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.

 

Finder by Suzanne Palmer

Cover Art by Kekai Kotaki; Design by Adam Auerbach

FinderRecommended – One advantage of being an accomplished short story writer is knowing how to get the ball rolling. It doesn’t take Suzanne Palmer long to ingratiate readers to Fergus Ferguson, the hero of her debut novel Finder: he has an appreciation for ironic self-deprecation and for little old ladies who can survive out in “The Gap”, a sparsely populated region of space near the outskirts of the galaxy. Being nice to old ladies may be a cheap ploy for sympathy by the author, but it works, and it’s undeniably efficient. No sooner are Fergus’ profession (a kind of interstellar repo man called a “finder”) and goal (to retrieve a stolen ship called Venetia’s Sword) and prospective enemy (small-pond robber-baron Arum Gilger, who stole the ship) established through his salty banter with tough-as-nails native Mattie “Mother” Vahn, than an escalating sequence of obstacles come cascading down in front of Fergus, and the novel picks up the breathless pace it sustains through the end. This narrative formula serves Palmer’s celebrated shorter works well, as her Hugo-winning novelette “The Secret Lives of Bots” can attest. Palmer’s writing doesn’t sacrifice subtlety or nuance, she just knows how to use such tools without disrupting the tempo. The pace she sustains in Finder mostly benefits it, and it’s so entertaining that the ways it falls short are easy to forgive.
Fergus is a Scotsman, Earth-born but allied to the generations of Martian émigrés living under harsh earther occupation. He’d rather avoid bringing up his past: people know him as a hero of the Mars resistance even as far out as anarchic Cernee, a rock ruled by a loose confederation of chieftains and the loyalists in their employ. He doesn’t see himself the way others do, but he has a penchant for executing outrageous schemes to achieve his ends. The heist he must pull off to retrieve Venetia’s Sword is akin to jacking a smart car with a keyless entry, though getting past the ruthless Gilger and his enforcer Borr Graf prove to be the most harrowing part of his task: Gilger has chosen the day of Fergus’ arrival to make a play for total domination of Cernee. Now Fergus and his allies—Mother Vahn’s family of identical offspring who swear they’re not clones and Gilger’s longtime rival Harcourt—find their plan to put the squeeze on Gilger turned into a brutal fight for survival. Further complicating matters are the Asiig, a mysterious and terrifying alien race who mostly carry out ominous flybys over Cernee in their black triangle-shaped ships, abducting random citizens then returning them days later in, shall we say, a different state from how they found them. And the Asiig have taken an interest in Fergus and the conflict on Cernee.
It would be an understatement to say Palmer has a gift for piling on the plot factors. That she can sustain such an approach over the course of a story that is something like a dozen-fold longer than the stories she usually writes is impressive. She takes a block-by-block approach to building her world and her characters’ back stories, distributing little bits of context clues and expository statements to brace up the larger context. This combination of depth and efficiency elevates Finder above the rabble of space operas that crowd the current SF marketplace.
The story stretches out like a rubber band from Cernee back to Sol System and Mars, then snaps back to Cernee for the grand finale. This is the only element of the novel that didn’t sit well with me. I understand the author’s need to reconnect Fergus emotionally with his past on Mars, and while the reason she contrives to get him there is integrated into the plot early on it still came across as forced. There was perhaps also a sensible desire to liberate the action from the confines of a single location. I felt that the mcguffin Palmer uses to lure him back to his roots isn’t developed well enough beyond its functional purpose and is a non-factor once Palmer returns us to the main storyline.
None of that changes the fact that Finder is a thrilling space adventure from an expert hand who loves the art of genre storytelling. There is so much happening with this setting and so much potential for growing it even more. It’s also a welcome slice of madcap fun, full of rich, fully realized characters and delightful far future odds and ends.

The Best Short SFF – October 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!

No time for zine reviews this month, but I still managed to squeeze in plenty of reading. Here are the stories that stood out for me:

Must Read

Nine Last DaysNine Last Days on Planet Earth”, Daryl Gregory (Tor.com 9/19/2019) Novelette

At first glance, the title of Daryl Gregory’s novelette implies a countdown. It might take a moment to realize that the particular ordering of the first three words – “Nine Last Days”, not “Last Nine Days” – robs it of its urgency. All our days are among our last. We peek in on nine of them strewn throughout the long life of LT, who at the age of ten witnesses a meteor shower that seeds the earth with alien flora, an event that shapes the course of his life as well as the planet’s history. LT has no use for the reactionary narratives that often guide stories of alien invasion; he seeks only knowledge and understanding and in doing so he makes a lasting positive impact on the world. Gregory’s masterful, impressionist epic offers an optimistic course-correction for our cynical times.

Highly Regarded

interzone 277“Inscribed on Dark Water”, Gregor Hartmann (Interzone #277, Sept 2018) Novelette

Another outstanding entry in Hartmann’s Zephyr story cycle. Olani is an intern at a fuel refinery on the frontier planet of Zephyr, but instead of being a stepping stone to greater things she mostly just cleans up after people who either resent or ignore her. Two women at the refinery take an interest in her; religious “Pather” Tessa is always plying her with advice that seems to have little to do with a successful career path and more with personal fulfillment, while lawyer Mingzhen pursues a dalliance with Olani that promises connections with the “right” people. Mingzhen offers the surer path to career advancement; Olani finds it easy to dismiss Tessa’s advice as fanatical religiosity, but she may have a point underneath all that pretense. “Inscribed on Dark Water” is the definition of grown-up sci-fi: intricate worldbuilding, intimate and insightful character detail, a perfect balance of hard and social SF.

We Ragged Few”, Kate Alice Marshall (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, 9/27/2018) Novella

Now that the rothounds have crossed the warding stones at the boundary, Reyna knows her late sister’s prophecy will come true and the village will be destroyed. Talgren, the village chief, has his own soothsayer who offers a more convenient counter-explanation for the prophecy’s claims. Reyna and her band of believers must act against Talgren’s wishes and plan their flight in secret, but with so much preparation required their chances of escaping diminish with each passing day. “We Ragged Few” offers classic Sword-and-Sorcery feels with a modern flavor. The details of the setting and backstory (mythology, history, social structure, etc.) are as refined as a story of this length can possibly offer, yet Marshall keeps everything moving at a tight pace. I enjoyed the fact that while Talgren was clearly the story’s antagonist, his willingness to indulge Reyna’s transgressions and hope that she will come to accept his truth makes it hard to hate him, at least for a little while. Great characters and an engrossing narrative make for one of the year’s best novellas.

Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries), Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing) Novella

Everything comes full circle for Murderbot in the conclusion to Wells’ quadrilogy of novellas. The GrayCris Corporation takes Doctor Mensah hostage, believing her responsible for the difficulties Murderbot has caused them. Murderbot must affect a rescue of its friend without giving up the goods it has on GrayCris and while almost certainly walking into a trap. Wells weaves together all the elements that have made this series such a rousing success: caustic humor, lightning-paced and suspenseful storytelling, and a deeply human emotional core. The action in Exit Strategy is almost non-stop, but the true reward for readers is the completion of Murderbot’s character arc, its journey from self-serving anti-hero to selfless hero; a transition it achieves without losing the edge that made it so endearing in the first place.

Lightspeed 101Super-Luminous Spiral”, Cameron Van Sant (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 101, Oct 2018) Short Story

The protagonist is an undergraduate creative writing student who hasn’t written anything worth a damn until he falls for “galaxy boy” – a classmate whose “blue and green skin is speckled in spirals of twinkling light.” Profundity pours from him until galaxy boy moves on to his next catch, leaving our hero to chase the dragon. I keep telling myself that I don’t like stories told in the second person, then one like this comes along that utilizes it to good effect. A convincing and compelling journey of self-discovery seems to be what second person was built for.

Thirty-Three Percent Joe,” Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld Issue 145, October 2018) Novelette

The hero of Palmer’s tragicomic novelette is a terrible soldier who is so incompetent he can’t even die on the battlefield when he tries. He keeps getting injured enough to require mechanical limbs and organs to replace the ones he loses, all of which are “smart” enough to conspire to keep him out of harm’s way. Similar in theme to Palmer’s  sardonic enough Hugo-winning war story “The Secret Life of Bots”, “Thirty-Three Percent Joe” practically irradiates the reader with melting-point level sardonicism. A depressingly cynical, absurdist take on the future of warfare; the kind of story you want to kick yourself for laughing with but you just can’t help it.

Also Recommended

BCS 261The Horror of Party Beach”, Dale Bailey (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 101, Oct 2018) Novelette

The elderly narrator recalls his first high school girlfriend, fellow science nerd Elaine. Something wasn’t quite right with Elaine, and it all leads back to her mad-scientist father. Some of Bailey’s best stories deliver on the promise of their retro b-movie titles; this one has a nice slow burn leading to the titular event and ends with a great kicker.

The Tragedy of Zayred the Splendid”, Grace Seybold (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #262, 10/11/2018) Novelette

War-bards Zayred the Splendid and Meriri the Undying were friends who fought in battle together; now they are locked in rival campaigns to publicly discredit the other. Great characters in a fun setting, spiked with an air of light but ghoulish humor.