The Best Short SFF of March 2020

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

Must Read Stories

 

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Cover by Patila/Adobe Stock Art

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

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

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

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

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Cover Art by chainat

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

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

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

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

More Recommended Stories

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

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

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Cover by Mondolithic Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cover Art by Thomas Chamberlain-Keen

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

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

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

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

 

The Best Short SFF of September 2019

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

Must Read Stories

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

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

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

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

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Cover Art by Dominic Harman

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

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

More Recommended Stories

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

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

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

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

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Cover Art by David Hardy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cover Art by Beeple

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

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

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

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

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

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