The Best Short SFF of February 2020

Featured Image from the cover illustration by Alyssa Winans for “St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid”

Must Read Stories

Prosper's demon
Cover art by Sam Weber

Prosper’s Demon, by K.J. Parker [Tor.com Publishing, January 2020] Novella

The unnamed narrator of K.J. Parker’s delightfully cynical novella is an exorcist in a world where demon possession is  common – though, tragically, the ritual to remove them almost always results in the death of the host. When he learns that the greatest genius of their age, philosopher/scientist/artist Prosper of Schanz, is possessed, he must choose between turning a blind eye to his duty and risking the gallows by causing the beloved man’s death. Parker’s kaleidoscope approach to world-building, where fractured mirror pieces of our own history and culture are combined to create new patterns, is always a joy to dive into. And I can’t get over that sucker-punch of an ending.

St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid“, by C.L. Polk [Tor.com, February 5, 2020] Short Story

The fortune teller’s daughter Theresa is deeply smitten with her schoolmate Lucille. Just as Theresa is about to seize her chance, Lucille is targeted by the abusive, controlling Gerry. The bees (yes, bees!) can help, for a price. This author quickly became one of my favorite fantasists when her novel Witchmark arrived a couple of years ago. “St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid” serves as a great reminder why: the refined prose and emotional intelligence stand out, but most impressive is the way she makes the mythic and the magical feel at once both common and uncanny. A wise, generous take on first love and the meaning of sacrifice.

More Recommended Stories

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Cover art by Robert Hunt

If You Take My Meaning“, by Charlie Jane Anders [Tor.com, February 11, 2020] Novelette

Anders new novelette is set on the planet January,  following the events of her terrific novel The City in the Middle of the Night, as the seeds of Sophie’s dream of unification are being planted and the accompanying moral dilemmas are explored. There is enough context for unfamiliar readers to catch the drift of what’s going on, but if you haven’t read the novel (and are planning to) you may want to hold off on this for spoilery reasons. Which also means to say, if you weren’t already planning to you should definitely read The City in the Middle of the Night.

Ngozi Ugegbe Nwa“, by Dare Segun Falowo [The Dark, Issue 57, February 2020] Short Story

The title character is an aspiring model who, while stuck in an hours long traffic jam, buys an ornate mirror from a strange old woman. The sinister looking glass shows Ngozi parts of herself she would otherwise want to keep hidden. The sustained tone of eeriness and dread is impressive, as is the genuinely ghoulish imagery.

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Cover Art: “Ice Road III” by Rytis Sabaliauskas

The Moneylender’s Angel“, by Robert Minto [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #296, January 30, 2020] Short Story

The narrator and his partner Gareth – the former money collector of the title – find a valuable magical object that could change their fortunes for the better. First they must confront the secrets they’ve been keeping from each other. I really enjoyed the sensory details in the prose and the nice, fluid world-building. A tender and open-hearted queer romance.

The Aetherised Chamber“, by Stewart Moore [Pseudopod #690, February 21, 2020] Short Story

Late 17th-century natural philosopher Mr. Waites – who is NOT the greatest scientist of his age thanks to the incomparable Mr. Newton – is trying to perfect his God-Machine. Waites wishes to glean the secrets of the universe with his invention, using his nearly dead (and perpetually disappointed) father as a conduit to the vast reaches of the unknown. Surely, nothing could go wrong. Old school weird fiction at its best: grisly in all the right places, with an appetizing garnish of grim humor. (Podcast narrated by Alasdair Stuart.)

The Cliff of Hands“, by Joanne Rixon [Diabolical Plots #60B, February 17, 2020] Short Story

This quick but inspiring fantasy adventure follows Eešan’s journey to fulfill an important rite of passage – leaving her mark on the fabled Cliff of Hands – in spite of the disability that makes it nearly impossible for her to do so. An exciting, suspenseful tale with a hero you can root for.

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 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 July 2019

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

Must Read

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Cover art by Mondolithic Studios

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

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

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

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

More Recommended Stories

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Cover art by Red Nose Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cover art by Julie Dillon

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

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