The Best Short SFF of September 2019

Featured Image from the cover of Lightspeed Issue 112 by Galen Dara

Must Read Stories

A Bird, a Song, a Revolution“, by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 112, September 2019) Short Story

Bolander’s expressive cat-scratch prose and narrative gymnastics grow more audacious with each published story, while she has honed her vision into a diamond-hard stare. As a young girl, Whistlecage has a transformative experience when she learns to play the flute at the urging of an old witch. Far in a post-disaster future, another young girl finds Whistlecage’s flute in the wreckage of a museum, and it seems there is some magic left in it yet. Like “The Only Harmless Great Thing”, this is a story about bold ideas and hard truths crossing generational distances, of art as cultural memory and revolutionary impulse.

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

Most of Castro’s AIsource Infection stories have debuted in the pages of Analog, so it was a pleasant surprise to find one out in the wild, and a great one at that. “Sacrid’s Pod” isn’t dependent on any of the other stories or story sequences and serves as a great primer for those unfamiliar with Castro’s future history. Sacrid is a teenage girl consigned to a life sentence in an inescapable prison by her ultra-orthodox parents as punishment for transgressing their culture’s religious doctrines. Her unusually helpful AI-jailer assists her as she engineers a different kind of prison break. More than a quarter century into his writing career, Castro still displays an near-miraculous talent for twisting every genre trope imaginable into something new and exciting and fun.

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Cover Art by Dominic Harman

“Winter Wheat”, by Gord Sellar (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2019) Novella

This was the first story I encountered in my September reading, and it set quite a standard for everything that followed. “Winter Wheat” is the intimate yet epic story of a farming community upended by the introduction of bioengineered climate-resistant wheat. The story’s protagonist, Jimmy, can’t grasp the science of farming, a fact that frustrates him when his father’s attempts to create his own strain of wheat conflicts with corporate control of production. With its memorable setting and characters, and an intelligent, multi-layered take on some vital near-future issues, this may be my favorite sci-fi story of the year.

More Recommended Stories

The Last Stellar Death Metal Opera“, by Elly Bangs (Escape Pod 697, September 12, 2019) Short Story

Raya wants to hurl a brown dwarf into a collapsing star to save a planet of octopodes from the gamma ray burst of an impending supernova, despite the fact that the resulting collision will incinerate her and make her the first human to die in several millennia. Why? Because that would be metal as hell, of course. Then the “frickin’ Unimind”, the human race’s AI caretaker, arrives to muck the whole plan up. In truth, the conflict between Raya and the Unimind never rises above mild tension, but the spectacle of Raya’s plan and her motive for doing it are the stars of the show. If you fail to read this story with a big old stupid grin on your face from the first page to the last you should probably stop reading things.

Breaking the Waters“, by Donyae Coles (Pseudopod 666, September 20, 2019) Short Story

Coles’ piercing fever dream of a story is accompanied by W.B. Yeats classic poem “The Second Coming” (and also a content warning, which should be heeded), the perfect tone-setter for this tale of a young girl named Bootsie and her monstrous pregnancy. As much a story of containing Whitmanian multitudes as it is about birthing biblical Legions, it’s also as eerie and unsettling as any horror story you’re likely to read this year.

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Cover Art by David Hardy

“Homecoming”, by Gardner Dozois (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September/October 2019) Short Story

A bittersweet capstone to the late Dozois’s long and legendary career in SFF, about a very old wizard who makes one last trip home, and a young girl who beseeches him to send a little bit of magic her way. The kind of story that might be a little too perfect for its own good, but who’s going to complain?

“The Albatwitch Chorus”, by Stephanie Feldman (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2019) Novelette

Asimov’s always throws a little “spooky action” (pun intended) at readers this time of year, and for the second year in a row Feldman has written one of my favorites. Sonia moves in to an old witch’s house, and takes on her ex-husband’s teenage daughter as an apprentice as she starts her own witch’s shop. When the intelligent, racoon-like albatwitches that live in the nearby woods start making incursions on Sonia’s property, she knows they’re after something and that can’t be good. The albatwitches are too fiercely unknowable to be the antagonist here; the real conflict  is between the stubbornly pragmatic older woman Sonia and the fearlessly naïve youth Gina, who believes the albatwitches are trying to befriend her.

“Four Accounts of the Discovery of Orchard Street (From The Knowledge: An A-To-Zed of That City We Almost Know)” collated by S.R. Mandel, cartographer (Galaxy’s Edge Issue 40, September/October 2019) Short Story

This is probably the first time I’ve dropped a story on this list just because I didn’t know what else to do with it, only that by some strange impulse I read it over and over at least a half dozen times and found new pleasures in it each time. There’s nothing else I can say about it that you can’t glean from the title. Just let it happen.

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Cover Art by Beeple

Dave’s Head“, by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 156, September 2019) Novelette

I marvel at Palmer’s gift for pasting together what seems like a bucket list of absurd story concepts and not only weaving them into a compelling narrative but imbuing them with a deep, rich mythology that reaches out beyond the boundaries of the story. In “Dave’s Head”, an engineer and her senile uncle go on a road trip with their roommate, a sentient animatronic dinosaur head called Dave, so Dave can find others like himself at a long-shuttered theme park. It’s a testament to the good will Palmer has engendered with her readers that we’re willing to swallow the wacky pill she hands us, no questions asked, knowing the rewards and surprises that await us.

“In the Stillness Between the Stars”, by Mercurio D. Rivera (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2019) Novelette

Another spooky story from Asimov’s, this one a little more traditionally Asimovian. A psycho therapist is woken from cryogenic sleep early in a colony ship’s voyage to help a woman who appears to have woken her nightmare up along with her. Well-drawn characters and sturdy, suspenseful plotting, and a whole lot going on in the background for SF geeks to chew on.

Sweet Dreams are Made of You“, by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (Nightmare Magazine Issue 84, September 2019) Short Story

You’re probably smarter than I am and won’t try to read a magazine literally called NIGHTMARE right before bedtime. Though just in case that’s not warning enough for you, for fuck’s sake don’t read “Sweet Dreams are Made of You” and then try to go to sleep. Wolfmoor’s testimonial-style horror vignette about a game called Vore that you play in your dreams – until it crosses over to the waking world – has all the punishing beauty of a black metal song and the suffocating dread of a dream you desperately want to scream yourself awake from.

 

The Best Short SFF – February 2019

Featured image from the cover of Apex Magazine issue 117, by Julia Griffin

In addition to being the shortest month of the year, I faced some unexpected life changes in February and was unable to produce my zine review column on a weekly basis. While my writing time suffered, my reading time thankfully did not, and I found plenty of quality short fiction to celebrate this month.

Must Read

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Art by Pear Nuallak

The Message” by Vanessa Fogg (The Future Fire Issue 48, February 2019) Short Story

Science fiction has always assumed that if Earth received a message from deep space, it would have civilization-altering consequences. Here, Vanessa Fogg charts a near-future course for us where scientists find such a message and it is just consumed, rather inelegantly, into our mass-media culture. Sarah is the teenaged daughter of the scientist who discovered the enigmatic, indecipherable Message fifteen years before, but its effect on her life has more to do with everyday concerns like “will my parents ever stop fighting?” and “does my best friend Chloe really love me?”. That second question forms the heart of Fogg’s story. Sarah and Chloe live half a world apart and have never met – and may never meet – in person, yet to Sarah the intimacy of that relationship is as deep and true as anything she can see or touch. Fogg disperses so many thematic and narrative strands and covers so many relevant scientific and sociological issues it is an absolute marvel how she weaves them together into a cohesive whole. Inventive, intricate, incandescent; stories like this are the reason I have a “Must Read” category in this column.

The Crafter at the Web’s Heart” by Izzy Wasserstein (Apex Magazine Issue 117, February 2019) Short Story

Traverse is a mythical city suspended over a chasm by a massive spider’s web, whose magic users become the thing they specialize in. Danae is headed for spider-dom, but first she must escape the predations of a dangerous fly cult and unravel a conspiracy that threatens to upend everything she holds dear. “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart” is a jaw-dropping feat of imaginative world-building bolstered by an exciting and suspenseful chase plot.

Reviewed in the February 16, 2019 edition of The Rack.

 

Highly Regarded

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Art by Sarula Bao

Thoughts and Prayers” by Ken Liu (Slate – Future Tense, January 26, 2019) Short Story

When Abigail Fort loses her daughter Hayley in a mass shooting, she decides her daughter’s death needs to mean something and allows a gun control group to use Hayley in a high-tech lobbying campaign. Then, out come the trolls. Abigail’s sister-in-law helps her get fitted with a new digital armor to filter out all the virtual attacks and disturbing, unintended consequences ensue. Liu’s mastery of near-future speculation and his grasp of the core issues is illuminating. An effective use of shifting perspectives, especially when we get a troll’s take on the proceedings.

This Wine-Dark Feeling That Isn’t The Blues” by José Pablo Iriarte (Escape Pod #666, February 7, 2019) Short Story

Abigail can’t accept losing her lover Savannah, but she has suspicions about the true nature of existence that, if true, could help her chart a new course. A moving story with a brilliant twist, stunning in its economy of plot and language (it is only 1600 words long). The less said, the better: just read (or listen to) it. A content warning accompanies the story; be aware that it deals with suicide.

 

Also Recommended

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Cover Art by Richard Wagner

Counting Days” by Patricia Lundy (Daily Science Fiction, February 1, 2019) Short Story

Another brief and powerful story about a touchy subject; DSF won’t let you see the text without first reading the content warning – kudos.

“The Backstitched Heart of Katherine Wright” by Alison Wilgus (Interzone #279, January/February 2019) Novelette

Katherine, the sister of the famous Wright brothers, Orville and Wilber, can thread herself backward in time – an ability that comes in handy when one of the boys keeps getting himself killed. The bittersweet ending packs an extra punch if you know how things turned out in real life.

Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy” by J.Y. Yang (Tor.com, 1/23/2019) Novelette

It’s not everyday you get to describe a story about a young woman pursued by a serial killer as “easygoing”, but that’s what you get here, and somehow it works.

Reviewed in the February 16, 2019 edition of The Rack.