The Best Short SFF of 2019 – Part 2: Science Fiction

My “Best of 2019” is split into three parts: Part 1: Dark Fantasy/Horror; Part 2: Science Fiction; Part 3: Fantasy. My choices in each category are not ranked; they are presented in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. Each title is accompanied by a quick introductory statement and a short excerpt from the story. Excerpts may contain mild spoilers. For the purposes of this column, short fiction is defined as less than novel-length, or under 40,000 words.

The Best Short Science Fiction of 2019

mission critical“By the Warmth of Their Calculus”, by Tobias S. Buckell (Mission Critical, editor Jonathan Strahan; Solaris Books) 7586 words

A civilization survives among the icy, rocky ring of a great planet, hiding from alien predator drones determined to destroy them. Fiana commands a dustship trying to harvest genetic material from an ancient seedship, but when a rival nation’s meddling inadvertently sets off a trap, the mission turns into a slow, measured survival flight where the slightest miscalculation could lead to their deaths.

“How fast can we get out of here?”
“Using consumables, it’s dangerous, Mother. We need to coordinate with Ops. The margin will be thin, if we want to get out of here before the Hunter-Killers.”
Fiana swept the transparent sheets around her away. “I’ll get Ops ready to follow your commands.”
To stay put would be to wait passively for death, and she wasn’t ready to welcome the Hunter-Killers onto her ship.
Within the hour, the far side of the dustship was venting gases as crew warmed the material up (but not too much, or the heat signature would be suspicious and hint at some kind of unnatural process), compressed the water and hydrogen in airlocks through conduits of muscular tubes that grew throughout the ship, and blasted it out in timed dumps at F&O’s orders.
Slowly, faster than the natural differential drift already there, Fiana’s dustship began to move away from the seedship. It trailed a tail behind, gleaming like a comet.

Clarkesworld 159Such Thoughts are Unproductive“, by Rebecca Campbell (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 159, December 2019) 6584 words

In this post-climate disaster, post-truth dystopia, Mar is coping with separation from her mother, who has been interned for engaging in subversive activity. It’s clear Mar herself is under suspicion by association, and the authority’s duplicitous strategies to keep her in line hit where it hurts.

Sophie talked about grad school and Mom, about parties they threw together, about staying up late crying over deadlines and supervisors, about graduation, and how Mom had blown hers off for the government job, but been there the next year for Sophie’s, already pregnant with me.
“So you were at my graduation. Good luck charm.”
I slid into this the way we slid into so many things: the loss of cities to the encroaching waters and deserts, the swamps and the Zika virus creeping north along the Mississippi, as the days grew hotter and the mosquitoes adapted. A kind of compliant quiet—pleasant, safe—overtook me as I thought yes, of course I had an aunt named Sophie. Of course.
She slept that night on the couch. It was the obvious thing to do. Curfew.
That night I lay in bed and recited the facts of my life: I do not have an aunt named Sophie; my mother did not have antibiotic-resistant TB and was not in a sanatorium on one of the quarantine islands. My mother is in an internment camp with yellow cinder block walls, somewhere in the mountains, far enough north that she’s surrounded by tamarack, maybe by black spruce. At the end of the road with no exit.

Lightspeed 112Sacrid’s Pod“, by Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 112, September 2019) 8741 words

Sacrid Henn planned to leave the repressive society she was born into as soon as she came of age, so her parents contracted AIsource to imprison her for life as punishment for rejecting their faith. Inside her pod, her AIsource caretaker tries to make her as comfortable as possible and to accommodate her needs, but Sacrid won’t give up on obtaining her freedom. The caretaker is oddly encouraging of this attitude.

It is virtually impossible for you to escape your pod, escape its extensive support system, find your way to some access corridor, and subsequently find your way out of that portion of this deep-space facility that is devoted to the care of guests, a distance that is itself the size of a small country. Even then you would have to worry about escaping this artificial world, without cooperation from us, and somehow making it back to the nearest human habitation, a further distance of fifteen light years. It would be like escaping a jail cell, only to then face the necessity of escaping the prison, only to then have to escape the surrounding city, only to then have to escape the surrounding landscape, only to then find yourself with an ocean separating you from your homeland. It is virtually impossible.
I can tell you that this feat has been accomplished one hundred and fifty-eight times in our many years of operation. This represents a fraction of one percent of our current detainee population. Still, it remains a remarkable testament to human ingenuity.
This interests you.
We have not plugged that hole in our security in large part because of its usefulness as a form of recreation, and as a source of hope.

f48coverThe Message“, by Vanessa Fogg (The Future Fire 48, February 2019) 4221 words

Sarah has as normal a life as a teen can have in world where everyone is a climate refugee and world politics is mired in a state of perpetual brinksmanship. Her favorite activity is writing fan fiction with her best friend Chloe, who lives on the other side of the world and whom she has never met in person. Sarah also has a direct connection to the most culturally significant event in human history.

I hear the new special aired, she says. Have you seen it?
She means the new documentary special on the Message. Timed to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of its reception. The moment fifteen years ago when my mother looked at a pattern of radio signals and realized she was seeing a message from a distant star.
Yeah, I write back. It was okay. There was nothing really new.

That’s part of the reason my mom’s in a funk: because there’s nothing new. That’s why it’s hard to drum up private funding. Well, that and the ongoing economic recession and the fact that the Message is publicly available, all of it freely accessible to the world, and thousands of experts and hobbyists have taken a crack at it and thousands of research papers and blog posts have been written, but still no one knows what it means. Scientists have tried to analyze it in all kinds of ways, programming deep neural networks to comb through the signal, applying various models, taking it apart bit by bit. Artists have played with it, translating patterns to musical notes or colors. There are those who still say that the signal is dangerous, that it’s a viral code, that if you look at it too deeply it will take over and reprogram your mind. There are those who think it’s the key to salvation. And from the start, there’ve been those who insist that it’s all an elaborate hoax.
The newest documentary special has a lot of recycled footage. Old interviews from fifteen years ago. Shots of those first hectic press conferences. Mom doesn’t speak in the first big briefings. She wasn’t director of the Institute then. She was a new postdoctoral fellow, fresh from her Ph.D. Her group leader and the Director are the ones at the podium. But Mom was the one who recognized the signal for what it was. She saw it in real-time.

FIYAH Issue12_150“Corialis”, by T.L. Huchu (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 12: Chains, Autumn 2019) 7019 words

Like all colonists on the distant moon of Corialis, Thandeka underwent an arduous process of microbial adaptation to prepare for her new life there. Thandeka suspects that something about the moon – some unseen system or presence – is rejecting them, and if her family is to have any future there she needs to find out what it is and how to make peace with it.

“I’m looking at?”
“I’m measuring the impulses running through the biomass, and it’s incredible.” Garande brings up another graph, squiggly lines running through. “See that correlation with a standard neural map? This is far more complicated. For a start, the level of activity far exceeds anything a single brain could do. The info here is overlaid, multiple processes running parallel to one another, but fully integrated with sophisticated feedback loops.”
“Inga.”
“Now, if I—” He takes a crude device, a low voltage battery and wires, and shocks one of the strings. “See how the multimeter peaks, right? That’s my signal going through, but then the natural signals stop after the interruption. The reading on my meter goes to zero… wait for it… there it is; do you see that? A low intensity signal passes one way, and then the other. And it’ll keep doing this, almost like it’s testing for something. If I shock it again, the test signals change in frequency. Check that one out—it’s exactly the same as my input.”
“So it reacts to stimulus. Every living thing does.”
“I think the data points to some kind of non-sentient intelligence built by all these interlinked unicellular life forms, Thandeka. Information flows that span the entire moon.”

FSF 7-8“Mighty Are the Meek and the Myriad”, by Cassandra Khaw (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July/August 2019) 6375 words

The war between machine and man ended with a peace treaty, but that doesn’t mean everyone has moved on.

It was death by a thousand small grievances. The French were making a national sport of maligning British cuisine, while the Italians and the Greeks busied themselves privatizing transportation, education, automotive export, luxury import. Music now pivoted on the approval of the Spanish. Worse still, the Nordic countries, much to Henrietta’s despair, were taking over the airwaves with their suicidally bleak comedies.
And China.
Henrietta didn’t even want to think about China or how the country had oh-so-politely excused itself from the debacle that was the rest of the world, content to be self-sufficient, the insufferable twats.
Treasonous as the thought was, Henrietta missed war and she missed being an apparatus of war. Conflict was honest. The protocols weren’t half as byzantine. There was no need to asphyxiate in endless meetings or equally endless dinners, the menus fastidiously tailored to minimize risk of offending the collective palate. Henrietta wasn’t an alcoholic when armistice began, but now she had a wine cabinet in her office. It distressed her.

New Suns“The Robots of Eden” by Anil Menon (New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, editor Nisi Shawl; Solaris Books) 6482 words

Life goes along swimmingly for the “Enhanced”, whose brain implants seem to make them happier, more well-adjusted people than the un-enhanced. The narrator’s close friendship with his ex-wife’s fiancée Sollozzo – despite his disappointment over the end of their relationship – attests to that. But having a brain that spackles over your negative thoughts may have unintended consequences.

“Are you working on a new novel? Your fans must be getting very impatient.”
“I haven’t written anything new for a decade,” said Sollozzo, with a smile. He stroked Padma’s cheek. “She’s worried.”
“I’m not!” Padma did look very unworried. “I’m not just your wife. I’m also a reader. If I feel a writer is cutting corners, that’s it, I close the book. You’re a perfectionist; I love that. Remember how you tortured me over the translation?”
Sollozzo nodded fondly. “She’s equally mad. She’ll happily spend a week over a comma.”
“How we fought over footnotes! He doesn’t like footnotes. But how can a translator clarify without footnotes? Nothing doing, I said. I put my foot down.”
I felt good watching them nuzzle. I admired their passion. I must have been deficient in passion. Still, if I’d been deficient, why hadn’t Padma told me? Marriages needed work. The American labor theory of love. That worked for me; I liked work. Work, work. If she’d wanted me to work at our relationship, I would have. Then, just so, I lost interest in the subject.
“I don’t read much fiction anymore,” I confessed. “I used to be a huge reader. Then I got Enhanced in my twenties. There was the adjustment phase and then somehow I lost touch, what with career and all. Same story with my friends. They mostly read what their children read. But even kids, it’s not much. Makes me wonder. Maybe we are outgrowing the need for fiction. I mean, children outgrow their imaginary friends. Do you think we posthumans are outgrowing the need for fiction?”

Asomovs 092019Winter Wheat“, by Gord Sellar (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2019) 22559 words

Jimmy grew up on a farm in the small town of Biggar, and plans on continuing the family business when his time comes. When an agricultural mega-corporation introduces a new patented strain of wheat to the market, young Jimmy fails to fully grasp the implications.

“Lemme put it this way: they’ve gone in and messed with how the starches stack together, twisted them all around the opposite direction to usual. Nothing on Earth has the right enzymes in its guts to break those carbs down into sugars – not you, not me, not the bugs, nothing,” he said, pausing briefly as if hesitating to wade too deep into the science. Then he continued: “If it doesn’t go through the industrial processing they use on it in the mills, well: you take this wheat and grind it into flour in your kitchen, and then bake yourself some bread, and I’m telling you that you can literally starve to death on a full stomach of that bread every day. It’s not just pests: anyone can starve off it, like rabbit meat. They made it that way, so we’re dependent on them for processing and distribution and everything. Now, what that means is that growing this wheat may give you a better yield, but it also locks you farmers into working with specific buyers, into a specific distribution model. And then you gotta deal with the ecological collapse that comes when all the vermin dies out, and if the genes they’ve spliced in transfer to other plants, or if it mutates… Well, it’s just not so simple as they’re saying, that’s all.”
Jimmy noticed his dad nodding, but he seemed to be the only one who was. All the other farmers were mumbling among themselves, and honestly, Jimmy didn’t really get what the big deal was either.

Clarkesworld 155Your Face“, by Rachel Swirsky (Clarkesworld Issue 155, August 2019) 1327 words

Abigail’s mom is happy to see her daughter’s face, but once the elation passes, she realizes things are a little off.

But you can’t really go home. You know that. Right, Abigail?
Obviously.
You’re only in the computer. You can’t come out.
I know.
I don’t know. Maybe this was a bad idea. Is it cruel? Am I just bringing you back to kill you all over again?
You’re freaking out, Mom. Stop it.
I realized I’ve been putting this off for almost five years. It would have been your thirtieth birthday last week. Maybe I should have come earlier, but I just wasn’t—sure if it would be cruel—
It’s fine.
And I . . . didn’t know if I wanted to.
Oh.
I’m sorry. Oh, God. I’m terrible.
Whatever. It’s not important.
Now you’re angry.
Don’t tell me how I feel.
No. This isn’t right. You don’t sound like you. You look like you . . . but you don’t sound like you at all.
Excuse me?
You’re so flat . . . You sound . . . like you’re champagne, and someone left you open.
I don’t even know how to respond to that.
There’s nothing in your voice but frustration.

FSF 052019“New Atlantis”, by Lavie Tidhar (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May/June 2019) 24135 words

Through generations, after the collapse of human civilization, the surviving population struggled and succeeded in building a new world that shed the troubles of the past. 84-year-old Mai relates a story from her youth, of a long and difficult journey she undertook to reach New Atlantis.

“It is said the harvest will be plentiful in Gomrath this spring,” Mowgai said. “And that a heron was spotted for the first time in centuries near Esh.”
We had been traveling for days. For a while yet we were still in the world as I mostly knew it, with its familiar terrain of good, black earth, and in the bloom of early spring, so that we rose each morning to the sight of thousands of pink and purple cyclamens, red poppies, yellow daisies, and blue-and-white lupines that stood stiffly like guards in the breeze.
“It is also said a vast Sea monster washed ashore in Sidon, dead upon the sand, and that a manshonyagger of old was seen near Dor-Which-Fell-To-Ruin,” Mowgai said, and shrugged. “But such stories are often told and there is seldom truth in them.”
“The sea monster, perhaps,” I said, thinking of the ocean and its mysteries. I smiled at him, imagining our faraway destination. The New Atlantis lay beyond the Sea. “If we’re lucky, we might get to see one.”
He shuddered. “Salvagers survive by avoiding danger, not running headlong toward it,” he said.
“Yes, yes,” I said. “So my mother always tells me.”
“And you never listen,” he said, but he smiled when he said it.

Fireside 67bAll the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From“, by Izzy Wasserstein (Fireside Magazine Issue 67, May 2019) 2211 words

You keep snapping in and out of different realities, different iterations of your hometown. But what exactly are you looking for?

In so many realities, there are headstones carved with your mother’s name. Sometimes your mother is buried under headstones with different names. And there are realities where she’s still alive, and even ones where you never left.
In the ones where she’s alive and you never left, the other yous seethe with resentment and jealousy, like you are a reminder of everything they don’t have. You know just how they feel. In the ones where she’s dead, the other yous have the look of cornered rats and you know all over again why you had to get out.
Sometimes you tell yourself you are looking for the right reality, maybe one where you made peace and she died holding your hand. Or one where she screamed at you until you knew leaving was right. Or maybe she got better and you went off to college and this is your triumphant return. In one reality, your sibling (your sister, this time) explains the paradox of choice: choosing between three salad dressings is easy; choosing between one hundred, a nightmare.
“Narrow your choices,” she tells you, somewhere into the second bottle of bottom-shelf whiskey. “Settle for good enough.”
In that Topeka, your mother is dead and so is that version of you. Your sister doesn’t ask to come with you.

 

mission critical“Cyclopterus”, by Peter Watts (Mission Critical, editor Jonathan Strahan; Solaris Books) 5742 words

In a bleak future plagued by perpetual super-storms, Galik, a representative of the Nautilus corporation, goes on a potentially dangerous dive in the mini-sub Cyclopterus with a pilot who isn’t too eager to accommodate him.

“I told you: nothing’s decided.”
Moreno snorts. “Right. You dragged Sylvie hundreds of kilometers off-site, so you’d have your own private base camp. You put everyone’s research on hold, and you’ve got me spending the next eight hours planting your money detectors on the seabed. You think I don’t know what that costs?”
Galik shrugs. “If you’re that sure, you could always refuse the gig. Break your contract. Take a stand on principle.”
Moreno glowers at the dashboard, where the luminous stipple of the thermocline thickens and rises about them. Cyclopterus jerks and slews as some particularly dense lens of water slaps lazily to starboard.
“They’d probably send you home then, though, right? Back to the heat waves and the water wars and that weird new fungus that’s eating everything. Although I hear some of the doomsday parties are worth checking out. Just last week one of ’em ended up burning down half of Kluane National Park.”
Moreno says nothing.
“’Course, if you really wanted to stand up and be counted, you could join the Gaianistas.” And in response to the look that gets him: “What? You gonna let the fuckers who killed the planet get away scot-free again?”
“That’s rich. Coming from one of their errand boys.”
“I chose my side. What about you, hiding out here in the ocean while the world turns to shit? You going to do anything about that, or are you all sound and fury, signifying nothing?”

You can find Part 1 – Dark Fantasy/Horror HERE

You can find Part 3 – Fantasy HERE

Additional Reading:

The above choices are based on my own personal tastes from my own reading experiences, and are meant to be taken as such. There are many other “best of” and “recommended reading” lists that offer up quality reading choices for short SFF. Here are a few:

Maria Haskins, author and translator

Charles Payseur, author and proprietor of Quick Sip Reviews

Eugenia Triantafyllou, author

A.C. Wise, author

Locus Recommended Reading List 

Rocket Stack Rank 2019 YTD (aggregate list), compiled by Greg Hullender and Eric Wong

More links will appear as I find them!

The Best Short SFF of May 2019

Featured Image from the cover art for Apex Magazine Issue 120 by Godwin Akpan

Must Read

Raices (Roots)“, by Joe Ponce (Anathema Magazine Issue 7, May 2019) Short Story

Jerry lives on the US side of the US-Mexico border, recently joined by his long-estranged sister Lola and her son Macho. Lola and her family fled drug traffickers in Veracruz, but the authorities captured her husband David and older son Chucho at the border and they are now in legal limbo while they await their hearing. Then Macho gets a strange infection that gives him tree-like features, and soon the other migrant children follow suit. The emotional exhaustion Jerry experiences while just trying to help his family survive is palpable, while all rage and fear and paranoia of America’s current uptick in anti-immigrant nationalism project onto the children (they might set down roots, literally). “Raices (Roots)” is a gripping and beautifully composed story of people just trying to survive when no good options are available.

The-Dark-Issue-48-220x340The Wilderling“, by Angela Slatter (The Dark Magazine Issue 48, May 2019) Short Story

Readers are so used to getting twists and surprises at the end of a story we forget there are other strategies at the author’s disposal for creating a memorable resolution. Giving away the ending too soon seems counter-intuitive, but that’s just what Angela Slatter does in her story of a woman’s disturbing fascination with a beast-like child (or child-like beast?) that lives in the wild near her home. Once the last act of the story begins, we know with a fair certainty exactly how things will turn out—the trick is that we really, desperately hope it doesn’t happen, and like a maestro Slatter keeps stringing us along until damn near the last sentence.

“New Atlantis”, by Lavie Tidhar (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2019) Novella

From the ashes of our broken civilization, the surviving human population fashioned a new utopian world intent on learning from the mistakes of the past. Scattered pieces of the old world remain, treated with novel fascination by the citizenry. 84-year-old Mai relates a story from her youth, of receiving a message from a former lover to meet him in New Atlantis (the London ruins) where he has discovered a working “Millennial Vault” of uploaded consciousnesses living in an artificial reality. Tidhar’s amazing sci-fantasy dreamscape depicts the overlap between a tech-heavy future past and a more pastoral future present, and people living a life at once simple and clear and obvious, but also completely alien. Mai begins by summarizing her tale: “I visited Atlantis. I came back. That is the story. Everything else, as the old poet once said, is just details.” That’s the understatement of a lifetime.

Highly Regarded

Fugue State“, by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due (Apex Magazine Issue 120, May 2019) Short Story

Arthur has lost interest in work and his hobbies, distressing his wife Charlotte. The reason for his dulling intellect seems to be his obsession with a cultish political figure known as The Reverend. Arthur insists he’s never been happier and can’t understand his wife’s objections. When Charlotte investigates the Reverend phenomenon, the answers don’t come in quite the way she expects. The authors take their time setting the table for an ending that is as disquieting as it is unavoidable. It’s tempting to read the “Fugue State” as allegorical to our present political climate, with Arthur suffering from a kind of supernatural Fox News Dad syndrome. But “ignorance is bliss” is an old saying, as old as messianic figures offering truth and salvation at a terrifying cost.

Dune Song“, by Suyi Davies Okungbowa (Apex Magazine Issue 120, May 2019) Short Story

With the world swallowed up by desert except for the village of Isiuwa, the elders keep the population confined by decree—anyone who leaves Isiuwa endangers all who remain. Nata’s mam was one such deserter, and Nata’s determination to know what her mother found outside the gates supersedes any poorly reasoned rules society imposes on her. “Dune Song” asks us, in expressive and lyrical prose, if freedom is worth the cost for its own sake rather than for the promise of reward.

Fireside 67All the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From“, by Izzy Wasserstein (Fireside Magazine Issue 67, May 2019) Short Story

Teenagers make great protagonists because they exist at a turning point between the youthful desire to transgress boundaries and the adult desire to uphold them. In Wasserstein’s multiverse drama, the 16-year-old narrator knows she’s living in a simulated universe and can “Snap” from one iteration of the world to another. She escapes her native reality, where her mother is terminally ill, to check in on alternate versions of their life in rundown South Topeka; sometimes they are happy, sometime they aren’t even there, and sometimes she runs across another version of herself looking for or running away from the same thing. Every time she Snaps, she alters each new reality just by her coming and going, but no one else is better or worse off for it. Anyone who has ever felt like a stranger in their own hometown can relate.

Also Recommended

“Canst Thou Draw Out the Leviathan”, by Christopher Caldwell (Uncanny Magazine Issue 28, May/June 2019) Short Story

I must have an affinity for weird whaling fiction. Like Nibedita Sen’s excellent “Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” (Nightmare Magazine #69, June 2018), Caldwell’s story draws the reader into a tense sea voyage tinged with supernatural menace. Beyond that, the two stories couldn’t be more different. Where Sen depicted a rapid and surreal decent into madness, Caldwell crosses whaling lore and the legacy of the Middle Passage in his tale of John Wood, a former slave working as a carpenter on a whaling ship who receives warning from a god of his ancestors about the ship’s fate. Complicating the “will they believe me in time?” narrative are his shipmates’ attitudes about John’s race and sexuality. Great characters, high stakes, and a well-executed plot.

BCS 277The Thirty-Eight Hundred Bone Coat“, by R.K. Duncan (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #277, May 9, 2019) Novelette

Navid’s job is to dredge the river for bones that his father can use to enchant the coats his mother makes. A nobleman comes to them offering a lifetime of riches for the titular item, which would make the wearer impervious to harm. With only thirty days to complete the task and his family’s honor, not to mention their financial future, at risk, Navid gambles his life and his freedom on securing the materials they need in time. An intense story with a captivating sense of urgency.

The Wiley“, by Sara Saab (The Dark Magazine Issue 48, May 2019) Short Story

This wild, alt-history sci-fi horror story follows Manon, a rare woman tech guru in Silicon Valley who struck gold during the dot-com craze of the early oughts. A spectral being borne of her own loneliness haunts her, though it may be her salvation when her revolutionary software spawns a devastating computer virus. Thoughtful and circumspect as much as it is creepy and discomfiting, with gooseflesh-inducing visuals at the climax.

Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island“, by Nibedita Sen (Nightmare Magazine Issue 80, May 2019) Short Story

Sen has a knack for drawing blood from a stone in her stories; she excels at creating expansive narratives from self-imposed formal restrictions. In this very short tale of terror (or possibly wonder? A little of both?) she never deviates from the guidelines the title establishes but still paints a broad and memorable portrait of the history of a near-annihilated people’s diaspora. There is also an undercurrent of satire with some pointed, if affectionate, jabs at academic writing (“If I have to deal with one more white feminist quoting Kristeva at me…”).

“Gremlin”, by Carrie Vaughn (Asimov’s Science Fiction, May/June 2019) Novella

Vaughn’s generational epic typifies the brand of widescreen, high-concept, character-and-action-driven novellas Asimov’s is famous for. It begins with a Russian fighter pilot who finds an unusual creature (with an unusual appetite) riding along on her missions against the Nazis in WW2 and follows the legacy of her family’s relationship with the creature through the centuries to come. The author’s concise prose and her eye for detail serve the story well.

 

 

 

The Best Short SFF – January 2019

Featured Image from this month’s Fireside Magazine: Illustration by Galen Dara for Mary Soon Lee’s “Lord Serpent”

Must Read

bcs 268
Cover Art: “Galbourne Ridge” by Tyler Edlin

The Beast Weeps with One Eye” by Morgan Al-Moor (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #268, January 3, 2019) Short Story

The Bjebu have been chased from their homeland by a murderous horde of ravens; in desperation, High Sister Nwere strikes a deal with Babawa-Kunguru, the Keeper of Sorrows, for the safety of a new homeland. She soon learns that the cost may be too much for them to bear. Riveting action and suspense from the first sentence to the last, with a brilliant and complex protagonist and breathtaking worldbuilding.

 

Highly Regarded

Hand Me Downs” by Maria Haskins (GigaNotoSaurus, January 2019) Short Story

The story of a teenage troll (the “real” kind, not the internet kind) named Tilda who wants to go to a famous dance academy while battling stereotypes about her identity. A heartfelt story about self-love and family ties, with nice touches of macabre humor.

The Great Train Robbery” by Lavie Tidhar (Apex Magazine Issue 116, January 2019) Novelette

In a dream-like fantasy world called the Escapement, the Stranger realizes that agents of the Colossi plan to rob the train he is on to acquire a dangerous new weapon. But is it too late to stop them? A carnivalesque reverie told in classic cliffhanger style.

 

Also Recommended

uncanny26
Cover Art: “Pearls and Stardust” by Julie Dillon

Nothing to Fear, Nothing to Fear” by Senaa Ahmad (Uncanny Magazine Issue 26, January/February 2019) Short Story

11-year-old Amina has a mad scientist for an older sister who insists on using her as a guinea pig to test her “mechanical marvel”. A sweet-natured tale of sibling rivalry and bonding.

“The Savannah Problem” by Adam-Troy Castro (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, January/February 2019) Novella

Draiken abducts a hired killer and attempts to get him on board for his plan to fight the conspiracy while they is pursued by a mysterious ship with lethal intent. The latest in a cycle that began with “Sleeping Dogs“.

On the Origin of Specie” by Vajra Chandrasekera (Nightmare Magazine Issue 76, January 2019) Short Story

A tax protester is thrown into a hellish, lightless tower that slowly funnels its prisoners toward the bottom.

“The Willows” by Delilah S. Dawson (Uncanny Magazine Issue 26, January/February 2019) Novelette [will add link when available on 2/5]

An unsettling variation on Algernon Blackwood’s classic horror story, which finds a young music star and her partner haunted by the sinister history and character of the family retreat where they’re recording their new album.

the-dark-issue-44-1-220x340
Cover Art: “Playing Cello in the Sea Against the Night Sky with the Red Moon” by grandfailure

Beyond Comprehension” by Russell Nichols (Fireside Magazine Issue 63, January 2019) Short Story

Brian is a father with dyslexia who feels left behind when his young son Andre receives an implant that downloads books directly into his brain. Very moving.

Burrowing Machines” by Sara Saab (The Dark Issue 44, January 2019) Short Story

A chilling monster story about a London tunneling project that unleashes something terrible.

Venus in Bloom” by Lavie Tidhar (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 148, January 2019) Short Story

A bittersweet vignette about life on a colonized Venus, as loved ones remember a recently deceased florist who wanted the planet to remain a “wild untamed” place free from the ravages of terraforming.

 

 

The Rack – Zine Reviews for the Week of January 26, 2019

Clarkesworld Issue 148, January 2019

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Cover Art: “Ghostship” by Pascal Blanché

A tiny weapon “as long as a rose’s thorn” calling itself Kali rockets toward earth in Jamie Wahls’ “Eater of Worlds”. When it strikes the moon, it gives birth to Kali 2, who then begets Kali 3 when it kills and inhabits a human on Earth named Zephyr Vargas. And that’s when Payload takes over, intent on fulfilling its mission to devour the planet. But Kali 2 stars to question their mission. It’s a neat idea, and the bickering between Kali 2, Kali 3, and Payload is entertaining for a time. Without a clear-cut protagonist (Kali 2, maybe?) it was difficult to get invested in the outcome which required a long-winded info dump at the end to explain.
While hunting down a rich store of platinum, asteroid miners Niko and Ionna crash land and find something impossible in Natalia Theodoridou’s “One’s Burden, Again”. The asteroid has a breathable atmosphere and a settlement, and a man calling himself King Siphos is pushing a boulder up a hill. While fixing the machine that processes the boulders, Ionna learns the somber truth about the debt Siphos owes. And yes, Ionna and Niko wonder if the man they’ve met is the mythological Sisyphus. There isn’t much in the way of conflict or suspense in this story, and the author’s bid to tie Ionna’s emotional burden over her father’s death to Siphos’ physical one is too obvious to resonate. It is an otherwise enjoyable tale, and the sci-fantasy premise has a sprightly charm.
On a colony planet reminiscent of the antebellum south, robots and humans have a master-slave dynamic in Ray Nayler’s “Fire in the Bone”. During a harvest night celebration, the young, gentry-class narrator plans a secret tryst with his robot lover. He knows of worlds where humans and robots live as equals and wants to believe his robot lover is as “alive” as he is, despite what human society says about them. The prose is gorgeous, from the description of the orbiting harvester ship eclipsing the sun to the night-worms making music in the fields, evincing a rich distillation of history and culture and a singular sense of place and time. The ending features one of those twists that cajoles you into skimming through the whole thing again to see how it added together.
Derek Künsken’s “The Ghosts of Ganymede” follows two groups of post-nuclear war refugees, one Ethiopian and one Eritrean, to the titular Jovian moon where they get a second lease on life mining helium-3. After setting up camp they discover long abandoned alien monuments, haunted by “ghosts” of long dead beings trapped in a quantum state. Hindering their attempt to rid their new home of the poltergeists are the lingering cultural conflicts that led them to this new world. Some aspects of the premise are tough to chew on: any company sending two nationalities who just fought a long and devastating war against each other over 480 million miles away for a (presumably) profitable enterprise has some questionable projections to sort through, though it gives the author an opportunity to do some allegorizing about quantum wave functions. The details make this story work, like the day-to-day difficulties of creating a sustainable living environment on such inhospitable terrain.
There is an almost biblical prescience to the stargazing in Lavie Tidhar’s planetary vignettes, an unwavering devotion to the dream of a new home for a displaced people that finds fervid expression in his new story “Venus in Bloom”. In a Venusian cloud city, the famed botanist Samit dies surrounded by his miraculous flowers. His friend, the robot priest R. Brother Mekem, who fled earth for much the same reasons Samit did, and his granddaughter Maya, who joins with a mech to terraform the planet, are there to mourn him. The bittersweet resignation Maya carries in her work, knowing she must destroy “wild untamed” Venus to make it habitable for organic life, illuminates the contradictions that even the most hopeful idealism must bear.

Strange Horizons, 1/21/2019

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Art for “The King’s Mirror” by Rachel Quinlan

In M.K. Hutchins’ Mayan fantasy “The King’s Mirror”, Wak-Lamat is a glass grinder ordered to fashion a mirror so the king can see visions from the goddess. The king enslaved the previous two mirror-makers who failed to give him what he wanted and is threatening to make Wak-Lamat the third. The goddess grants her visions to Wak-Lamat instead, while he would rather she didn’t. He sees his sister’s death not long after her nuptials and an equally despairing one about the kingdom’s fate.  Wak-Lamat’s integrity and sincerity make him an appealing protagonist, and overall “The King’s Mirror” succeeds with deft plotting, believable characters and a well-imagined setting. I thought the ending too pat, but still gratifying enough.

Tor.com, 1/14/2019 and 1/16/2019

Skidbladnir is a living interdimensional ship encased in a shell that carries a human crew in “The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir” by Karin Tidbeck. Now the Ship is growing too large for its shell and is falling apart. The captain wants to sell off Skidbladnir for meat to make a deposit on a new ship, but the engineer Novik and mechanic Saga conspire to save her from that fate. Tidbeck has a preternatural gift for describing the otherworldly: “First it wasn’t there, and then it was, heavy and solid, as if it had always been. From the outside, the ship looked like a tall and slender office building. The concrete was pitted and streaked, and all of the windows were covered with steel plates. Through the roof, Skidbladnir’s claws and legs protruded like a plant, swaying gently in some unseen breeze.” There is some fun 90s nostalgia mixed in, as Saga discovers videotapes of an old Babylon 5-ish TV show called Andromeda Station, and the interludes describing the plots of the episodes are on the money. I wish the story had done a better job of supplying motivations for its characters. Novik and Saga stage their mutiny, and Skidbladnir trusts them, because the plot needs them to, not because those choices are earned.

beyondtheel
Cover Art by Dadu Shin

John Chu’s “Beyond the El” is the story of Connor, a high-end “food crafter” who uses magic to make gourmet meals but can’t for the life of him recreate his late mother’s pot sticker recipe. His manipulative older sister Prue, who has been abusing him since he was a child, shows up at his restaurant one night demanding that he turn over his share of their mother’s money to their father, and he can’t bring himself to connect with the handsome singer from work who makes eyes at him every day. The sequences describing Connor’s food crafting are elegant and naturalistic, though they have little effect on the plot. Like Chu’s famous “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”, magic’s purpose is to transcribe emotional states to the physical realm. Connor is more pitiable than sympathetic, and the unfortunate result is that his magic is less spellbinding.

 

Recommended Stories (***Must Read; **Highly Regarded; *Also Recommended)

* “Venus in Bloom” by Lavie Tidhar

2018 Recommended Reading List (Part 2)

Featured Image from the Cover Art for “Yiwu” by Feifei Ruan

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 work in 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 the links when possible.

Short Stories (<7500 words), Novelettes (<17,500), and Novellas (<40,000)

Earthbound Science Fiction

Desert Island Pick

Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” by Daryl Gregory [Tor.com, September 19, 2018; 11,913 words]

nine last days on planet earth
Cover Art by Keith Negley

In 1975 a meteor shower seeds the planet with strange alien life forms. This story looks in on nine different days throughout the long life of LT, who seeks to understand them and help the world adjust to this new reality.

This was the popular theory: that aliens had targeted Earth and sent their food stocks ahead of them so there’d be something to eat when they arrived. LT had spent long, hot days in the apartment listening to the boyfriend while Mom was at work, or else following him around the city on vague errands. He didn’t have a regular job. He said he was an artist—with a capital A, kid—but didn’t seem to spend any time painting or anything. He could talk at length about the known invasive species, and why there were so many different ones: the weblike filaments choking the trees in New Orleans, the flame-colored poppies erupting on Mexico City rooftops, the green fins popping up in Florida beach sand like sharks coming ashore.

The Best of the Rest

“Down Where Sound Comes Blunt” by G.V. Anderson [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2018; 4557 words] 

Ellen is doing a field study of a newly discovered, intelligent sea creature. She is also searching for her father, who disappeared in the midst of his own study. Ellen hopes to get one of the creatures, a female, to trust her enough to show her where she keeps her eggs.

Ellen wonders if their mutual subjects entranced him as much as they do her, whether he ventured out against his better judgment for another blissful hour in their midst.
The ice below her creaks, creaks, creaks – footsteps on an old staircase. She shivers, burying herself into her oversized thermal jacket. She replaces her headphones and listens to the colony’s chatter from below. The twist of a dial slows it down, makes it indecipherable. Makes language out of noise.
She closes her eyes, leans against her rucksack, and clicks her tongue in near-perfect mimicry.

Meat and Salt and Sparks” by Rich Larson [Tor.com, June 6, 2018; 7373 words]

Cu is an uplifted chimp, the only of her kind, who works as a police detective. Her current case has her investigating a murder that appears to have been committed by remote control.

“Yeah,” Huxley says, letting the bag fall to his lap to sign back. “No receiving or transmitting from interrogation. As soon as she lost contact with that little graft, she panicked. The police ECM should have shut it down as soon as she was in custody. Guess it slipped past somehow.”
Acting under instructions, Cu suggests.
Huxley see-saws his open hands. “Could be. She’s got no obvious connection to the victim. We’ll need to have a look at the thing.”
Cu scrolls through the perpetrator’s file. Twenty years’ worth of information strained from social media feeds and the odd government application has been condensed to a brief. Elody Polle, born in Toronto, raised in Seattle, rode a scholarship to Princeton to study ethnomusicology before dropping out in ’42, estranged from most friends and family for over a year despite having moved back to a one-room flat in North Seattle. No priors. No history of violence. No record of antisocial behavior.
Cu checks the live feed from the interrogation room. Heart-rate down, she signs, tucking the tablet under her armpit. Time to talk.

What is Eve?” by Will McIntosh [Lightspeed Magazine Issue 95, April 2018; 10,145 words]

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Cover Art by Elizabeth Leggett

Ben is shipped off to a new school with the other “good kids”, the ones who follow instructions and always behave and turn in their homework and get good grades. They are told they have a special new classmate, and that it’s important to act normal around her. It’s not easy to act normal around Eve.

It was taking up two seats pushed together. It was black, and lumpy with all of these folds, and, oh God, were those her eyes or her ears? She had four legs and no feet and she was wearing a purple dress and weird round patent leather shoes and a bow in her hair, only it wasn’t hair, it was more like black spaghetti, and I couldn’t breathe.
The thing in the seats flexed, and suddenly it wasn’t lumpy anymore—it was hard, and sharp, with pointy barbs sticking out of it. It hissed like a giant punctured tire.
“Direction,” the man’s voice said through my earpiece. “Do not stare. Put a damned smile on your face and find your seat and look at the board.”

Theories of Flight” by Linda Nagata [Asimov’s Science Fiction, November/December 2018; 7247 words]

Yaphet is a “player” living in a simulated reality ruled by an AI called Goddess. He dreams of flying, though their laws forbid it.

A burnt leaf, edged in incandescence, rose up into the fog, higher and higher, halfway to the treetops before the glow of heat left it.
Never before had Yaphet seen a leaf fall up. He stood entranced, watching the flight of the embers, until his father called him again.
When he was seven – almost eight – after much experimentation and failure and reassessment (though he was too young to know such words or describe what he was doing) Yaphet launched his first successful fire balloon.

“Love Songs for the Very Awful” by Robert Reed [Asimov’s Science Fiction, March/April 2018; 5785 words]

Bodden volunteers for a radical new brain experiment. The researcher, Heidi, can’t help but fall for his charms, even though she knows he’s a creep: she has the data to prove it.

Bodden’s name would float over the table, and people would look at me, signaling their curiosity if not out-and-out concerns. The man was gorgeous, sure. Maybe that was reason enough. And he was certainly young and possibly vigorous. Was I the sort of lady that liked lustful distractions? Bodden also had a talent for funny words and warm, caring noise. When empathy was necessary. But he was one of three sociopaths in our study. Every week, without fail, he came into the shop, undergoing another comprehensive scan for money. And every week, he proved himself to be a self-absorbed boy. No smart professional woman could have feelings for a creep like that. That’s what the glances were saying, and the silences, and those thoughtful sips of coffee while the tea drinker offered little details from last night’s date.
Bodden and I were together for ten weeks. Then it was finished, and I was shocked to discover how sad that made me feel.

Sour Milk Girls” by Erin Roberts [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 136, January 2018; 6447 words]

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Cover Art: “Vukileyo!” by Artur Sadlos

Teenager Ghost is an orphan under the care of The Agency, who hold onto the troubling memories of their wards’ prior lives and return them when they come of age. Ghost learns that the new girl, Princess, still has all her old memories and Ghost resents her for it.

“You really fucking don’t,” I said. “Me, Flash, Whispers . . . we don’t have something real to share. All those cute, sweet memories of being a kid? Snatched off us when we got to the Agency and locked away where we can’t get ’em. All we know is school and the third floor and a few fosters who couldn’t be bothered to keep us. That’s it. That’s all we fucking got.”
Princess stared at me for a second, eyes wide, then walked out, saying I didn’t know and Sorry under her breath like she was doing a Whispers impression. I stayed for a while, playing back the couple of half-decent memories I did have, like the day I figured out how to get the computers in the back to do what I wanted, like a real hacker, or the times the Agency let us go down to the first floor and play with the babies, and then the ones that made my neck shiver, like all the times fosters sent me back ’cause I didn’t fit into any of the smiling family photos—too old, too dark, too “hard to handle.”

The Emotionless, In Love” by Jason Sanford [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #246, March 1, 2018; 28,352 words]

Colton escaped the influence of the nanobots called “grains”, and in doing so he sacrificed his emotions. Now he is helping a caravan escape them as well.

“Quiet,” Mita said, glancing around as if she could see the microscopic grains within the land. “Talking of this will jinx our travels.”
“Our caravan didn’t use the laser,” Colton protested. “The grains know the difference.”
“Drop it!” Mita snapped. She then sighed and shook her head. “Sorry. But you know everyone else will shit if they hear you talking boneheaded stuff like this.”
Anyone else in the caravan would have been insulted by Mita’s words, but Colton knew she was right. He didn’t understand how day-fellows saw the world. To him there were no jinxes. There were merely the grains, the microscopic machines which protected all the lands and existed in every animal and plant and insect and anchor. If the grains judged you wrong—decided you’d harmed the environments they protected—you were dead, jinx or no jinx.
Still, he’d been with these day-fellows the last eight years and had learned not to debate their beliefs. He also appreciated that Mita always used polite words such as ‘different’ to refer to him, instead of the terms the other day-fellows whispered behind his back.
Words like disturbed; sick; psychopath.

Yiwu” by Lavie Tidhar [Tor.com, May 23, 2018; 5305 words]

Esham works in the market selling lottery tickets that instantly grant the winners their heart’s desire. One day, when one of his regulars, Ms. Qiu, buys a ticket, something unusual happens and he can’t understand why.

It was just an ordinary day, the way Esham liked it. Order and routine, a knowing of what was expected. At the usual time, Ms Qiu emerged from the market doors. She crossed the road. She came to the stand and smiled at him and said, “Hello,” and asked for a ticket.
He sold her one. She scratched the silver foil with a 10-baht coin.
She looked at the card, almost puzzled, then shrugged and left it on the counter.
“No luck?” Esham said.
She pushed the ticket towards him. He glanced down, barely registering the impossible at first: the three identical symbols of a beckoning gold cat that meant it was a winning ticket.
He glanced up at Ms Qiu.
Nothing happened.
“Thank you,” Ms Qiu said.
She gave him a last, almost bemused smile, then turned and walked away.
Still nothing happened.
He stared at the good luck cats.
Nothing.
Ms Qiu crossed the road and walked away the way she always did, until she turned a corner and was out of sight.

First World Fantasy

Desert Island Pick

Field Biology of the Wee Fairies” by Naomi Kritzer [Apex Magazine Issue 112, September 2018; 4871 words]

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Cover Art by Joel Chaim Holtzman

At age fourteen, Amelia is supposed to find and catch her fairy soon. Every girl does: it’s a rite of passage. But Amelia just wants to use science to figure out what the deal is with all these stupid fairies.

When her mice weren’t running the mazes, she kept them in gallon pickle jars with holes punched in the lids, with newspaper to shred and ladders for stimulation. There were four pickle jars waiting for new occupants, clean and lined up under her window. She grabbed one, unscrewed the lid, and took it back downstairs.
Outside, the sun was low in the sky. She crunched her way across the snowy yard, back to the car, looking nonchalant. She didn’t see the fairy right away. She opened the car door, sat down in the passenger seat, and waited.
The fairy bobbed in front of her, maybe ten feet away. She looked at it, then looked away.
It came closer.
Closer still.
She could see the delicate folds in the fairy’s dress, the shining strands of its hair, the tilt of its head, when she sprang. She didn’t want to touch it—she wasn’t entirely convinced that touching the fairy wasn’t what actually made the magic happen—but she swooped up with the jar and brought the lid down, trapping the fairy inside. Then she screwed the lid down, took it upstairs to her room, and set it on a shelf next to her mice.

The Best of the Rest

The Ghoul Goes West” by Dale Bailey [Tor.com, January 17, 2018; 13,285 words]

Ben learns that his estranged brother Denny, a failed screenwriter, died of a heroin overdose. He travels to Hollywood to deal with Denny’s affairs and finds some things in his brother’s apartment that shouldn’t exist, not in this world anyway: a stack of videotapes of movies that were never made.

Retrieving The Ghoul Goes West, I glanced at the sticker on the case: Dimension Video. Then I turned on the television and slotted the tape into the VCR. The film opened with a black-and-white shot of the Amazing Criswell seated behind a desk, delivering a bizarre monologue about “the mysteries of the past which even today grip the throat of the present to throttle it.” The speech was portentous and theatrical, overcooked, the framing static. Then the image faded, to be replaced by a flat desert landscape with a saguaro cactus, obviously fake, on the right side of the frame. The credits came up on the left, each new name preceded by the sound of a pistol shot. Autry had first billing, Lugosi second, both of them above the title. The rest of the cast followed, among them Vampira and Paul Marco and Tor Johnson, Wood’s usual suspects. My only thought as the attribution credit came up—
Written Ÿ Directed Ÿ Produced
by
Edward D. Wood, Jr.
—was that I was looking at some kind of bizarre forgery. Then Lugosi, in full Dracula garb, appeared on screen, rising from a casket in a dim crypt that looked like a suburban garage. It was unmistakably him. By that point in my thesis research, I’d seen virtually every movie Lugosi had made three or four times. I knew the shape of his face almost as well as I knew my own.

The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark [Fireside Magazine Issue 52, February 2018; 3649 words]

From a one line entry in a 1784 Mount Vernon account book (“By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire”), historian Clark spins nine fantastical stories of the men and women those teeth originally belonged to.

The second Negro tooth belonging to George Washington came from a slave from the Kingdom of Ibani, what the English with their inarticulate tongues call Bonny Land, and (much to his annoyance) hence him, a Bonny man. The Bonny man journeyed from Africa on a ship called the Jesus, which, as he understood, was named for an ancient sorcerer who defied death. Unlike the other slaves bound on that ship who came from the hinterlands beyond his kingdom, he knew the fate that awaited him–though he would never know what law or sacred edict he had broken that sent him to this fate. He found himself in that fetid hull chained beside a merman, with scales that sparkled like green jewels and eyes as round as black coins. The Bonny man had seen mermen before out among the waves, and stories said some of them swam into rivers to find wives among local fisher women. But he hadn’t known the whites made slaves of them too.

Flow” by Marissa Lingen [Fireside Magazine Issue 53, March 2018; 2956 words]

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Cover Art by Galen Dara

The magical forest-dwelling naiads know Gigi is one of theirs by her “flow”, the way she carries herself, which marks her as her father’s daughter. Things change when a sinus infection permanently damages her equilibrium.

I return to the first stream I ever met. I walk so slowly through the forest, the tip of my cane making unfamiliar sounds against the rocks and the leaf mold of the path. I am exhausted from balancing on such a long walk. There are two naiads sitting by the stream, one of them visiting from a local lake I also know. I greet them eagerly, finding the right place to put my cane to step forward to the banks of the stream.
The stream naiad shrieks. The lake naiad steps in front of her protectively.
“What’s wrong with you?” I ask them.
They don’t answer. They are staring at me with wide, terrified eyes. I haven’t been there in a year, a full turn of the sun and then a little bit. But I didn’t think they would forget so quickly. They didn’t when I was away to college, when I was hanging out with other naiads somewhere else for awhile.
“Guys, come on, what’s your problem?”
The stream naiad quavers, “Who are you?”
The naiads don’t recognize me.

“Conspicuous Plumage” by Sam J. Miller [Lightspeed Magazine Issue 100, September 2018; 4704 words]

Bette is devastated by the murder of her beloved brother, Cary. She longs to experience his last moments, and she believes her schoolmate Hiram can help her with that.

“Hey,” I said to Hiram Raff, who was right where I thought he’d be, polishing shoes in a corner where hardly anyone ever looked. Off the high school baseball field, Hiram was all awkward stammers and intentionally poor posture, ashamed and afraid of the adulation he had unwillingly earned.
“Hey,” he said, a little nervously, like What does this person want from me?
“How you doing?” I asked, fingers rubbing at an invisible spot on the counter.
“I’m all right,” he said, and his ruddy, lovely face said he most certainly was not. I felt awful, like I was frightening a small animal for selfish reasons, but I could not stop now.
“I heard you can make people see things,” I said.
Lines appeared between his eyes, and at the edges of his mouth. Poor boy looked close to bursting—into tears, maybe, or, simply bursting. I was a monster, I knew, but I had to say what I’d come here to say. I owed it to my brother.
“Can you help me? Can you come on a road trip with me?”
I had two pieces of information about Hiram Raff, both of them ill-gotten, gossip-derived. Common knowledge. Things he was deeply, irrationally ashamed of, for reasons that were his own. The first was what I’d already said: that under certain circumstances he could cause visions—of the past, of the future, of fictional scenarios that had never been and would never be, and whether he or anyone else could tell the difference was subject to much conjecture. The second was that he was had a congenital, terminal case of politeness. Hiram was a boy who could never tell anyone No.

(Unlike most Lightspeed stories, Conspicuous Plumage is not currently available to read online, but only in a purchased copy of the issue.)

Asphalt, River, Mother, Child” by Isabel Yap [Strange Horizons, October 8, 2018; 7016 words]

The Filipino deity Mebuyen helps guide innocent souls to the afterlife. Usually she only gets infants, but now older children and adults who have been murdered by the police are coming her way. And her river isn’t washing them clean like it’s supposed to, so she can’t even send them on their way.

I think they took me to a side street. It smelled like pee. There was garbage on the floor. I prayed to the Lord that I trusted He would not put me in hell even if I am transgender. I don’t pray very often but I was scared. I kept thinking don’t let it be painful, I don’t want to die suffering. They asked me two questions and I answered, then the one that shouted at Jel came forward, and the one that dragged me told him to shoot. And he shot.
Babygirl sighs. “I’m glad I’m not in hell,” she says. “At least—I don’t think this is hell?”
“It’s not,” Mebuyen says.
“But what is this place? Does this mean I don’t have peace?”
Mebuyen hands her a glass of milk. “This is Gimokudan—my domain. You’re safe here. But as for your second question, I would like to know the answer too.”

Parts 1 and 3 have the rest of my faves for 2018.

You can also check out my monthly Best Of columns for more great recommendations!

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.

The Best Short SFF – June 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 subscription page. Thank you for reading and supporting short form SFF!

Must Read

Faint Voices, Increasingly Desperate”, Anya Johanna DeNiro (Shimmer Magazine Issue 43, May 2018) Short Story
Freia is a silk farmer in (presumably) Valhalla, little more than a slave in Woden’s magnanery. She longs to return to Vienna, her adopted home on Earth; her method of escape requires only that she bleed – a lot – so of course her captor diligently keeps her away from sharp objects. A co-worker absent-mindedly drops a needle near her, enabling her to make her first escape in decades. Freia gets a job and takes a lover, aware that her freedom has a countdown – it is only a matter of time before Woden comes to retrieve her. What struck me the most about this story was the way it seemed to live beyond the page, evoking sensory responses outside of what was clearly (and potently) described by the author. Also, Woden is fucking terrifying.
Meat and Salt and Sparks”, Rich Larson (Tor.com, 6/6/2018) Short Story
Larson’s new story is a drug cocktail of uplifted animals, detective noir, and cyberpunk futurism, and the result is unnerving and gripping. Cu is one of a kind – the only survivor of illegal brain enhancement experiments on chimpanzees, now a police detective (!?!), but isolated, lonely, depressed. Solving crimes is the only thing that motivates her to keep going. When an “echo”, someone who allows another person to link with them and live vicariously through their body, commits a murder, the path to finding the true culprit leads right back to Cu’s origins. Nicely detailed, with a deeply affecting ending and memorable characters.

Highly Regarded

The Sweetness of Honey and Rot”, A. Merc Rustad (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #254, 6/21/2018) Novelette
Jiteh’s village is protected by the Life Tree, which demands human sacrifice to sustain itself. After taking her father and her beloved twin, Jiteh questions whether the Tree is really protecting them at all or just imprisoning them for its own benefit and looks to exact revenge. A brilliantly realized setting with a relatable hero told in rich, expressive prose.
Yiwu”, Lavie Tidhar (Tor.com, 5/23/2018) Short Story
In the far future, Esham runs a booth selling lottery tickets in the Chinese city of Yiwu. Lottery winners are immediately granted their fondest (hand-wavey science magic) wish, but nothing happens when Ms. Qiu buys a winning ticket, prompting Esham to take a trip to lottery HQ to find out what went wrong. “Yiwu” is a captivating sci-fantasy fable, highlighting Tidhar’s talent for immersing readers in vivid settings populated by diverse and vibrant characters.
Fireside 56Cast Off Tight”, Hal Y. Zhang (Fireside Magazine Issue 56, June 2018) Short Story
The protagonist of Zhang’s near-future tale is still mourning the recent loss of his partner when he discovers she was in the process of knitting a scarf with “memory yarn”, which records nearby sounds while being knitted with special needles. When he touches it, he can hear things like that episode of Jeopardy she was watching, the song she was listening to, even sometimes her laughter. He pushes through conflicting emotions, determined to learn how to knit so he can finish the scarf. It’s a graceful tale with finespun, understated prose.

Also Recommended

“Chocolate Chip Cookies with Love Potion Infusion”, Leah Cypess (Galaxy’s Edge Issue 32, May/June 2018) Short Story
A humorous little fantasy about a witch posting the titular recipe on her blog, and the conversation that ensues.
Beast of Breath”, Gillian Daniels (Fireside Magazine Issue 56, June 2018) Short Story
A passive-aggressive monster tries to get the attention of someone it’s been stalking since childhood.
BCS 252The Wild Ride of the Untamed Stars”, A.J. Fitzwater (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #252, 5/24/2018) Short Story
An appropriately wild and untamed mini-epic fantasy about a capybara looking to wrangle a star to win the favor of a queen.
What the Skeleton Detective Tells You (While You Picnic)”, Katherine Kendig (Shimmer Magazine Issue 43, May 2018) Short Story
An eccentric, bone-dry tale of a P.I. who is also a living skeleton, trying to find a client’s missing friend.
Salt Lines”, Ian Muneshwar (Strange Horizons, 5/21/2018) Short Story
A young, gay Caribbean immigrant is stalked by a demonic jumbie in this eerie dark fantasy.
Balloon Man”, Shiv Ramdas (GigaNotoSaurus 6/1/2018) Novelette
A young boy is trapped under a fallen building, and the man who saved him from certain death spins for him a fantastical tale while they await rescue. As the balloon man’s tale progresses, it become clear the story has a great deal of bearing on their present circumstances.
Lightspeed 97I Sing Against the Silent Sun”, A. Merc Rustad and Ada Hoffman (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 97, June 2018) Novelette
A subversive poet is on the run from a powerful tyrant in this splashy, polychromatic space adventure.
“Redaction”, Adam R. Shannon (Compelling Science Fiction Issue 11, June 2018) Short Story
In the future, you can edit out bad experiences by dropping markers, and later choosing whether to erase the memories between them.
Vault”, D.A. Xiaolin Spires (Clarkesworld Issue 141, June 2018) Novelette
Two surveyors encounter a unique and dangerous new form of life while trying to map a planet lost to ecological disaster.
“Jackbox”, Brian Trent (Galaxy’s Edge Issue 32, May/June 2018) Short Story
A milSF quickie where enemy soldiers are just as dangerous after you kill them.