The Best Short SFF – July 2018

Reminder: While many of the stories in this column are available to read free online, these venues pay the authors for their work and rely on income from readers to do so. If one or more of these zines consistently publishes fiction that you like, please consider buying a subscription. Or, if you read a story or stories that you especially like, consider purchasing the issue it appears in. If the story is available to read online, clicking on the name of the story will send you there; subscription/donation/purchase information is available at each site. For stories that are not available to read online, there is a link to that zine’s home page. Thank you for reading and supporting short form SFF!
I was out of commission for a couple of weeks this month, so I didn’t get a chance to write up all my zine reviews. I did get all my reading done, however, and I must say it was an odd month for short fiction. I found myself underwhelmed by several reliably good periodicals: Shimmer, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Tor.com – there were some interesting stories here and there, but also a lot of meh, and not a single rec from among them. The good stuff, though, was really good.

Must Read

Lightspeed 98

A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds”, James Beamon (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 98, July 2018) Short Story
War between Turkey and Russia rages on in this 19th century steampunk adventure. Aboard the Turkish airship Kismet, organ grinder Hezarfen plays patriotic songs while sending his platoon of zombie attack monkeys to board enemy ships. 14-year-old Oz tends to the monkeys, though he is terrified of them. He is terrified of most things in fact, and looks forward to becoming a man at 15, when he assumes he will find his courage. “A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” is vibrant for a war story, but no less perturbing. Hezarfen is fully invested in the torment and turmoil of bloody conflict, evincing a casual yet imperious cruelty toward Oz and the monkeys. The Kismet’s climactic battle with the Russian flagship Voina Gulag is a masterful crescendo, spiked with a precise and potent dose of dramatic irony.
Gubbinal”, Lavie Tidhar (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 142, July 2018) Short Story
Wallace Steven’s famous poem “Gubbinal” admonishes those who lack the imagination to see beauty in the world, with its repeated refrain “Have it your way/The world is ugly/And the people are sad”. Sahar, the hero of Lavie Tidhar’s story of the same name, is looking to escape the “endless chatter of grunting and farting and laughing and shouting” in Titan’s human habitat, to explore the “beautiful untamed music of the moon.” Her adventure takes her across a dangerous, unforgiving landscape full of astounding creatures, deadly pirates and impossible artifacts. The lunkheads back home can have it their way; in Tidhar’s hands, the world is anything but ugly or sad.

Highly Regarded

“This Isn’t Better”, Rebecca Birch (Galaxy’s Edge, July/August 2018) Short Story
Caleb mostly hides away from the endless shouting matches between his mother and his stepdad, until he discovers that he can take care of his problems by writing them down in his journal, then burning the page. This power has unintended consequences, and soon Caleb realizes he can use it to burn away his own humanity if he chooses to. This is one of those stories that made me want to read it again right away. “This Isn’t Better” is told in terse prose, packed solid with the anxiety and self-loathing that children raised in toxic households must endure.
“A Stab of the Knife”, Adam-Troy Castro (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, July/August 2018) Novella
I’ve been looking forward to this AIsource Infection team-up between the driven and damaged councilor Andrea Cort and the equally headstrong superspy Draiken since it was teased at the end of the last Draiken story, “Blurred Lives.” Cort has information Draiken needs to find the men he wants to bring to justice, so when he arrives in New London, he stakes her out like any good spy would. Their first encounter, in which Cort easily sniffs out and traps her pursuer, more than lived up to my expectations with electric tension and crackling dialogue. The two form a tentative truce, but once Draiken becomes entangled in the Byzantine workings of Cort’s world, he discovers he may not survive long enough to get what he needs from her. “A Stab of the Knife” isn’t quite among the best of the Cort stories, nor is it the best of the Draiken cycle, but the giddy buzz I felt from the start is sustained throughout, and the breakneck action of the second half (along with all the cool gadgets) pays dividends.Fiyah 7

“The Percivals: The Bennett Benefit”, Eboni J. Dunbar (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 7, Summer 2018) Short Story
Think Downton Abbey with vampires (!!!). Eboni J. Dunbar’s “The Percivals: The Bennett Benefit” finds the famous “Diva extraordinaire” Anna Maria Percival playing a benefit concert in the provincial Hampshire House, home of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Bennett. The concert is just a ruse: Mrs. Percival and her sister-in-law Eleanor are vampire hunters, and Mr. Bennett suspects his brother Henry may have been turned. It seems Mrs. Percival’s music has the power to hypnotize an audience of the living, as well as beckon the living dead to her. “The Percivals: The Bennett Benefit” is near-perfect balance of lush setting and incisive character detail, leading to a suspenseful and exciting climax. I humbly request the author revisit this world in future stories.
“Lieutenant Tightass”, Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July/August 2018) Novelette
A new entry in Rusch’s Diving series – this takes place long before the other stories and novels and is an easy entry point for the uninitiated. Well before he became captain of the Ivoire, Jonathan “Coop” Cooper was a newly minted lieutenant assigned to the Arama, a search and rescue vessel for other ships that get lost in foldspace – a depressing and mostly fruitless endeavor, as ships lost in foldspace are almost never recovered. The Voimakas is one such ship, and Coop has a daring new theory about how to recover it. His only problem is getting Captain Nisen, who flaunts fleet regulations and mercilessly harangues him with the titular nickname (and encourages the rest of her crew to do the same), to mount a dangerous rescue based on his calculations. “Lieutenant Tightass” has the kind of kinetic plotting and tense action we’ve come to expect from procedural SF master Rusch. The ending labors the “point” a little too much, and the point being that Nisen’s bullying is for Coop’s own good makes it a tough sell. It’s a thrilling tale up to then, and the climactic rescue attempt is a knockout.
“Yard Dog”, Tade Thompson (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 7, Summer 2018) Short Story
Saucy Sue’s is a jazz club where only serious musicians dare to play; when a mysterious new stranger called Yard Dog is finally given the chance to prove his chops, he doesn’t just bring the house down, he reduces the room to tears. More than that, the drinks turn sour and “the drug fiends even said there was no dragon to chase.” Then Yard Dog’s “brother” starts hanging around the club, beckoning him to return home. “Yard Dog” gradually modulates from a macabre eeriness to a sublime, metaphysical terror in its expression of a music too resplendent for the mortal world. I especially liked the narrator’s sharp, penetrating voice.

Also Recommended

“Rules of Biology”, Dale Bailey (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July/August 2018) Short Story
A Twilight Zone-ish fable about an absent father whose teenage daughter begins exhibiting the genetic characteristics of the man who has taken his place as the head of the household.
“Morbier”, R.S. Benedict (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July/August 2018) Short Story
Trish falls in love with Mara at first sight and gets her a job at the country club where she works. Trish assumes Mara is a little cuckoo when she claims to be a time traveler from the year 2093, and conveniently overlooks evidence it may be true. The setting and characters foster a light, fun vibe from the get go; eventually the non-linear structure and Mara’s behavioral cues portend a La Jetée-style tragedy.
Greetings, Humanity! Welcome to Your Choice of Species”, Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 98, July 2018) Short Story
One of Castro’s acerbic humor pieces – The Exalted High Tribunal of the Interstellar Commission on the Minimum Standards of Indigenous Cultures has deemed humanity unworthy of existence and is prepared to reassign us to a different species.

Galaxy's Edge 33“Conceit and Capability”, Deborah L. Davitt (Galaxy’s Edge, July/August 2018) Short Story
A riff on the famous opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice leads to a sly send-up of male hubris. When Matilda joins her brother on an expedition to find a dragon she must contend with her sibling’s comically absurd self-regard, along with whatever creature they might discover.
“Left to Take the Lead”, Marissa Lingen (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, July/August 2018) Novelette
One of the author’s Oort cloud stories. Holly must work as an indenture on earth as her down-on-their-luck family tries to gather the funds to bring everyone together again. Lingen’s story cycle often centers around the idea of how humanity’s colonization of the solar system changes how the concept of family is perceived by different groups of people, and this is one of the most moving examples.
The James Machine”, Kate Osias (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 142, July 2018) Short Story
Cat built an AI out of her dying husband’s memories and personality, but the result isn’t quite what she expected. A smart and measured take on the grief of losing a spouse.
“Stones in the Water, Cottage on the Mountain”, Suzanne Palmer (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July/August 2018) Short Story
Multiple apocalypses in multiple timelines seem bent on stopping a woman from reaching her destination. Palmer devises several very creative end-of-the-world scenarios, and I always enjoy the bitterly funny tone of her tales.
“Visible Cities”, Rachel Pollack (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July/August 2018) Novelette
A bittersweet, lyrical side story in Pollack’s Jack Shade series, focusing on the origin story of the traveler Carolien, who goes on a magic-tinged hunt for her teacher when he abruptly disappears. Worth a look even if you haven’t read the other Shade tales yet.
“Eyes That Linger”, D.A. Xiaolin Spires (Galaxy’s Edge, July/August 2018) Short Story
A spooky little tale of mad science about a PI investigating people who have eyes and other organs grafted onto various appendages.
“Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie Sing the Stumps Down”, Lashawn M. Wanak (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 7, Summer 2018) Novelette
1930s America is beset by a sporous pandemic that turns people into wood-like “stumps.” Singers (especially Black singers) are conscripted into the service of the SPC (Stump Prevention Control), because only by hitting a certain, very difficult note, can they coax the stumps to release their spores under quarantine, thereby rendering the stumps inert. A rollicking alt-history romp featuring succinct social commentary about the exploitation of Black musicians by white American culture.

The Rack – Zine Reviews for Early May

The Latest Issues of Asimov’s, Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Analog, and GigaNotoSaurus

Asimov’s Science Fiction, May/June 2018
A pretty decent issue overall, with at least half the stories falling into the meh-to-average range. Among the other, better half:
The two novellas are entertaining, if unexceptional. David Gerrold and Ctein collaborate on “Bubble and Squeak”, about a couple who met while working on the set of a Hollywood disaster film who suddenly find their lives in jeopardy when a real tsunami hits southern California. It’s a fast-paced story with some nice drama and character moments. The other novella is also a collaboration, “The Wandering Warriors” by Rick Wilber and Alan Smale, and despite relying on a lot of cliché and contrivances, it milks its fun premise – in which an amateur baseball team finds itself inexplicably thrust back into Roman times – for everything its worth.
Sue Burke’s novelette “Life from the Sky” offers some alien maybe-life forms dubbed “spaceflakes” turning the world upside-down when they start falling from the sky. Burke’s present-day soft invasion story is a wry and well realized take on Trump-era internet culture, with a relatable protagonist and believable circumstances. The lackadaisical structure and tone of the story is appropriate for the setting and subject matter, but still doesn’t do it any favors.
Paul Park’s “Creative Nonfiction” is a well-written stream of consciousness oddity about a creepy relationship between a teacher and student in a near-future, quasi-dystopian setting. Cadwell Turnbull’s “When the Rains Come Back” envisions an anarchist not-quite-utopian future, with a touching relationship between a young girl who dreams of living on the moon, and her father, who wants her to grow up respecting their island nation’s traditions. Fascinating worldbuilding, wonderful characters, so-so plot execution. It’s the best story of the bunch, regardless.
Uncanny 22Uncanny Magazine, Issue 22, May/June 2018
Naomi Novik’s “Blessings” is the big draw in this mid-spring issue of Uncanny, and it doesn’t disappoint. Noble-born baby Magda’s parents invite six fairies to a dinner party hoping to secure at least one blessing for their child. The guests have a little too much to drink and the blessings get hilariously out of hand. The story skips forward to Magda as an adult, to show us the result of their shenanigans. Novik shows off her dynamic grasp of fairy-tale narratology in a very short story that is both perfect the way it is and makes you wish there was more.
The other stories in the issue are a mixed bag, but I enjoyed Kelly Robson’s “What Gentle Women Dare” about an 18th century prostitute’s encounter with the devil. Like most of Robson’s stories, it tends to be a little too slow on the slow burn, but few genres writers can match the genuinely grown-up elegance of her prose or the intellectual heft in her storytelling. Also, I don’t know if the term “suckstress” was actually in general use in 18th century Liverpool, but it should have been.
Greg Pak’s personal essay about growing up as an Asian-American D&D fanatic, “Dislikes the Sea, But Will Venture Upon It If Necessary”, is a must-read, and an early candidate for next year’s Best Related Work Hugo Award.
BCS 251Beneath Ceaseless Skies # 251, May 10, 2018
Two very short stories make up this issue of the venerable bi-weekly zine: Jonathan Edelstein’s refined “The Examination Cloth”, and Maria Haskins’ memorably grisly “The Root Cellar”. Haskins’ weirder-than-weird tale features a pair of child siblings – older sister/narrator Amadine and baby brother Jeremy – who suffer a gruesome ritual at the hands of their father, who insists he is protecting them from someone much worse. They later discover that he wasn’t kidding. Running on pure nightmare-logic, “The Root Cellar” sneaks under your skin with ghastly imagery and a beautifully sustained atmosphere of creeping menace.
Edelstein’s story is about a man hoping to pass an examination that will see his family’s fortune raised, if he can avoid succumbing to the spells woven into its tapestry. It’s a sturdy, well written tale.
Analog May June 2018Analog Science Fiction and Fact, May/June 2018
Not among the best issues of Analog by any stretch, but there are a few better than average stories:
Christopher L. Bennett has two previous stories set in the same universe as his new novelette, “Hubpoint of No Return”, but it is not necessary to have read them first to get up to speed. David is a researcher on the Hub Network, which facilitates travel and communication among thousands of inhabited worlds. When his “aquatic biocomputer” is stolen by the cat-like freighter captain Tsshar, he sets off on an odyssey to retrieve it. The Hub is a lively and colorful setting, and the characters are likeable and engaging. All the characters are likeable, which is part of the problem. There is no serious conflict, nor any real sense that the obstacles in David’s path are too great to overcome. The story moves so quickly, and the prose is so snappy and fun, that you probably won’t notice until it’s over that you didn’t once break a sweat. An amusing diversion, but hardly one that sticks around after the end.
The three writers I was most excited about when I first scanned the TOC all delivered pretty good stories that disappointed by failing to be great:
Marissa Lingen’s “Finding their Footing” follows recently single mother Anke and her children, trying to have a little adventure by visiting the Neptunian moon Triton before they settle down on the Jovian moon Callisto, where they will begin their new lives. Anke can barely afford the trip as it is, and when a complication arises she has to choose between abandoning their vacation plans or sacrificing a comfortable life when they reach their new home. Sifting through Anke’s past – the loss of the children’s father and their subsequent abandonment by the “family” they all belonged to, provides a strong emotional core for the story. Lingen’s worldbuilding skills are also commendable: the story’s solar system-wide society is well-furnished with fascinating culture, technology, and economics. My issue with the story – and it’s a big one – is that Anke’s dilemma is resolved too quickly and with relative ease, and the solution was obvious from the start.
Robert Reed’s “Two Point Oh” has a devilish little premise – aliens have recently crash-landed on Earth, and require human help to build a new craft to leave in. One of the 43 enterprises working on the project is having trouble getting the results they want, so they hire a mob boss with legendary “motivational” skills to help get things up to speed. Delivered with the author’s typical cunning and adroitness, it also moves a little to slowly and doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its setup. I felt much the same way about Sam J. Miller’s “My Base Pair”, which has a jealousy-inducing story idea readymade for an episode of Black Mirror – depicting a future where gene-hacked DNA can help you produce celebrity lookalike offspring – but the story, about a freelance writer investigating underground fight rings, doesn’t cover much of the ground that makes the idea such an enticing one.
GigaNotoSaurus, May 1, 2018
John the Human and Colophinanoc the Kinri are marooned on a distant planet. Rescue is coming, but it’s going to be awhile – years in fact – and for John, survival means more than just having enough to eat: he needs a friend. Unfortunately, the Kinri are a fundamentally solitary race, who can’t comprehend humans’ obsession with socializing. Adrian Simmons’ funny, lyrical, heartfelt (and heartbreaking) novelette “The Wait is Longer Than You Think” is the kind of story where the characters figure out how to do everything right, but it still goes wrong because the universe is a shitty and unforgiving place. Far from cynical or pessimistic, though, it evinces a healthy stoicism about the fate of its heroes, and revels in the small victories that make life worth the effort.

Must Read –
“The Wait is Longer Than You Think” by Adrian Simmons

Highly Regarded –
“The Root Cellar” by Maria Haskins
“Blessings” by Naomi Novik

Also Recommended –
“When the Rains Come Back” by Cadwell Turnbull