The Best Short SFF of May 2020

I am growing very frustrated with the new wordpress editor, which erased the content of the original post for no reason I can fathom. Here are the recommended stories, but unfortunately I didn’t back up the text so the reviews are lost forever.

Burn, or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super“, by A.T. Greenblatt (Uncanny Magazine Issue 34, May/June 2020)

Decorating with Luke“, by Adam-Troy Castro (Nightmare Magazine Issue 92, May 2020)

Driving with Ghosts“, by Clara Madrigano (The Dark Issue 60, May 2020)

Martian Cinema“, by Gabriela Santiago (Strange Horizons, May 11, 2020)

Salt and Iron“, by Gem Isherwood (Podcastle #625, May 6, 2020)

Out of Body, by Jeffrey Ford (Tor.com Publishing, May 26, 2020)

Sleeping in Metal and Bone“, by Kristi DeMeester (The Dark Issue 60, May 2020)

Sea Change, by Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications, May 22, 2020)

Clever Jack, Heavy with Stories“, R.K. Duncan (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #304, May 21, 2020)

“Eyes of the Forest”, Ray Nayler (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2020)

The Best Short SFF of April 2020

Featured Image from the cover of Mithila Review Issue 13, by John Glover

Must Read Stories

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Art by Flavio Bolla

The Hummingbird Temple“, by C.C. Finlay [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #300, March 26, 2020] Novelette

All nine heirs to the throne are conveniently gathered at the castle when the king dies, setting off an assassination free-for-all expected to produce a new Dynast by morning light. Lin, the so-called “Orphan Dyness” and least likely to inherit the throne even if she survives the night, is looking to do just that as she battles her way to safety in spite of an increasingly outrageous series of attempts on her life. There is a novel’s worth of world here, but Finlay keeps things fleet and fun all the way through to a gratifying payoff. Watch out for those blood ants!

The Breaking“, by Vanessa Fogg [Mithila Review Issue 13, March/April 2020] Short Story

Fogg’s best stories are about the always frustrating, occasionally illuminating inconstancies of communication. In “The Breaking”, she fashions her pet theme into a breathtaking cosmic horror allegory for our time. Years ago, the sky split open and the Angels arrived to wreak havoc on civilization. Not everyone could see The Breaking when it happened, and those who couldn’t refused to believe those who did. Jenny and Jamie were among those who witnessed it, while their parents could not. Several years on civilization has changed dramatically, but has at least figured out how to keep the Angels at bay. Now Jamie says he can hear the Angels speaking, though Jenny knows that’s impossible and he seems to be the only one. Is he deluded or is history repeating itself?

To Balance the Weight of Khalem“, by R.B. Lemberg [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #300, March 26, 2020] Novelette

When Belezal was a child, they were forced to flee one war torn country, only to settle in Khalem – another land consumed by war – when denied their last best option for life in a peaceful land. Older now, Belezal has earned the right to study in Islingar, the place that had once turned them away.  The journey there forces them to confront the uncertainties about who they are and where, if anywhere, they can call home. Lemberg’s fluid prose is captivating, but that should come as no surprise to their readers. The depth of feeling it invokes is particularly resonant in this story.

 

More Recommended Stories

The Pride of Salinkari“, by Elizabeth Crowe [Strange Horizons, April 6, 2020] Short Story

Salinkari is a land of rigorous educational discipline, though their ethical principles detour slightly from the Aristotelian path. They take the teaching profession very seriously in Salinkari, so when a former student from a well-connected family takes his own life before he is deemed to have reached his “pinnacle”, it may cost ethics instructor Ekeithan his reputation and his career, possibly even his life. A beautifully paced philosophical page turner with great characters and an enticing dilemma at its core.

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Art by Chorazin/Adobe Stock Art

A Moonlit Savagery“, by Millie Ho [Nightmare Magazine Issue 91, April 2020] Short Story

A ghost called a “pop” haunts a hostel in Bankok, feasting on the entrails of sleeping tourists. One day, to her surprise, she befriends a traveling artist names Seb who isn’t afraid of her at all. With little experience in matters that don’t involve gorging on human viscera, can our spectral narrator trust her feelings for him? A delectable little supernatural fantasy that cleverly reverses the usual ghost story formula.

Our Souls to the Moon“, by Tamara Jerée [Strange Horizons, April 20, 2020] Short Story

The climate is poisoned and inequity is rampant at every turn, but hey, at least rich people can get high looking at the Neptunian moon Sao through a specially designed telescope(!!!). Bimi and Adal are fired from their job assembling said telescopes, though for entirely arbitrary reasons. Adal has been meeting with some eerie lunar cultists who are promising something far greater than a cheap high – for a steep price, of course. And it takes quite a leap of faith to trust they can deliver on their word. Jerée conjures a vivid dystopia with full-bodied, expressive prose.

Foie Gras“, by Charles Payseur [Fireside Magazine Issue 78, April 2020] Short Story

With little room to establish setting and character (much less tell a story), hitting your targets through very tight widows is the only option when writing flash fiction. Payseur nails the bullseye in this quickie about a holographic Napoleon trying to conquer the galaxy and the civilian techno-wiz standing in his way. It also made me laugh out loud, which I assure you is no mean feat.

As the Shore to the Tides, So Blood Calls to Blood“, by Karlo Yeager Rodriguez [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #301, April 9, 2020] Novelette

A tale of brothers and betrayal, which I guess is kind of the norm in brother-centered stories.  What sets Rodriguez’s apart is the depth of the worldbuilding – a myths-inside-myths bloody layer cake of a mini-epic where the very world was created by such treachery, so that its people can’t help but follow suit.

 

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 January 2020

Cover Art for FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue #13 by Steffi Walthall

The list is a little light this month. Due to time constraints a few of my regular reads – Interzone, Uncanny, Fantasy & Science Fiction – will be pushed to February.

Must Read

Le Jardin Animé (1893)“, by Victoria Sandbrook [GigaNotoSaurus, January 1, 2020] Novella

Dr. Zaynab Murad comes to the home of the mechanist Mme. Lefevre, whose “children” – the sentient automatons she created – are training to perform the ballet Le Corsaire in front of an audience. Lefevre, whose own ballet career was ruined by a devastating injury after her debut performance, wishes “to prove that my dancers are as exquisite as the Imperial Russian Ballet. More exquisite.” Zaynab has been hired to surgically repair Madame’s legs so she can be ready for the performance, but the mechanist’s attitude is frustratingly obtuse and much of Zaynab’s medical advice goes unheeded. The thematic and narrative parallels between Le Jardin Animé (1893) and H.G. Wells’ classic The Island of Dr. Moreau are too evident to be a coincidence, though it can be said that Sandbrook’s novella is far less cynical, and less gruesome. It is just as phantasmagorical and compelling, and perhaps – with its laser-sharp eye for visual and emotional detail – more exquisite.

 

More Recommended Stories

The Ancestral Temple in a Box“, by Chen Quifan, translated by Emily Jin [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 160, January 2020] Short Story

A refreshingly optimistic sci-fi story, in which Sonny visits the virtual Ancestral Temple, and learns his late father’s plans for the family business may not be as conservative as he feared. It’s nice to read a story that embraces the changes new technologies will bring, and demonstrates that with the right approach these changes can be beneficial to everyone. Sinophiles will also enjoy its glimpse into one of China’s distinctive regional cultures.

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Cover art by Ddraw / Fotolia

Familiar Face“, by Meg Elison [Nightmare Magazine Issue 88, January 2020] Short Story

Annie’s wife Cara was murdered, and the suspect still at large. Now Annie and a group of hers and Cara’s closest friends plot a way to trap the killer with the help of the facial recognition system she uses for home security. The story features a spot-on depiction of ASL grammar, integrated nicely into the tension and pacing of the narrative. A suspenseful tale flavored with a pinch of near-future speculation.

The Candle Queen“, by Ephiny Gale [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #295, January 16, 2020] Short Story

A short, sweet, and very original story of a queen who must wear enchanted candles on her head to keep the world from ending, and her handmaiden, Anne, who devises ways of relieving the queen of her burden.

How Quini the Squid Misplaced His Klobučar“, by Rich Larson [Tor.com, January 15, 2020] Novelette

A hacker plans to steal a precious work of “gene art” from the titular crime boss – not for money, but as revenge for getting stiffed on a job. Larson’s futuristic heist story is full of all the usual sleights-of-hand and double crosses one expects; it is the author’s talent for mixing outrageous future technology with genre tropes that gives it a jolt of the unexpected.

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Cover Art by Dominic Harman

“The Antidote”, by Dominica Phetteplace [Asimov’s Science Fiction, Jan/Feb 2020] Short Story

The narrator works for a company called The Antidote, which offers “Aspirational Betterness” through psychotropic drug therapies tailored to the specific genetic makeup of each client. She agrees to help an hacker who wants to steal the code to the company’s drug fabricators. A darkly funny story of a gene-edited future.

“All That the Storm Took”, by Yah Yah Scholfield [FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 13, Winter 2020] Short Story

Winifred and her sister Alicia tried to ride out hurricane Katrina in their home, and Alicia paid with her life. But that doesn’t mean she was gone for good. A deeply felt and haunting story.

Claudette Dulac and the Devil of the North“, by Genevieve Sinha [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #294, January 2, 2020] Short Story

When Claudette’s father disappears while hunting the Devil of the North, Claudette straps on her mother’s trusty ‘Lectric Oathkeeper and heads north to find him. She joins forces with an inventor seeking fame for besting the Devil. This story is a rollicking good time, lightning-paced and spilling over with colorful characters.

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 December 2019

Featured Image: cover for Nightmare Issue 87 by Rodjulian

Must Read Stories

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Cover Art: “Halo” by Derek Stenning

Such Thoughts Are Unproductive” by Rebecca Campbell [Clarkesworld Issue 159, December 2019] Short Story

Science fiction has a habit of speculating on future iterations of present-day concerns, so it’s no surprise authors have lately begun expounding on the anxieties of a post-truth cultural landscape. Here, Rebecca Campbell delivers the most succinct and exemplary illustration of this subject I’ve read to date, brilliantly conceived and sharply observed with taut yet lyrical prose. Mar’s mother is supposed to be quarantined with antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, except she is actually interned in a re-education camp for being an enemy of the state. The woman Mar is communicating with, who may or may not be her actual mother, tells her an anecdote about an “Aunt Sophie” Mar knows doesn’t exist, and in no time does the fictional woman appear and insinuate herself into Mar’s life. Mar has no choice but to play along; even a whiff of dissent could land her in the same predicament as her mother. “Such Thoughts Are Unproductive” is a gripping parable about the fundamental need to assert the truth, even when the lies are destined to outlast you.

Methods of Ascension” by Dan Stintzi [Nightmare Magazine Issue 87, December 2019] Short Story

The story begins with the narrator relating an anecdote about how his brother – since estranged – used to send him unsolicited emails with disturbingly violent video clips, likely culled from the dark web. It’s an all too common act of transgression these days; this blend of passive-aggressive toxicity and non-chalance procures a nagging sense of unease that swells as the story inches along. The narrator eventually reconnects with his brother, who lures him to their remote family cabin with intimations of having turned a new leaf, thanks to an obscure new age guru whose “Methods of Ascension” promise a journey of self-discovery unlike any other. What proceeds is a fully immersive waking nightmare, reminiscent of classic Cronenberg in theme (think Videodrome, or eXistenZ) but with an atmosphere and structure akin to the original weird fiction of the pulp era. Like the story’s narrator you know you should look away, but won’t until it’s much too late.

 

More Recommended Stories

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Cover Art: “Girls in Cars” by Grace P. Fong

St. Agnes” by Andalah Ali [Anathema Magazine Issue 9, December 2019] Short Story

Mallaidh is an introvert whose closest friend works at a cemetery. Lately Mallaidh is seeing spectral visions of a young man they were acquainted with – but not terribly close to – before he died, and wants to learn why. The author avoids taking the story down any of the well-worn genre paths: their concern is with the emotional and sensual details of Mallaidh’s daily life, which lead them, and the reader, to unexpected places.

Things My Father Taught Me” by Rhoads Brazos [Pseudopod #676, November 22, 2019] Short Story

Three Ugandan teenagers hijack what they think is a French charity truck, hoping to sell the goods and run away to Kenya. Unfortunately, some of the real world obstacles in their path are more terrifying than the thousand-year-old coffin with the strange markings the French soldiers were guarding. Brazos’s tale of uncanny horror gets high marks for characterization and tone, and a slow-burn buildup of tension and dread.

The Garden’s First Rule” by Sheldon Costa [Strange Horizons, December 2, 2019] Short Story

With his family in dire financial straits, young Eli volunteers to become a plant-human hybrid in “The Garden” for the well-to-do to gawk at. Things get complicated when his sister comes looking for him, threatening the calm that the Gardener demands. Unearthly, ethereal; Eli’s predicament – the competing desires to escape notice, and also to be disruptive – cuts deep.

The Petals of the Godflower” by Kyle Kirrin [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #292, December 5, 2019] Short Story

Another creepy tale about young people becoming plants (a strange theme to unfurl in the month of December), but one wildly different from the aforementioned tale in setting, pacing and theme. The Godflower demands the sacrifice of anyone who reaches the age of twenty (accepting priests and mothers), ostensibly so they can become – as the title asserts – its petals. Their religion insists this is the ideal afterlife, but our protagonist begs to differ.

Soul Searching Search Engines” by Rodrigo Assis Mesquita [Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 5, December 2019] Short Story

In a future consumed by corporate cyber warfare, the popular search engine LOCATOR disguises itself as a human user and bonds with fellow user Jess83 over their shared Buffy the Vampire Slayer fandom. The two have even more in common than they first believe, but as their friendship deepens, outside factors threaten the infrastructure that keeps them together. Mesquita’s story starts out as a fun, in-jokey pop culture riff, then takes a turn for the poignant. A well-paced, entertaining, heartstring-plucking tale.

The Best Short SFF of October 2019

Featured Image from the cover of FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 12 by Sophia Zarders

Must Read Stories

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Cover: “Athlerrod” by Ferdinand Dumago Ladera

One Found in a World of the Lost“, by Shweta Adhyam [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #287, September 26, 2019] Short Story

A gutty, starkly imagined post-apocalyptic fantasy with elements of classic Hindu mythology. Pavitra will never be the hunter her twin sister Gayatri was, so Gayatri’s death weighs heavily on her and their family. Meanwhile, the departed Gayatri finds herself in a strange world where lost children are turned into stone pillars at the behest of a strange creature called a yakshini. There is so much to admire about this story: the unexpected way the sisters’ separate narratives unfold and draw together, the stunning visuals, the warmth of the family’s love for each other amid such a bleak and desolate landscape. It also has a key ingredient that separates great storytelling from the good – a feeling of timelessness.

“Corialis”, by T.L. Huchu [FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 12: Chains, Autumn 2019] Short Story

Establishing a colony on Corialis, a “goldilocksed” moon orbiting a gas giant in a distant solar system, is more troublesome than it should be. Thandeka is absorbing much of the blame for the setbacks, but she suspects there is more to this moon and its simple, single celled organisms than the colonists are willing to accept. Huchu’s story is exactly the kind of sci-fi I love: nicely detailed examinations of the relevant scientific and ethical issues, with well-drawn characters and tight, but eloquent, prose. More so, it is a story that refuses to take the idea of colonization for granted, and its vision of African nations spreading out among the stars is vivid and vital, and places it strongly within a growing canon of similar works.

More Recommended Stories

The Butcher, the Baker“, by Mike Allen [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #289, October 24, 2019] Short Story

Trukos is the golem-like protagonist of Allen’s gripping dark fable about the relationship between creator and creation. The baker Auntie Mayya fashioned the near-indestructible Trukos from the ingredients of her trade, and he has unquestionably followed her directions since his conception. Until now. The setting and backstory are unique, and Trukos’ journey is memorably grisly.

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Cover Art by Sally Deng

Zeitgeber“, by Greg Egan [Tor.com, September 25, 2019] Novelette

I have always had an affinity for Egan’s provocative hypotheticals, and he’s drummed up a solid one in Zeitgeber. A strange malady has afflicted a significant portion of the world’s population with a disruption to their circadian rhythms, causing them to reverse their relationships with night and day. Society finds a way to accommodate to this new reality, so when a cure is found, a return to “normalcy” is met with resistance.

The Other Side of the Line“, by A.T. Greenblatt [Fireside Magazine Issue 72, October 2019] Short Story

The “Line” didn’t just separate the world with an unpassable barrier, it split Amy and Paolo’s house in two, stranding each on opposite sides. Paolo was able to send her a message but Amy is having trouble doing the same, because she knows it can’t be done without a leap of faith, and a sacrifice. A quick, smart and touching “what-if?” fantasy.

Touchstone“, by Mette Ivie Harrison [GigaNotoSaurus, October 1, 2019] Novella

Everyone in Lissa’s age group – except for Lissa – has been summoned by the touchstone to receive their calling in life and it’s made her something of an outcast. But the touchstone’s revelations are entirely private, so if she tells everyone she got her calling, who will disbelieve her? A great premise rendered with suspenseful and well-paced storytelling, Touchstone is an excellent meditation on the nature of power and the social contract.

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Cover Art by Amanda Makepeace

The Haunting of 13 Olúwo Street“, by Suyi Davies Okungbowa [Fireside Magazine Issue 72, October 2019] Short Story

A captivating haunted house story set in Lagos, Nigeria, told from the perspective of the house. Something terrible happened in 13 Olúwo Street, leaving the ghost of its traumatized victim within its walls. Attempts by western media to exploit the tragedy are far more detrimental than anything its spectral occupant can scare up, and the house just wants her to be happy and comfortable. The story is both a de-colonization of the traditional haunted house narrative and a rumination on what it means for a house to be a home.

Some Kind of Blood-Soaked Future“, by Carlie St. George [Nightmare Magazine Issue 85, October 2019] Short Story

You are the Final Girl, the only survivor of the slumber party massacre that killed off most of your friends and family. Soon you discover that no matter where you go, there is a mad slasher waiting to off a gathering of blissfully ignorant teenagers, so you just level the fuck up and roll with it. Dare you even imagine a future not drenched in death and gore? A funny, frantic and appropriately visceral story – also an unexpectedly heartwarming one.

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.

 

The Best Short SFF of August 2019

Featured Image from “Fare” by Francesco Giani.

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

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

Must Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Recommended Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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