May 7, 2020

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


April brought some fantastic new fiction, and I especially want to highlight the new issues of AnathemaFiyah, and Mithila Review. This past month, I also read Kanstellation for the first time, and was hugely impressed by the stories. There are so many great zines, so many great stories, so many great writers, out there.

An Explorer’s Cartography of Already Settled Lands by Fran Wilde in

A science fiction story wrapped in fantasy, that gleams with all the richness and beauty and shadowy depths of a poem, this tale by Fran Wilde is mesmerizing and powerful from beginning to end. A ship arrives in a world that is already inhabited, and the navigator sets out to explore the lands before the crew disembarks. But the navigator's task takes a long time to complete, and the world keeps changing. This story tells us about how the maps you make say as much about what you're looking for as about what you find. As the intro to the story says:

One can’t set a course without a map. A ship’s navigator seeks to map a world already inhabited in order to find a space for their ship’s passengers to settle. In doing so, they find their course altered as the world and their place in it changes.

Little Free Library by Naomi Kritzer in

When Meigan moves to St. Paul, she sets up a little free library. Soon, she realizes that a very book-hungry and curious individual is borrowing the books she puts there (including a whole lot of excellent speculative fiction). This ... person... seems to be taking a great interest in everything there is to learn from the books too.

...all my prayers were answered the day I found your Library, and I will forever be YOUR servant, Librarian of the Books of the Tree.

We have begun constructing a ballista, in secret. Please send me more books.

This is a wonderful, clever, and satisfying story about the power of books, and how what we read and what we share with other readers, can have an importance beyond what we might have originally considered.

When Hope Is Lost, Touch Remains by Nin Harris in Podcastle

One night, she discovered how to pull a man’s soul through his skin. It was an accidental, involuntary thing, birthed in a stray moment of hope. 

I absolutely adore this story about a woman called Maria, who possesses a power she did not know she had, and discovers it in a moment of intimacy. Her power is connected to secrets in her own past and in her family's past, and I love how Harris unfolds the answers to all these mysteries (and more) slowly and deliberately with masterful skill. Most of all, to me, this is a story about how we choose to live our lives, how we choose to use whatever powers we have, and how the paths we took (and did not take) can come back to haunt us many years later. Harris's prose is exquisite, and the story has an earthy, sensual vibe that is marvellously seductive, just like Maria herself. Truly wonderful narration by Chang Yiun Yee.

AirBody by Sameem Siddiqui in Clarkesworld

In Siddiqui's story, there is a new gig-economy app called AirBody that allows people to inhabit the body of another person for a set period of time. The narrator in the story is somewhat surprised when he sees the profile of his latest client: why would a middle-aged Pakistani auntie want to rent a man's body in a different country? It seems to have something to do with cooking, but beyond that, he really has no idea why she'd want to use him. This is a slyly funny, and also emotionally satisfying, story that plays around a lot with the archetypes and expectations we might have when we consider what other people might want and need.

Three Days With the Kid by Tara Calaby in Strange Horizons

A post-apocalyptic tale about two people who find each other in the arid wilds of Australia, and travel through the harsh landscape in search of shelter and water. Calaby's tense and taut story uses many of the common post-apocalyptic tropes, but there's a fresh perspective here and some great twists, AND some fantastic characters, that makes it spark with emotion. I love stories that pair up a tough kid with a gritty older person (hello, Aliens!) and this story fits right in my sweet spot.

Uniform by Errick Nunnally in Fiyah #14

He raised his bulk off the maintenance bed. The furniture’s articulated servo, a tentacle with ten prehensile metal fingers, raised a warning alarm as he disconnected too early. Bits of a nightmare faded into background static as reality closed in.

This story is part of the excellent new issue of Fiyah. A soldier who was horribly injured in combat, has had his body fused and integrated with various tech "upgrades". On the outside, he looks too much like a machine for most people to treat him like a person, and on the inside, his human strengths and frailties are battered by being set aside and mistreated by the country he sacrificed so much for. This is an incisive and gripping story that deals with heroism and sacrifice without becoming jingoistic or sentimental. An excellent read.

The Least of These by Veronica Roth in Lightspeed

Two women in a future ravaged by plague and disaster wake up in a strange house where two aliens ask them to help save humanity... or rather, a limited number of humans. To quote the aliens:

But we do not wish to cull your population indiscriminately. We wish to collect the best and brightest of your people. But who should determine the parameters for such a collection? It cannot be us. It must be you.

This is a science fiction parable of sorts, with Roth putting her own twist on the "trolley problem". I really liked this for the stylish prose, and for the characters--aliens and humans--who do not act as you might expect.

Getaway by Nicole Kornher-Stace in Uncanny Magazine

If this were a movie, you’re pretty sure you’d have more options. More than fifteen minutes between idling car and dead Janelle and broken artifact and reset. It’d just make for better filmmaking.

The narrator of this story is stuck in a timeloop, reliving different iterations of the same heist over and over again. No matter what she tries, things always end either badly or...worse. There's a mysterious artifact involved, but what I mostly love about this story is the exasperated and foul-mouthed voice of the narrator as she tries to figure out how to make it all stop. A great spin on one of my favourite scifi tropes.

Endless Parade by Hailey Piper in Flash Fiction Online

In a post-apocalyptic, harsh, and unforgiving world, a group of humans traverse the landscape, chasing after a being they call Mother Ceremonium. They ravage and plunder the areas they move through, displacing or killing whoever is "slothful", meaning, they are not part of the parade. It's a sharp, raw story and the ending gutted me.

Falling Through by Steen Comer in Escape Pod

There's a quiet desperation in this story about a man who seems unstuck in the multiverse, slipping through the fabric of time and space into different versions of his own life in different worlds. It's that quiet tension, of a man who is basically going about his business as best he can while reality changes around him, that makes this story so darn good. And the love story is heart-tugging, yet beautifully understated as well... I feel as if Comer manages to capture both the familiar feeling we all might have had at times of not being sure of how and if we fit into our own lives, and the weirdness of what it would be like to actually slip through realities. Wonderful, poignant science fiction. Great narration by Roderick Aust.

The Catafalque by Vajra Chandrasekera in Kanstellation

What if the afterlife was a virtual reality construction? What if you could choose your heaven, and have it play out for you like a pre-determined story? But what if there was also a certain amount of red tape involved...? This story plays out in a bleak, seemingly post-apocalyptic landscape with a narrator who is doing their very best to escape death and damnation, while also trying to find an agreeable post-death existence.

Dutiful Daughter by Joyce Chng in Kanstellation

She was a dutiful Chinese daughter, obeying her father’s wishes, putting his needs before her own. She wanted him to be proud of her, of her accomplishments. She wanted him to smile and praise her.

In this gorgeously wrought and surreal story, a woman works hard and diligently to change herself in order to please her father, to get him to really see her and pay attention to her. What she does to herself, and the specific way she alters herself, is terrifying and beautiful and devastating. I love how Chng tells this really very strange tale in such a strong, yet subtle, way and making you feel both the longing and the power this woman carries inside her.

The Breaking by Vanessa Fogg in Mithila Review

“Do you hear it?” Jamie said.

I shook my head.

“It’s louder on nights like this. It’s coming from across the Barrier. I thought so, and now I know.”

“What are you talking about?” My voice was thin and too high in my ears.

“I think,” Jamie said, staring into the desert beyond the fence. “It’s the Angels speaking.”

A wonderful story by Vanessa Fogg from a great new issue of Mithila Review. There's a strange apocalypse happening in the world, and it started with the arrival of "angels", though they don't seem very heavenly to the narrator, or her brother. I love the enigmatic and ominous threat at the heart of this story, and the quietly powerful way Fogg tells the story. It's a world that is changing, but change has been held back for a decade, as the strange beings stay behind the Barrier. But something is changing...

A Promise of Dying Embers by Jordan Kurella in Diabolical Plots

A young woman has trained for years to defeat a dragon in battle. Now, she is on a dangerous quest, headed for the dragon's cave. She carries the bones of her dead uncle with her, and her purpose is to break an old curse. This is a story about magic and dragons, about finding your purpose in life, and it's also very much about love. The prose is gorgeous, and I really like how this story carefully twists and turns the complex and fraught relationship between two powerful individuals, and I love how the narrator finds her own way to complete her quest.

Oh, How She Danced by Sandra Odell in Kaleidotrope

I love Sandra Odell's writing, and the way they combine whimsy and darkness in many of their stories, telling tales that are simultaneously unsettling and emotionally powerful. In this story, we find ourselves in an unusual world inhabited by strange characters and creatures, and when the end of that world comes, it's not exactly the usual kind of apocalypse.

Otto Hahn Speaks to the Dead by Octavia Cade in The Dark

Octavia Cade weaves together science, history, and fiction in this gruesomely dark and bone-chilling horror tale from The Dark. Otto Hahn was a famous German chemist who (among other things) worked with fellow scientist Fritz Haber to develop chlorine gas which was used by Germany in World War I, with devastating results. In Cade's story, Hahn is (literally) haunted by the ghost of Haber's wife, Clara Immerwahr who was also a chemist and who died by suicide in 1915. This story is strong stuff, as it delves into issues of guilt and culpability, and how a person's choices can reverberate through the world, impacting their own life as well as the lives of others, in ways that they might not have bargained for. If you want to read more of Cade's excellent prose, check out her novel, THE STONE WĒTĀ.

 The Future in Saltwater by Tamara Jerée in Anathema #10

The god turned a soothing shade of black upon touching me for the first time and wrapped its eight suckered arms securely around my forearm. ----- The bulbous mantle of its body flattened as it sunk the needle of its beak into the soft flesh of my inner elbow. I winced.

In a world where the climate and the environment has been ravaged, a child receives a difficult quest from the strange, tentacled deity in the local temple. That might seem like a run-of-the-mill opening for a story, but here, things soon take a different and more harrowing turn than I expected as the child resists and even refuses the call. After all, it's not easy to just pick up and leave when you have responsibilities at home, including a sickly parent to care for. I love the rich and deep world-building that flows through this story, and I love how Jerée twists and turns the concept of quests and sacrifice here, ending up with a story that puts a new spin on the idea of a "chosen one".

Listen to the audio version of this roundup.

 This roundup was first published at Curious Fictions. Art is a detail of Dominique Ramsey's cover art for Fiyah #14.