The Best Short SFF – November 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!

I haven’t read the new F&SF or Uncanny yet so any recommendations from those issues will be in December’s column.

Must Read

Asimov Nov18Theories of Flight”, Linda Nagata (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2018) Short Story

Linda Nagata revisits the artificial world of her 2003 novel Memory in “Theories of Flight”. The world is ruled by the AI “Goddess”, and its code-built inhabitants – called “players” – live multiple lives, remembering the skills they honed from past lives each time they grow to adulthood. Goddess has outlawed flying machines, but Yaphet obsesses over them. As a child, he makes one in secret, but the disaster that ensues traumatizes his cousin Mishon. Years later, he builds an aircraft capable of bearing his weight in the air, but the long-estranged Mishon follows him to his secret lair to sniff out his plans. “Theories of Flight” could pass for high fantasy if not for its Hard SF casing. The players’ culture is based around myth and folklore, not science, and the Icarus-inspired plot is a classic “hero’s journey” archetype. Yet the players also know their world is a construct, and the enigmatic Goddess almost dares her creations to break the rules designed to hold them back. Yaphet and Mishon are wonderfully drawn characters with a complex relationship that pushes the narrative in surprising directions. A captivating story from the first sentence to the last.

Asphalt, River, Mother, Child”, Isabel Yap (Strange Horizons, October 8, 2018) Short Story

Fantasists often walk on eggshells when depicting real-life horrors in their fiction; the result, no matter how well-composed, can be too sober to draw anything more from the reader than an immediate visceral response. Isabel Yap avoids this trap in her story “Asphalt, River, Mother, Child”. Its backdrop, the extra-judicial killings taking place in the Philippines, is as monstrous as one can find in the modern world. But instead of severity, Yap taps a store of vitality and humor in her prose to temper the horror without diminishing it. Mebuyen is the deity in charge of helping the innocent dead move on to the afterlife. Her usual charges are infants, but now older youths and even adults are coming to her realm: Adriana, a young girl shot by accident while police searched for her grandfather; Babygirl Santos, a transgender singer who may have occasionally sold drugs in her distant past; and Romuel, a pleasant and optimistic teen who wanted to be a policeman himself before the cops framed and murdered him. Mebuyen must find out why her river has stopped flowing so she can cleanse the innocents and send them on their way. The hallmark of a great story is characters you want to spend more time with after the last sentence is read. Such is the case with Yap’s story. The three souls who find kinship and joy in each other after the trauma of their deaths are among the most engaging and memorable I’ve encountered this year.

Highly Regarded

BCS 263The Oracle and the Sea”, Megan Arkenberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #263, Oct. 25, 2018) Short Story

Composer Kashmai wasn’t executed for her part in the resistance because she has the Oracle inside her and the President wants to know the future. She refuses to give him the satisfaction, but like the music she feels in her bones, her prophecies want to break free. Her friendship with a prison guard, and her knowledge of his future, complicates matters. Megan Arkenberg’s “The Oracle and the Sea” is a mature and well-structured work of fantasy, a story that feels grander than the limits of its physical space thanks to the author’s careful attention to the internal and external workings of its characters. Kashmai’s prophetic abilities, like her relationship with the sea that surrounds her island prison and the music her jailers still expect her to make for them, elicit conflicting emotional states. Of the Oracle, “Kashmai finds it ugly. Sick jokes played by time and circumstance.” Walking down to the sea, she “breathes in the stink of it, the plant and the salt and the musk of distant seals. Breathes in her hatred and her enemy’s cruel approximation of mercy, this torture disguised as a reprieve.” I like the way Kashmai envisions both her music and the Oracle as things that exists outside of herself, for which she is a vessel containing the tools for their expression. It is a position that not only saves her from madness and despair but allows her to assert her will despite the confines placed on her body and mind. Well done.

Talk to Your Children About Two-Tongued Jeremy”, Theodore McCombs (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 102, November 2018) Short Story

At some point it will dawn on someone to publish an anthology of “rogue app” stories, where I doubt any judicious editor would fail to include this story. Two-Tongued Jeremy is the lizard avatar of a mobile learning app that helps kids stay ahead of the curve. The app’s main feature is that it also learns as it goes, and tailors its strategies to the individual child. David is a goal-oriented eight-grader looking ahead to his future at the local magnet high school and eventually college; Two-Tongued Jeremy was built for students like him. Before long, though, the program’s motivational strategies take on a sinister bend, as it keeps finding new ways to push learners to the limit. A lot of things ring true about this story: the way adults are more and more willing to let technology regulate their children’s habits, further isolating the disparate generations from each other; the way tech companies will blame the users for using their products “wrong” instead of admitting fault; and most of all, the way tweens and teens will magnify small problems into large ones, and how easy their emotional immaturity is to manipulate. “Two-Tongued Jeremy” is more than just clever high-concept sci-fi. Its characters and setting, relayed by the author’s effective use of collective narration, stick with you after the story ends.

The Palace of the Silver Dragon”, Y.M. Pang (Strange Horizons, October 1, 2018) Novelette

This is my first encounter with Y.M. Pang, whose credits only stretch back to June of this year. The evidence suggests we will see her in this column again. “The Palace of the Silver Dragon” is the story of Aliah, a young woman who throws herself into the sea upon hearing the siren song of the Silver Dragon, Karonin. He shows her his palace with its rooms full of stories and takes her as his lover, but there is more to Aliah’s motives than just an escape from the hopelessness of her life. This story is a pure metaphysical fantasy, wherein the dividing line between mind and matter is all but erased. It is a difficult mode to pull off even for an experienced writer, so finding it done this well by a newer writer is impressive. Aliah’s delusiveness and amorality are intriguing qualities in a protagonist.

“Joyride”, Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2018) Novella

Kristine Kathryn Rusch diverges from the main storyline in her Diving Universe to tell the story of Fleet cadet Nadim Crowe, who goads his rival classmate Tessa into joining him in a bit of extracurricular malfeasance. Crowe and Tessa scheme to “borrow” obsolete shuttles and race them to the Scrapheap, a floating junkyard for old Fleet ships. Crowe has the superior plan to win the race until Tessa activates her shuttle’s anacapa drive. Regular readers of Rusch’s Diving novels and stories will know right away that things will go sideways at first mention of the anacapa; otherwise, Rusch deposits enough background information to clue new readers in. I am impressed with Rusch’s ability to keep things fresh and exciting for the stories set in this universe 13 years after the “Diving into the Wreck” first appeared in Asimov’s. Like her other excellent Diving story from this year, “Lieutenant Tightass”, the long denouement is more suited for the novel this story will eventually be part of than for this standalone version.

Also Recommended

Analog Nov18“A Measure of Love”, C. Stuart Hardwick (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Nov/Dec 2018) Short Story

C. Stuart Hardwick’s “A Measure of Love” is the gentle, affecting tale of Apollonia, orphaned at a young age and raised by an AI foster parent called Uncle Inky. As an adult, Apollonia must look after the machine that has outlived its function as her guardian, and this causes a strain on her career. This is as light-hearted as an Analog story gets, but the poignancy of Inky and Apollonia’s relationship stuck with me, as did the crafty humor. The images of Inky terrorizing stray animals with neutering chemicals and lecturing public bathers about their nudity contrasted with Apollonia’s anxiety over his well-being makes for a memorable story with a pitch perfect ending.

The Hollow Tree”, Jordan Kurella (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #264, November 8, 2018) Short Story

Pira wants to protect her mother from her abusive father, but there doesn’t seem to be any way out for them – except for the fairy that lives in The Hollow Tree and grants wishes, for a price. The author finds a nice balance between foreshadowing future events and subverting expectations. Even the warning given to Pira, that the fairy will give you what you “want”, not what you “ask for”, yields surprising results. “The Hollow Tree” is well-paced and perfectly toned, and Pira provides a sympathetic and intelligent narrative voice.

“Smear Job”, Rich Larson (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Nov/Dec 2018) Short Story

18-year-old Jalen has a consensual, but illegal, sexual relationship with underage Stef, and has a choice between jail time plus sex offender registry or an implant that blurs out anyone under 18 from his sight. He chooses the implant because it is better than the alternative, but there are sadder consequences in store for him. “Smear Job” is a solid story from the prolific Rich Larson, understated with a bittersweet ending.

“The Ascension”, Jerry Oltion (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Nov/Dec 2018) Short Story

Jerry Oltion’s 95th (!) story to grace the pages of Analog is a splendid example of why that partnership works so well: he has mastered the efficient, classical short story structure long-time Analog readers expect. “The Ascension” takes place on an alien world where the native inhabitants obtain knowledge and aptitude by eating other people who have the skills they want. The leaders of this world maintain their power by consuming the learned young. Iffix, the supreme leader, presides over a banquet where he interrogates a youth offering himself for consumption, but his test of the child’s abilities doesn’t go as planned. Oltion takes a novel concept and delivers it with clear, effective plotting and characterization, and wraps it up with a delectable twist.

The Best Short SFF – July 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!
I was out of commission for a couple of weeks this month, so I didn’t get a chance to write up all my zine reviews. I did get all my reading done, however, and I must say it was an odd month for short fiction. I found myself underwhelmed by several reliably good periodicals: Shimmer, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Tor.com – there were some interesting stories here and there, but also a lot of meh, and not a single rec from among them. The good stuff, though, was really good.

Must Read

Lightspeed 98

A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds”, James Beamon (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 98, July 2018) Short Story
War between Turkey and Russia rages on in this 19th century steampunk adventure. Aboard the Turkish airship Kismet, organ grinder Hezarfen plays patriotic songs while sending his platoon of zombie attack monkeys to board enemy ships. 14-year-old Oz tends to the monkeys, though he is terrified of them. He is terrified of most things in fact, and looks forward to becoming a man at 15, when he assumes he will find his courage. “A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” is vibrant for a war story, but no less perturbing. Hezarfen is fully invested in the torment and turmoil of bloody conflict, evincing a casual yet imperious cruelty toward Oz and the monkeys. The Kismet’s climactic battle with the Russian flagship Voina Gulag is a masterful crescendo, spiked with a precise and potent dose of dramatic irony.
Gubbinal”, Lavie Tidhar (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 142, July 2018) Short Story
Wallace Steven’s famous poem “Gubbinal” admonishes those who lack the imagination to see beauty in the world, with its repeated refrain “Have it your way/The world is ugly/And the people are sad”. Sahar, the hero of Lavie Tidhar’s story of the same name, is looking to escape the “endless chatter of grunting and farting and laughing and shouting” in Titan’s human habitat, to explore the “beautiful untamed music of the moon.” Her adventure takes her across a dangerous, unforgiving landscape full of astounding creatures, deadly pirates and impossible artifacts. The lunkheads back home can have it their way; in Tidhar’s hands, the world is anything but ugly or sad.

Highly Regarded

“This Isn’t Better”, Rebecca Birch (Galaxy’s Edge, July/August 2018) Short Story
Caleb mostly hides away from the endless shouting matches between his mother and his stepdad, until he discovers that he can take care of his problems by writing them down in his journal, then burning the page. This power has unintended consequences, and soon Caleb realizes he can use it to burn away his own humanity if he chooses to. This is one of those stories that made me want to read it again right away. “This Isn’t Better” is told in terse prose, packed solid with the anxiety and self-loathing that children raised in toxic households must endure.
“A Stab of the Knife”, Adam-Troy Castro (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, July/August 2018) Novella
I’ve been looking forward to this AIsource Infection team-up between the driven and damaged councilor Andrea Cort and the equally headstrong superspy Draiken since it was teased at the end of the last Draiken story, “Blurred Lives.” Cort has information Draiken needs to find the men he wants to bring to justice, so when he arrives in New London, he stakes her out like any good spy would. Their first encounter, in which Cort easily sniffs out and traps her pursuer, more than lived up to my expectations with electric tension and crackling dialogue. The two form a tentative truce, but once Draiken becomes entangled in the Byzantine workings of Cort’s world, he discovers he may not survive long enough to get what he needs from her. “A Stab of the Knife” isn’t quite among the best of the Cort stories, nor is it the best of the Draiken cycle, but the giddy buzz I felt from the start is sustained throughout, and the breakneck action of the second half (along with all the cool gadgets) pays dividends.Fiyah 7

“The Percivals: The Bennett Benefit”, Eboni J. Dunbar (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 7, Summer 2018) Short Story
Think Downton Abbey with vampires (!!!). Eboni J. Dunbar’s “The Percivals: The Bennett Benefit” finds the famous “Diva extraordinaire” Anna Maria Percival playing a benefit concert in the provincial Hampshire House, home of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Bennett. The concert is just a ruse: Mrs. Percival and her sister-in-law Eleanor are vampire hunters, and Mr. Bennett suspects his brother Henry may have been turned. It seems Mrs. Percival’s music has the power to hypnotize an audience of the living, as well as beckon the living dead to her. “The Percivals: The Bennett Benefit” is near-perfect balance of lush setting and incisive character detail, leading to a suspenseful and exciting climax. I humbly request the author revisit this world in future stories.
“Lieutenant Tightass”, Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July/August 2018) Novelette
A new entry in Rusch’s Diving series – this takes place long before the other stories and novels and is an easy entry point for the uninitiated. Well before he became captain of the Ivoire, Jonathan “Coop” Cooper was a newly minted lieutenant assigned to the Arama, a search and rescue vessel for other ships that get lost in foldspace – a depressing and mostly fruitless endeavor, as ships lost in foldspace are almost never recovered. The Voimakas is one such ship, and Coop has a daring new theory about how to recover it. His only problem is getting Captain Nisen, who flaunts fleet regulations and mercilessly harangues him with the titular nickname (and encourages the rest of her crew to do the same), to mount a dangerous rescue based on his calculations. “Lieutenant Tightass” has the kind of kinetic plotting and tense action we’ve come to expect from procedural SF master Rusch. The ending labors the “point” a little too much, and the point being that Nisen’s bullying is for Coop’s own good makes it a tough sell. It’s a thrilling tale up to then, and the climactic rescue attempt is a knockout.
“Yard Dog”, Tade Thompson (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 7, Summer 2018) Short Story
Saucy Sue’s is a jazz club where only serious musicians dare to play; when a mysterious new stranger called Yard Dog is finally given the chance to prove his chops, he doesn’t just bring the house down, he reduces the room to tears. More than that, the drinks turn sour and “the drug fiends even said there was no dragon to chase.” Then Yard Dog’s “brother” starts hanging around the club, beckoning him to return home. “Yard Dog” gradually modulates from a macabre eeriness to a sublime, metaphysical terror in its expression of a music too resplendent for the mortal world. I especially liked the narrator’s sharp, penetrating voice.

Also Recommended

“Rules of Biology”, Dale Bailey (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July/August 2018) Short Story
A Twilight Zone-ish fable about an absent father whose teenage daughter begins exhibiting the genetic characteristics of the man who has taken his place as the head of the household.
“Morbier”, R.S. Benedict (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July/August 2018) Short Story
Trish falls in love with Mara at first sight and gets her a job at the country club where she works. Trish assumes Mara is a little cuckoo when she claims to be a time traveler from the year 2093, and conveniently overlooks evidence it may be true. The setting and characters foster a light, fun vibe from the get go; eventually the non-linear structure and Mara’s behavioral cues portend a La Jetée-style tragedy.
Greetings, Humanity! Welcome to Your Choice of Species”, Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 98, July 2018) Short Story
One of Castro’s acerbic humor pieces – The Exalted High Tribunal of the Interstellar Commission on the Minimum Standards of Indigenous Cultures has deemed humanity unworthy of existence and is prepared to reassign us to a different species.

Galaxy's Edge 33“Conceit and Capability”, Deborah L. Davitt (Galaxy’s Edge, July/August 2018) Short Story
A riff on the famous opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice leads to a sly send-up of male hubris. When Matilda joins her brother on an expedition to find a dragon she must contend with her sibling’s comically absurd self-regard, along with whatever creature they might discover.
“Left to Take the Lead”, Marissa Lingen (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, July/August 2018) Novelette
One of the author’s Oort cloud stories. Holly must work as an indenture on earth as her down-on-their-luck family tries to gather the funds to bring everyone together again. Lingen’s story cycle often centers around the idea of how humanity’s colonization of the solar system changes how the concept of family is perceived by different groups of people, and this is one of the most moving examples.
The James Machine”, Kate Osias (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 142, July 2018) Short Story
Cat built an AI out of her dying husband’s memories and personality, but the result isn’t quite what she expected. A smart and measured take on the grief of losing a spouse.
“Stones in the Water, Cottage on the Mountain”, Suzanne Palmer (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July/August 2018) Short Story
Multiple apocalypses in multiple timelines seem bent on stopping a woman from reaching her destination. Palmer devises several very creative end-of-the-world scenarios, and I always enjoy the bitterly funny tone of her tales.
“Visible Cities”, Rachel Pollack (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July/August 2018) Novelette
A bittersweet, lyrical side story in Pollack’s Jack Shade series, focusing on the origin story of the traveler Carolien, who goes on a magic-tinged hunt for her teacher when he abruptly disappears. Worth a look even if you haven’t read the other Shade tales yet.
“Eyes That Linger”, D.A. Xiaolin Spires (Galaxy’s Edge, July/August 2018) Short Story
A spooky little tale of mad science about a PI investigating people who have eyes and other organs grafted onto various appendages.
“Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie Sing the Stumps Down”, Lashawn M. Wanak (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 7, Summer 2018) Novelette
1930s America is beset by a sporous pandemic that turns people into wood-like “stumps.” Singers (especially Black singers) are conscripted into the service of the SPC (Stump Prevention Control), because only by hitting a certain, very difficult note, can they coax the stumps to release their spores under quarantine, thereby rendering the stumps inert. A rollicking alt-history romp featuring succinct social commentary about the exploitation of Black musicians by white American culture.