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.

Asimov's Jan 2020
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 of November 2019

Featured image from the cover of Uncanny Magazine Issue 31, by John Picacio

Must Read Stories

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Cover art by Bob Eggleton

“Shucked”, by Sam J. Miller [The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2019] Short Story

Adney and Teek, a young couple vacationing in Italy, are approached by an older man who offers them a modestly indecent proposal: $10,000 for one hour alone with Teek, the “most handsome man in this or any city.” The sexual boundaries of their relationship are loosely defined, so after getting over their initial discomfort, Teek agrees to the man’s terms. Who couldn’t use a little extra cash? Thematically, this story recalls Miller’s excellent 2016 short “Things with Beards”, by prompting the reader to ask how well we can really know another person, or even ourselves. But “Shucked” is far more unnerving, and far less optimistic, in its explorations than that story. I love the way Miller integrates some of Adney’s anxieties about their relationship early on, then uses them to sneak the fantastical element in later. Miller’s command of short-form narrative puts him in a league of his own.

“Bird Thou Never Wert”, by James Morrow [The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2019] Novelette

Drawing its title from perhaps the most famously terrible line of poetry in English literature, Morrow’s weird tale relates the circumstances of the 1955 disappearance of author Darko Cromdahl, as told by his former lover and fellow author Marsha Waszynski. According to Marsha, Cromdahl was a boorish narcissist and talentless hack who couldn’t figure out if he wanted to be the next Lovecraft or the next Asimov, despite ample evidence he wasn’t capable of being either. So how did he write all those timeless classics of horror and science fiction? “Bird Thou Never Wert” is the best kind of genre satire: hilariously self-deprecating, but also exemplary of the genre it satirizes.

 

More Recommended Stories

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Cover art: “Tower of the Winds” by Alexey Shugurov

The Forge“, by Andrew Dykstal [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #291, November 21, 2019] Novelette

A captivating high fantasy mystery, in which the two most likely suspects in the King’s murder must determine how the assassin accomplished his mission in the most politically expedient way. Masterful plotting, especially for a non-linear narrative that juggles multiple mysteries at once.

“How I Came to Write Fantasy”, by Michael Libling [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2019] Novelette

A Canadian teen living in Paris strikes up a friendship with fellow migrant Jake, who spins a patently absurd tall tale about living under a 400-year-old curse that causes him to pursue his perpetually reincarnated lover across the centuries. Absurd, that is, until present circumstances start matching up with Jake’s story. Finely drawn characters in a lively and emotionally resonant story.

“The Quarantine Nursery”, by Aimee Ogden [Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Nov/Dec 2019] Short Story

While a superflu ravages the world, the affluent have their babies raised by robot nannies inside the titular structures, meaning their children grow up without the benefit of human touch. The story has a day-in-the-life structure that gradually peels back the nuances of its near-future world. A very thorough and emotionally honest examination of a plausible science fictional premise.

Black Flowers Blossom“, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad [Uncanny Magazine Issue 31, Nov/Dec 2019] Short Story 

An otherworldly horror disguised as a human finds unexpected kinship – one that lasts several lifetimes – in Prasad’s libidinous horror-noir story. The prose is a tantalizing mix of the hard-boiled and the sensual.

The Etiquette of Mythique Fine Dining“, by Carolyn Rahaman [GigaNotoSaurus, November, 2019] Novelette

Ava is a new hire at Mythique, a high-end restaurant famous, and controversial, for serving food made from magical animals. As if the high-pressure environment and routinely abusive boss weren’t bad enough, Ava’s advancement is hindered by her friendship with co-worker Zach, who is kind and helpful but has serious boundary issues. Engaging and believable from the start, with wonderful characters and a memorable and well-detailed setting.

“The River of Blood and Wine”, by Kali Wallace [Asimov’s Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2019] Novelette

Sunan was born on the colony world Xiva, soon-to-be dismantled thanks to his efforts to show the authorities that one of the world’s native species, the Pitka, is intelligent – a fact the early colonists worked hard to keep from colonial authorities. The story does a great job of personifying Sunan’s internal conflict over his home world, and the ending is powerful.

 

The Best Short SFF of October 2019

Featured Image from the cover of FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 12 by Sophia Zarders

Must Read Stories

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Cover: “Athlerrod” by Ferdinand Dumago Ladera

One Found in a World of the Lost“, by Shweta Adhyam [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #287, September 26, 2019] Short Story

A gutty, starkly imagined post-apocalyptic fantasy with elements of classic Hindu mythology. Pavitra will never be the hunter her twin sister Gayatri was, so Gayatri’s death weighs heavily on her and their family. Meanwhile, the departed Gayatri finds herself in a strange world where lost children are turned into stone pillars at the behest of a strange creature called a yakshini. There is so much to admire about this story: the unexpected way the sisters’ separate narratives unfold and draw together, the stunning visuals, the warmth of the family’s love for each other amid such a bleak and desolate landscape. It also has a key ingredient that separates great storytelling from the good – a feeling of timelessness.

“Corialis”, by T.L. Huchu [FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 12: Chains, Autumn 2019] Short Story

Establishing a colony on Corialis, a “goldilocksed” moon orbiting a gas giant in a distant solar system, is more troublesome than it should be. Thandeka is absorbing much of the blame for the setbacks, but she suspects there is more to this moon and its simple, single celled organisms than the colonists are willing to accept. Huchu’s story is exactly the kind of sci-fi I love: nicely detailed examinations of the relevant scientific and ethical issues, with well-drawn characters and tight, but eloquent, prose. More so, it is a story that refuses to take the idea of colonization for granted, and its vision of African nations spreading out among the stars is vivid and vital, and places it strongly within a growing canon of similar works.

More Recommended Stories

The Butcher, the Baker“, by Mike Allen [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #289, October 24, 2019] Short Story

Trukos is the golem-like protagonist of Allen’s gripping dark fable about the relationship between creator and creation. The baker Auntie Mayya fashioned the near-indestructible Trukos from the ingredients of her trade, and he has unquestionably followed her directions since his conception. Until now. The setting and backstory are unique, and Trukos’ journey is memorably grisly.

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Cover Art by Sally Deng

Zeitgeber“, by Greg Egan [Tor.com, September 25, 2019] Novelette

I have always had an affinity for Egan’s provocative hypotheticals, and he’s drummed up a solid one in Zeitgeber. A strange malady has afflicted a significant portion of the world’s population with a disruption to their circadian rhythms, causing them to reverse their relationships with night and day. Society finds a way to accommodate to this new reality, so when a cure is found, a return to “normalcy” is met with resistance.

The Other Side of the Line“, by A.T. Greenblatt [Fireside Magazine Issue 72, October 2019] Short Story

The “Line” didn’t just separate the world with an unpassable barrier, it split Amy and Paolo’s house in two, stranding each on opposite sides. Paolo was able to send her a message but Amy is having trouble doing the same, because she knows it can’t be done without a leap of faith, and a sacrifice. A quick, smart and touching “what-if?” fantasy.

Touchstone“, by Mette Ivie Harrison [GigaNotoSaurus, October 1, 2019] Novella

Everyone in Lissa’s age group – except for Lissa – has been summoned by the touchstone to receive their calling in life and it’s made her something of an outcast. But the touchstone’s revelations are entirely private, so if she tells everyone she got her calling, who will disbelieve her? A great premise rendered with suspenseful and well-paced storytelling, Touchstone is an excellent meditation on the nature of power and the social contract.

Fireside 72
Cover Art by Amanda Makepeace

The Haunting of 13 Olúwo Street“, by Suyi Davies Okungbowa [Fireside Magazine Issue 72, October 2019] Short Story

A captivating haunted house story set in Lagos, Nigeria, told from the perspective of the house. Something terrible happened in 13 Olúwo Street, leaving the ghost of its traumatized victim within its walls. Attempts by western media to exploit the tragedy are far more detrimental than anything its spectral occupant can scare up, and the house just wants her to be happy and comfortable. The story is both a de-colonization of the traditional haunted house narrative and a rumination on what it means for a house to be a home.

Some Kind of Blood-Soaked Future“, by Carlie St. George [Nightmare Magazine Issue 85, October 2019] Short Story

You are the Final Girl, the only survivor of the slumber party massacre that killed off most of your friends and family. Soon you discover that no matter where you go, there is a mad slasher waiting to off a gathering of blissfully ignorant teenagers, so you just level the fuck up and roll with it. Dare you even imagine a future not drenched in death and gore? A funny, frantic and appropriately visceral story – also an unexpectedly heartwarming one.

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 the Week of January 12, 2019

Apex Magazine Issue 116, January 2019

Residents of a generation ship maintain continuity by passing memories of the deceased to the ship’s youths in Beth Dawkins’ “The Pulse of Memory”. Every adolescent’s rite-of-passage involves eating a fish that houses memories of the deceased; the catch is that everyone must “willingly” submit to death at age 65 and be fed to the fish, before their memories degrade. Cal watches his beloved grandmother go to her death just before he gets his own fish. He savors the experience so much that he later steals a second fish he hopes will contain his grandmother’s memories. Setting the table for this weird and wonderful premise makes for a solid first half; later it devolves into a muddled conspiracy thriller that squanders its potential.
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 for him and the Kid to stop them? “The Great Train Robbery” is pure escapism from Lavie Tidhar, one that refers to the ordinary world as a somber contrast to the wondrous happenings of his imaginary one. Not even a dose of bittersweet reflexivity can compete with the vanishing snake oil salesmen, shape-shifting criminal masterminds and monstrous stone giants of this carnivalesque reverie told in classic cliffhanger style.
Images of butterflies appear in unusual places throughout a Romanian neighborhood in Marian Coman’s “The Small White”. The story’s young narrator (referred to only as Four-Eyes) befriends a girl who may be connected to the appearances. This is not a pleasant story to read: the children are nasty to each other, the adults are nasty to the children, and the government is nasty to everyone. The general air of nastiness is undercut by the beauty and hopefulness of the butterfly images before that too is quashed.
A.J. McCullough’s flash piece “Bone Song” is macabre, yet melodic prose poem about a miller who fashions a musical instrument from the bones of a dead woman he finds washed up on the banks of the river.

Strange Horizons January 7, 2019

Three generations of a Vietnamese-American family deal with the consequences of an untested new technology in T.K. Lê’s “2086”. The narrator recalls that at age 8 their neighborhood was the first to receive a teleportation device. Several early users of the device vanished, including the narrator’s Bà Ngoại (grandmother). The family has trouble accepting that Bà Ngoại is gone, and the narrator believes Bà Ngoại’s presence is still with them in some form. The narrator’s recollection of their childhood perspective of the events is convincing and relatable. I was moved by their mother’s reaction to the loss of her own mother, and how the technology created a frustrating uncertainty (is she dead? Just missing? Still here somehow?) about Bà Ngoại’s fate.

GigaNotoSaurus January 1, 2019

Maria Haskins offers lighter-than-usual fare in “Hand Me Downs”, the story of a teenage troll named Tilda who wants to go to a famous dance academy while battling stereotypes about her identity. Her high school dance instructor wants her to wear a troll costume on stage—because being an actual troll isn’t “trollish” enough—and dance to music offensive to her culture. Her father, who already prefers she studies something more practical, doesn’t want her subjected to such humiliations and demands she give up dance altogether. There are nice touches of macabre humor mixed in with Haskins’ heartfelt intentions; overall, it’s an affecting story of self-determination.

 

Recommended Stories (***Must Read; **Highly Regarded; *Also Recommended)

** “Hand Me Downs” by Maria Haskins

** “The Great Train Robbery” by Lavie Tidhar

2018 Recommended Reading List (Part 1)

Featured image from the cover art for The Dark Issue 37, “Boy with a Torch Facing Smoke Monsters” by grandfailure

My short fiction recommendations are split into five categories: Part 1 – Dark Fantasy/Horror and Space-Based Science Fiction; Part 2 – Earthbound Science Fiction and First World Fantasy; Part 3 – Second World Fantasy. Each category features a “Desert Island Pick”, while the remaining picks are listed alphabetically by author. Each title is accompanied by a short synopsis and a quick excerpt for the story. Excerpts may contain mild spoilers.

Not every story fits neatly into any one category. Some could fit into more than one category, some defy categorization altogether. I did my best to place them where I thought they fit best. Links are included for stories that are available to read online, or to purchase information. Sometimes the traditional print magazines will make stories available online during award season, so I will update links when possible.

Short Stories (<7500 words), Novelettes (<17,500), and Novellas (<40,000)

Dark Fantasy/Horror

Desert Island Pick

Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” by Nibedita Sen [Nightmare Magazine Issue 69, June 2018; 5402 words]

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Cover Art by Andrey Kiselev

The Guild of Natural Philosophers is sponsoring Captain Bodkin’s final whaling voyage; their representative on the ship, Arcon Glass, has some unusual – and grisly – demands in exchange for the Guild’s support.

North of this organ he has placed a preserved section of the dense mass of tissue that lies beneath the oil organ; sailors call it the junk, for it provides no oil and has no use. His research, he explained to me, concerns itself with the spermaceti organ’s role in producing the unearthly noises that whales issue forth. He proceeded to demonstrate by connecting a number of wires and waxed cotton threads to the sac and tissue, then setting up a number of small drums at various angles to both. From his tools he produced a small instrument that he pressed against the soft swollen side of the wax and glycerine-filled organ and blew on—and lo, a low note echoed and swelled to great size and shivered off all corners of the room in a manner that rose the hairs on my arms.

The Best of the Rest

“Bondye Bon” by Monique L. Desir [FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 5, Winter 2018; 4810 words]

The slaves of Andre Plantation rose up and overthrew their captors, and helped establish the United Tribes of Mother Africa in what was once the Southeastern United States of America. So why does Heloise’s Manman keep that creepy white man locked in her closet?

The familiarity of his face frightens me. He is dressed in ratty clothes: a grimy black shirt with frills at the throat and his sleeves with their stained ruffles set off the sickly paleness of his skin. He doesn’t try to move — no point in doing that, his wrists are shackled together with a chain, connected to a bolted plate in the wall. He looks up at me, eyes bright in the dark and smiles, baring his white, straight teeth.

It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog” by Maria Haskins [Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #260, September 13, 2018; 4470 words]

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Cover Art: “Swamp Relic” by Piotr Dura

As a child Susanna struck an unholy bargain to acquire her beloved dog; a decade later the bill comes due.

They even burned a witch in town, just after Easter. She went to look, but though the woman’s hair was shorn and she was already burning, Susanna could tell it wasn’t anyone she knew. After, when the bones still smouldered, the priest in his stiff black cassock puffed himself up before the crowd, assuring them the witch’s spells and crafts would all unravel now that she was dead. Susanna stood there until dusk, waiting to see if anything would change, but the world remained the same as far as she could tell.

Triquetra” by Kirstyn McDermott [Tor.com, September 5, 2018; 11,826 words]

Snow White is all grown up now, living in a castle with her husband and daughter. Her wicked stepmother and that awful mirror are locked away, but one of them may be the key to saving her daughter from a horror worse than she faced in her own youth.

“You—” I cough, backing away from the table, away from the woman now supporting herself by its edge. “You spelled me!”
“Only your memory, Fairest. My needs are precise.”
“You—you wretched creature! I wish you had died on my wedding day!”
Smiling, she sinks back down into her chair. “No, you don’t. There is too much kindness in your heart, even now, even for such a wretched creature as myself.”

Black Fanged Thing” by Sam Rebelein [Shimmer Magazine Issue 41, January 2018; 4823 words]

Every sundown, a strange beast stalks the streets of town dragging its clatter of bottles behind it. Each bottle contains a slip of paper, one for every adult. If anyone wishes to know what is written on theirs, all they have to do is ask…

The pathetic, hunched little figure shuffled laboriously past Jude’s home, tugging those bottles on twine behind itself. Sisyphus against thousands of boulders.
The thing passed, and vanished around the bend at the other end of the lane. The neighborhood became silent. And the sun sank.
Phil sniffed. “Tomorrow, then,” he said.
“Tomorrow,” said Jude.

“Yard Dog” by Tade Thompson [FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 7, Summer 2018; 2947 words]

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Cover Art by Mariama Alizor

Yard Dog plays music so glorious he can reduce the room to tears, turn the drinks sour, render all drugs useless. No one knows who he is or where he comes from, but before long someone comes looking for him.

Shed said it slower and louder. “Please. Have you. Seen my. BROTHER. Thank you.”
“I don’t know you or your brother. How did you get in, anyway? We’re not open. Get the fuck out of here.”
The way I heard it, Shed just smiled at her and went to use the john, but never came back out. Hours later when tempers had cooled somewhat, Sue got curious about him, had one of the men check the bathroom. They found his raggedy clothes, a trail of blood, strips of skin, meat and other fluids leading from the door to one of the stalls. Al said it was like he had shed his skin, which is how come we called him Shed. It wasn’t till later that we figured he was looking for Yard.

One for Sorrow, Two for Joy” by LaShawn M. Wanak [Fireside Magazine Issue 54, April 2018; 3471 words]

The Undertaker knows how to get the crows to take people’s sorrows away when they lose a loved one; but they also want something from her she refuses to give.

Walking down a sidewalk, hot tears streaming down her cheeks. Not aware of where she is, only knows that she’s been walking, walking so long that there are blisters on her feet, but the pain is nothing, nothing. A crow lands at her feet, pecking at the pavement before looking up at her with one black, bright eye.
—what you looking at? Think you can bring her back? Unless you can take away my pain, go, shoo, take off!

In the End, It Always Turns Out the Same” by A.C. Wise [The Dark Issue 37, June 2018; 3565 words]

One by one, the children on Richard McGinty’s school bus route are disappearing. So the sheriff does what any good sheriff would do, and calls the Super Teen Detective Squad – who’ve got their own issues to work out.

Lately she’s been having recurring dreams about murdering Greg. In fact, she’s dreamt about murdering every single member of the Teen Detective Squad. More than once, she’s woken with blood on her hands. She has no idea where the blood comes from. The only thing she knows for certain is that it isn’t hers. Sometimes she wonders if she’s spent so much time thinking about becoming a monster that she’s turned into one after all.

Space-Based Science Fiction

Desert Island Pick

Umbernight” by Carolyn Ives Gilman [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 137, February 2018; 18,059 words]

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Cover Art: “Arrival” by Artur Sadlos

The colonists on Dust don’t know much of what happens to the surface of the planet when it faces Umber – the planet’s second star – they just know it’s deadly. When much needed supplies are dropped right in the middle of Umbernight, a brave few will find out why.

The road had sprouted all manner of creatures covered with plates and shells—little ziggurats and stepped pyramids, spirals, and domes. In between them floated bulbs like amber, airborne eggplants. They spurted a mucus that ate away any plastic it touched.
We topped a rise to find the valley before us completely crusted over with life, and no trace of a path. No longer could we avoid trampling through it, crushing it underfoot. Ahead, a translucent curtain suspended from floating, gas-filled bladders hung across our path. It shimmered with iridescent unlight.

The Best of the Rest

Traces of Us” by Vanessa Fogg [GigaNotoSaurus, March 1, 2018; 6572 words]

Two sentient starships cross paths in the vastness of space, each carrying a passenger that has been waiting a long time to connect with the other.

The ship contained the memories of over a thousand individuals. Recorded patterns of synaptic firing, waves of electrical and biochemical activity: the preserved symphonies of a human mind.
The minds currently conscious in and around the ship were not the same as their flesh-and-blood progenitors, the human beings of Old Earth. These new minds had had centuries to meld with one another and evolve; to modify themselves. They delighted in sensory inputs unimaginable to Homo sapiens—some could sense the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Some could consciously track the movement of a single electron or see all the radiating energies of a star.
Yet the second ship requested the recording of a single unmodified mind from the first.

Fleeing Oslyge” by Sally Gwylan [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 140, May 2018; 9216 words]

After the invaders overrun her home town, Senne takes refuge with a group of soldiers searching for the rest of their unit. Not everyone in the group may be trustworthy.

Better the cold mist and these days of hunger and endless walking than trying to hide in broken Oslyge. Better this than letting myself be taken to the camps the Tysthänder, the Peace Hands, claim are for our safety. Our safety in this time of transition; that’s what their bulletins said. No one is sure whether the invaders—“project administrators” as they call themselves—are of human stock, as we are, or are alien.
Their guards are human enough.

“Inscribed on Dark Water” by Gregor Hartmann [Interzone #277, September/October 2018; 8205 words]

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Cover Art by Vince Haig

Olani is a young marine biologist interning at a fuel refinery on the frontier planet Zephyr. She’s not getting much out of her time there: most of the crew either ignores her or treats her with disdain and she basically just mops up shit all day. When an inspection crew comes to the plant she has an opportunity to advance her career and she must decide if she’s the kind of person who will do whatever it takes to get ahead.

Olani was a child when Pico erupted. The supervolcano vomited up so much gas and debris that Zephyr’s albedo increased. Light bounced off the cloud tops and back into space instead of heating the atmosphere. The temperature fell inexorably. As a kid, Olani had fun doing unusual things like playing in snow in an equatorial city. Only later did she understand why adults were whispering and crying.

It was touch and go for a long time. If the sea had frozen over, the oxygen produced by phytoplankton wouldn’t have been released to the atmosphere and everyone would have suffocated. Ocean, bless them, had kept that from happening. If you were looking for heroes of applied marine biology, Ocean was the place to find them.

“Prophet of the Roads” by Naomi Kritzer [Infinity’s End, Solaris; 4721 words]

The Engineer was an AI that once shaped the course of human development; now it exists only in fragments. With the solar system mired in violent conflict, Luca hopes to reunite the fragments and return human society to a state of peace and prosperity.

I was on a ship in orbit, so I didn’t watch people die; I went down, searching for survivors, since we’d been told they were well-prepared, defiant, probably equipped with pressure suits and subdomes and any number of other possibilities. Instead, we found bodies of civilians. In the moments before death, people clung to one another, uselessly trying to shield their loved ones from the vacuum of space that was rushing in around them.
In the dream, I look for the Engineer, but do not find it. Everything is destroyed. Everything.

The Hydraulic Emperor” by Arkady Martine [Uncanny Magazine Issue 20, January/February 2018; 6601 words]

Kinesis Industrial One hires Mallory Iheji to win an auction for a rare and mysterious Qath box. The reward – a long lost film made by her favorite artist – should be more than worth her risk, but the Qath only accept personal sacrifices as payment and more than a few participants are willing to give up anything to get it.

I’m not into aliens the way the Qath groupies are into aliens. A Qath box doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t tell you anything about someone else’s mind; it won’t let you out of yourself, even for a minute. It’s just not human, which apparently gets to some people: the strangeness of it, of owning something made by otherwise life, otherwise minds. The Qath are the only aliens we’ve got, and they don’t interact with us much—but they like their auctions. Their auctions and their little boxes. What Kinesis Industrial wanted with one I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

The Wait is Longer Than You Think” by Adrian Simmons [GigaNotoSaurus, May 1, 2018; 7813 words]

Like most humans, John is a social animal. He’s marooned on a remote planet with a Kinri named Colophinanoc and the Kinri can’t conceive of why anyone would require social interaction to maintain their mental health. And any possible rescue is years away.

Colophinanoc was a captive audience. It was crucial that Colophinanoc didn’t feel like a captive audience.
If that happened, Colophinanoc would surely suggest that they leave off the fishing boat and work on the traps—which they did separately. It had not taken long for Colophinanoc to come up with a dozen or more tasks that they did separately.
He waited; watched the sunken fan tree where they had herded the fish. In his impatience, the words came to fast. He couldn’t wait anymore. “Yeah, so there we are, Sully and I, trying not to bust out laughing at Nanooni and—” the slightest shiver runs through the reed boat, Colophinanoc shifting, Colophinanoc getting sick of him.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts [Tachyon Publications; 41,275 words]

freeze frame rev
Cover Art by Elizabeth Story

The starship Eriophora treks across the galaxy, waking various crew members for a few days every thousand years or so when it needs assistance building gates for other ships to fast-travel through. These are not ideal conditions to stage a mutiny, but Sunday Ahzmundin is going to try anyway.

Back when we first shipped out I played this game with myself. Every time I thawed, I’d subtract the duration of our voyage from the date of our departure; then check to see when we’d be if Eriophora were a time machine, if we’d been moving back through history instead of out through the cosmos. Oh look: all the way back to the Industrial Revolution in the time it took us to reach our first build. Two builds took us to the Golden Age of Islam, seven to the Shang Dynasty.
I guess it was my way of trying to keep some kind of connection, to measure this most immortal of endeavors on a scale that meat could feel in the gut. It didn’t work out, though. Did exactly the opposite in fact, ended up rubbing my nose in the sheer absurd hubris of even trying to contain the Diaspora within the pitiful limits of earthbound history.

(Though The Freeze-Frame Revolution is slightly over the word limit, the author considers it a novella and Hugo rules allow some leeway for stories within twenty percent of the limit if the committee deems it appropriate. I am unsure if other awards have similar caveats.)

Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells [Tor.com Publishing; 32,446 words]

Murderbot takes a job protecting a group of scientists who are trying to negotiate the return of their data from the company that fired them, but its true goal is recovering information about its own troubled past.

“I’m not your crew. I’m not a human. I’m a construct. Constructs and bots can’t trust each other.”
It was quiet for ten precious seconds, though I could tell from the spike in its feed activity it was doing something. I realized it must be searching its databases, looking for a way to refute my statement. Then it said, Why not?
I had spent so much time pretending to be patient with humans asking stupid questions. I should have more self-control than this. “Because we both have to follow human orders. A human could tell you to purge my memory. A human could tell me to destroy your systems.”
I thought it would argue that I couldn’t possibly hurt it, which would derail the whole conversation.
But it said, There are no humans here now.
I realized I had been trapped into this conversational dead end, with the transport pretending to need this explained in order to get me to articulate it to myself. I didn’t know who I was more annoyed at, myself or it. No, I was definitely more annoyed at it.

The list continues with parts 2 and 3.

You can also check out my monthly Best Of columns for more great recommendations!

The Rack – Zine Reviews from Early September 2018

ASF_SepOct2018_400x570Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2018

In this “slightly spooky” early fall edition of Asimov’s, Stephanie Feldman’s “The Witch of Osborne Park” carries that theme well. You would have to stretch your definitions to find any SFnal elements though; the story is a straight supernatural drama. Elizabeth moves to upscale Osborne Park with her husband Roger and 3-year-old daughter Abby. The neighborhood has everything they want, but Elizabeth becomes concerned when Dorothy, the older girl next door, starts a subtle bullying campaign against eager, naïve Abby. As Dorothy becomes more aggressive, a series of unusual  phenomena occur in and around their home. Feldman does excellent, effortless work establishing character, setting and tone and allowing her story to unfold from there. Its depiction of myriad parenting anxieties is spot-on. Elizabeth knows it’s absurd for a grown adult to engage in a personal feud with a 5-year-old, but oh how she wants to smush the little shit. And one can sympathize. The prose is pensive and insightful, balancing the sinister and the sentimental. Ruminating on her protective instinct, “Elizabeth thought of an article she once read – how an unborn baby’s cells remain in its mother’s body after it leaves for the bright world, how they linger for years, even decades. Maybe they’re slow blooming. Maybe they need the right angle of sunshine, the right breeze, the scent of morning lilies growing in the shadows of an iron gate.” The bait-and-switch plot twist is predictable, though the denouement still satisfies.
Erin Roberts has a nice streak going, with her excellent futuristic orphan tale “Sour Milk Girls” and her dark horror story “Snake Season” among my favorites this year. “The Grays of Cestus V” is a superb blend of the former’s psychological astuteness and the latter’s air of creeping menace. Laila is a miner and an artist on the frontier world of Cestus V, where the grays seep into everything, making the world and its people appear drab and colorless, a reality reflected in her paintings. The Pioneer Commission invites Laila to the planet’s much livelier central hub to speak about her art and her life on the frontier. The interview goes off-track when it becomes clear just how much the gray has affected her state of mind. Laila conflation of her moral and aesthetic values leads her, and the story, down a very ominous path. It’s a crafty work of fiction, though somber in tone.
A few of the stories by big-ticket authors yielded mixed results:
In Greg Egan’s novella, Sagreda and Mathis are “comps”, sentient NPCs built from discarded brain maps in a virtual reality construct. They are searching for the titular mathematical paradise of “3-adica”, where they can live without fear of deletion for violating the rules. The story picks up with the Sagreda and Mathis feeling their way through a lurid vampire bodice-ripper called Midnight on Baker Street (each of the game‘s “worlds” adapt public domain novels). They are searching for a specific color to enable Sagreda to finish a painting that will port them into 3-adica. Along the way they run afoul of a vampiric Percy and Mary Shelley, which brings them the negative attention they are trying to avoid. That the story’s version of paradise resembles a Greg Egan novel is a tad narcissistic, though a forgivable indulgence. One cannot begrudge the author his Shangri-La. But it hurts that what had been an entertaining mash-up of hard SF and pulp horror turns into a dreary algorithmic fantasia that can only be not a complete bore if you really, really, really, love geometry. The story’s ending struggles to regain its emotional footing, and finishes with a whimper. There is an interesting correlation with Roberts’ story, in that both involve an artist searching for the perfect color, though the result is variable.
Robert Reed likes his allegories cooked well done in “DENALI”; too bad I’m a medium rare kind of guy. In this alt-history story, instead of voting for leaders, Americans vote for potential futures. Aliens known as CAUTIONS left a quantum device in Theodore Roosevelt’s possession that generates the elected futures, distilled into easy-to-explain choices like STRENGTH, NO WAR, and STATUS QUO. STRENGTH wins often, as you might imagine, with PROSPERITY sometimes topping the polls. The 16th Amendment decrees that a future only needs 20% of the vote to win the election, so the winner always leaves the majority unhappy. Reed goes into parabolic overdrive from the start and never eases up on the gas.
In “R.U.R. 8?”, Stout and its fellow robots hide from the ever-present threat of the recycler, but when its friend Rozum loses a limb, Stout risks venturing out to the scrap heaps to find a replacement. I haven’t read the classic Czech play that inspired Suzanne Palmer’s latest story but I presume that much of it is in-jokey and reverential. Though the plot and its post-apocalyptic setting are comprehensible without such familiarity, it still didn’t come together for me. I almost always find Palmer’s keen sense of humor appealing; this time it failed to work its magic.
“The Huntsman and the Beast” is Carrie Vaughn’s gender-swapped retelling of Beauty and the Beast. In this version, the Prince and his huntsman, Jack, become lost in the woods during a storm, and happen upon the infamous cursed castle. The Beast lets the Prince escape once Jack agrees to become the Beast’s prisoner, and Jack’s perspective on the situation changes when he realizes the monstrous Master of the castle is in fact its Mistress. Vaughn gets plenty of mileage out of tying the characters’ motivations, and the readers’ expectations, to our presumptions about gender. Many of the authors A-list skills are on display: exquisite tension building, evocative atmospherics, incisive character moments. The rushed second half of the story relies on our familiarity with the source material to fill in the thematic blanks, and kept me from engaging with the romantic aspect. The finale works in a nice end-around to the humility the beast must learn to break the curse, allowing her to surrender to love without sacrificing her self-determination.

GigaNotoSaurus 9/1/2018

Too-long titles are proper for tall tales, and Sarah McGill’s western whopper “The Day Beth Leather Shot the Moon, as Told by Rosemary Bonebreak” fits the bill in that regard. Beth Leather is a “traveling librarian” who passes through White Horn from time to time, relating her outrageous adventures to Rose and her older sister Darlene. Over the years, Beth romances Darlene while Rose pines for Beth in secret. As Darlene matures, she grows tired of Beth’s wandering ways and Beth turns her attentions to Rose, promising to shoot the moon out of the sky for her. I enjoyed the droll tone and gaudy visuals of “Beth Leather”, and the mythic quality of the prose. Despite being among the shorter works published by this novelette-friendly venue, McGill’s story drags a bit in the middle. It builds to an exciting climax, though, as shooting the moon out of the sky goes about as well as you’d expect. I think my biggest issue was that I never connected with Rose’s longing for Beth; it is expressed in concrete terms, but doesn’t permeate the prose the way romantic longing should, especially when the narrator is the one doing the longing.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

#259, 8/30/2018BCS 259

“Cold Ink” is a sci-horror novelette set in the industrial steampunk dystopia of Dean Wells’ Clockwork Millennials story cycle. Uninitiated readers shouldn’t have too much trouble jumping right in but should be aware Wells doesn’t waste much ink explaining things. The story follows Hester, whose feelings for casual flame Verity run deeper than she’s willing to admit. When Verity comes to her for help after a long absence, Hester risks everything to help her, even as Hester’s friends are getting killed off one by one. Wells has a talent for the macabre (the demonic ink of the title is used to chilling effect) and the world-building is deep and intricate enough to sell new readers on the other stories. “Cold Ink” is a little long, but still an entertaining, suspenseful story, with a gut-punch of a turn at the end.
Justin Howe’s “Periling Hand” also has a sci-fantasy feel but runs straight into the trap Wells’ story avoids: it’s brimming with exposition, leaving the story – about a man trying to acclimate to his new bio-integrated wooden arm – with little room to breathe. A compelling emotional core is hiding here somewhere, but is so buried beneath ceaseless infodumping I couldn’t get invested.

#260, 9/13/2018

The bleak, frosty atmospherics of Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Ancestor Night” lend its spectral premise extra bite. On the longest night of the year, the villagers trek through the deep snow to Memory Lake, where their departed loved ones will rise to the surface of the ice. Once there, the living relatives sing a prayer asking their ancestors to wake or stay asleep. Paolo and his siblings lost their parents a year ago; after singing the Ancestor Night prayer, his beloved oldest sister Jasna admits she caused their deaths. Their father wakes, and whispers something only Jasna can hear. “Ancestor Night” is a resonant documentation of an imaginary ritual, though a little too crisp and aerial to be more than an effective mood piece.
I love the way Maria Haskins lets images and emotions guide the structure of her stories, building them the way people reflect on the narratives that define them, rather than ordering them in a clean, linear fashion. Ten years of reflection, a journey from age 7 to 17, guide young Susanna in “It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog”, as she treks into the woods with her beloved dog, Brother, to the witch’s cottage to keep an old promise. Haskins’ prose offers a striking balance of harshness and delicacy. As a child, Susanna tells her parents she lost her little brother in the woods: “Even at the age of seven, the lies felt smooth and true upon her tongue. And Mama wailing like she’d ever cared for him, and Papa’s face gone hard as rocks and iron, as if he’d ever once held him close.” The writing is expressive, but taut, like a slow turning lever tightening a vise.

Fireside Magazine Issue 59, September 2018

I adored the cover for this month’s issue of Fireside so much that I felt the cover story, Annalee Flower Horne’s “CARBORUNDORUM>/DEV/NULL”, had to work hard to live up to it. Horne’s near-future SF depicts a world where smart homes have only made policing the behavior of young women easier. Teenager Sandra’s over-protective mother has their smart house programmed to watch Sandra’s every move; she can’t even walk out the front door without the house ratting her out. This doesn’t apply equally to the boys: her older brother Kyle can do whatever he wants, and Kyle’s friend Jack once manipulated the house to hide evidence of his sexual assault of Sandra. Sandra’s best friend Tish is a hacker, and the single line of code from which the story gets its title can get Sandra out of the house without her mother knowing, so they can go to a party where Tish’s crush, Ian, will be. In a disturbing but not altogether surprising twist, Ian isn’t much different from Jack, and his own smart house does his bidding. “CARBORUNDORUM>/DEV/NULL” is a timely story, considering how “guard the door” rapes at high school and college parties are part of the biggest news story of the moment. It’s also, unfortunately, timeless: the news story in question happened over thirty years ago. Horne’s near-future version just removes the need for an actual human to do the guarding. If not for Tish’s magic line of code, the end of this story could have been a lot more horrifying. The unsettling undercurrent of the story shows how women are conditioned from a young age to cope with sexual assault, and to tolerate the persistent presence of their rapists as a normal part of life.
I enjoyed Beth Goder’s satirical “How to Identify an Alien Shark”, a faux-university lecture meant to delineate the difference between actual sharks and an alien species known as the Tucabal-Gor, who live in the ocean and look a lot like sharks and who you definitely don’t want to get into an argument about economic theory with. It’s more of a long form joke than a story, built by adding piece after piece of outlandish but internally consistent logic to set up its punchline. “How to Identify and Alien Shark” may be plot-free, but it’s a fast and funny read. Also, I’m glad I don’t know any economic theorists.

Tor.com

kite maker“The Kite Maker”, Brenda Peynado (8/29/2018)

When the Dragonflies first landed on Earth seeking refuge from the destruction of their home world, frightened humans reacted with violence. The unnamed narrator was one of those reactionaries, but now she tries to make up for her ghastly behavior with extra kindness. She makes kites (which the aliens cherish), and when a Dragonfly named Tove comes into her shop, she wants to please him. But political and cultural realities complicate interactions between humans and Dragonflies, and continue to make it dangerous for Dragonflies to call Earth their new home.
This is one of those stories where agreeing with its basic positions (refugees need help, Nazis are bad, etc.) doesn’t translate to a positive response to the story. There are too many conveniences, and few real stakes, built into the premise to generate any dramatic tension. Everything feels staged; characters seem only to enter the scene to fulfill their function then exit when they are no longer useful, their motives telegraphed and unconvincing. Also, the narrator’s behavior toward Tove comes across as unwanted harassment, which soured my opinion of her. Intentional or not, the story does not address this issue satisfactorily.

 

Must Read

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

Highly Regarded

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

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

Also Recommended

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

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

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

 

 

The Rack – Zine Reviews for Late August 2018

Strange Horizons

I’m a little behind on my Strange Horizons reading. Hopefully I’ll catch up soon.

“The Athuran Interpreter’s Flight”, by Eleanna Castroianni (7/2/2018)

“Chasing the Start”, by Evan Marcroft (7/9/2018)

Make sure you peruse the content warnings before diving into “The Athuran Interpreter’s Flight” by Eleanna Castroianni; there are some very unsettling aspects to the story. Interstellar business dealings require an interpreter—the brain of Athuran placed in the body of an “unwanted” human child—with blocks and controls placed on it so it is little more than a machine that facilitates communication between species. But there is still a consciousness buried inside, screaming to get out. Sam-Sa-Ee is an interpreter who suffers horrifying abuse at the whim of her Envoy, but she soon discovers a means to rebel. That the bodies and minds of despised and discarded peoples are butchered and tortured for profit is one of the milder horrors this unsparing story serves up. Castroianni covers a lot of psychological ground in a short space of time and delivers a satisfying, well-earned resolution for Sam-Sa-Ee.
Evan Marcroft’s “Chasing the Start” bears a somewhat lighter load in delivering an action-packed sports-themed narrative about an aging, legendary “strandrunner”—an athlete who races through historical periods from divergent timelines—named Sa Segokgo who still has one more thing to prove: as a young runner she witnessed her older-self vault over herself, even though the chances of her ending up in the same time strand twice are nearly impossible. She knows she must keep racing to witness that event from the other perspective, but she barely qualified for her most recent race and retirement is beckoning. A fascinating setting, with a wonderfully flawed and fiery protagonist.

Clarkesworld Issue 143, August 2018

Few authors have the requisite skills to break the fourth wall, at least without appearing pompous or extravagant. Kij Johnson has the writing chops to skirt that line, and she does so in “The Privilege of the Happy Ending”, in which a young girl named Ada and her talking hen, Blanche, must go on the run from a horde of terrifying bird-like lizard creatures known as wastoures, who devour everyone and everything in their path. The narrator provides a dry, aloof meta-commentary throughout, mostly regarding what may or may not eventually happen to the people Ada and Blanche encounter during their flight. The story of Ada and Blanche is a hair-raising, cliffhanger-style medieval quest, while the narrator’s casual chilliness pokes the reader with the cruelty inherent in the act of storytelling itself. Such reflexivity may not be necessary to the story, but it is entertaining, suffusing the narrative with a lofty, apocryphal charm.
R.S.A. Garcia’s “The Anchorite Wakes” feels like a slightly spooky fantasy at first, gradually revealing itself as science fictional as it progresses. Sister Nadine is a nun at St. Nicholas’ church, whose interest in a peculiar little girl seems to unravel her sense of reality—but is she losing her mind or finding it? Idiosyncratic to say the least, it spills its allegorical guts (organized religion as a tool for warmongering) without being heavy-handed.
The immortal title character of Robert Reed’s “Kingfisher” long ago lost the ability to make new memories and is searching for hundreds of millions of years for his lost love amidst a massive, worlds-sized ship traveling the stars. Like the Great Ship he lost his true purpose along the way, even as his trajectory remains unstoppable. Reed expertly balances the unimaginable scale of time and space with the intimate inner life of its hero. The writing is breathtaking, but it falls just short of solidifying the emotional distance its amplitude creates.
Henry Szabranski’s “The Veilonaut’s Dream” is a nicely conceptualized story of astronauts exploring a phenomenon called the Discontinuity, which opens and closes pathways to distant regions of space at random and never to the same place twice. It’s a dangerous occupation—if you are behind the veil when it shifts, you are lost forever. Hugo winner Hao Jingfang returns with the compact, Ken Liu translated piece “The Loneliest Ward”, where patients go when they’ve slipped into a social media coma.
This Issue of Clarkesworld also reprints “Yukui!”, from James Patrick Kelly’s brand-new collection The Promise of Space and Other Stories, and there is an excerpt from Rich Larson’s just-published debut novel Annex.

Fireside Issue 58, August 2018

“The Unusual Customer” is a winsome culinary fantasy from Nigerian author Innocent Chizaram Ilo. Young Adaku sometimes wonders why other children have fathers and she doesn’t, but her restauranteur Mother Iyawo laughs the whole thing off. While Iyawo cooks for the hungry, rowdy workers, she regales Adaku with fanciful folk tales about the kitchenware and the food they cook, as Adaku waits the tables. One day a customer comes in wearing an invisible cloak, and only Adaku can see him. He is familiar with Iyawo’s Place and takes a keen interest in Adaku. It’s a motley, offbeat fable, told with roguish humor and delectable imagery.
The narrator of Kate Dollarhyde’s “A Taxonomy of Hurts” can see manifestations of other people’s pain, which take the form of plants and animals. She spends much of her time reflecting on such “hurts”, but she is at a loss in explaining herself, her way of seeing, and her own pain to the woman she loves. The breakthrough at the end of this calm and gentle tale is touching.
The two flashes are, well, flashy. Nibedita Sen’s “Pigeons” follows Kat and her twin sister Cil, whose mother taught them how to raise the dead before running off and leaving them with their overbearing grandfather. Sarah Goslee’s “By Stone, By Sea, By Flower, By Thorn” is about a vengeful woman who kills all the men who have wronged her, and whose weaving can prophesy her nation’s future. Both stories are terse to a fault, though at least Sen’s story sketches out something like a complete narrative.

GigaNotoSaurus (8/1/2018)

“Chrysalis in Sunlight”, by Sarena Ulibarri

The aliens invaded, then left in defeat, but the lingering trauma remains. Compounding the usual effects of the horrors of war is an infection spread from the bodies of the dead invaders to the soldiers that encountered them. Erin’s aunt Melissa was one such soldier, and the infection is causing wild mood swings, and bizarre, sticky webbing secreted from her skin. Erin needs to get Melissa from Denver to the research facility in San Diego, but when maneuvering the airport—with TSA personnel who have clearly not been trained to handle the afflicted—proves impossible, a road trip is the only option. “Chrysalis in Sunlight” is at its best when depicting the everyday effects of living with trauma, disease, and disability. Erin’s anxiety over things like mobility and access to services—things most people take for granted—is depicted with clear-eyed sympathy, and Erin’s courage in working to overcome those obstacles for the sake of a loved one is the story’s dramatic core. The handwavium of the alien invasion backstory is a problem, and while “Chrysalis in Sunlight” is thematically satisfying, the narrative leaves too many questions dangling that this reader wanted addressed.

Tor.com

“Loss of Signal”, by S.B. Divya (8/1/2018)

By age sixteen Toby’s body was failing rapidly, but his brain was uniquely qualified for an experimental transfer to pilot a lunar module. The success of the program depends on his being able to prove that he can pilot a ship as well a manned mission, but even without a body he is unprepared for the coldness and isolation of space travel. “Loss of Signal” is a perfectly well-written story with an easy to root for, sympathetic protagonist. It also panders incessantly to gross sentimentality. It’s a story with no subtlety or nuance, nor any sharp edges or ripples in the pond—everything goes straight down the middle of the road without swerving, coming to a complete stop at the intersection of Quality Road and Conventional Street.

fireside 58Must Read

None.

Highly Regarded

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

Also Recommended

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

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

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

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

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

The Rack – Zine Reviews for Early May

The Latest Issues of Asimov’s, Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Analog, and GigaNotoSaurus

Asimov’s Science Fiction, May/June 2018
A pretty decent issue overall, with at least half the stories falling into the meh-to-average range. Among the other, better half:
The two novellas are entertaining, if unexceptional. David Gerrold and Ctein collaborate on “Bubble and Squeak”, about a couple who met while working on the set of a Hollywood disaster film who suddenly find their lives in jeopardy when a real tsunami hits southern California. It’s a fast-paced story with some nice drama and character moments. The other novella is also a collaboration, “The Wandering Warriors” by Rick Wilber and Alan Smale, and despite relying on a lot of cliché and contrivances, it milks its fun premise – in which an amateur baseball team finds itself inexplicably thrust back into Roman times – for everything its worth.
Sue Burke’s novelette “Life from the Sky” offers some alien maybe-life forms dubbed “spaceflakes” turning the world upside-down when they start falling from the sky. Burke’s present-day soft invasion story is a wry and well realized take on Trump-era internet culture, with a relatable protagonist and believable circumstances. The lackadaisical structure and tone of the story is appropriate for the setting and subject matter, but still doesn’t do it any favors.
Paul Park’s “Creative Nonfiction” is a well-written stream of consciousness oddity about a creepy relationship between a teacher and student in a near-future, quasi-dystopian setting. Cadwell Turnbull’s “When the Rains Come Back” envisions an anarchist not-quite-utopian future, with a touching relationship between a young girl who dreams of living on the moon, and her father, who wants her to grow up respecting their island nation’s traditions. Fascinating worldbuilding, wonderful characters, so-so plot execution. It’s the best story of the bunch, regardless.
Uncanny 22Uncanny Magazine, Issue 22, May/June 2018
Naomi Novik’s “Blessings” is the big draw in this mid-spring issue of Uncanny, and it doesn’t disappoint. Noble-born baby Magda’s parents invite six fairies to a dinner party hoping to secure at least one blessing for their child. The guests have a little too much to drink and the blessings get hilariously out of hand. The story skips forward to Magda as an adult, to show us the result of their shenanigans. Novik shows off her dynamic grasp of fairy-tale narratology in a very short story that is both perfect the way it is and makes you wish there was more.
The other stories in the issue are a mixed bag, but I enjoyed Kelly Robson’s “What Gentle Women Dare” about an 18th century prostitute’s encounter with the devil. Like most of Robson’s stories, it tends to be a little too slow on the slow burn, but few genres writers can match the genuinely grown-up elegance of her prose or the intellectual heft in her storytelling. Also, I don’t know if the term “suckstress” was actually in general use in 18th century Liverpool, but it should have been.
Greg Pak’s personal essay about growing up as an Asian-American D&D fanatic, “Dislikes the Sea, But Will Venture Upon It If Necessary”, is a must-read, and an early candidate for next year’s Best Related Work Hugo Award.
BCS 251Beneath Ceaseless Skies # 251, May 10, 2018
Two very short stories make up this issue of the venerable bi-weekly zine: Jonathan Edelstein’s refined “The Examination Cloth”, and Maria Haskins’ memorably grisly “The Root Cellar”. Haskins’ weirder-than-weird tale features a pair of child siblings – older sister/narrator Amadine and baby brother Jeremy – who suffer a gruesome ritual at the hands of their father, who insists he is protecting them from someone much worse. They later discover that he wasn’t kidding. Running on pure nightmare-logic, “The Root Cellar” sneaks under your skin with ghastly imagery and a beautifully sustained atmosphere of creeping menace.
Edelstein’s story is about a man hoping to pass an examination that will see his family’s fortune raised, if he can avoid succumbing to the spells woven into its tapestry. It’s a sturdy, well written tale.
Analog May June 2018Analog Science Fiction and Fact, May/June 2018
Not among the best issues of Analog by any stretch, but there are a few better than average stories:
Christopher L. Bennett has two previous stories set in the same universe as his new novelette, “Hubpoint of No Return”, but it is not necessary to have read them first to get up to speed. David is a researcher on the Hub Network, which facilitates travel and communication among thousands of inhabited worlds. When his “aquatic biocomputer” is stolen by the cat-like freighter captain Tsshar, he sets off on an odyssey to retrieve it. The Hub is a lively and colorful setting, and the characters are likeable and engaging. All the characters are likeable, which is part of the problem. There is no serious conflict, nor any real sense that the obstacles in David’s path are too great to overcome. The story moves so quickly, and the prose is so snappy and fun, that you probably won’t notice until it’s over that you didn’t once break a sweat. An amusing diversion, but hardly one that sticks around after the end.
The three writers I was most excited about when I first scanned the TOC all delivered pretty good stories that disappointed by failing to be great:
Marissa Lingen’s “Finding their Footing” follows recently single mother Anke and her children, trying to have a little adventure by visiting the Neptunian moon Triton before they settle down on the Jovian moon Callisto, where they will begin their new lives. Anke can barely afford the trip as it is, and when a complication arises she has to choose between abandoning their vacation plans or sacrificing a comfortable life when they reach their new home. Sifting through Anke’s past – the loss of the children’s father and their subsequent abandonment by the “family” they all belonged to, provides a strong emotional core for the story. Lingen’s worldbuilding skills are also commendable: the story’s solar system-wide society is well-furnished with fascinating culture, technology, and economics. My issue with the story – and it’s a big one – is that Anke’s dilemma is resolved too quickly and with relative ease, and the solution was obvious from the start.
Robert Reed’s “Two Point Oh” has a devilish little premise – aliens have recently crash-landed on Earth, and require human help to build a new craft to leave in. One of the 43 enterprises working on the project is having trouble getting the results they want, so they hire a mob boss with legendary “motivational” skills to help get things up to speed. Delivered with the author’s typical cunning and adroitness, it also moves a little to slowly and doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its setup. I felt much the same way about Sam J. Miller’s “My Base Pair”, which has a jealousy-inducing story idea readymade for an episode of Black Mirror – depicting a future where gene-hacked DNA can help you produce celebrity lookalike offspring – but the story, about a freelance writer investigating underground fight rings, doesn’t cover much of the ground that makes the idea such an enticing one.
GigaNotoSaurus, May 1, 2018
John the Human and Colophinanoc the Kinri are marooned on a distant planet. Rescue is coming, but it’s going to be awhile – years in fact – and for John, survival means more than just having enough to eat: he needs a friend. Unfortunately, the Kinri are a fundamentally solitary race, who can’t comprehend humans’ obsession with socializing. Adrian Simmons’ funny, lyrical, heartfelt (and heartbreaking) novelette “The Wait is Longer Than You Think” is the kind of story where the characters figure out how to do everything right, but it still goes wrong because the universe is a shitty and unforgiving place. Far from cynical or pessimistic, though, it evinces a healthy stoicism about the fate of its heroes, and revels in the small victories that make life worth the effort.

Must Read –
“The Wait is Longer Than You Think” by Adrian Simmons

Highly Regarded –
“The Root Cellar” by Maria Haskins
“Blessings” by Naomi Novik

Also Recommended –
“When the Rains Come Back” by Cadwell Turnbull