The Best Short SFF of August 2019

Featured Image from “Fare” by Francesco Giani.

I apologize for the brevity and lack of depth in the write-ups, or any mistakes abound. I’m finishing this up late at night from a hospital bed so braining is hard: this month’s list brought to you by oxycodone!

As always if you like what you read, consider paying for an issue or subscription. Even though many of these zines make their publications available to read for free on the internet, they still have writers and staff to pay and rely on income to do so. Please enjoy these great stories!

Must Read

The Skin of a Teenage Boy is Not Alive“, by Senaa Ahmad (Nightmare Magazine Issue 83, August 2019) Short Story

Parveen’s best friend Aisha falls in with “Benny and his dumb demon cult” who want to get possessed for kicks, but Parveen doesn’t quite fit in with that crowd. The tone of the story is like one long teenage shrug, but gliding under the surface is a desperate adult awareness of time skipping past all our youthful idealism.

Still Water“, by Ian Muneshwar (Anathema Issue 8, August 2019) Short Story

Miles and Trent are on a couples counselor-inspired jaunt to the wilderness, where their fraying relationship is further tested when their surroundings get a little off-real. A great character study and relationship drama, but what really distinguishes “Still Water” is the slow transgression from its natural setting to a not-quite natural one.

Your Face“, by Rachel Swirsky (Clarkesworld Issue 155, August 2019) Short Story

Swirsky excels at presenting the reader with a deceptively simple setup, before sneaking up on you with a shiv to the gut. In “Your Face”, a mother talks to a computer scan of her late daughter, wanting to know how much she remembers before she died.

More Recommended Stories

Elegy of a Lanthornist” by M.E. Bronstein (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #284, August 15, 2019) Short Story

An astute portrait of an academic studying the obsessive writings of a long dead poet from lost culture, and the object of his unrequited affections. The ending is sudden, and shocking.

Henrietta and the End of the Line“, by Andi C. Buchanan (Translunar Travelers Lounge Issue 1, August 2019) Short Story

A colorful and powerful story about refugees searching for a new home on a train that is also a squid.

No Matter“, by Kendra Fortmeyer (Lightspeed Issue 111, August 2019) Short Story

A time traveler drops in on a young married couple, claiming to be his future daughter, but not hers. What could have been nothing more than a one joke premise turns into quite an emotional storm.

Getaway“, by Jennifer Hudak (Podcastle #585, July 30, 2019) [narrator Jen R. Albert] Short Story

A gut-twisting body horror fantasia about Leena, who swallows some bad lake water while on vacation, and the ensuing illness becomes a blessing in disguise when she discovers she can now escape from her body. Heed the content warnings.

“Verum”, by Storm Humbert (Interzone #282, July/August 2019) Novelette

Rev is losing business to a new verum designer, Gina, whose doses offer users a more immersive experience. Great world-building and characters, and a nice reversal at the end.

Fare“, by Danny Lore (Fireside Magazine Issue 70, August 2019) Short Story

Deshaun really needs to get to the public kennel, more than his distracted cab driver knows. The “real time” feel of the narrative guides the rising tension.

More Real Than Him“, by Silvia Park (Tor.com, August 7, 2019) Short Story

Morgan steals another designer’s robot, only to strike up a bond with the other woman as she designs it to look and behave like her favorite Korean actor. Oh, that poor robot.

Copies Without Originals“, by Morgan Swim (Translunar Travelers Lounge Issue 1, August 2019) Short Story

A wonderfully drawn character study of a robot who keeps following its programming to maintain an art museum long after the human race has gone extinct (or has it?).

 

 

The Best Short SFF – April 2019

Featured Image from the Cover Art for Augur Magazine issue 2.1, by Janice Liu

Must Read

“Clear as Quartz, Sharp as Flint”, by Maria Haskins (Augur Issue 2.1, April 2019) Short Story

Jenna can hear the stones singing to her, much to the chagrin of her Grammy, who prays to the wooden god. “She heard that same song the day the baby quickened. Heard it again when Grammy laid her hands on her belly, shaking her head, muttering of ill-made children, saying that the stones would claim what the wooden god would not.” Maria Haskins’ dark fables often remind me of the classic films of F.W. Murnau and Carl Theodor Dreyer in her ability to distill the act of storytelling into pure emotion and bald imagery, displayed in acute yet elegant compositions. The title of this story is a more apt description of what it does than what it’s about, as it feels far brighter and deeper than its 1000 words should allow.

The-Dark-Issue-47-220x340
Cover Art: “Drawlloween Swamp Thing” by Iren Horrors

An Open Coffin”, by H. Pueyo (The Dark Issue 47, April 2019) Short Story

Amélia goes to work for General Estiano to care for a corpse that resides at his house. The corpse has been on display for decades and attracts many devotees, who appear daily to fawn over it. “You must always let them in,” one servant tells her. “Don’t ask too many questions.” Brazilian author Pueyo uses classic literary devices to build her story—red herring, unreliable narrator, foreshadowing—while its reality unspools like a waking nightmare. It’s a sinister cautionary tale about the noxious behavior that ensues when people fall into the nostalgia trap.

 

Highly Regarded

How to Move Spheres and Influence People”, by Marko Kloos (Tor.com, 27 March 2019) Novelette

A new entry in GRRM’s Wildcards universe, this novelette tells the origin story of T.K., a teenager will partial left-side paralysis who gets picked on at PE by the mean girls. Her “card turns” one day during class and she discovers she has the power to control spherical objects with her mind. Her squeamishness after engaging in a mild act of revenge convinces her she’s better off just using her powers for good. That opens its own can of worms once the opportunity presents itself. Kloos built his reputation on military SF, but here he shows that his skillful plotting and ability to craft believable, relatable protagonists crosses over to other genres. The not-so-subtle ways T.K.’s tormentors bully her without running afoul of school authorities is effectively done. Context clues abound, so readers new to the Wildcards premise shouldn’t have any trouble getting the gist.

FIYAH Issue10_150
Cover Art by Olivia Stephens

“In That Place She Grows a Garden”, by Del Sandeen (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 10, Spring 2019) Short Story

Rayven is one of the few black students among a sea of white faces at Queen Mary Catholic High School. She’s proud of her four-years-in-the-making locs, but when the new principal Mrs. McGee takes office, she declares that Rayven’s hair violates the dress code and makes her cut them off. Soon after, a flower sprouts from Rayven’s scalp, followed by an entire garden. And this garden doesn’t let anyone mess with it. Del Sandeen’s fabulist piece finds the right balance between pragmatism and the uncanny. The precariousness of Rayven’s circumstances give the reader plenty of reasons to root for her and she doesn’t disappoint, even when the people who should support her let her down.

Gaze of Robot, Gaze of Bird”, by Eric Schwitzgebel (Clarkesworld Issue 151, April 2019) Short Story

After a 95,000 year journey, robot J11-L arrives at the planet it was sent to terraform ahead of the generation ships that left earth. But those ships died off millennia ago, so instead J11-L fashions new life from the likeness of its only companion, a stuffed toy it calls “Monkey”. But even engineered evolution takes a long time to perfect. Thoughtful, gentle, optimistic sci-fi in the classic mold.

 

Also Recommended

A Conch-Shell’s Notes” by Shweta Adhyam (Lightspeed Issue 107, April 2019) Short Story

A crafty and engaging story about a village called Peacetown whose residents make their choices based on the whisperings of a magical conch-shell. Fruit-seller Kwai goes off on a magical adventure, while the shell’s advice pushes cookware vendor Var to become mayor. Shai is a fruit harvester caught in between the two men’s destinies and forced to question whether the conch-shell’s instigations really benefit anyone.

Interzone 280
Cover Art by Richard Wagner

“Everything Rising, Everything Starting Again”, by Sarah Brooks (Interzone #280, March 2019) Short Story

In this slow-burning apocalypse, people are dying en masse for unknown reasons, their souls turning into black butterflies and flying away. The oddly casual tone of the story, as the narrator wonders and worries and which family and friends she will lose next, is captivating.

“No Late-For-School”, by Shari Paul (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 10, Spring 2019) Short Story

Shari Paul’s broadly comical “No Late-For-School” is the story of a blogger named Delilah who one day finds a feather growing out of her scalp. Delilah uses a long blog entry to relate the outlandish tale of how she discovered the culprit responsible for her malady. Perfect comic timing and momentum build to an uproarious climax. The story also has some weight to it, as Delilah comes to realize she is in a toxic relationship.

“The One Before Scheherazade”, by Bianca Sayan (Augur Issue 2.1, April 2019) Short Story

As the title suggests, this is the story of the girl chosen to be queen-for-a-night right before Scheherazade captivates the King with her tales for 1001 successive nights. With one day left to live, she must determine what kind of queen she will be, and how she will be remembered. An ingenious premise and an engrossing character study.

The Rack – Zine Reviews for Late September

Apex Magazine Issue 112, September 2018

It’s easy to recognize Naomi Kritzer’s cagey humor in the title for her latest short story, “Field Biology of the Wee Fairies”. The saying goes that every girl will become pretty after they “catch their fairy”. But Amelia doesn’t care about being pretty, she wants to win first prize at the science fair, hoping stodgy old Mr. Crawford will let her join the boys-only science club. When Amelia’s fairy arrives, she tries to ignore it so it will go away. It won’t, so she traps it in one of her specimen jars and applies the scientific method to figure out what the hell is going on with these silly fairies, anyway. The real magic of a Kritzer story is the graceful tone and sly humor she effortlessly deploys in her perfectly plotted tales; this one is no exception. Just try to wipe that smile off your face before the story ends. I dare you.
A fun, frantic inner monologue chock full of Hawaiian slang makes up the misadventure tale “Coyote Now Wears a Suit”, by Ani Fox. Kupu springs the Sioux trickster god Coyote out of lockup because his auntie insists Coyote is family. Apparently, Kupu is the only one who can see that he’s a giant dog wearing a suit. Things spiral out of control from there, but Coyote isn’t a malicious god and everything that goes wrong also has a silver lining. It’s a nice, light, upbeat story, though maybe a little overboard with the gonzo attitude.
The heroine sisters of Stina Leicht’s “A Siren’s Cry is a Song of Sorrow” don’t want to escape from their lives due to suffering any extraordinary abuse; they’re weary of the ordinary abuse one suffers just for being born a girl. Enticed by mermaid lore, the girls seek magic that can transform them into the mythical creatures. The author’s points carry weight, and the girls are admirably rebellious in their refusal to internalize the world’s misogyny and conform to its stifling definitions.

Clarkesworld 144Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 144, September 2018

The entirety of Robert Bresson’s 1956 film “A Man Escaped” follows a convict on the run from police after breaking out of prison. The film does not explain his supposed crime or his presumed guilt or innocence; Bresson posited that, absent these details, the audience’s sympathies would be with the escapee, because everyone can identify with the desire to be free. In Kelly Robson’s new story “A Study in Oils”, Luna-born hockey player Zhang Lei is hiding out on Earth, with a noose attached to his carotid and a button that reads “KILLER: FAIR GAME.” The moon wants him back, and while he waits to find out if the authorities accept his asylum application, gangs of Lunar “brawlers” are out trying to hunt him down. Robson offers little information about his crime in the first half of the story, only that he feels bad about the death he caused. It’s easy to sympathize with someone who is being persecuted, and one has reason to suspect early on that the lunar authority’s idea of justice isn’t exactly fair. Robson is a master at unveiling her world-building in precise, subtle strokes: she lets the reader ask the “what is happening?” questions and slips the answers into unexpected places. Zhang Lei’s back-story unfolds in measured doses, and most of the suspense in “A Study in Oils” builds on the reader’s desire to see our sympathy for him justified. Robson is a writer who gains the reader’s trust and rewards it generously.
Chenghui hacks her way into an apprenticeship with Meixiu, the social media superstar Chenghui’s dying sister is most enamored with, in D.A. Xiaolin Spires “Waves of Influence”. Chenghui’s plan is to impersonate Meixiu and send personalized messages to her sister to keep her spirits up, but soon she becomes as shallow and self-absorbed as her mentor and loses sight of her original goals. Spires depiction of near-future social media saturation feels believable and inevitable. It’s not so much a cautionary tale as a “what choice do we have?” tale.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September/October 2018

Cassandra Khaw and Jonathan L. Howard offer a reversal of the “white savior” trope featured in most West meets East stories; in “Shooting Iron”, a Malaysian woman become a wild west gunslinger to liberate an American ghost town whose residents are frozen in time by a 100-plus-year-old curse. As a child, rich girl Jenny Lim crash lands in Angel Gulch, where the residents haven’t aged a day since the 19th century, thanks to a curse authored by Boss Lonely, a demonic cattle rancher who made the town disappear from the map to win a contract with the railroad company. The story toggles back and forth between Jenny’s origin story and the present, where adult Jenny travels to the UK to dispatch some of Boss Lonely’s goons. “Shooting Iron” is pure, action-packed fun; the authors have a grand ol’ time mashing together b-movie western and horror stylings. I wish the “present day” story had been more consequential: it does nothing to resolve the conflicts or answer the questions raised in the “origin” plotline. My guess is Howard and Khaw were going for a pilot episode feel and perhaps are planning a sequence of stories in this setting.
Brian Trent’s “The Memorybox Vultures” has a knockout premise: Epitaph Incorporated preserves online identities for deceased clients, allowing them to continue to post comments and send notices after preparing a “memorybox”. Virtual representations of the deceased, called “quasints”, serve as proxies for the deceased to interact with their living handlers. Donna Lane is a handler who finds herself in deep trouble when one of her clients “deadposts” evidence that the governor of Connecticut has a history of committing sadistic and violent acts. Trent’s story hums along nicely for a while – interesting protagonist, suspenseful storytelling – then lets the air out with an ending that only avoids deus ex machination thanks to a flimsy call back to a thing that was barely mentioned early in the story. It plays like the author was writing himself out of a corner and sunk what otherwise could have been a terrific story.
“Emissaries from the Skirts of Heaven” is the latest, and possibly best, story set on and around the Frontier planet Zephyr. It also traverses an epic scale of time and distance to tell the intimate story of Grace, a devotee of humanity’s dominant theocracy (called Pathway) who seeks to reconcile the moral and ethical inconsistencies in her church’s doctrine. The story jumps to different points in Grace’s life: from her origins as an orphan from a broken home, to her time in the exclusive seminary-like “Diversity”, through her military service fighting against a growing heresy, concluding with her time as a counselor and medic on Zephyr. As a child, Grace hides in the closet while her parents are having a violent argument. She plays an educational game on her tablet, and after correctly answering a series of questions the program rewards her with cheerful music and a quick animation: “The girl, who looked like Grace, shrugged off her breather pack. Her arms became wings and she leapt into space. Angels materialized like fractal snowflakes and escorted her into the starry sky. Watching herself fly, Grace moaned with joy.” Adult Grace, wiser and tempered by experience, again hides away from violent conflict on a remote island on a distant planet, searching for the right answers. Grace’s personal journey drew me in, but I felt the story offered an incomplete picture of the war she hoped to avert. Were there factors beyond the theological that led some Pathway worlds to embrace the heresy? If so, will a theological fix be sufficient? Will it be enough to make up for the millions (billions?) of lives lost?
Geoff Ryman gives a gentle poke in the ribs to “woke” white South Africans in “Blessed”. Ryman’s second-person protagonist has her white guilt cred listed for the reader (you benefitted from apartheid, but “your older sister went to jail” fighting the good fight, etc.) as she tours the inside of Olumo Rock in Abeokuta, Nigeria. She loses her way, and a series of mildly fantastical events leads her to an unexpected conclusion. The story is amusing and full of puckish audio/visual cues (the snake that sounds like a crying baby is a goosefleshy one), and the point – that whites will never connect to the land the way native Africans can – is salient, if also an easy-to-hit target. It’s unclear what the final twist means to accomplish.

lightspeed 100Lightspeed Magazine Issue 100, September 2018

This special mega-sized anniversary issue features a few originals worth discussing.

Carrie Vaughn’s “Harry and Marlowe and the Secret of Ahomana” is a steampunk flavored sci-fantasy adventure in which an airship carrying a British princess and her military escort (the Harry and Marlowe of the title) crash lands on the previously uncharted South Pacific Island of Ahomana. The two passengers survive and their injuries are healed by the Polynesian natives, who possess technology far beyond what the Brits are capable of. The two castaways want to return home, but Ahomana has survived for generations by remaining hidden, and the island’s leaders won’t let them leave. I loved the backstory: aliens called Aetherians visited the Earth long ago and left behind artifacts that humans used to develop advanced technology. The central conflict of the story focuses on the contrast between the European powers who wield Aetherian tech to build weapons of war and the Polynesians on Ahomana, whose application is more constructive. Vaughn offers a modern twist on a familiar colonial adventure narrative, and I enjoyed that all the players have good intentions while their goals cross purpose. I have some nagging questions about the story’s inciting incident, and some reservations about the ending. Overall, it’s a solid adventure tale with likeable characters.
Most depictions of artificial intelligence in fiction focus on the aftermath of machine self-awareness; only on rare occasions is the evolutionary process the focus of attention. In Ken Liu’s “The Explainer”, an engineer responds to a service call for a domestic AI that has malfunctioned on multiple occasions (not letting a family member in the house, burning dinner, etc.). Because the model, called Allie, evolves based on its relationship with the household it serves, the engineer can’t simply check its programming, because many of the algorithms that govern its thinking are self-taught. Liu offers some interesting propositions on how AI could one day integrate into our daily lives, and displays his usual flair for lucid, well-crafted storytelling. The story offers little in the way of conflict or tension and is more like an interesting vignette your co-worker relates to you at the office.
Sam J. Miller’s “Conspicuous Plumage”, set in (or around) the 1950s, finds teenager Bette Rosenblatt devastated by the brutal murder of her beloved older brother, Cary, a college-aged dancer. She wants to understand, even experience, what happened to him in his last moments. Hiram, a classmate of Bette’s, has a reputation for helping others “see” things, and Bette convinces him to go with her to the murder scene. In Miller’s stories, the characters’ seek outward expression for their inner lives, often with fantastical results; Bette describes Cary’s body literally transforming into birds when he danced, a spiritual reality that trumps any objection from those who refuse to witness such grace. The tragedy of the story is that it is not just his art but his sexuality that demands expression as well; the inner life that makes him loved by so many also makes him reviled by others. We suspect what’s coming before Bette sees the truth of his death. That the truth of his life outshines the horror of its end is the story’s great achievement.
A group of young Mennonite girls find a robot behind a barn and name her “Hard Mary” in Sofia Samatar’s gentle, refined sci-fi novelette. Years later the company that made Mary sends a representative to reclaim their property, but the women of the town aren’t willing to give her up. The best thing about “Hard Mary” is its depiction of life in the town of Jericho, especially how its old-fashioned, gender-based division of labor affects the women in the community. The sequence depicting the everyday frustrations and obstacles the narrator, Lyddie, goes through just to do something as mundane as making breakfast is one of the story’s high points. While it is understandable that Mim – the independent, headstrong (and unmarried) member of the group who shows an aptitude for engineering – would want to defend Mary, we never come to understand why the entire community is so invested in protecting her. There is no indication that Mary is intelligent, much less sentient, or has any kind of personality, or has befriended anyone. Mary herself (itself?) gets little time on the stage, despite the long word count in a story named for her. My admiration for Samatar’s prose and her objectives can’t overcome my lack of involvement in the plot’s main conflict. Also, calling the big evil corporation “Profane Industries” is a little on the nose.

Tor.com (9/5/2018)

“Triquetra” is Australian author Kirstyn McDermott’s sequel to Snow White, in which the grown-up princess, trapped in her marriage to her not-so-charming rescuer, lives in a castle with her imprisoned wicked stepmother, and the cursed mirror she keeps locked away in a tower. Disturbed by her husband’s intentions toward their seven-year-old daughter, Snow knows they must escape but her husband has ways of keeping them on the castle grounds. Stepmother offers to help, but given their history Snow has no reason to trust her. Instead, she turns to the devilish mirror with disastrous results. The prince is a menacing figure, though his presence in the story is more abstraction than obstruction. The real villain is the mirror, meaning the greatest obstacle to Snow’s success is herself. “Triquetra” is riveting and often frightening, and feels like a genuine extension of the classic fairy tale, rather than a hip, postmodern deconstruction.

Subterranean Press

Rock, the glum yet over-stimulated protagonist and narrator of Charlie Jane Anders novella “Rock Manning Goes for Broke”, summarizes his life from age 4 through the end of high school in one chapter. Starting with his stunt double father throwing him off a roof to teach his boy the tricks of the trade, Rock grows up with a penchant for playing self-inflicted injuries for laughs. Even bullies have trouble bullying him, because they can’t do anything to him worse than what he’s willing to do for himself. As a teenager, the surreal slapstick comedies he makes with his best friend Sally Hamster make him an internet-streaming sensation. Meanwhile, poking out from the margins of his stream-of-consciousness biography is a portrait of an America slowly sliding into dystopia. A war overseas leads to the re-instatement of the draft while economic turmoil leads to rioting. Worst of all, a group of fascist street thugs called the Red Bandanas rise to prominence, and they want to exploit Rock’s fame to make propaganda films for their cause. Again, this all goes down just in the first chapter.
Anders’s talent for delivering absurdist humor with one hand and a knife to the gut with the other is in overdrive here. The pace and tone are set by the perpetual anxiousness of the story’s hero, and while that’s part of what makes “Rock Manning” so exhilarating, it’s also part of the problem. Anders never lets us come up for air, and the experience of reading it ends up being a lot like spending too much time around a hyperactive, attention-seeking teenager—exhausting, frustrating, leaving you glancing nervously at the clock and trying to conjure an excuse to slip away while he barrels onward, demanding the spotlight. There is plenty to reward readers who stick it through to the end, though, and Anders completists will not want to miss it.

F&SF sepoct2018Must Read

“Field Biology of the Wee Fairies”, Naomi Kritzer (Apex Magazine Issue 112, September 2018) Short Story

“Conspicuous Plumage”, Sam J. Miller (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 100, September 2018) Short Story

Highly Regarded

“Triquetra”, Kirstyn McDermott (Tor.com, 9/5/2018) Novelette

“A Study in Oils”, Kelly Robson (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 144, September 2018) Novelette

Also Recommended

“Shooting Iron”, Cassandra Khaw and Jonathan L. Howard (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept/Oct 2018) Novelette

“Emissaries from the Skirts of Heaven”, Gregor Hartmann (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept/Oct 2018) Short Story

The Rack – Zine and Novella Reviews for Late May

The latest issues of Apex, Clarkesworld, Fireside, Lightspeed and a novelette from Tor.com, as well as stand-alone novellas by Martha Wells and Peter Watts.

apex 108Apex Issue 108, May 2018
The most interesting story in this issue, artistically speaking, is Matthew Sanborn Smith’s “Stars So Sharp They Break the Skin”. Cal is a war veteran with an injured psyche, which causes his perception to bleed out into the real world. Much of the story is a surreal jumble, by design, and there is some effective surrealist humor and imaginative prose, but no emotional connectivity at all.
Rich Larson’s “Fifteen Minutes Hate” is a dark, near-future SF cautionary tale about a woman who achieves the wrong kind of short-lived fame after an internet celebrity airs all her dirty laundry. Larson is an appealing writer who boasts a prodigious literary output, but here it feels like he’s hitting easy targets and covering familiar ground. J.E. Bates “Cold Blue Sky” features an “anthrobotic companion” called Aki (who is modeled after a popular video game character) who was recently utilized in the commission of a crime. Police detectives attempt to access its memories to identify and track down the perpetrators. The story’s best feature is that it is told from Aki’s perspective – she is intelligent but lacks autonomy by design – and the unraveling of her memories is appealing for a time, but the ending fell a little short for me.
Cherie Priest’s “Mother Jones and the Nasty Eclipse” is a rallying cry for women in the post-Trump era, suggestive of near-future dystopia. It functions as more of a diatribe than a story, but it is a rousing one nonetheless. Eugenia Triantafyllou’s flash piece “Cherry Wood Coffin” has a nice unearthly, gothic tone in relating the story of a coffin-maker who hears voices telling him who will die next, which is a good skill to have in his profession.

Clarkesworld Issue 140, May 2018
The military-colony SF novelette “Fleeing Oslyge” by Sally Gwylan follows Senne, who escaped from her home city of Oslyge after it was sacked by the invading Tysthänder and is now a refugee travelling with four resistance fighters searching for the rest of their camp. They are constantly on guard because of the tech the Tysthänder can use to track them, and the group’s highest-ranking officer, Gunter, suspects there may be a traitor among them. I was impressed with how the author kept me, as the reader, as disoriented as Senne, who is not a soldier and understands nothing about war or the army (soldier is apparently not an acceptable profession for a woman on this planet). Since the soldiers come from two different camps and don’t know each other, Senne doesn’t know who to trust – and the one soldier who is the most threatening toward her is allied with Gunter. And no one seems to know much of anything about the Tysthänder – if they are human invaders from another colony, or human proxies fighting for alien invaders. Estrangement is an important component of science fiction; we readers immerse ourselves in the strangeness of unfamiliar worlds, and often the stranger the better. Gwylan adds another layer to this by making her characters as estranged from their own reality as we are, which is as potent a statement about the condition of war one can find.
In A Que’s “Farewell, Doraemon”, Zhou and Tang Lu grow up in a small village obsessed with a fantasy cartoon called Doraemon, but years after a tragedy splits the best friends apart, their reclusive former teacher may have an unusual solution to set things right. The story does a wonderful job of settling the reader into life in the village where Zhou and Tang Lu grew up, populating it with a nice assortment of eccentric and interesting characters. Zhou is a wonderful and relatable protagonist, and the flashback sequences to his schoolboy days are the story’s greatest strength. The plot moves a little too slowly, however; Zhou’s main objective, along with the sudden interjection of the story’s SFnal aspect, don’t come about until the novella is nearly over, and by then both feel like a bit of a cheat.
Bo Balder’s “A Vastness” follows scientist Yoshi as he pursues the elusive alien life forms known as “guardians” through space. A grand in scope, but unevenly paced tale. “Not Now” by Chelsea Mazur has a cool premise – a robot arm falls on a young girl’s house, destroying her bedroom – but once established, I found the theme and direction of the story a bit foggy.

fireside 55Fireside Magazine Issue 55, May 2018
There are two short stories and three flash fiction pieces in the slightly underwhelming May issue of Fireside.
The cover story is the sweet-natured “The Promise of Flight” by Lee S. Bruce, about a grandfather who makes his grandchild promise to fly, just before slipping into a coma. It is structured as a sort of long-form joke, and the punchline is easy to see coming as soon as the promise is made. The other short story is Sydnee Thompson’s “The Paladin Protocol”, which follows Aaryn, co-founder of NeuroNet, a digital assistant hooked directly into the user’s brain that can anticipate the user’s needs, sometimes better than the user can. When disaster strikes New York City, Aaryn’s partner Viktor issues an emergency directive that saves thousands of lives by remotely hijacking the NeuroNet users in the affected area and moving them to safety. This doesn’t sit right with Aaryn, who is worried about the implications of his partner wielding such God-like power. The story is built on a strong premise and there is a nice, ominous twist at the end, though the pace was much too hurried for me, and I never felt like I got under the Aaryn’s or Viktor’s skin enough for the effect to sink in.
Of the flash pieces, I really liked “Now Watch My Rising” by A. Merc Rustad. Wolf is bound and muzzled until the time comes when they can fulfill their destiny to eat the sun. Wolf is not a fan of being beholden to such a fate and fights to be free. Rustad strikes just the right tone for this mythology-tinged nightmare, and the grueling imagery is very effective. I don’t get a lot of opportunities to describe a story as “metal”; this story is metal.

Lightspeed Magazine Issue 96, May 2018
In Carolyn Ives Gilman’s “We Will Be Alright”, the world is ravaged by a sexually transmitted disease that kills only men. Consequently, a mother-protagonist of this tale watches in horror as her son falls in love, and despite the lovers’ insistence that they will be careful, she can’t help but have ill feelings toward the woman who could be the death of her boy. I’m usually a big fan of Gilman’s writing, but this one reads more like an outline of a story than a story itself and falls short of capitalizing on its ideas.
If the first story is a little too little, then the following two stories are a little too much. In Jane Lindskold’s “A Green Moon Problem”, the legendary, absurdly mythical engineer Tatter D’Maleon of Cat station can supposedly solve any and all manner of problem. Jurgen seeks her out because he wants to win the heart of co-worker Rita but can’t seem to break through with her. Tatter may as well have the words “Ironic Ending” tattooed on her forehead the moment Jurgen makes his compact with her; it is obvious that her solution will pick apart the semantics of his request. To be fair, though, there is no way to see the story’s utterly outrageous ending coming. It’s a lively and colorful tale, and way, way over the top.
Over the top is not a strong enough term to describe Martin Cahill’s “Godmeat”. Hark makes ravishing meals out of the Great Beasts that Spear kills, in order to please the terrifying Hollow Ones, who seek to be the world’s new gods. Hark knows that the Hollow Ones are gathering strength from his meals, and though he is horrified by the prospect of their rule, he is so in love with the cuisine he is creating, he doesn’t want to stop. Overt symbolism delivered with sledgehammer prose is the best way to describe this story. The visuals are sublime, though, and Hark’s solution to the problem is creative.
I feel a little like Goldilocks here: if the previous three stories were too cold and too hot, the last one gets it just right. “Our Side of the Door” by Kodiak Julian is about a fantasy writer who has wished his whole life to find a portal to another realm. As an adult, he still wants such a door to appear, though only so his young son can find it and go through to the other side. There is a wonderful balance between the daily uncertainties and anxieties the narrator copes with and the fantastical hopes he carries for his son. Is it even fair for him to nudge his son toward a door that the boy himself may have no desire to walk through? It is also unclear if his belief in doors is reasonable or a product of self-delusion, or something in between. Lyrical and tender, “Our Side of the Door” is not so much a fantasy story as it is a story about how people internalize fantasy.

murderbot 2Tor.com
Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries Book 2), by Martha Wells (5/8/2018)
When we first met the SecUnit Murderbot in Martha Wells’ All System’s Red, it had already hacked its governor module, which is ostensibly in place to prevent it from going on a kill-happy rampage. In truth, it had already (apparently) gone on said rampage when it was “under control”, and only hacked the module so it wouldn’t happen again (and so it could have unfettered access to the entertainment feeds).
When Artificial Condition opens, Murderbot has won a dubious kind of freedom thanks to the human allies it made in “All Systems Red”. Still ever wary of the protocols it must follow to allay the suspicions of the humans it encounters, Murderbot sets off to learn the truth about the massacre it had been held responsible for but has no clear recollection of. Murderbot forms a tenuous alliance with ART, a transport AI who helps disguise Murderbot’s identity as a rogue SecUnit by surgically altering it to appear as an augmented human. ART also helps Murderbot get a cover job to justify its trip to the mining facility on the planet RaviHyral, where its supposed massacre took place. Murderbot (in disguise as a human, at this point) takes on the role of bodyguard for a group of researchers trying to retrieve their hijacked data from the company after their contracts were abruptly terminated. The situation is an obvious set-up: the mining company’s owner, Tlacey, will only meet with them in person, on RaviHyral, and if their data is as important as they think it is, it would be much more cost effective to just get them out of the way. Murderbot agrees, of course, because it gets him inside the Tlacey facility, and because it’s a sucker for hard luck humans who get screwed over by corporations.
What I like most about this series is the way society exhibits social control over AIs like Murderbot, even without its governor module in place. As it pointed out in All Systems Red, it still has to hold down a job, and likes watching its soap operas, and can’t do those things if it goes around murdering people indiscriminately and has to stay on the run all the time. Also, as it points out in this one, humans control all the charging stations. So even without the software that controls its actions, Murderbot must behave exactly as if those safeguards are still in place if it wants to continue to exist. Society presumes non-observance of social norms, even when the incentives to observe those norms are ingrained without the strict enforcement applied by the governor modules (a conundrum any person belonging to a marginalized group can appreciate). Wells adds a new layer to the power dynamics in Artificial Condition by showing us how these attitudes build hierarchies through interactions between different classes of AIs. When Murderbot first meets ART, ART reveals that it knows Murderbot is a rogue Sec, and could either turn it over to the authorities or kill Murderbot itself, if Murderbot displeases it. ART even has the audacity to read Murderbot’s acquiescence to its terms as “friendship”. By contrast, the sexbots on RaviHyral have even more miserable restrictions placed on their behavior than SecUnits do and view a rogue Sec as someone to aspire to.
Artificial Condition is more tightly plotted than its predecessor, and the stakes are more personal, making it an even more satisfying work of brainy, funny, compelling sci-fi action. I highly recommend this series, starting with “All Systems Red”, to anyone who has not picked it up yet.
“Grace’s Family”, by James Patrick Kelly (5/16/2018)
Grace is a survey ship who travels from system to system looking for life-supporting planets. At the start of James Patrick Kelly’s new novelette “Grace’s Family”, her crew consists of teenage boy Jojin, his bot “sibling” Qory, and their parents Gillian (also a bot) and Dree. We soon learn that they are not an actual nuclear family but are only role playing as one. Human spacefaring culture, it seems, revolves around multi-level immersive storytelling: everyone has their own personal narratives they participate in, plus various narratives they role play as a crew, plus an overarching construct that defines their relationships to each other. Early on in “Grace’s Family”, Dree grows dissatisfied with his role on Grace and he and Gillian end up getting traded to another ship, replaced with a woman named Orisa who introduces Jojin and Qory to different identity constructs, and radical new (but actually old) ideas.
“Grace’s Family” is carried in its first half by its captivating premise, and Kelly’s subtly effective characterizations and tension-building. Adding to the intrigue is the idea that humans are “resources” for ships to use in their larger objective of growing the “infosphere” – a term used to describe all the elements contained in the observed universe. It is a hopeful idea, one that harkens back to the more benign aims of classic sci-fi – that our aim as a civilization is not to conquer but to expand our understanding.
The injection of Orisa into Jojin and Qory’s lives teases promising new avenues for Kelly’s story to follow, and for a while it almost lives up to that promise. But Kelly undoes everything that was so interesting about the setup, taking the easy way out by giving Orisa and Jojin a traditional romance that eschews their role-playing ways, and jettisoning their constructed narratives in favor of these crazy old things called “books”. I get the (rather obvious) point, but its hard not to look back at “Grace’s Family” in light of where it ends up and feel as though the story’s central dramatic question was very tendentious in setting itself up for failure.

Must Read –
The Freeze-Frame Revolution (Sunflower Cycle), by Peter Watts (full review here)
Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries Book 2), by Martha Wells

Highly Regarded –
“Fleeing Oslyge”, by Sally Gwylan
“Our Side of the Door”, by Kodiak Julian

Also Recommended –
“Now Watch My Rising”, by A. Merc. Rustad