February 27, 2023

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup for Jan/Feb 2023

The artwork is a detail of artist Artur Haas's cover art for Clarkesworld #197. More about the artist at: https://www.ahaas.nl/.

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube (with mic-noise courtesy of the dog...):

Who the Final Girl Becomes by Dominique Dickey in Nightmare

What a tour-de-force this story is. At first, it clobbered me hard with horror-movie / final girl setup that is brutal and devastating in all its gory detail as Cinda sees her friends murdered and then manages to turn the tables on the killer. But it’s happens after that setup that holds the true greatness of this story as we follow Cinda’s transformation into something other than the “final girl”. First, she finds community in an online group of other final girls who have lived through similar horror-movie-esque experiences. She goes to college, she tries to live her life, but nothing ever seems to fit her quite right, and she never seems to fit in quite right either. Cinda tries to get away from the way people see and react to her based on her reputation, by creating an online persona, but the dissonance between who people think she is, and what she feels like inside, never seem to go away. Dickey’s story is beautifully layered and complex as it follows Cinda past the trauma and into something totally new. One of the best stories I’ve read so far this year and by the end, I was in tears.

Subject: More Monsters Will Not Make Us Safer by Paul Crenshaw in Lightspeed

I also disagree with the liberal argument that having an ogre or dragon or an armored T-rex outside our schools might make children less safe...

This story made me smile and even laugh out loud, despite the fact that it actually deals with some pretty dark subject matter: protecting children from at school. Crenshaw brings together balrogs, gun control, climate change, dystopia, firenados, giants, and a lot more into a madcap vision of the future that is both hilarious and disturbing.

Our Grandmother's Words by M.H. Ayinde in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

The Ishani called the white-robed figure a Scribe, I learned, but I heard the others calling him Word-Eater.

Ayinde's story is a sharp and powerful tale about colonization and the power of language. The outlanders in the story come to a new world and they are looking to take, to steal, and to dominate the population. To help them do that, they have a devastating form of magic that robs others of their words, and in the end, robs them of their language. But this isn't just a story about invaders conquering a people. It is really a story about resistance and survival, and the ways in which a people can find a way to survive, even when it seems almost impossible.

Your Great Mother Across the Salt Sea by Kelsey Hutton in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

A sharp and wonderfully crafted story that flows like a fairytale told by firelight, and cuts as deep as a knife: “There once was a woman who sewed clothes so powerful they made you become the person you needed to be.” This wondrously gifted woman is called Miyohtwāw, and, “at the direction of the grandmothers”, she is asked to leave the Plains and go with the foreigners that have come to their lands. She will meet the newcomers' kwīn and find a way to protect the land of her people from further invasion. At the royal court, Miyohtwāw’s gifts are much appreciated, but finding a way to protect the land of her people is not easy, not even when the kwīn makes use of the seamstress’s gifts. This story grabs you by the short hairs and never lets go. It’s about magic and power, about using your gifts, about learning and teaching, and daring to see the truth of yourself and others, and about protecting what yourself and those you love, even when others try to use your gifts against you.

What It Feels Like To Die by Warren Benedetto in Martian Magazine

“Mama?” Madelyn asked. “What does it feel like to die?”

I love reading the stories in Martian Magazine. It's always a kick to read drabbles - 100 words, no more, no less - and find whole worlds, characters, and tales. This one by Benedetto is a prime example of what you can do with just 100 words. Excellent stuff, and a great reminder to check in on Martian Magazine when you can.

Somewhere, It's About To Be Spring, by Samantha Murray in Clarkesworld

Lacuna knew winter. Winter was the vast distances between the stars. Winter was the cold of space.

You couldn’t measure cold; it was not a thing in itself. It was only the absence of heat. As darkness was only an absence of light. Yet both of these—the dark and the cold—felt like things that reached toward her as she moved through space.

I unabashedly LOVE sentient ship stories, and this one is beautiful and heartbreaking and hopeful and just so exquisitely crafted. We meet Lacuna, a ship that finds itself all alone and damaged, having lost its crew and seemingly its purpose. The ship is nowhere near a planetary system, but there is something there: a rogue planet and its moon. As Lacuna sifts through old memories, songs and conversations, scientific results and memories, things inside the ship are changing in unexpected ways. It's a gorgeous, lyrical story of change and memory, of a strange evolution, and of finding (and making) new family where there was only loneliness.

Silo, Sweet Silo by James Castles in Clarkesworld 

A silo is a good home. It is snug, secure, and shielded. It maintains optimal temperature and humidity. The walls are all perfectly equidistant from my fuselage. This pleases me.

A silo is a good home. But it is wrong that it is still my home. I failed. My siblings soared, while all I did was watch. Now I am alone. Now I am useless.

I love this thought-provoking and ingenious take on the post-apocalypse. Here, a war starts, weapons are launched, and the world is plunged into dystopia. But one warhead did not launch as it should have. Instead, the warhead's artificial intelligence finds it has the run of the silo and the military base, a new and unexpected kind of freedom that is soon put to the test when a group of humans, trying to survive in this new bleak world, come knocking on the door. It's a great story where the meeting between a potentially deadly AI and humans looking for shelter plays differently than SkyNet would have you believe.

In Lieu of Natural Habitats, by Brian Hugenbruch in Translunar Travelers Lounge

A wonderful science fantasy tale where humanity has terraformed a new planet to live on, and where they've manufactured an ocean to hold all sorts of life that once lived in Earth's oceans. And it's not just fish that have come along, but also the merfolk. This is a terrific flash story, with bite.

Interzone recently changed hands. Andy Cox's last (wonderful) issue as editor was the double issue #292/293 which is currently available from the TTA Press shop. #294 is the first issue edited by Gareth Jelley, who is also the editor of Interzone's digital sibling, IZ Digital, which has its own slate of stories. Subscriptions, including print subscriptions to Interzone, are available on the zine's website: https://interzone.press/iz-294/

The Disappeared, by J.F. Sebastian in Interzone

Ghalib woke up thinking he was drowning in an ocean of sand. He heard himself cry out as he took a deep, painful breath against the suffocating embrace of the life vest.

Set in a refugee camp on the Mediterranean, we follow Ghalib who has lost his wife and child while fleeing war and destruction. Devastated and in pain, he almost loses his grip on reality, but is pulled back from the brink by the presence of his cousin who has also survived the storm that wrecked their boat. And then the story takes a turn, when Ghalib seems to slip from reality to reality: is he losing his hold on the world, or is the world not what it seemed to be? This is a haunting and wrenching story with so much depth and nuance.

Murder by Proxy, by Philip Fracassi in Interzone

As a twenty-year veteran in the most crime-ridden area of the city, I've seen things no man or woman should ever lay eyes on. But even I had to wince at the carnage inside apartment 327.

A terrific science fiction/noir with dames (AI and otherwise) and a wisecracking detective trying to solve a horrific and mysterious murder. I'm a huge fan of noir stories, and this one hits all the right notes. The science fiction part of the story dovetails perfectly with the noir-tale beneath, as Detective Merriweather must track down a killer, and understand how the murders were committed, while also making sure he isn't the next victim.

The Black Box Killer, by Kat Clay in Interzone

There are shades of Fahrenheit 451 in this though-provoking and ingeniously told story by Kat Clay. It's set in a future where names of criminals (real and fictitious) in the present and the past, in fiction and reality, are being redacted, blacked out of existence. In the story, visually, this is shown in the text by names being blacked out as if redacted. Even faces are obscured in this society, with people wearing devices that blur and pixelate their features. Clay only gives us nicknames for some of the characters, and the redacting, eventually, becomes part of the story itself as we get closer to the killer.

The Building across the Street, by R.T. Ester in Interzone

The night Leland met Agent Everly, he had expected her to inject him with a Homeless Tagging Chip.

The chip was for adults - able-bodied and otherwise - without proper living arrangements. You could not sleep on a park bench without the chip passing electric current through your body in intervals. You could not ride the train past a set number of stops.

Oh my goodness. This science fiction story hits so many of my sweet spots as we follow Leland, a homeless man who insists he isn't really homeless, he just doesn't have a place to live. For a time, he is not sure how long, he's been making enough money to get by on cleaning an office floor in a building, trying as hard as he can to avoid getting chipped by the authorities. His sister was injected with the chip and then he never saw her again. At least that's how he remembers it, though the details are hard for him to grasp. When he meets Agent Everly, she gives him a strange new task to carry out with the promise of permanent, secure housing but Leland soon realized the agent isn't quite what she seems, and neither is his new job. It's a gripping, twisting, absolutely fantastic story from start to finish, set in a vividly drawn, yet nebulous future city as we see it through Leland's weary eyes. Everything has a dream/nightmare vibe where things are clear and distorted simultaneously, and where Leland, and we, are never quite sure what we are actually experiencing. And that ending.... oh oh OH, I do so love that ending.

Common Speech by Elise Stephens at Escape Pod (narrated by Ibba Armancas)

A harrowing and incisive story about communication and about how we treat others, and expect them to treat us in turn. This story is set on a planet only recently settled by humans. Unfortunately for the new settlers, the planet turns out to be not as livable as people first thought, and the only way to cure the horrible disease that is threatening to wipe out all the colonists, seems to be a cure produced by Sonitus, the local intelligent species. At first, the humans believed the Sonitus were some kind of plant life, but they are much more than that. Now, in a desperate search for a cure, the humans have captured several of the aliens and are trying to communicate with them, but captivity and the use of force have poisoned the relationship between the two species. I love how this story looks at the conundrum of communication and co-existence, capturing the complexities and diverging opinions among the humans. And I love how it illustrates that it’s not just our methods of communication that matter, but how we treat those we try to communicate with.

Time: Marked and Mended by Carrie Vaughn at TOR.com

The description of this story at TOR.com is:

Graff isn’t quite human. His people move through the galaxy collecting memories and experiences, recording their lives and passing them on. Then, one day, he breaks: he discovers a chunk of his memory is missing. This should be impossible—he’s never forgotten a moment in his life. Now, he has to learn to forget, and to remember, and this has consequences for all his people, his culture, and his whole world.

Vaughn weaves a mysterious and compelling tale filled with strong characters and a story I’d like to follow beyond this short story into a novel. Graff’s strangeness, and the nature of who he is, and where he comes from is the central mystery of this story, as we follow him and his human crewmate, as they head back to Graff’s home, trying to find a cure, a fix, for what has happened to him. I love the characters and the world, and I especially love the way Vaughn makes you feel the presence of a vast, complex universe beyond the pages of the story. My only real problem with this story is that I wanted more of it!

Amma’s Kitchen by Rati Mehrotra in The Deadlands

I make the girl’s fish pakoras first. I flip open the notebook to a random page, and her mother’s recipe materializes in small, neat script. Chop tilapia filets into two-inch squares and set aside. Make a paste of chickpea flour, water, crushed garlic, ajwain, salt, turmeric, and red chili powder. Coat the pieces of fish in the paste and deep-fry in hot canola oil until golden brown.

The aroma of fried fish fills the kitchen, making my mouth water.

But the food is not for me. It’s never for me. 

Amma works in a kitchen where the dead come to visit. There’s a magic in the kitchen that makes it possible for Amma to cook whatever it is the dead want to eat. It’s not just that she can make the same dishes they want, Amma can make them taste exactly the way each person remembers. But there is a darker secret, a deal, that ties Amma to her kitchen, and when a girl walks in with a frog on her shoulder, things start to take a different turn for Amma. It is a gripping and emotionally powerful tale, full of flavour and scents (and recipes!). It's also subtly funny, with a unique take on Death, and what might happen after we die. Also, if you think a story about death can’t make you hungry, this story will definitely prove you wrong.

The Carousel by Eliza Gilbert in Flash Fiction Online

On the day Grandmother swallowed a piece of the sun, the carnival was in town.

“They’d just elected Eisenhower,” she swears. “A do-nothing. Creepy looking, too. Bald, sun-spotty. That Normandy heat sucked the collagen right out of him, poor thing.”

I adore this surreal and haunting story of a grandmother who tells her grandchildren what seems like tall tales of her past. There’s a gorgeous rhythm and melody to the prose here that enchanted me, and the payoff at the end is just right.

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