The Best Short SFF of 2019 – Part 2: Science Fiction

My “Best of 2019” is split into three parts: Part 1: Dark Fantasy/Horror; Part 2: Science Fiction; Part 3: Fantasy. My choices in each category are not ranked; they are presented in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. Each title is accompanied by a quick introductory statement and a short excerpt from the story. Excerpts may contain mild spoilers. For the purposes of this column, short fiction is defined as less than novel-length, or under 40,000 words.

The Best Short Science Fiction of 2019

mission critical“By the Warmth of Their Calculus”, by Tobias S. Buckell (Mission Critical, editor Jonathan Strahan; Solaris Books) 7586 words

A civilization survives among the icy, rocky ring of a great planet, hiding from alien predator drones determined to destroy them. Fiana commands a dustship trying to harvest genetic material from an ancient seedship, but when a rival nation’s meddling inadvertently sets off a trap, the mission turns into a slow, measured survival flight where the slightest miscalculation could lead to their deaths.

“How fast can we get out of here?”
“Using consumables, it’s dangerous, Mother. We need to coordinate with Ops. The margin will be thin, if we want to get out of here before the Hunter-Killers.”
Fiana swept the transparent sheets around her away. “I’ll get Ops ready to follow your commands.”
To stay put would be to wait passively for death, and she wasn’t ready to welcome the Hunter-Killers onto her ship.
Within the hour, the far side of the dustship was venting gases as crew warmed the material up (but not too much, or the heat signature would be suspicious and hint at some kind of unnatural process), compressed the water and hydrogen in airlocks through conduits of muscular tubes that grew throughout the ship, and blasted it out in timed dumps at F&O’s orders.
Slowly, faster than the natural differential drift already there, Fiana’s dustship began to move away from the seedship. It trailed a tail behind, gleaming like a comet.

Clarkesworld 159Such Thoughts are Unproductive“, by Rebecca Campbell (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 159, December 2019) 6584 words

In this post-climate disaster, post-truth dystopia, Mar is coping with separation from her mother, who has been interned for engaging in subversive activity. It’s clear Mar herself is under suspicion by association, and the authority’s duplicitous strategies to keep her in line hit where it hurts.

Sophie talked about grad school and Mom, about parties they threw together, about staying up late crying over deadlines and supervisors, about graduation, and how Mom had blown hers off for the government job, but been there the next year for Sophie’s, already pregnant with me.
“So you were at my graduation. Good luck charm.”
I slid into this the way we slid into so many things: the loss of cities to the encroaching waters and deserts, the swamps and the Zika virus creeping north along the Mississippi, as the days grew hotter and the mosquitoes adapted. A kind of compliant quiet—pleasant, safe—overtook me as I thought yes, of course I had an aunt named Sophie. Of course.
She slept that night on the couch. It was the obvious thing to do. Curfew.
That night I lay in bed and recited the facts of my life: I do not have an aunt named Sophie; my mother did not have antibiotic-resistant TB and was not in a sanatorium on one of the quarantine islands. My mother is in an internment camp with yellow cinder block walls, somewhere in the mountains, far enough north that she’s surrounded by tamarack, maybe by black spruce. At the end of the road with no exit.

Lightspeed 112Sacrid’s Pod“, by Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 112, September 2019) 8741 words

Sacrid Henn planned to leave the repressive society she was born into as soon as she came of age, so her parents contracted AIsource to imprison her for life as punishment for rejecting their faith. Inside her pod, her AIsource caretaker tries to make her as comfortable as possible and to accommodate her needs, but Sacrid won’t give up on obtaining her freedom. The caretaker is oddly encouraging of this attitude.

It is virtually impossible for you to escape your pod, escape its extensive support system, find your way to some access corridor, and subsequently find your way out of that portion of this deep-space facility that is devoted to the care of guests, a distance that is itself the size of a small country. Even then you would have to worry about escaping this artificial world, without cooperation from us, and somehow making it back to the nearest human habitation, a further distance of fifteen light years. It would be like escaping a jail cell, only to then face the necessity of escaping the prison, only to then have to escape the surrounding city, only to then have to escape the surrounding landscape, only to then find yourself with an ocean separating you from your homeland. It is virtually impossible.
I can tell you that this feat has been accomplished one hundred and fifty-eight times in our many years of operation. This represents a fraction of one percent of our current detainee population. Still, it remains a remarkable testament to human ingenuity.
This interests you.
We have not plugged that hole in our security in large part because of its usefulness as a form of recreation, and as a source of hope.

f48coverThe Message“, by Vanessa Fogg (The Future Fire 48, February 2019) 4221 words

Sarah has as normal a life as a teen can have in world where everyone is a climate refugee and world politics is mired in a state of perpetual brinksmanship. Her favorite activity is writing fan fiction with her best friend Chloe, who lives on the other side of the world and whom she has never met in person. Sarah also has a direct connection to the most culturally significant event in human history.

I hear the new special aired, she says. Have you seen it?
She means the new documentary special on the Message. Timed to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of its reception. The moment fifteen years ago when my mother looked at a pattern of radio signals and realized she was seeing a message from a distant star.
Yeah, I write back. It was okay. There was nothing really new.

That’s part of the reason my mom’s in a funk: because there’s nothing new. That’s why it’s hard to drum up private funding. Well, that and the ongoing economic recession and the fact that the Message is publicly available, all of it freely accessible to the world, and thousands of experts and hobbyists have taken a crack at it and thousands of research papers and blog posts have been written, but still no one knows what it means. Scientists have tried to analyze it in all kinds of ways, programming deep neural networks to comb through the signal, applying various models, taking it apart bit by bit. Artists have played with it, translating patterns to musical notes or colors. There are those who still say that the signal is dangerous, that it’s a viral code, that if you look at it too deeply it will take over and reprogram your mind. There are those who think it’s the key to salvation. And from the start, there’ve been those who insist that it’s all an elaborate hoax.
The newest documentary special has a lot of recycled footage. Old interviews from fifteen years ago. Shots of those first hectic press conferences. Mom doesn’t speak in the first big briefings. She wasn’t director of the Institute then. She was a new postdoctoral fellow, fresh from her Ph.D. Her group leader and the Director are the ones at the podium. But Mom was the one who recognized the signal for what it was. She saw it in real-time.

FIYAH Issue12_150“Corialis”, by T.L. Huchu (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 12: Chains, Autumn 2019) 7019 words

Like all colonists on the distant moon of Corialis, Thandeka underwent an arduous process of microbial adaptation to prepare for her new life there. Thandeka suspects that something about the moon – some unseen system or presence – is rejecting them, and if her family is to have any future there she needs to find out what it is and how to make peace with it.

“I’m looking at?”
“I’m measuring the impulses running through the biomass, and it’s incredible.” Garande brings up another graph, squiggly lines running through. “See that correlation with a standard neural map? This is far more complicated. For a start, the level of activity far exceeds anything a single brain could do. The info here is overlaid, multiple processes running parallel to one another, but fully integrated with sophisticated feedback loops.”
“Inga.”
“Now, if I—” He takes a crude device, a low voltage battery and wires, and shocks one of the strings. “See how the multimeter peaks, right? That’s my signal going through, but then the natural signals stop after the interruption. The reading on my meter goes to zero… wait for it… there it is; do you see that? A low intensity signal passes one way, and then the other. And it’ll keep doing this, almost like it’s testing for something. If I shock it again, the test signals change in frequency. Check that one out—it’s exactly the same as my input.”
“So it reacts to stimulus. Every living thing does.”
“I think the data points to some kind of non-sentient intelligence built by all these interlinked unicellular life forms, Thandeka. Information flows that span the entire moon.”

FSF 7-8“Mighty Are the Meek and the Myriad”, by Cassandra Khaw (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July/August 2019) 6375 words

The war between machine and man ended with a peace treaty, but that doesn’t mean everyone has moved on.

It was death by a thousand small grievances. The French were making a national sport of maligning British cuisine, while the Italians and the Greeks busied themselves privatizing transportation, education, automotive export, luxury import. Music now pivoted on the approval of the Spanish. Worse still, the Nordic countries, much to Henrietta’s despair, were taking over the airwaves with their suicidally bleak comedies.
And China.
Henrietta didn’t even want to think about China or how the country had oh-so-politely excused itself from the debacle that was the rest of the world, content to be self-sufficient, the insufferable twats.
Treasonous as the thought was, Henrietta missed war and she missed being an apparatus of war. Conflict was honest. The protocols weren’t half as byzantine. There was no need to asphyxiate in endless meetings or equally endless dinners, the menus fastidiously tailored to minimize risk of offending the collective palate. Henrietta wasn’t an alcoholic when armistice began, but now she had a wine cabinet in her office. It distressed her.

New Suns“The Robots of Eden” by Anil Menon (New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, editor Nisi Shawl; Solaris Books) 6482 words

Life goes along swimmingly for the “Enhanced”, whose brain implants seem to make them happier, more well-adjusted people than the un-enhanced. The narrator’s close friendship with his ex-wife’s fiancée Sollozzo – despite his disappointment over the end of their relationship – attests to that. But having a brain that spackles over your negative thoughts may have unintended consequences.

“Are you working on a new novel? Your fans must be getting very impatient.”
“I haven’t written anything new for a decade,” said Sollozzo, with a smile. He stroked Padma’s cheek. “She’s worried.”
“I’m not!” Padma did look very unworried. “I’m not just your wife. I’m also a reader. If I feel a writer is cutting corners, that’s it, I close the book. You’re a perfectionist; I love that. Remember how you tortured me over the translation?”
Sollozzo nodded fondly. “She’s equally mad. She’ll happily spend a week over a comma.”
“How we fought over footnotes! He doesn’t like footnotes. But how can a translator clarify without footnotes? Nothing doing, I said. I put my foot down.”
I felt good watching them nuzzle. I admired their passion. I must have been deficient in passion. Still, if I’d been deficient, why hadn’t Padma told me? Marriages needed work. The American labor theory of love. That worked for me; I liked work. Work, work. If she’d wanted me to work at our relationship, I would have. Then, just so, I lost interest in the subject.
“I don’t read much fiction anymore,” I confessed. “I used to be a huge reader. Then I got Enhanced in my twenties. There was the adjustment phase and then somehow I lost touch, what with career and all. Same story with my friends. They mostly read what their children read. But even kids, it’s not much. Makes me wonder. Maybe we are outgrowing the need for fiction. I mean, children outgrow their imaginary friends. Do you think we posthumans are outgrowing the need for fiction?”

Asomovs 092019Winter Wheat“, by Gord Sellar (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2019) 22559 words

Jimmy grew up on a farm in the small town of Biggar, and plans on continuing the family business when his time comes. When an agricultural mega-corporation introduces a new patented strain of wheat to the market, young Jimmy fails to fully grasp the implications.

“Lemme put it this way: they’ve gone in and messed with how the starches stack together, twisted them all around the opposite direction to usual. Nothing on Earth has the right enzymes in its guts to break those carbs down into sugars – not you, not me, not the bugs, nothing,” he said, pausing briefly as if hesitating to wade too deep into the science. Then he continued: “If it doesn’t go through the industrial processing they use on it in the mills, well: you take this wheat and grind it into flour in your kitchen, and then bake yourself some bread, and I’m telling you that you can literally starve to death on a full stomach of that bread every day. It’s not just pests: anyone can starve off it, like rabbit meat. They made it that way, so we’re dependent on them for processing and distribution and everything. Now, what that means is that growing this wheat may give you a better yield, but it also locks you farmers into working with specific buyers, into a specific distribution model. And then you gotta deal with the ecological collapse that comes when all the vermin dies out, and if the genes they’ve spliced in transfer to other plants, or if it mutates… Well, it’s just not so simple as they’re saying, that’s all.”
Jimmy noticed his dad nodding, but he seemed to be the only one who was. All the other farmers were mumbling among themselves, and honestly, Jimmy didn’t really get what the big deal was either.

Clarkesworld 155Your Face“, by Rachel Swirsky (Clarkesworld Issue 155, August 2019) 1327 words

Abigail’s mom is happy to see her daughter’s face, but once the elation passes, she realizes things are a little off.

But you can’t really go home. You know that. Right, Abigail?
Obviously.
You’re only in the computer. You can’t come out.
I know.
I don’t know. Maybe this was a bad idea. Is it cruel? Am I just bringing you back to kill you all over again?
You’re freaking out, Mom. Stop it.
I realized I’ve been putting this off for almost five years. It would have been your thirtieth birthday last week. Maybe I should have come earlier, but I just wasn’t—sure if it would be cruel—
It’s fine.
And I . . . didn’t know if I wanted to.
Oh.
I’m sorry. Oh, God. I’m terrible.
Whatever. It’s not important.
Now you’re angry.
Don’t tell me how I feel.
No. This isn’t right. You don’t sound like you. You look like you . . . but you don’t sound like you at all.
Excuse me?
You’re so flat . . . You sound . . . like you’re champagne, and someone left you open.
I don’t even know how to respond to that.
There’s nothing in your voice but frustration.

FSF 052019“New Atlantis”, by Lavie Tidhar (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May/June 2019) 24135 words

Through generations, after the collapse of human civilization, the surviving population struggled and succeeded in building a new world that shed the troubles of the past. 84-year-old Mai relates a story from her youth, of a long and difficult journey she undertook to reach New Atlantis.

“It is said the harvest will be plentiful in Gomrath this spring,” Mowgai said. “And that a heron was spotted for the first time in centuries near Esh.”
We had been traveling for days. For a while yet we were still in the world as I mostly knew it, with its familiar terrain of good, black earth, and in the bloom of early spring, so that we rose each morning to the sight of thousands of pink and purple cyclamens, red poppies, yellow daisies, and blue-and-white lupines that stood stiffly like guards in the breeze.
“It is also said a vast Sea monster washed ashore in Sidon, dead upon the sand, and that a manshonyagger of old was seen near Dor-Which-Fell-To-Ruin,” Mowgai said, and shrugged. “But such stories are often told and there is seldom truth in them.”
“The sea monster, perhaps,” I said, thinking of the ocean and its mysteries. I smiled at him, imagining our faraway destination. The New Atlantis lay beyond the Sea. “If we’re lucky, we might get to see one.”
He shuddered. “Salvagers survive by avoiding danger, not running headlong toward it,” he said.
“Yes, yes,” I said. “So my mother always tells me.”
“And you never listen,” he said, but he smiled when he said it.

Fireside 67bAll the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From“, by Izzy Wasserstein (Fireside Magazine Issue 67, May 2019) 2211 words

You keep snapping in and out of different realities, different iterations of your hometown. But what exactly are you looking for?

In so many realities, there are headstones carved with your mother’s name. Sometimes your mother is buried under headstones with different names. And there are realities where she’s still alive, and even ones where you never left.
In the ones where she’s alive and you never left, the other yous seethe with resentment and jealousy, like you are a reminder of everything they don’t have. You know just how they feel. In the ones where she’s dead, the other yous have the look of cornered rats and you know all over again why you had to get out.
Sometimes you tell yourself you are looking for the right reality, maybe one where you made peace and she died holding your hand. Or one where she screamed at you until you knew leaving was right. Or maybe she got better and you went off to college and this is your triumphant return. In one reality, your sibling (your sister, this time) explains the paradox of choice: choosing between three salad dressings is easy; choosing between one hundred, a nightmare.
“Narrow your choices,” she tells you, somewhere into the second bottle of bottom-shelf whiskey. “Settle for good enough.”
In that Topeka, your mother is dead and so is that version of you. Your sister doesn’t ask to come with you.

 

mission critical“Cyclopterus”, by Peter Watts (Mission Critical, editor Jonathan Strahan; Solaris Books) 5742 words

In a bleak future plagued by perpetual super-storms, Galik, a representative of the Nautilus corporation, goes on a potentially dangerous dive in the mini-sub Cyclopterus with a pilot who isn’t too eager to accommodate him.

“I told you: nothing’s decided.”
Moreno snorts. “Right. You dragged Sylvie hundreds of kilometers off-site, so you’d have your own private base camp. You put everyone’s research on hold, and you’ve got me spending the next eight hours planting your money detectors on the seabed. You think I don’t know what that costs?”
Galik shrugs. “If you’re that sure, you could always refuse the gig. Break your contract. Take a stand on principle.”
Moreno glowers at the dashboard, where the luminous stipple of the thermocline thickens and rises about them. Cyclopterus jerks and slews as some particularly dense lens of water slaps lazily to starboard.
“They’d probably send you home then, though, right? Back to the heat waves and the water wars and that weird new fungus that’s eating everything. Although I hear some of the doomsday parties are worth checking out. Just last week one of ’em ended up burning down half of Kluane National Park.”
Moreno says nothing.
“’Course, if you really wanted to stand up and be counted, you could join the Gaianistas.” And in response to the look that gets him: “What? You gonna let the fuckers who killed the planet get away scot-free again?”
“That’s rich. Coming from one of their errand boys.”
“I chose my side. What about you, hiding out here in the ocean while the world turns to shit? You going to do anything about that, or are you all sound and fury, signifying nothing?”

You can find Part 1 – Dark Fantasy/Horror HERE

You can find Part 3 – Fantasy HERE

Additional Reading:

The above choices are based on my own personal tastes from my own reading experiences, and are meant to be taken as such. There are many other “best of” and “recommended reading” lists that offer up quality reading choices for short SFF. Here are a few:

Maria Haskins, author and translator

Charles Payseur, author and proprietor of Quick Sip Reviews

Eugenia Triantafyllou, author

A.C. Wise, author

Locus Recommended Reading List 

Rocket Stack Rank 2019 YTD (aggregate list), compiled by Greg Hullender and Eric Wong

More links will appear as I find them!

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.

Asomovs 092019
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.

clarkesworld 156
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.