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.

FSF 092019
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 – July 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!
I was out of commission for a couple of weeks this month, so I didn’t get a chance to write up all my zine reviews. I did get all my reading done, however, and I must say it was an odd month for short fiction. I found myself underwhelmed by several reliably good periodicals: Shimmer, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, – there were some interesting stories here and there, but also a lot of meh, and not a single rec from among them. The good stuff, though, was really good.

Must Read

Lightspeed 98

A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds”, James Beamon (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 98, July 2018) Short Story
War between Turkey and Russia rages on in this 19th century steampunk adventure. Aboard the Turkish airship Kismet, organ grinder Hezarfen plays patriotic songs while sending his platoon of zombie attack monkeys to board enemy ships. 14-year-old Oz tends to the monkeys, though he is terrified of them. He is terrified of most things in fact, and looks forward to becoming a man at 15, when he assumes he will find his courage. “A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” is vibrant for a war story, but no less perturbing. Hezarfen is fully invested in the torment and turmoil of bloody conflict, evincing a casual yet imperious cruelty toward Oz and the monkeys. The Kismet’s climactic battle with the Russian flagship Voina Gulag is a masterful crescendo, spiked with a precise and potent dose of dramatic irony.
Gubbinal”, Lavie Tidhar (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 142, July 2018) Short Story
Wallace Steven’s famous poem “Gubbinal” admonishes those who lack the imagination to see beauty in the world, with its repeated refrain “Have it your way/The world is ugly/And the people are sad”. Sahar, the hero of Lavie Tidhar’s story of the same name, is looking to escape the “endless chatter of grunting and farting and laughing and shouting” in Titan’s human habitat, to explore the “beautiful untamed music of the moon.” Her adventure takes her across a dangerous, unforgiving landscape full of astounding creatures, deadly pirates and impossible artifacts. The lunkheads back home can have it their way; in Tidhar’s hands, the world is anything but ugly or sad.

Highly Regarded

“This Isn’t Better”, Rebecca Birch (Galaxy’s Edge, July/August 2018) Short Story
Caleb mostly hides away from the endless shouting matches between his mother and his stepdad, until he discovers that he can take care of his problems by writing them down in his journal, then burning the page. This power has unintended consequences, and soon Caleb realizes he can use it to burn away his own humanity if he chooses to. This is one of those stories that made me want to read it again right away. “This Isn’t Better” is told in terse prose, packed solid with the anxiety and self-loathing that children raised in toxic households must endure.
“A Stab of the Knife”, Adam-Troy Castro (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, July/August 2018) Novella
I’ve been looking forward to this AIsource Infection team-up between the driven and damaged councilor Andrea Cort and the equally headstrong superspy Draiken since it was teased at the end of the last Draiken story, “Blurred Lives.” Cort has information Draiken needs to find the men he wants to bring to justice, so when he arrives in New London, he stakes her out like any good spy would. Their first encounter, in which Cort easily sniffs out and traps her pursuer, more than lived up to my expectations with electric tension and crackling dialogue. The two form a tentative truce, but once Draiken becomes entangled in the Byzantine workings of Cort’s world, he discovers he may not survive long enough to get what he needs from her. “A Stab of the Knife” isn’t quite among the best of the Cort stories, nor is it the best of the Draiken cycle, but the giddy buzz I felt from the start is sustained throughout, and the breakneck action of the second half (along with all the cool gadgets) pays dividends.Fiyah 7

“The Percivals: The Bennett Benefit”, Eboni J. Dunbar (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 7, Summer 2018) Short Story
Think Downton Abbey with vampires (!!!). Eboni J. Dunbar’s “The Percivals: The Bennett Benefit” finds the famous “Diva extraordinaire” Anna Maria Percival playing a benefit concert in the provincial Hampshire House, home of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Bennett. The concert is just a ruse: Mrs. Percival and her sister-in-law Eleanor are vampire hunters, and Mr. Bennett suspects his brother Henry may have been turned. It seems Mrs. Percival’s music has the power to hypnotize an audience of the living, as well as beckon the living dead to her. “The Percivals: The Bennett Benefit” is near-perfect balance of lush setting and incisive character detail, leading to a suspenseful and exciting climax. I humbly request the author revisit this world in future stories.
“Lieutenant Tightass”, Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July/August 2018) Novelette
A new entry in Rusch’s Diving series – this takes place long before the other stories and novels and is an easy entry point for the uninitiated. Well before he became captain of the Ivoire, Jonathan “Coop” Cooper was a newly minted lieutenant assigned to the Arama, a search and rescue vessel for other ships that get lost in foldspace – a depressing and mostly fruitless endeavor, as ships lost in foldspace are almost never recovered. The Voimakas is one such ship, and Coop has a daring new theory about how to recover it. His only problem is getting Captain Nisen, who flaunts fleet regulations and mercilessly harangues him with the titular nickname (and encourages the rest of her crew to do the same), to mount a dangerous rescue based on his calculations. “Lieutenant Tightass” has the kind of kinetic plotting and tense action we’ve come to expect from procedural SF master Rusch. The ending labors the “point” a little too much, and the point being that Nisen’s bullying is for Coop’s own good makes it a tough sell. It’s a thrilling tale up to then, and the climactic rescue attempt is a knockout.
“Yard Dog”, Tade Thompson (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 7, Summer 2018) Short Story
Saucy Sue’s is a jazz club where only serious musicians dare to play; when a mysterious new stranger called Yard Dog is finally given the chance to prove his chops, he doesn’t just bring the house down, he reduces the room to tears. More than that, the drinks turn sour and “the drug fiends even said there was no dragon to chase.” Then Yard Dog’s “brother” starts hanging around the club, beckoning him to return home. “Yard Dog” gradually modulates from a macabre eeriness to a sublime, metaphysical terror in its expression of a music too resplendent for the mortal world. I especially liked the narrator’s sharp, penetrating voice.

Also Recommended

“Rules of Biology”, Dale Bailey (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July/August 2018) Short Story
A Twilight Zone-ish fable about an absent father whose teenage daughter begins exhibiting the genetic characteristics of the man who has taken his place as the head of the household.
“Morbier”, R.S. Benedict (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July/August 2018) Short Story
Trish falls in love with Mara at first sight and gets her a job at the country club where she works. Trish assumes Mara is a little cuckoo when she claims to be a time traveler from the year 2093, and conveniently overlooks evidence it may be true. The setting and characters foster a light, fun vibe from the get go; eventually the non-linear structure and Mara’s behavioral cues portend a La Jetée-style tragedy.
Greetings, Humanity! Welcome to Your Choice of Species”, Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 98, July 2018) Short Story
One of Castro’s acerbic humor pieces – The Exalted High Tribunal of the Interstellar Commission on the Minimum Standards of Indigenous Cultures has deemed humanity unworthy of existence and is prepared to reassign us to a different species.

Galaxy's Edge 33“Conceit and Capability”, Deborah L. Davitt (Galaxy’s Edge, July/August 2018) Short Story
A riff on the famous opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice leads to a sly send-up of male hubris. When Matilda joins her brother on an expedition to find a dragon she must contend with her sibling’s comically absurd self-regard, along with whatever creature they might discover.
“Left to Take the Lead”, Marissa Lingen (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, July/August 2018) Novelette
One of the author’s Oort cloud stories. Holly must work as an indenture on earth as her down-on-their-luck family tries to gather the funds to bring everyone together again. Lingen’s story cycle often centers around the idea of how humanity’s colonization of the solar system changes how the concept of family is perceived by different groups of people, and this is one of the most moving examples.
The James Machine”, Kate Osias (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 142, July 2018) Short Story
Cat built an AI out of her dying husband’s memories and personality, but the result isn’t quite what she expected. A smart and measured take on the grief of losing a spouse.
“Stones in the Water, Cottage on the Mountain”, Suzanne Palmer (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July/August 2018) Short Story
Multiple apocalypses in multiple timelines seem bent on stopping a woman from reaching her destination. Palmer devises several very creative end-of-the-world scenarios, and I always enjoy the bitterly funny tone of her tales.
“Visible Cities”, Rachel Pollack (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July/August 2018) Novelette
A bittersweet, lyrical side story in Pollack’s Jack Shade series, focusing on the origin story of the traveler Carolien, who goes on a magic-tinged hunt for her teacher when he abruptly disappears. Worth a look even if you haven’t read the other Shade tales yet.
“Eyes That Linger”, D.A. Xiaolin Spires (Galaxy’s Edge, July/August 2018) Short Story
A spooky little tale of mad science about a PI investigating people who have eyes and other organs grafted onto various appendages.
“Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie Sing the Stumps Down”, Lashawn M. Wanak (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 7, Summer 2018) Novelette
1930s America is beset by a sporous pandemic that turns people into wood-like “stumps.” Singers (especially Black singers) are conscripted into the service of the SPC (Stump Prevention Control), because only by hitting a certain, very difficult note, can they coax the stumps to release their spores under quarantine, thereby rendering the stumps inert. A rollicking alt-history romp featuring succinct social commentary about the exploitation of Black musicians by white American culture.

The Rack – Zine Reviews for Early June

Recent monthly offerings from Clarkesworld, Fireside, Galaxy’s Edge, and GigaNotoSaurus, along with two issues of the bi-weekly Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and back-to-back shorts from

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #252 (5/24/2018) & #253 (6/7/2018)
Beneath Ceaseless Skies will usually pair up its stories based on a unifying theme or some similarity in subject matter or setting. The two stories in this issue feature competitions to garner favor from royalty.
The first and best of the two stories is A.J. Fitzwater’s audacious and colorful “The Wild Ride of the Untamed Stars”. Cinrak is a capybara pirate captain who enters a competition to win the hand of the rat queen by being the first to wrangle a star from the sky and return it to her. I always marvel at high fantasy short stories that can build a completely new and epic setting, establish a sympathetic protagonist with a clear goal, tell a story as expansive as the setting promises, and find and flesh out its emotional core. Fitzwater does it here in less than 3000 words, more successfully than many novels do. The stakes are not terribly high – Cinrak merely seeks glory and adulation and has nothing to lose – so dramatic tension is limited to will she or won’t she succeed. It’s a light and fun piece of entertainment, with stars demonstrably untamed, and the ride sufficiently wild.
In Christian K. Martinez’s “The Ghostpotion Games”, competitors fashion game pieces out of ghosts to win a single wish from the nine empresses of the land. I don’t even want to try to guess at the political temperament of a land with nine sovereigns, and the author avoids the topic as well. A fun idea, though like the previous story, the dramatic tension is limited at best.
P. Djèlí Clark’s novelette “A Tale of Woe” features some top-notch worldbuilding, highlighting the author’s understanding of how history shapes culture. The magic employed by the story’s hero, Rana, is imaginative as well. Rana belongs to the Order of Soothers, acolytes of the Goddess of Sorrows who can draw out and cut away a person’s woes like removing a spectral tumor. Rana can also redirect that woe and use it as a weapon. The main issue that I had with the story is that Rana is just too powerful for the obstacles in her path to really seem threatening. The story’s plotting is also a little too manic, and the twists and turns that arise feel more like the author moving the goalposts than following through on his set up. The story is worth reading though, for the originality and detail imbued in its fascinating setting.
Blaine Vitallo’s “The Weaver and the Snake” is similarly extravagant in its worldbuilding, and also features a protagonist with a unique talent. Reilitas is a “weaver”, someone who fashions the bodies of animals into different things (musical instruments, children’s toys, weapons, etc.). She hears rumors of a giant unkillable snake that devours cities (buildings, but not inhabitants), but brushes them off, until it is too late. There is some beautifully stark imagery in the prose, and Vitallo’s descriptions of the world falling into anarchy are compelling. However, the story suffers from the opposite problem as “A Tale of Woe”; Reilitas does absolutely nothing to affect the outcome of the story. Not one thing. The world falls apart and Reilitas makes an hourglass to remember it by. That and the author spends a lot of time explaining the meaning of it all. That’s it.

Clarkesworld 141Clarkesworld Issue 141, June 2018
The original fiction in the June issue of Clarkesworld features three action-oriented novelettes, bookended by two shorter, slice-of-future-life stories. Reprints are from Elizabeth Bear and Karin Lowachee. A conversation with multi-award-winning artist John Picacio, and essays by Cat Rambo and Douglas F. Dluzen are of interest to both writers and fans of SFF. It’s an above average issue overall, though it falls short of producing anything truly exceptional.
The two shorter works strike a peculiar tone. Steve Rasnic Tem’s ultra-bleak “A Space of One’s Own” takes urban overcrowding to the future, where living spaces keep getting smaller and smaller, and the technology is available to downsize them relatively quickly. Not a lot happens plot-wise – protagonist Cedric’s life is already shitty and keeps getting shittier, and he takes drugs to deal with it. The story is oddly compelling, though, and Cedric’s drug-induced fever dreams are rendered in captivating prose. Vajra Chandrasekera’s “Heron of Earth” is also a strangely compulsory read, in which a post-human woman explores a “regreened” earth long devoid of human life. The history of the defunct Working Group on the Preservation of the Ancestral Earth for Sentimental Reasons, a.k.a. the Sentimentals, is the best part of the story. Chandrasekera’s lilting prose style is appropriate for its shifty, bird-oriented protagonist.
Best-of-issue goes to D.A. Xiaolin Spires’ novelette “Vault”, about a couple of surveyors trying to map a planet long abandoned to ecological disaster, who discover a unique form of life the planet’s former inhabitants left behind. It’s a well-paced story with some very imaginative ideas and an instantly likeable, proactive hero. Even though it bears some thematic resemblance to “Heron of Earth”, the two stories couldn’t be more different in tone and design. Chandrasekera’s story is a sort of lyrical/satirical flight of fancy, while Spires’ story offers a fresh approach to the old-fashioned exploration and problem-solving sci-fi – the kind that is usually right up my alley.
Speaking of old-fashioned, will stories about humans enslaved by their robot overlords ever go out of style? Xing He, author of “Your Multicolored Life” (trans. Andy Dudak), certainly doesn’t think so. Zhang Hua and You Ruo have had nearly opposite experiences while living under the cold hard heel of their robot masters and seek to escape for very different reasons. When they cross paths mid-flight, both long to step into the other’s shoes, and set out to make it happen. It’s clear from the get go that Hua and Ruo are headed for a “be careful what you wish for” demise, and as a morality tale the story gets a little heavy-handed. There is a neat twist at the end, though, and of course it’s hard to complain too much about evil robot stories, of which I agree there can never be enough. “The Cosmonaut’s Caretaker” is a fun debut story from journalist and astrophysicist Dora Klindžić, who really puts her science chops to work in the story’s thrilling action sequences. The story – about a crippled ex-soldier who must overcome his prejudice against AI to get through a dangerous mission in one piece – is a little over-stuffed and doesn’t quite earn its tug at the heartstrings. There is some deep worldbuilding and an adventurous spirit that makes me want to see more from this author, despite its flaws.

Fireside Magazine Issue 56, June 2018
The centerpiece of June’s edition of Fireside Magazine is Cast Off Tight by Hal Y. Zhang. The unnamed protagonist is still mourning the recent loss of his partner when he discovers an unfinished knitting project she left behind. She was knitting the scarf with “memory yarn”, which records nearby sounds while it is being knitted with special needles. When he touches it, he can hear things like that episode of Jeopardy she was watching, the song she was listening to, even sometimes her laughter. He pushes through conflicting emotions, determined to learn how to knit so he can finish the scarf. Zhang delivers a graceful tale with nicely understated prose and fine character detail.
The other three stories are almost flash short. I enjoyed the dreamlike Beast of Breath by Gillian Daniels, in which the narrator becomes reacquainted with a shy, passive-aggressive creature she has a vague memory of encountering as a child. The story has a kind of nonplussed, deadpan tone I found engaging. Susan Jane Bigelow’sThe Day After the Red Warlock of Skull Top Mountain Turned Everyone in Beane County into Pigs is just as daffy as it sounds: the character arcs are effective despite the hurried pace, as the human-restored narrator and her friend, Crane, both discover that until they were both temporarily turned into pigs, they had no idea who they really were. Lastly, the blatantly allegorical “Fascism and Facsimiles” (not yet available online) by John Wiswell is a superhero-ish commentary on the state of American political culture, with the “alt-democratic” heroes of Kommand unable to decide if they’re actual fascists or just economically depressed, while battling the sometimes fascist-curious Captain Democracy.

galaxys edge 32Galaxy’s Edge Issue 32, May/June 2018
Editor Mike Resnick has a fondness for very short, humorous stories when it comes to the original fiction in his zine; five of the eight stories in the new issue could be classified as SF or fantasy humor. There are also classic reprints from Joe Haldeman, Gardner Dozois, and Kij Johnson, another installment of Joan Slonczewski’s 1994 novel Daughter of Elysium, and non-fiction from Robert J. Sawyer, Barry N. Malzberg, and Gregory Benford.
The best of the rib-ticklers is “Chocolate Chip Cookies with Love Potion Infusion” by Leah Cypess, written in the form of a blog post from “proud witch, baker, and blogger” Heather, who has the perfect recipe for making your crush fall madly in love with you. Of course, the comments section reveals some overlooked ethical and moral considerations, as well as concerns about how to undo the spell when you fall out of love.
I also enjoyed the darkly funny “Reality Show” by Brian K. Lowe, in which the galaxy only keeps Earth around for its entertainment value, though I felt the ending slipped off the edge a bit. Karlo Yeager Rodriguez’s “Emergency Evaluation for Penny Ante, as Recorded by CAL-Q-TRON of the Benevolent Order of Heroes” is good for a few chuckles, as an overly snarky, self-absorbed teen superhero sidekick gets her first job performance evaluation.
My favorite story in the issue is the less humorous sci-fi horror quickie “Jackbox”, by Brian Trent, in which a soldier has to face down the technologically reanimated corpse of a dead opponent. It’s a cynical war-story (they are literally fighting over sand in a resource-starved future) that successfully weds the ingenuity of classic Amazing/Astounding style sci-fi with EC comics irony-laden approach to horror.

Balloon Man”, Shiv Ramdas (6/1/2018) Novelette
Set in modern day Northern India, “Balloon Man” finds young Mithun trapped under the rubble of a fallen clock tower, but not before he is pulled to safety under a stable archway by the titular street performer. As they await rescue, the mystical balloon man and the live, talking animals he fashions from his balloons tell Mithun the tale of the ancient king Vikramaditya, who became caught in the machinations of the trickster god Narada. As the tale progresses, it becomes clear that the story has a very real bearing on the circumstances Mithun has found himself in.
“Balloon Man” is an amiable folk tale, engrossing and humorous, that ties up all its themes nicely in the end. The joining of the frame story and the inner story is satisfying and cleverly done.
The Guile”, Ian McDonald (5/22/2018) Short Story
Ian McDonald’s “The Guile” is a near-future SF stage illusion story. The SFnal part of the premise, AIs replacing humans in casino surveillance, is a genuine inevitability. Legalized gambling is already an anarcho-capitalist’s wet dream – you literally just tell everyone up front that you’re going to rob them blind and they happily play along. If they can build a machine to guarantee all the cheats and card sharps get weeded out, they’ll do it. At the Silverado Hotel and Casino, Maltese Jack Caruana is the house magician, but when the newly installed surveillance AI “Remi” starts calling out Jack’s tricks, he knows it’s time to hang up the cape. You can fool a person with sleight of hand, but the machine can see everything you’re up to; the usual psychological tricks don’t work on it. However, the story’s narrator has a plan for Jack’s “final show” that could turn the tables on the casually arrogant Remi. McDonald doesn’t even try to hide that the end twist will be a bluff or double blind or some such – this kind of story always goes there, and in this case, it’s literally written into the title. When the big turn comes, though, it’s impossible to swallow. It completely undermines the entire premise the story is built on. I liked McDonald’s characters (especially the cagey narrator) and the story’s points about the division of labor and unfair distribution of wealth are gladly taken, but “The Guile” doesn’t quite pull off the feint.
Yiwu”, Lavie Tidhar (5/23/2018) Short Story
Tidhar’s futuristic science-fantasy fable is the story of Esham, who runs a booth selling lottery tickets in the Chinese city of Yiwu. The lottery is basically magic, as winners are granted their fondest wish – the first time Esham sells a winning ticket, the winner transforms into an ibis and flies away. But, much later, when one of his regular customers, Ms. Qiu, buys a winning ticket, nothing happens. The lady herself shrugs it off and leaves the ticket behind, but Esham can’t let it go, and he sojourns to lottery HQ to find out what went wrong. The story is likely to be off-putting to readers who need their SFnal elements kept away from their fantastical ones, the way some people freak out when the veggies are touching the mashers on their dinner plate. The basic rules of physical science and logic are brashly disregarded in “Yiwu”. The “tech” behind how the lottery supposedly works is dubiously explained (or unexplained) in near-mythical terms, and simply walking through an office door can transport one to outer space. These whimsical suspensions of disbelief in Tidhar’s stories aren’t beside the point, though, nor are they lazy excuses for a lack of scientific rigor. Like his spiritual ancestors (Dick, Zelazny, Ballard, etc.) supposed, science fiction can be just as fanciful as a folk tale, and a writer shouldn’t have to be anchored to dogma to make art that matters. The important thing about “Yiwu” is that it engages the adult SFF reader’s chimerical impulses on the most fundamental level, appealing to a childlike wonder sans childish comportment.

Fireside 56Must Read –

Highly Regarded –
“Yiwu”, by Lavie Tidhar
“Cast Off Tight”, by Hal Y. Zhang

Also Recommended –
“Chocolate Chip Cookies with Love Potion Infusion”, Leah Cypess
“Beast of Breath”, Gillian Daniels
“The Wild Ride of the Untamed Stars”, A.J. Fitzwater
“Balloon Man”, Shiv Ramdas
“Vault”, D.A. Xiaolin Spires
“Jackbox”, Brian Trent