The Best Short SFF of December 2019

Featured Image: cover for Nightmare Issue 87 by Rodjulian

Must Read Stories

Clarkesworld 159
Cover Art: “Halo” by Derek Stenning

Such Thoughts Are Unproductive” by Rebecca Campbell [Clarkesworld Issue 159, December 2019] Short Story

Science fiction has a habit of speculating on future iterations of present-day concerns, so it’s no surprise authors have lately begun expounding on the anxieties of a post-truth cultural landscape. Here, Rebecca Campbell delivers the most succinct and exemplary illustration of this subject I’ve read to date, brilliantly conceived and sharply observed with taut yet lyrical prose. Mar’s mother is supposed to be quarantined with antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, except she is actually interned in a re-education camp for being an enemy of the state. The woman Mar is communicating with, who may or may not be her actual mother, tells her an anecdote about an “Aunt Sophie” Mar knows doesn’t exist, and in no time does the fictional woman appear and insinuate herself into Mar’s life. Mar has no choice but to play along; even a whiff of dissent could land her in the same predicament as her mother. “Such Thoughts Are Unproductive” is a gripping parable about the fundamental need to assert the truth, even when the lies are destined to outlast you.

Methods of Ascension” by Dan Stintzi [Nightmare Magazine Issue 87, December 2019] Short Story

The story begins with the narrator relating an anecdote about how his brother – since estranged – used to send him unsolicited emails with disturbingly violent video clips, likely culled from the dark web. It’s an all too common act of transgression these days; this blend of passive-aggressive toxicity and non-chalance procures a nagging sense of unease that swells as the story inches along. The narrator eventually reconnects with his brother, who lures him to their remote family cabin with intimations of having turned a new leaf, thanks to an obscure new age guru whose “Methods of Ascension” promise a journey of self-discovery unlike any other. What proceeds is a fully immersive waking nightmare, reminiscent of classic Cronenberg in theme (think Videodrome, or eXistenZ) but with an atmosphere and structure akin to the original weird fiction of the pulp era. Like the story’s narrator you know you should look away, but won’t until it’s much too late.

 

More Recommended Stories

Anathema_CoverIssue9
Cover Art: “Girls in Cars” by Grace P. Fong

St. Agnes” by Andalah Ali [Anathema Magazine Issue 9, December 2019] Short Story

Mallaidh is an introvert whose closest friend works at a cemetery. Lately Mallaidh is seeing spectral visions of a young man they were acquainted with – but not terribly close to – before he died, and wants to learn why. The author avoids taking the story down any of the well-worn genre paths: their concern is with the emotional and sensual details of Mallaidh’s daily life, which lead them, and the reader, to unexpected places.

Things My Father Taught Me” by Rhoads Brazos [Pseudopod #676, November 22, 2019] Short Story

Three Ugandan teenagers hijack what they think is a French charity truck, hoping to sell the goods and run away to Kenya. Unfortunately, some of the real world obstacles in their path are more terrifying than the thousand-year-old coffin with the strange markings the French soldiers were guarding. Brazos’s tale of uncanny horror gets high marks for characterization and tone, and a slow-burn buildup of tension and dread.

The Garden’s First Rule” by Sheldon Costa [Strange Horizons, December 2, 2019] Short Story

With his family in dire financial straits, young Eli volunteers to become a plant-human hybrid in “The Garden” for the well-to-do to gawk at. Things get complicated when his sister comes looking for him, threatening the calm that the Gardener demands. Unearthly, ethereal; Eli’s predicament – the competing desires to escape notice, and also to be disruptive – cuts deep.

The Petals of the Godflower” by Kyle Kirrin [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #292, December 5, 2019] Short Story

Another creepy tale about young people becoming plants (a strange theme to unfurl in the month of December), but one wildly different from the aforementioned tale in setting, pacing and theme. The Godflower demands the sacrifice of anyone who reaches the age of twenty (accepting priests and mothers), ostensibly so they can become – as the title asserts – its petals. Their religion insists this is the ideal afterlife, but our protagonist begs to differ.

Soul Searching Search Engines” by Rodrigo Assis Mesquita [Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 5, December 2019] Short Story

In a future consumed by corporate cyber warfare, the popular search engine LOCATOR disguises itself as a human user and bonds with fellow user Jess83 over their shared Buffy the Vampire Slayer fandom. The two have even more in common than they first believe, but as their friendship deepens, outside factors threaten the infrastructure that keeps them together. Mesquita’s story starts out as a fun, in-jokey pop culture riff, then takes a turn for the poignant. A well-paced, entertaining, heartstring-plucking tale.

The Best Short SFF of June 2019

 

Recommended Stories

Lightspeed 109
Cover by Grandfailure/Fotolia

The Harvest of a Half-Known Life“, by G.V. Anderson (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 109, June 2019) Short Story

Anderson builds an arresting and intricately detailed post-apocalyptic culture where social mores have been re-shaped by climate disaster: technology is taboo, for example, but harvesting the flesh of the dead has a vital role in sustainable living. The narrator – verbally called “Gwinaelle”, though her true name can only be conveyed in sign – is caught between the life that has been planned out for her and her yearning to “follow the ghosts” and explore the ruined world. It’s an engaging narrative but what stood out for me was its introspective nature, the onus it placed on the reader to not fall back on easy choices and lazy assumptions.

“Apologia”, by Vajra Chandrasekera (Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 3, June 2019) Short Story

An acerbic take on the commodification of white liberal guilt, wherein a poet is unleashed through time with recording drones in tow to experience firsthand the plight of systemically oppressed peoples, all for the edification of viewers back home. The narrator is the project’s producer, who divines to portray the subject as “our collective finger of condemnation pointed at a mirror, and then holding that pose, turning our heads a little, shifting hips, finding our good side in the light of truth and reconciliation.” That the narrator is aware of their own hypocrisy – perhaps even fetishizes it – is all the more disturbing.

LCRW 39
Cover Art by Cynthia Yuan Cheng

“Late Train”, by Anthony Ha (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet no. 39, June 2019) Short Story

While taking a late train home after a night of revelry, three friends have a discomfiting encounter with a homeless woman. The youngest and most naïve of the three unthinkingly invites the woman to overshare the details of her life, a narrative that gets more and more outrageous as it goes and opens them up to a literal multitude of possibilities. The slow build to a mind-expanding climax is well-rendered, and I appreciated the subtle symmetries and synchronicities built into the story’s structure which are especially effective in a second readthrough.

Bootleg Jesus“, by Tonya Liburd (Diabolical Plots #52B, June 17, 2019) Short Story

The rural town Mara lives in has no magic, so the “unique gifts” that normally manifest in people once they reached a certain age aren’t fostered there. But somehow Mara can activate her “Bootleg Jesus” statuette by asking it a question, and get cryptic yet actionable advice from it. This ability takes on a new urgency when she wishes to save a friend from an abusive situation. I really enjoyed the idea of a world where magic is common except in this one place, and the author uses it to weave a compelling, heartfelt story with empathy and smarts.

a forest or a tree
Art by Samuel Araya

A Forest, or a Tree“, by Tegan Moore (Tor.com, June 26, 2019) Novelette

Small disturbances and unforeseen circumstances pile up to bedevil four friends on a hiking trip in the wilderness, while something uncanny stalks them from the edges of their perception. An odd little horror piece; surreal and spooky with an offbeat aesthetic of arbitrariness to distinguish it. The characters jump off the page from the get go, which is always a good sign.

Many-Hearted Dog and Heron Who Stepped Past Time“, by Alex Yuschik (Strange Horizons, 6/17/2019) Short Story

Dog and Heron are partners who have “a profitable business stealing things, protecting things, or killing things.” As the title suggests, Heron can move back and forth through time, though they need someone (currently Dog) to anchor them in the timeline. The plot, involving the killing and resurrecting of a magistrate to sniff out a conspiracy, is a bit of a red herring. The story is really about what the titular characters mean to each other, a relationship that is somehow enhanced, rather than hindered, by the fact that one of them experiences it out of order.