April 30, 2017

18 superb speculative fiction short stories


I read a lot this past month, partly because I was having some trouble writing (writer’s insecurity demons rearing their heads), and so I read more instead. End result: a whopping 18 stories in this monthly roundup, including stories from two new publications:

Both are well worth a look, featuring strong voices and great stories.

Now for an irregularly scheduled PSA:

Supporting the publications you like to read is a Very Good Thing To Do. Some publications (FiyahGamut, and InterGalactic Medicine Show, for example) require you to buy an issue or a subscription to read their stories. There is also a lot of speculative fiction available for free on the web, but putting money down is a nice way to keep them going and show your appreciation. Buy a single issue or subscribe. For options, check out the publications’ own websites, Amazon, Patreon, or Weightless Books.

Anyway, here are 18 excellent stories I read in April:

Praying to the God of Small Chances, by L Chan in Arsenika. “I meet the god of small chances in a hospital waiting room, amidst the smell of unwashed bodies and overwashed floors.” Hope and grief mingle in this beautifully written flash fiction piece. It really captures that feeling of wanting to bargain with the god/s of life and death when someone you love is sick, and when you feel your own mortality lurking beneath the surface of everyday existence.

A Complex Filament of Light, by S. Qiouyi Lu in Anathema. “If you could peel back your skin, core a bone from your flesh, perhaps your skeleton would reveal truths about you, too.” Set in a frozen and forbidding Antarctica, this moving and aching story deftly explores anxiety, insecurity and depression, and how our sense of self, and our understanding of others, can be warped and distorted. There’s a strange encounter with an enigmatic presence in the icy wastes, and there are also powerful threads of light, hope and friendship woven into the story. Gorgeous prose.

Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategy of the Common Octopus, by Bogi Takács in Clarkesworld.  “You inflicted the field upon us, without permission, without explanation. Of course you can say, “Why should we have asked? You were an octopus.” What I am right now is anyone’s guess.” Bewildering, mysterious, and profoundly moving, this story about how humans use (and change) other living creatures for their own ends, without considering the consequences, is mind-bending in the best way. It might also be the first story I’ve ever read that’s told from the POV of an octopus! (Bonus tip: also read Takács’s wonderful poem The Size of a Barleycorn, Encased in Lead in Uncanny Magazine.)

And In That Sheltered Sea, A Colossus, by Michael Matheson in Shimmer. “When the ghosts raise their voices to the heavens, their song is the sweet song of cloudstreak, fast-moving.” Oh my goodness, what a story. A woman living by herself in a strange place surrounded by her dreams and the ghosts of the past, and a stranger who arrives, setting something new in motion… I don’t often come across stories that make me think of Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing, but Matheson’s evocative story about love and loneliness and longing does just that. There’s something about the strange, yet familiar, world described here, with its own ancient rituals and traditions and deeply settled way of life completely captivated me. And the prose itself is so beautiful I could read and re-read this story a hundred times over.

Extinctions, by Lina Rather in Shimmer. “You’ve seen ghosts and you’ve seen demons, and you’ve killed a thousand monsters, but unlike your mother, you don’t make a life out of it, or so you tell yourself.” What I love most about this story (and there’s a lot to love about it) is the strong voice of the main character (you get such an immediate sense of her personality through the prose), and the way Rather brings to life a complex and vivid world of witchcraft and magic lurking beneath the surface of our everyday world.

Flowers in the Road, by Jennifer Todhunter in Syntax & Salt. “…a girl with short, brown hair, blooms out of the catchfly sitting in the middle of the conference room table, petals falling from her fingertips like blood.” This story is set in northern British Columbia, where Tina is part of a road-work crew. She’s haunted by guilt and grief, by old relationships gone wrong, and, suddenly, she is also haunted by ghosts that literally spring from the blacktop. Todhunter tells a rich, multi-layered story that touches on a real-world tragedy: the many women and girls who have gone missing on B.C.’s “highway of tears”. This is an amazing story that really got under my skin.

Say, She Toy, by Chesya Burke in Apex Magazine. “The skin on this body was too dark to bruise, but the man needed to know. “Tell me it hurts.”
“It hurts. Yes. It hurts.”” This is a brilliant and gut-wrenching science fiction story about violence, racism, and what happens to people and society when we decide that some individuals are worth less than others. It’s the kind of story that cuts like a knife, and it is also thoroughly compelling. A must-read.

The Selkie Wives, by Kendra Fortmeyer in Apex Magazine. “He says, “I love you.”
He says, “You belong to me.” And waits for it to be so.” Fortmeyer tells and retells the tale of the selkie wives, twisting and turning the lore, exploring it from various angles, and exploring the different ways it can be used and interpreted. I particularly love how she dives into each scenario by turning it into a vivid micro-story, and then pulls back to examine it from the outside. A thought-provoking read.

Thorn Tongue, by Sarah Read in Gamut. “…she pressed the wide ends of the thorns into the spaces where her teeth had been—tasted the copper tang of blood and the earthy dust of the vine, felt a cold wetness flow down her chin and knew it ran red. She’d need fangs to get Estella back.” Strange, vivid, and disorienting, this story drew me in from the very first sentence. The prose is lush and original, and the world is exquisitely imagined and detailed. There’s a quest, there’s a loss, there’s guilt and pain and darkness, and every word is intoxicating.

Vade Retro Satana, by Maurice Broaddus in Fiyah. “The drumming tugged at a part of Macia’s soul, the way an old vidgraph of distant relatives was both familiar and alien.” Some short stories are set in worlds so vivid and interesting, with characters you feel so powerfully drawn to, that it makes you wish for a novel. This is one of those stories. Macia is a religious soldier riddled with doubts, and haunted by her own past (“She felt like an incomplete bad poem. She prayed against her heathen thoughts late at night.”) Set in a place where religious soldiers wear biomech suits, and where science and zealotry is being used to “save” people from their own culture, this action-packed, gripping story pulled me in and made me crave more.

Talking to Cancer, by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali in Fiyah. “I begged, “Cancer, please don’t kill my mother.” It listened.” A compelling and powerful story about a woman who can communicate with cancer cells, and how her ability affects her own life and the lives around her. I really love the way Muhammad-Ali explores the complexities of what it might be like if you wielded this kind of power, and the consequences, intended and unintended, this might bring. It’s a poignant story without being maudlin, and a captivating read.

Meat, by Sandra M. Odell in Pseudopod (read by Linda Hamilton – yes, that Linda Hamilton). “A poster on the far wall of the crowded cafeteria chamber shows an identical man and woman in coveralls and happy smiles with their hands on the woman’s pregnant belly. The caption at the bottom reads: A REPRODUCTIVE WORKER IS A HAPPY WORKER. MED CALL TO SCHEDULE YOUR NEXT SEXTIME TODAY.” Fair warning: this is not a story for the faint of heart. Odell’s tale is simultaneously heart-breaking and gut-wrenching, shot through with gore, sex, visceral longing, and pain. It’s also mind-blowingly good. (And yes, Linda Hamilton is an awesome narrator!)

Murmuration, by E.Catherine Tobler in Intergalactic Medicine Show. “Sita Balachandran found the bone on her forty-first birthday, its pale wind-scoured point emerging from the dry Martian floodplain like the splintered stalk of a flower.” Any story that starts out with whale bones being found on Mars is a must read, as far as I’m concerned. More than that, this story brims with an aching longing to explore, understand, and connect to an alien world. Sita tries to understand both what the strange find on Mars means, and also to understand what lurks inside her own body. (“Some bit of Mars has gotten in there–hasn’t it?“) Yes, it has that beautiful Bradbury flavour that blends Martian soil with the human soul, and it’s the kind of scifi I have been in love with since I was a kid.

Crossing, by A.C. Wise in Lamplight Magazine. “Sometimes Emma Rose secretly believes she’s a princess from under the sea. Her parents found her on the shore, curled up in a giant oyster shell.” Wise’s fascinating story follows a woman who is powerfully drawn to the sea. As a child, she first encounters a strange and alluring, yet also threatening, presence while swimming. Through her life, the sea tempts and haunts her, and remains both a refuge and challenge. Her passion for the sea and swimming, weaves together with the love she finds and loses in her life: her first love, and the loves that follow. A rich and layered story that is well-worth both a second and third read.

The Awakening of Insects, by Bobby Sun at TOR.com. “Jingru yanked herself to the next tree just as the one she had been tethered to splintered at the base; the suit’s HUD recorded a sub-second increase from 50 to 500 degrees Celsius from within the flash.” This is the kind of “hard” science fiction I love: building a compelling story bit by bit, and then, in the end, successfully blowing my mind. Sun uses scientific observation and field research (on an alien planet, mind you) to create both action and suspense, and the ending had me hungering for more: surely there’s a sequel?

The Name, Blurry and Incomplete in His Mind, by Erica Mosley in The Dark. “Jentri listened to the blackness, waited—trembling—for a hand to reach out and grab her ankle.” I love haunted house stories, and this one freaked me the hell out. It starts off with a girl and her dad finding a name scribbled into various places in a house, and by the end, I was literally clutching my chest. A weird, dark, bewildering, and haunting story.

Red Hood, by Eric Schaller in Nightmare Magazine. “She never left home without the blood-smeared suit, and so everyone called her Red Hood.” Take one of the most well-known fairytales in the world, mix it with zombies, and you might end up with nothing but a bunch of tangled tropes. Instead, Schaller masterfully turns this into a gloriously dark and horror-ful tale that is at once familiar, completely new, and utterly compelling.

A Marvelous Deal, by Kate Dollarhyde in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. “The carrot opened a crack in its front wide like a grin and stretched its taproot taut.” Grief makes a lonely, orphaned girl willing to strike a bargain with, yes, a carrot. But striking a bargain in any fairytale is usually a dangerous thing, and so it is in Dollarhyde’s wonderful, frightening and heart-wrenching tale. As a reader, I was hooked from the first line to the last. As a writer, I know this is one tale I’ll be coming back to because I want to study the masterful way it’s crafted. A fantastic read.

  (Originally published at mariahaskins.com