Recommended Reading for June and July 2020

Hi y’all. This is part one of me trying to make up for lost time. No reviews, unfortunately, just a link and a brief synopsis of each story. Next week I’ll have recommendations up for the months of August and September. Thanks for reading!

We, the Folk“, by G.V. Anderson [Nightmare Magazine Issue 93, June 2020] 6,120 words

An author travels to the countryside to research a bit of folklore about a fabled mask, the Dorset Ooser, used for the ritual punishment of sinners. She discovers that just talking about the Ooser stirs up feelings of terror in anyone who’s encountered it.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, by Zen Cho [Tor.com Publishing, June 23, 2020] 33,158 words

A former nun falls in with a gang of bandits, and things get complicated when she learns about the spoils they’re trying to sell.

Nine Words for Loneliness in the Language of the Uma’u“, by M.L. Clark [Clarkesworld Issue 165, June 2020] 20,873 words

Diplomat Awenato is the only survivor of a terrorist attack that targeted his delegation. Now he is the only Uma’u on a foreign space station, and must temper his grief over the loss of his life mate with his desire for revenge.

Dégustation“, by Ashley Deng [Nightmare Magazine Issue 93, June 2020] 3,509 words

A heartwarming coming-of-age story about mushroom people and self-cannibalism.

“The Staircase”, by Stephanie Feldman [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2020] 4,335 words

A group of friends decide to test an urban legend about an old staircase. That goes about as well as you might expect.

The Augur and the Girl Left at His Door“, by Greta Hayer [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #306, June 18, 2020] 3,914 words

The town augur can read a person’s future by examining their skin. When an infant is left at his doorstep, he decides to raise her himself, even knowing what her future holds.

“Knock Knock, Said the Ship”, by Rati Mehrotra [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2020] 5708 words

An indentured crewperson and an eccentric AI hatch a plan to save the day when their ship is hijacked.

Two Truths and a Lie“, by Sarah Pinsker [Tor.com, June 17, 2020] 11,892 words

Stella has been making up lies about her past for so long it has become an automatic reflex. To her surprise, one story she thought she had fabricated turns out to have really happened. So why can’t she remember it?

“The Black Menagerie”, by Endria Isa Richardson [FIYAH Literary Magazine, Summer 2020] 6,952 words

A young writer comes under the spell of the proprietor of the titular Menagerie, who can channel fear.

“Last Night at the Fair,” by M. Rickert [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2020] 2,467 words

An elderly woman recounts a whimsical night from her youth, of sneaking off to the fair with her future husband.

We Came Home From Hunting Mushrooms“, by Adam R. Shannon [Nightmare Magazine issue 94, July 2020] 2606 words

A group of friends go hunting together, as a strange affliction that causes people to be “forgotten” sweeps the world.

Seven Dreams of a Valley“, by Prashanth Srivatsa [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #307, July 2, 2020] 3501 words

While guarding a condemned witch, the watchman begins having vivid dreams of life in another land.

The Best Short SFF of January 2020

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

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

Must Read

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

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

 

More Recommended Stories

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

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

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Cover art by Ddraw / Fotolia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cover Art by Dominic Harman

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Short SFF – April 2019

Featured Image from the Cover Art for Augur Magazine issue 2.1, by Janice Liu

Must Read

“Clear as Quartz, Sharp as Flint”, by Maria Haskins (Augur Issue 2.1, April 2019) Short Story

Jenna can hear the stones singing to her, much to the chagrin of her Grammy, who prays to the wooden god. “She heard that same song the day the baby quickened. Heard it again when Grammy laid her hands on her belly, shaking her head, muttering of ill-made children, saying that the stones would claim what the wooden god would not.” Maria Haskins’ dark fables often remind me of the classic films of F.W. Murnau and Carl Theodor Dreyer in her ability to distill the act of storytelling into pure emotion and bald imagery, displayed in acute yet elegant compositions. The title of this story is a more apt description of what it does than what it’s about, as it feels far brighter and deeper than its 1000 words should allow.

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Cover Art: “Drawlloween Swamp Thing” by Iren Horrors

An Open Coffin”, by H. Pueyo (The Dark Issue 47, April 2019) Short Story

Amélia goes to work for General Estiano to care for a corpse that resides at his house. The corpse has been on display for decades and attracts many devotees, who appear daily to fawn over it. “You must always let them in,” one servant tells her. “Don’t ask too many questions.” Brazilian author Pueyo uses classic literary devices to build her story—red herring, unreliable narrator, foreshadowing—while its reality unspools like a waking nightmare. It’s a sinister cautionary tale about the noxious behavior that ensues when people fall into the nostalgia trap.

 

Highly Regarded

How to Move Spheres and Influence People”, by Marko Kloos (Tor.com, 27 March 2019) Novelette

A new entry in GRRM’s Wildcards universe, this novelette tells the origin story of T.K., a teenager will partial left-side paralysis who gets picked on at PE by the mean girls. Her “card turns” one day during class and she discovers she has the power to control spherical objects with her mind. Her squeamishness after engaging in a mild act of revenge convinces her she’s better off just using her powers for good. That opens its own can of worms once the opportunity presents itself. Kloos built his reputation on military SF, but here he shows that his skillful plotting and ability to craft believable, relatable protagonists crosses over to other genres. The not-so-subtle ways T.K.’s tormentors bully her without running afoul of school authorities is effectively done. Context clues abound, so readers new to the Wildcards premise shouldn’t have any trouble getting the gist.

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Cover Art by Olivia Stephens

“In That Place She Grows a Garden”, by Del Sandeen (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 10, Spring 2019) Short Story

Rayven is one of the few black students among a sea of white faces at Queen Mary Catholic High School. She’s proud of her four-years-in-the-making locs, but when the new principal Mrs. McGee takes office, she declares that Rayven’s hair violates the dress code and makes her cut them off. Soon after, a flower sprouts from Rayven’s scalp, followed by an entire garden. And this garden doesn’t let anyone mess with it. Del Sandeen’s fabulist piece finds the right balance between pragmatism and the uncanny. The precariousness of Rayven’s circumstances give the reader plenty of reasons to root for her and she doesn’t disappoint, even when the people who should support her let her down.

Gaze of Robot, Gaze of Bird”, by Eric Schwitzgebel (Clarkesworld Issue 151, April 2019) Short Story

After a 95,000 year journey, robot J11-L arrives at the planet it was sent to terraform ahead of the generation ships that left earth. But those ships died off millennia ago, so instead J11-L fashions new life from the likeness of its only companion, a stuffed toy it calls “Monkey”. But even engineered evolution takes a long time to perfect. Thoughtful, gentle, optimistic sci-fi in the classic mold.

 

Also Recommended

A Conch-Shell’s Notes” by Shweta Adhyam (Lightspeed Issue 107, April 2019) Short Story

A crafty and engaging story about a village called Peacetown whose residents make their choices based on the whisperings of a magical conch-shell. Fruit-seller Kwai goes off on a magical adventure, while the shell’s advice pushes cookware vendor Var to become mayor. Shai is a fruit harvester caught in between the two men’s destinies and forced to question whether the conch-shell’s instigations really benefit anyone.

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Cover Art by Richard Wagner

“Everything Rising, Everything Starting Again”, by Sarah Brooks (Interzone #280, March 2019) Short Story

In this slow-burning apocalypse, people are dying en masse for unknown reasons, their souls turning into black butterflies and flying away. The oddly casual tone of the story, as the narrator wonders and worries and which family and friends she will lose next, is captivating.

“No Late-For-School”, by Shari Paul (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 10, Spring 2019) Short Story

Shari Paul’s broadly comical “No Late-For-School” is the story of a blogger named Delilah who one day finds a feather growing out of her scalp. Delilah uses a long blog entry to relate the outlandish tale of how she discovered the culprit responsible for her malady. Perfect comic timing and momentum build to an uproarious climax. The story also has some weight to it, as Delilah comes to realize she is in a toxic relationship.

“The One Before Scheherazade”, by Bianca Sayan (Augur Issue 2.1, April 2019) Short Story

As the title suggests, this is the story of the girl chosen to be queen-for-a-night right before Scheherazade captivates the King with her tales for 1001 successive nights. With one day left to live, she must determine what kind of queen she will be, and how she will be remembered. An ingenious premise and an engrossing character study.

The Best Short SFF – January 2019

Featured Image from this month’s Fireside Magazine: Illustration by Galen Dara for Mary Soon Lee’s “Lord Serpent”

Must Read

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Cover Art: “Galbourne Ridge” by Tyler Edlin

The Beast Weeps with One Eye” by Morgan Al-Moor (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #268, January 3, 2019) Short Story

The Bjebu have been chased from their homeland by a murderous horde of ravens; in desperation, High Sister Nwere strikes a deal with Babawa-Kunguru, the Keeper of Sorrows, for the safety of a new homeland. She soon learns that the cost may be too much for them to bear. Riveting action and suspense from the first sentence to the last, with a brilliant and complex protagonist and breathtaking worldbuilding.

 

Highly Regarded

Hand Me Downs” by Maria Haskins (GigaNotoSaurus, January 2019) Short Story

The story of a teenage troll (the “real” kind, not the internet kind) named Tilda who wants to go to a famous dance academy while battling stereotypes about her identity. A heartfelt story about self-love and family ties, with nice touches of macabre humor.

The Great Train Robbery” by Lavie Tidhar (Apex Magazine Issue 116, January 2019) Novelette

In a dream-like fantasy world called the Escapement, the Stranger realizes that agents of the Colossi plan to rob the train he is on to acquire a dangerous new weapon. But is it too late to stop them? A carnivalesque reverie told in classic cliffhanger style.

 

Also Recommended

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Cover Art: “Pearls and Stardust” by Julie Dillon

Nothing to Fear, Nothing to Fear” by Senaa Ahmad (Uncanny Magazine Issue 26, January/February 2019) Short Story

11-year-old Amina has a mad scientist for an older sister who insists on using her as a guinea pig to test her “mechanical marvel”. A sweet-natured tale of sibling rivalry and bonding.

“The Savannah Problem” by Adam-Troy Castro (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, January/February 2019) Novella

Draiken abducts a hired killer and attempts to get him on board for his plan to fight the conspiracy while they is pursued by a mysterious ship with lethal intent. The latest in a cycle that began with “Sleeping Dogs“.

On the Origin of Specie” by Vajra Chandrasekera (Nightmare Magazine Issue 76, January 2019) Short Story

A tax protester is thrown into a hellish, lightless tower that slowly funnels its prisoners toward the bottom.

“The Willows” by Delilah S. Dawson (Uncanny Magazine Issue 26, January/February 2019) Novelette [will add link when available on 2/5]

An unsettling variation on Algernon Blackwood’s classic horror story, which finds a young music star and her partner haunted by the sinister history and character of the family retreat where they’re recording their new album.

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Cover Art: “Playing Cello in the Sea Against the Night Sky with the Red Moon” by grandfailure

Beyond Comprehension” by Russell Nichols (Fireside Magazine Issue 63, January 2019) Short Story

Brian is a father with dyslexia who feels left behind when his young son Andre receives an implant that downloads books directly into his brain. Very moving.

Burrowing Machines” by Sara Saab (The Dark Issue 44, January 2019) Short Story

A chilling monster story about a London tunneling project that unleashes something terrible.

Venus in Bloom” by Lavie Tidhar (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 148, January 2019) Short Story

A bittersweet vignette about life on a colonized Venus, as loved ones remember a recently deceased florist who wanted the planet to remain a “wild untamed” place free from the ravages of terraforming.

 

 

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

The Best Short SFF – August 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!

August was a pretty light month for recommendations – I hope my post-surgery temperament did not spoil my enjoyment of anything worthwhile. Also, I got a little behind during recovery, so some of July’s and August’s readings have been pushed to September.

rogue protocolMust Read

Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries Book 3), Martha Wells (Tor.com 8/7/2018) Novella

Wells continues to spin gold out of her “cynical robot grudgingly rescues inept humans from certain death” formula. Character growth and a building-block approach to the series’ overall narrative design are what keeps things fresh, while the suspenseful hi-tech action and acerbic, eyeroll humor remain steadfast. In this third-go-round, Murderbot is looking into a terraforming facility that GrayCris may be using as a cover for its illegal alien artifact hoarding scheme. It has to use its “augmented human security consultant” persona again when encountering a group of humans with the same objective. Murderbot’s ruse is sniffed out by the humans’ impossibly earnest and painfully loyal bot companion, Miki, but Murderbot manages to bring Miki into its confidence by promising to keep its beloved friends safe (and you know how those squishy meat sacks love to throw themselves into mortal peril). The denouement is an enticing segue into the fourth and final novella in the series, which can’t come soon enough.

Clarkesworld 143Highly Regarded

“The Nearest”, Greg Egan (Tor.com 7/19/2018) Novelette

Police detective Kate is investigating the horrifying, seemingly motiveless murder of a family, in which the wife has gone missing. Later, she wakes up in the middle of the night to discover that her own husband and newborn son have been replaced by ringers. Ordinarily, it is frustrating when the reader figures out what’s going on long before the hero does – but in this case that is precisely the point of Egan’s story, and what makes its scenario so terrifying.

“The Privilege of the Happy Ending”, Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld Issue 143, August 2018) Novelette

Johnson’s metafictional fairy tale follows a young girl named Ada and her talking hen, Blanche, who are forced to go on the run from a horde of terrifying bird-like lizard creatures known as wastoures, who devour every living thing in their path. The narrator frequently breaks the fourth wall to divulge the fates of characters Ada and Blanche encounter on their journey, and comment on the reader’s expectations for who should and shouldn’t get a happy ending. The cliffhanger-style storytelling is exciting, though coupled with frequent reminders that the act of storytelling itself is inherently cruel.

fireside 58Also Recommended

“The Athuran Interpreter’s Flight”, Eleanna Castroianni (Strange Horizons, 7/2/2018) Short Story

An unsettling sci-fi story about the exploitation of the weak and the violation of bodily autonomy. Delicately written, but still wrenching and emotionally taxing; please heed the content warnings before reading.

 

“The Anchorite Wakes”, R.S.A. Garcia (Clarkesworld Issue 143, August 2018) Short Story

Sister Nadine is starting to notice some strange goings on at her parish, but is she losing her mind or finding it?

“Scavenge, Rustic Hounds”, Manuel Gonzales (Lightspeed Issue 99, August 2018) Short Story

A quick and creepy domestic horror story about a woman who believes her home is being invaded by strange creatures at night, while her husband thinks nothing is wrong.

“A Bond as Deep as Starlit Seas”, Sarah Grey (Lightspeed Issue 99, August 2018) Short Story

A lively space adventure about a hauler who needs a newer ship to keep up with the demands of commerce, but doesn’t want to part with the old ship she was bonded to.

“The Unusual Customer”, Innocent Chizaram Ilo (Fireside Magazine Issue 58, August 2018) Short Story

A culinary-themed folk tale about a fatherless girl working in her mother’s restaurant who meets a man wearing an invisible cloak.

“Chasing the Start”, Evan Marcroft (Strange Horizons, 7/9/2018) Novelette

A legendary, aging “strandrunner” races through different historical periods in time, with one final goal in mind before she retires.

“Kingfisher”, Robert Reed (Clarkesworld Issue 143, August 2018) Novelette

A new Great Ship story, in which the title character searches the expanse of the enormous world-sized vessel for hundreds of thousands of years to find his long lost love.

The Rack – Zine and Novella Reviews for Late May

The latest issues of Apex, Clarkesworld, Fireside, Lightspeed and a novelette from Tor.com, as well as stand-alone novellas by Martha Wells and Peter Watts.

apex 108Apex Issue 108, May 2018
The most interesting story in this issue, artistically speaking, is Matthew Sanborn Smith’s “Stars So Sharp They Break the Skin”. Cal is a war veteran with an injured psyche, which causes his perception to bleed out into the real world. Much of the story is a surreal jumble, by design, and there is some effective surrealist humor and imaginative prose, but no emotional connectivity at all.
Rich Larson’s “Fifteen Minutes Hate” is a dark, near-future SF cautionary tale about a woman who achieves the wrong kind of short-lived fame after an internet celebrity airs all her dirty laundry. Larson is an appealing writer who boasts a prodigious literary output, but here it feels like he’s hitting easy targets and covering familiar ground. J.E. Bates “Cold Blue Sky” features an “anthrobotic companion” called Aki (who is modeled after a popular video game character) who was recently utilized in the commission of a crime. Police detectives attempt to access its memories to identify and track down the perpetrators. The story’s best feature is that it is told from Aki’s perspective – she is intelligent but lacks autonomy by design – and the unraveling of her memories is appealing for a time, but the ending fell a little short for me.
Cherie Priest’s “Mother Jones and the Nasty Eclipse” is a rallying cry for women in the post-Trump era, suggestive of near-future dystopia. It functions as more of a diatribe than a story, but it is a rousing one nonetheless. Eugenia Triantafyllou’s flash piece “Cherry Wood Coffin” has a nice unearthly, gothic tone in relating the story of a coffin-maker who hears voices telling him who will die next, which is a good skill to have in his profession.

Clarkesworld Issue 140, May 2018
The military-colony SF novelette “Fleeing Oslyge” by Sally Gwylan follows Senne, who escaped from her home city of Oslyge after it was sacked by the invading Tysthänder and is now a refugee travelling with four resistance fighters searching for the rest of their camp. They are constantly on guard because of the tech the Tysthänder can use to track them, and the group’s highest-ranking officer, Gunter, suspects there may be a traitor among them. I was impressed with how the author kept me, as the reader, as disoriented as Senne, who is not a soldier and understands nothing about war or the army (soldier is apparently not an acceptable profession for a woman on this planet). Since the soldiers come from two different camps and don’t know each other, Senne doesn’t know who to trust – and the one soldier who is the most threatening toward her is allied with Gunter. And no one seems to know much of anything about the Tysthänder – if they are human invaders from another colony, or human proxies fighting for alien invaders. Estrangement is an important component of science fiction; we readers immerse ourselves in the strangeness of unfamiliar worlds, and often the stranger the better. Gwylan adds another layer to this by making her characters as estranged from their own reality as we are, which is as potent a statement about the condition of war one can find.
In A Que’s “Farewell, Doraemon”, Zhou and Tang Lu grow up in a small village obsessed with a fantasy cartoon called Doraemon, but years after a tragedy splits the best friends apart, their reclusive former teacher may have an unusual solution to set things right. The story does a wonderful job of settling the reader into life in the village where Zhou and Tang Lu grew up, populating it with a nice assortment of eccentric and interesting characters. Zhou is a wonderful and relatable protagonist, and the flashback sequences to his schoolboy days are the story’s greatest strength. The plot moves a little too slowly, however; Zhou’s main objective, along with the sudden interjection of the story’s SFnal aspect, don’t come about until the novella is nearly over, and by then both feel like a bit of a cheat.
Bo Balder’s “A Vastness” follows scientist Yoshi as he pursues the elusive alien life forms known as “guardians” through space. A grand in scope, but unevenly paced tale. “Not Now” by Chelsea Mazur has a cool premise – a robot arm falls on a young girl’s house, destroying her bedroom – but once established, I found the theme and direction of the story a bit foggy.

fireside 55Fireside Magazine Issue 55, May 2018
There are two short stories and three flash fiction pieces in the slightly underwhelming May issue of Fireside.
The cover story is the sweet-natured “The Promise of Flight” by Lee S. Bruce, about a grandfather who makes his grandchild promise to fly, just before slipping into a coma. It is structured as a sort of long-form joke, and the punchline is easy to see coming as soon as the promise is made. The other short story is Sydnee Thompson’s “The Paladin Protocol”, which follows Aaryn, co-founder of NeuroNet, a digital assistant hooked directly into the user’s brain that can anticipate the user’s needs, sometimes better than the user can. When disaster strikes New York City, Aaryn’s partner Viktor issues an emergency directive that saves thousands of lives by remotely hijacking the NeuroNet users in the affected area and moving them to safety. This doesn’t sit right with Aaryn, who is worried about the implications of his partner wielding such God-like power. The story is built on a strong premise and there is a nice, ominous twist at the end, though the pace was much too hurried for me, and I never felt like I got under the Aaryn’s or Viktor’s skin enough for the effect to sink in.
Of the flash pieces, I really liked “Now Watch My Rising” by A. Merc Rustad. Wolf is bound and muzzled until the time comes when they can fulfill their destiny to eat the sun. Wolf is not a fan of being beholden to such a fate and fights to be free. Rustad strikes just the right tone for this mythology-tinged nightmare, and the grueling imagery is very effective. I don’t get a lot of opportunities to describe a story as “metal”; this story is metal.

Lightspeed Magazine Issue 96, May 2018
In Carolyn Ives Gilman’s “We Will Be Alright”, the world is ravaged by a sexually transmitted disease that kills only men. Consequently, a mother-protagonist of this tale watches in horror as her son falls in love, and despite the lovers’ insistence that they will be careful, she can’t help but have ill feelings toward the woman who could be the death of her boy. I’m usually a big fan of Gilman’s writing, but this one reads more like an outline of a story than a story itself and falls short of capitalizing on its ideas.
If the first story is a little too little, then the following two stories are a little too much. In Jane Lindskold’s “A Green Moon Problem”, the legendary, absurdly mythical engineer Tatter D’Maleon of Cat station can supposedly solve any and all manner of problem. Jurgen seeks her out because he wants to win the heart of co-worker Rita but can’t seem to break through with her. Tatter may as well have the words “Ironic Ending” tattooed on her forehead the moment Jurgen makes his compact with her; it is obvious that her solution will pick apart the semantics of his request. To be fair, though, there is no way to see the story’s utterly outrageous ending coming. It’s a lively and colorful tale, and way, way over the top.
Over the top is not a strong enough term to describe Martin Cahill’s “Godmeat”. Hark makes ravishing meals out of the Great Beasts that Spear kills, in order to please the terrifying Hollow Ones, who seek to be the world’s new gods. Hark knows that the Hollow Ones are gathering strength from his meals, and though he is horrified by the prospect of their rule, he is so in love with the cuisine he is creating, he doesn’t want to stop. Overt symbolism delivered with sledgehammer prose is the best way to describe this story. The visuals are sublime, though, and Hark’s solution to the problem is creative.
I feel a little like Goldilocks here: if the previous three stories were too cold and too hot, the last one gets it just right. “Our Side of the Door” by Kodiak Julian is about a fantasy writer who has wished his whole life to find a portal to another realm. As an adult, he still wants such a door to appear, though only so his young son can find it and go through to the other side. There is a wonderful balance between the daily uncertainties and anxieties the narrator copes with and the fantastical hopes he carries for his son. Is it even fair for him to nudge his son toward a door that the boy himself may have no desire to walk through? It is also unclear if his belief in doors is reasonable or a product of self-delusion, or something in between. Lyrical and tender, “Our Side of the Door” is not so much a fantasy story as it is a story about how people internalize fantasy.

murderbot 2Tor.com
Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries Book 2), by Martha Wells (5/8/2018)
When we first met the SecUnit Murderbot in Martha Wells’ All System’s Red, it had already hacked its governor module, which is ostensibly in place to prevent it from going on a kill-happy rampage. In truth, it had already (apparently) gone on said rampage when it was “under control”, and only hacked the module so it wouldn’t happen again (and so it could have unfettered access to the entertainment feeds).
When Artificial Condition opens, Murderbot has won a dubious kind of freedom thanks to the human allies it made in “All Systems Red”. Still ever wary of the protocols it must follow to allay the suspicions of the humans it encounters, Murderbot sets off to learn the truth about the massacre it had been held responsible for but has no clear recollection of. Murderbot forms a tenuous alliance with ART, a transport AI who helps disguise Murderbot’s identity as a rogue SecUnit by surgically altering it to appear as an augmented human. ART also helps Murderbot get a cover job to justify its trip to the mining facility on the planet RaviHyral, where its supposed massacre took place. Murderbot (in disguise as a human, at this point) takes on the role of bodyguard for a group of researchers trying to retrieve their hijacked data from the company after their contracts were abruptly terminated. The situation is an obvious set-up: the mining company’s owner, Tlacey, will only meet with them in person, on RaviHyral, and if their data is as important as they think it is, it would be much more cost effective to just get them out of the way. Murderbot agrees, of course, because it gets him inside the Tlacey facility, and because it’s a sucker for hard luck humans who get screwed over by corporations.
What I like most about this series is the way society exhibits social control over AIs like Murderbot, even without its governor module in place. As it pointed out in All Systems Red, it still has to hold down a job, and likes watching its soap operas, and can’t do those things if it goes around murdering people indiscriminately and has to stay on the run all the time. Also, as it points out in this one, humans control all the charging stations. So even without the software that controls its actions, Murderbot must behave exactly as if those safeguards are still in place if it wants to continue to exist. Society presumes non-observance of social norms, even when the incentives to observe those norms are ingrained without the strict enforcement applied by the governor modules (a conundrum any person belonging to a marginalized group can appreciate). Wells adds a new layer to the power dynamics in Artificial Condition by showing us how these attitudes build hierarchies through interactions between different classes of AIs. When Murderbot first meets ART, ART reveals that it knows Murderbot is a rogue Sec, and could either turn it over to the authorities or kill Murderbot itself, if Murderbot displeases it. ART even has the audacity to read Murderbot’s acquiescence to its terms as “friendship”. By contrast, the sexbots on RaviHyral have even more miserable restrictions placed on their behavior than SecUnits do and view a rogue Sec as someone to aspire to.
Artificial Condition is more tightly plotted than its predecessor, and the stakes are more personal, making it an even more satisfying work of brainy, funny, compelling sci-fi action. I highly recommend this series, starting with “All Systems Red”, to anyone who has not picked it up yet.
“Grace’s Family”, by James Patrick Kelly (5/16/2018)
Grace is a survey ship who travels from system to system looking for life-supporting planets. At the start of James Patrick Kelly’s new novelette “Grace’s Family”, her crew consists of teenage boy Jojin, his bot “sibling” Qory, and their parents Gillian (also a bot) and Dree. We soon learn that they are not an actual nuclear family but are only role playing as one. Human spacefaring culture, it seems, revolves around multi-level immersive storytelling: everyone has their own personal narratives they participate in, plus various narratives they role play as a crew, plus an overarching construct that defines their relationships to each other. Early on in “Grace’s Family”, Dree grows dissatisfied with his role on Grace and he and Gillian end up getting traded to another ship, replaced with a woman named Orisa who introduces Jojin and Qory to different identity constructs, and radical new (but actually old) ideas.
“Grace’s Family” is carried in its first half by its captivating premise, and Kelly’s subtly effective characterizations and tension-building. Adding to the intrigue is the idea that humans are “resources” for ships to use in their larger objective of growing the “infosphere” – a term used to describe all the elements contained in the observed universe. It is a hopeful idea, one that harkens back to the more benign aims of classic sci-fi – that our aim as a civilization is not to conquer but to expand our understanding.
The injection of Orisa into Jojin and Qory’s lives teases promising new avenues for Kelly’s story to follow, and for a while it almost lives up to that promise. But Kelly undoes everything that was so interesting about the setup, taking the easy way out by giving Orisa and Jojin a traditional romance that eschews their role-playing ways, and jettisoning their constructed narratives in favor of these crazy old things called “books”. I get the (rather obvious) point, but its hard not to look back at “Grace’s Family” in light of where it ends up and feel as though the story’s central dramatic question was very tendentious in setting itself up for failure.

Must Read –
The Freeze-Frame Revolution (Sunflower Cycle), by Peter Watts (full review here)
Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries Book 2), by Martha Wells

Highly Regarded –
“Fleeing Oslyge”, by Sally Gwylan
“Our Side of the Door”, by Kodiak Julian

Also Recommended –
“Now Watch My Rising”, by A. Merc. Rustad