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 1: Dark Fantasy/Horror

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 Dark Fantasy/Horror Fiction of 2019

 

Nightmare 83The Skin of a Teenage Boy is Not Alive“, by Senaa Ahmad (Nightmare Magazine Issue 83, August 2019) 4967 words

Parveen is more than ready to move on from high school, but for now she figures to get her kicks hanging out with the demon cult kids. Turns out demon possession isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, for the demon or the possessed.

The music clicks off. Now it is shivery and quiet, only California crickets lisping into the dark. The night closes upon them, an enigmatic fist. And when it opens its fingers again, Benny is possessed.
He tries to speak, but it doesn’t quite work. His eyes are wet, black. Crawling with unrecognizable stars. They know it is Benny and not Benny. The way anyone knows that something is wrong. There is a face underneath his face, and it is very, very old. The face swivels on its neck to look at them.
Say something, one of the cult kids whispers, practically palpitating with fear and excitement.
Benny, who is not Benny, hisses: What a waste. What a fucking waste.

Fireside 69The Brightest Lights of Heaven“, by Maria Haskins (Fireside Magazine Issue 69, July 2019) 3398 words

Moira and Rae are childhood best friends who grew up playing some pretty imaginative, and pretty immersive, games together. The two are devastated when Moira’s family decides to move away, but Moira has an idea for a game they can keep playing no matter how far apart they are in distance or years.

“I had a vision, Rae.” Her voice was an unfamiliar, hoarse whisper, skittering up my spine. As if she’d found another voice in the dark. As if another voice had found her. “You are a daemon escaped from the deepest depths of the void. And I am a daemon hunter blessed by the brightest lights of heaven. We are enemies henceforth. Before we both turn twenty-five, one of us must kill the other.”
My palm stung and I felt dizzy. I already knew it was more than pretend, more than imagination. Moira had always made our games seem real, but that night was different. I felt the blood and smoke twitch together between our palms, as if we had stirred up something sleeping, something dormant – whether within or without, I couldn’t tell. I felt it shudder and twine, snaking around my flesh and bones. Words and smoke and blood binding me, changing me. Changing Moira, too.

FSF 11-12-2019“Shucked”, by Sam J. Miller (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2019) 4181 words

Adney and Teek are an adventurous young couple vacationing in Italy, where they are approached by an older man who wants to pay them $10,000 dollars for an hour alone with Teek. The guy makes them both a little uneasy, but who couldn’t use that kind of money?

“One hour…doing what?” Teek asked.
The man put both hands on the table. They were big, coarse. Hairy. The sight of them thrilled her, as if she was the one he wanted to grab hold of. “We’re not children here. I don’t think I need to spell it out. I’ll respect your boundaries, of course, but I’m not paying you to talk.”
“Can we have some time to think about it?” Teek asked.
“You cannot,” the man said, and this, too, was thrilling to Adney, and the thrill unsettled her. She imagined the most degrading of demands being issued to her in that same imperious, commanding tone. But of course it wasn’t her he’d be degrading.
Teek looked at her, pretty eyes wide, like, What the fuck, this is so bizarre, but also like, What do we do?

“Bird Thou Never Wert”, by James Morrow (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2019) 7726 words

The infamous Darko Cromdahl, an author of weird fiction who mysteriously vanished in 1955, is soon to be memorialized with a volume in the American Literary Icons series. But his former lover and fellow writer Marsha Waszynski has a story about Cromdahl for the series editor – of a talentless hack who won fame, and lost everything else, by unnatural means.

“The mythic Garuda was a fabulous creature who once served as Lord Vishnu’s preferred steed,” said Skelter. “My employer believes that he, Kalioghast, summons his bird from the Hindu netherworld, but I suspect he simply cast a spell on an ordinary eagle.”
And then it happened, Ms. Tunbridge. The quill possessed me. My hand pirouetted across the blank sheet, leaving behind bold ellipses and emphatic squiggles. I had no trouble believing the phial held eagle blood, for the nine-word verse that emerged before my eyes was formed of vibrant reddish-black characters. In thrall to the quill, I produced a second verse, then a third, then a fourth—fourteen in all. My hand jerked automatically to the top of the page and gave the sonnet a title, “Cardiac Allegro.”
I set down the feather, recorked the phial, and perused the result of my literary fit, realizing that Garuda had wrought a poem to rival anything in The Oxford Book of English Verse . Darko read “Cardiac Allegro” and in a quavering voice declared it “as haunting as a half-remembered dream.”

Anathema_CoverIssue8.jpgStill Water“, by Ian Muneshwar (Anathema Issue 8, August 2019) 5953 words

Miles and Trent take a trip out to their family cabin to try and repair their fractured relationship. While kayaking down river, their surroundings start taking on a sinister air.

Miles rowed furiously, his paddles raising ropes of water that slapped across the front of the kayak and soaked through his shorts. The air chilled; a great grey bank of clouds had choked the sunset and settled across the sky; cold raindrops cratered the river.
“Trent?”
Miles’ glasses had begun to fog with the heat of his desperate, heaving breaths. He let himself pause, for just a minute, so he could see again, and listened. But Trent, if he could hear, didn’t respond; there was only the slow crescendo of rain on the water, wind through the treetops. When his glasses cleared, he found that Trent had disappeared beyond a bend in the river. The orange life preserver was nowhere in sight.
He took himself to the middle of the river. It wasn’t long before he found the current that had carried Trent away. In all his summers swimming and fishing here, he’d never felt the water pull like this. The kayak skimmed across the surface, as if it was pulled along by some great, invisible hand. His gut tightened as he felt himself lose control of the kayak, of the direction he was taking.

The-Dark-Issue-47-220x340An Open Coffin”, by H. Pueyo (The Dark Issue 47, April 2019) 3067 words

Amélia goes to work for General Estiano to care for a corpse that lies in rest at his house. The corpse has been on display for decades and attracts many devotees, who appear daily to fawn over it.

One by one they came in, congesting the front room with their presences and handbags. The second one to greet me was Jair, a spindly man with sunken eyes, who hugged me like we were old friends.
“I reckon you must be close to General Estiano,” I said.
“Yes, yes, we joined the army in the same year!” Jair opened his arms, as if trying to embrace the whole room, coffin included. “Have you met him before?”
“We didn’t have the chance to meet face to face.”
“Of course. You’re too young to remember that time, after all.” Jair sat on the couch, watching as the women placed white lilies around the body. “This death . . . Amélia, right? This death, Amélia, it took us all by surprise. It ruined the christening of my son, such was our shock.”
“Some people simply can’t be replaced, right?”
Jair looked at me for a second, but his bloodshot eyes went back to the crystal box lying on the other side of the room. Then, he smiled, nodding.
“You’re right—you’re absolutely right.”

The-Dark-Issue-48-220x340Wilderling“, by Angela Slatter (The Dark Issue 48, May 2019) 5540 words

LP is middle-aged and childless, and tired of people judging her for it. Most people would be terrified if a feral child with long, sharp claws for nails suddenly decided to use their property for a hunting ground, but LP almost feels an affinity for it.

Whiskey didn’t even see it coming.
Which meant the kid was silent, like stealthy as a fox, light as a breeze, because the kid’s fingers—closer up now, LP could see how long the nails were, black ragged things—were around Whiskey’s thick neck before he knew it. That neck was broken in a freakishly swift motion—there was no doubt the cat was dead, the way it hung in that strong, nasty little grip.
But LP couldn’t muster even a lick of sympathy for the feline. Too many years of him tearing up her favorite cushions and couches, her craft supplies and works-in-progress, her clothes whenever he could get his paws on them, and the smell of piss in the house because Kurt wouldn’t get the fucking animal neutered. There were deep red scratches on her arms, the latest in a series of Whiskey’s “love taps” while she slept; she’d got infections from them three times before. LP felt the first genuine smile in a long while lift her lips, and imagining life without Whiskey distracted her from watching the kid tear him open and feast on his innards. She kind of glanced off to the side, so she saw but not quite.
When the cat was no more than a sack of bloodied fur and bones, the wilderling tossed Whiskey on top of the little iron table again, almost well-mannered, and disappeared back into the woods.

bloodisanotherwordforhunger_fullBlood is Another Word for Hunger“, by Rivers Solomon (Tor.com, July 24, 2019) 6971 words

On learning that the master of the house was killed in the war, 15-year-old slave girl Sully slaughters the rest of her owner’s family while they sleep. Her rage is not sated by their deaths, and the etherworld takes notice, sending her a family of her own.

“Yes, yes, yes!” Ziza called as she descended from the spirit realm down a tunnel made of life. Breathing things, screaming things, hot, sweaty, pulsing, moving, scampering, wild, toothy, bloody, slimy, rich, salty things. Tree branches brushed her skin. Sensation overwhelmed her as she landed with a soft, plump thud into the belly of her new god. Ziza took in the darkness, swum in it. It was nothing like the violent nothingness of her home for the past two centuries. For here she could smell, taste, feel. She could hear the cries of the girl carrying her, loud and unrelenting.
Sully had never been with child before, and she didn’t understand the pain that overtook her so sudden as she shoveled the last gallon of dirt over the graves of her masters. Spasms in her abdomen convinced her she was dying.
As she fell backwards to the ground, her belly turned giant and bulbous. She stared up at the crescent moon and spat at it for the way it mocked her with its half-smile. Sully hated that grinning white ghoul, and with all the spite at the fates she could muster, she howled and she howled and she howled at it. She howled until she became part wolf, a lush coat of gray fur spiking from her shoulder blades and spine. It was magic from the dead land that Ziza brought with her, where there was no border separating woman from beast.

Nightmare 87Methods of Ascension” by Dan Stintzi (Nightmare Magazine Issue 87, December 2019) 5708 words

The unnamed narrator tries to reconnect with his estranged brother Robert, despite Robert’s penchant for transgressing boundaries. Robert’s latest kick is a series of streaming videos by a new age guru called Rudyard Vespra, who promises enlightenment through “ascension”.

“You may not have known about this portal before beginning my program and that’s okay. I’m here to help. I’m here to help you access those hidden parts inside yourself, so you can release your full potential, release what has always been inside since the beginning of time.”
The video ended and I thought Rob was snoring again, but then I turned and saw that he had his palms pressed into his eye sockets.
“I fucked my whole life up,” he said, heaving a little. Then he started crying so hard he couldn’t breathe. I stayed quiet. He’d get it out of his system, and we’d move on, pretend it never happened. “Why couldn’t somebody just tell me what to do?”
He said more words that aren’t worth repeating and eventually the crying stopped.
“Would you like another drink?” I said when it was over.
He said yes, and then he said, “If only I had something like this when I was eighteen.” He pointed at the TV. Vespra’s face still lingered there. “This shit, if I had had this shit, I would have been fine.”

Nightmare 84Sweet Dreams are Made of You” by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (Nightmare Magazine Issue 84, September 2019) 2417 words

Vore is a new kind of game, one you play in your dreams. Until it crosses over into the waking world.

The game begins:
There’s a girl with long hair, wet from drowning, and a white dress stained at the hem by mud. She smiles. You can’t see her face, but you know she smiles. “Do you want to play Vore?” she asks. “Do you want to play? Do you?”
This is the last chance for you to terminate the experience. If one of you says no, you’re woken up and given a refund. You will not be allowed to be partnered together in any future attempts to play.
Say yes.
She will gently eat your faces, pushing her mouth of vacuum into your skull cavity, sucking you clean until there’s just a ring of bone and hair at the back of your head. Don’t worry: you can still see.
It’s exhilarating, being eaten into facelessness. You are made anonymous, unburdened of all your shame and responsibility and social expectations.
She ties your bodies together with wire. She’s just begun.

You can find Part 2 – Science Fiction 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 July 2019

Featured Image from the illustration for “Blood is Another Word for Hunger”, by Xia Gordon

Must Read

FSF 7-8
Cover art by Mondolithic Studios

“Mighty are the Meek and the Myriad”, by Cassandra Khaw (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2019) Short Story

After England’s devastating war against the robots ends, the plan for reintegrating the automatons mostly involves “hats and parasols and cutout mustaches made of cheap aluminum”. And also corgis. If that gives you some indication of the tenor of Cassandra Khaw’s id-poking sci-fantasy treat, I’ve got news for you: this is the kind of story that turns on a dime. Full of tragedy and cynicism and caustic wit, and bolstered by the author’s inexhaustible energy and descriptive ingenuity (at one point, a character’s eyes are “like cracked ice…The uneven striations in her irises compounded the effect, invoking the impression that her pupils had somehow shattered.” WTF.), by the end we get the idea the author doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks speculative fiction is supposed to speculate about.

Blood is Another Word for Hunger“, by Rivers Solomon (Tor.com, July 24, 2019) Short Story

Solomon’s crimson-hued tale of Sully, a teenaged slave with “a heart made of teeth” who turns on and kills her captors, is the kind of story that blocks all the emergency exits.  The disturbance caused by Sully’s actions knocks something loose in the ether and she gives birth to Ziza, a fully-grown teenager who died as a slave centuries before. Soon, Sully’s rage births an “army of revenants” in place of the racist whites she exacts her vengeance on. This story keeps the reader suspended somewhere between the malicious logic of a fever dream and the order imposed by a conventional narrative structure. What it doesn’t do is allow the comfort of escape.

More Recommended Stories

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Cover art by Red Nose Studio

For He Can Creep“, by Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com, July 10, 2019) Novelette

Christopher Smart lives in an asylum, where Satan looks to hoodwink the beleaguered poet into writing an epic apologia for his benefit. Smart’s loyal cat companion Jeoffry isn’t having any of that. An absurdly entertaining bit of escapism, especially for lit nerds.

Thin Places“, by Kay Chronister (The Dark Issue 50, July 2019) Short Story

The townspeople of Branaugh operate under an uncanny state of affairs, one that does not suffer newcomers well. School teacher Miss Augusta knows what it means when the new lighthouse-keeper’s daughter arrives at her door, and though the other townsfolk implore her to send the girl away, she can’t bring herself to do it. Chronister’s unsettling anti-fable offers a world where community, and the security it promises, is a site of horror rather than of safety.

The Brightest Lights of Heaven“, by Maria Haskins (Fireside Magazine Issue 69, July 2019) Short Story

Haskins often writes about characters who sidestep conventional moral boundaries in favor of their own spiritual reality, and while the results are usually capital-D Dark, there is also a poignancy that creeps up on readers willing to reset their own parameters (temporarily, one hopes). “The Brightest Lights of Heaven”, about a pair of childhood best friends who make an unbreakable pact that transcends time and distance, is devilish fun, and quite touching in its own twisted way.

“The Work of Wolves”, by Tegan Moore (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July/Aug 2019) Novella

“I wonder what my dog is thinking” is a premise with more than a few miles on it. In “The Work of Wolves”, author Tegan Moore flips the coin by giving us Sera, an enhanced-intelligence search-and-rescue dog who has to figure out what her new handler is thinking in time to save the day. Engrossing with a nice brisk pace, it’s a quintessential Asimov’s piece: just hard-enough sci-fi to satisfy our inner lizard brain, though with the emphasis squarely on character-driven plotting and action.

Black Matter“, by Vivian Shaw (Pseudopod #655, July 5, 2019) Short Story

The premise of Shaw’s story, in which a consulting necromancer (ahem, contingency communications specialist) for the NTSB investigates a plane crash by interviewing the deceased witnesses, reads like a modern day paranormal fantasy while the narrative builds like something out of pulp-era Weird Tales. It also has the feel of a “pilot episode”, and with its pitch perfect first-person narration and provocative hints of larger forces at work, a return trip would be welcome.

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Cover art by Julie Dillon

How the Trick is Done“, by A.C. Wise (Uncanny Magazine Issue 29, July 2019) Short Story 

There is a cool casualness to A.C. Wise’s prose that contrasts nicely with the sometimes startling events that punctuate her narratives. “How the Trick is Done” is a tale of death and resurrection and revenge, in which Angie, the magician’s assistant/girlfriend (and true progenitor of his most famous trick) decides it’s time to part ways with the man. It’s an understandable choice: the women he uses and discards can do the real magic he takes credit for. The story has an unusual structure that works despite itself—we already know what happens to the magician from the start, yet Wise manages more than a few surprising moments before events come full circle.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Best Short SFF – January 2019

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

Must Read

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Cover Art: “Galbourne Ridge” by Tyler Edlin

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

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

 

Highly Regarded

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

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

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

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

 

Also Recommended

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Cover Art: “Pearls and Stardust” by Julie Dillon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cover Art: “Playing Cello in the Sea Against the Night Sky with the Red Moon” by grandfailure

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

2018 Recommended Reading List (Part 1)

Featured image from the cover art for The Dark Issue 37, “Boy with a Torch Facing Smoke Monsters” by grandfailure

My short fiction recommendations are split into five categories: Part 1 – Dark Fantasy/Horror and Space-Based Science Fiction; Part 2 – Earthbound Science Fiction and First World Fantasy; Part 3 – Second World Fantasy. Each category features a “Desert Island Pick”, while the remaining picks are listed alphabetically by author. Each title is accompanied by a short synopsis and a quick excerpt for the story. Excerpts may contain mild spoilers.

Not every story fits neatly into any one category. Some could fit into more than one category, some defy categorization altogether. I did my best to place them where I thought they fit best. Links are included for stories that are available to read online, or to purchase information. Sometimes the traditional print magazines will make stories available online during award season, so I will update links when possible.

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

Dark Fantasy/Horror

Desert Island Pick

Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” by Nibedita Sen [Nightmare Magazine Issue 69, June 2018; 5402 words]

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Cover Art by Andrey Kiselev

The Guild of Natural Philosophers is sponsoring Captain Bodkin’s final whaling voyage; their representative on the ship, Arcon Glass, has some unusual – and grisly – demands in exchange for the Guild’s support.

North of this organ he has placed a preserved section of the dense mass of tissue that lies beneath the oil organ; sailors call it the junk, for it provides no oil and has no use. His research, he explained to me, concerns itself with the spermaceti organ’s role in producing the unearthly noises that whales issue forth. He proceeded to demonstrate by connecting a number of wires and waxed cotton threads to the sac and tissue, then setting up a number of small drums at various angles to both. From his tools he produced a small instrument that he pressed against the soft swollen side of the wax and glycerine-filled organ and blew on—and lo, a low note echoed and swelled to great size and shivered off all corners of the room in a manner that rose the hairs on my arms.

The Best of the Rest

“Bondye Bon” by Monique L. Desir [FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 5, Winter 2018; 4810 words]

The slaves of Andre Plantation rose up and overthrew their captors, and helped establish the United Tribes of Mother Africa in what was once the Southeastern United States of America. So why does Heloise’s Manman keep that creepy white man locked in her closet?

The familiarity of his face frightens me. He is dressed in ratty clothes: a grimy black shirt with frills at the throat and his sleeves with their stained ruffles set off the sickly paleness of his skin. He doesn’t try to move — no point in doing that, his wrists are shackled together with a chain, connected to a bolted plate in the wall. He looks up at me, eyes bright in the dark and smiles, baring his white, straight teeth.

It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog” by Maria Haskins [Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #260, September 13, 2018; 4470 words]

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Cover Art: “Swamp Relic” by Piotr Dura

As a child Susanna struck an unholy bargain to acquire her beloved dog; a decade later the bill comes due.

They even burned a witch in town, just after Easter. She went to look, but though the woman’s hair was shorn and she was already burning, Susanna could tell it wasn’t anyone she knew. After, when the bones still smouldered, the priest in his stiff black cassock puffed himself up before the crowd, assuring them the witch’s spells and crafts would all unravel now that she was dead. Susanna stood there until dusk, waiting to see if anything would change, but the world remained the same as far as she could tell.

Triquetra” by Kirstyn McDermott [Tor.com, September 5, 2018; 11,826 words]

Snow White is all grown up now, living in a castle with her husband and daughter. Her wicked stepmother and that awful mirror are locked away, but one of them may be the key to saving her daughter from a horror worse than she faced in her own youth.

“You—” I cough, backing away from the table, away from the woman now supporting herself by its edge. “You spelled me!”
“Only your memory, Fairest. My needs are precise.”
“You—you wretched creature! I wish you had died on my wedding day!”
Smiling, she sinks back down into her chair. “No, you don’t. There is too much kindness in your heart, even now, even for such a wretched creature as myself.”

Black Fanged Thing” by Sam Rebelein [Shimmer Magazine Issue 41, January 2018; 4823 words]

Every sundown, a strange beast stalks the streets of town dragging its clatter of bottles behind it. Each bottle contains a slip of paper, one for every adult. If anyone wishes to know what is written on theirs, all they have to do is ask…

The pathetic, hunched little figure shuffled laboriously past Jude’s home, tugging those bottles on twine behind itself. Sisyphus against thousands of boulders.
The thing passed, and vanished around the bend at the other end of the lane. The neighborhood became silent. And the sun sank.
Phil sniffed. “Tomorrow, then,” he said.
“Tomorrow,” said Jude.

“Yard Dog” by Tade Thompson [FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 7, Summer 2018; 2947 words]

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Cover Art by Mariama Alizor

Yard Dog plays music so glorious he can reduce the room to tears, turn the drinks sour, render all drugs useless. No one knows who he is or where he comes from, but before long someone comes looking for him.

Shed said it slower and louder. “Please. Have you. Seen my. BROTHER. Thank you.”
“I don’t know you or your brother. How did you get in, anyway? We’re not open. Get the fuck out of here.”
The way I heard it, Shed just smiled at her and went to use the john, but never came back out. Hours later when tempers had cooled somewhat, Sue got curious about him, had one of the men check the bathroom. They found his raggedy clothes, a trail of blood, strips of skin, meat and other fluids leading from the door to one of the stalls. Al said it was like he had shed his skin, which is how come we called him Shed. It wasn’t till later that we figured he was looking for Yard.

One for Sorrow, Two for Joy” by LaShawn M. Wanak [Fireside Magazine Issue 54, April 2018; 3471 words]

The Undertaker knows how to get the crows to take people’s sorrows away when they lose a loved one; but they also want something from her she refuses to give.

Walking down a sidewalk, hot tears streaming down her cheeks. Not aware of where she is, only knows that she’s been walking, walking so long that there are blisters on her feet, but the pain is nothing, nothing. A crow lands at her feet, pecking at the pavement before looking up at her with one black, bright eye.
—what you looking at? Think you can bring her back? Unless you can take away my pain, go, shoo, take off!

In the End, It Always Turns Out the Same” by A.C. Wise [The Dark Issue 37, June 2018; 3565 words]

One by one, the children on Richard McGinty’s school bus route are disappearing. So the sheriff does what any good sheriff would do, and calls the Super Teen Detective Squad – who’ve got their own issues to work out.

Lately she’s been having recurring dreams about murdering Greg. In fact, she’s dreamt about murdering every single member of the Teen Detective Squad. More than once, she’s woken with blood on her hands. She has no idea where the blood comes from. The only thing she knows for certain is that it isn’t hers. Sometimes she wonders if she’s spent so much time thinking about becoming a monster that she’s turned into one after all.

Space-Based Science Fiction

Desert Island Pick

Umbernight” by Carolyn Ives Gilman [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 137, February 2018; 18,059 words]

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Cover Art: “Arrival” by Artur Sadlos

The colonists on Dust don’t know much of what happens to the surface of the planet when it faces Umber – the planet’s second star – they just know it’s deadly. When much needed supplies are dropped right in the middle of Umbernight, a brave few will find out why.

The road had sprouted all manner of creatures covered with plates and shells—little ziggurats and stepped pyramids, spirals, and domes. In between them floated bulbs like amber, airborne eggplants. They spurted a mucus that ate away any plastic it touched.
We topped a rise to find the valley before us completely crusted over with life, and no trace of a path. No longer could we avoid trampling through it, crushing it underfoot. Ahead, a translucent curtain suspended from floating, gas-filled bladders hung across our path. It shimmered with iridescent unlight.

The Best of the Rest

Traces of Us” by Vanessa Fogg [GigaNotoSaurus, March 1, 2018; 6572 words]

Two sentient starships cross paths in the vastness of space, each carrying a passenger that has been waiting a long time to connect with the other.

The ship contained the memories of over a thousand individuals. Recorded patterns of synaptic firing, waves of electrical and biochemical activity: the preserved symphonies of a human mind.
The minds currently conscious in and around the ship were not the same as their flesh-and-blood progenitors, the human beings of Old Earth. These new minds had had centuries to meld with one another and evolve; to modify themselves. They delighted in sensory inputs unimaginable to Homo sapiens—some could sense the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Some could consciously track the movement of a single electron or see all the radiating energies of a star.
Yet the second ship requested the recording of a single unmodified mind from the first.

Fleeing Oslyge” by Sally Gwylan [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 140, May 2018; 9216 words]

After the invaders overrun her home town, Senne takes refuge with a group of soldiers searching for the rest of their unit. Not everyone in the group may be trustworthy.

Better the cold mist and these days of hunger and endless walking than trying to hide in broken Oslyge. Better this than letting myself be taken to the camps the Tysthänder, the Peace Hands, claim are for our safety. Our safety in this time of transition; that’s what their bulletins said. No one is sure whether the invaders—“project administrators” as they call themselves—are of human stock, as we are, or are alien.
Their guards are human enough.

“Inscribed on Dark Water” by Gregor Hartmann [Interzone #277, September/October 2018; 8205 words]

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Cover Art by Vince Haig

Olani is a young marine biologist interning at a fuel refinery on the frontier planet Zephyr. She’s not getting much out of her time there: most of the crew either ignores her or treats her with disdain and she basically just mops up shit all day. When an inspection crew comes to the plant she has an opportunity to advance her career and she must decide if she’s the kind of person who will do whatever it takes to get ahead.

Olani was a child when Pico erupted. The supervolcano vomited up so much gas and debris that Zephyr’s albedo increased. Light bounced off the cloud tops and back into space instead of heating the atmosphere. The temperature fell inexorably. As a kid, Olani had fun doing unusual things like playing in snow in an equatorial city. Only later did she understand why adults were whispering and crying.

It was touch and go for a long time. If the sea had frozen over, the oxygen produced by phytoplankton wouldn’t have been released to the atmosphere and everyone would have suffocated. Ocean, bless them, had kept that from happening. If you were looking for heroes of applied marine biology, Ocean was the place to find them.

“Prophet of the Roads” by Naomi Kritzer [Infinity’s End, Solaris; 4721 words]

The Engineer was an AI that once shaped the course of human development; now it exists only in fragments. With the solar system mired in violent conflict, Luca hopes to reunite the fragments and return human society to a state of peace and prosperity.

I was on a ship in orbit, so I didn’t watch people die; I went down, searching for survivors, since we’d been told they were well-prepared, defiant, probably equipped with pressure suits and subdomes and any number of other possibilities. Instead, we found bodies of civilians. In the moments before death, people clung to one another, uselessly trying to shield their loved ones from the vacuum of space that was rushing in around them.
In the dream, I look for the Engineer, but do not find it. Everything is destroyed. Everything.

The Hydraulic Emperor” by Arkady Martine [Uncanny Magazine Issue 20, January/February 2018; 6601 words]

Kinesis Industrial One hires Mallory Iheji to win an auction for a rare and mysterious Qath box. The reward – a long lost film made by her favorite artist – should be more than worth her risk, but the Qath only accept personal sacrifices as payment and more than a few participants are willing to give up anything to get it.

I’m not into aliens the way the Qath groupies are into aliens. A Qath box doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t tell you anything about someone else’s mind; it won’t let you out of yourself, even for a minute. It’s just not human, which apparently gets to some people: the strangeness of it, of owning something made by otherwise life, otherwise minds. The Qath are the only aliens we’ve got, and they don’t interact with us much—but they like their auctions. Their auctions and their little boxes. What Kinesis Industrial wanted with one I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

The Wait is Longer Than You Think” by Adrian Simmons [GigaNotoSaurus, May 1, 2018; 7813 words]

Like most humans, John is a social animal. He’s marooned on a remote planet with a Kinri named Colophinanoc and the Kinri can’t conceive of why anyone would require social interaction to maintain their mental health. And any possible rescue is years away.

Colophinanoc was a captive audience. It was crucial that Colophinanoc didn’t feel like a captive audience.
If that happened, Colophinanoc would surely suggest that they leave off the fishing boat and work on the traps—which they did separately. It had not taken long for Colophinanoc to come up with a dozen or more tasks that they did separately.
He waited; watched the sunken fan tree where they had herded the fish. In his impatience, the words came to fast. He couldn’t wait anymore. “Yeah, so there we are, Sully and I, trying not to bust out laughing at Nanooni and—” the slightest shiver runs through the reed boat, Colophinanoc shifting, Colophinanoc getting sick of him.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts [Tachyon Publications; 41,275 words]

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Cover Art by Elizabeth Story

The starship Eriophora treks across the galaxy, waking various crew members for a few days every thousand years or so when it needs assistance building gates for other ships to fast-travel through. These are not ideal conditions to stage a mutiny, but Sunday Ahzmundin is going to try anyway.

Back when we first shipped out I played this game with myself. Every time I thawed, I’d subtract the duration of our voyage from the date of our departure; then check to see when we’d be if Eriophora were a time machine, if we’d been moving back through history instead of out through the cosmos. Oh look: all the way back to the Industrial Revolution in the time it took us to reach our first build. Two builds took us to the Golden Age of Islam, seven to the Shang Dynasty.
I guess it was my way of trying to keep some kind of connection, to measure this most immortal of endeavors on a scale that meat could feel in the gut. It didn’t work out, though. Did exactly the opposite in fact, ended up rubbing my nose in the sheer absurd hubris of even trying to contain the Diaspora within the pitiful limits of earthbound history.

(Though The Freeze-Frame Revolution is slightly over the word limit, the author considers it a novella and Hugo rules allow some leeway for stories within twenty percent of the limit if the committee deems it appropriate. I am unsure if other awards have similar caveats.)

Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells [Tor.com Publishing; 32,446 words]

Murderbot takes a job protecting a group of scientists who are trying to negotiate the return of their data from the company that fired them, but its true goal is recovering information about its own troubled past.

“I’m not your crew. I’m not a human. I’m a construct. Constructs and bots can’t trust each other.”
It was quiet for ten precious seconds, though I could tell from the spike in its feed activity it was doing something. I realized it must be searching its databases, looking for a way to refute my statement. Then it said, Why not?
I had spent so much time pretending to be patient with humans asking stupid questions. I should have more self-control than this. “Because we both have to follow human orders. A human could tell you to purge my memory. A human could tell me to destroy your systems.”
I thought it would argue that I couldn’t possibly hurt it, which would derail the whole conversation.
But it said, There are no humans here now.
I realized I had been trapped into this conversational dead end, with the transport pretending to need this explained in order to get me to articulate it to myself. I didn’t know who I was more annoyed at, myself or it. No, I was definitely more annoyed at it.

The list continues with parts 2 and 3.

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

The Best Short SFF – September 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!

Apex-Magazine-112Must Read

“It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog”, Maria Haskins (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #260, 9/13/2018) Short Story

Ten years ago, Susanna walked into the woods with her little brother, and came back home without him. Now, it’s time to return and face the secret she’s been keeping from her family all those years. A haunting dark fantasy, with prose that cuts deep.

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

Catching a fairy is a rite of passage every girl is supposed go though when they hit their teens, but Amelia regards it with something between disinterest and disdain. Can a stupid fairy help her win the science fair and get accepted to the boys only science club? Since the twee little sprite won’t leave her alone, she decides to find out. Count this among Krizter’s sharpest tales.

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

Bette’s older brother Cary was brutally murdered and she doesn’t just want to know how, she wants to experience it for herself. Her classmate Hiram has a reputation for helping people “see” things, and together they journey to the site of Cary’s murder to find the truth. A somber, elegiac meditation on grief and the beauty of life.

Highly RegardedClarkesworld 144

“The Witch of Osborne Park”, Stephanie Feldman (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2018) Short Story

A moody, low-key supernatural drama about a mother trying to defend her daughter from a neighborhood bully. Well drawn characters and an appropriately ominous tone.

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

A beautifully conceived, often terrifying sequel to Snow White, where the princess wants to take her daughter and flee from her disturbed husband. As if he wasn’t enough of an obstacle, she still has her hated stepmom and that insidious mirror to deal with.

“The Grays of Cestus V”, Erin Roberts (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2018) Short Story

This SF story of an artist trying to cope with the dreariness of her life on a frontier planet burrows under your skin. Roberts makes effective use of color to elucidate the protagonist’s state of mind.

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

Zhang Lei is Lunar-born; now he hides out on earth after killing someone in a violent hockey game. He waits to hear about his asylum status while hiding from gangs of Lunar “brawlers” who want to hunt him down and kill him. An exciting narrative in a complex, expansive setting.

BCS 259Also Recommended

“How to Identify an Alien Shark”, Beth Goder (Fireside Magazine Issue 59, September 2018) Short Story

Whatever you do, don’t argue with the alien sharks about economic theory.

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

Spanning several planets and periods of time, the reader pieces together the personal journey of a religious devotee who wants to make a difference.

“CARBORUNDORUM>/DEV/NULL”, Annalee Flower Horne (Fireside Magazine Issue 59, September 2018) Short Story

A near-future teen drama in which smart houses can be more harmful, (especially to young women) than helpful.

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

Jenny Lim battles the demonic minions of Boss Lonely to rescue an old west ghost town from a terrible curse in this reversal of the “white savior” trope.

“Cold Ink”, Dean Wells (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #259, 8/30/2018) Novelette

This industrial steampunk thriller finds Hester’s estranged lover Verity showing up at her door with a whole lot of deadly trouble in tow.

Full reviews for these stories and more can be found in my bi-weekly column The Rack: 

Early September

Late September

 

The Rack – Zine Reviews from Early September 2018

ASF_SepOct2018_400x570Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2018

In this “slightly spooky” early fall edition of Asimov’s, Stephanie Feldman’s “The Witch of Osborne Park” carries that theme well. You would have to stretch your definitions to find any SFnal elements though; the story is a straight supernatural drama. Elizabeth moves to upscale Osborne Park with her husband Roger and 3-year-old daughter Abby. The neighborhood has everything they want, but Elizabeth becomes concerned when Dorothy, the older girl next door, starts a subtle bullying campaign against eager, naïve Abby. As Dorothy becomes more aggressive, a series of unusual  phenomena occur in and around their home. Feldman does excellent, effortless work establishing character, setting and tone and allowing her story to unfold from there. Its depiction of myriad parenting anxieties is spot-on. Elizabeth knows it’s absurd for a grown adult to engage in a personal feud with a 5-year-old, but oh how she wants to smush the little shit. And one can sympathize. The prose is pensive and insightful, balancing the sinister and the sentimental. Ruminating on her protective instinct, “Elizabeth thought of an article she once read – how an unborn baby’s cells remain in its mother’s body after it leaves for the bright world, how they linger for years, even decades. Maybe they’re slow blooming. Maybe they need the right angle of sunshine, the right breeze, the scent of morning lilies growing in the shadows of an iron gate.” The bait-and-switch plot twist is predictable, though the denouement still satisfies.
Erin Roberts has a nice streak going, with her excellent futuristic orphan tale “Sour Milk Girls” and her dark horror story “Snake Season” among my favorites this year. “The Grays of Cestus V” is a superb blend of the former’s psychological astuteness and the latter’s air of creeping menace. Laila is a miner and an artist on the frontier world of Cestus V, where the grays seep into everything, making the world and its people appear drab and colorless, a reality reflected in her paintings. The Pioneer Commission invites Laila to the planet’s much livelier central hub to speak about her art and her life on the frontier. The interview goes off-track when it becomes clear just how much the gray has affected her state of mind. Laila conflation of her moral and aesthetic values leads her, and the story, down a very ominous path. It’s a crafty work of fiction, though somber in tone.
A few of the stories by big-ticket authors yielded mixed results:
In Greg Egan’s novella, Sagreda and Mathis are “comps”, sentient NPCs built from discarded brain maps in a virtual reality construct. They are searching for the titular mathematical paradise of “3-adica”, where they can live without fear of deletion for violating the rules. The story picks up with the Sagreda and Mathis feeling their way through a lurid vampire bodice-ripper called Midnight on Baker Street (each of the game‘s “worlds” adapt public domain novels). They are searching for a specific color to enable Sagreda to finish a painting that will port them into 3-adica. Along the way they run afoul of a vampiric Percy and Mary Shelley, which brings them the negative attention they are trying to avoid. That the story’s version of paradise resembles a Greg Egan novel is a tad narcissistic, though a forgivable indulgence. One cannot begrudge the author his Shangri-La. But it hurts that what had been an entertaining mash-up of hard SF and pulp horror turns into a dreary algorithmic fantasia that can only be not a complete bore if you really, really, really, love geometry. The story’s ending struggles to regain its emotional footing, and finishes with a whimper. There is an interesting correlation with Roberts’ story, in that both involve an artist searching for the perfect color, though the result is variable.
Robert Reed likes his allegories cooked well done in “DENALI”; too bad I’m a medium rare kind of guy. In this alt-history story, instead of voting for leaders, Americans vote for potential futures. Aliens known as CAUTIONS left a quantum device in Theodore Roosevelt’s possession that generates the elected futures, distilled into easy-to-explain choices like STRENGTH, NO WAR, and STATUS QUO. STRENGTH wins often, as you might imagine, with PROSPERITY sometimes topping the polls. The 16th Amendment decrees that a future only needs 20% of the vote to win the election, so the winner always leaves the majority unhappy. Reed goes into parabolic overdrive from the start and never eases up on the gas.
In “R.U.R. 8?”, Stout and its fellow robots hide from the ever-present threat of the recycler, but when its friend Rozum loses a limb, Stout risks venturing out to the scrap heaps to find a replacement. I haven’t read the classic Czech play that inspired Suzanne Palmer’s latest story but I presume that much of it is in-jokey and reverential. Though the plot and its post-apocalyptic setting are comprehensible without such familiarity, it still didn’t come together for me. I almost always find Palmer’s keen sense of humor appealing; this time it failed to work its magic.
“The Huntsman and the Beast” is Carrie Vaughn’s gender-swapped retelling of Beauty and the Beast. In this version, the Prince and his huntsman, Jack, become lost in the woods during a storm, and happen upon the infamous cursed castle. The Beast lets the Prince escape once Jack agrees to become the Beast’s prisoner, and Jack’s perspective on the situation changes when he realizes the monstrous Master of the castle is in fact its Mistress. Vaughn gets plenty of mileage out of tying the characters’ motivations, and the readers’ expectations, to our presumptions about gender. Many of the authors A-list skills are on display: exquisite tension building, evocative atmospherics, incisive character moments. The rushed second half of the story relies on our familiarity with the source material to fill in the thematic blanks, and kept me from engaging with the romantic aspect. The finale works in a nice end-around to the humility the beast must learn to break the curse, allowing her to surrender to love without sacrificing her self-determination.

GigaNotoSaurus 9/1/2018

Too-long titles are proper for tall tales, and Sarah McGill’s western whopper “The Day Beth Leather Shot the Moon, as Told by Rosemary Bonebreak” fits the bill in that regard. Beth Leather is a “traveling librarian” who passes through White Horn from time to time, relating her outrageous adventures to Rose and her older sister Darlene. Over the years, Beth romances Darlene while Rose pines for Beth in secret. As Darlene matures, she grows tired of Beth’s wandering ways and Beth turns her attentions to Rose, promising to shoot the moon out of the sky for her. I enjoyed the droll tone and gaudy visuals of “Beth Leather”, and the mythic quality of the prose. Despite being among the shorter works published by this novelette-friendly venue, McGill’s story drags a bit in the middle. It builds to an exciting climax, though, as shooting the moon out of the sky goes about as well as you’d expect. I think my biggest issue was that I never connected with Rose’s longing for Beth; it is expressed in concrete terms, but doesn’t permeate the prose the way romantic longing should, especially when the narrator is the one doing the longing.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

#259, 8/30/2018BCS 259

“Cold Ink” is a sci-horror novelette set in the industrial steampunk dystopia of Dean Wells’ Clockwork Millennials story cycle. Uninitiated readers shouldn’t have too much trouble jumping right in but should be aware Wells doesn’t waste much ink explaining things. The story follows Hester, whose feelings for casual flame Verity run deeper than she’s willing to admit. When Verity comes to her for help after a long absence, Hester risks everything to help her, even as Hester’s friends are getting killed off one by one. Wells has a talent for the macabre (the demonic ink of the title is used to chilling effect) and the world-building is deep and intricate enough to sell new readers on the other stories. “Cold Ink” is a little long, but still an entertaining, suspenseful story, with a gut-punch of a turn at the end.
Justin Howe’s “Periling Hand” also has a sci-fantasy feel but runs straight into the trap Wells’ story avoids: it’s brimming with exposition, leaving the story – about a man trying to acclimate to his new bio-integrated wooden arm – with little room to breathe. A compelling emotional core is hiding here somewhere, but is so buried beneath ceaseless infodumping I couldn’t get invested.

#260, 9/13/2018

The bleak, frosty atmospherics of Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Ancestor Night” lend its spectral premise extra bite. On the longest night of the year, the villagers trek through the deep snow to Memory Lake, where their departed loved ones will rise to the surface of the ice. Once there, the living relatives sing a prayer asking their ancestors to wake or stay asleep. Paolo and his siblings lost their parents a year ago; after singing the Ancestor Night prayer, his beloved oldest sister Jasna admits she caused their deaths. Their father wakes, and whispers something only Jasna can hear. “Ancestor Night” is a resonant documentation of an imaginary ritual, though a little too crisp and aerial to be more than an effective mood piece.
I love the way Maria Haskins lets images and emotions guide the structure of her stories, building them the way people reflect on the narratives that define them, rather than ordering them in a clean, linear fashion. Ten years of reflection, a journey from age 7 to 17, guide young Susanna in “It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog”, as she treks into the woods with her beloved dog, Brother, to the witch’s cottage to keep an old promise. Haskins’ prose offers a striking balance of harshness and delicacy. As a child, Susanna tells her parents she lost her little brother in the woods: “Even at the age of seven, the lies felt smooth and true upon her tongue. And Mama wailing like she’d ever cared for him, and Papa’s face gone hard as rocks and iron, as if he’d ever once held him close.” The writing is expressive, but taut, like a slow turning lever tightening a vise.

Fireside Magazine Issue 59, September 2018

I adored the cover for this month’s issue of Fireside so much that I felt the cover story, Annalee Flower Horne’s “CARBORUNDORUM>/DEV/NULL”, had to work hard to live up to it. Horne’s near-future SF depicts a world where smart homes have only made policing the behavior of young women easier. Teenager Sandra’s over-protective mother has their smart house programmed to watch Sandra’s every move; she can’t even walk out the front door without the house ratting her out. This doesn’t apply equally to the boys: her older brother Kyle can do whatever he wants, and Kyle’s friend Jack once manipulated the house to hide evidence of his sexual assault of Sandra. Sandra’s best friend Tish is a hacker, and the single line of code from which the story gets its title can get Sandra out of the house without her mother knowing, so they can go to a party where Tish’s crush, Ian, will be. In a disturbing but not altogether surprising twist, Ian isn’t much different from Jack, and his own smart house does his bidding. “CARBORUNDORUM>/DEV/NULL” is a timely story, considering how “guard the door” rapes at high school and college parties are part of the biggest news story of the moment. It’s also, unfortunately, timeless: the news story in question happened over thirty years ago. Horne’s near-future version just removes the need for an actual human to do the guarding. If not for Tish’s magic line of code, the end of this story could have been a lot more horrifying. The unsettling undercurrent of the story shows how women are conditioned from a young age to cope with sexual assault, and to tolerate the persistent presence of their rapists as a normal part of life.
I enjoyed Beth Goder’s satirical “How to Identify an Alien Shark”, a faux-university lecture meant to delineate the difference between actual sharks and an alien species known as the Tucabal-Gor, who live in the ocean and look a lot like sharks and who you definitely don’t want to get into an argument about economic theory with. It’s more of a long form joke than a story, built by adding piece after piece of outlandish but internally consistent logic to set up its punchline. “How to Identify and Alien Shark” may be plot-free, but it’s a fast and funny read. Also, I’m glad I don’t know any economic theorists.

Tor.com

kite maker“The Kite Maker”, Brenda Peynado (8/29/2018)

When the Dragonflies first landed on Earth seeking refuge from the destruction of their home world, frightened humans reacted with violence. The unnamed narrator was one of those reactionaries, but now she tries to make up for her ghastly behavior with extra kindness. She makes kites (which the aliens cherish), and when a Dragonfly named Tove comes into her shop, she wants to please him. But political and cultural realities complicate interactions between humans and Dragonflies, and continue to make it dangerous for Dragonflies to call Earth their new home.
This is one of those stories where agreeing with its basic positions (refugees need help, Nazis are bad, etc.) doesn’t translate to a positive response to the story. There are too many conveniences, and few real stakes, built into the premise to generate any dramatic tension. Everything feels staged; characters seem only to enter the scene to fulfill their function then exit when they are no longer useful, their motives telegraphed and unconvincing. Also, the narrator’s behavior toward Tove comes across as unwanted harassment, which soured my opinion of her. Intentional or not, the story does not address this issue satisfactorily.

 

Must Read

“It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog”, Maria Haskins (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #260, 9/13/2018) Short Story

Highly Regarded

“The Witch of Osborne Park”, Stephanie Feldman (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2018) Short Story

“The Grays of Cestus V”, Erin Roberts (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2018) Short Story

Also Recommended

“How to Identify an Alien Shark”, Beth Goder (Fireside Magazine Issue 59, September 2018) Short Story

“CARBORUNDORUM>/DEV/NULL”, Annalee Flower Horne (Fireside Magazine Issue 59, September 2018) Short Story

“Cold Ink”, Dean Wells (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #259, 8/30/2018) Novelette

 

 

The Best Short SFF – May 2018

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

If this list looks a little slight, it is due to the fact that three of my regular reads (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone, Shimmer) have not been fully chewed and digested yet. They will be included in June’s reading.

Must Read

The Wait is Longer Than You Think”, Adrian Simmons (GigaNotoSaurus, 5/1/2018) Novelette
John the Human and Colophinanoc the Kinri are marooned on a distant planet. Rescue is coming, but it’s going to be awhile – years in fact – and for John, survival means more than just having enough to eat: he needs a friend. Unfortunately, the Kinri are a fundamentally solitary race, who can’t comprehend humans’ obsession with socializing. Adrian Simmons funny, lyrical, heartfelt (and heartbreaking) novelette “The Wait is Longer Than You Think” is the kind of story where the characters figure out how to do everything right, but it still goes wrong because the universe is a shitty and unforgiving place. Far from cynical or pessimistic, though, it evinces a healthy stoicism about the fate of its heroes, and revels in the small victories that make life worth the effort.
The Freeze-Frame Revolution (Sunflower Cycle), Peter Watts (Tachyon Publications 5/29/2018) Novella
After sixty-five million years of trekking across the galaxy building gates to facilitate human expansion, some of the crew of the Eriophora want to stage a mutiny against the AI that runs their lives. It’s a tough thing to manage when they spend nearly all of the journey in cold sleep and they don’t even know who or how many of their allies will be awake at the same time, at intervals stretching several millennia or more. The most striking thing about the scope of “The Freeze-Frame Revolution” is the way it makes the scale of the universe and the wonder of discovery feel like more of a prison than a liberating experience. Watts falls within the lineage of classic hard SF writers who can make far-future science magic seem tangible, but his true gift lies in how personable he makes it. Heavy themes like alienation, the value of existence, and the nature of consciousness are woven into the brisk narrative with humor and pathos.
murderbot 2Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries Book 2), Martha Wells (Tor.com 5/8/2018) Novella
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. It takes a job running security for a group of disgruntled scientists as a cover to infiltrate the company but soon realizes that dealing with other AI can be trickier than dealing with humans. Tightly plotted with more personal stakes than its predecessor, Artificial Condition 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.

Highly Regarded

The Root Cellar” by Maria Haskins (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #251, May 10, 2018) Short Story
Haskins’ weirder-than-weird tale features a pair of child siblings – older sister/narrator Amadine and baby brother Jeremy – who suffer a gruesome ritual at the hands of their father, who insists he is protecting them from someone much worse. They later discover that he wasn’t kidding. Running on pure nightmare-logic, “The Root Cellar” sneaks under your skin with ghastly imagery and a beautifully sustained atmosphere of creeping menace.
Blessings”, Naomi Novik (Uncanny Magazine Issue 22, May/June 2018) Short Story
Noble-born baby Magda’s parents invite six fairies to a dinner party hoping to secure at least one blessing for their child. The guests have a little too much to drink and the blessings get hilariously out of hand. The story skips forward to Magda as an adult, to show us the result of their shenanigans. Novik shows off her dynamic grasp of fairy-tale narratology in a very short story that is both perfect the way it is and makes you wish there was more.
Fleeing Oslyge”, Sally Gwylan (Clarkesworld Issue 140, May 2018) Novelette
This military-colony SF story 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 disoriented as Senne, who is not a soldier and understands nothing about war or the army. 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.
Lightspeed 96Our Side of the Door”, Kodiak Julian (Lightspeed Issue 96, May 2018) Short Story
The Narrator of this story is 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.

Also Recommended

“When the Rains Come Back”, Cadwell Turnbull (Asimov’s Science Fiction, May/June 2018) Short Story
Now Watch My Rising”, A. Merc. Rustad (Fireside Magazine Issue 55, May 2018) Flash Fiction