The Best Short SFF of October 2019

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

Must Read Stories

BCS 287
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.

zeitgeber
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 – August 2018

Reminder: While many of the stories in this column are available to read free online, these venues pay the authors for their work and rely on income from readers to do so. If one or more of these zines consistently publishes fiction that you like, please consider buying a subscription. Or, if you read a story or stories that you especially like, consider purchasing the issue it appears in. If the story is available to read online, clicking on the name of the story will send you there; subscription/donation/purchase information is available at each site. For stories that are not available to read online, there is a link to that zine’s home page. Thank you for reading and supporting short form SFF!

August was a pretty light month for recommendations – I hope my post-surgery temperament did not spoil my enjoyment of anything worthwhile. Also, I got a little behind during recovery, so some of July’s and August’s readings have been pushed to September.

rogue protocolMust Read

Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries Book 3), Martha Wells (Tor.com 8/7/2018) Novella

Wells continues to spin gold out of her “cynical robot grudgingly rescues inept humans from certain death” formula. Character growth and a building-block approach to the series’ overall narrative design are what keeps things fresh, while the suspenseful hi-tech action and acerbic, eyeroll humor remain steadfast. In this third-go-round, Murderbot is looking into a terraforming facility that GrayCris may be using as a cover for its illegal alien artifact hoarding scheme. It has to use its “augmented human security consultant” persona again when encountering a group of humans with the same objective. Murderbot’s ruse is sniffed out by the humans’ impossibly earnest and painfully loyal bot companion, Miki, but Murderbot manages to bring Miki into its confidence by promising to keep its beloved friends safe (and you know how those squishy meat sacks love to throw themselves into mortal peril). The denouement is an enticing segue into the fourth and final novella in the series, which can’t come soon enough.

Clarkesworld 143Highly Regarded

“The Nearest”, Greg Egan (Tor.com 7/19/2018) Novelette

Police detective Kate is investigating the horrifying, seemingly motiveless murder of a family, in which the wife has gone missing. Later, she wakes up in the middle of the night to discover that her own husband and newborn son have been replaced by ringers. Ordinarily, it is frustrating when the reader figures out what’s going on long before the hero does – but in this case that is precisely the point of Egan’s story, and what makes its scenario so terrifying.

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

Johnson’s metafictional fairy tale follows a young girl named Ada and her talking hen, Blanche, who are forced to go on the run from a horde of terrifying bird-like lizard creatures known as wastoures, who devour every living thing in their path. The narrator frequently breaks the fourth wall to divulge the fates of characters Ada and Blanche encounter on their journey, and comment on the reader’s expectations for who should and shouldn’t get a happy ending. The cliffhanger-style storytelling is exciting, though coupled with frequent reminders that the act of storytelling itself is inherently cruel.

fireside 58Also Recommended

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

An unsettling sci-fi story about the exploitation of the weak and the violation of bodily autonomy. Delicately written, but still wrenching and emotionally taxing; please heed the content warnings before reading.

 

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

Sister Nadine is starting to notice some strange goings on at her parish, but is she losing her mind or finding it?

“Scavenge, Rustic Hounds”, Manuel Gonzales (Lightspeed Issue 99, August 2018) Short Story

A quick and creepy domestic horror story about a woman who believes her home is being invaded by strange creatures at night, while her husband thinks nothing is wrong.

“A Bond as Deep as Starlit Seas”, Sarah Grey (Lightspeed Issue 99, August 2018) Short Story

A lively space adventure about a hauler who needs a newer ship to keep up with the demands of commerce, but doesn’t want to part with the old ship she was bonded to.

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

A culinary-themed folk tale about a fatherless girl working in her mother’s restaurant who meets a man wearing an invisible cloak.

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

A legendary, aging “strandrunner” races through different historical periods in time, with one final goal in mind before she retires.

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

A new Great Ship story, in which the title character searches the expanse of the enormous world-sized vessel for hundreds of thousands of years to find his long lost love.

The Rack – Zine and Novella Reviews for Early August 2018

Interzone 276Interzone #276, July/Aug 2018

In terms of fiction the new Interzone is a little underwhelming, with mostly fair-to-pretty-good original stories. The regular columns are wonderful, however—here we have Andy Hedgecock discussing the popular media that imprinted on him as a child in Future Interrupted; in Time Pieces, Nina Allan gushes over the first short story collection from relative newcomer Marian Womack; David Langford’s Ansible Link offers the usual roundup of goings on in the UK science fiction world.
As for the short fic, my favorite of the seven originals was “P.Q.” by James Warner, about a researcher named Daljeet who discovers a new species of ant that appears to be creating art for art’s sake. The tone of the story becomes increasingly frantic as Daljeet and his new girlfriend Mary Sue become increasingly zealous about their find. The story has a caustic sense of humor, and I liked how its perspective on its heroes walked the thin line between admiration and wariness.
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam applies many of the common tropes of the coming-of-age story to a mid-apocalyptic setting where everyone will probably die in “So Easy”. The young teen girl who narrates the story addresses it to her mother, who takes them from their city apartment when the food runs out, to their “new home” at the ocean. The way the mother mythologizes the ocean is unsettling and doesn’t bode well for them (the daughter asks if their bread is the last of their food, and the mother answers “We won’t need it in the ocean, the ocean will feed us). In the end, the narrator goes her own way, though there is still no food. A well written but depressing tale.
Ryan Row’s superhero story “Superbright” features some powerful, expressive prose, but I found its plotting too manic and I never got invested in the characters. The concept is good though—teenager Tom’s underwhelming superpower (his body lights up) can’t get him a high level superhero license, nor does it make him attractive to prospective superhero teams. His desire to make his mother proud motivates him and gets the reader on his side. A lot of good ideas and solid writing, but I never engaged with it on more than a superficial level.
The rest of the stories are not without merit: “Tumblebush” by Darby Harn is a detective sci-fi noir about a P.I. searching for a missing rich girl. It has an appropriately cynical tone and some memorable descriptions of post-climate disaster Manhattan. The hunt for the missing girl feels too streamlined to be effective, and by the halfway point it’s easy to figure out where the story will end up. Tim Major’s “Throw Caution” is a Martian adventure about a miner who wants to protect the native crab-like species that are being harvested because their bodies contain diamonds. Rachel Cupp’s time travel story “Grey Halls” is about a music composer from a dystopian future who travels back to the 1970s for inspiration. Paul Crenshaw’s “Eyes” is a surreal horror story where children are born blind and must have their eyes gifted to them by their parents.

Tor.com 7/19/2018
The Nearest, by Greg Egan

Award-winning Australian SF author Egan starts this offbeat brain-twister like any other detective story: Kate is investigating a horrific crime in which finds a man and his children murdered in their home, while his wife has gone missing. With no clear motive, Kate presumes the wife kidnapped by the killers, but it soon becomes obvious that she was the killer. Without getting into any spoilers, I’ll just say shit goes sideways from there. Egan, most famous for his math-based sci-fi, proves adept at telling more personal tales where mathematics and science are more peripheral concerns. “The Nearest” is not a straight work of science fiction or fantasy, but a titillating and disquieting work of pure speculation. It’s easy for the reader to figure out what Kate needs to do to solve this problem once it is unmasked, but watching her do it is a genuine nail-biter.

Lightspeed 99Lightspeed Issue 99, August 2018

The new Lightspeed kicks off with a lively space adventure from Sarah Grey, “A Bond as Deep as Starlit Seas”. Jeri is a cargo hauler who doesn’t want to sell her old ship, Cleo, to the Nikutan; she and Cleo are bonded and have been together for nearly two decades. But her business demands a newer, more efficient (and less bondable) rig, and Jeri sells Cleo on the condition the buyer won’t scrap her for parts. Once she realizes the Nikutan have duped her, she makes a play to get Cleo back, but the price the Nikutan are asking may be too high. A lot of things click in this story: The believably flawed characters, the expansive world-building, the sudden turn into danger and despair, the exciting climax. One drawback was that it was easy to figure out how the Nikutan would double cross Jeri; the ruse is convincing though—at least, convincing enough for me to believe it would fool Jeri without it detracting too much from my opinion of her. This story is fun to read. It’s one of those tales that works fine by itself but still makes me want to know what happens next.
The other story I really liked from this issue felt more like it belonged in Lightspeed’s sister magazine, Nightmare. Manuel Gonzales’ “Scavenge, Rustic Hounds” belongs in the category of “either this narrator is insane, or the world is.” The narrator believes their home is being invaded by creatures at night, while her husband thinks nothing is wrong. Guess who ends up being right? Quick, creepy, and atmospheric, Gonzales’ tale of domestic horror doesn’t quite spiral into madness, more like casually bumps into it and treats it like an old friend.
Kate Elliott’s “A Compendium of Architecture and the Science of Building” is a light, gentle and fun little side story set in Elliot’s Spiritwalker universe. Magnus just wants to retire in peace and finish up his long-gestating writing projects, but when magic goes haywire in his home, he discovers a runaway boy who from the nearby magic school who suffered abuse at the hands of his peers. So he does what any sensible old wizard would do and puts the boy to work. It’s a refreshingly grown-up work of fantasy about the value of imparting wisdom and kindness to the young.
In the future, the law doesn’t punish criminals with incarceration or execution: they become walkers on “The Atonement Path”. However, this supposedly enlightened future glosses over a disturbing reality of the treatment of the walkers by the free citizens of the republic. I found Alex Irvine’s work of transgressive fiction to be overly cynical and exploitative, plying the reader with descriptions and insinuations of terrible actions for shock value alone: there is no real plot to follow or relatable characters to engage with. It’s deliberately being provocative, and that may be a boon for some readers. Avoid it if, well, literally anything triggers you.
Some excellent reprints here as well; if you missed Dominica Phetteplace’s “Project Extropy” from Asimov’s a couple of years ago, I highly recommend it.

bcs 257Beneath Ceaseless Skies #257, August 2, 2018

The two stories in this issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies are a funhouse reflection of each other: both are about a one person seeking another for selfish reasons, with unexpected results. But while one ends on a note of hope, the other takes a dark turn.
In Christopher M. Cevasco’s “A Legacy of Shadows”, Rallos is a wanderer who travels from village to village doing odd jobs to survive, but his true purpose is to rid the land of the demonic Defilers—people with the taint of evil in their blood since the world’s creation—to avenge the death of his family. The latest village he encounters is having problems with a Defiler living nearby, and Rallos agrees to enter its lair destroy it to free them from its grip of terror. But when he finds the Defiler Morthos, he discovers that his ideas of good and evil are not what he had always assumed. The story has a well-conceived epic fantasy setting and reaches a satisfactory conclusion, in which the true culprits get exactly what they deserve. The tone is overly earnest, though, and Morthos is too magnanimous to be believed.
The Senkaku islands of Japan provide the richly detailed, first-world setting of “Old No-Eyes”, and author Christopher Mahon does an excellent job of establishing character and tone at the start. At the famous Ozamashi teahouse, Yute is meeting his old colleague Tenza, who had betrayed him years before and caused his exile when they were both students of the art of immortality. Tenza wishes to apologize to Yute, but only because he needs Yute’s help to understand an arcane text that may hold the secrets they are both looking for. Mahon does an outstanding job of balancing the still simmering tension of their past conflict with the pair’s philosophical inquiries. “Old No-Eyes” makes a sharp left turn into nihilism near the end, a choice that doesn’t sit well in my stomach, even if it follows logically from the set-up.

rogue protocolTor.com Novella
Rogue Protocol (Murderbot Diaries Book 3), Martha Wells

A call from Dr. Mensah sends Murderbot back on the trail of GrayCris, the company that tried to kill all the researchers Murderbot protected in All Systems Red. GrayCris is still looking to camouflage its alien artifact recovery schemes, so Murderbot is in a good position to damage them by uncovering the truth about their illegal activities on Milu, where the company recently abandoned a terraforming facility. As usual, a group of humans mucks things up, and Murderbot must rescue their fragile, squishy hides from certain death at the hands of corporate killers.
The Murderbot formula is still a winning one—Murderbot just wants to watch TV, humans need its help, Murderbot saves their sorry asses, then goes back to watching TV knowing it’s just going to end up doing the same thing all over again. This time, the humans are looking for the same thing Murderbot is, instead of just being hapless victims of circumstance (All Systems Red) or suicidally naïve (Artificial Condition). Another big part of the fun of this series is Murderbot’s interaction with other AIs, and this time, the absurdly friendly, upbeat Miki provides Murderbot with the ally it needs to make inroads with Miki’s human companions. Miki is absurdly loyal to its human companions, and its innocent inquiries force Murderbot to reveal it is not the augmented human security consultant it pretends to be, while Miki’s trusting nature allows Murderbot to goad its amiable new comrade into keeping its secret. Murderbot privately refers to Miki as the humans’ “pet”, the very thing Murderbot was afraid of becoming if it had stayed with Dr. Mensah. This forces Murderbot to confront exactly what its own human friends mean to it.
Another near-perfect blend of sci-fi action, suspense, and canny character observations make this third go-round as much a must-read as the previous two novellas, leading right into what promises to be a grand finale in the forthcoming Exit Strategy.

Must Read
Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries Book 3), by Martha Wells (Tor.com 8/7/2018) Novella

Highly Regarded
“The Nearest”, by Greg Egan (Tor.com 7/19/2018) Novelette

Also Recommended
“A Bond as Deep as Starlit Seas”, by Sarah Grey (Lightspeed Issue 99, August 2018) Short Story
“Scavenge, Rustic Hounds”, by Manuel Gonzales (Lightspeed Issue 99, August 2018) Short Story

Dichronauts by Greg Egan

Rating: 6.1 (out of 10)

Mathematician Greg Egan writes hard science fiction in its purest form; in other words, he is the kind of science fiction writer who writes because he has an itch to scratch. He doesn’t so much build worlds as generate models based around whatever theoretical concepts are occupying his thoughts at the moment – narratives driven by speculation about scientific concepts, the issues and conflicts that arise from them, and the rational thinking required to solve them. Egan has always done the science half of science fiction as well as anyone can.

Unfortunately, he is also the kind of hard sci-fi writer who isn’t quite as successful at the fiction half of the equation. He doesn’t do people well. His characters’ emotional lives seem to spring from the same kind of rationalism as his mathematical musings; solutions to equations that need to be formulated to move the story forward. Often, characters are distinguished only by a few rudimentary personality traits or physical differences.

The world of Dichronauts contains two spatial dimensions and two temporal ones, rather than the “3+1” dimensions our own existence occupies. The people of this world are symbiotes, each comprised of a “walker” and a “sider” – siders are parasites who cannot move around on their own and who need their walkers’ blood supply to live; walkers can only see one side of the world on their own and need their siders to see the other. Walkers and siders are bonded for life at birth, and presumably cannot be separated without causing damage to both.

The sun revolves around the earth in this world, so its people are constantly migrating to stay within its habitable zones. The walker Seth and his sider, Theo, are surveyors who scout the migration paths for their home city. Together, they make a discovery, and embark on a journey, that quite literally turns their world upside down.

That journey is not lacking for interesting turns and revelations, though again these are only stimulating to the intellect, and to the base desire of the sci-fi reader to explore and map out new frontiers. Some of the more interesting intimations about the relationships between siders and walkers are deposited into the story for logical reasons but are not investigated adequately enough to make it an emotionally compelling experience. And while the physical properties of this world are explored in detail, its society has no real culture to speak of.  The people of this world seem to exist only to rationalize their environment, which seems to be all the author is concerned with as well.

In other words, if you love geometry as much as Greg Egan does – and are satisfied by a narrative driven purely by reason – Dichronauts is your kind of novel (add another star or two, accordingly). I can’t make a higher recommendation without a more complete experience.