The Best Short SFF of March 2020

Featured Image from “Investigate” by Andis Reinbergs, cover art for Beneath Ceaseless Skies #298-299

Must Read Stories

 

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Cover by Patila/Adobe Stock Art

A Study in Shadows“, Benjamin Percy [Nightmare Magazine Issue 90, March 2020] Short Story

“A Study in Shadows” is a grim, phantasmagoric character study of the appropriately named Dr. Harrow, a psychology professor who engages in a field study “on the belief in the invisible”. He has a penchant for manipulating his subjects to induce a state of terror, unleashing deadly havoc but always escaping the consequences of his actions. The calmly anecdotal tenor of the prose is what really twists the knife.

“Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars”, Mercurio D. Rivera [Asimov’s Science Fiction, March/April 2020] Novelette

A tour de force of old-fashioned Outer Limits-style existentialist sci-fi, “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” follows internet reporter Cory, who is handed the story of a lifetime when his ex-girlfriend Milagros creates an extraordinarily complex simulated reality. Milagros generates a race of beings more suited to problem solving than humans, and by throwing one cataclysm after another at them she uses their virtual solutions to solve real world problems like climate change and cancer. Things go horribly wrong, of course, when her creations turn out to be even better at solving problems than she could have anticipated.

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Cover Art by chainat

Escaping Dr. Markoff“, Gabriela Santiago [The Dark Issue 58, March 2020] Short Story

I love stories that create their own rules and teach the reader how to follow them. Santiago’s second-person narrative deposits you in a mad scientist b-movie, where you pine for the nefarious and charismatic Dr. Markoff while you are both complicit in and victimized by his dastardly schemes. It’s a flick with a flexible fourth wall, continually re-shooting and re-editing itself, wandering offscreen and backstage at its leisure and blurring the line between performance and reality.

Tend to Me“, by Kristina Ten [Lightspeed Magazine Issue 118, March 2020] Short Story

Nora is stuck in a pattern of taking on the interests and hobbies of whomever she is dating at the time. She has no real interest in any of these activities (which include rock climbing, scuba diving, beekeeping, gardening, auto repair), in fact she often actively disdains them. Her life shifts gears in a totally unexpected but weirdly logical way when she starts dating an acupuncturist. Ten’s very short story is propelled by sly, ticklish prose and a generous empathy for its characters.

More Recommended Stories

The Amusement Dark“, Mike Buckley [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 162, March 2020] Novelette

A sober and engrossing story about people looking for meaning in life after humanity loses the war against the AI. The peculiar, murky relationship that develops between the humans and their new “benevolent” oppressors is fascinating.

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Cover by Mondolithic Studios

“A Feast of Butterflies”, Amanda Hollander [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2020] Short Story

A constable is instructed to arrest, without evidence, a young girl from another town who may be connected to the disappearance of five local boys. The girl has some unusual habits and is definitely hiding something, but she’s not the only one. An eerie little dark fantasy, and a devilishly satisfying one.

“The Last Legend”, Matthew Hughes [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2020] Novelette

Ever down-on-his-luck Ardal flees town after assaulting his bully of a co-worker. After a sequence of further misadventures he stumbles upon a house in the woods beset by mysterious enchantments, its sole inhabitant afflicted with a strange kind of memory loss. Hughes charming, episodic meta-adventure lives up to its title in the literal sense.

Rat and Finch are Friends“, Innocent Chizaram Ilo [Strange Horizons, March 2, 2020] Short Story

Izuchukwu is in trouble with his school and his family when he is caught kissing a boy. He is also an “amusu” who can transform into a finch, and he’ll be in more serious trouble if they find out about that. A smart, well-crafted and poignant coming-of-age fantasy.

Where the World Ends Without Us“, Jason Sanford [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #299, March 26, 2020] Novelette

This exciting and suspenseful novelette draws together the characters and storylines from Sanford’s two previous “Grains” stories. This time, Alexnya is being prosecuted for Frere-Jones’s crimes (from “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories“) by the inflexible grains, who zealously “protect” the earth from the people who would harm it. A glimmer of hope arrives when she crosses paths with Colton’s day-fellow caravan (from “The Emotionless, In Love“). There’s enough context to anchor new readers, but the other stories are well worth investing your time in.

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Cover Art by Thomas Chamberlain-Keen

Coffee Boom: Decoctions, Micronized“, by D.A. Xiaolin Spires [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 162, March 2020] Short Story

A fun caper story about a coffee-obsessed waitress who discovers she can create the perfect cuppa joe, if she can just get her hands on a newly invented mini-collider. A fresh and quirky concept, well-realized.

The Spoils“, Aliya Whiteley [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #298, February 27, 2020] Short Story

Citizens of an underground-dwelling civilization covet pieces of a massive, recently deceased creature known as an Olme for its magical properties. Most have little idea what to do with their cut, but Kim knows exactly what she wants and how to get it. Or, at least she thinks she does. “The Spoils” is the kind of story that gradually peels back its layers to reveal a wider and deeper world than it shows at first glance.

 

The Rack – Zine Reviews for Late August 2018

Strange Horizons

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

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

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

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

Clarkesworld Issue 143, August 2018

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

Fireside Issue 58, August 2018

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

GigaNotoSaurus (8/1/2018)

“Chrysalis in Sunlight”, by Sarena Ulibarri

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

Tor.com

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

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

fireside 58Must Read

None.

Highly Regarded

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

Also Recommended

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

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

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

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

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