November 11, 2021

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup for October, 2021


The art for this month's roundup includes a detail of Maurizio Manzieri's cover for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction November/December 2021. More about the artist:

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:

Broad Dutty Water by Nalo Hopkinson in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

Hopkinson's story is a marvel of adventure, action, humour, near future science fiction, climate change scifi, and cyberpunk. It's set in a future where many of the world's cities have been drowned by the rising oceans, and where making a living, and living!, is made harder by climate change. The main character is a headstrong and resourceful young woman named Jacquee, and there is an opinionated pig named Lickchop, various (useful and maybe glitchy) wetware implants, and a very dangerous flight. Make no mistake: this is no grimdark post apocalyptic world. This is a world where life might be hard, but it's also full of people finding new ways to live, incorporating technology and science into their communities, and people working together and caring for each other and the Earth. I wanted more more more of both Jacquee and Lickchop after reading this, and I can only hope to meet them again in another story.

A Vast Silence by T.R. Napper in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

A tense, taut cyberpunkish thriller that starts off with a man and a woman sharing a ride and then turns into an riveting life-and-death chase through a stark Australian landscape, with danger and death lurking at every turn. There's espionage, murder, and high tech shenanigans and this story just kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.


, by K.J. Parker in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

They say he’s nine feet tall with the body of a man and the head of a bull, unimaginably strong, perpetually hungry. He ate the whole complement and crew of the first of their ships. They shot arrows and threw spears at him, but he barely noticed. Only when he’d quite finished cracking the bones for the marrow did he turn his head and look at the rest of them. The calculating expression on his face they put down to mental arithmetic.

So they made a deal. He would leave them to themselves, provided they fed him.

A wicked sharp take on an old myth. While monster, the minotaur, does not appear until the end of this story, its presence looms large throughout the tale. It takes place on an island where one people has been subjugated by another, and where every year, the population has to send some citizens as tribute to a monster. One young man has lost his mother this way, and has hatched a scheme to find out what really happened to her. I love the worldbuilding in this tale, I love the characters, and I do so very much love the ending.

The Burning Girl by Carrie Vaughn in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Mother Ursula ruled the abbey of St. Edith, but she bowed her head to this young man, deferential. He spoke to her in Latin. I recognized two words: puella incendiara. The burning girl.

At a gesture from Ursula, one of the nuns ran back to the hall and returned with an unlit candle, one of the big beeswax ones used to light the chapel sanctuary. I knew what this meant: these knights had demanded a demonstration. At the sight of that candle, I nearly cried. I did not understand, did not want to understand, but I knew what was happening.

Ursula held the candle to me. “You must show Sir Gilbert what you are.”

I adore this fierce and fiery story by Vaughn. It's set during what might seem on the surface to be the Norman invasion of Britain, with the Saxons being beaten badly by the invaders, but there is magic and strange forces at play that certainly have not featured in any history book. Our narrator, Joan was placed in an abbey as a small child because of her strange power over fire. But when Sir Gilbert comes to claim her, threatening to destroy the abbey if Joan does not come with him, the abbess lets him take her away. As it turns out, Sir Gilbert is not the cruel master Joan feared, but rather, he's gathered a group of people with strange abilities, and they are helping William the Conqueror. However, things don't exactly go the way Sir Gilbert had hoped... Fabulous, gripping alt-history fantasy.


Anomaly by Chelsea Obodoechina in Anathema

After a serious accident, and after almost dying on the operating table, Jane is suffering from crippling headaches. The doctor she sees tells her its stress, that there's nothing really wrong with her, and no one seems to be taking her problems or her pain seriously. Instead of helping, they offer condescending advice and subtle (or not so subtle) put-downs. Obodoechina makes us feel Jane's frustration vividly, and then slowly unravels Jane's reality, revealing the true nature of what is happening to her. It's a sharp and fierce story where the horror of how people treat Jane is worse than the strangeness that is happening to her, or maybe transforming her. And when Jane finally goes beyond the pain, she finds a new power there. 


Flight 389 by Jon Padgett in Nightmare

This time I will definitely die, Jeffords thinks. He feels that this conscious thought affords him a certain immunity from such a fate, though logically he knows that’s nonsense.

A great horror story that tightens as a vice. It starts out as a story about a man on flight and we realize immediately that he is expecting disaster to strike at every moment. At the same time, there's also an unease, or even a feeling of terror, lurking beneath the usual worries a person might have about flying in an airplane. Slowly, as Padgett unravels the story, we realize what is actually occurring. Fantastic writing, blending the everyday horror of the fear of flying, with something more deeply terrifying.


Something Aquatic. Something Hungry. by Corey Farrenkopf in Necessary Fiction

The Misguided Merman lay on the quarried stone of the breakwater, orange hull tilted to the sky, rigging trailing into low tide mud. A halo of gulls orbited. The smell of a week’s old catch tainted the air. James recognized his uncle’s fishing boat from a distance as he jogged near the wharf on Commercial Street in Provincetown, sweat slicking his t-shirt to his chest.

Oh, this is such a deliciously twisted story of life near the ocean, with the sea at your doorstep, and the secrets that might lurk below the surface of a man's life, and below the surface of the water. When his uncle's boat turns up in the harbour after being missing, James goes looking for some answers and what he finds is something that is maybe best left alone.


Memoranda from the End of the World by Gene Doucette in Lightspeed

[For internal use only]


Attached, please find your personal company-issued Breathing Apparatus, for immediate use within all corporate campus unfiltered air locations!

This includes all outdoor locations, such as: the parking lots; the parking garage; the smoker’s hut; the paths between the buildings; the shuttlebus waiting area; the tennis court; and the corporate golf course. It also includes a limited number of indoor locations, such as: the shuttlebus; any area listed as “Under Construction”; and the employee bathroom on level two in the north wing of building H.

Equal parts harrowing and hilarious, Ducette tells the story of a terrible and quite unexpected apocalypse, as it is happening. The story is told through announcements and emails and other forms of communications and it's done with such panache and so much sly, dark humour that you cannot help but chuckle (somewhat guiltily) at every step into further horror for humanity.


Litany in the Heart of Exorcism by Sarah Pauling in Flash Fiction Online

Do you understand?

On your skin, do you feel the white sand the priests threw in fistfuls from the blessing-basin? Do you feel it crusting over your eyelids? It sticks between your cheek and the temple floor like a binding. It powders the sigils on the stone.

A twist on the usual exorcism tale, this is a raw and sharp story about a woman undergoing an exorcism to rid her of the demon that everyone believes has invaded her body and mind. But as the interior dialogue within the woman unfolds (or rather: the interior dialogue between her and the demon bonded to her) we realize that she is no mere hapless victim of an evil spirit. No, what's happening here is something much more complex and tragic. Wonderfully evocative and powerful prose. 


The Trumpet Player by Nicole Givens Kurtz in Fiyah

In its latest issue, Fiyah takes on the theme "Love, Death, and Androids" and the issue is full of great stories that put new twists on the future of artificial life and artificial intelligence. In this story, a trumpet playing bot named Jazz is looking for a place to make music with other bots, while also dealing with humans who have low, or downright terrible, opinions of bots. It's a quiet and profound story that deals with bigotry and everyday acts of resistance. I say it's quiet, but it's also vibrating with tension and conflict, and I love how it imagines music as an expression of individuality, community, and freedom in more ways than one.

Performance Review by Maryan Mahamed in Fiyah

Mahamed gives us the devastating story about Slip, a robot (similar to an Alexa or Siri unit) who thinks too much and too deeply, and thus ends up failing test after test, and getting rejected and returned by most of the humans who end up owning him. Slip enters each home, each situation, hoping to be able to figure out what is expected of him, hoping to find a way to fit in, and yet no one seems to appreciate his complex thought patterns, since they do not appreciate that he might be more than they believe he is. There's a deep sense of sadness and loneliness to this story, and the depiction of a robot experiencing grief (and getting rejected for that too) is brilliantly explored here.


Happy Trails by Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr. in Apex Magazine

I love this raunchy, raw, and rousing story about Coyote, being absolutely out of his head drunk, and wandering around the streets on Saint Patrick's Day. He's even too drunk to switch to human form, which is causing him no end of aggravation. In the end, chaos follows Coyote on his happy trails, and the ending is a truly spectacular blow-up. This story is part of Apex' #126 with special focus on Indigenous creators.


Bespoke Nightmares by Carolina Valentine in Strange Horizons

The sign on the door said Dreams Not Sold Here, and I mostly stuck to it. Dreams were extensive and exhausting projects, not to mention expensive. Nightmares, on the other hand, were quick. On a good day, I could stitch up a hundred off-the-rack ones: 

Crafting nightmares is the business of this story's protagonist, and she tries to make it abundantly clear to all potential customers that dreams are both difficult and extremely expensive to make. But some people won't take no for an answer, and if they are very rich, they may also be used to get whatever they want with their money. When such a person comes to the shop, the crafter of bespoke nightmares makes him a dream, warning him that dreams don't usually turn out the way you thought they would. Valentine's story is a wonderfully dark slice of beguiling fantasy, and the crafting of dreams and nightmares adds a luscious, rich texture to it. And the ending, well... he was warned.


Fiat, Fiat, Fiat by Eliot Fintushel in The Dark

Oh, what a terrifying and twisted tale this is. Benjy grows up with Albert. Albert who is his friend, sort of, but who is also a deeply frightening child that is getting his hands bloody with all sorts of misdeeds even in elementary school. When Albert's family members begin to die, Benjy realizes that Albert is buying himself new powers from someone or, maybe, something, and tries to stop him the old-fashioned way. A chilling story about evil and childhood, and about what may linger even when you think you've defeated the evil.


Open Highways by Alexis Gunderson in The Deadlands

A beautiful, wistful story about ghosts, and about the possible religion of rabbits, from the October issue of The Deadlands. Here, the ghosts haunt the highways, appearing in the protagonist's car for only a moment or for a brief stay. Each encounter is vivid, yet dreamlike, and often the ghosts ask the protagonist to pull over, to stop for a while with them, but what might happen if you stop on the side of the road with a ghost? What would befall you then? The answer to that question is not what you might expect. It's a hauntingly gorgeous story, and one that made me consider not what we might have to fear from a ghost, but what it is a ghost might need from us.


The Children Will Lead Us by Andrew Kozma in Mythic #17

I am a recruiter of children between two and four, no older because they only last a few years before piloting burns them out.

In Kozma's eerie and unsettling story, spaceships are able to travel faster than light through space because it is piloted by a child with a brain pliable enough to allow them, with the use of technology, to "fold" space. The children are only useful for a few years, then they age out, and are often so profoundly changed by the work that their families do not want them back. In the story, a ship has returned from its scheduled trip, but the entire crew, except for the child pilot, is gone. When the investigator / recruiter arrives to interview the child and try to figure out what happened, he discovers that the fabric of space and time, reality itself, might be a lot more pliable than he thought. I really love the ominous vibe of this story, and the way it explores what humans are capable of doing to each other, and to children, in the name of progress and profit.


The Promise of Iron by Benjamin C. Kinney in Kaleidotrope

Eszter pressed her forehead against the narrow window, watching the war-engines roll down the boulevard. The thirty railless cars progressed in perfect synchrony, shaking the tenement floorboards beneath her feet. She stared down at the stubby barrels of cannon, the smoked-glass lenses of eyes, and the mane of pistons emerging from each pressure engine. She wished the machines would pause there, beneath her window, where they seemed close enough to touch. But the automata continued their implacable roll southward, beyond her reach.

I love this story about a girl called Eszter who is trying to survive in a Jewish ghetto with war on the doorstep and troops marching in the streets, in a world where the armies are not made up of just people but also fearsome automatons. Eszter has a knack for, and a keen interest in, working with automatons, and is hoping her skill might help her and her brother survive. But when her brother disappears, things quickly go from bad to worse and Eszter has to be both ingenious, brave, and lucky in order to make it through. It's a story about resilience and resistance, and about loyalty and trust -- things that are hard to come by in this world. I love the intricate, yet effortless world-building, and characters that pop off the page and make you want more. 


Obstruction by Pamela Rentz in Fantasy Magazine

Confession: this story about Nellie, a supernatural being or deity or spirit, who left her home and finally returns to the place she left behind, had me crying in a public place. Nellie is Karuk, Native American, but she chose to leave her home and everything she knew behind and travel the world, rather than disappear when the world changed centuries ago. When she finally goes back, she finds the place both the same and fundamentally altered. She also finds a TV crew shooting a show called “Wild River Ultimate Warrior Challenge!” right in the river she's dreamed of all these years. A subtle, powerful story about belonging, about the allure of both leaving the place you're from, and the ever-present pull of returning. To quote Nellie: 

"Leaving wasn't a mistake. But staying away so long was."


Bright Lights Flying Beneath The Ocean by Anjali Patel in Escape Pod

A profoundly moving story about two siblings, separated by political and societal forces beyond their control. One sister is a scientist and is trying to find a way to reunite with her sister. There's such a deep and dark current of sadness running through this story, the sadness of being separated from a person you love, a person you want, need, to see again, but can't get to because the world is a mess. The idea of people separated by emigration, by political barriers, by time and space... all that is beautifully captured by Patel. 

"Tasha, when I figure this out, I will become light and flash through the cables to find you, and when I do, you will become light, too, and I’ll bring you back with me. For an infinitesimal fraction of time, we’ll both be bright lights flying beneath the ocean."


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Personal note: this roundup was recorded after the death of our citron-crested cockatoo Cheeko. She was a beautiful, gentle creature and I miss her more than I can say.


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