Featured Image from “Investigate” by Andis Reinbergs, cover art for Beneath Ceaseless Skies #298-299
Must Read Stories
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
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.
“Sacrid’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.
“The 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.
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.”
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.
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?”
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.
“Your 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.
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.
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.
“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?”
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:
Adney and Teek, a young couple vacationing in Italy, are approached by an older man who offers them a modestly indecent proposal: $10,000 for one hour alone with Teek, the “most handsome man in this or any city.” The sexual boundaries of their relationship are loosely defined, so after getting over their initial discomfort, Teek agrees to the man’s terms. Who couldn’t use a little extra cash? Thematically, this story recalls Miller’s excellent 2016 short “Things with Beards”, by prompting the reader to ask how well we can really know another person, or even ourselves. But “Shucked” is far more unnerving, and far less optimistic, in its explorations than that story. I love the way Miller integrates some of Adney’s anxieties about their relationship early on, then uses them to sneak the fantastical element in later. Miller’s command of short-form narrative puts him in a league of his own.
Drawing its title from perhaps the most famously terrible line of poetry in English literature, Morrow’s weird tale relates the circumstances of the 1955 disappearance of author Darko Cromdahl, as told by his former lover and fellow author Marsha Waszynski. According to Marsha, Cromdahl was a boorish narcissist and talentless hack who couldn’t figure out if he wanted to be the next Lovecraft or the next Asimov, despite ample evidence he wasn’t capable of being either. So how did he write all those timeless classics of horror and science fiction? “Bird Thou Never Wert” is the best kind of genre satire: hilariously self-deprecating, but also exemplary of the genre it satirizes.
More Recommended Stories
“The Forge“, by Andrew Dykstal [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #291, November 21, 2019] Novelette
A captivating high fantasy mystery, in which the two most likely suspects in the King’s murder must determine how the assassin accomplished his mission in the most politically expedient way. Masterful plotting, especially for a non-linear narrative that juggles multiple mysteries at once.
A Canadian teen living in Paris strikes up a friendship with fellow migrant Jake, who spins a patently absurd tall tale about living under a 400-year-old curse that causes him to pursue his perpetually reincarnated lover across the centuries. Absurd, that is, until present circumstances start matching up with Jake’s story. Finely drawn characters in a lively and emotionally resonant story.
While a superflu ravages the world, the affluent have their babies raised by robot nannies inside the titular structures, meaning their children grow up without the benefit of human touch. The story has a day-in-the-life structure that gradually peels back the nuances of its near-future world. A very thorough and emotionally honest examination of a plausible science fictional premise.
An otherworldly horror disguised as a human finds unexpected kinship – one that lasts several lifetimes – in Prasad’s libidinous horror-noir story. The prose is a tantalizing mix of the hard-boiled and the sensual.
Ava is a new hire at Mythique, a high-end restaurant famous, and controversial, for serving food made from magical animals. As if the high-pressure environment and routinely abusive boss weren’t bad enough, Ava’s advancement is hindered by her friendship with co-worker Zach, who is kind and helpful but has serious boundary issues. Engaging and believable from the start, with wonderful characters and a memorable and well-detailed setting.
Sunan was born on the colony world Xiva, soon-to-be dismantled thanks to his efforts to show the authorities that one of the world’s native species, the Pitka, is intelligent – a fact the early colonists worked hard to keep from colonial authorities. The story does a great job of personifying Sunan’s internal conflict over his home world, and the ending is powerful.
Bolander’s expressive cat-scratch prose and narrative gymnastics grow more audacious with each published story, while she has honed her vision into a diamond-hard stare. As a young girl, Whistlecage has a transformative experience when she learns to play the flute at the urging of an old witch. Far in a post-disaster future, another young girl finds Whistlecage’s flute in the wreckage of a museum, and it seems there is some magic left in it yet. Like “The Only Harmless Great Thing”, this is a story about bold ideas and hard truths crossing generational distances, of art as cultural memory and revolutionary impulse.
“Sacrid’s Pod“, by Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 112, September 2019) Novelette
Most of Castro’s AIsource Infection stories have debuted in the pages of Analog, so it was a pleasant surprise to find one out in the wild, and a great one at that. “Sacrid’s Pod” isn’t dependent on any of the other stories or story sequences and serves as a great primer for those unfamiliar with Castro’s future history. Sacrid is a teenage girl consigned to a life sentence in an inescapable prison by her ultra-orthodox parents as punishment for transgressing their culture’s religious doctrines. Her unusually helpful AI-jailer assists her as she engineers a different kind of prison break. More than a quarter century into his writing career, Castro still displays an near-miraculous talent for twisting every genre trope imaginable into something new and exciting and fun.
This was the first story I encountered in my September reading, and it set quite a standard for everything that followed. “Winter Wheat” is the intimate yet epic story of a farming community upended by the introduction of bioengineered climate-resistant wheat. The story’s protagonist, Jimmy, can’t grasp the science of farming, a fact that frustrates him when his father’s attempts to create his own strain of wheat conflicts with corporate control of production. With its memorable setting and characters, and an intelligent, multi-layered take on some vital near-future issues, this may be my favorite sci-fi story of the year.
Raya wants to hurl a brown dwarf into a collapsing star to save a planet of octopodes from the gamma ray burst of an impending supernova, despite the fact that the resulting collision will incinerate her and make her the first human to die in several millennia. Why? Because that would be metal as hell, of course. Then the “frickin’ Unimind”, the human race’s AI caretaker, arrives to muck the whole plan up. In truth, the conflict between Raya and the Unimind never rises above mild tension, but the spectacle of Raya’s plan and her motive for doing it are the stars of the show. If you fail to read this story with a big old stupid grin on your face from the first page to the last you should probably stop reading things.
Coles’ piercing fever dream of a story is accompanied by W.B. Yeats classic poem “The Second Coming” (and also a content warning, which should be heeded), the perfect tone-setter for this tale of a young girl named Bootsie and her monstrous pregnancy. As much a story of containing Whitmanian multitudes as it is about birthing biblical Legions, it’s also as eerie and unsettling as any horror story you’re likely to read this year.
A bittersweet capstone to the late Dozois’s long and legendary career in SFF, about a very old wizard who makes one last trip home, and a young girl who beseeches him to send a little bit of magic her way. The kind of story that might be a little too perfect for its own good, but who’s going to complain?
Asimov’s always throws a little “spooky action” (pun intended) at readers this time of year, and for the second year in a row Feldman has written one of my favorites. Sonia moves in to an old witch’s house, and takes on her ex-husband’s teenage daughter as an apprentice as she starts her own witch’s shop. When the intelligent, racoon-like albatwitches that live in the nearby woods start making incursions on Sonia’s property, she knows they’re after something and that can’t be good. The albatwitches are too fiercely unknowable to be the antagonist here; the real conflict is between the stubbornly pragmatic older woman Sonia and the fearlessly naïve youth Gina, who believes the albatwitches are trying to befriend her.
“Four Accounts of the Discovery of Orchard Street (From The Knowledge: An A-To-Zed of That City We Almost Know)” collated by S.R. Mandel, cartographer (Galaxy’s Edge Issue 40, September/October 2019) Short Story
This is probably the first time I’ve dropped a story on this list just because I didn’t know what else to do with it, only that by some strange impulse I read it over and over at least a half dozen times and found new pleasures in it each time. There’s nothing else I can say about it that you can’t glean from the title. Just let it happen.
“Dave’s Head“, by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 156, September 2019) Novelette
I marvel at Palmer’s gift for pasting together what seems like a bucket list of absurd story concepts and not only weaving them into a compelling narrative but imbuing them with a deep, rich mythology that reaches out beyond the boundaries of the story. In “Dave’s Head”, an engineer and her senile uncle go on a road trip with their roommate, a sentient animatronic dinosaur head called Dave, so Dave can find others like himself at a long-shuttered theme park. It’s a testament to the good will Palmer has engendered with her readers that we’re willing to swallow the wacky pill she hands us, no questions asked, knowing the rewards and surprises that await us.
“In the Stillness Between the Stars”, by Mercurio D. Rivera (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2019) Novelette
Another spooky story from Asimov’s, this one a little more traditionally Asimovian. A psycho therapist is woken from cryogenic sleep early in a colony ship’s voyage to help a woman who appears to have woken her nightmare up along with her. Well-drawn characters and sturdy, suspenseful plotting, and a whole lot going on in the background for SF geeks to chew on.
You’re probably smarter than I am and won’t try to read a magazine literally called NIGHTMARE right before bedtime. Though just in case that’s not warning enough for you, for fuck’s sake don’t read “Sweet Dreams are Made of You” and then try to go to sleep. Wolfmoor’s testimonial-style horror vignette about a game called Vore that you play in your dreams – until it crosses over to the waking world – has all the punishing beauty of a black metal song and the suffocating dread of a dream you desperately want to scream yourself awake from.
After England’s devastating war against the robots ends, the plan for reintegrating the automatons mostly involves “hats and parasols and cutout mustaches made of cheap aluminum”. And also corgis. If that gives you some indication of the tenor of Cassandra Khaw’s id-poking sci-fantasy treat, I’ve got news for you: this is the kind of story that turns on a dime. Full of tragedy and cynicism and caustic wit, and bolstered by the author’s inexhaustible energy and descriptive ingenuity (at one point, a character’s eyes are “like cracked ice…The uneven striations in her irises compounded the effect, invoking the impression that her pupils had somehow shattered.” WTF.), by the end we get the idea the author doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks speculative fiction is supposed to speculate about.
Solomon’s crimson-hued tale of Sully, a teenaged slave with “a heart made of teeth” who turns on and kills her captors, is the kind of story that blocks all the emergency exits. The disturbance caused by Sully’s actions knocks something loose in the ether and she gives birth to Ziza, a fully-grown teenager who died as a slave centuries before. Soon, Sully’s rage births an “army of revenants” in place of the racist whites she exacts her vengeance on. This story keeps the reader suspended somewhere between the malicious logic of a fever dream and the order imposed by a conventional narrative structure. What it doesn’t do is allow the comfort of escape.
Christopher Smart lives in an asylum, where Satan looks to hoodwink the beleaguered poet into writing an epic apologia for his benefit. Smart’s loyal cat companion Jeoffry isn’t having any of that. An absurdly entertaining bit of escapism, especially for lit nerds.
“Thin Places“, by Kay Chronister (The Dark Issue 50, July 2019) Short Story
The townspeople of Branaugh operate under an uncanny state of affairs, one that does not suffer newcomers well. School teacher Miss Augusta knows what it means when the new lighthouse-keeper’s daughter arrives at her door, and though the other townsfolk implore her to send the girl away, she can’t bring herself to do it. Chronister’s unsettling anti-fable offers a world where community, and the security it promises, is a site of horror rather than of safety.
Haskins often writes about characters who sidestep conventional moral boundaries in favor of their own spiritual reality, and while the results are usually capital-D Dark, there is also a poignancy that creeps up on readers willing to reset their own parameters (temporarily, one hopes). “The Brightest Lights of Heaven”, about a pair of childhood best friends who make an unbreakable pact that transcends time and distance, is devilish fun, and quite touching in its own twisted way.
“I wonder what my dog is thinking” is a premise with more than a few miles on it. In “The Work of Wolves”, author Tegan Moore flips the coin by giving us Sera, an enhanced-intelligence search-and-rescue dog who has to figure out what her new handler is thinking in time to save the day. Engrossing with a nice brisk pace, it’s a quintessential Asimov’s piece: just hard-enough sci-fi to satisfy our inner lizard brain, though with the emphasis squarely on character-driven plotting and action.
“Black Matter“, by Vivian Shaw (Pseudopod #655, July 5, 2019) Short Story
The premise of Shaw’s story, in which a consulting necromancer (ahem, contingency communications specialist) for the NTSB investigates a plane crash by interviewing the deceased witnesses, reads like a modern day paranormal fantasy while the narrative builds like something out of pulp-era Weird Tales. It also has the feel of a “pilot episode”, and with its pitch perfect first-person narration and provocative hints of larger forces at work, a return trip would be welcome.
There is a cool casualness to A.C. Wise’s prose that contrasts nicely with the sometimes startling events that punctuate her narratives. “How the Trick is Done” is a tale of death and resurrection and revenge, in which Angie, the magician’s assistant/girlfriend (and true progenitor of his most famous trick) decides it’s time to part ways with the man. It’s an understandable choice: the women he uses and discards can do the real magic he takes credit for. The story has an unusual structure that works despite itself—we already know what happens to the magician from the start, yet Wise manages more than a few surprising moments before events come full circle.
Set in 1912 in the same alt-history story universe as the author’s A Dead Djinn in Cairo, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 excels on multiple fronts: as a [magical] detective yarn, as a chilling, classically structured haunted house story, and as a vehicle for historian Clark’s speculative re-imagining of modern Egyptian civilization. The story follows Hamed Nasr, an agent for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, and his eager but inexperienced new partner Onsi and they investigate the titular event. The intricate detail imbued in the story’s setting is the star of the show—I would be happy to get lost wandering the streets of Clark’s Cairo—but that takes nothing away from the wonderful cast of characters and sublime plot execution. The climax is a true nail-biter, with a resolution that resonates. Extra points for a protagonist who can wax anthropological about folklore.
At first, Sarina Dorie’s alien spider love novelette “A Mate Not a Meal” seems like it would be a better fit for Analog’s more character-driven sister magazine Asimov’s. Taking place on a tech-free giant spider planet with a tight 1st person POV of its giant spider protagonist, it’s hard not to wonder for a time how it fits in with Analog’s stated goal to publish “stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse.” It does find its way into Analog’s wheelhouse, though explaining how is too much of a spoiler to reveal here. The spider hero of the story is Malatina, whose mother and sister are murdered and eaten by a male spider who tricked mother into believing he wanted to mate with her. This is a not infrequent occurrence on giant spider world, and Malatina must figure out on her won how to tell the difference between a man who truly loves her and one who just wants to devour her liquified insides. Her dilemma is human-relatable, but also convincingly spidery. The narrative is riveting and suspenseful and harrowing and action-packed and romantic and yes, also full of science that the story couldn’t live without.
The savviest genre authors use conventional story elements to manipulate readers’ expectations. “All the Hidden Places” is the story of Sherman and Nikki, a father and daughter journeying from the Virgin Islands to Sherman’s family home in Michigan through a plague-ravaged America where the infected turn into violent raving lunatics. Sherman is hiding something from his daughter, and if only she can figure out what that is, she would have a better understanding of their circumstances. Skillful tone-setting, subtle atmospherics, and the easy relatability of Sherman’s overprotective father and Nikki’s bright but confused teenager, elevate the familiar setup. What really sets it apart, though, is the interplay of foreshadowing and misdirection, which guides the story to a chilling and inevitable conclusion.
A police detective investigates a finance-related murder with broader social implications. Another of Hartmann’s wonderful stories set on the far-future frontier world of Zephyr; like the others, it stands on its own while rewarding fans of the previous stories. There is a nice little undercurrent of tension between the philosophically minded Inspector Song and her faith-oriented partner that lends the story extra weight.
James can’t deal when his best and only friend Christopher moves away. Storing your loneliness can get expensive, so he builds his own discount loneliness storage apparatus and his equally lonely neighbor Emil convinces him they can start a business together. Author Moore makes building a world around a casual absurdity look easy, not to mention building a story around a protagonist with entirely selfish motives.
Junior is a tech who repairs malfunctioning “Halograms”—religious-themed hologram devices—but there’s something different about Mrs. Fisher’s potty-mouthed Jesus. Nichols transforms what could have been a one-joke premise into a devilish surprise.
This beautifully written story follows the efforts of the world weaver, who rescues magical creatures when they accidently slip through the veil between worlds. Full of wonderful imagery and memorable characters.
“How I Found Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers”, by Lawrence Watt-Evans (Asimov’s Science Fiction, March/April 2019) Novelette
This long-gestating, standalone sequel to Watt-Evans’ Hugo-winning classic is the most perfect tribute imaginable to Asimov’s late, legendary former editor Gardner Dozois. A private investigator tracks the source of a mysterious object called a “neural resonator” to the titular diner, which is also a waypoint to the multiverse. A first-rate illustration of the kind of classically structured sci-fi Asimov’s has trafficked in since its inception.
Featured Image from the Cover Art for “Yiwu” by Feifei Ruan
My short fiction recommendations are split into five categories: Part 1 – Dark Fantasy/Horror and Space-Based Science Fiction; Part 2 – Earthbound Science Fiction and First World Fantasy; Part 3 – Second World Fantasy. Each category features a “Desert Island Pick”, while the remaining picks are listed alphabetically by author. Each title is accompanied by a short synopsis and a quick excerpt for the story. Excerpts may contain mild spoilers.
Not every story fits neatly into any one category. Some could work in more than one category, some defy categorization altogether. I did my best to place them where I thought they fit best. Links are included for stories that are available to read online, or to purchase information. Sometimes the traditional print magazines will make stories available online during award season, so I will update the links when possible.
Short Stories (<7500 words), Novelettes (<17,500), and Novellas (<40,000)
In 1975 a meteor shower seeds the planet with strange alien life forms. This story looks in on nine different days throughout the long life of LT, who seeks to understand them and help the world adjust to this new reality.
This was the popular theory: that aliens had targeted Earth and sent their food stocks ahead of them so there’d be something to eat when they arrived. LT had spent long, hot days in the apartment listening to the boyfriend while Mom was at work, or else following him around the city on vague errands. He didn’t have a regular job. He said he was an artist—with a capital A, kid—but didn’t seem to spend any time painting or anything. He could talk at length about the known invasive species, and why there were so many different ones: the weblike filaments choking the trees in New Orleans, the flame-colored poppies erupting on Mexico City rooftops, the green fins popping up in Florida beach sand like sharks coming ashore.
Ellen is doing a field study of a newly discovered, intelligent sea creature. She is also searching for her father, who disappeared in the midst of his own study. Ellen hopes to get one of the creatures, a female, to trust her enough to show her where she keeps her eggs.
Ellen wonders if their mutual subjects entranced him as much as they do her, whether he ventured out against his better judgment for another blissful hour in their midst. The ice below her creaks, creaks, creaks – footsteps on an old staircase. She shivers, burying herself into her oversized thermal jacket. She replaces her headphones and listens to the colony’s chatter from below. The twist of a dial slows it down, makes it indecipherable. Makes language out of noise. She closes her eyes, leans against her rucksack, and clicks her tongue in near-perfect mimicry.
Cu is an uplifted chimp, the only of her kind, who works as a police detective. Her current case has her investigating a murder that appears to have been committed by remote control.
“Yeah,” Huxley says, letting the bag fall to his lap to sign back. “No receiving or transmitting from interrogation. As soon as she lost contact with that little graft, she panicked. The police ECM should have shut it down as soon as she was in custody. Guess it slipped past somehow.”
Acting under instructions, Cu suggests. Huxley see-saws his open hands. “Could be. She’s got no obvious connection to the victim. We’ll need to have a look at the thing.” Cu scrolls through the perpetrator’s file. Twenty years’ worth of information strained from social media feeds and the odd government application has been condensed to a brief. Elody Polle, born in Toronto, raised in Seattle, rode a scholarship to Princeton to study ethnomusicology before dropping out in ’42, estranged from most friends and family for over a year despite having moved back to a one-room flat in North Seattle. No priors. No history of violence. No record of antisocial behavior. Cu checks the live feed from the interrogation room. Heart-rate down, she signs, tucking the tablet under her armpit. Time to talk.
“What is Eve?” by Will McIntosh [Lightspeed Magazine Issue 95, April 2018; 10,145 words]
Ben is shipped off to a new school with the other “good kids”, the ones who follow instructions and always behave and turn in their homework and get good grades. They are told they have a special new classmate, and that it’s important to act normal around her. It’s not easy to act normal around Eve.
It was taking up two seats pushed together. It was black, and lumpy with all of these folds, and, oh God, were those her eyes or her ears? She had four legs and no feet and she was wearing a purple dress and weird round patent leather shoes and a bow in her hair, only it wasn’t hair, it was more like black spaghetti, and I couldn’t breathe. The thing in the seats flexed, and suddenly it wasn’t lumpy anymore—it was hard, and sharp, with pointy barbs sticking out of it. It hissed like a giant punctured tire. “Direction,” the man’s voice said through my earpiece. “Do not stare. Put a damned smile on your face and find your seat and look at the board.”
Yaphet is a “player” living in a simulated reality ruled by an AI called Goddess. He dreams of flying, though their laws forbid it.
A burnt leaf, edged in incandescence, rose up into the fog, higher and higher, halfway to the treetops before the glow of heat left it. Never before had Yaphet seen a leaf fall up. He stood entranced, watching the flight of the embers, until his father called him again. When he was seven – almost eight – after much experimentation and failure and reassessment (though he was too young to know such words or describe what he was doing) Yaphet launched his first successful fire balloon.
Bodden volunteers for a radical new brain experiment. The researcher, Heidi, can’t help but fall for his charms, even though she knows he’s a creep: she has the data to prove it.
Bodden’s name would float over the table, and people would look at me, signaling their curiosity if not out-and-out concerns. The man was gorgeous, sure. Maybe that was reason enough. And he was certainly young and possibly vigorous. Was I the sort of lady that liked lustful distractions? Bodden also had a talent for funny words and warm, caring noise. When empathy was necessary. But he was one of three sociopaths in our study. Every week, without fail, he came into the shop, undergoing another comprehensive scan for money. And every week, he proved himself to be a self-absorbed boy. No smart professional woman could have feelings for a creep like that. That’s what the glances were saying, and the silences, and those thoughtful sips of coffee while the tea drinker offered little details from last night’s date. Bodden and I were together for ten weeks. Then it was finished, and I was shocked to discover how sad that made me feel.
“Sour Milk Girls” by Erin Roberts [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 136, January 2018; 6447 words]
Teenager Ghost is an orphan under the care of The Agency, who hold onto the troubling memories of their wards’ prior lives and return them when they come of age. Ghost learns that the new girl, Princess, still has all her old memories and Ghost resents her for it.
“You really fucking don’t,” I said. “Me, Flash, Whispers . . . we don’t have something real to share. All those cute, sweet memories of being a kid? Snatched off us when we got to the Agency and locked away where we can’t get ’em. All we know is school and the third floor and a few fosters who couldn’t be bothered to keep us. That’s it. That’s all we fucking got.” Princess stared at me for a second, eyes wide, then walked out, saying I didn’t know and Sorry under her breath like she was doing a Whispers impression. I stayed for a while, playing back the couple of half-decent memories I did have, like the day I figured out how to get the computers in the back to do what I wanted, like a real hacker, or the times the Agency let us go down to the first floor and play with the babies, and then the ones that made my neck shiver, like all the times fosters sent me back ’cause I didn’t fit into any of the smiling family photos—too old, too dark, too “hard to handle.”
Colton escaped the influence of the nanobots called “grains”, and in doing so he sacrificed his emotions. Now he is helping a caravan escape them as well.
“Quiet,” Mita said, glancing around as if she could see the microscopic grains within the land. “Talking of this will jinx our travels.” “Our caravan didn’t use the laser,” Colton protested. “The grains know the difference.” “Drop it!” Mita snapped. She then sighed and shook her head. “Sorry. But you know everyone else will shit if they hear you talking boneheaded stuff like this.” Anyone else in the caravan would have been insulted by Mita’s words, but Colton knew she was right. He didn’t understand how day-fellows saw the world. To him there were no jinxes. There were merely the grains, the microscopic machines which protected all the lands and existed in every animal and plant and insect and anchor. If the grains judged you wrong—decided you’d harmed the environments they protected—you were dead, jinx or no jinx. Still, he’d been with these day-fellows the last eight years and had learned not to debate their beliefs. He also appreciated that Mita always used polite words such as ‘different’ to refer to him, instead of the terms the other day-fellows whispered behind his back. Words like disturbed; sick; psychopath.
“Yiwu” by Lavie Tidhar [Tor.com, May 23, 2018; 5305 words]
Esham works in the market selling lottery tickets that instantly grant the winners their heart’s desire. One day, when one of his regulars, Ms. Qiu, buys a ticket, something unusual happens and he can’t understand why.
It was just an ordinary day, the way Esham liked it. Order and routine, a knowing of what was expected. At the usual time, Ms Qiu emerged from the market doors. She crossed the road. She came to the stand and smiled at him and said, “Hello,” and asked for a ticket. He sold her one. She scratched the silver foil with a 10-baht coin. She looked at the card, almost puzzled, then shrugged and left it on the counter. “No luck?” Esham said. She pushed the ticket towards him. He glanced down, barely registering the impossible at first: the three identical symbols of a beckoning gold cat that meant it was a winning ticket. He glanced up at Ms Qiu. Nothing happened. “Thank you,” Ms Qiu said. She gave him a last, almost bemused smile, then turned and walked away. Still nothing happened. He stared at the good luck cats. Nothing. Ms Qiu crossed the road and walked away the way she always did, until she turned a corner and was out of sight.
At age fourteen, Amelia is supposed to find and catch her fairy soon. Every girl does: it’s a rite of passage. But Amelia just wants to use science to figure out what the deal is with all these stupid fairies.
When her mice weren’t running the mazes, she kept them in gallon pickle jars with holes punched in the lids, with newspaper to shred and ladders for stimulation. There were four pickle jars waiting for new occupants, clean and lined up under her window. She grabbed one, unscrewed the lid, and took it back downstairs. Outside, the sun was low in the sky. She crunched her way across the snowy yard, back to the car, looking nonchalant. She didn’t see the fairy right away. She opened the car door, sat down in the passenger seat, and waited. The fairy bobbed in front of her, maybe ten feet away. She looked at it, then looked away. It came closer. Closer still. She could see the delicate folds in the fairy’s dress, the shining strands of its hair, the tilt of its head, when she sprang. She didn’t want to touch it—she wasn’t entirely convinced that touching the fairy wasn’t what actually made the magic happen—but she swooped up with the jar and brought the lid down, trapping the fairy inside. Then she screwed the lid down, took it upstairs to her room, and set it on a shelf next to her mice.
Ben learns that his estranged brother Denny, a failed screenwriter, died of a heroin overdose. He travels to Hollywood to deal with Denny’s affairs and finds some things in his brother’s apartment that shouldn’t exist, not in this world anyway: a stack of videotapes of movies that were never made.
Retrieving The Ghoul Goes West, I glanced at the sticker on the case: Dimension Video. Then I turned on the television and slotted the tape into the VCR. The film opened with a black-and-white shot of the Amazing Criswell seated behind a desk, delivering a bizarre monologue about “the mysteries of the past which even today grip the throat of the present to throttle it.” The speech was portentous and theatrical, overcooked, the framing static. Then the image faded, to be replaced by a flat desert landscape with a saguaro cactus, obviously fake, on the right side of the frame. The credits came up on the left, each new name preceded by the sound of a pistol shot. Autry had first billing, Lugosi second, both of them above the title. The rest of the cast followed, among them Vampira and Paul Marco and Tor Johnson, Wood’s usual suspects. My only thought as the attribution credit came up— Written Directed Produced by Edward D. Wood, Jr. —was that I was looking at some kind of bizarre forgery. Then Lugosi, in full Dracula garb, appeared on screen, rising from a casket in a dim crypt that looked like a suburban garage. It was unmistakably him. By that point in my thesis research, I’d seen virtually every movie Lugosi had made three or four times. I knew the shape of his face almost as well as I knew my own.
From a one line entry in a 1784 Mount Vernon account book (“By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire”), historian Clark spins nine fantastical stories of the men and women those teeth originally belonged to.
The second Negro tooth belonging to George Washington came from a slave from the Kingdom of Ibani, what the English with their inarticulate tongues call Bonny Land, and (much to his annoyance) hence him, a Bonny man. The Bonny man journeyed from Africa on a ship called the Jesus, which, as he understood, was named for an ancient sorcerer who defied death. Unlike the other slaves bound on that ship who came from the hinterlands beyond his kingdom, he knew the fate that awaited him–though he would never know what law or sacred edict he had broken that sent him to this fate. He found himself in that fetid hull chained beside a merman, with scales that sparkled like green jewels and eyes as round as black coins. The Bonny man had seen mermen before out among the waves, and stories said some of them swam into rivers to find wives among local fisher women. But he hadn’t known the whites made slaves of them too.
“Flow” by Marissa Lingen [Fireside Magazine Issue 53, March 2018; 2956 words]
The magical forest-dwelling naiads know Gigi is one of theirs by her “flow”, the way she carries herself, which marks her as her father’s daughter. Things change when a sinus infection permanently damages her equilibrium.
I return to the first stream I ever met. I walk so slowly through the forest, the tip of my cane making unfamiliar sounds against the rocks and the leaf mold of the path. I am exhausted from balancing on such a long walk. There are two naiads sitting by the stream, one of them visiting from a local lake I also know. I greet them eagerly, finding the right place to put my cane to step forward to the banks of the stream. The stream naiad shrieks. The lake naiad steps in front of her protectively. “What’s wrong with you?” I ask them. They don’t answer. They are staring at me with wide, terrified eyes. I haven’t been there in a year, a full turn of the sun and then a little bit. But I didn’t think they would forget so quickly. They didn’t when I was away to college, when I was hanging out with other naiads somewhere else for awhile. “Guys, come on, what’s your problem?” The stream naiad quavers, “Who are you?” The naiads don’t recognize me.
Bette is devastated by the murder of her beloved brother, Cary. She longs to experience his last moments, and she believes her schoolmate Hiram can help her with that.
“Hey,” I said to Hiram Raff, who was right where I thought he’d be, polishing shoes in a corner where hardly anyone ever looked. Off the high school baseball field, Hiram was all awkward stammers and intentionally poor posture, ashamed and afraid of the adulation he had unwillingly earned. “Hey,” he said, a little nervously, like What does this person want from me? “How you doing?” I asked, fingers rubbing at an invisible spot on the counter. “I’m all right,” he said, and his ruddy, lovely face said he most certainly was not. I felt awful, like I was frightening a small animal for selfish reasons, but I could not stop now. “I heard you can make people see things,” I said. Lines appeared between his eyes, and at the edges of his mouth. Poor boy looked close to bursting—into tears, maybe, or, simply bursting. I was a monster, I knew, but I had to say what I’d come here to say. I owed it to my brother. “Can you help me? Can you come on a road trip with me?” I had two pieces of information about Hiram Raff, both of them ill-gotten, gossip-derived. Common knowledge. Things he was deeply, irrationally ashamed of, for reasons that were his own. The first was what I’d already said: that under certain circumstances he could cause visions—of the past, of the future, of fictional scenarios that had never been and would never be, and whether he or anyone else could tell the difference was subject to much conjecture. The second was that he was had a congenital, terminal case of politeness. Hiram was a boy who could never tell anyone No.
(Unlike most Lightspeed stories, Conspicuous Plumage is not currently available to read online, but only in a purchased copy of the issue.)
The Filipino deity Mebuyen helps guide innocent souls to the afterlife. Usually she only gets infants, but now older children and adults who have been murdered by the police are coming her way. And her river isn’t washing them clean like it’s supposed to, so she can’t even send them on their way.
I think they took me to a side street. It smelled like pee. There was garbage on the floor. I prayed to the Lord that I trusted He would not put me in hell even if I am transgender. I don’t pray very often but I was scared. I kept thinking don’t let it be painful, I don’t want to die suffering. They asked me two questions and I answered, then the one that shouted at Jel came forward, and the one that dragged me told him to shoot. And he shot. Babygirl sighs. “I’m glad I’m not in hell,” she says. “At least—I don’t think this is hell?” “It’s not,” Mebuyen says. “But what is this place? Does this mean I don’t have peace?” Mebuyen hands her a glass of milk. “This is Gimokudan—my domain. You’re safe here. But as for your second question, I would like to know the answer too.”
In this “slightly spooky” early fall edition of Asimov’s, Stephanie Feldman’s “The Witch of Osborne Park” carries that theme well. You would have to stretch your definitions to find any SFnal elements though; the story is a straight supernatural drama. Elizabeth moves to upscale Osborne Park with her husband Roger and 3-year-old daughter Abby. The neighborhood has everything they want, but Elizabeth becomes concerned when Dorothy, the older girl next door, starts a subtle bullying campaign against eager, naïve Abby. As Dorothy becomes more aggressive, a series of unusual phenomena occur in and around their home. Feldman does excellent, effortless work establishing character, setting and tone and allowing her story to unfold from there. Its depiction of myriad parenting anxieties is spot-on. Elizabeth knows it’s absurd for a grown adult to engage in a personal feud with a 5-year-old, but oh how she wants to smush the little shit. And one can sympathize. The prose is pensive and insightful, balancing the sinister and the sentimental. Ruminating on her protective instinct, “Elizabeth thought of an article she once read – how an unborn baby’s cells remain in its mother’s body after it leaves for the bright world, how they linger for years, even decades. Maybe they’re slow blooming. Maybe they need the right angle of sunshine, the right breeze, the scent of morning lilies growing in the shadows of an iron gate.” The bait-and-switch plot twist is predictable, though the denouement still satisfies.
Erin Roberts has a nice streak going, with her excellent futuristic orphan tale “Sour Milk Girls” and her dark horror story “Snake Season” among my favorites this year. “The Grays of Cestus V” is a superb blend of the former’s psychological astuteness and the latter’s air of creeping menace. Laila is a miner and an artist on the frontier world of Cestus V, where the grays seep into everything, making the world and its people appear drab and colorless, a reality reflected in her paintings. The Pioneer Commission invites Laila to the planet’s much livelier central hub to speak about her art and her life on the frontier. The interview goes off-track when it becomes clear just how much the gray has affected her state of mind. Laila conflation of her moral and aesthetic values leads her, and the story, down a very ominous path. It’s a crafty work of fiction, though somber in tone.
A few of the stories by big-ticket authors yielded mixed results:
In Greg Egan’s novella, Sagreda and Mathis are “comps”, sentient NPCs built from discarded brain maps in a virtual reality construct. They are searching for the titular mathematical paradise of “3-adica”, where they can live without fear of deletion for violating the rules. The story picks up with the Sagreda and Mathis feeling their way through a lurid vampire bodice-ripper called Midnight on Baker Street (each of the game‘s “worlds” adapt public domain novels). They are searching for a specific color to enable Sagreda to finish a painting that will port them into 3-adica. Along the way they run afoul of a vampiric Percy and Mary Shelley, which brings them the negative attention they are trying to avoid. That the story’s version of paradise resembles a Greg Egan novel is a tad narcissistic, though a forgivable indulgence. One cannot begrudge the author his Shangri-La. But it hurts that what had been an entertaining mash-up of hard SF and pulp horror turns into a dreary algorithmic fantasia that can only be not a complete bore if you really, really, really, love geometry. The story’s ending struggles to regain its emotional footing, and finishes with a whimper. There is an interesting correlation with Roberts’ story, in that both involve an artist searching for the perfect color, though the result is variable.
Robert Reed likes his allegories cooked well done in “DENALI”; too bad I’m a medium rare kind of guy. In this alt-history story, instead of voting for leaders, Americans vote for potential futures. Aliens known as CAUTIONS left a quantum device in Theodore Roosevelt’s possession that generates the elected futures, distilled into easy-to-explain choices like STRENGTH, NO WAR, and STATUS QUO. STRENGTH wins often, as you might imagine, with PROSPERITY sometimes topping the polls. The 16th Amendment decrees that a future only needs 20% of the vote to win the election, so the winner always leaves the majority unhappy. Reed goes into parabolic overdrive from the start and never eases up on the gas.
In “R.U.R. 8?”, Stout and its fellow robots hide from the ever-present threat of the recycler, but when its friend Rozum loses a limb, Stout risks venturing out to the scrap heaps to find a replacement. I haven’t read the classic Czech play that inspired Suzanne Palmer’s latest story but I presume that much of it is in-jokey and reverential. Though the plot and its post-apocalyptic setting are comprehensible without such familiarity, it still didn’t come together for me. I almost always find Palmer’s keen sense of humor appealing; this time it failed to work its magic. “The Huntsman and the Beast” is Carrie Vaughn’s gender-swapped retelling of Beauty and the Beast. In this version, the Prince and his huntsman, Jack, become lost in the woods during a storm, and happen upon the infamous cursed castle. The Beast lets the Prince escape once Jack agrees to become the Beast’s prisoner, and Jack’s perspective on the situation changes when he realizes the monstrous Master of the castle is in fact its Mistress. Vaughn gets plenty of mileage out of tying the characters’ motivations, and the readers’ expectations, to our presumptions about gender. Many of the authors A-list skills are on display: exquisite tension building, evocative atmospherics, incisive character moments. The rushed second half of the story relies on our familiarity with the source material to fill in the thematic blanks, and kept me from engaging with the romantic aspect. The finale works in a nice end-around to the humility the beast must learn to break the curse, allowing her to surrender to love without sacrificing her self-determination.
Too-long titles are proper for tall tales, and Sarah McGill’s western whopper “The Day Beth Leather Shot the Moon, as Told by Rosemary Bonebreak” fits the bill in that regard. Beth Leather is a “traveling librarian” who passes through White Horn from time to time, relating her outrageous adventures to Rose and her older sister Darlene. Over the years, Beth romances Darlene while Rose pines for Beth in secret. As Darlene matures, she grows tired of Beth’s wandering ways and Beth turns her attentions to Rose, promising to shoot the moon out of the sky for her. I enjoyed the droll tone and gaudy visuals of “Beth Leather”, and the mythic quality of the prose. Despite being among the shorter works published by this novelette-friendly venue, McGill’s story drags a bit in the middle. It builds to an exciting climax, though, as shooting the moon out of the sky goes about as well as you’d expect. I think my biggest issue was that I never connected with Rose’s longing for Beth; it is expressed in concrete terms, but doesn’t permeate the prose the way romantic longing should, especially when the narrator is the one doing the longing.
“Cold Ink” is a sci-horror novelette set in the industrial steampunk dystopia of Dean Wells’ Clockwork Millennials story cycle. Uninitiated readers shouldn’t have too much trouble jumping right in but should be aware Wells doesn’t waste much ink explaining things. The story follows Hester, whose feelings for casual flame Verity run deeper than she’s willing to admit. When Verity comes to her for help after a long absence, Hester risks everything to help her, even as Hester’s friends are getting killed off one by one. Wells has a talent for the macabre (the demonic ink of the title is used to chilling effect) and the world-building is deep and intricate enough to sell new readers on the other stories. “Cold Ink” is a little long, but still an entertaining, suspenseful story, with a gut-punch of a turn at the end.
Justin Howe’s “Periling Hand” also has a sci-fantasy feel but runs straight into the trap Wells’ story avoids: it’s brimming with exposition, leaving the story – about a man trying to acclimate to his new bio-integrated wooden arm – with little room to breathe. A compelling emotional core is hiding here somewhere, but is so buried beneath ceaseless infodumping I couldn’t get invested.
The bleak, frosty atmospherics of Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Ancestor Night” lend its spectral premise extra bite. On the longest night of the year, the villagers trek through the deep snow to Memory Lake, where their departed loved ones will rise to the surface of the ice. Once there, the living relatives sing a prayer asking their ancestors to wake or stay asleep. Paolo and his siblings lost their parents a year ago; after singing the Ancestor Night prayer, his beloved oldest sister Jasna admits she caused their deaths. Their father wakes, and whispers something only Jasna can hear. “Ancestor Night” is a resonant documentation of an imaginary ritual, though a little too crisp and aerial to be more than an effective mood piece.
I love the way Maria Haskins lets images and emotions guide the structure of her stories, building them the way people reflect on the narratives that define them, rather than ordering them in a clean, linear fashion. Ten years of reflection, a journey from age 7 to 17, guide young Susanna in “It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog”, as she treks into the woods with her beloved dog, Brother, to the witch’s cottage to keep an old promise. Haskins’ prose offers a striking balance of harshness and delicacy. As a child, Susanna tells her parents she lost her little brother in the woods: “Even at the age of seven, the lies felt smooth and true upon her tongue. And Mama wailing like she’d ever cared for him, and Papa’s face gone hard as rocks and iron, as if he’d ever once held him close.” The writing is expressive, but taut, like a slow turning lever tightening a vise.
I adored the cover for this month’s issue of Fireside so much that I felt the cover story, Annalee Flower Horne’s “CARBORUNDORUM>/DEV/NULL”, had to work hard to live up to it. Horne’s near-future SF depicts a world where smart homes have only made policing the behavior of young women easier. Teenager Sandra’s over-protective mother has their smart house programmed to watch Sandra’s every move; she can’t even walk out the front door without the house ratting her out. This doesn’t apply equally to the boys: her older brother Kyle can do whatever he wants, and Kyle’s friend Jack once manipulated the house to hide evidence of his sexual assault of Sandra. Sandra’s best friend Tish is a hacker, and the single line of code from which the story gets its title can get Sandra out of the house without her mother knowing, so they can go to a party where Tish’s crush, Ian, will be. In a disturbing but not altogether surprising twist, Ian isn’t much different from Jack, and his own smart house does his bidding. “CARBORUNDORUM>/DEV/NULL” is a timely story, considering how “guard the door” rapes at high school and college parties are part of the biggest news story of the moment. It’s also, unfortunately, timeless: the news story in question happened over thirty years ago. Horne’s near-future version just removes the need for an actual human to do the guarding. If not for Tish’s magic line of code, the end of this story could have been a lot more horrifying. The unsettling undercurrent of the story shows how women are conditioned from a young age to cope with sexual assault, and to tolerate the persistent presence of their rapists as a normal part of life.
I enjoyed Beth Goder’s satirical “How to Identify an Alien Shark”, a faux-university lecture meant to delineate the difference between actual sharks and an alien species known as the Tucabal-Gor, who live in the ocean and look a lot like sharks and who you definitely don’t want to get into an argument about economic theory with. It’s more of a long form joke than a story, built by adding piece after piece of outlandish but internally consistent logic to set up its punchline. “How to Identify and Alien Shark” may be plot-free, but it’s a fast and funny read. Also, I’m glad I don’t know any economic theorists.
When the Dragonflies first landed on Earth seeking refuge from the destruction of their home world, frightened humans reacted with violence. The unnamed narrator was one of those reactionaries, but now she tries to make up for her ghastly behavior with extra kindness. She makes kites (which the aliens cherish), and when a Dragonfly named Tove comes into her shop, she wants to please him. But political and cultural realities complicate interactions between humans and Dragonflies, and continue to make it dangerous for Dragonflies to call Earth their new home.
This is one of those stories where agreeing with its basic positions (refugees need help, Nazis are bad, etc.) doesn’t translate to a positive response to the story. There are too many conveniences, and few real stakes, built into the premise to generate any dramatic tension. Everything feels staged; characters seem only to enter the scene to fulfill their function then exit when they are no longer useful, their motives telegraphed and unconvincing. Also, the narrator’s behavior toward Tove comes across as unwanted harassment, which soured my opinion of her. Intentional or not, the story does not address this issue satisfactorily.
“It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog”, Maria Haskins (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #260, 9/13/2018) Short Story
“The Witch of Osborne Park”, Stephanie Feldman (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2018) Short Story
“The Grays of Cestus V”, Erin Roberts (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2018) Short Story
“How to Identify an Alien Shark”, Beth Goder (Fireside Magazine Issue 59, September 2018) Short Story
“CARBORUNDORUM>/DEV/NULL”, Annalee Flower Horne (Fireside Magazine Issue 59, September 2018) Short Story
“Cold Ink”, Dean Wells (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #259, 8/30/2018) Novelette