December 12, 2020

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


An Important Failure by Rebecca Campbell in Clarkesworld

This novelette was published earlier this year, but I was reminded of its existence by the wonderful Vanessa Fogg, and realized I had not included it in a roundup previously. I'm including it now because it is quite simply one of the best stories I've read this year. It's set in British Columbia, the part of the world where I live, and takes place in a not-too-distant future when climate change is having a dramatic effect on the flora and fauna, and human society. It's a story about trees, and it's a story about violins and music and about growing things, and it's a story about people who live their lives in a world where their choices are shaped the changing climate. I love how Campbell makes the BIG theme, climate change, affect individual lives on such an intimate, personal level rather than go for some big Dramatic Apocalypse. Reading this story, I am also struck to my core by the exquisite beauty and sharpness of Campbell's prose, and by how deftly she captures the feel, sounds, and scents of the Pacific Northwest. It is really something to read a story like this that moves through the future of places I know by heart: the north shore, Vancouver Island, Burnaby, Vancouver. And Campbell captures it all with such gentle precision.

To Sail the Black by A.C. Wise in Clarkesworld

The ghost ship Xanthic Promise sails the black, powered by the slumbering heart of a dying star. And its captain, Antimony Jones, stalks its decks in a swirl of crimson coat and fox fire lighting, dogged by voices. The recent dead, the long dead, and the dead-to-be, all murmuring as to how she’s only three months into her command and it’s all coming undone.

Tales about space pirates is obviously one of the best science fiction genres, I think a lot of people will agree with me on this one. And Wise's story is a riveting, salty, bloody tale of space pirates and ghosts, and about a very strange ship, crewed by the dead and the living, and maybe with a will (and a voice) of its own. It is also a ship that might be foundering, because people are dying under terrible circumstances on board, and when Captain Antimony Jones really begins to listen to those voices in her head, and to the ghosts that are tied to the ship even beyond life, she realizes she must do a terrible thing if anyone is going to survive.

Silver Door Diner by Bishop Garrison in Fiyah #16

If you need a shot of hope and joy at the end of the world, then this scifi short story from Fiyah might be just what the doctor ordered. A boy walks into a diner, looking for a slice of apple pie and some conversation. He gets both, but in this diner, nothing is really what it seems. I love this story for its wistful sweetness, with a twist of science fiction surprise, and I also love that it keeps its sweetness and its quiet hope, even as it deals with the heavy specter of war, and even as it speaks about the things, and about the people, that might destroy our world forever.

What Friends Don't Tell Friends About Basements by Corey Farrenkopf in Bourbon Penn

What do you do when you grow up in a house where there are literally monsters in the basement and it's been your family's task for a couple of centuries to make sure they don't get out? It's bound to cramp your style when you're 16, especially if you have to watch over the monsters on your best friend's birthday when you had other plans. This story captures the intricacies of friendship perfectly, and the complications that may occur when you worry you might be drifting apart and then your best friend insists she wants to see what's really down at the bottom of the basement stairs... Farrenkopf has a great eye for the details of friendship and a sly sense of humour.

Biography of Algae by Martha Riva Palacio Obón in Strange Horizons

A lyrical story that weaves together science and personal memory, history and future, Earth and space. The nature of life on Earth, its history and evolution, and the possibility of other, unknown kinds of life on our own planet, and the possibility of life in other parts of our solar system, are al at the heart of this beautiful story. I love the way Obón brings together so many different strands--space exploration, the evolution of algae, depression, and a longing for the sea--into an evocative fictional tapestry.

This story is from Strange Horizons' special issue featuring work by writers from Mexico. It's also available to read in Spanish.

Five Tips For Sealing Away an Ancient Evil by Ann LeBlanc in the anthology If There's Anyone Left 

So, you’ve managed to bypass my wards, evade my deathtraps, navigate my maze, and reach the inner chamber. You’ve ignored all my warning signs—helpfully printed in large accessible fonts and translated into multiple languages—as well as the gorgeous mural depicting the dangers within. You’ve made it this far, and so it’s unlikely you’re going to do the right thing and NOT open the vault.

This is a clever and gripping story with a dark sense of FUN. I love how LeBlanc weaves backstory and plot into each numbered step, and how it all brings us to a suspenseful conclusion. LeBlanc's story is part of the If There's Anyone Left anthology, and it's an anthology full of these kinds of stories: well-written, entertaining flash fiction with heart, and often with a sense of fun whether it's overt or more subtle. This anthology project is focused on the voices of "marginalized members of the sci-fi/spec community—this includes people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, members of marginalized genders, and disabled people." Read more here.

It Is a Beautiful Day On the Internet, and You Are a Horrible Bot by Aimee Ogden in the anthology If There's Anyone Left 

Another fantastic story from the If There's Anyone Left anthology. I started reading this anthology late one night just to get a feel for what kind of fiction it contained, and I was so charmed and thrilled by what I read that I kept reading way, WAY past my bedtime. Ogden's story puts a new spin on the old "AI that gains sentience and causes havoc" trope and instead of disaster, well, it turns out this particular bot causes some chaos, but maybe not of the apocalyptic kind...

The Silent Partner by Theodore McCombs in The Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy

Mr. Roberts has come to old Mrs. Fowler's house, looking to buy a very valuable piece of furniture from her: a Nakashima table, made by George Nakashima when he was interned at Camp Minidoka during WW2. That dark bit of history makes Mr. Roberts uneasy, but not so uneasy that he doesn't want to acquire the table. Mrs. Fowler is apparently in need of cash, so he's reasonably sure he'll be able to make deal. What follows is a haunting, languid piece of horror where an unnamed presence, and the sins of the past, quietly twist and tilt reality, and by the time Mr. Roberts understands, really understands, what is going on in Mrs. Fowler's house, it is much, much too late. An excellent piece of fiction.

Nobody Lives Here by H. Pueyo in The Dark

My favourite kind of horror story is often the kind which seems anchored in reality, but where reality is threaded through, eaten through, slowly but surely by a strange, uncanny, gathering darkness. As is the case in this story where Sara is living in her first apartment in a building with no other tenants.

There is no one here, no one but me. Out of ninety apartments—ten in each of the nine floors—only mine has someone inside, but most have already been sold.

She should be enjoying her new digs, but instead she is haunted by memories of her parents' home, haunted by the sounds and the mess, and the dirt and the mold and cockroaches there. She is also increasingly haunted by sounds that shouldn't be there: sounds and noise from the other, supposedly empty, apartments in her building. This story tightens like a noose as you read it, until you can feel the fear right on your own skin.

The Bottomless Martyr by John Wiswell in Uncanny Magazine

Content Note: self-harm and suicide

 The first time Rang died, it stopped a typhoon.

When Rang dies, she saves the world, or at least her part of the world. But if that's her power, shouldn't she die again and again in order to save her people? Rang thinks so, at least at first, and she dies again and again and again. It hurts every time, and when people around her catch on and demand her death... she accepts that too. Until... well, it's complicated. Wiswell's story is wrenching and devastating AND hopeful, and that's it's brilliance. As Rang is brought back to life again and again, she grapples with the troubling, magical power she seems to possess. I love the brittle loveliness of this story, and the gentle way it looks deep into the heart of abuse and pain, and into how you may find a way out of a terrible situation.

To Look Forward by Osahon Ize-Iyamu in Fantasy Magazine

A powerful, exquisitely crafted story about childhood, and play, and friendship, and about how adults can intrude on, and constrict, the freedom of a child's imagination. In the story, we follow a group of children playing on swings, some of them joyful and daring, some a bit clumsier, but all of them finding a kind of iridescent, internal power as they play. Adults intrude, asking about work and studies and obligations, but even then, each child tries to hold on to some part of themselves, some truth, as they look forward to what it is they want to do with their life, and with their power. There's a sense of possibility here, of anticipation in spite of the adults encroaching on them, as the children try to hold on to their magic, even as they are being pushed to let it go in favour of more "real" pursuits. 

Amber by Sandra M. Odell in Daily SF

Every morning Mom says, "Today is the day I get my new body."

And I lie and tell her, "No, Mom, that's tomorrow."

Then she happily squeals like a rusted nail yanked out of scrap metal. "I'm so excited! I can't wait to wear a dress again!"

This story comes over all soft and almost as quiet as a whisper, but it still broke my heart. Odell spins a science fiction tale about death and grief and loss, about how we might hold on to things even when cold reason says we should let go, and Odell does all these things with nuance and subtlety. The story takes place in a future where there's a way to let your loved ones live on, in a way, after death. But this afterlife is not without risks and perils. As in all of Odell's work, there's an emotional honesty here that makes the story even more poignant and piercing. 

Poise and Grace by Kyle Richardson in Flash Fiction Online

A beautifully written, wonderful flash fiction story about Dint, who has just finished the project her father built her to do, and who now faces a rather terrible fate. But before that, she has some unexpected time to herself. I love the prose and voice of this story, and I absolutely LOVE the ending.

Body, Remember by Nicasio Andres Reed in Fireside

For all the glow of the town somewhere above and behind him, and despite the winking of vessels mingled with stars, it’s a timeless moment. He’s a silhouette alone in the night by the sea. He could be anyone, alive at any time. The dark weight of Vesuvius behind him, casting its shadow over every age. And then he hears a voice wake the skin at the back of his neck.

A story about an archeological dig near Vesuvius. Italy, that is also a story about the life of Jun, about the things and the people he has lost or left behind, and about the things that haunt him. Reed's story is quiet and moving and unsettling in the way a dream or nightmare might be unsettling, skirting so close to what we know is real, but introducing a sliver, a ripple, of utter, inexplicable strangeness. I especially love the unique setting of the story, and the way it weaves together Jun's past with the haunting place he finds himself in now.

The Smell of Night In the Basement by Wendy N. Wagner at PseudoPod, narrated by Kara Grace

They said they were vampires. Sometimes I believed them and sometimes I didn’t, but I didn’t really care. I got enough to eat. There was always plenty of drugs and dancing and people to fuck. The screams bothered me sometimes, but not so much I wanted to leave the basement or Luca. Not that he would have let me leave.

This story is strong stuff, so be warned. The content warning at PseudoPod says "gutter vampires and exploitation", and there's a lot of that here. Wagner's story is told from the POV of a girl who is being kept as a pet by a vampire, a vampire who leads a gang of very nasty, very un-sparkly, and very un-glamorous vampires. When a new girl is brought into the basement, things get topsy-turvy and dangerous, fast. There's a real raw, ragged edge to this story, and it pulls NO punches when it comes to violence and sex. It's a great read and puts a feral twist on the vampire-infatuation trope and does something new with a classic monster.

The Genetic Alchemist's Daughter by Elaine Cuyegkeng at PseudoPod (narrated by Rebecca Wei Hsieh, first pub'd in the anthology Black Cranes)

A gorgeously crafted, darkly compelling, and devastating horror / scifi story about Leto, a young woman who was genetically designed by her mother, Ofelia, to be "perfect". Her mother's genetic alchemy business involves, among other things, the creation of Prodigals, AKA new genetic copies of "failed" children; and the creation of Seraphim, AKA "flawless" embryos that grow into exactly the kind of children their parents require. Leto is deeply involved in her mother's business, and when a wealthy woman approaches Ofelia to replace all three of her daughters with improved Prodigals, meaning all three originals will be annihilated, it sets in motion a harrowing chain of events for Leto. The slow and deeply unsettling reveal of what is actually going on is masterfully done and the ending is a tour de force.

The Lachrymist by Kat Howard in Lightspeed

She crafts each tear deliberately: water, salt, and memory, in perfect proportions to honor what is gone. She saves each tear that falls.

The Lachrymist has shelves upon shelves of bottles, her tears held in them. Colored glass and plain, faceted and smooth, sun-darkened and ice-clear.

She stores them to preserve the memories. She stores them against need.

A gorgeous, beautiful, dark and gleaming fantasy story that has the soul of poem. It's brimful with sadness, it's about memory and loss, and about the importance, and maybe the peril, of remembering and being remembered. Howard's prose is always a treat to read, and that is true for this story. There's a rhythm and melody to the words that draws me in and keeps me spellbound.

Listen to the audio-version of the roundup.

First published at Curious Fictions. Art is a detail of  Joseph Diaz's "Monk's Mirror", detail of cover for Clarkesworld #167.