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

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

The Best Short Science Fiction of 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

You can find Part 1 – Dark Fantasy/Horror HERE

You can find Part 3 – Fantasy HERE

Additional Reading:

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

Maria Haskins, author and translator

Charles Payseur, author and proprietor of Quick Sip Reviews

Eugenia Triantafyllou, author

A.C. Wise, author

Locus Recommended Reading List 

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

More links will appear as I find them!

The Best Short SFF of July 2019

Featured Image from the illustration for “Blood is Another Word for Hunger”, by Xia Gordon

Must Read

FSF 7-8
Cover art by Mondolithic Studios

“Mighty are the Meek and the Myriad”, by Cassandra Khaw (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2019) Short Story

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.

Blood is Another Word for Hunger“, by Rivers Solomon (Tor.com, July 24, 2019) Short Story

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.

More Recommended Stories

creep
Cover art by Red Nose Studio

For He Can Creep“, by Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com, July 10, 2019) Novelette

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.

The Brightest Lights of Heaven“, by Maria Haskins (Fireside Magazine Issue 69, July 2019) Short Story

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.

“The Work of Wolves”, by Tegan Moore (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July/Aug 2019) Novella

“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.

uncanny 29
Cover art by Julie Dillon

How the Trick is Done“, by A.C. Wise (Uncanny Magazine Issue 29, July 2019) Short Story 

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.

The Best Short SFF – September 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!

Apex-Magazine-112Must Read

“It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog”, Maria Haskins (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #260, 9/13/2018) Short Story

Ten years ago, Susanna walked into the woods with her little brother, and came back home without him. Now, it’s time to return and face the secret she’s been keeping from her family all those years. A haunting dark fantasy, with prose that cuts deep.

“Field Biology of the Wee Fairies”, Naomi Kritzer (Apex Magazine Issue 112, September 2018) Short Story

Catching a fairy is a rite of passage every girl is supposed go though when they hit their teens, but Amelia regards it with something between disinterest and disdain. Can a stupid fairy help her win the science fair and get accepted to the boys only science club? Since the twee little sprite won’t leave her alone, she decides to find out. Count this among Krizter’s sharpest tales.

“Conspicuous Plumage”, Sam J. Miller (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 100, September 2018) Short Story

Bette’s older brother Cary was brutally murdered and she doesn’t just want to know how, she wants to experience it for herself. Her classmate Hiram has a reputation for helping people “see” things, and together they journey to the site of Cary’s murder to find the truth. A somber, elegiac meditation on grief and the beauty of life.

Highly RegardedClarkesworld 144

“The Witch of Osborne Park”, Stephanie Feldman (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2018) Short Story

A moody, low-key supernatural drama about a mother trying to defend her daughter from a neighborhood bully. Well drawn characters and an appropriately ominous tone.

“Triquetra”, Kirstyn McDermott (Tor.com, 9/5/2018) Novelette

A beautifully conceived, often terrifying sequel to Snow White, where the princess wants to take her daughter and flee from her disturbed husband. As if he wasn’t enough of an obstacle, she still has her hated stepmom and that insidious mirror to deal with.

“The Grays of Cestus V”, Erin Roberts (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2018) Short Story

This SF story of an artist trying to cope with the dreariness of her life on a frontier planet burrows under your skin. Roberts makes effective use of color to elucidate the protagonist’s state of mind.

“A Study in Oils”, Kelly Robson (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 144, September 2018) Novelette

Zhang Lei is Lunar-born; now he hides out on earth after killing someone in a violent hockey game. He waits to hear about his asylum status while hiding from gangs of Lunar “brawlers” who want to hunt him down and kill him. An exciting narrative in a complex, expansive setting.

BCS 259Also Recommended

“How to Identify an Alien Shark”, Beth Goder (Fireside Magazine Issue 59, September 2018) Short Story

Whatever you do, don’t argue with the alien sharks about economic theory.

“Emissaries from the Skirts of Heaven”, Gregor Hartmann (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept/Oct 2018) Short Story

Spanning several planets and periods of time, the reader pieces together the personal journey of a religious devotee who wants to make a difference.

“CARBORUNDORUM>/DEV/NULL”, Annalee Flower Horne (Fireside Magazine Issue 59, September 2018) Short Story

A near-future teen drama in which smart houses can be more harmful, (especially to young women) than helpful.

“Shooting Iron”, Cassandra Khaw and Jonathan L. Howard (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept/Oct 2018) Novelette

Jenny Lim battles the demonic minions of Boss Lonely to rescue an old west ghost town from a terrible curse in this reversal of the “white savior” trope.

“Cold Ink”, Dean Wells (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #259, 8/30/2018) Novelette

This industrial steampunk thriller finds Hester’s estranged lover Verity showing up at her door with a whole lot of deadly trouble in tow.

Full reviews for these stories and more can be found in my bi-weekly column The Rack: 

Early September

Late September

 

The Rack – Zine Reviews for Late September

Apex Magazine Issue 112, September 2018

It’s easy to recognize Naomi Kritzer’s cagey humor in the title for her latest short story, “Field Biology of the Wee Fairies”. The saying goes that every girl will become pretty after they “catch their fairy”. But Amelia doesn’t care about being pretty, she wants to win first prize at the science fair, hoping stodgy old Mr. Crawford will let her join the boys-only science club. When Amelia’s fairy arrives, she tries to ignore it so it will go away. It won’t, so she traps it in one of her specimen jars and applies the scientific method to figure out what the hell is going on with these silly fairies, anyway. The real magic of a Kritzer story is the graceful tone and sly humor she effortlessly deploys in her perfectly plotted tales; this one is no exception. Just try to wipe that smile off your face before the story ends. I dare you.
A fun, frantic inner monologue chock full of Hawaiian slang makes up the misadventure tale “Coyote Now Wears a Suit”, by Ani Fox. Kupu springs the Sioux trickster god Coyote out of lockup because his auntie insists Coyote is family. Apparently, Kupu is the only one who can see that he’s a giant dog wearing a suit. Things spiral out of control from there, but Coyote isn’t a malicious god and everything that goes wrong also has a silver lining. It’s a nice, light, upbeat story, though maybe a little overboard with the gonzo attitude.
The heroine sisters of Stina Leicht’s “A Siren’s Cry is a Song of Sorrow” don’t want to escape from their lives due to suffering any extraordinary abuse; they’re weary of the ordinary abuse one suffers just for being born a girl. Enticed by mermaid lore, the girls seek magic that can transform them into the mythical creatures. The author’s points carry weight, and the girls are admirably rebellious in their refusal to internalize the world’s misogyny and conform to its stifling definitions.

Clarkesworld 144Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 144, September 2018

The entirety of Robert Bresson’s 1956 film “A Man Escaped” follows a convict on the run from police after breaking out of prison. The film does not explain his supposed crime or his presumed guilt or innocence; Bresson posited that, absent these details, the audience’s sympathies would be with the escapee, because everyone can identify with the desire to be free. In Kelly Robson’s new story “A Study in Oils”, Luna-born hockey player Zhang Lei is hiding out on Earth, with a noose attached to his carotid and a button that reads “KILLER: FAIR GAME.” The moon wants him back, and while he waits to find out if the authorities accept his asylum application, gangs of Lunar “brawlers” are out trying to hunt him down. Robson offers little information about his crime in the first half of the story, only that he feels bad about the death he caused. It’s easy to sympathize with someone who is being persecuted, and one has reason to suspect early on that the lunar authority’s idea of justice isn’t exactly fair. Robson is a master at unveiling her world-building in precise, subtle strokes: she lets the reader ask the “what is happening?” questions and slips the answers into unexpected places. Zhang Lei’s back-story unfolds in measured doses, and most of the suspense in “A Study in Oils” builds on the reader’s desire to see our sympathy for him justified. Robson is a writer who gains the reader’s trust and rewards it generously.
Chenghui hacks her way into an apprenticeship with Meixiu, the social media superstar Chenghui’s dying sister is most enamored with, in D.A. Xiaolin Spires “Waves of Influence”. Chenghui’s plan is to impersonate Meixiu and send personalized messages to her sister to keep her spirits up, but soon she becomes as shallow and self-absorbed as her mentor and loses sight of her original goals. Spires depiction of near-future social media saturation feels believable and inevitable. It’s not so much a cautionary tale as a “what choice do we have?” tale.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September/October 2018

Cassandra Khaw and Jonathan L. Howard offer a reversal of the “white savior” trope featured in most West meets East stories; in “Shooting Iron”, a Malaysian woman become a wild west gunslinger to liberate an American ghost town whose residents are frozen in time by a 100-plus-year-old curse. As a child, rich girl Jenny Lim crash lands in Angel Gulch, where the residents haven’t aged a day since the 19th century, thanks to a curse authored by Boss Lonely, a demonic cattle rancher who made the town disappear from the map to win a contract with the railroad company. The story toggles back and forth between Jenny’s origin story and the present, where adult Jenny travels to the UK to dispatch some of Boss Lonely’s goons. “Shooting Iron” is pure, action-packed fun; the authors have a grand ol’ time mashing together b-movie western and horror stylings. I wish the “present day” story had been more consequential: it does nothing to resolve the conflicts or answer the questions raised in the “origin” plotline. My guess is Howard and Khaw were going for a pilot episode feel and perhaps are planning a sequence of stories in this setting.
Brian Trent’s “The Memorybox Vultures” has a knockout premise: Epitaph Incorporated preserves online identities for deceased clients, allowing them to continue to post comments and send notices after preparing a “memorybox”. Virtual representations of the deceased, called “quasints”, serve as proxies for the deceased to interact with their living handlers. Donna Lane is a handler who finds herself in deep trouble when one of her clients “deadposts” evidence that the governor of Connecticut has a history of committing sadistic and violent acts. Trent’s story hums along nicely for a while – interesting protagonist, suspenseful storytelling – then lets the air out with an ending that only avoids deus ex machination thanks to a flimsy call back to a thing that was barely mentioned early in the story. It plays like the author was writing himself out of a corner and sunk what otherwise could have been a terrific story.
“Emissaries from the Skirts of Heaven” is the latest, and possibly best, story set on and around the Frontier planet Zephyr. It also traverses an epic scale of time and distance to tell the intimate story of Grace, a devotee of humanity’s dominant theocracy (called Pathway) who seeks to reconcile the moral and ethical inconsistencies in her church’s doctrine. The story jumps to different points in Grace’s life: from her origins as an orphan from a broken home, to her time in the exclusive seminary-like “Diversity”, through her military service fighting against a growing heresy, concluding with her time as a counselor and medic on Zephyr. As a child, Grace hides in the closet while her parents are having a violent argument. She plays an educational game on her tablet, and after correctly answering a series of questions the program rewards her with cheerful music and a quick animation: “The girl, who looked like Grace, shrugged off her breather pack. Her arms became wings and she leapt into space. Angels materialized like fractal snowflakes and escorted her into the starry sky. Watching herself fly, Grace moaned with joy.” Adult Grace, wiser and tempered by experience, again hides away from violent conflict on a remote island on a distant planet, searching for the right answers. Grace’s personal journey drew me in, but I felt the story offered an incomplete picture of the war she hoped to avert. Were there factors beyond the theological that led some Pathway worlds to embrace the heresy? If so, will a theological fix be sufficient? Will it be enough to make up for the millions (billions?) of lives lost?
Geoff Ryman gives a gentle poke in the ribs to “woke” white South Africans in “Blessed”. Ryman’s second-person protagonist has her white guilt cred listed for the reader (you benefitted from apartheid, but “your older sister went to jail” fighting the good fight, etc.) as she tours the inside of Olumo Rock in Abeokuta, Nigeria. She loses her way, and a series of mildly fantastical events leads her to an unexpected conclusion. The story is amusing and full of puckish audio/visual cues (the snake that sounds like a crying baby is a goosefleshy one), and the point – that whites will never connect to the land the way native Africans can – is salient, if also an easy-to-hit target. It’s unclear what the final twist means to accomplish.

lightspeed 100Lightspeed Magazine Issue 100, September 2018

This special mega-sized anniversary issue features a few originals worth discussing.

Carrie Vaughn’s “Harry and Marlowe and the Secret of Ahomana” is a steampunk flavored sci-fantasy adventure in which an airship carrying a British princess and her military escort (the Harry and Marlowe of the title) crash lands on the previously uncharted South Pacific Island of Ahomana. The two passengers survive and their injuries are healed by the Polynesian natives, who possess technology far beyond what the Brits are capable of. The two castaways want to return home, but Ahomana has survived for generations by remaining hidden, and the island’s leaders won’t let them leave. I loved the backstory: aliens called Aetherians visited the Earth long ago and left behind artifacts that humans used to develop advanced technology. The central conflict of the story focuses on the contrast between the European powers who wield Aetherian tech to build weapons of war and the Polynesians on Ahomana, whose application is more constructive. Vaughn offers a modern twist on a familiar colonial adventure narrative, and I enjoyed that all the players have good intentions while their goals cross purpose. I have some nagging questions about the story’s inciting incident, and some reservations about the ending. Overall, it’s a solid adventure tale with likeable characters.
Most depictions of artificial intelligence in fiction focus on the aftermath of machine self-awareness; only on rare occasions is the evolutionary process the focus of attention. In Ken Liu’s “The Explainer”, an engineer responds to a service call for a domestic AI that has malfunctioned on multiple occasions (not letting a family member in the house, burning dinner, etc.). Because the model, called Allie, evolves based on its relationship with the household it serves, the engineer can’t simply check its programming, because many of the algorithms that govern its thinking are self-taught. Liu offers some interesting propositions on how AI could one day integrate into our daily lives, and displays his usual flair for lucid, well-crafted storytelling. The story offers little in the way of conflict or tension and is more like an interesting vignette your co-worker relates to you at the office.
Sam J. Miller’s “Conspicuous Plumage”, set in (or around) the 1950s, finds teenager Bette Rosenblatt devastated by the brutal murder of her beloved older brother, Cary, a college-aged dancer. She wants to understand, even experience, what happened to him in his last moments. Hiram, a classmate of Bette’s, has a reputation for helping others “see” things, and Bette convinces him to go with her to the murder scene. In Miller’s stories, the characters’ seek outward expression for their inner lives, often with fantastical results; Bette describes Cary’s body literally transforming into birds when he danced, a spiritual reality that trumps any objection from those who refuse to witness such grace. The tragedy of the story is that it is not just his art but his sexuality that demands expression as well; the inner life that makes him loved by so many also makes him reviled by others. We suspect what’s coming before Bette sees the truth of his death. That the truth of his life outshines the horror of its end is the story’s great achievement.
A group of young Mennonite girls find a robot behind a barn and name her “Hard Mary” in Sofia Samatar’s gentle, refined sci-fi novelette. Years later the company that made Mary sends a representative to reclaim their property, but the women of the town aren’t willing to give her up. The best thing about “Hard Mary” is its depiction of life in the town of Jericho, especially how its old-fashioned, gender-based division of labor affects the women in the community. The sequence depicting the everyday frustrations and obstacles the narrator, Lyddie, goes through just to do something as mundane as making breakfast is one of the story’s high points. While it is understandable that Mim – the independent, headstrong (and unmarried) member of the group who shows an aptitude for engineering – would want to defend Mary, we never come to understand why the entire community is so invested in protecting her. There is no indication that Mary is intelligent, much less sentient, or has any kind of personality, or has befriended anyone. Mary herself (itself?) gets little time on the stage, despite the long word count in a story named for her. My admiration for Samatar’s prose and her objectives can’t overcome my lack of involvement in the plot’s main conflict. Also, calling the big evil corporation “Profane Industries” is a little on the nose.

Tor.com (9/5/2018)

“Triquetra” is Australian author Kirstyn McDermott’s sequel to Snow White, in which the grown-up princess, trapped in her marriage to her not-so-charming rescuer, lives in a castle with her imprisoned wicked stepmother, and the cursed mirror she keeps locked away in a tower. Disturbed by her husband’s intentions toward their seven-year-old daughter, Snow knows they must escape but her husband has ways of keeping them on the castle grounds. Stepmother offers to help, but given their history Snow has no reason to trust her. Instead, she turns to the devilish mirror with disastrous results. The prince is a menacing figure, though his presence in the story is more abstraction than obstruction. The real villain is the mirror, meaning the greatest obstacle to Snow’s success is herself. “Triquetra” is riveting and often frightening, and feels like a genuine extension of the classic fairy tale, rather than a hip, postmodern deconstruction.

Subterranean Press

Rock, the glum yet over-stimulated protagonist and narrator of Charlie Jane Anders novella “Rock Manning Goes for Broke”, summarizes his life from age 4 through the end of high school in one chapter. Starting with his stunt double father throwing him off a roof to teach his boy the tricks of the trade, Rock grows up with a penchant for playing self-inflicted injuries for laughs. Even bullies have trouble bullying him, because they can’t do anything to him worse than what he’s willing to do for himself. As a teenager, the surreal slapstick comedies he makes with his best friend Sally Hamster make him an internet-streaming sensation. Meanwhile, poking out from the margins of his stream-of-consciousness biography is a portrait of an America slowly sliding into dystopia. A war overseas leads to the re-instatement of the draft while economic turmoil leads to rioting. Worst of all, a group of fascist street thugs called the Red Bandanas rise to prominence, and they want to exploit Rock’s fame to make propaganda films for their cause. Again, this all goes down just in the first chapter.
Anders’s talent for delivering absurdist humor with one hand and a knife to the gut with the other is in overdrive here. The pace and tone are set by the perpetual anxiousness of the story’s hero, and while that’s part of what makes “Rock Manning” so exhilarating, it’s also part of the problem. Anders never lets us come up for air, and the experience of reading it ends up being a lot like spending too much time around a hyperactive, attention-seeking teenager—exhausting, frustrating, leaving you glancing nervously at the clock and trying to conjure an excuse to slip away while he barrels onward, demanding the spotlight. There is plenty to reward readers who stick it through to the end, though, and Anders completists will not want to miss it.

F&SF sepoct2018Must Read

“Field Biology of the Wee Fairies”, Naomi Kritzer (Apex Magazine Issue 112, September 2018) Short Story

“Conspicuous Plumage”, Sam J. Miller (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 100, September 2018) Short Story

Highly Regarded

“Triquetra”, Kirstyn McDermott (Tor.com, 9/5/2018) Novelette

“A Study in Oils”, Kelly Robson (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 144, September 2018) Novelette

Also Recommended

“Shooting Iron”, Cassandra Khaw and Jonathan L. Howard (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept/Oct 2018) Novelette

“Emissaries from the Skirts of Heaven”, Gregor Hartmann (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept/Oct 2018) Short Story