The Best Short SFF of 2019 – Part 2: Science Fiction

My “Best of 2019” is split into three parts: Part 1: Dark Fantasy/Horror; Part 2: Science Fiction; Part 3: Fantasy. My choices in each category are not ranked; they are presented in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. Each title is accompanied by a quick introductory statement and a short excerpt from the story. Excerpts may contain mild spoilers. For the purposes of this column, short fiction is defined as less than novel-length, or under 40,000 words.

The Best Short Science Fiction of 2019

mission critical“By the Warmth of Their Calculus”, by Tobias S. Buckell (Mission Critical, editor Jonathan Strahan; Solaris Books) 7586 words

A civilization survives among the icy, rocky ring of a great planet, hiding from alien predator drones determined to destroy them. Fiana commands a dustship trying to harvest genetic material from an ancient seedship, but when a rival nation’s meddling inadvertently sets off a trap, the mission turns into a slow, measured survival flight where the slightest miscalculation could lead to their deaths.

“How fast can we get out of here?”
“Using consumables, it’s dangerous, Mother. We need to coordinate with Ops. The margin will be thin, if we want to get out of here before the Hunter-Killers.”
Fiana swept the transparent sheets around her away. “I’ll get Ops ready to follow your commands.”
To stay put would be to wait passively for death, and she wasn’t ready to welcome the Hunter-Killers onto her ship.
Within the hour, the far side of the dustship was venting gases as crew warmed the material up (but not too much, or the heat signature would be suspicious and hint at some kind of unnatural process), compressed the water and hydrogen in airlocks through conduits of muscular tubes that grew throughout the ship, and blasted it out in timed dumps at F&O’s orders.
Slowly, faster than the natural differential drift already there, Fiana’s dustship began to move away from the seedship. It trailed a tail behind, gleaming like a comet.

Clarkesworld 159Such Thoughts are Unproductive“, by Rebecca Campbell (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 159, December 2019) 6584 words

In this post-climate disaster, post-truth dystopia, Mar is coping with separation from her mother, who has been interned for engaging in subversive activity. It’s clear Mar herself is under suspicion by association, and the authority’s duplicitous strategies to keep her in line hit where it hurts.

Sophie talked about grad school and Mom, about parties they threw together, about staying up late crying over deadlines and supervisors, about graduation, and how Mom had blown hers off for the government job, but been there the next year for Sophie’s, already pregnant with me.
“So you were at my graduation. Good luck charm.”
I slid into this the way we slid into so many things: the loss of cities to the encroaching waters and deserts, the swamps and the Zika virus creeping north along the Mississippi, as the days grew hotter and the mosquitoes adapted. A kind of compliant quiet—pleasant, safe—overtook me as I thought yes, of course I had an aunt named Sophie. Of course.
She slept that night on the couch. It was the obvious thing to do. Curfew.
That night I lay in bed and recited the facts of my life: I do not have an aunt named Sophie; my mother did not have antibiotic-resistant TB and was not in a sanatorium on one of the quarantine islands. My mother is in an internment camp with yellow cinder block walls, somewhere in the mountains, far enough north that she’s surrounded by tamarack, maybe by black spruce. At the end of the road with no exit.

Lightspeed 112Sacrid’s Pod“, by Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 112, September 2019) 8741 words

Sacrid Henn planned to leave the repressive society she was born into as soon as she came of age, so her parents contracted AIsource to imprison her for life as punishment for rejecting their faith. Inside her pod, her AIsource caretaker tries to make her as comfortable as possible and to accommodate her needs, but Sacrid won’t give up on obtaining her freedom. The caretaker is oddly encouraging of this attitude.

It is virtually impossible for you to escape your pod, escape its extensive support system, find your way to some access corridor, and subsequently find your way out of that portion of this deep-space facility that is devoted to the care of guests, a distance that is itself the size of a small country. Even then you would have to worry about escaping this artificial world, without cooperation from us, and somehow making it back to the nearest human habitation, a further distance of fifteen light years. It would be like escaping a jail cell, only to then face the necessity of escaping the prison, only to then have to escape the surrounding city, only to then have to escape the surrounding landscape, only to then find yourself with an ocean separating you from your homeland. It is virtually impossible.
I can tell you that this feat has been accomplished one hundred and fifty-eight times in our many years of operation. This represents a fraction of one percent of our current detainee population. Still, it remains a remarkable testament to human ingenuity.
This interests you.
We have not plugged that hole in our security in large part because of its usefulness as a form of recreation, and as a source of hope.

f48coverThe Message“, by Vanessa Fogg (The Future Fire 48, February 2019) 4221 words

Sarah has as normal a life as a teen can have in world where everyone is a climate refugee and world politics is mired in a state of perpetual brinksmanship. Her favorite activity is writing fan fiction with her best friend Chloe, who lives on the other side of the world and whom she has never met in person. Sarah also has a direct connection to the most culturally significant event in human history.

I hear the new special aired, she says. Have you seen it?
She means the new documentary special on the Message. Timed to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of its reception. The moment fifteen years ago when my mother looked at a pattern of radio signals and realized she was seeing a message from a distant star.
Yeah, I write back. It was okay. There was nothing really new.

That’s part of the reason my mom’s in a funk: because there’s nothing new. That’s why it’s hard to drum up private funding. Well, that and the ongoing economic recession and the fact that the Message is publicly available, all of it freely accessible to the world, and thousands of experts and hobbyists have taken a crack at it and thousands of research papers and blog posts have been written, but still no one knows what it means. Scientists have tried to analyze it in all kinds of ways, programming deep neural networks to comb through the signal, applying various models, taking it apart bit by bit. Artists have played with it, translating patterns to musical notes or colors. There are those who still say that the signal is dangerous, that it’s a viral code, that if you look at it too deeply it will take over and reprogram your mind. There are those who think it’s the key to salvation. And from the start, there’ve been those who insist that it’s all an elaborate hoax.
The newest documentary special has a lot of recycled footage. Old interviews from fifteen years ago. Shots of those first hectic press conferences. Mom doesn’t speak in the first big briefings. She wasn’t director of the Institute then. She was a new postdoctoral fellow, fresh from her Ph.D. Her group leader and the Director are the ones at the podium. But Mom was the one who recognized the signal for what it was. She saw it in real-time.

FIYAH Issue12_150“Corialis”, by T.L. Huchu (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 12: Chains, Autumn 2019) 7019 words

Like all colonists on the distant moon of Corialis, Thandeka underwent an arduous process of microbial adaptation to prepare for her new life there. Thandeka suspects that something about the moon – some unseen system or presence – is rejecting them, and if her family is to have any future there she needs to find out what it is and how to make peace with it.

“I’m looking at?”
“I’m measuring the impulses running through the biomass, and it’s incredible.” Garande brings up another graph, squiggly lines running through. “See that correlation with a standard neural map? This is far more complicated. For a start, the level of activity far exceeds anything a single brain could do. The info here is overlaid, multiple processes running parallel to one another, but fully integrated with sophisticated feedback loops.”
“Inga.”
“Now, if I—” He takes a crude device, a low voltage battery and wires, and shocks one of the strings. “See how the multimeter peaks, right? That’s my signal going through, but then the natural signals stop after the interruption. The reading on my meter goes to zero… wait for it… there it is; do you see that? A low intensity signal passes one way, and then the other. And it’ll keep doing this, almost like it’s testing for something. If I shock it again, the test signals change in frequency. Check that one out—it’s exactly the same as my input.”
“So it reacts to stimulus. Every living thing does.”
“I think the data points to some kind of non-sentient intelligence built by all these interlinked unicellular life forms, Thandeka. Information flows that span the entire moon.”

FSF 7-8“Mighty Are the Meek and the Myriad”, by Cassandra Khaw (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July/August 2019) 6375 words

The war between machine and man ended with a peace treaty, but that doesn’t mean everyone has moved on.

It was death by a thousand small grievances. The French were making a national sport of maligning British cuisine, while the Italians and the Greeks busied themselves privatizing transportation, education, automotive export, luxury import. Music now pivoted on the approval of the Spanish. Worse still, the Nordic countries, much to Henrietta’s despair, were taking over the airwaves with their suicidally bleak comedies.
And China.
Henrietta didn’t even want to think about China or how the country had oh-so-politely excused itself from the debacle that was the rest of the world, content to be self-sufficient, the insufferable twats.
Treasonous as the thought was, Henrietta missed war and she missed being an apparatus of war. Conflict was honest. The protocols weren’t half as byzantine. There was no need to asphyxiate in endless meetings or equally endless dinners, the menus fastidiously tailored to minimize risk of offending the collective palate. Henrietta wasn’t an alcoholic when armistice began, but now she had a wine cabinet in her office. It distressed her.

New Suns“The Robots of Eden” by Anil Menon (New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, editor Nisi Shawl; Solaris Books) 6482 words

Life goes along swimmingly for the “Enhanced”, whose brain implants seem to make them happier, more well-adjusted people than the un-enhanced. The narrator’s close friendship with his ex-wife’s fiancée Sollozzo – despite his disappointment over the end of their relationship – attests to that. But having a brain that spackles over your negative thoughts may have unintended consequences.

“Are you working on a new novel? Your fans must be getting very impatient.”
“I haven’t written anything new for a decade,” said Sollozzo, with a smile. He stroked Padma’s cheek. “She’s worried.”
“I’m not!” Padma did look very unworried. “I’m not just your wife. I’m also a reader. If I feel a writer is cutting corners, that’s it, I close the book. You’re a perfectionist; I love that. Remember how you tortured me over the translation?”
Sollozzo nodded fondly. “She’s equally mad. She’ll happily spend a week over a comma.”
“How we fought over footnotes! He doesn’t like footnotes. But how can a translator clarify without footnotes? Nothing doing, I said. I put my foot down.”
I felt good watching them nuzzle. I admired their passion. I must have been deficient in passion. Still, if I’d been deficient, why hadn’t Padma told me? Marriages needed work. The American labor theory of love. That worked for me; I liked work. Work, work. If she’d wanted me to work at our relationship, I would have. Then, just so, I lost interest in the subject.
“I don’t read much fiction anymore,” I confessed. “I used to be a huge reader. Then I got Enhanced in my twenties. There was the adjustment phase and then somehow I lost touch, what with career and all. Same story with my friends. They mostly read what their children read. But even kids, it’s not much. Makes me wonder. Maybe we are outgrowing the need for fiction. I mean, children outgrow their imaginary friends. Do you think we posthumans are outgrowing the need for fiction?”

Asomovs 092019Winter Wheat“, by Gord Sellar (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2019) 22559 words

Jimmy grew up on a farm in the small town of Biggar, and plans on continuing the family business when his time comes. When an agricultural mega-corporation introduces a new patented strain of wheat to the market, young Jimmy fails to fully grasp the implications.

“Lemme put it this way: they’ve gone in and messed with how the starches stack together, twisted them all around the opposite direction to usual. Nothing on Earth has the right enzymes in its guts to break those carbs down into sugars – not you, not me, not the bugs, nothing,” he said, pausing briefly as if hesitating to wade too deep into the science. Then he continued: “If it doesn’t go through the industrial processing they use on it in the mills, well: you take this wheat and grind it into flour in your kitchen, and then bake yourself some bread, and I’m telling you that you can literally starve to death on a full stomach of that bread every day. It’s not just pests: anyone can starve off it, like rabbit meat. They made it that way, so we’re dependent on them for processing and distribution and everything. Now, what that means is that growing this wheat may give you a better yield, but it also locks you farmers into working with specific buyers, into a specific distribution model. And then you gotta deal with the ecological collapse that comes when all the vermin dies out, and if the genes they’ve spliced in transfer to other plants, or if it mutates… Well, it’s just not so simple as they’re saying, that’s all.”
Jimmy noticed his dad nodding, but he seemed to be the only one who was. All the other farmers were mumbling among themselves, and honestly, Jimmy didn’t really get what the big deal was either.

Clarkesworld 155Your Face“, by Rachel Swirsky (Clarkesworld Issue 155, August 2019) 1327 words

Abigail’s mom is happy to see her daughter’s face, but once the elation passes, she realizes things are a little off.

But you can’t really go home. You know that. Right, Abigail?
Obviously.
You’re only in the computer. You can’t come out.
I know.
I don’t know. Maybe this was a bad idea. Is it cruel? Am I just bringing you back to kill you all over again?
You’re freaking out, Mom. Stop it.
I realized I’ve been putting this off for almost five years. It would have been your thirtieth birthday last week. Maybe I should have come earlier, but I just wasn’t—sure if it would be cruel—
It’s fine.
And I . . . didn’t know if I wanted to.
Oh.
I’m sorry. Oh, God. I’m terrible.
Whatever. It’s not important.
Now you’re angry.
Don’t tell me how I feel.
No. This isn’t right. You don’t sound like you. You look like you . . . but you don’t sound like you at all.
Excuse me?
You’re so flat . . . You sound . . . like you’re champagne, and someone left you open.
I don’t even know how to respond to that.
There’s nothing in your voice but frustration.

FSF 052019“New Atlantis”, by Lavie Tidhar (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May/June 2019) 24135 words

Through generations, after the collapse of human civilization, the surviving population struggled and succeeded in building a new world that shed the troubles of the past. 84-year-old Mai relates a story from her youth, of a long and difficult journey she undertook to reach New Atlantis.

“It is said the harvest will be plentiful in Gomrath this spring,” Mowgai said. “And that a heron was spotted for the first time in centuries near Esh.”
We had been traveling for days. For a while yet we were still in the world as I mostly knew it, with its familiar terrain of good, black earth, and in the bloom of early spring, so that we rose each morning to the sight of thousands of pink and purple cyclamens, red poppies, yellow daisies, and blue-and-white lupines that stood stiffly like guards in the breeze.
“It is also said a vast Sea monster washed ashore in Sidon, dead upon the sand, and that a manshonyagger of old was seen near Dor-Which-Fell-To-Ruin,” Mowgai said, and shrugged. “But such stories are often told and there is seldom truth in them.”
“The sea monster, perhaps,” I said, thinking of the ocean and its mysteries. I smiled at him, imagining our faraway destination. The New Atlantis lay beyond the Sea. “If we’re lucky, we might get to see one.”
He shuddered. “Salvagers survive by avoiding danger, not running headlong toward it,” he said.
“Yes, yes,” I said. “So my mother always tells me.”
“And you never listen,” he said, but he smiled when he said it.

Fireside 67bAll the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From“, by Izzy Wasserstein (Fireside Magazine Issue 67, May 2019) 2211 words

You keep snapping in and out of different realities, different iterations of your hometown. But what exactly are you looking for?

In so many realities, there are headstones carved with your mother’s name. Sometimes your mother is buried under headstones with different names. And there are realities where she’s still alive, and even ones where you never left.
In the ones where she’s alive and you never left, the other yous seethe with resentment and jealousy, like you are a reminder of everything they don’t have. You know just how they feel. In the ones where she’s dead, the other yous have the look of cornered rats and you know all over again why you had to get out.
Sometimes you tell yourself you are looking for the right reality, maybe one where you made peace and she died holding your hand. Or one where she screamed at you until you knew leaving was right. Or maybe she got better and you went off to college and this is your triumphant return. In one reality, your sibling (your sister, this time) explains the paradox of choice: choosing between three salad dressings is easy; choosing between one hundred, a nightmare.
“Narrow your choices,” she tells you, somewhere into the second bottle of bottom-shelf whiskey. “Settle for good enough.”
In that Topeka, your mother is dead and so is that version of you. Your sister doesn’t ask to come with you.

 

mission critical“Cyclopterus”, by Peter Watts (Mission Critical, editor Jonathan Strahan; Solaris Books) 5742 words

In a bleak future plagued by perpetual super-storms, Galik, a representative of the Nautilus corporation, goes on a potentially dangerous dive in the mini-sub Cyclopterus with a pilot who isn’t too eager to accommodate him.

“I told you: nothing’s decided.”
Moreno snorts. “Right. You dragged Sylvie hundreds of kilometers off-site, so you’d have your own private base camp. You put everyone’s research on hold, and you’ve got me spending the next eight hours planting your money detectors on the seabed. You think I don’t know what that costs?”
Galik shrugs. “If you’re that sure, you could always refuse the gig. Break your contract. Take a stand on principle.”
Moreno glowers at the dashboard, where the luminous stipple of the thermocline thickens and rises about them. Cyclopterus jerks and slews as some particularly dense lens of water slaps lazily to starboard.
“They’d probably send you home then, though, right? Back to the heat waves and the water wars and that weird new fungus that’s eating everything. Although I hear some of the doomsday parties are worth checking out. Just last week one of ’em ended up burning down half of Kluane National Park.”
Moreno says nothing.
“’Course, if you really wanted to stand up and be counted, you could join the Gaianistas.” And in response to the look that gets him: “What? You gonna let the fuckers who killed the planet get away scot-free again?”
“That’s rich. Coming from one of their errand boys.”
“I chose my side. What about you, hiding out here in the ocean while the world turns to shit? You going to do anything about that, or are you all sound and fury, signifying nothing?”

You can find Part 1 – Dark Fantasy/Horror HERE

You can find Part 3 – Fantasy HERE

Additional Reading:

The above choices are based on my own personal tastes from my own reading experiences, and are meant to be taken as such. There are many other “best of” and “recommended reading” lists that offer up quality reading choices for short SFF. Here are a few:

Maria Haskins, author and translator

Charles Payseur, author and proprietor of Quick Sip Reviews

Eugenia Triantafyllou, author

A.C. Wise, author

Locus Recommended Reading List 

Rocket Stack Rank 2019 YTD (aggregate list), compiled by Greg Hullender and Eric Wong

More links will appear as I find them!

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]

nightmare 69
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]

bcs 260
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]

fiyah 7
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]

clarkesworld 137
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]

interzone 277
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]

freeze frame rev
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 – 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

The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

Rating: 9.0 (out of 10)

For sixty-five million years, the crew of the starship Eriophora has been building gates to facilitate faster space travel for human expansion. The ship is ruled by Chimp, a “dumb” AI built with a lower synapse count to keep it at relatively human-level intelligence, and every few thousand or million or so years a build crew is selected and awakened from among its 30,000-plus population to assist in the logistics of gate construction. Sunday Ahzmundin, the protagonist and narrator of Peter Watts’ new novella “The Freeze-Frame Revolution”, is Chimp’s favorite, and finds herself awakened more often than the average crewperson. She has come to see Chimp as a friend, has gotten to know more people from more of the various “tribes” that constitute the milieu of life on a ship whose mission will likely stretch as far as time itself. She’s also been around enough to see the seeds of mutiny grow, as people begin to question whether Chimp – whose capacity to rule over their lives is near-absolute – can even be trusted, and whether it really is as “dumb” as the mission’s progenitors claimed. But how can anyone stage a coup against an entity that knows where they are and what they are doing at all times, when 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 mordant tone of Sunday’s narration attests to a kind of casual acceptance of the crew’s eventual fate; for the first few dozen million years, most crewpersons held out hope that they would be recalled home, or that they would be allowed to retire and settle down on an earth-like planet somewhere – at this point it seems clear that they won’t stop building gates until the heat death of the universe. When we first meet Sunday, she is relating how she used to play a little mental game with herself, calculating what point in Earth’s history they would be if they were moving backward in time rather than forward. She gives up around the time Australopithecus thrived in Eastern Africa. Had her morbid exercise in hypothetical time travel continued, the point at which her story begins would land Eriophora at the end of the Mesozoic Era, when a mass extinction event wiped out the dinosaurs. In all that time they have only covered a fraction of the expanse of the Milky Way, and the only indication they have of any sentient life – much less human life – still existing in the universe outside of themselves is the occasional “gremlin” that pokes through a newly-built gate to take a shot at them.
The ratio of human years to mission years creates the kind of psychological imbalance that makes the desire for insurrection both understandable and inevitable – the most commonly utilized crew members are awake for little more than a decade or two while eons pass them by. Add to this the fact that the terms they use to (accurately) describe the conditions that define their existence are inherently dehumanizing: they were “programmed” for the mission from birth, crewpersons are “deprecated” when their skills are no longer considered useful, their coldsleep pods are called “coffins” and are stored in “crypts”. Their lives – spent mostly in a state of near-death – are reduced to their functionality, with Chimp as the sole arbiter of their value, which is measured only by their usefulness to the mission. 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 feel. Heavy themes like alienation, the value of existence, and the nature of consciousness are woven into the brisk narrative with humor and pathos. Watts may be too smart to let a big idea pass by without picking it to pieces, but above all, “The Freeze-Frame Revolution” is fun to read.

[The Freeze-Frame Revolution is a stand-alone story in Watts’ Sunflower Cycle; the first story in the cycle is “The Island”, which won the Hugo Award for Best Novelette in 2010, and is available in Watts’ collection Beyond the Rift, as well as the forthcoming anthology The Final Frontier, edited by Neil Clarke (July 10). It is not necessary to read the rest of the cycle before reading The Freeze-Frame Revolution, though “The Island” is well worth checking out.

Also, The Freeze-Frame Revolution is a little over 41,000 words long; the publisher is marketing it as a novel, while the author insists that he prefers it to be seen as a novella. For Hugo voting purposes, it is well within the 5000 word allowance for the novella category (40,000 words), and can be nominated as such if one so chooses.]