April 4, 2020

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup - March 2020


What a year March was. 

It's been hard at times for me to focus on fiction over the past month, but I did read some amazing stories. Some of them are featured in my first quarterly "Short Fiction Treasures" column for Strange Horizons, which includes these 6 stories I read in March:

I am so excited to be writing for Strange Horizons, but I will continue to post my monthly short fiction roundups here at Curious Fictions

Porcelain Claws in Cinnamon Earth by Madeline Ashby in Avatars.Inc

A couple of years ago I read and loved Ashby's story "Death on Mars" (originally published in the anthology Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, and reprinted in Clarkesworld), and I LOVE this sequel to that story, published in the brand new anthology Avatars.Inc. Avatars.Inc is edited by Ann VanderMeer and it's available free online. In Ashby's story, we meet Cody Marshall who is headed into space, to the Phobos base camp to be precise. The trip is a fulfillment of a life-long dream, but that doesn't necessarily make all aspects of the journey easy to deal with for Cody, especially not the task of saying goodbye to his brother. Ashby's stories have a wonderful, quiet power to them, and there's a focus on human relationships as well as technology that really appeal to me. All of Avatars.Inc is well worth checking out online: it's even available to download for free as an ebook. 

Violet In Love Geetanjali Dighe in Nature Futures

I remember one particular evening when Shalini was reciting Wordsworth. Through the windows, we could see a purple sunset and a few stars in the sky. A hush fell over us. I dimmed the lights, the hum of the cooling fans seemed to fade away, and the only thing that my being centred on was her melodious voice whispering …

“A violet by a mossy stone / Half hidden from the eye! / — Fair as a star, when only one / Is shining in the sky.”

A quiet, beautiful story about love and life -- artificial or biological? And does the distinction matter, in the end? There's a hopefulness to this story that really appeals to me, but then quiet hope, seems more enticing than ever right now when the world outside is ever more frightening. Also, I give this story bonus points for making such excellent use of Wordsworth's poetry.

Alien Invader or Assistive Device? by John Wiswell in Robot Dinosaur Fiction

John Wiswell has a way of telling you a story about things that should be strange and unsettling--getting tentacles perhaps, or dealing with social interactions when you're a tank--and instead making them seem simultaneously whimsical, moving AND strange and unsettling. In this story we meet the helpful nano-tech Probe and the utahraptor Utah, a dinosaur who ends up in need of some assistance. It's a wonderful story and a great introduction, should you need one, to Robot Dinosaur Fiction, online anthology edited by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor.

Where the World Ends Without Us by Jason Sanford in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

This is a brand new story set in Jason Sanford's Blood Grains Universe, and it's a deep and captivating tale about guilt and family and justice. To quote Jason Sanford: "This is the third story in my science-fantasy Blood Grains universe, continuing the tale of a future Earth where nano-machines keep humanity from harming the environment." The other stories set in this fascinating universe are Blood Grains Speak Through Memories, and The Emotionless, In Love. All the stories are available to read online in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. In this story, the sins (and exploits) of the dead come back to haunt the living in more ways than one, and I really love diving deep into Sanford's world, and seeing a new side of the Blood Grains universe. 

To Balance the Weight of Khalem by R.B. Lemberg in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

On board the departing ship, I see the whole of Khalem clearly the first time. It is a carven globe of gold floating in the sky, tethered to the ground with ancient linked chains. 

A novelette about a magical onion, about war and immigration and loved, about the memories we carry with us, and the memories we've lost along the way. Reading Lemberg's prose is like opening a treasure chest -- it's gorgeously rich and gleaming and there is a spellbinding, quiet power in the words. This is also very much, a story about food-- about the scent and taste and nourishment and comfort food can bring us. Expect to be very hungry by the time you finish reading. And, if you're like me, you might also be crying by the end. Right now, you can pre-order Lemberg's fantastic novella The Four Profound Weaves, forthcoming from Tachyon.

Chimera by Ellen Meny in Lamplight Volume 8 Issue 2

You saw yourself again last night, just before you pulled the covers over your head--the sliver of a pale face and two bugged eyes, peering at you from the crack in the closet door.

A chilling, disturbing slice of horror fiction; the kind that feels like a nightmare I might have had, or might have after reading. Meny's story is part of a brand new and excellent issue of Lamplight, including fiction by Michael Guidry's weird and wonderful "Inside Kronos", J.S. Watts's haunting "The Pheasant", Jennifer R. Donohue's scifi story "Black Market Cheerios", J.S. Rogers's "Water Songs", and Dayna K. Smith's excellent tale about secrets and magic, "A Pestilence Come for Old Ma Salt". Lamplight is always a treat to read, and this issue is further proof of that. Available from Apokrupha's online store.

Holy Communion by Jennifer Lewis in Entropy Magazine

I ask them: Why am I passing on this religion? Why does a seven-year-old grind her teeth? What is she afraid of? Please, I say, just for one night…take away the things that scare her. Give them to me. 

This is a deceptively quiet and profoundly moving story about a mother and her children, and the fears we carry inside us that we might not know how to put into words to explain them to other people. Night terrors, nightmares, magic and religion, fears and dreams, all mingle and swirl together here in this gorgeous, subtle tale that tugged at both my heart and my soul.

The Sycamore and the Sybil by Alix E. Harrow in Uncanny Magazine

Tense and painful, beautiful and beguiling, Harrow's story is an exquisite piece of fiction with poetry and emotion woven into every sentence. It's also a story that has one of the most striking opening paragraphs I've seen recently, "Before I was a sycamore I was a woman, and before I was a woman I was a girl, and before I was a girl I was a wet seed wild in the hot-pulp belly of my mother. I remember it: a pulsing blackness, veins unfurling in the dark like roots spreading through the hidden places of the earth. You remember things different, once you’re a tree." A must-read.

If Salt Lose Its Savor by Christopher Caldwell in Uncanny Magazine

Last year, I read and loved Caldwell's whaling ship story "Canst Thou Draw Out the Leviathan" in Uncanny, and now he's back with this richly textured tale about the making of salt, and not just any salt, but salt that is used by magicians for their spells. Dion takes great pride in her work making the best and most unique and powerful salt, but when the magician Beaucourt shows up to buy the salt, things take a different turn. What kind of magic will her salt be used for? That is the question that begins to haunt Dion. There's so many rich layers in this story--the world, the magic, the characters--and it is an immensely enjoyable read.

Lipstick for Villains by Audrey R. Hollis in Flash Fiction Online

Good lipsticks should burn. I, who had mixed oil and beetles and chilis into pastes and powders, had seen good people incinerated by those ocher smiles.

Magic makeup is the name of the game in this fabulously original fantasy/fairytale by Hollis. The ability to craft powders and eyeshadows and other beauty products that bestow powerful magical abilities would seem to be a boon, but instead, it means work, work, and more work for the one who makes them. But maybe a very special lipstick might help...

Thank You For Your Patience by Rebecca Campbell in Reckoning #4 

Set in a near-future call center, this story might seem like an unlikely candidate to capture the sense of ever-present yet nebulous doom that pervades much of everyday life during our current pandemic. And yet, it is a story that feels as if it was written specifically for our current situation. Campbell captures a quiet sense of loss and devastation that hits home, and she also captures that well-known internet-age phenomenon: having a stronger connection with a person on the other side of the world than the person we share a workplace with.

Many Happy Returns by Adam-Troy Castro in Lightspeed

I have real weakness for stories about robots, and this story by Castro is touching, funny, and all-around delightful. Gorman is exploring every part of the universe. He is going to the most outrageously dangerous places in the galaxy, doing the most outrageously dangerous things, but no matter where he goes, there's the robot, "a slender, golden thing, dinged here and there from a service lifetime of being smashed with heavy objects.....all it had for a face was the thin little crease on the bottom quarter of its cylindrical head that functioned as a workable smile". There's a surreal / quirky Douglas Adams vibe to this story that really appeals to me, as Gorman and the robot meet again and again, and as more and more of their backstory, and their intertwined fates, are revealed.

Postlude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Jerome Stueart in The Magazine of F&SF March/April 2019

I somehow missed this story when it was originally published last year, but I am so very glad I read it recently. I'd describe the story, but the author himself sums it up best in this fabulous interview

A jazz-playing faun finds everything taken from him a hundred years ago could be his again, if he’s willing to take it from his own student. He struggles to find another way. These two characters are trying to change their lives for the better, and finding it almost overwhelming. It has Jazz, Mentoring, and Hope.

Stueart beautifully captures what it feels like to listen to music and to play music, alone and with others. The magic of it, the power of it, and the emotions it can kindle and fan in your soul. Lovely, beautiful tale that resonated deeply with me.

One/Zero by Kathleen Ann Goonan in TOR.com 

I really do have a thing for stories right now that show us people overcoming obstacles, surviving, resisting, changing the world in ways both big and small. This story was published last year, but I missed it when it originally came out. It's harrowing in parts, but it is not a dark story because the people in it find ways to overcome hardship, to cooperate and come together. And there's that looming threat/promise of what a "superintelligence" might achieve in the world. An excellent and gripping read that blends technology and a very human perspective.

In the Wake of My Father by Ray Cluley in Black Static #74

A powerful sense of loss and grief and memory mingle together in this story, as the narrator returns to the town where he grew up to say farewell to his father. An old memory haunts his steps, and there is an ever-present undertow of darkness and distance beneath the surface. "There's a tiny gap between the stories we tell ourselves and those we tell others and that's where you'll find the truth." I love how this story captures a sense of place so vividly, as well as the complexities of the relationship between father and son. Two connected scenes--one from childhood, with a dead ewe; and the other from when the narrator sits at his father's bedside at the hospital--are devastating and wrenching in every detail. 

The All-Night Horror Show by Orrin Grey in The Dark 

An old man sits in front of his TV late at night, watching the old movies he acted in as a younger man. Horror movies. Monster movies. Two younger men sitting in a van outside, getting ready to break and enter... I love the eerie Twilight Zone vibe of this story, and the way Grey makes the reader feel right from the start that something Very Bad is about to happen, we're just not quite sure what kind of Very Bad thing that is going to be.

Listen to the audio-version of the roundup

First published at Curious Fictions. Art is a detail of FLASH FICTION ONLINE's cover for March 2020.