The Best Short SFF of May 2019

Featured Image from the cover art for Apex Magazine Issue 120 by Godwin Akpan

Must Read

Raices (Roots)“, by Joe Ponce (Anathema Magazine Issue 7, May 2019) Short Story

Jerry lives on the US side of the US-Mexico border, recently joined by his long-estranged sister Lola and her son Macho. Lola and her family fled drug traffickers in Veracruz, but the authorities captured her husband David and older son Chucho at the border and they are now in legal limbo while they await their hearing. Then Macho gets a strange infection that gives him tree-like features, and soon the other migrant children follow suit. The emotional exhaustion Jerry experiences while just trying to help his family survive is palpable, while all rage and fear and paranoia of America’s current uptick in anti-immigrant nationalism project onto the children (they might set down roots, literally). “Raices (Roots)” is a gripping and beautifully composed story of people just trying to survive when no good options are available.

The-Dark-Issue-48-220x340The Wilderling“, by Angela Slatter (The Dark Magazine Issue 48, May 2019) Short Story

Readers are so used to getting twists and surprises at the end of a story we forget there are other strategies at the author’s disposal for creating a memorable resolution. Giving away the ending too soon seems counter-intuitive, but that’s just what Angela Slatter does in her story of a woman’s disturbing fascination with a beast-like child (or child-like beast?) that lives in the wild near her home. Once the last act of the story begins, we know with a fair certainty exactly how things will turn out—the trick is that we really, desperately hope it doesn’t happen, and like a maestro Slatter keeps stringing us along until damn near the last sentence.

“New Atlantis”, by Lavie Tidhar (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2019) Novella

From the ashes of our broken civilization, the surviving human population fashioned a new utopian world intent on learning from the mistakes of the past. Scattered pieces of the old world remain, treated with novel fascination by the citizenry. 84-year-old Mai relates a story from her youth, of receiving a message from a former lover to meet him in New Atlantis (the London ruins) where he has discovered a working “Millennial Vault” of uploaded consciousnesses living in an artificial reality. Tidhar’s amazing sci-fantasy dreamscape depicts the overlap between a tech-heavy future past and a more pastoral future present, and people living a life at once simple and clear and obvious, but also completely alien. Mai begins by summarizing her tale: “I visited Atlantis. I came back. That is the story. Everything else, as the old poet once said, is just details.” That’s the understatement of a lifetime.

Highly Regarded

Fugue State“, by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due (Apex Magazine Issue 120, May 2019) Short Story

Arthur has lost interest in work and his hobbies, distressing his wife Charlotte. The reason for his dulling intellect seems to be his obsession with a cultish political figure known as The Reverend. Arthur insists he’s never been happier and can’t understand his wife’s objections. When Charlotte investigates the Reverend phenomenon, the answers don’t come in quite the way she expects. The authors take their time setting the table for an ending that is as disquieting as it is unavoidable. It’s tempting to read the “Fugue State” as allegorical to our present political climate, with Arthur suffering from a kind of supernatural Fox News Dad syndrome. But “ignorance is bliss” is an old saying, as old as messianic figures offering truth and salvation at a terrifying cost.

Dune Song“, by Suyi Davies Okungbowa (Apex Magazine Issue 120, May 2019) Short Story

With the world swallowed up by desert except for the village of Isiuwa, the elders keep the population confined by decree—anyone who leaves Isiuwa endangers all who remain. Nata’s mam was one such deserter, and Nata’s determination to know what her mother found outside the gates supersedes any poorly reasoned rules society imposes on her. “Dune Song” asks us, in expressive and lyrical prose, if freedom is worth the cost for its own sake rather than for the promise of reward.

Fireside 67All the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From“, by Izzy Wasserstein (Fireside Magazine Issue 67, May 2019) Short Story

Teenagers make great protagonists because they exist at a turning point between the youthful desire to transgress boundaries and the adult desire to uphold them. In Wasserstein’s multiverse drama, the 16-year-old narrator knows she’s living in a simulated universe and can “Snap” from one iteration of the world to another. She escapes her native reality, where her mother is terminally ill, to check in on alternate versions of their life in rundown South Topeka; sometimes they are happy, sometime they aren’t even there, and sometimes she runs across another version of herself looking for or running away from the same thing. Every time she Snaps, she alters each new reality just by her coming and going, but no one else is better or worse off for it. Anyone who has ever felt like a stranger in their own hometown can relate.

Also Recommended

“Canst Thou Draw Out the Leviathan”, by Christopher Caldwell (Uncanny Magazine Issue 28, May/June 2019) Short Story

I must have an affinity for weird whaling fiction. Like Nibedita Sen’s excellent “Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” (Nightmare Magazine #69, June 2018), Caldwell’s story draws the reader into a tense sea voyage tinged with supernatural menace. Beyond that, the two stories couldn’t be more different. Where Sen depicted a rapid and surreal decent into madness, Caldwell crosses whaling lore and the legacy of the Middle Passage in his tale of John Wood, a former slave working as a carpenter on a whaling ship who receives warning from a god of his ancestors about the ship’s fate. Complicating the “will they believe me in time?” narrative are his shipmates’ attitudes about John’s race and sexuality. Great characters, high stakes, and a well-executed plot.

BCS 277The Thirty-Eight Hundred Bone Coat“, by R.K. Duncan (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #277, May 9, 2019) Novelette

Navid’s job is to dredge the river for bones that his father can use to enchant the coats his mother makes. A nobleman comes to them offering a lifetime of riches for the titular item, which would make the wearer impervious to harm. With only thirty days to complete the task and his family’s honor, not to mention their financial future, at risk, Navid gambles his life and his freedom on securing the materials they need in time. An intense story with a captivating sense of urgency.

The Wiley“, by Sara Saab (The Dark Magazine Issue 48, May 2019) Short Story

This wild, alt-history sci-fi horror story follows Manon, a rare woman tech guru in Silicon Valley who struck gold during the dot-com craze of the early oughts. A spectral being borne of her own loneliness haunts her, though it may be her salvation when her revolutionary software spawns a devastating computer virus. Thoughtful and circumspect as much as it is creepy and discomfiting, with gooseflesh-inducing visuals at the climax.

Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island“, by Nibedita Sen (Nightmare Magazine Issue 80, May 2019) Short Story

Sen has a knack for drawing blood from a stone in her stories; she excels at creating expansive narratives from self-imposed formal restrictions. In this very short tale of terror (or possibly wonder? A little of both?) she never deviates from the guidelines the title establishes but still paints a broad and memorable portrait of the history of a near-annihilated people’s diaspora. There is also an undercurrent of satire with some pointed, if affectionate, jabs at academic writing (“If I have to deal with one more white feminist quoting Kristeva at me…”).

“Gremlin”, by Carrie Vaughn (Asimov’s Science Fiction, May/June 2019) Novella

Vaughn’s generational epic typifies the brand of widescreen, high-concept, character-and-action-driven novellas Asimov’s is famous for. It begins with a Russian fighter pilot who finds an unusual creature (with an unusual appetite) riding along on her missions against the Nazis in WW2 and follows the legacy of her family’s relationship with the creature through the centuries to come. The author’s concise prose and her eye for detail serve the story well.

 

 

 

The Wild Dead (Bannerless Saga) by Carrie Vaughn

Rating: 8.0 (out of 10)

The Coast Road is a post-dystopian meritocracy where groups of people form households, and each household must be issued a “banner” in order to have a child. Earning a banner is no easy task: the household must prove itself to be both productive and sustainable in the long term. At the start of The Wild Dead, Investigators Enid and Teeg are at the Estuary – a town far on the outskirts of the Coast Road where few banners are earned – to mediate a simple civil dispute, when a body washes up on the banks of the river. The young woman’s throat had been cut, making murder the only probable cause.
Murder is rare on the Coast Road, though Enid is one of the few Investigators to have solved one. The dead woman did not belong to any of the households in the Estuary, and at first the locals refuse to admit they even know who she is. Eventually, Enid discovers the young woman is from a group of wild folk who live upriver, who sometimes come to the Estuary to trade with Last House. Last House is something of a disgraced household, unable to earn a banner because they took a woman named Neeve under their roof, who was convicted of tampering with her birth control implant as a teenager. It becomes clear to Enid that Last House is hiding something, but does that mean they are responsible for the girl’s murder?
The Wild Dead is Vaughn’s standalone sequel to last year’s Bannerless, and like that novel, the murder mystery in The Wild Dead is not its best feature. That’s a strange thing to say about a book I enjoyed as much as this one, but it’s true – the plot works well enough, but its one of those mysteries where the reader keeps figuring out where the clues lead well before the characters in the book catch up. This can be a little frustrating, and for a lot of readers it sours the experience. Vaughn’s strengths as a writer lie in her ability to guide readers through an immersive experience. These are quest novels: In Bannerless, we followed Enid’s transition from impetuous youth to purposeful civil servant, and in The Wild Dead Enid must journey far outside the relative safety of the Coast Road and into the harsh wilds where the outsiders dwell, to learn the truth about Neeve and the dead girl whose murder she can’t even establish a clear motive for.
Enid is a true believer in the rule of law but is also deeply concerned with fairness and empathy. Teeg, her newly assigned partner, prefers to stick the blame on the most likely culprit and move on. The Wild Dead offers a more acute illustration of the tenuous social contract that maintains order on the Coast Road. Absent the willingness of people like Enid to look past initial prejudices, and to put her own health and safety at risk to unmask the truth, how stable can the loose governing authority of the Coast Road be? All it takes is one Teeg to administer inequitable rulings or abuse his authority for the sake of convenience or personal gain, for resentments among the citizenry to gather and stir.
The Wild Dead gets readers invested in the world it represents: the landscape, the culture, the concerns and struggles of the people who inhabit it. I eagerly anticipate the next volume in the series.

Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn

Rating: 7.2 (out of 10)

Bannerless is a post-apocalyptic murder mystery that works well as a post-apocalypse, somewhat less so as a murder mystery. Carrie Vaughn’s strengths as a writer – her powerful visuals, compelling characters, and intricate worldbuilding – serve this novel well.
Set in a future “after the Fall”, Vaughn imagines this new world as a network of communities that follow strict guidelines to ensure that scant resources aren’t overtaxed. Population control is the most essential feature of this world. Women are fitted with birth control implants to curtail unsanctioned pregnancies, and households are only allowed to bear children once they earn a “banner” by proving their ability to be highly productive (and law abiding) members of society. As one might expect, these banners are a great source of pride for the households that obtain them, but are also a source of resentment and disaffection for the bannerless.
Enid is an investigator whose jurisdiction includes all manner of crimes and violations, and the main plot of the novel involves her and her partner Tomas trying to determine if a grisly death in the town of Pasadan was an accident or murder. This story alternates with flashback chapters of Enid as a young woman, living an itinerant lifestyle with her musician lover Dak. In the “present day” storyline, Enid becomes emotionally conflicted when the long estranged Dak shows up as a member of the Pasadan community.
I preferred the flashback chapters of the novel, which explored in detail the way the communities function in this setting, and how difficult it is to function without one. You know how it’s going to end, by design, but the climax is thrilling and Enid’s final choice is both believable and heart-wrenching. The mystery story is a bit thin – by the end it feels like a short story padded out to novel length. The conclusion to the “whodunnit” is easy to predict halfway through, though the ending still manages to be emotionally satisfying and fits well into Vaughn’s theme of communities succeeding, or failing, together.
A solid book, despite its flaws.