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.

Nightmare 88
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.

Asimov's Jan 2020
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.

2018 Recommended Reading List (Part 2)

Featured Image from the Cover Art for “Yiwu” by Feifei Ruan

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 work in 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 the links when possible.

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

Earthbound Science Fiction

Desert Island Pick

Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” by Daryl Gregory [Tor.com, September 19, 2018; 11,913 words]

nine last days on planet earth
Cover Art by Keith Negley

In 1975 a meteor shower seeds the planet with strange alien life forms. This story looks in on nine different days throughout the long life of LT, who seeks to understand them and help the world adjust to this new reality.

This was the popular theory: that aliens had targeted Earth and sent their food stocks ahead of them so there’d be something to eat when they arrived. LT had spent long, hot days in the apartment listening to the boyfriend while Mom was at work, or else following him around the city on vague errands. He didn’t have a regular job. He said he was an artist—with a capital A, kid—but didn’t seem to spend any time painting or anything. He could talk at length about the known invasive species, and why there were so many different ones: the weblike filaments choking the trees in New Orleans, the flame-colored poppies erupting on Mexico City rooftops, the green fins popping up in Florida beach sand like sharks coming ashore.

The Best of the Rest

“Down Where Sound Comes Blunt” by G.V. Anderson [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2018; 4557 words] 

Ellen is doing a field study of a newly discovered, intelligent sea creature. She is also searching for her father, who disappeared in the midst of his own study. Ellen hopes to get one of the creatures, a female, to trust her enough to show her where she keeps her eggs.

Ellen wonders if their mutual subjects entranced him as much as they do her, whether he ventured out against his better judgment for another blissful hour in their midst.
The ice below her creaks, creaks, creaks – footsteps on an old staircase. She shivers, burying herself into her oversized thermal jacket. She replaces her headphones and listens to the colony’s chatter from below. The twist of a dial slows it down, makes it indecipherable. Makes language out of noise.
She closes her eyes, leans against her rucksack, and clicks her tongue in near-perfect mimicry.

Meat and Salt and Sparks” by Rich Larson [Tor.com, June 6, 2018; 7373 words]

Cu is an uplifted chimp, the only of her kind, who works as a police detective. Her current case has her investigating a murder that appears to have been committed by remote control.

“Yeah,” Huxley says, letting the bag fall to his lap to sign back. “No receiving or transmitting from interrogation. As soon as she lost contact with that little graft, she panicked. The police ECM should have shut it down as soon as she was in custody. Guess it slipped past somehow.”
Acting under instructions, Cu suggests.
Huxley see-saws his open hands. “Could be. She’s got no obvious connection to the victim. We’ll need to have a look at the thing.”
Cu scrolls through the perpetrator’s file. Twenty years’ worth of information strained from social media feeds and the odd government application has been condensed to a brief. Elody Polle, born in Toronto, raised in Seattle, rode a scholarship to Princeton to study ethnomusicology before dropping out in ’42, estranged from most friends and family for over a year despite having moved back to a one-room flat in North Seattle. No priors. No history of violence. No record of antisocial behavior.
Cu checks the live feed from the interrogation room. Heart-rate down, she signs, tucking the tablet under her armpit. Time to talk.

What is Eve?” by Will McIntosh [Lightspeed Magazine Issue 95, April 2018; 10,145 words]

lightpeed 95
Cover Art by Elizabeth Leggett

Ben is shipped off to a new school with the other “good kids”, the ones who follow instructions and always behave and turn in their homework and get good grades. They are told they have a special new classmate, and that it’s important to act normal around her. It’s not easy to act normal around Eve.

It was taking up two seats pushed together. It was black, and lumpy with all of these folds, and, oh God, were those her eyes or her ears? She had four legs and no feet and she was wearing a purple dress and weird round patent leather shoes and a bow in her hair, only it wasn’t hair, it was more like black spaghetti, and I couldn’t breathe.
The thing in the seats flexed, and suddenly it wasn’t lumpy anymore—it was hard, and sharp, with pointy barbs sticking out of it. It hissed like a giant punctured tire.
“Direction,” the man’s voice said through my earpiece. “Do not stare. Put a damned smile on your face and find your seat and look at the board.”

Theories of Flight” by Linda Nagata [Asimov’s Science Fiction, November/December 2018; 7247 words]

Yaphet is a “player” living in a simulated reality ruled by an AI called Goddess. He dreams of flying, though their laws forbid it.

A burnt leaf, edged in incandescence, rose up into the fog, higher and higher, halfway to the treetops before the glow of heat left it.
Never before had Yaphet seen a leaf fall up. He stood entranced, watching the flight of the embers, until his father called him again.
When he was seven – almost eight – after much experimentation and failure and reassessment (though he was too young to know such words or describe what he was doing) Yaphet launched his first successful fire balloon.

“Love Songs for the Very Awful” by Robert Reed [Asimov’s Science Fiction, March/April 2018; 5785 words]

Bodden volunteers for a radical new brain experiment. The researcher, Heidi, can’t help but fall for his charms, even though she knows he’s a creep: she has the data to prove it.

Bodden’s name would float over the table, and people would look at me, signaling their curiosity if not out-and-out concerns. The man was gorgeous, sure. Maybe that was reason enough. And he was certainly young and possibly vigorous. Was I the sort of lady that liked lustful distractions? Bodden also had a talent for funny words and warm, caring noise. When empathy was necessary. But he was one of three sociopaths in our study. Every week, without fail, he came into the shop, undergoing another comprehensive scan for money. And every week, he proved himself to be a self-absorbed boy. No smart professional woman could have feelings for a creep like that. That’s what the glances were saying, and the silences, and those thoughtful sips of coffee while the tea drinker offered little details from last night’s date.
Bodden and I were together for ten weeks. Then it was finished, and I was shocked to discover how sad that made me feel.

Sour Milk Girls” by Erin Roberts [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 136, January 2018; 6447 words]

clarkes 136
Cover Art: “Vukileyo!” by Artur Sadlos

Teenager Ghost is an orphan under the care of The Agency, who hold onto the troubling memories of their wards’ prior lives and return them when they come of age. Ghost learns that the new girl, Princess, still has all her old memories and Ghost resents her for it.

“You really fucking don’t,” I said. “Me, Flash, Whispers . . . we don’t have something real to share. All those cute, sweet memories of being a kid? Snatched off us when we got to the Agency and locked away where we can’t get ’em. All we know is school and the third floor and a few fosters who couldn’t be bothered to keep us. That’s it. That’s all we fucking got.”
Princess stared at me for a second, eyes wide, then walked out, saying I didn’t know and Sorry under her breath like she was doing a Whispers impression. I stayed for a while, playing back the couple of half-decent memories I did have, like the day I figured out how to get the computers in the back to do what I wanted, like a real hacker, or the times the Agency let us go down to the first floor and play with the babies, and then the ones that made my neck shiver, like all the times fosters sent me back ’cause I didn’t fit into any of the smiling family photos—too old, too dark, too “hard to handle.”

The Emotionless, In Love” by Jason Sanford [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #246, March 1, 2018; 28,352 words]

Colton escaped the influence of the nanobots called “grains”, and in doing so he sacrificed his emotions. Now he is helping a caravan escape them as well.

“Quiet,” Mita said, glancing around as if she could see the microscopic grains within the land. “Talking of this will jinx our travels.”
“Our caravan didn’t use the laser,” Colton protested. “The grains know the difference.”
“Drop it!” Mita snapped. She then sighed and shook her head. “Sorry. But you know everyone else will shit if they hear you talking boneheaded stuff like this.”
Anyone else in the caravan would have been insulted by Mita’s words, but Colton knew she was right. He didn’t understand how day-fellows saw the world. To him there were no jinxes. There were merely the grains, the microscopic machines which protected all the lands and existed in every animal and plant and insect and anchor. If the grains judged you wrong—decided you’d harmed the environments they protected—you were dead, jinx or no jinx.
Still, he’d been with these day-fellows the last eight years and had learned not to debate their beliefs. He also appreciated that Mita always used polite words such as ‘different’ to refer to him, instead of the terms the other day-fellows whispered behind his back.
Words like disturbed; sick; psychopath.

Yiwu” by Lavie Tidhar [Tor.com, May 23, 2018; 5305 words]

Esham works in the market selling lottery tickets that instantly grant the winners their heart’s desire. One day, when one of his regulars, Ms. Qiu, buys a ticket, something unusual happens and he can’t understand why.

It was just an ordinary day, the way Esham liked it. Order and routine, a knowing of what was expected. At the usual time, Ms Qiu emerged from the market doors. She crossed the road. She came to the stand and smiled at him and said, “Hello,” and asked for a ticket.
He sold her one. She scratched the silver foil with a 10-baht coin.
She looked at the card, almost puzzled, then shrugged and left it on the counter.
“No luck?” Esham said.
She pushed the ticket towards him. He glanced down, barely registering the impossible at first: the three identical symbols of a beckoning gold cat that meant it was a winning ticket.
He glanced up at Ms Qiu.
Nothing happened.
“Thank you,” Ms Qiu said.
She gave him a last, almost bemused smile, then turned and walked away.
Still nothing happened.
He stared at the good luck cats.
Nothing.
Ms Qiu crossed the road and walked away the way she always did, until she turned a corner and was out of sight.

First World Fantasy

Desert Island Pick

Field Biology of the Wee Fairies” by Naomi Kritzer [Apex Magazine Issue 112, September 2018; 4871 words]

apex-magazine-112
Cover Art by Joel Chaim Holtzman

At age fourteen, Amelia is supposed to find and catch her fairy soon. Every girl does: it’s a rite of passage. But Amelia just wants to use science to figure out what the deal is with all these stupid fairies.

When her mice weren’t running the mazes, she kept them in gallon pickle jars with holes punched in the lids, with newspaper to shred and ladders for stimulation. There were four pickle jars waiting for new occupants, clean and lined up under her window. She grabbed one, unscrewed the lid, and took it back downstairs.
Outside, the sun was low in the sky. She crunched her way across the snowy yard, back to the car, looking nonchalant. She didn’t see the fairy right away. She opened the car door, sat down in the passenger seat, and waited.
The fairy bobbed in front of her, maybe ten feet away. She looked at it, then looked away.
It came closer.
Closer still.
She could see the delicate folds in the fairy’s dress, the shining strands of its hair, the tilt of its head, when she sprang. She didn’t want to touch it—she wasn’t entirely convinced that touching the fairy wasn’t what actually made the magic happen—but she swooped up with the jar and brought the lid down, trapping the fairy inside. Then she screwed the lid down, took it upstairs to her room, and set it on a shelf next to her mice.

The Best of the Rest

The Ghoul Goes West” by Dale Bailey [Tor.com, January 17, 2018; 13,285 words]

Ben learns that his estranged brother Denny, a failed screenwriter, died of a heroin overdose. He travels to Hollywood to deal with Denny’s affairs and finds some things in his brother’s apartment that shouldn’t exist, not in this world anyway: a stack of videotapes of movies that were never made.

Retrieving The Ghoul Goes West, I glanced at the sticker on the case: Dimension Video. Then I turned on the television and slotted the tape into the VCR. The film opened with a black-and-white shot of the Amazing Criswell seated behind a desk, delivering a bizarre monologue about “the mysteries of the past which even today grip the throat of the present to throttle it.” The speech was portentous and theatrical, overcooked, the framing static. Then the image faded, to be replaced by a flat desert landscape with a saguaro cactus, obviously fake, on the right side of the frame. The credits came up on the left, each new name preceded by the sound of a pistol shot. Autry had first billing, Lugosi second, both of them above the title. The rest of the cast followed, among them Vampira and Paul Marco and Tor Johnson, Wood’s usual suspects. My only thought as the attribution credit came up—
Written Ÿ Directed Ÿ Produced
by
Edward D. Wood, Jr.
—was that I was looking at some kind of bizarre forgery. Then Lugosi, in full Dracula garb, appeared on screen, rising from a casket in a dim crypt that looked like a suburban garage. It was unmistakably him. By that point in my thesis research, I’d seen virtually every movie Lugosi had made three or four times. I knew the shape of his face almost as well as I knew my own.

The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark [Fireside Magazine Issue 52, February 2018; 3649 words]

From a one line entry in a 1784 Mount Vernon account book (“By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire”), historian Clark spins nine fantastical stories of the men and women those teeth originally belonged to.

The second Negro tooth belonging to George Washington came from a slave from the Kingdom of Ibani, what the English with their inarticulate tongues call Bonny Land, and (much to his annoyance) hence him, a Bonny man. The Bonny man journeyed from Africa on a ship called the Jesus, which, as he understood, was named for an ancient sorcerer who defied death. Unlike the other slaves bound on that ship who came from the hinterlands beyond his kingdom, he knew the fate that awaited him–though he would never know what law or sacred edict he had broken that sent him to this fate. He found himself in that fetid hull chained beside a merman, with scales that sparkled like green jewels and eyes as round as black coins. The Bonny man had seen mermen before out among the waves, and stories said some of them swam into rivers to find wives among local fisher women. But he hadn’t known the whites made slaves of them too.

Flow” by Marissa Lingen [Fireside Magazine Issue 53, March 2018; 2956 words]

fireside 53
Cover Art by Galen Dara

The magical forest-dwelling naiads know Gigi is one of theirs by her “flow”, the way she carries herself, which marks her as her father’s daughter. Things change when a sinus infection permanently damages her equilibrium.

I return to the first stream I ever met. I walk so slowly through the forest, the tip of my cane making unfamiliar sounds against the rocks and the leaf mold of the path. I am exhausted from balancing on such a long walk. There are two naiads sitting by the stream, one of them visiting from a local lake I also know. I greet them eagerly, finding the right place to put my cane to step forward to the banks of the stream.
The stream naiad shrieks. The lake naiad steps in front of her protectively.
“What’s wrong with you?” I ask them.
They don’t answer. They are staring at me with wide, terrified eyes. I haven’t been there in a year, a full turn of the sun and then a little bit. But I didn’t think they would forget so quickly. They didn’t when I was away to college, when I was hanging out with other naiads somewhere else for awhile.
“Guys, come on, what’s your problem?”
The stream naiad quavers, “Who are you?”
The naiads don’t recognize me.

“Conspicuous Plumage” by Sam J. Miller [Lightspeed Magazine Issue 100, September 2018; 4704 words]

Bette is devastated by the murder of her beloved brother, Cary. She longs to experience his last moments, and she believes her schoolmate Hiram can help her with that.

“Hey,” I said to Hiram Raff, who was right where I thought he’d be, polishing shoes in a corner where hardly anyone ever looked. Off the high school baseball field, Hiram was all awkward stammers and intentionally poor posture, ashamed and afraid of the adulation he had unwillingly earned.
“Hey,” he said, a little nervously, like What does this person want from me?
“How you doing?” I asked, fingers rubbing at an invisible spot on the counter.
“I’m all right,” he said, and his ruddy, lovely face said he most certainly was not. I felt awful, like I was frightening a small animal for selfish reasons, but I could not stop now.
“I heard you can make people see things,” I said.
Lines appeared between his eyes, and at the edges of his mouth. Poor boy looked close to bursting—into tears, maybe, or, simply bursting. I was a monster, I knew, but I had to say what I’d come here to say. I owed it to my brother.
“Can you help me? Can you come on a road trip with me?”
I had two pieces of information about Hiram Raff, both of them ill-gotten, gossip-derived. Common knowledge. Things he was deeply, irrationally ashamed of, for reasons that were his own. The first was what I’d already said: that under certain circumstances he could cause visions—of the past, of the future, of fictional scenarios that had never been and would never be, and whether he or anyone else could tell the difference was subject to much conjecture. The second was that he was had a congenital, terminal case of politeness. Hiram was a boy who could never tell anyone No.

(Unlike most Lightspeed stories, Conspicuous Plumage is not currently available to read online, but only in a purchased copy of the issue.)

Asphalt, River, Mother, Child” by Isabel Yap [Strange Horizons, October 8, 2018; 7016 words]

The Filipino deity Mebuyen helps guide innocent souls to the afterlife. Usually she only gets infants, but now older children and adults who have been murdered by the police are coming her way. And her river isn’t washing them clean like it’s supposed to, so she can’t even send them on their way.

I think they took me to a side street. It smelled like pee. There was garbage on the floor. I prayed to the Lord that I trusted He would not put me in hell even if I am transgender. I don’t pray very often but I was scared. I kept thinking don’t let it be painful, I don’t want to die suffering. They asked me two questions and I answered, then the one that shouted at Jel came forward, and the one that dragged me told him to shoot. And he shot.
Babygirl sighs. “I’m glad I’m not in hell,” she says. “At least—I don’t think this is hell?”
“It’s not,” Mebuyen says.
“But what is this place? Does this mean I don’t have peace?”
Mebuyen hands her a glass of milk. “This is Gimokudan—my domain. You’re safe here. But as for your second question, I would like to know the answer too.”

Parts 1 and 3 have the rest of my faves for 2018.

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

The Best Short SFF – November 2018

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

I haven’t read the new F&SF or Uncanny yet so any recommendations from those issues will be in December’s column.

Must Read

Asimov Nov18Theories of Flight”, Linda Nagata (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2018) Short Story

Linda Nagata revisits the artificial world of her 2003 novel Memory in “Theories of Flight”. The world is ruled by the AI “Goddess”, and its code-built inhabitants – called “players” – live multiple lives, remembering the skills they honed from past lives each time they grow to adulthood. Goddess has outlawed flying machines, but Yaphet obsesses over them. As a child, he makes one in secret, but the disaster that ensues traumatizes his cousin Mishon. Years later, he builds an aircraft capable of bearing his weight in the air, but the long-estranged Mishon follows him to his secret lair to sniff out his plans. “Theories of Flight” could pass for high fantasy if not for its Hard SF casing. The players’ culture is based around myth and folklore, not science, and the Icarus-inspired plot is a classic “hero’s journey” archetype. Yet the players also know their world is a construct, and the enigmatic Goddess almost dares her creations to break the rules designed to hold them back. Yaphet and Mishon are wonderfully drawn characters with a complex relationship that pushes the narrative in surprising directions. A captivating story from the first sentence to the last.

Asphalt, River, Mother, Child”, Isabel Yap (Strange Horizons, October 8, 2018) Short Story

Fantasists often walk on eggshells when depicting real-life horrors in their fiction; the result, no matter how well-composed, can be too sober to draw anything more from the reader than an immediate visceral response. Isabel Yap avoids this trap in her story “Asphalt, River, Mother, Child”. Its backdrop, the extra-judicial killings taking place in the Philippines, is as monstrous as one can find in the modern world. But instead of severity, Yap taps a store of vitality and humor in her prose to temper the horror without diminishing it. Mebuyen is the deity in charge of helping the innocent dead move on to the afterlife. Her usual charges are infants, but now older youths and even adults are coming to her realm: Adriana, a young girl shot by accident while police searched for her grandfather; Babygirl Santos, a transgender singer who may have occasionally sold drugs in her distant past; and Romuel, a pleasant and optimistic teen who wanted to be a policeman himself before the cops framed and murdered him. Mebuyen must find out why her river has stopped flowing so she can cleanse the innocents and send them on their way. The hallmark of a great story is characters you want to spend more time with after the last sentence is read. Such is the case with Yap’s story. The three souls who find kinship and joy in each other after the trauma of their deaths are among the most engaging and memorable I’ve encountered this year.

Highly Regarded

BCS 263The Oracle and the Sea”, Megan Arkenberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #263, Oct. 25, 2018) Short Story

Composer Kashmai wasn’t executed for her part in the resistance because she has the Oracle inside her and the President wants to know the future. She refuses to give him the satisfaction, but like the music she feels in her bones, her prophecies want to break free. Her friendship with a prison guard, and her knowledge of his future, complicates matters. Megan Arkenberg’s “The Oracle and the Sea” is a mature and well-structured work of fantasy, a story that feels grander than the limits of its physical space thanks to the author’s careful attention to the internal and external workings of its characters. Kashmai’s prophetic abilities, like her relationship with the sea that surrounds her island prison and the music her jailers still expect her to make for them, elicit conflicting emotional states. Of the Oracle, “Kashmai finds it ugly. Sick jokes played by time and circumstance.” Walking down to the sea, she “breathes in the stink of it, the plant and the salt and the musk of distant seals. Breathes in her hatred and her enemy’s cruel approximation of mercy, this torture disguised as a reprieve.” I like the way Kashmai envisions both her music and the Oracle as things that exists outside of herself, for which she is a vessel containing the tools for their expression. It is a position that not only saves her from madness and despair but allows her to assert her will despite the confines placed on her body and mind. Well done.

Talk to Your Children About Two-Tongued Jeremy”, Theodore McCombs (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 102, November 2018) Short Story

At some point it will dawn on someone to publish an anthology of “rogue app” stories, where I doubt any judicious editor would fail to include this story. Two-Tongued Jeremy is the lizard avatar of a mobile learning app that helps kids stay ahead of the curve. The app’s main feature is that it also learns as it goes, and tailors its strategies to the individual child. David is a goal-oriented eight-grader looking ahead to his future at the local magnet high school and eventually college; Two-Tongued Jeremy was built for students like him. Before long, though, the program’s motivational strategies take on a sinister bend, as it keeps finding new ways to push learners to the limit. A lot of things ring true about this story: the way adults are more and more willing to let technology regulate their children’s habits, further isolating the disparate generations from each other; the way tech companies will blame the users for using their products “wrong” instead of admitting fault; and most of all, the way tweens and teens will magnify small problems into large ones, and how easy their emotional immaturity is to manipulate. “Two-Tongued Jeremy” is more than just clever high-concept sci-fi. Its characters and setting, relayed by the author’s effective use of collective narration, stick with you after the story ends.

The Palace of the Silver Dragon”, Y.M. Pang (Strange Horizons, October 1, 2018) Novelette

This is my first encounter with Y.M. Pang, whose credits only stretch back to June of this year. The evidence suggests we will see her in this column again. “The Palace of the Silver Dragon” is the story of Aliah, a young woman who throws herself into the sea upon hearing the siren song of the Silver Dragon, Karonin. He shows her his palace with its rooms full of stories and takes her as his lover, but there is more to Aliah’s motives than just an escape from the hopelessness of her life. This story is a pure metaphysical fantasy, wherein the dividing line between mind and matter is all but erased. It is a difficult mode to pull off even for an experienced writer, so finding it done this well by a newer writer is impressive. Aliah’s delusiveness and amorality are intriguing qualities in a protagonist.

“Joyride”, Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2018) Novella

Kristine Kathryn Rusch diverges from the main storyline in her Diving Universe to tell the story of Fleet cadet Nadim Crowe, who goads his rival classmate Tessa into joining him in a bit of extracurricular malfeasance. Crowe and Tessa scheme to “borrow” obsolete shuttles and race them to the Scrapheap, a floating junkyard for old Fleet ships. Crowe has the superior plan to win the race until Tessa activates her shuttle’s anacapa drive. Regular readers of Rusch’s Diving novels and stories will know right away that things will go sideways at first mention of the anacapa; otherwise, Rusch deposits enough background information to clue new readers in. I am impressed with Rusch’s ability to keep things fresh and exciting for the stories set in this universe 13 years after the “Diving into the Wreck” first appeared in Asimov’s. Like her other excellent Diving story from this year, “Lieutenant Tightass”, the long denouement is more suited for the novel this story will eventually be part of than for this standalone version.

Also Recommended

Analog Nov18“A Measure of Love”, C. Stuart Hardwick (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Nov/Dec 2018) Short Story

C. Stuart Hardwick’s “A Measure of Love” is the gentle, affecting tale of Apollonia, orphaned at a young age and raised by an AI foster parent called Uncle Inky. As an adult, Apollonia must look after the machine that has outlived its function as her guardian, and this causes a strain on her career. This is as light-hearted as an Analog story gets, but the poignancy of Inky and Apollonia’s relationship stuck with me, as did the crafty humor. The images of Inky terrorizing stray animals with neutering chemicals and lecturing public bathers about their nudity contrasted with Apollonia’s anxiety over his well-being makes for a memorable story with a pitch perfect ending.

The Hollow Tree”, Jordan Kurella (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #264, November 8, 2018) Short Story

Pira wants to protect her mother from her abusive father, but there doesn’t seem to be any way out for them – except for the fairy that lives in The Hollow Tree and grants wishes, for a price. The author finds a nice balance between foreshadowing future events and subverting expectations. Even the warning given to Pira, that the fairy will give you what you “want”, not what you “ask for”, yields surprising results. “The Hollow Tree” is well-paced and perfectly toned, and Pira provides a sympathetic and intelligent narrative voice.

“Smear Job”, Rich Larson (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Nov/Dec 2018) Short Story

18-year-old Jalen has a consensual, but illegal, sexual relationship with underage Stef, and has a choice between jail time plus sex offender registry or an implant that blurs out anyone under 18 from his sight. He chooses the implant because it is better than the alternative, but there are sadder consequences in store for him. “Smear Job” is a solid story from the prolific Rich Larson, understated with a bittersweet ending.

“The Ascension”, Jerry Oltion (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Nov/Dec 2018) Short Story

Jerry Oltion’s 95th (!) story to grace the pages of Analog is a splendid example of why that partnership works so well: he has mastered the efficient, classical short story structure long-time Analog readers expect. “The Ascension” takes place on an alien world where the native inhabitants obtain knowledge and aptitude by eating other people who have the skills they want. The leaders of this world maintain their power by consuming the learned young. Iffix, the supreme leader, presides over a banquet where he interrogates a youth offering himself for consumption, but his test of the child’s abilities doesn’t go as planned. Oltion takes a novel concept and delivers it with clear, effective plotting and characterization, and wraps it up with a delectable twist.

The Best Short SFF – June 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!

Must Read

Faint Voices, Increasingly Desperate”, Anya Johanna DeNiro (Shimmer Magazine Issue 43, May 2018) Short Story
Freia is a silk farmer in (presumably) Valhalla, little more than a slave in Woden’s magnanery. She longs to return to Vienna, her adopted home on Earth; her method of escape requires only that she bleed – a lot – so of course her captor diligently keeps her away from sharp objects. A co-worker absent-mindedly drops a needle near her, enabling her to make her first escape in decades. Freia gets a job and takes a lover, aware that her freedom has a countdown – it is only a matter of time before Woden comes to retrieve her. What struck me the most about this story was the way it seemed to live beyond the page, evoking sensory responses outside of what was clearly (and potently) described by the author. Also, Woden is fucking terrifying.
Meat and Salt and Sparks”, Rich Larson (Tor.com, 6/6/2018) Short Story
Larson’s new story is a drug cocktail of uplifted animals, detective noir, and cyberpunk futurism, and the result is unnerving and gripping. Cu is one of a kind – the only survivor of illegal brain enhancement experiments on chimpanzees, now a police detective (!?!), but isolated, lonely, depressed. Solving crimes is the only thing that motivates her to keep going. When an “echo”, someone who allows another person to link with them and live vicariously through their body, commits a murder, the path to finding the true culprit leads right back to Cu’s origins. Nicely detailed, with a deeply affecting ending and memorable characters.

Highly Regarded

The Sweetness of Honey and Rot”, A. Merc Rustad (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #254, 6/21/2018) Novelette
Jiteh’s village is protected by the Life Tree, which demands human sacrifice to sustain itself. After taking her father and her beloved twin, Jiteh questions whether the Tree is really protecting them at all or just imprisoning them for its own benefit and looks to exact revenge. A brilliantly realized setting with a relatable hero told in rich, expressive prose.
Yiwu”, Lavie Tidhar (Tor.com, 5/23/2018) Short Story
In the far future, Esham runs a booth selling lottery tickets in the Chinese city of Yiwu. Lottery winners are immediately granted their fondest (hand-wavey science magic) wish, but nothing happens when Ms. Qiu buys a winning ticket, prompting Esham to take a trip to lottery HQ to find out what went wrong. “Yiwu” is a captivating sci-fantasy fable, highlighting Tidhar’s talent for immersing readers in vivid settings populated by diverse and vibrant characters.
Fireside 56Cast Off Tight”, Hal Y. Zhang (Fireside Magazine Issue 56, June 2018) Short Story
The protagonist of Zhang’s near-future tale is still mourning the recent loss of his partner when he discovers she was in the process of knitting a scarf with “memory yarn”, which records nearby sounds while being knitted with special needles. When he touches it, he can hear things like that episode of Jeopardy she was watching, the song she was listening to, even sometimes her laughter. He pushes through conflicting emotions, determined to learn how to knit so he can finish the scarf. It’s a graceful tale with finespun, understated prose.

Also Recommended

“Chocolate Chip Cookies with Love Potion Infusion”, Leah Cypess (Galaxy’s Edge Issue 32, May/June 2018) Short Story
A humorous little fantasy about a witch posting the titular recipe on her blog, and the conversation that ensues.
Beast of Breath”, Gillian Daniels (Fireside Magazine Issue 56, June 2018) Short Story
A passive-aggressive monster tries to get the attention of someone it’s been stalking since childhood.
BCS 252The Wild Ride of the Untamed Stars”, A.J. Fitzwater (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #252, 5/24/2018) Short Story
An appropriately wild and untamed mini-epic fantasy about a capybara looking to wrangle a star to win the favor of a queen.
What the Skeleton Detective Tells You (While You Picnic)”, Katherine Kendig (Shimmer Magazine Issue 43, May 2018) Short Story
An eccentric, bone-dry tale of a P.I. who is also a living skeleton, trying to find a client’s missing friend.
Salt Lines”, Ian Muneshwar (Strange Horizons, 5/21/2018) Short Story
A young, gay Caribbean immigrant is stalked by a demonic jumbie in this eerie dark fantasy.
Balloon Man”, Shiv Ramdas (GigaNotoSaurus 6/1/2018) Novelette
A young boy is trapped under a fallen building, and the man who saved him from certain death spins for him a fantastical tale while they await rescue. As the balloon man’s tale progresses, it become clear the story has a great deal of bearing on their present circumstances.
Lightspeed 97I Sing Against the Silent Sun”, A. Merc Rustad and Ada Hoffman (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 97, June 2018) Novelette
A subversive poet is on the run from a powerful tyrant in this splashy, polychromatic space adventure.
“Redaction”, Adam R. Shannon (Compelling Science Fiction Issue 11, June 2018) Short Story
In the future, you can edit out bad experiences by dropping markers, and later choosing whether to erase the memories between them.
Vault”, D.A. Xiaolin Spires (Clarkesworld Issue 141, June 2018) Novelette
Two surveyors encounter a unique and dangerous new form of life while trying to map a planet lost to ecological disaster.
“Jackbox”, Brian Trent (Galaxy’s Edge Issue 32, May/June 2018) Short Story
A milSF quickie where enemy soldiers are just as dangerous after you kill them.

The Rack – Zine Reviews for Late June 2018

Rounding out the month of June with the latest from Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Compelling Science Fiction, Lightspeed, Shimmer, Strange Horizons and Tor.com.

 

Apex Magazine Issue 109, June 2018
Jacqueline Carey’s “Suzie Q” is a demonic fantasy about Suzanne, who develops a “slutty” reputation as a young teenager that she hopes to escape when she goes off to a famous summoning college called Holyfields. College, of course, has a different set of abusers for her to contend with and later, after she is expelled for lashing out against them and living on the streets, she has no choice but to contend with the demon that has been growing inside her for all those years. “Suzie Q” is a solid character study with a well-earned ending.
There is only one other story in this month’s Apex – “Three Meetings of the Pregnant Man Group” by James Beamon. It comes exactly as advertised, except instead of involving some scientific breakthrough that gets men pregnant à la “Junior”, in this story men are host to gestating alien parasites per an interstellar trade agreement with the Skoicks. There are some fun bits, but it’s one of those stories that isn’t quite doing what it thinks it’s doing.

BCS 254Beneath Ceaseless Skies #254 (6/21/2018)
The Sweetness of Honey and Rot” might be my favorite story yet from A. Merc Rustad. A village is protected by the Life Tree, which demands human sacrifice to sustain itself. Jiteh has lost two beloved family members – her father and most recently her twin brother – and despite the Tree’s promise not to take too much from any one family, it is becoming clear that its promises are empty ones. This leads Jiteh to question whether the Tree is really protecting them at all, or just imprisoning them for its own benefit, and she starts looking for any exploitable natural weaknesses it may have. I was taken with the way Rustad utilized their remarkable descriptive powers, especially in the beautifully macabre sacrificial imagery. The story opens with the fate of Jiteh’s twin: “He sits on the edge of his cot, thorns popping like seedlings from between his knuckles and poking through his sweaty scalp in a blood-slicked crown. “I’m scared,” he whispers.” There’s something to be said for a story that can send chills up your spine from the get-go.
Jordan Kurella’s “Three Dandelion Stars” is a darkly-tinted fairy tale about a forbidden romance between noble-born Amarine and commoner Shai. Shai wants to be married, but Amarine is more hesitant. Shai makes a deal with a swamp fairy to get her wish, but as with all fairy dealings, the price may outlast the reward. I liked the author’s depictions of the ambiguities and anxieties that circle Shai and Amandine’s relationship, and the various conflicts that simmer throughout and erupt at the climax bring the story to a gratifying close.

Compelling Science Fiction Issue 11, June 2018
There’s a little more miss than hit among the six original stories in the new Compelling, but one of the them stood apart for me.
Adam R. Shannon’s “Redaction” plops us into a future where people can edit out sections of their memory by “dropping markers”, and later choose whether to remove the recollections that fall between two markers. This comes in handy for Crackle Marigold, a paramedic who has to witness some pretty horrifying shit on a nightly basis and is happy to redact most of it so he can keep doing his job without burning out. Crackle’s partner Jesús is anti-redaction, and when he offers Crackle the shocking reason why he has no problem functioning with all his memories intact, Crackle must decide – knowing that Jesús has most likely revealed this information to him before and will do so again – if he should keep his memory of the conversation, even if it means holding onto another memory he’d rather let go of. It’s a provocative idea, well-executed, and with a fitting conclusion.
The issue’s lone reprint, C. Stuart Harwick’s “Dreams of the Rocket Man” from the September 2016 issue of Analog was just as good for me the second time around, and well worth the read if you missed its initial publication.

Lightspeed 97Lightspeed Magazine Issue 97, June 2018
I had a mostly lukewarm response to the original stories in June’s issue of Lightspeed, with Rustad’s and Hoffman’s collaboration the brightest light among them.
I Sing Against the Silent Sun” by A. Merc Rustad and Ada Hoffman is part of Rustad’s Sun Lords of the Principality story cycle but stands just fine on its own. Radical poet Li Sin faked their death to escape the Gray Sun’s persecution, but the Sun Lord eventually uncovers the ruse and the pursuit begins anew. The spectacle of a poet-hero tossing off subversive verses while fleeing from a powerful tyrant is pleasantly alluring, and the authors’ shared penchant for opulent prose makes for a nicely operatic space fantasy.
Emma Törzs’ “From the Root” has an interesting premise: Marya is a “regenetrix” – someone who can regenerate lost body parts – living in Victorian-era London. Pregnancy is a death sentence for her kind, but no one has ever been able to figure out why. As Marya’s due date approaches, the story’s narrator – a midwife and a regenetrix herself – is determined to test out her theory on the subject and save Marya’s life. The story’s conclusion was a little too tidy for my taste, though the solution the narrator finds is a clever one.
Lina Rather’s “A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Lighthouse of Quvenle the Seer” follows a woman (in the second person “you”) who travels across the stars seeking revelations about her future. The titular guidebook is itself a seer of sorts. The premise predicts its own unsatisfying conclusion, in metafictional fashion. Ashok K. Bankers “The Quiltbag” finds an interstellar traveler who is profiled by a certain system’s customs agency but turns the tables when the nature of the bag they wish to search is revealed.

Shimmer Magazine Issue 43, May/June 2018
Sadly, just moments after I turned the last page in the latest issue of Shimmer, Twitter informed me that it would be one of the last. Just three more issues to go before the badger takes a bow in November – but the happy news is that the May/June issue features the best story they’ve published this year:
Freia is trapped in a dangerously abusive relationship with her “supervisor and ex”, Woden, in Anya Johanna DeNiro’s remarkable “Faint Voices, Increasingly Desperate”. Freia is a silk farmer in (presumably) Valhalla, little more than a slave in Woden’s magnanery. She longs to return to Vienna, her adopted home on Earth; her method of escape requires only that she bleed – a lot – so of course her captor diligently keeps her away from sharp objects. A co-worker absent-mindedly drops a needle near her, enabling her to make her first escape in decades. Freia gets a job and takes a lover, aware that her freedom has a countdown – it is only a matter of time before Woden comes to retrieve her. DeNiro’s story is a perfect storm of potent imagery, vivid characterization, and slowly rising tension that hits the boiling point. The tone set by the opening segment is as cogent as any I’ve encountered in recent memory. Freia’s circumstances demand a rigorous asceticism to mask her defiant soul. She has never educated herself on the particulars of the silk she harvests: “She keeps her cravings for knowledge in check. This is how she survives.” The silkworm cocoons cry out in confusion and terror as she drops them in boiling water to separate the strands, and she wears headphones to drown their voices out. DeNiro relates the moment in a strong, active voice, transforming conscious self-denial into more than a mere coping mechanism, but a way of channeling and storing energy – weaponized abnegation.
The rest of the issue also lives up to Shimmer’s reputation for curating outside-the-box genre exercises. Shimmer is known for. Katherine Kendig’s genial and eccentric “What the Skeleton Detective Tells You (While You Picnic)” is another highlight from the issue. The tale goes pretty much as the title advertises, its decorous, absurdist tone nudging the reader along. Of course people can just turn into living skeletons for whatever reason, and why wouldn’t a living skeleton become a private detective who wears a wide brimmed hat and long coat to hide her skeleton-ness, and feel self-conscious about wanting to flirt with non-skeletons, and certainly there is a Skeleton Forest, where people might choose to picnic. What kind of world are you living in?
A tried and true assumption about space exploration is put to the test in Octavia Cade’s “Gone to Earth”, as astronauts on Mars are afflicted with Earthsickness – a permanent and debilitating condition resulting from being cut off from a living environment for too long. The second person narrative “You, In Flux” is a disturbing and reflective take on postpartum depression, where you are a mother dealing with complicated feelings that are literally affecting every atom of your existence, and your partner is not engaged or supportive of your condition.
I’ll greatly miss reading Shimmer, which has always engaged with a wide range of voices and approaches to speculative fiction and has published many remarkable stories over the years. I’m eager to see what it has in store for the remainder of its run.

Strange Horizons, May 2018
Young, gay immigrant Ravi finds himself pursued by a jumbie, a malevolent demon of Caribbean origin, in Ian Muneshwar’s eerie folk tale “Salt Lines”. Ravi is followed home by the jumbie after leaving the club late one night, and resorts to the only defense he knows: laying a line of salt in front of his door. As the creature consumes each grain of salt, one at a time, in order to gain entrance to his room, Ravi calls his estranged father, hoping for comfort and advice. Suspension of disbelief is strained a bit regarding how quickly the jumbie manages to consume all the salt; I mean, really, how close to empty was the container? The ending is a surprise, in a “Wait, WHAT!?!” kind of way, but it is thematically consistent with the setup. The conversation with his father, punctuated by the cooing of Ravi’s sister’s new baby – whom no one even bothered to tell Ravi about – is heartbreaking.
The other works in May’s crop of stories are Octavia Cade’s “We Feed the Bears of Fire and Ice” – a grisly short piece about climate change deniers getting their just desserts after a worldwide ecological collapse – and the manic meta-fantasy “Variations on a Theme by Turandot” by Ada Hoffman, in which the lead in Puccini’s most infamous opera tries to change history so it will end the way she wants it to.

meat salt sparksTor.com (6/6/2018)
Rich Larson is a genre practitioner in the most literal sense possible, in that he practices genre the way a doctor practices medicine – collating as much knowledge about the craft as he can and applying it judiciously to achieve a desired effect. His new story for Tor.com, “Meat and Salt and Sparks”, is a drug cocktail of uplifted animals, detective noir, and cyberpunk futurism, and the result is both unnerving and gripping; Larson’s MO seems to be: “maybe you’ve seen this stuff before, but you’ve never seen it like this.” Cu is one of a kind – the only survivor of illegal brain enhancement experiments on chimpanzees, now a police detective (!?!), but isolated, lonely, depressed. Solving crimes is the only thing that motivates her to keep going. When an “echo”, someone who allows another person to link with them and live vicariously through their body, commits a murder, the path to finding the true culprit leads right back to Cu’s origins. Larson has a talent for providing the reader with vivid details – emotional and visual – as well as taking common sci-fi tropes and spinning them just enough to make them seem new again. The bond between Cu and her human partner Huxley is effortlessly heartwarming – he treats her like she is just another cop, while most people can’t get over the novelty: even perps want to take a selfie with her. “Meat and Salt and Sparks” is a nicely balanced work of fiction, with tone and pace and character and plot hitting all the right beats at all the right moments.

Compelling 11Must Read –
“Faint Voices, Increasingly Desperate”, Anya Johanna DeNiro Short Story
“Meat and Salt and Sparks”, Rich Larson Short Story

Highly Regarded –
“The Sweetness of Honey and Rot”, A. Merc Rustad Novelette

Also Recommended –
“What the Skeleton Detective Tells You (While You Picnic)”, Katherine Kendig Short Story
“I Sing Against the Silent Sun”, A. Merc Rustad and Ada Hoffman Novelette
“Salt Lines”, Ian Muneshwar Short Story
“Redaction”, Adam R. Shannon Short Story