s fine.
And I . . . didn’t know if I wanted to.
Oh.
I’m sorry. Oh, God. I’m terrible.
Whatever. It’s not important.
Now you’re angry.
Don’t tell me how I feel.
No. This isn’t right. You don’t sound like you. You look like you . . . but you don’t sound like you at all.
Excuse me?
You’re so flat . . . You sound . . . like you’re champagne, and someone left you open.
I don’t even know how to respond to that.
There’s nothing in your voice but frustration.

FSF 052019“New Atlantis”, by Lavie Tidhar (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May/June 2019) 24135 words

Through generations, after the collapse of human civilization, the surviving population struggled and succeeded in building a new world that shed the troubles of the past. 84-year-old Mai relates a story from her youth, of a long and difficult journey she undertook to reach New Atlantis.

“It is said the harvest will be plentiful in Gomrath this spring,” Mowgai said. “And that a heron was spotted for the first time in centuries near Esh.”
We had been traveling for days. For a while yet we were still in the world as I mostly knew it, with its familiar terrain of good, black earth, and in the bloom of early spring, so that we rose each morning to the sight of thousands of pink and purple cyclamens, red poppies, yellow daisies, and blue-and-white lupines that stood stiffly like guards in the breeze.
“It is also said a vast Sea monster washed ashore in Sidon, dead upon the sand, and that a manshonyagger of old was seen near Dor-Which-Fell-To-Ruin,” Mowgai said, and shrugged. “But such stories are often told and there is seldom truth in them.”
“The sea monster, perhaps,” I said, thinking of the ocean and its mysteries. I smiled at him, imagining our faraway destination. The New Atlantis lay beyond the Sea. “If we’re lucky, we might get to see one.”
He shuddered. “Salvagers survive by avoiding danger, not running headlong toward it,” he said.
“Yes, yes,” I said. “So my mother always tells me.”
“And you never listen,” he said, but he smiled when he said it.

Fireside 67bAll the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From“, by Izzy Wasserstein (Fireside Magazine Issue 67, May 2019) 2211 words

You keep snapping in and out of different realities, different iterations of your hometown. But what exactly are you looking for?

In so many realities, there are headstones carved with your mother’s name. Sometimes your mother is buried under headstones with different names. And there are realities where she’s still alive, and even ones where you never left.
In the ones where she’s alive and you never left, the other yous seethe with resentment and jealousy, like you are a reminder of everything they don’t have. You know just how they feel. In the ones where she’s dead, the other yous have the look of cornered rats and you know all over again why you had to get out.
Sometimes you tell yourself you are looking for the right reality, maybe one where you made peace and she died holding your hand. Or one where she screamed at you until you knew leaving was right. Or maybe she got better and you went off to college and this is your triumphant return. In one reality, your sibling (your sister, this time) explains the paradox of choice: choosing between three salad dressings is easy; choosing between one hundred, a nightmare.
“Narrow your choices,” she tells you, somewhere into the second bottle of bottom-shelf whiskey. “Settle for good enough.”
In that Topeka, your mother is dead and so is that version of you. Your sister doesn’t ask to come with you.

 

mission critical“Cyclopterus”, by Peter Watts (Mission Critical, editor Jonathan Strahan; Solaris Books) 5742 words

In a bleak future plagued by perpetual super-storms, Galik, a representative of the Nautilus corporation, goes on a potentially dangerous dive in the mini-sub Cyclopterus with a pilot who isn’t too eager to accommodate him.

“I told you: nothing’s decided.”
Moreno snorts. “Right. You dragged Sylvie hundreds of kilometers off-site, so you’d have your own private base camp. You put everyone’s research on hold, and you’ve got me spending the next eight hours planting your money detectors on the seabed. You think I don’t know what that costs?”
Galik shrugs. “If you’re that sure, you could always refuse the gig. Break your contract. Take a stand on principle.”
Moreno glowers at the dashboard, where the luminous stipple of the thermocline thickens and rises about them. Cyclopterus jerks and slews as some particularly dense lens of water slaps lazily to starboard.
“They’d probably send you home then, though, right? Back to the heat waves and the water wars and that weird new fungus that’s eating everything. Although I hear some of the doomsday parties are worth checking out. Just last week one of ’em ended up burning down half of Kluane National Park.”
Moreno says nothing.
“’Course, if you really wanted to stand up and be counted, you could join the Gaianistas.” And in response to the look that gets him: “What? You gonna let the fuckers who killed the planet get away scot-free again?”
“That’s rich. Coming from one of their errand boys.”
“I chose my side. What about you, hiding out here in the ocean while the world turns to shit? You going to do anything about that, or are you all sound and fury, signifying nothing?”

You can find Part 1 – Dark Fantasy/Horror HERE

You can find Part 3 – Fantasy HERE

Additional Reading:

The above choices are based on my own personal tastes from my own reading experiences, and are meant to be taken as such. There are many other “best of” and “recommended reading” lists that offer up quality reading choices for short SFF. Here are a few:

Maria Haskins, author and translator

Charles Payseur, author and proprietor of Quick Sip Reviews

Eugenia Triantafyllou, author

A.C. Wise, author

Locus Recommended Reading List 

Rocket Stack Rank 2019 YTD (aggregate list), compiled by Greg Hullender and Eric Wong

More links will appear as I find them!