The Best Short SFF of March 2020

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

Must Read Stories

 

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Cover by Patila/Adobe Stock Art

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

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

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

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

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Cover Art by chainat

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

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

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

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

More Recommended Stories

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

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

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Cover by Mondolithic Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cover Art by Thomas Chamberlain-Keen

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

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

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

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

 

The Best Short SFF of 2019 – Part 3: Fantasy

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 Fantasy Fiction of 2019

BCS 287One Found in a World of the Lost“, by Shweta Adhyam (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #287, September 26, 2019) 6979 words

Pavitra blames herself for her twin sister Gayatri’s death at the hands of a wild boar. While Pavitra reckons with her guilt, the departed Gayatri finds herself in a strange world, in the company of a mystical creature called a yakshini.

“I am… Gayatri,” said the girl, and it felt wrong. As if she were lying. No, worse. As if she were stealing. “Who are you?”
The creature sighed. “I have been under a curse so long I have forgotten my name. But I am a yakshini, and I remember the way back to my home. Will you accept a reward for having saved me?”
The girl bit down the ready refusal on her tongue and said, “What kind of reward?”
“What would you like? Safety and stability, escape from Bhoomi’s wrath? Beauty? Immortality? Simply name it.”
Desire exploded in the girl’s heart at the mention of safety and stability, rest… She quashed it. What would she do in such a world? She was a hunter. But she’d been right, these were gifts that would benefit her pack, gifts worth taking risks for. Even if they came with a large sense of foreboding.
“Can you make me invulnerable?” she said, giving in to the image of her death, the boar’s tusks sinking into her and what it would mean for them all if she did indeed die.
The yakshini’s deer-face grinned; she nodded eagerly. She plucked a handful of leaves from a nearby bush and murmured some words over them. As her shloka reached its crescendo, she crushed the leaves and drew a shimmering circle, vertical in the air, with the juice they left on her fingers. The shimmer covered the circle for a moment, then retreated to its edges. Through it, the girl looked into a whole other world, one that was as hard and dry and scrubby as her own was green and wet and mossy, with stone pillars taking the place of trees as far as her eye could see.

BCS 268The Beast Weeps With One Eye“, by Morgan Al-Moor (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #268, January 3, 2019) 6663 words

High Sister Nwere leads her people on a perilous flight from their homeland as they are menaced by a murderous onslaught of ravens. Exhausted and all but defeated, she strikes a devil’s bargain in a last ditch effort to save them all.

I dropped to my knees and pressed my hands to the moist grass. I drew in a deep breath and twisted my tongue and lips to match the breath of the earth beneath me. “Heed my call, Ancient Land, and lend me your wisdom. My people need shelter.”
The land sighed under my palms. The old voice filled my head. “I hear you, High Sister, and I have what you seek. Though the ravens fade into oblivion when compared to what lies here.”
“I have lost many lives on the road, Ancient Land. Show me this sanctuary, whatever it may be.”
“You stand upon the abode of the Keeper of Sorrows, and of him and this place, I shall speak no more.”
My fingers dug into the dirt. “You must talk. By the will of the twin Elders, Arowo-Ara and Ufefe, Striders of Thunder and Lightning, I implore you to show your secrets.”
The voice grunted in pain. I hated my cruelty, I hated to use the Elders’ names to threaten another being, but time was of the essence.
“So be it,” whispered the land.
A sudden quake rushed beneath our feet. Gasps filled the air, and I clung to the dirt as my body swayed. Above us, shades of crimson spilled across the sky, as if the clouds had bled. Screams erupted. Our hunters jumped to their feet while the children wriggled into their mothers’ arms.
Across the river, three trees burst into smoke, and behind them stood a walled structure that had not been there before.

Lightspeed 112A Bird, a Song, a Revolution“, by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 112, September 2019) 5224 words

Whistlecage – so named because of the caged songbird she carries around – meets an old witch who promises to teach her a thing or two about making songs.

“Would you like to hear my bird?”
Now the witch is mocking her, Whistlecage thinks. It’s almost a relief. But when she looks up at her, prepared to take her lumps as best she can, the witch is fumbling with one of the bits hanging at her belt. A smooth, hollow spar of bird bone, bored through with holes. She catches Whistlecage’s eye and holds it fast as she raises the thing to her lined lips. Her fingers dance spider steps down its length.
And the bone sings to the bird.
It starts as an imitation at first, good enough that the bird whistles back. But it doesn’t stop there. It takes the bird’s song and expands it like an unfurling pelt, twisting all sorts of new sounds and flourishes and ups and downs into the tune. The girl has never heard anything like it. There are drummers among her people, and those who sing stories on special days, but this is different. This is a sound that fills the contours of her insides like it was carved from ivory for the purpose, something she has never known she needed. It is an instant connection between her heart and the old woman’s. Just like that they are the same, because of the song.
The feeling wells up in her and spills out of his eyes.
“There are more singers and whistlers in the world than you’ll ever be able to meet, child,” the witch says, “and each one carries as many songs within them as stars in the sky. You’ll never be able to hear them all, and when you grow woman-sized you’ll lie awake at night haunted by that. All you can do is learn how to sing your own and hope that someone somewhere remembers.”

for he can creepFor He Can Creep“, by Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com, July 10, 2019) 7903 words

The poet Christopher Smart is locked away in an asylum with his faithful cat, Jeoffry. Years before, Smart made a deal with the devil, and now the devil has come to collect his due. Though Jeoffry might have something to say about that.

Jeoffry is curled at his usual spot on the sleeping poet’s back when the devil arrives. The devil does not enter as his demons do, in whispers and the patterning of light. His presence steals into the room like smoke, and as with smoke, Jeoffry is aware of the danger before he is even awake, his fur on end, his heart pounding.
“Hello, Jeoffry,” the devil says.
Jeoffry extends his claws. At that moment, he knows something is wrong, for the poet, who normally would wake with a howl at such an accidental clawing, lies still and silent. All around Jeoffry is a quiet such as cats never hear: no mouse or beetle creeping along a madhouse wall, no human snoring, no spider winding out its silk. It as if the Night itself has hushed to listen to the devil’s voice, which sounds pleasant and warm, like a bucket of cream left in the sun.
“I thought you and I should have a chat,” Satan says. “I understand you’ve been giving my demons some trouble.”
The first thought that flashes into Jeoffry’s head is that Satan looks exactly as Milton describes him in Paradise Lost. Only more cat-shaped. (Jeoffry, a poet’s cat, has ignored vast amounts of Milton over the years, but some of it has apparently stuck.)
The second thought is that the devil has come into his territory, and this means fighting!
Puffing himself up to his utmost size, Jeoffry spits at the devil and shows his teeth.
This is my place! he cries. Mine!

Haunting of Tram Car 015The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing, February 19, 2019) 28576 words

Hamed and Onsi are agents of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, investigating a haunting in an unusual location. They soon learn this particular spectre might be more than a minor nuisance.

“Good morning, unknown being,” he said in loud slow words, holding up his identification. “I am Agent Onsi and this is Agent Hamed of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. We hereby inform you that you are in breach of several regulations governing paranormal persons and sentient creatures, beginning with Article 273 of the criminal code which forbids trespass and inhabitation of public property owned by the State, Article 275 on acts of terrifying and intimidation of citizens . . .”
Hamed listened stupefied as the man rattled off a series of violations. He wasn’t even certain when some of those had been put on the books.
“ . . . and given the aforementioned charges,” Onsi continued, “you are hereby instructed to vacate these premises and return to your place of origin, or, barring that, to accompany us to the Ministry for further questioning.” Finishing, he turned with a satisfied nod.
Rookies, Hamed grumbled quietly. Before he could respond, a low moaning sounded in the car. There was little doubt where it came from, as the gray smoke had stopped its slithering and gone still.
“I think it understood me!” Onsi said eagerly.
Yes, Hamed thought dryly. And you probably bored it to death. If it was already dead, you might have just bored it back to death.
He was about say as much when there was a sudden terrible screeching.
Hamed moved to cover his ears at the sound, but was sent stumbling back as a jolt went through the tram. He might have fallen flat had he not reached out for one of the stanchions—catching the vertical pole by a hand. He looked up to see the gray smoke swirling furiously like an angry cloud, screaming as it swelled and grew. The lamps that lined the walls flickered rapidly and the tram began to tremble.

augur-cover-issue-2.1Clear as Quartz, Sharp as Flint” by Maria Haskins (Augur Magazine 2.1) 1009 words

Jenna doesn’t like to heed Grammy’s warnings, not before she was with child, and certainly not now.

In early summer, before solstice-night, when the child is not yet so heavy inside her, Jenna climbs the hill to the ring of stones. She knows she shouldn’t, but it’s the kind of day when nothing seems perilous, not even those pale-grey sarsens looming on the tor. The breeze is soft, and the first bees, drunk on nectar, buzz through the pink sheen of heather spread across the moor. Father’s sheep graze on the hillsides while the herding dogs lounge in the sun, their keen eyes on the lambs and ewes.
Jenna climbs the hill because she hears the stones sing.
Don’t listen to that old stone-song, Grammy told her. That’s what everyone says. Yet it is hard to ignore that call once you’ve heard it.
The first time Jenna heard the stone-song was in midwinter, that night when she let Keff into her bed while everyone was at the sun-feast. Only Grammy’s wooden god watched them from the wall. When Keff moved inside her, the song thrummed so low and deep within she thought it was her own heart beating.
She heard that same song the day the baby quickened. Heard it again when Grammy laid her hands on her belly, shaking her head, muttering of ill-made children, saying that the stones would claim what the wooden god would not.

FIYAH Issue10_150“In That Place She Grows a Garden”, by Del Sandeen (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 10: Hair, Spring 2019) 5290 words

When a new principal takes over at her mostly white high school, Rayven is forced to cut her four-years-long locs because they suddenly violate the school’s dress code. Then something other than hair starts growing in their place.

Kids milled around her, some grabbing books out of their lockers, others walking to class. She peeked at her reflection in the small mirror stuck inside her locker door, wondering why she continued to look for something hopeful.
A pop of yellow caught her eye.
Rayven reached up, expecting the worst because it wouldn’t be the first time one of Queen Mary’s finest had snuck an object into her hair—the end of a broken pencil once, a hermit crab shell another time.
“Ow,” she breathed. When she’d pulled on the yellow thing, whatever it was, it stung, as if she pulled her own hair.
Rayven rifled through her bookbag until she found the compact. She held its mirror behind her as she gazed into her locker door reflection.
A yellow flower poked from her ‘fro.
Even the shrill bell went unheard.
She tugged at it and again, felt that sting. Her fingers burrowed deeper, straight to the roots. And indeed, the base of the flower felt like roots. Plant roots. Growing from her head.

Apex 117The Crafter at the Web’s Heart“, by Izzy Wasserstein (Apex Magazine Issue 117, February 2019) 6071 words

In the city of Traverse, magic users become what they practice. Danae is all about spiders, and when she takes a delivery job for some extra cash, she runs afoul of a dangerous fly-cult.

A shiver from the web reached me before I’d registered the sound. I didn’t need to turn around to know the knife had missed me by less than a meter.
I leapt forward, threw myself through the back window of the nearest shack. Shocked, dirty faces stared back at me. I didn’t have time to explain. I darted across, ducked out a side window onto a disturbingly uneven platform.
It shifted, tilted above the void. I didn’t look down. Brought it back into equilibrium. My balance has always been good.
Flies might not be the brightest, but it wasn’t like there were a lot of places I could’ve gone. They’d find me if I didn’t keep moving. I scrambled through a gap in the wall of the next building—empty, thankfully—and out onto the web in front of it. Fortune smiled: the commotion I’d sensed in the web was a caravan, a cheap one, just departing from a hovel of an inn. I rolled under one of the carts, grabbed onto the undercarriage. Not a comfortable ride, but I was out of sight of the flies.
The cart moved slowly, and that bought me time to catch my breath and to think. Back then, I wasn’t used to attempts to murder me, especially when they could’ve just stopped creeping and taken the damn book.
By the time my heart stopped feeling like it wanted to cut its way free, I’d had time to come up with a plan. I needed to know what I was carrying, and why these scum-feeders were willing to kill for it.

many-hearted-dog_FINAL_sm-323x500Many-Hearted Dog and Heron Who Stepped Past Time“, by Alex Yuschik (Strange Horizons, June 17, 2019) 5869 words

Dog and Heron have been business partners for a long time, but Heron experiences time in a different order, and this complicates their relationship.

“There is the past and the not-past,” Heron said, blood dripping from their arm onto the nightingale floor. “Which is this?”
“The not-past, you idiot.” Dog grunted as he peeled back Heron’s sleeve. He was in Heart of Storms, shoulders tense and eyes alive with lightning. With a tsk, he tore off a clean strip of bandage. “Hold still.”
This often happened when Heron stepped through time, the uncertain landings. It surprised them, frustrated Dog, and had caused an assassin hiding behind a shelf of scrolls to loose a throwing star that had grazed Heron’s left arm. But Heron was not a master of the deadly arts for nothing: their knife caught the assassin’s ear at more or less the same time Dog’s knife stabbed the assassin’s hand to a pillar.
Lacquered cabinets gleamed in the next room, shelves full of scrolls stacked in neat columns, a brush and ink still perched on their stands obediently even though it was the dead of night. The last time Heron had visited the not-past, they had been stealing a chicken for their and Dog’s dinner. “Well, I see we are currently embroiled in at least one shenanigan.”
The assassin moaned weakly at their hand, still pinned, and Dog carefully brushed debris away from a noblewoman’s body. “This magistrate job was the stupidest thing we ever did. If you sashay off into the past again, kindly tell my former self I’m an amateur and a fool.”

 

You can find Part 1 – Dark Fantasy/Horror HERE

You can find Part 2 – Science Fiction 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 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 September 2019

Featured Image from the cover of Lightspeed Issue 112 by Galen Dara

Must Read Stories

A Bird, a Song, a Revolution“, by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 112, September 2019) Short Story

Bolander’s expressive cat-scratch prose and narrative gymnastics grow more audacious with each published story, while she has honed her vision into a diamond-hard stare. As a young girl, Whistlecage has a transformative experience when she learns to play the flute at the urging of an old witch. Far in a post-disaster future, another young girl finds Whistlecage’s flute in the wreckage of a museum, and it seems there is some magic left in it yet. Like “The Only Harmless Great Thing”, this is a story about bold ideas and hard truths crossing generational distances, of art as cultural memory and revolutionary impulse.

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

Most of Castro’s AIsource Infection stories have debuted in the pages of Analog, so it was a pleasant surprise to find one out in the wild, and a great one at that. “Sacrid’s Pod” isn’t dependent on any of the other stories or story sequences and serves as a great primer for those unfamiliar with Castro’s future history. Sacrid is a teenage girl consigned to a life sentence in an inescapable prison by her ultra-orthodox parents as punishment for transgressing their culture’s religious doctrines. Her unusually helpful AI-jailer assists her as she engineers a different kind of prison break. More than a quarter century into his writing career, Castro still displays an near-miraculous talent for twisting every genre trope imaginable into something new and exciting and fun.

Asomovs 092019
Cover Art by Dominic Harman

“Winter Wheat”, by Gord Sellar (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2019) Novella

This was the first story I encountered in my September reading, and it set quite a standard for everything that followed. “Winter Wheat” is the intimate yet epic story of a farming community upended by the introduction of bioengineered climate-resistant wheat. The story’s protagonist, Jimmy, can’t grasp the science of farming, a fact that frustrates him when his father’s attempts to create his own strain of wheat conflicts with corporate control of production. With its memorable setting and characters, and an intelligent, multi-layered take on some vital near-future issues, this may be my favorite sci-fi story of the year.

More Recommended Stories

The Last Stellar Death Metal Opera“, by Elly Bangs (Escape Pod 697, September 12, 2019) Short Story

Raya wants to hurl a brown dwarf into a collapsing star to save a planet of octopodes from the gamma ray burst of an impending supernova, despite the fact that the resulting collision will incinerate her and make her the first human to die in several millennia. Why? Because that would be metal as hell, of course. Then the “frickin’ Unimind”, the human race’s AI caretaker, arrives to muck the whole plan up. In truth, the conflict between Raya and the Unimind never rises above mild tension, but the spectacle of Raya’s plan and her motive for doing it are the stars of the show. If you fail to read this story with a big old stupid grin on your face from the first page to the last you should probably stop reading things.

Breaking the Waters“, by Donyae Coles (Pseudopod 666, September 20, 2019) Short Story

Coles’ piercing fever dream of a story is accompanied by W.B. Yeats classic poem “The Second Coming” (and also a content warning, which should be heeded), the perfect tone-setter for this tale of a young girl named Bootsie and her monstrous pregnancy. As much a story of containing Whitmanian multitudes as it is about birthing biblical Legions, it’s also as eerie and unsettling as any horror story you’re likely to read this year.

FSF 092019
Cover Art by David Hardy

“Homecoming”, by Gardner Dozois (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September/October 2019) Short Story

A bittersweet capstone to the late Dozois’s long and legendary career in SFF, about a very old wizard who makes one last trip home, and a young girl who beseeches him to send a little bit of magic her way. The kind of story that might be a little too perfect for its own good, but who’s going to complain?

“The Albatwitch Chorus”, by Stephanie Feldman (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2019) Novelette

Asimov’s always throws a little “spooky action” (pun intended) at readers this time of year, and for the second year in a row Feldman has written one of my favorites. Sonia moves in to an old witch’s house, and takes on her ex-husband’s teenage daughter as an apprentice as she starts her own witch’s shop. When the intelligent, racoon-like albatwitches that live in the nearby woods start making incursions on Sonia’s property, she knows they’re after something and that can’t be good. The albatwitches are too fiercely unknowable to be the antagonist here; the real conflict  is between the stubbornly pragmatic older woman Sonia and the fearlessly naïve youth Gina, who believes the albatwitches are trying to befriend her.

“Four Accounts of the Discovery of Orchard Street (From The Knowledge: An A-To-Zed of That City We Almost Know)” collated by S.R. Mandel, cartographer (Galaxy’s Edge Issue 40, September/October 2019) Short Story

This is probably the first time I’ve dropped a story on this list just because I didn’t know what else to do with it, only that by some strange impulse I read it over and over at least a half dozen times and found new pleasures in it each time. There’s nothing else I can say about it that you can’t glean from the title. Just let it happen.

clarkesworld 156
Cover Art by Beeple

Dave’s Head“, by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 156, September 2019) Novelette

I marvel at Palmer’s gift for pasting together what seems like a bucket list of absurd story concepts and not only weaving them into a compelling narrative but imbuing them with a deep, rich mythology that reaches out beyond the boundaries of the story. In “Dave’s Head”, an engineer and her senile uncle go on a road trip with their roommate, a sentient animatronic dinosaur head called Dave, so Dave can find others like himself at a long-shuttered theme park. It’s a testament to the good will Palmer has engendered with her readers that we’re willing to swallow the wacky pill she hands us, no questions asked, knowing the rewards and surprises that await us.

“In the Stillness Between the Stars”, by Mercurio D. Rivera (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2019) Novelette

Another spooky story from Asimov’s, this one a little more traditionally Asimovian. A psycho therapist is woken from cryogenic sleep early in a colony ship’s voyage to help a woman who appears to have woken her nightmare up along with her. Well-drawn characters and sturdy, suspenseful plotting, and a whole lot going on in the background for SF geeks to chew on.

Sweet Dreams are Made of You“, by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (Nightmare Magazine Issue 84, September 2019) Short Story

You’re probably smarter than I am and won’t try to read a magazine literally called NIGHTMARE right before bedtime. Though just in case that’s not warning enough for you, for fuck’s sake don’t read “Sweet Dreams are Made of You” and then try to go to sleep. Wolfmoor’s testimonial-style horror vignette about a game called Vore that you play in your dreams – until it crosses over to the waking world – has all the punishing beauty of a black metal song and the suffocating dread of a dream you desperately want to scream yourself awake from.

 

The Best Short SFF of June 2019

 

Recommended Stories

Lightspeed 109
Cover by Grandfailure/Fotolia

The Harvest of a Half-Known Life“, by G.V. Anderson (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 109, June 2019) Short Story

Anderson builds an arresting and intricately detailed post-apocalyptic culture where social mores have been re-shaped by climate disaster: technology is taboo, for example, but harvesting the flesh of the dead has a vital role in sustainable living. The narrator – verbally called “Gwinaelle”, though her true name can only be conveyed in sign – is caught between the life that has been planned out for her and her yearning to “follow the ghosts” and explore the ruined world. It’s an engaging narrative but what stood out for me was its introspective nature, the onus it placed on the reader to not fall back on easy choices and lazy assumptions.

“Apologia”, by Vajra Chandrasekera (Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 3, June 2019) Short Story

An acerbic take on the commodification of white liberal guilt, wherein a poet is unleashed through time with recording drones in tow to experience firsthand the plight of systemically oppressed peoples, all for the edification of viewers back home. The narrator is the project’s producer, who divines to portray the subject as “our collective finger of condemnation pointed at a mirror, and then holding that pose, turning our heads a little, shifting hips, finding our good side in the light of truth and reconciliation.” That the narrator is aware of their own hypocrisy – perhaps even fetishizes it – is all the more disturbing.

LCRW 39
Cover Art by Cynthia Yuan Cheng

“Late Train”, by Anthony Ha (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet no. 39, June 2019) Short Story

While taking a late train home after a night of revelry, three friends have a discomfiting encounter with a homeless woman. The youngest and most naïve of the three unthinkingly invites the woman to overshare the details of her life, a narrative that gets more and more outrageous as it goes and opens them up to a literal multitude of possibilities. The slow build to a mind-expanding climax is well-rendered, and I appreciated the subtle symmetries and synchronicities built into the story’s structure which are especially effective in a second readthrough.

Bootleg Jesus“, by Tonya Liburd (Diabolical Plots #52B, June 17, 2019) Short Story

The rural town Mara lives in has no magic, so the “unique gifts” that normally manifest in people once they reached a certain age aren’t fostered there. But somehow Mara can activate her “Bootleg Jesus” statuette by asking it a question, and get cryptic yet actionable advice from it. This ability takes on a new urgency when she wishes to save a friend from an abusive situation. I really enjoyed the idea of a world where magic is common except in this one place, and the author uses it to weave a compelling, heartfelt story with empathy and smarts.

a forest or a tree
Art by Samuel Araya

A Forest, or a Tree“, by Tegan Moore (Tor.com, June 26, 2019) Novelette

Small disturbances and unforeseen circumstances pile up to bedevil four friends on a hiking trip in the wilderness, while something uncanny stalks them from the edges of their perception. An odd little horror piece; surreal and spooky with an offbeat aesthetic of arbitrariness to distinguish it. The characters jump off the page from the get go, which is always a good sign.

Many-Hearted Dog and Heron Who Stepped Past Time“, by Alex Yuschik (Strange Horizons, 6/17/2019) Short Story

Dog and Heron are partners who have “a profitable business stealing things, protecting things, or killing things.” As the title suggests, Heron can move back and forth through time, though they need someone (currently Dog) to anchor them in the timeline. The plot, involving the killing and resurrecting of a magistrate to sniff out a conspiracy, is a bit of a red herring. The story is really about what the titular characters mean to each other, a relationship that is somehow enhanced, rather than hindered, by the fact that one of them experiences it out of order.

2018 Recommended Reading List (Part 3)

Featured Image from the cover art for “Strange Waters”, by Julia Griffin.

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)

Second World Fantasy

Desert Island Pick

A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” by James Beamon [Lightspeed Magazine Issue 98, July 2018; 5990 words]

lightspeed 98
Cover Art by Saleha Chowdhury

I could probably conjure a thousand words to describe this fantastical re-imagining of the Crimean War, but you only need three: Zombie. Attack. Monkeys.
The deck shakes; all other sound is muted as our six starboard cannons fire wicked harpoons. Attached to the harpoons are giant chains. Three harpoons punch through the hull of the Russian ironclad. Our airship jerks as the chains go taut.
The Russian guns are still swinging skyward and nearly have us sighted. These cannons have caused the iron-hulled British vessel to belch black clouds. I imagine what they would do to our hull of wood.
The organ grinder slides the copper plate into his organ and closes the lid. He turns the cranks slow at first as if he is fighting it. Faster, now faster, “The March of the Janissaries” fills the air like the keening wail of a thousand grieving mothers.
The monkeys burst from the hold, a faceless black tide with brief flashes of white. They rush around us, past and over the organ grinder and me. I feel a million cold hands. They speed past so fast they sound like a crowd shushing me. Shhh . . . shhh.
They spread beyond us, onto the chains, where they stream down to the ironclad ship. The black furred bodies seem like oil spilling down the three chains, like the dark fingers of Şeytan.

The Best of the Rest

The Privilege of the Happy Ending” by Kij Johnson [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 143, August 2018; 15,501 words]

Ada and her amazing talking chicken Blanche must run from the unstoppable horde of deadly wastoures ravishing the land. This may or may not end well.

The wastoures came. The trees shook and the tall grasses shivered, first from animals fleeing, every deer and mouse and marten and vole running for its life, but then from the wastoures themselves. They trampled the grasses as they poured like a flood across the clearing, eddied wherever they found some living thing to eat, crashed against the trees and scoured the bark with their claws and talons, until swarming they swept past. But always more.
The night was bright-mooned, alas. Ada saw a fallow doe pulled down in her flight (for she would not run faster than her fawn) and skeletonized quicker than a hen lays an egg, and the fawn even faster than she. The wastoures swirled around a pile of stones in the clearing until they unearthed a fox den and ate the kits. There was a great anguished roaring in the forest, which Blanche whispered surely was a bear pulled from her hiding place and killed.

We Ragged Few” by Kate Alice Marshall [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, September 27, 2018; 25,051 words]

The rot hounds have breached the border, and Reyna knows that means her sister’s prophecy will come true. Convincing their leader Talgrun that they must find a new land for their people proves difficult, if not impossible.

“Omens are the crone’s art,” Ymaera said. “So what say you, crone?”
The old woman cocked her head one way and then the other, and in the thatch her crow cackled a laugh. “She speaks of omens but stinks of rot,” she said. “Of things not new and dead but old and dead. Old wounds, old grudges, old corpses cold and pretty.”
She split her lips in a yellow grin. Evahr’s hand gripped brief and tight on my shoulder, as if I’d be fool enough to leap, to shed blood beneath the beam. Acidic anger pulsed in my gut, but I was long accustomed to its slow, liquid pain. I no longer bit at every provocation like a wounded animal.
“This is not about my sister,” I said. Our sister, Imri’s and mine. Titha. Cold-born, blood still as a corpse’s and yet living. The cold spoke prophecy, and since Korohn’s time we had listened. Until Titha’s final Telling.
“Not about your sister, you say. Yet the first words you spoke to me were ‘we should not have stayed,’” Talgrun said, settling back in his chair as if weary of me.
Perhaps I was growing more temperate as the cold leached years from my bones. I did not tell him that my sister had warned us—that she had died to warn us, and we had not heeded her. Two years now since Titha had spoken her prophecy, and still Talgrun listened to the crows and their mistress.
“Your husband has brought a bounty, and you will share in it,” Talgrun said. “Celebrate, and put this beast out of your mind. The threat is no more. You slew it, and a fine trophy it will make for your home.” Your home, not his. He did not claim it, as was his right: a final insult masked as a gift.
Perhaps I had not grown so temperate after all.

Beneath the Sugar Sky” by Seanan McGuire [Tor.com Publishing; 39,193 words]

sugar sky
Cover photo illustration by Sean Rodwell; Cover design by FORT

The sequel to McGuire’s Hugo-and-Nebula-winning Every Heart a Doorway. This time Rini, a young girl from a nonsense world, crashes Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, looking for her mother Sumi. There’s just one problem with her request: Sumi was murdered as a teenager, and never had any children. Rini is not deterred.

“—and that’s why she can’t be dead,” concluded Rini. Her story had been long and rambling and at times nonsensical, full of political coups and popcorn-ball fights, which were like snowball fights, only stickier. She looked around at the rest of them, expression somewhere between triumphant and hopeful. She had made her case, laid it out in front of them one piece at a time, and she was ready for her reward. “So please, can we go and tell her to stop? I need to exist. It’s important.”
“I’m so sorry, dear, but death doesn’t work that way in this world,” said Eleanor. Each word seemed to pain her, driving her shoulders deeper and deeper into their slump. “This is a logical world. Actions have consequences here. Dead is dead, and buried is buried.”
Rini frowned. “That’s silly and it’s stupid and I’m not from a logical world, and neither is my mother, so that shouldn’t matter for us. I need her back. I need to be born. It’s important. I’m important.”
“Everyone is important,” said Eleanor.
Rini looked around at the rest of them. “Please,” she pleaded. “Please, make the silly old woman stop being awful, and give me back my mother.”

Strange Waters” by Samantha Mills [Strange Horizons, April 2, 2018; 6183 words]

Mika is lost at sea and desperate to be reunited with her children. Finding her homeland isn’t the problem; finding the right year is.

Strange waters flowed beneath the hull of her fishing boat, illuminating the midnight darkness with phosphorescent swirls of yellow and green. The thick scent of pepper and brine tickled her nose, and she knew that a juggernaut swam far below, vast and merciless and consuming shield fish by the thousands.
Mika squinted up at a familiar night sky, at the Dancing Girl, the Triplets, the Mad Horse. She had fished off this coast for nearly twenty years, eight of them lost in time. She’d seen green waters, pink waters, blue. She’d been to Candorrea when it was a loose collection of fishing villages, and she’d been to Candorrea when the buildings were so tall she could hardly look at them without shaking. No matter what century she washed up in, however, the constellations were there to guide her home.
It was a windless night. Mika pulled out her oars and set course for Maelstrom, keen to find out when she had landed.

Blessings” by Naomi Novik [Uncanny Magazine Issue 22, May/June 2018; 2267 words]

A sideways reimagining of Sleeping Beauty, in which all the fairies get hammered and the blessings go a little off script.

“Oh, wealth’s all well and good,” said the third, from out of the depths of her dark cloak. She was a shadowed fairy, and rather alarming even to her companions, but she lived nearer the father’s house than any of the others, in a deep cave somewhere up in the mountains. The baron had known better than to slight her, of course, but his lady had gone beyond that, and sent the invitation with a personal note written in her own hand that they very much hoped to have the pleasure of her company, and a small package of sweetmeats. It was not the traditional sort of courting sent to shadowed fairies—the kind of lord who really wanted their attendance was more likely to send a gift of the knucklebones of plague victims—but the sweetmeats had been carefully made with rotted walnuts and pig’s blood, and at the feast, the fairy had discreetly been served a plate of raw calves’ liver dressed with a sauce of nightshade on a plate of tarnished silver. She had refused the fairy wine, but the hostess had quickly had a word with her steward, and a great goblet of steaming beef blood fresh from a newly slaughtered ox had been brought to the table, laced heavily with old brandy, and the fairy had drunk the entire thing down.
She now covered her mouth and belched out a thin trail of smoke. “Well and good indeed,” she went on, “until someone takes it from you,” and rose from the table in turn.

The Thought That Counts” by K.J. Parker [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #250, April 26, 2018; 8683 words]

bcs 250
Cover Art: “Legendary Passage” by Jereme Peabody

Lawyer, moral philosopher, and fraudulent alchemist Constantius takes up the case of a young artist named Sinneva accused of murdering her clients with the bewitched portraits she paints. Suing for her acquittal proves a little too easy for the arrogant Constantius.

“My learned friend made a perfunctory effort to connect the status of the alleged victims to their dreadful fate, as though my client had sought to strike down the flowers of our society. The fact is, all her customers came to her clamouring to be painted; she didn’t choose them, they chose her. Twenty-eight rich, famous, influential, talented men and women were painted by my client and have suffered no ill-effects. Once again, the facts don’t simply speak for themselves, they shout at the tops of their voices.
“Recently, the wise and distinguished Senate of this city ruled unambiguously that there is no such thing as witchcraft or sorcery. But witchcraft and sorcery, I put it to you, are precisely what my client is accused of; tacitly, because to say so openly would be to invite ridicule. Therefore, for consistency’s sake, if for no other reason, I call on this rational, truth-loving court to dismiss these ridiculous charges and let my poor, long-suffering client go free. I rest my case.”
God, I’m good, though I do say so myself. The magistrate shook his head, blinked a couple of times like a dazzled rabbit, and said the magic words: case dismissed. You could have heard a pin drop.
I left, quickly.

“The Lady of Butterflies” by Y.M. Pang [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December 2018; 8952 words]

Lady Rikara, First Sword of the Kejalin Empire, becomes the companion and protector of Morieth, a mysterious woman who appears out of nowhere in the Emperor’s garden with only fleeting impressions of her life before. Soon, political circumstances threaten to cause a rift between Rikara’s personal feelings and her loyalty to the Empire.

Morieth stopped, saw the Queen, and fell into the bow we’d practiced. Eriha approached with measured steps, gems dangling from her gathered hair. Her face was perfectly painted, carefully blank. Her eyes locked on Morieth. I could’ve been one of the asters.
“I hope you are enjoying your stay,” Eriha said. “The Emperor was most…welcoming, was he not?” She raised a hand, and I bit back a warning. I remembered how she’d killed that tiger. Even now, many years later, a single blow from her would break bones or worse. But Eriha only slipped index and middle fingers around a lock of Morieth’s hair. I shook my head. What was I thinking? This was the Queen, she wouldn’t do something like that, and even if she did.…
Eriha rolled the fine gold strands between her fingers. “Such an oddity you are, appearing out of nowhere and capturing the Emperor’s heart. What boneskin magic did you use, butterfly girl? What is your goal?”
Morieth spoke. Her Kejalin was accented but unhesitating. “No goal. Just…survive.”
I didn’t know what to make of her answer. Nor did Eriha, it seemed, for she dropped her hand, held Morieth’s eyes for a moment, then turned away. Eriha stalked off, trailed by silent attendants, and I struggled to find the right words to say to Morieth.

The Sweetness of Honey and Rot” by A. Merc Rustad [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #254, June 21, 2018; 8915 words]

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’s protection is worth the cost.

Jiteh pounds her sandals against the cobbled path that loops behind their family hut to the bee hives stacked in tiers. Fog sweeps in thick damp breaths across her village as if the ancient mountains far beyond the forest have sweated off layers of mist.
The bees are slow, readying for the winter. She walks the hives, brushing her fingertips against the wooden slats. “I wish I was a bee,” she tells them. “I’d fly from here, far beyond the Boundary. I’d find flowers no one has ever seen and make the sweetest honey and give none of it to the Tree.”
The bees don’t answer her in words, but she feels their sluggish sympathy. Ever since she was little, barely upright on her feet, she has loved the hives. She’d sit amidst the swarms, stick her chubby hands into the honeycomb without being stung. The Treekeepers blessed her skill and named her one of the tenders of the hives.
She loves the bees, even though they can’t help her. No one can save her brother.
Jiteh presses her palms against her mouth and screams.

Don’t miss Parts 1 and 2 for the rest of my 2018 favorites.

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

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]

lightpeed 95
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]

clarkes 136
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]

apex-magazine-112
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]

fireside 53
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 – 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 – October 2018

Reminder: While many of the stories in this column are available to read free online, these venues pay the authors for their work and rely on income from readers to do so. If one or more of these zines consistently publishes fiction that you like, please consider buying a subscription. Or, if you read a story or stories that you especially like, consider purchasing the issue it appears in. If the story is available to read online, clicking on the name of the story will send you there; subscription/donation/purchase information is available at each site. For stories that are not available to read online, there is a link to that zine’s home page. Thank you for reading and supporting short form SFF!

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

Must Read

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

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

Highly Regarded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also Recommended

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

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

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

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