The Best Short SFF – March 2019

Featured Image from the cover for Lightspeed Issue 106 by Grandfailure

Must Read

tram car 015
Cover by Stephan Martiniere

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (excerpt only), by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing, February 19, 2019) Novella

Set in 1912 in the same alt-history story universe as the author’s A Dead Djinn in Cairo, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 excels on multiple fronts: as a [magical] detective yarn, as a chilling, classically structured haunted house story, and as a vehicle for historian Clark’s speculative re-imagining of modern Egyptian civilization. The story follows Hamed Nasr, an agent for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, and his eager but inexperienced new partner Onsi and they investigate the titular event. The intricate detail imbued in the story’s setting is the star of the show—I would be happy to get lost wandering the streets of Clark’s Cairo—but that takes nothing away from the wonderful cast of characters and sublime plot execution. The climax is a true nail-biter, with a resolution that resonates. Extra points for a protagonist who can wax anthropological about folklore.

“A Mate Not a Meal”, by Sarina Dorie (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, March/April 2019) Novelette

At first, Sarina Dorie’s alien spider love novelette “A Mate Not a Meal” seems like it would be a better fit for Analog’s more character-driven sister magazine Asimov’s. Taking place on a tech-free giant spider planet with a tight 1st person POV of its giant spider protagonist, it’s hard not to wonder for a time how it fits in with Analog’s stated goal to publish “stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse.” It does find its way into Analog’s wheelhouse, though explaining how is too much of a spoiler to reveal here. The spider hero of the story is Malatina, whose mother and sister are murdered and eaten by a male spider who tricked mother into believing he wanted to mate with her. This is a not infrequent occurrence on giant spider world, and Malatina must figure out on her won how to tell the difference between a man who truly loves her and one who just wants to devour her liquified insides. Her dilemma is human-relatable, but also convincingly spidery. The narrative is riveting and suspenseful and harrowing and action-packed and romantic and yes, also full of science that the story couldn’t live without.

Highly Regarded

Nightmare 78
Cover by Yupachingping

All the Hidden Places“, by Cadwell Turnbull (Nightmare Magazine Issue 78, March 2019) Short Story

The savviest genre authors use conventional story elements to manipulate readers’ expectations. “All the Hidden Places” is the story of Sherman and Nikki, a father and daughter journeying from the Virgin Islands to Sherman’s family home in Michigan through a plague-ravaged America where the infected turn into violent raving lunatics. Sherman is hiding something from his daughter, and if only she can figure out what that is, she would have a better understanding of their circumstances. Skillful tone-setting, subtle atmospherics, and the easy relatability of Sherman’s overprotective father and Nikki’s bright but confused teenager, elevate the familiar setup. What really sets it apart, though, is the interplay of foreshadowing and misdirection, which guides the story to a chilling and inevitable conclusion.

Also Recommended

FSF 3-4-2019
Cover by Kent Bash

“The Unbearable Lightness of Bullets”, by Gregor Hartmann (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2019) Short Story

A police detective investigates a finance-related murder with broader social implications. Another of Hartmann’s wonderful stories set on the far-future frontier world of Zephyr; like the others, it stands on its own while rewarding fans of the previous stories. There is a nice little undercurrent of tension between the philosophically minded Inspector Song and her faith-oriented partner that lends the story extra weight.

Self-Storage Starts with the Heart“, by Maria Romasco-Moore (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 106, March 2019) Short Story

James can’t deal when his best and only friend Christopher moves away. Storing your loneliness can get expensive, so he builds his own discount loneliness storage apparatus and his equally lonely neighbor Emil convinces him they can start a business together. Author Moore makes building a world around a casual absurdity look easy, not to mention building a story around a protagonist with entirely selfish motives.

Curse Like a Savior“, by Russell Nichols (Apex Magazine Issue 118, March 2019) Short Story

Junior is a tech who repairs malfunctioning “Halograms”—religious-themed hologram devices—but there’s something different about Mrs. Fisher’s potty-mouthed Jesus. Nichols transforms what could have been a one-joke premise into a devilish surprise.

Hands Made for Weaving, With Nails Sharp as Claws“, by Eden Royce (Fireside Magazine Issue 65, March 2019) Short Story

This beautifully written story follows the efforts of the world weaver, who rescues magical creatures when they accidently slip through the veil between worlds. Full of wonderful imagery and memorable characters.

“How I Found Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers”, by Lawrence Watt-Evans (Asimov’s Science Fiction, March/April 2019) Novelette

This long-gestating, standalone sequel to Watt-Evans’ Hugo-winning classic is the most perfect tribute imaginable to Asimov’s late, legendary former editor Gardner Dozois. A private investigator tracks the source of a mysterious object called a “neural resonator” to the titular diner, which is also a waypoint to the multiverse. A first-rate illustration of the kind of classically structured sci-fi Asimov’s has trafficked in since its inception.

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]

nightmare 69
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]

bcs 260
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]

fiyah 7
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]

clarkesworld 137
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]

interzone 277
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 Best Short SFF – October 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!

No time for zine reviews this month, but I still managed to squeeze in plenty of reading. Here are the stories that stood out for me:

Must Read

Nine Last DaysNine Last Days on Planet Earth”, Daryl Gregory (Tor.com 9/19/2019) Novelette

At first glance, the title of Daryl Gregory’s novelette implies a countdown. It might take a moment to realize that the particular ordering of the first three words – “Nine Last Days”, not “Last Nine Days” – robs it of its urgency. All our days are among our last. We peek in on nine of them strewn throughout the long life of LT, who at the age of ten witnesses a meteor shower that seeds the earth with alien flora, an event that shapes the course of his life as well as the planet’s history. LT has no use for the reactionary narratives that often guide stories of alien invasion; he seeks only knowledge and understanding and in doing so he makes a lasting positive impact on the world. Gregory’s masterful, impressionist epic offers an optimistic course-correction for our cynical times.

Highly Regarded

interzone 277“Inscribed on Dark Water”, Gregor Hartmann (Interzone #277, Sept 2018) Novelette

Another outstanding entry in Hartmann’s Zephyr story cycle. Olani is an intern at a fuel refinery on the frontier planet of Zephyr, but instead of being a stepping stone to greater things she mostly just cleans up after people who either resent or ignore her. Two women at the refinery take an interest in her; religious “Pather” Tessa is always plying her with advice that seems to have little to do with a successful career path and more with personal fulfillment, while lawyer Mingzhen pursues a dalliance with Olani that promises connections with the “right” people. Mingzhen offers the surer path to career advancement; Olani finds it easy to dismiss Tessa’s advice as fanatical religiosity, but she may have a point underneath all that pretense. “Inscribed on Dark Water” is the definition of grown-up sci-fi: intricate worldbuilding, intimate and insightful character detail, a perfect balance of hard and social SF.

We Ragged Few”, Kate Alice Marshall (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, 9/27/2018) Novella

Now that the rothounds have crossed the warding stones at the boundary, Reyna knows her late sister’s prophecy will come true and the village will be destroyed. Talgren, the village chief, has his own soothsayer who offers a more convenient counter-explanation for the prophecy’s claims. Reyna and her band of believers must act against Talgren’s wishes and plan their flight in secret, but with so much preparation required their chances of escaping diminish with each passing day. “We Ragged Few” offers classic Sword-and-Sorcery feels with a modern flavor. The details of the setting and backstory (mythology, history, social structure, etc.) are as refined as a story of this length can possibly offer, yet Marshall keeps everything moving at a tight pace. I enjoyed the fact that while Talgren was clearly the story’s antagonist, his willingness to indulge Reyna’s transgressions and hope that she will come to accept his truth makes it hard to hate him, at least for a little while. Great characters and an engrossing narrative make for one of the year’s best novellas.

Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries), Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing) Novella

Everything comes full circle for Murderbot in the conclusion to Wells’ quadrilogy of novellas. The GrayCris Corporation takes Doctor Mensah hostage, believing her responsible for the difficulties Murderbot has caused them. Murderbot must affect a rescue of its friend without giving up the goods it has on GrayCris and while almost certainly walking into a trap. Wells weaves together all the elements that have made this series such a rousing success: caustic humor, lightning-paced and suspenseful storytelling, and a deeply human emotional core. The action in Exit Strategy is almost non-stop, but the true reward for readers is the completion of Murderbot’s character arc, its journey from self-serving anti-hero to selfless hero; a transition it achieves without losing the edge that made it so endearing in the first place.

Lightspeed 101Super-Luminous Spiral”, Cameron Van Sant (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 101, Oct 2018) Short Story

The protagonist is an undergraduate creative writing student who hasn’t written anything worth a damn until he falls for “galaxy boy” – a classmate whose “blue and green skin is speckled in spirals of twinkling light.” Profundity pours from him until galaxy boy moves on to his next catch, leaving our hero to chase the dragon. I keep telling myself that I don’t like stories told in the second person, then one like this comes along that utilizes it to good effect. A convincing and compelling journey of self-discovery seems to be what second person was built for.

Thirty-Three Percent Joe,” Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld Issue 145, October 2018) Novelette

The hero of Palmer’s tragicomic novelette is a terrible soldier who is so incompetent he can’t even die on the battlefield when he tries. He keeps getting injured enough to require mechanical limbs and organs to replace the ones he loses, all of which are “smart” enough to conspire to keep him out of harm’s way. Similar in theme to Palmer’s  sardonic enough Hugo-winning war story “The Secret Life of Bots”, “Thirty-Three Percent Joe” practically irradiates the reader with melting-point level sardonicism. A depressingly cynical, absurdist take on the future of warfare; the kind of story you want to kick yourself for laughing with but you just can’t help it.

Also Recommended

BCS 261The Horror of Party Beach”, Dale Bailey (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 101, Oct 2018) Novelette

The elderly narrator recalls his first high school girlfriend, fellow science nerd Elaine. Something wasn’t quite right with Elaine, and it all leads back to her mad-scientist father. Some of Bailey’s best stories deliver on the promise of their retro b-movie titles; this one has a nice slow burn leading to the titular event and ends with a great kicker.

The Tragedy of Zayred the Splendid”, Grace Seybold (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #262, 10/11/2018) Novelette

War-bards Zayred the Splendid and Meriri the Undying were friends who fought in battle together; now they are locked in rival campaigns to publicly discredit the other. Great characters in a fun setting, spiked with an air of light but ghoulish humor.

The Best Short SFF – September 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!

Apex-Magazine-112Must Read

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

Ten years ago, Susanna walked into the woods with her little brother, and came back home without him. Now, it’s time to return and face the secret she’s been keeping from her family all those years. A haunting dark fantasy, with prose that cuts deep.

“Field Biology of the Wee Fairies”, Naomi Kritzer (Apex Magazine Issue 112, September 2018) Short Story

Catching a fairy is a rite of passage every girl is supposed go though when they hit their teens, but Amelia regards it with something between disinterest and disdain. Can a stupid fairy help her win the science fair and get accepted to the boys only science club? Since the twee little sprite won’t leave her alone, she decides to find out. Count this among Krizter’s sharpest tales.

“Conspicuous Plumage”, Sam J. Miller (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 100, September 2018) Short Story

Bette’s older brother Cary was brutally murdered and she doesn’t just want to know how, she wants to experience it for herself. Her classmate Hiram has a reputation for helping people “see” things, and together they journey to the site of Cary’s murder to find the truth. A somber, elegiac meditation on grief and the beauty of life.

Highly RegardedClarkesworld 144

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

A moody, low-key supernatural drama about a mother trying to defend her daughter from a neighborhood bully. Well drawn characters and an appropriately ominous tone.

“Triquetra”, Kirstyn McDermott (Tor.com, 9/5/2018) Novelette

A beautifully conceived, often terrifying sequel to Snow White, where the princess wants to take her daughter and flee from her disturbed husband. As if he wasn’t enough of an obstacle, she still has her hated stepmom and that insidious mirror to deal with.

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

This SF story of an artist trying to cope with the dreariness of her life on a frontier planet burrows under your skin. Roberts makes effective use of color to elucidate the protagonist’s state of mind.

“A Study in Oils”, Kelly Robson (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 144, September 2018) Novelette

Zhang Lei is Lunar-born; now he hides out on earth after killing someone in a violent hockey game. He waits to hear about his asylum status while hiding from gangs of Lunar “brawlers” who want to hunt him down and kill him. An exciting narrative in a complex, expansive setting.

BCS 259Also Recommended

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

Whatever you do, don’t argue with the alien sharks about economic theory.

“Emissaries from the Skirts of Heaven”, Gregor Hartmann (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept/Oct 2018) Short Story

Spanning several planets and periods of time, the reader pieces together the personal journey of a religious devotee who wants to make a difference.

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

A near-future teen drama in which smart houses can be more harmful, (especially to young women) than helpful.

“Shooting Iron”, Cassandra Khaw and Jonathan L. Howard (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept/Oct 2018) Novelette

Jenny Lim battles the demonic minions of Boss Lonely to rescue an old west ghost town from a terrible curse in this reversal of the “white savior” trope.

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

This industrial steampunk thriller finds Hester’s estranged lover Verity showing up at her door with a whole lot of deadly trouble in tow.

Full reviews for these stories and more can be found in my bi-weekly column The Rack: 

Early September

Late September

 

The Rack – Zine Reviews for Late September

Apex Magazine Issue 112, September 2018

It’s easy to recognize Naomi Kritzer’s cagey humor in the title for her latest short story, “Field Biology of the Wee Fairies”. The saying goes that every girl will become pretty after they “catch their fairy”. But Amelia doesn’t care about being pretty, she wants to win first prize at the science fair, hoping stodgy old Mr. Crawford will let her join the boys-only science club. When Amelia’s fairy arrives, she tries to ignore it so it will go away. It won’t, so she traps it in one of her specimen jars and applies the scientific method to figure out what the hell is going on with these silly fairies, anyway. The real magic of a Kritzer story is the graceful tone and sly humor she effortlessly deploys in her perfectly plotted tales; this one is no exception. Just try to wipe that smile off your face before the story ends. I dare you.
A fun, frantic inner monologue chock full of Hawaiian slang makes up the misadventure tale “Coyote Now Wears a Suit”, by Ani Fox. Kupu springs the Sioux trickster god Coyote out of lockup because his auntie insists Coyote is family. Apparently, Kupu is the only one who can see that he’s a giant dog wearing a suit. Things spiral out of control from there, but Coyote isn’t a malicious god and everything that goes wrong also has a silver lining. It’s a nice, light, upbeat story, though maybe a little overboard with the gonzo attitude.
The heroine sisters of Stina Leicht’s “A Siren’s Cry is a Song of Sorrow” don’t want to escape from their lives due to suffering any extraordinary abuse; they’re weary of the ordinary abuse one suffers just for being born a girl. Enticed by mermaid lore, the girls seek magic that can transform them into the mythical creatures. The author’s points carry weight, and the girls are admirably rebellious in their refusal to internalize the world’s misogyny and conform to its stifling definitions.

Clarkesworld 144Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 144, September 2018

The entirety of Robert Bresson’s 1956 film “A Man Escaped” follows a convict on the run from police after breaking out of prison. The film does not explain his supposed crime or his presumed guilt or innocence; Bresson posited that, absent these details, the audience’s sympathies would be with the escapee, because everyone can identify with the desire to be free. In Kelly Robson’s new story “A Study in Oils”, Luna-born hockey player Zhang Lei is hiding out on Earth, with a noose attached to his carotid and a button that reads “KILLER: FAIR GAME.” The moon wants him back, and while he waits to find out if the authorities accept his asylum application, gangs of Lunar “brawlers” are out trying to hunt him down. Robson offers little information about his crime in the first half of the story, only that he feels bad about the death he caused. It’s easy to sympathize with someone who is being persecuted, and one has reason to suspect early on that the lunar authority’s idea of justice isn’t exactly fair. Robson is a master at unveiling her world-building in precise, subtle strokes: she lets the reader ask the “what is happening?” questions and slips the answers into unexpected places. Zhang Lei’s back-story unfolds in measured doses, and most of the suspense in “A Study in Oils” builds on the reader’s desire to see our sympathy for him justified. Robson is a writer who gains the reader’s trust and rewards it generously.
Chenghui hacks her way into an apprenticeship with Meixiu, the social media superstar Chenghui’s dying sister is most enamored with, in D.A. Xiaolin Spires “Waves of Influence”. Chenghui’s plan is to impersonate Meixiu and send personalized messages to her sister to keep her spirits up, but soon she becomes as shallow and self-absorbed as her mentor and loses sight of her original goals. Spires depiction of near-future social media saturation feels believable and inevitable. It’s not so much a cautionary tale as a “what choice do we have?” tale.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September/October 2018

Cassandra Khaw and Jonathan L. Howard offer a reversal of the “white savior” trope featured in most West meets East stories; in “Shooting Iron”, a Malaysian woman become a wild west gunslinger to liberate an American ghost town whose residents are frozen in time by a 100-plus-year-old curse. As a child, rich girl Jenny Lim crash lands in Angel Gulch, where the residents haven’t aged a day since the 19th century, thanks to a curse authored by Boss Lonely, a demonic cattle rancher who made the town disappear from the map to win a contract with the railroad company. The story toggles back and forth between Jenny’s origin story and the present, where adult Jenny travels to the UK to dispatch some of Boss Lonely’s goons. “Shooting Iron” is pure, action-packed fun; the authors have a grand ol’ time mashing together b-movie western and horror stylings. I wish the “present day” story had been more consequential: it does nothing to resolve the conflicts or answer the questions raised in the “origin” plotline. My guess is Howard and Khaw were going for a pilot episode feel and perhaps are planning a sequence of stories in this setting.
Brian Trent’s “The Memorybox Vultures” has a knockout premise: Epitaph Incorporated preserves online identities for deceased clients, allowing them to continue to post comments and send notices after preparing a “memorybox”. Virtual representations of the deceased, called “quasints”, serve as proxies for the deceased to interact with their living handlers. Donna Lane is a handler who finds herself in deep trouble when one of her clients “deadposts” evidence that the governor of Connecticut has a history of committing sadistic and violent acts. Trent’s story hums along nicely for a while – interesting protagonist, suspenseful storytelling – then lets the air out with an ending that only avoids deus ex machination thanks to a flimsy call back to a thing that was barely mentioned early in the story. It plays like the author was writing himself out of a corner and sunk what otherwise could have been a terrific story.
“Emissaries from the Skirts of Heaven” is the latest, and possibly best, story set on and around the Frontier planet Zephyr. It also traverses an epic scale of time and distance to tell the intimate story of Grace, a devotee of humanity’s dominant theocracy (called Pathway) who seeks to reconcile the moral and ethical inconsistencies in her church’s doctrine. The story jumps to different points in Grace’s life: from her origins as an orphan from a broken home, to her time in the exclusive seminary-like “Diversity”, through her military service fighting against a growing heresy, concluding with her time as a counselor and medic on Zephyr. As a child, Grace hides in the closet while her parents are having a violent argument. She plays an educational game on her tablet, and after correctly answering a series of questions the program rewards her with cheerful music and a quick animation: “The girl, who looked like Grace, shrugged off her breather pack. Her arms became wings and she leapt into space. Angels materialized like fractal snowflakes and escorted her into the starry sky. Watching herself fly, Grace moaned with joy.” Adult Grace, wiser and tempered by experience, again hides away from violent conflict on a remote island on a distant planet, searching for the right answers. Grace’s personal journey drew me in, but I felt the story offered an incomplete picture of the war she hoped to avert. Were there factors beyond the theological that led some Pathway worlds to embrace the heresy? If so, will a theological fix be sufficient? Will it be enough to make up for the millions (billions?) of lives lost?
Geoff Ryman gives a gentle poke in the ribs to “woke” white South Africans in “Blessed”. Ryman’s second-person protagonist has her white guilt cred listed for the reader (you benefitted from apartheid, but “your older sister went to jail” fighting the good fight, etc.) as she tours the inside of Olumo Rock in Abeokuta, Nigeria. She loses her way, and a series of mildly fantastical events leads her to an unexpected conclusion. The story is amusing and full of puckish audio/visual cues (the snake that sounds like a crying baby is a goosefleshy one), and the point – that whites will never connect to the land the way native Africans can – is salient, if also an easy-to-hit target. It’s unclear what the final twist means to accomplish.

lightspeed 100Lightspeed Magazine Issue 100, September 2018

This special mega-sized anniversary issue features a few originals worth discussing.

Carrie Vaughn’s “Harry and Marlowe and the Secret of Ahomana” is a steampunk flavored sci-fantasy adventure in which an airship carrying a British princess and her military escort (the Harry and Marlowe of the title) crash lands on the previously uncharted South Pacific Island of Ahomana. The two passengers survive and their injuries are healed by the Polynesian natives, who possess technology far beyond what the Brits are capable of. The two castaways want to return home, but Ahomana has survived for generations by remaining hidden, and the island’s leaders won’t let them leave. I loved the backstory: aliens called Aetherians visited the Earth long ago and left behind artifacts that humans used to develop advanced technology. The central conflict of the story focuses on the contrast between the European powers who wield Aetherian tech to build weapons of war and the Polynesians on Ahomana, whose application is more constructive. Vaughn offers a modern twist on a familiar colonial adventure narrative, and I enjoyed that all the players have good intentions while their goals cross purpose. I have some nagging questions about the story’s inciting incident, and some reservations about the ending. Overall, it’s a solid adventure tale with likeable characters.
Most depictions of artificial intelligence in fiction focus on the aftermath of machine self-awareness; only on rare occasions is the evolutionary process the focus of attention. In Ken Liu’s “The Explainer”, an engineer responds to a service call for a domestic AI that has malfunctioned on multiple occasions (not letting a family member in the house, burning dinner, etc.). Because the model, called Allie, evolves based on its relationship with the household it serves, the engineer can’t simply check its programming, because many of the algorithms that govern its thinking are self-taught. Liu offers some interesting propositions on how AI could one day integrate into our daily lives, and displays his usual flair for lucid, well-crafted storytelling. The story offers little in the way of conflict or tension and is more like an interesting vignette your co-worker relates to you at the office.
Sam J. Miller’s “Conspicuous Plumage”, set in (or around) the 1950s, finds teenager Bette Rosenblatt devastated by the brutal murder of her beloved older brother, Cary, a college-aged dancer. She wants to understand, even experience, what happened to him in his last moments. Hiram, a classmate of Bette’s, has a reputation for helping others “see” things, and Bette convinces him to go with her to the murder scene. In Miller’s stories, the characters’ seek outward expression for their inner lives, often with fantastical results; Bette describes Cary’s body literally transforming into birds when he danced, a spiritual reality that trumps any objection from those who refuse to witness such grace. The tragedy of the story is that it is not just his art but his sexuality that demands expression as well; the inner life that makes him loved by so many also makes him reviled by others. We suspect what’s coming before Bette sees the truth of his death. That the truth of his life outshines the horror of its end is the story’s great achievement.
A group of young Mennonite girls find a robot behind a barn and name her “Hard Mary” in Sofia Samatar’s gentle, refined sci-fi novelette. Years later the company that made Mary sends a representative to reclaim their property, but the women of the town aren’t willing to give her up. The best thing about “Hard Mary” is its depiction of life in the town of Jericho, especially how its old-fashioned, gender-based division of labor affects the women in the community. The sequence depicting the everyday frustrations and obstacles the narrator, Lyddie, goes through just to do something as mundane as making breakfast is one of the story’s high points. While it is understandable that Mim – the independent, headstrong (and unmarried) member of the group who shows an aptitude for engineering – would want to defend Mary, we never come to understand why the entire community is so invested in protecting her. There is no indication that Mary is intelligent, much less sentient, or has any kind of personality, or has befriended anyone. Mary herself (itself?) gets little time on the stage, despite the long word count in a story named for her. My admiration for Samatar’s prose and her objectives can’t overcome my lack of involvement in the plot’s main conflict. Also, calling the big evil corporation “Profane Industries” is a little on the nose.

Tor.com (9/5/2018)

“Triquetra” is Australian author Kirstyn McDermott’s sequel to Snow White, in which the grown-up princess, trapped in her marriage to her not-so-charming rescuer, lives in a castle with her imprisoned wicked stepmother, and the cursed mirror she keeps locked away in a tower. Disturbed by her husband’s intentions toward their seven-year-old daughter, Snow knows they must escape but her husband has ways of keeping them on the castle grounds. Stepmother offers to help, but given their history Snow has no reason to trust her. Instead, she turns to the devilish mirror with disastrous results. The prince is a menacing figure, though his presence in the story is more abstraction than obstruction. The real villain is the mirror, meaning the greatest obstacle to Snow’s success is herself. “Triquetra” is riveting and often frightening, and feels like a genuine extension of the classic fairy tale, rather than a hip, postmodern deconstruction.

Subterranean Press

Rock, the glum yet over-stimulated protagonist and narrator of Charlie Jane Anders novella “Rock Manning Goes for Broke”, summarizes his life from age 4 through the end of high school in one chapter. Starting with his stunt double father throwing him off a roof to teach his boy the tricks of the trade, Rock grows up with a penchant for playing self-inflicted injuries for laughs. Even bullies have trouble bullying him, because they can’t do anything to him worse than what he’s willing to do for himself. As a teenager, the surreal slapstick comedies he makes with his best friend Sally Hamster make him an internet-streaming sensation. Meanwhile, poking out from the margins of his stream-of-consciousness biography is a portrait of an America slowly sliding into dystopia. A war overseas leads to the re-instatement of the draft while economic turmoil leads to rioting. Worst of all, a group of fascist street thugs called the Red Bandanas rise to prominence, and they want to exploit Rock’s fame to make propaganda films for their cause. Again, this all goes down just in the first chapter.
Anders’s talent for delivering absurdist humor with one hand and a knife to the gut with the other is in overdrive here. The pace and tone are set by the perpetual anxiousness of the story’s hero, and while that’s part of what makes “Rock Manning” so exhilarating, it’s also part of the problem. Anders never lets us come up for air, and the experience of reading it ends up being a lot like spending too much time around a hyperactive, attention-seeking teenager—exhausting, frustrating, leaving you glancing nervously at the clock and trying to conjure an excuse to slip away while he barrels onward, demanding the spotlight. There is plenty to reward readers who stick it through to the end, though, and Anders completists will not want to miss it.

F&amp;SF sepoct2018Must Read

“Field Biology of the Wee Fairies”, Naomi Kritzer (Apex Magazine Issue 112, September 2018) Short Story

“Conspicuous Plumage”, Sam J. Miller (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 100, September 2018) Short Story

Highly Regarded

“Triquetra”, Kirstyn McDermott (Tor.com, 9/5/2018) Novelette

“A Study in Oils”, Kelly Robson (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 144, September 2018) Novelette

Also Recommended

“Shooting Iron”, Cassandra Khaw and Jonathan L. Howard (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept/Oct 2018) Novelette

“Emissaries from the Skirts of Heaven”, Gregor Hartmann (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept/Oct 2018) Short Story