April 30, 2023

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup - April 2023


The artwork for this roundup includes a detail of DM7's art for Lightspeed #155. More about the artist at https://www.deviantart.com/dm7

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:

The Time Traveler’s Cookbook by Angela Liu in Cast of Wonders (narrated by May Chong)

Don’t eat dinosaur. Just don’t. Mom marked it as a must-have, saying it looks and tastes “like an exotic giant chicken,” but just getting to the meat has been a nightmare. The skin’s teeth breakingly-tough and the sucker hooked me in the thigh with one of its nasty claws during the hunt. I’ve staunched the bleeding with Happy Time Traveler’s super medical glue, but holy hell it still hurts.

Oh how I love this story. It's a time travel story that is both whimsical and heartbreaking. The food, the recipes, the time travel tips... they're all fabulous and funny, but Liu's story is also a deeply emotional tale about family and grief and about trying to find a way to move forward, even when it's the hardest thing we'll ever do.

Crown Prince by Melissa Mead in Cast of Wonders (narrated by Jordan Kurella)

Behind a gauze screen, Crown Prince Manu slumps in his cushions. He’s grateful for the screen, hiding his lapse from Father’s petitioners. It takes so much energy to maintain his Stupid Body in anything like a posture of alertness. The more effort he puts forth, the more it writhes about. The law says that he, the Only Royal Son, must be present at all official proceedings, but behind the screen no one can see him if he chooses to save his energy for listening. He always listens. And remembers.

This is a fairytale about Manu, a prince with a difference: he has cerebral palsy. Mead's story deals with cerebral palsy, the challenges for Manu, and how his condition makes others view him differently and often underestimate him (sometimes at their peril!). To quote the CoW story commentary:

 Accessibility isn’t just about giving people access to support tools to engage more fully with society – it’s also about re-shaping society such that all people are included, regardless of their circumstances, with as much or as little extra support as they want or need.

I love this story for its fresh perspective and its terrific characters, and I also love it for the entertaining palace intrigue. Sadly, Mead passed away in 2022 before this story was accepted and published by Cast of Wonders. 

, Bird by Uyen Dang in Necessary Fiction

Several years ago, the rain started stripping people of their memories. With every rain a memory or two would dissolve into oblivion only to later reappear, suddenly, in physical form, at the edge of the city. Cats, childhood homes, a beloved dead houseplant… Some believed it was a weird symptom of climate change. Others said it was divine punishment, that the rain was actually godly spit, an amnesiac. Hard to believe, but they claimed it true. There was something vengeful happening here, they could feel it.

This is a surreal and uniquely imagined story where memories are stripped away but do not disappear. I love the unabashed strangeness here, and the way that strangeness is made real and tangible. Dang's evocative prose has the feel and melody of poetry, giving this story real depth and heart. 

Through the Glass, a Full Sea by P.H. Low in Apparition Lit

There is a girl behind the mirror.

You see her first when you are five, pinching your nose and cheeks and wondering if the greenish shade of your skin, which you’ll later learn is just the tint of glass, means you are made of cheese. She moves a half-breath before you do; speaks a language you have already forgotten, her pink mouth forming a childish perfect

Nǐ sì séi?

A life, and the process of trying to understand yourself and the world and what your life can be, what YOU can be and what you want to be, is captured with exquisite brilliance in this short story. Low twists in a strand of horror, with the recurring presence in mirrors and other reflections, but the pain of this story goes beyond horror tropes. Beautiful, heart-rending darkness.

The Librarian and the Robot by Shi Heiyao in Clarkesworld (translated by Andy Dudak)

One day, the Curator salvaged a robot. It was a model ST-19, a military machine, designed for search and destroy missions. The Curator found it outside in a knee-deep snowdrift. The robot’s ship had crashed into a hill two kilometers away, the explosion cutting the summit right off.

A lquietly moving science fiction story about a far-future where humans have left Earth and colonized other planets, but where one person, the Curator, has returned to the old home-planet. There, she finds an old library and begins to salvage books. And when she salvages a military robot, she finds new uses for it too. I love the gentleness of this story as it explores human nature and the nature of artificial intelligence, and how we can become something different than the world wants to make us into.

Voices Singing in the Void by Rajan Khanna in Clarkesworld

On Narraweena-4, the Builders have begun.

A Worker drone surveys its assigned territory as its tunneler beam warms. A fluting call pierces the air, answered by a warbling trill. The drone pauses. Its code, shared with others of its kind, sings the story across their web. A Scanner glides free of its dock, winging toward the lifeforms, far enough away that it won’t alarm them. Optics and sensors identify two arboreal creatures, each clinging to a tree branch, their gray, spotted hide fringed by feathers of blue and vermilion.

A hauntingly beautiful science fiction story with a deep sadness and sense of loss at its heart, yet it's not without hope and wonder. On various planets in the universe, human-constructed artificial Builders have constructed places where people were supposed to live, and yet, no people have arrived. Khanna's story travels to these different worlds and sees them through the eyes and minds of the Builders, and then returns to Earth where we learn the difficult truth. There's an epic sweep and feel to this story that gave me chills.

One Eye Opened in That Other Place by Christi Nogle in Three-Lobed Burning Eye

They were tied up together from the start: Dottie and that other place. That other place, that other eye. Charles didn’t like to think of it as a third eye, though that’s what it was. It wasn’t in his forehead, wasn’t in the center of his face at all. Instead, it rested between the right side of his nose and the tear duct. It wasn’t actually there, of course, and yet it felt like it was there.

A new issue of Three-Lobed Burning Eye is always good news if you like your speculative fiction dark and weird. Nogle's story, about a man who can see another place with his third eye, is dark and weird and deliriously unsettling. There's a quiet, ever-increasing strangeness to this story that is both mesmerizing and disturbing. And the ending? The ending is a scream.

Kudzu Boy Dreaming by SJ Powell in FIYAH #26

He’s ten years old when he finds the body in the kudzu patch.

A boy and his mother live in a house where there is magic, both protective magic and terrifying magic, at play. Beyond the house, the kudzu grows and one day, the boy finds a dead body there. Powell's story has a dreamlike undercurrent, but is also firmly rooted in a real and vividly drawn world, that is seen through a child's perspective: what is real and what isn't, what is dangerous and what is not, are not always easy to determine. And there's a dream/nightmare sequence in this story that is absolute terrifying perfection, and that scene is going to haunt me for a while.

Root Canticle by Natasha King in Nightmare

Oh, dear. Don’t bother going back up the stairs. Yes, they exist still, but the door at the top will no longer take you anywhere you would wish to go. Look—the vines, if that is what we want to call them, have made some room. Sit.

I love this unsettling, hallucinogenic, twisting tale that goes into the past and into the earth, and into bodies as well. There's an old magic at work here, old stories and tales that have taken root, and King spins a beautifully mesmerizing tale from all of it.

Victory Condition by Eliot Peper in Anthropocene

Yes, the Golden Gate Bridge still stands—one of the few historical artifactchs outside the city’s gleaming walls. Of course, the bridge no longer serves the purpose for which it was built: to offer vehicles efficient passage up and down the California coast. Now, it’s primarily a wildlife crossing for wolves, grizzlies, antelope, jaguars, coyotes, and elk. People visit too.

A thought-provoking future tale by Peper about a world, and a city, that has changed fundamentally and where human beings are finding new ways to live. Peper has some interesting thoughts on this future SF, but what I loved the most about this story is the way it interweaves the history of old San Francisco with the future of the new, and the way both nature and city feature so prominently in the telling.

Our Exquisite Delights by Megan Chee in Lightspeed

Almost everyone has, at some point in their lives, encountered a door that was not there before.

A little girl sits up in bed, staring at the two identical closets in her bedroom. She feels certain there had been only one when she fell asleep.

Oh, this is a great twist on portal fantasies, and all those fantasy tales about doors, leading people to other places. Here, we see these doorways from the other side, from the perspective of whatever lives beyond those doors. There's slow-burning twist to this tale and the point of view of the narrator that makes it even more satisfying.

Construction Sacrifice by Bogi Takács in Lightspeed

There’s dysphoria, and then there’s turning into a mid-size city. But sometimes you try male, you try female, you try different kinds of nonbinary and it only makes you realize that something still doesn’t quite fit, something fundamental. There is a mismatch.

What an absolutely enthralling story this is. It’s told from two points of view: one is the city of Fejértorony, a city that has a mind of its own quite literally; the other is Mihue, a scholar called a clairvoyant who comes to the city to study it and gain a deeper understanding. What follows is a connection between these two that has unexpected and life-altering consequences for them both. Takács calls it a “a secondary-world science fantasy story about trans love in difficult circumstances.” And for more about the inspiration for the story, read the excellent interview in Lightspeed: https://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/nonfiction/author-spotlight-bogi-takacs-2/

Locavore by Kim Harbridge in Strange Horizons

It forced itself to take that last step onto the ferry. Every step further from land felt like falling. Through space, through time, through every place it had ever been. It kept its eyes open, its features arranged in what it hoped was a neutral expression. Somehow, it walked itself up to the small covered passenger deck and took a seat on a plastic bench. The boat began to move.

This is such an excellent and fresh take on a horror story of shapeshifting monsters. Being a shapeshifter and a monster, isn't always easy as this story points out. You have to be careful, you have to consider your options, in order not to get caught, not to get found out and still survive. Harbridge's story is both quiet and powerful, and I love the intimate, under-the-skin view we get of the kind of being that is usually only glimpsed in the shadows.

The Air Will Catch Us by Rajiv Moté in Reckoning

Walking is different now. The air resists my habitual gait. Little hops lift me into the thickened atmosphere that slows my return to Earth. It’s undignified, but it’s past time I got used to this. I’m not that old. I bob along after her.

A quiet, contemplative science fiction story set in a future where humanity has had to make some drastic changes in order to survive. These changes are the new reality for the children growing up in it, but for those who still remember the world, and the air, as it once was, it's a different story. There's a bitter-sweetness and wistfulness to this story that really got to me.

The Dark House by A.C. Wise in TOR.com

It didn’t help that darkness crowded the edges of the photograph, smudged, like thousands of fingerprints marring the picture over the years. I would have blamed the quality of the reproduction, except the shadows gathered in the windows too. They didn’t reflect light so much as hold it at bay.

A profoundly unsettling and increasingly harrowing story by A.C. Wise about a house, about the ghosts that haunt that house, and about the lives that seem tied to the photos left behind in that house. There's a terrifying inevitability to the horror here: everything has happened before and will happen again. Wise has a terrific ability to crank up the intensity of horror with masterful precision, and that skill is on full display in this story.

The Lone Drummer by A.G. Lamar in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

I love stories that tie together music and magic, and in A.G. Lamar’s story, we find ourselves in world where songs and drumming can be used for peaceful purpose, like making crops grow, and for war, as a weapon to defeat your enemy on the battlefield. Kamu is a young boy with a great gift for drum magic. At a young age, his father sent him off to hone his skills and become part of the royal army. Lamar’s story is a multi-layered and fascinating look at a society that wields magic for a variety of purposes, and at the heart of the story is Kamu, who is so very good at magic and drumming, but who is also deeply conflicted by going to war, and who still carries the pain of being sent away from his family when he was only 10 years old. It makes for a riveting and thoroughly compelling read set in a fascinating world.

We, the Ones Who Raised Sam Gowers from the Dead by Cynthia Zhang in PseudoPod (narrated by Serah Eley)

There’s a profound fierceness and anger fueling this story, making it intensely powerful and affecting.

Yes, to answer your questions, we were the ones who did it; we were the ones who dabbled into the forbidden arts, who so casually threw away the good Christian values of our country for a flash of bloody vengeance. We are the ones you want, the ones who raised Sam Gowers from the dead.

The voice of the story is so strong and bold, and I love how it never shies away from telling us the truths we already know but sometimes try not to face: the injustice, the cruelty, the bigotry, the violence faced by Sam Gowers and others like him. Oh yes, I love the sharp teeth of this story, the raw emotion that runs through it, and I love how powerlessness is turned into unexpected, unimaginable power when necromancy is used.

A Thousand Echoes in One Voice by Deborah L. Davitt in Podcastle (narrated by Dave Robison)

At first, you didn’t really commit to it. You only explored on weekends. Then it became an all-consuming obsession. You took your instructions from the hidden graffiti. Your only guide, the only proof that there were others like you. Your sole consolation.

The others exist. Some of them must go home again. And some of them never can. Caught, perhaps, when a reality blinks out of existence.

Oh, my kind of story: a messed up timetravel tale, where different choices make new timelines, where worlds diverge and join, and where the paths to the past and the future and the other worlds are difficult to find and understand. Davitt’s story is haunting and evocative, with a deep and dark heart. That ending gave me bone-deep chills.


Sounds for Crustaceans by Addison Smith in Fantasy Magazine

OK, so a while back I was talking on Twitter about crabs and how easily lifeforms through the eons seem to turn into crabs (it’s a thing!), and then someone recommended I read this story by Addison Smith. It’s from 2021, so I’m obviously way late in covering it here, but wow, what a story it is! Here, someone is turning into a crustacean, but it’s not an easy process and it’s not easy to know what other people are going to think about such a transformation. Will they even believe it? Will they mock it? There’s a surreal vibe here, and a tenderness beneath the chitin, that is an absolute delight.


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