I apologize for the brevity and lack of depth in the write-ups, or any mistakes abound. I’m finishing this up late at night from a hospital bed so braining is hard: this month’s list brought to you by oxycodone!
As always if you like what you read, consider paying for an issue or subscription. Even though many of these zines make their publications available to read for free on the internet, they still have writers and staff to pay and rely on income to do so. Please enjoy these great stories!
Parveen’s best friend Aisha falls in with “Benny and his dumb demon cult” who want to get possessed for kicks, but Parveen doesn’t quite fit in with that crowd. The tone of the story is like one long teenage shrug, but gliding under the surface is a desperate adult awareness of time skipping past all our youthful idealism.
“Still Water“, by Ian Muneshwar (Anathema Issue 8, August 2019) Short Story
Miles and Trent are on a couples counselor-inspired jaunt to the wilderness, where their fraying relationship is further tested when their surroundings get a little off-real. A great character study and relationship drama, but what really distinguishes “Still Water” is the slow transgression from its natural setting to a not-quite natural one.
“Your Face“, by Rachel Swirsky (Clarkesworld Issue 155, August 2019) Short Story
Swirsky excels at presenting the reader with a deceptively simple setup, before sneaking up on you with a shiv to the gut. In “Your Face”, a mother talks to a computer scan of her late daughter, wanting to know how much she remembers before she died.
A colorful and powerful story about refugees searching for a new home on a train that is also a squid.
“No Matter“, by Kendra Fortmeyer (Lightspeed Issue 111, August 2019) Short Story
A time traveler drops in on a young married couple, claiming to be his future daughter, but not hers. What could have been nothing more than a one joke premise turns into quite an emotional storm.
“Getaway“, by Jennifer Hudak (Podcastle #585, July 30, 2019) [narrator Jen R. Albert] Short Story
A gut-twisting body horror fantasia about Leena, who swallows some bad lake water while on vacation, and the ensuing illness becomes a blessing in disguise when she discovers she can now escape from her body. Heed the content warnings.
“Verum”, by Storm Humbert (Interzone #282, July/August 2019) Novelette
Rev is losing business to a new verum designer, Gina, whose doses offer users a more immersive experience. Great world-building and characters, and a nice reversal at the end.
“Fare“, by Danny Lore (Fireside Magazine Issue 70, August 2019) Short Story
Deshaun really needs to get to the public kennel, more than his distracted cab driver knows. The “real time” feel of the narrative guides the rising tension.
Featured Image from the Cover Art for Augur Magazine issue 2.1, by Janice Liu
“Clear as Quartz, Sharp as Flint”, by Maria Haskins (Augur Issue 2.1, April 2019) Short Story
Jenna can hear the stones singing to her, much to the chagrin of her Grammy, who prays to the wooden god. “She heard that same song the day the baby quickened. Heard it again when Grammy laid her hands on her belly, shaking her head, muttering of ill-made children, saying that the stones would claim what the wooden god would not.” Maria Haskins’ dark fables often remind me of the classic films of F.W. Murnau and Carl Theodor Dreyer in her ability to distill the act of storytelling into pure emotion and bald imagery, displayed in acute yet elegant compositions. The title of this story is a more apt description of what it does than what it’s about, as it feels far brighter and deeper than its 1000 words should allow.
“An Open Coffin”, by H. Pueyo (The Dark Issue 47, April 2019) Short Story
Amélia goes to work for General Estiano to care for a corpse that resides at his house. The corpse has been on display for decades and attracts many devotees, who appear daily to fawn over it. “You must always let them in,” one servant tells her. “Don’t ask too many questions.” Brazilian author Pueyo uses classic literary devices to build her story—red herring, unreliable narrator, foreshadowing—while its reality unspools like a waking nightmare. It’s a sinister cautionary tale about the noxious behavior that ensues when people fall into the nostalgia trap.
A new entry in GRRM’s Wildcards universe, this novelette tells the origin story of T.K., a teenager will partial left-side paralysis who gets picked on at PE by the mean girls. Her “card turns” one day during class and she discovers she has the power to control spherical objects with her mind. Her squeamishness after engaging in a mild act of revenge convinces her she’s better off just using her powers for good. That opens its own can of worms once the opportunity presents itself. Kloos built his reputation on military SF, but here he shows that his skillful plotting and ability to craft believable, relatable protagonists crosses over to other genres. The not-so-subtle ways T.K.’s tormentors bully her without running afoul of school authorities is effectively done. Context clues abound, so readers new to the Wildcards premise shouldn’t have any trouble getting the gist.
Rayven is one of the few black students among a sea of white faces at Queen Mary Catholic High School. She’s proud of her four-years-in-the-making locs, but when the new principal Mrs. McGee takes office, she declares that Rayven’s hair violates the dress code and makes her cut them off. Soon after, a flower sprouts from Rayven’s scalp, followed by an entire garden. And this garden doesn’t let anyone mess with it. Del Sandeen’s fabulist piece finds the right balance between pragmatism and the uncanny. The precariousness of Rayven’s circumstances give the reader plenty of reasons to root for her and she doesn’t disappoint, even when the people who should support her let her down.
After a 95,000 year journey, robot J11-L arrives at the planet it was sent to terraform ahead of the generation ships that left earth. But those ships died off millennia ago, so instead J11-L fashions new life from the likeness of its only companion, a stuffed toy it calls “Monkey”. But even engineered evolution takes a long time to perfect. Thoughtful, gentle, optimistic sci-fi in the classic mold.
A crafty and engaging story about a village called Peacetown whose residents make their choices based on the whisperings of a magical conch-shell. Fruit-seller Kwai goes off on a magical adventure, while the shell’s advice pushes cookware vendor Var to become mayor. Shai is a fruit harvester caught in between the two men’s destinies and forced to question whether the conch-shell’s instigations really benefit anyone.
“Everything Rising, Everything Starting Again”, by Sarah Brooks (Interzone #280, March 2019) Short Story
In this slow-burning apocalypse, people are dying en masse for unknown reasons, their souls turning into black butterflies and flying away. The oddly casual tone of the story, as the narrator wonders and worries and which family and friends she will lose next, is captivating.
Shari Paul’s broadly comical “No Late-For-School” is the story of a blogger named Delilah who one day finds a feather growing out of her scalp. Delilah uses a long blog entry to relate the outlandish tale of how she discovered the culprit responsible for her malady. Perfect comic timing and momentum build to an uproarious climax. The story also has some weight to it, as Delilah comes to realize she is in a toxic relationship.
“The One Before Scheherazade”, by Bianca Sayan (Augur Issue 2.1, April 2019) Short Story
As the title suggests, this is the story of the girl chosen to be queen-for-a-night right before Scheherazade captivates the King with her tales for 1001 successive nights. With one day left to live, she must determine what kind of queen she will be, and how she will be remembered. An ingenious premise and an engrossing character study.
Featured image from the cover of Apex Magazine issue 117, by Julia Griffin
In addition to being the shortest month of the year, I faced some unexpected life changes in February and was unable to produce my zine review column on a weekly basis. While my writing time suffered, my reading time thankfully did not, and I found plenty of quality short fiction to celebrate this month.
“The Message” by Vanessa Fogg (The Future Fire Issue 48, February 2019) Short Story
Science fiction has always assumed that if Earth received a message from deep space, it would have civilization-altering consequences. Here, Vanessa Fogg charts a near-future course for us where scientists find such a message and it is just consumed, rather inelegantly, into our mass-media culture. Sarah is the teenaged daughter of the scientist who discovered the enigmatic, indecipherable Message fifteen years before, but its effect on her life has more to do with everyday concerns like “will my parents ever stop fighting?” and “does my best friend Chloe really love me?”. That second question forms the heart of Fogg’s story. Sarah and Chloe live half a world apart and have never met – and may never meet – in person, yet to Sarah the intimacy of that relationship is as deep and true as anything she can see or touch. Fogg disperses so many thematic and narrative strands and covers so many relevant scientific and sociological issues it is an absolute marvel how she weaves them together into a cohesive whole. Inventive, intricate, incandescent; stories like this are the reason I have a “Must Read” category in this column.
Traverse is a mythical city suspended over a chasm by a massive spider’s web, whose magic users become the thing they specialize in. Danae is headed for spider-dom, but first she must escape the predations of a dangerous fly cult and unravel a conspiracy that threatens to upend everything she holds dear. “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart” is a jaw-dropping feat of imaginative world-building bolstered by an exciting and suspenseful chase plot.
When Abigail Fort loses her daughter Hayley in a mass shooting, she decides her daughter’s death needs to mean something and allows a gun control group to use Hayley in a high-tech lobbying campaign. Then, out come the trolls. Abigail’s sister-in-law helps her get fitted with a new digital armor to filter out all the virtual attacks and disturbing, unintended consequences ensue. Liu’s mastery of near-future speculation and his grasp of the core issues is illuminating. An effective use of shifting perspectives, especially when we get a troll’s take on the proceedings.
Abigail can’t accept losing her lover Savannah, but she has suspicions about the true nature of existence that, if true, could help her chart a new course. A moving story with a brilliant twist, stunning in its economy of plot and language (it is only 1600 words long). The less said, the better: just read (or listen to) it. A content warning accompanies the story; be aware that it deals with suicide.
“Counting Days” by Patricia Lundy (Daily Science Fiction, February 1, 2019) Short Story
Another brief and powerful story about a touchy subject; DSF won’t let you see the text without first reading the content warning – kudos.
“The Backstitched Heart of Katherine Wright” by Alison Wilgus (Interzone #279, January/February 2019) Novelette
Katherine, the sister of the famous Wright brothers, Orville and Wilber, can thread herself backward in time – an ability that comes in handy when one of the boys keeps getting himself killed. The bittersweet ending packs an extra punch if you know how things turned out in real life.
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)
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 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.
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 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.
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!
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]
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.
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.
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.
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 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.)
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.