May 31, 2023

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


The artwork for this roundup includes a detail of Cynthia Sheppard's cover for The Deadlands #24. More about the artist: (Fair warning: this issue of The Deadlands also contains my essay "A Dog, a Heart, a Box of Ashes, or Whom Rhodope Shed Tears For".)

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:

AnyPercent by Andrew Dana Hudson in GigaNotoSaurus

When he wasn’t scouting, Luckless was running. Here’s what that looked like: you slather on the electroconductive gel, hook up the halo that reroutes your nervous system, press and hold START, and boom—it’s midnight on your 18th birthday, in a different body, a different identity, a new clutch of memories swirling in your simulated hippocampus.

What an amazing roller coaster ride of a story this is. It takes you into the life, or rather lives of Luckless, a man who plays the game AnyLife where you enter a very realistic virtual reality and can live countless lives in mere minutes and hours. In the game, you can be many things, strive for many different goals, and one of the ultimate goals for many players is to reach Economic Victory, to become the richest person in that in-game world, and to do it in the shortest possible time. Luckless becomes obsessed with reaching that goal, but it ends up costing him a lot in his real life. I've read a lot of great stories that deal with games and virtual reality and how they can intersect and affect our lives, and Hudson's story takes some interesting and unique twists and turns along the way, spinning a multi-faceted and deeply thought-provoking tale. As he spirals into his obsession with beating the game and "winning", Luckless abandons the relaxed way he used to play and enjoy AnyLife. He tries every trick he knows, and every trick he learns, in order to reach the top. And eventually, he does find a revolutionary way to win. I love how Hudson shows us that while the game is a simulation of real life, it also has the potential to affect Luckless, and other players, in real, profound and life-changing ways.

Bruised-EyeDusk by Jonathan Louis Duckworth in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Rugg the spellbreaker was only passing through the Devil’s Palm on his way down to the coast, where he hoped to find his mother. He’d have avoided Ganvill, except he was running low on boom powder and salt, and the little settlement was the last tame place before a lot of nowhere.

After reading this wonderful and absolutely captivating story, I would like to follow Rugg the spellbreaker and his gator Tugboat anywhere, any time. Duckworth spins a hugely enjoyable tale where there is magic, sweet and sour, and where people are trying to find a way to live their lives in peace after war and tribulation. The language here is an utter joy to read, and a prime example of how to weave and stitch the worldbuilding into the fabric of your prose and story.

AnAtlas of Names and Footprints and Thoughts Unsaid by Carlie St. George in IZ Digital

 Monsters play by certain rules; all you truly need know is which game you agreed to play. But a case means a human culprit, and humans cheat; it’s what they do. A human will break any law, any promise, any salt line in order to keep their sins secret and safe.

Cimcim, not quite human, can bend the rules better than most – but she feels the weight of it, of compulsion, obligation. More likely than not, it’ll put her in the ground someday.

Oh, this story is an absolute, gosh-darn delight. It's a story about monster hunting, about investigations and deductions, about ghosts and demons, murders, and sharp sharp teeth. But most of all, this is an intricately woven, complex, and conflicted love story, between Cimcim, not quite human, and Yesterday, "round, beautiful, with soft, thick, inviting arms that Cimcim has slept inside before when shelter was scarce". Cimcim keeps things, has kept things, about her true nature from Yesterday, and the relationship between them is deep and profound, but also fraught with things unsaid and undone. It is a gorgeous tale, with all its monsters and all its longing, spoken and unspoken.

More about IZ Digital: 

IZ Digital is the digital offshoot of Interzone. It publishes fiction and non-fiction from all over the planet. Every story is illustrated with full-colour art. 

A Toitele by Celia Rostow in The Dark

All that remained of Chana came back from Kraków in a little wooden box: a golden chain with a pendant, a palm facing out with a carved unblinking eye to protect from evil.

Chana’s death lived on the mantle in the main room of the house, where it would gather dust if Rochel didn’t clean it once a week before shabbos, along with everything else in their little home. There had been no note, but even if there had, Rochel knew that Dovid wouldn’t have read it. The only reason she knew the box contained a chain was because he had opened it for half a heartbeat before snapping it shut again.

Rostow describes this gorgeously wrought story about a ghost, and a ghostly lover as "queer Jewish erotic horror". It's also a story about tight-knit and fracturing relationships, between Dovid and Rochel in their marriage, and between Rochel and Chana who were once the closest of friends, before life separated them. I love the darkness and the fire of this story, and I love the way it captures Rochel's complicated and complex feelings about her own identity, her place in the world, as well as her husband Dovid and her friend Chana.

The Pigeon-Keepers Daughter by Su-Yee Lin in Strange Horizons

It is in the summer, during the monsoon season in Taipei, when the pigeon keeper’s daughter moves into the apartment on the top floor of a building on an alleyway in Wenshan District. From her window, she sees not only Taipei 101 in the distance with Elephant Mountain behind it, but also the rooftop of the building abutting hers. Her mind recognizes those buildings atop that roof, the ladder leading to a sitting area, the shoddy tin roofing above the makeshift coop, even the old man with his shock of white hair, and she is hit with nostalgia for a past not so long ago.

I can't even properly describe how much I love this gentle, quiet, utterly gorgeous and devastating story. There is shapeshifting and magic here, there's a quiet life lived on the outskirts of society, there is the sound of birds and the memories they evoke, and there is a longing and the lost memories of a past the protagonist cannot quite grasp. One of the most beautiful and emotionally powerful stories I've read in a long time.

The Miraculous Account Of Khaja Bairaq, Pennant-Saint Of Zabel by Tanvir Ahmed in Strange Horizons

It is said that when Bibi Siti wrapped herself in the pennant, the cloth was soaked by her blessed sweat and warmed by the prayers she breathed into it. Overflowing with her wild graces, the pennant pledged itself to the same way of truth and righteousness, out of adoration for the saint who had held it close.

Tanvir Ahmed writes prose that enchants and glitters, that has the texture and gloss of fairytale, myth, and history, while telling stories that feel brand new and ancient, all at the same time. I read and loved Ahmed's story in The Deadlands, "A Dervish Among the Graves of Ghazni", and this story in Strange Horizons is just as lush, just as fierce, and just as devastatingly gorgeous.

Every Time the Circus Comes to Town by Fred Coppersmith in Etherea Magazine

Every time the circus comes to town, someone dies.

It was only a few years ago that comic, death-defying spectacle was the circus’ bread and butter. The audience couldn’t go a night without seeing one of the clowns snatched at the last minute from the lion’s jaws or saved from a perilous drop by an acrobat and a well-timed seltzer bottle. Back then, there were sword-swallowers and red-nosed knife-throwers aplenty. The crowds would cheer as tiny cars spilled pancake-makeup-covered faces through rings of fire so hot they’d singe the electric-colored curls of the clown collective’s wigs.

But that was back when death could still be defied. That was before the curse.

Coppersmith puts his own unique spin on the cursed traveling circus here, in a tale that blends fantasy with strands of horror. This circus is a place where magic is at work, where someone must die and where Death will always get their due. But then something happens: a new employee at the circus turns the tables on the curse, and on Death itself. I love the Bradbury-esque vibes here, and the gentle way Coppersmith inverts and subverts some well-known genre tropes.

The Bleak Communion of Abandoned Things by Ariel Marken Jack (narrated by Kitty Sarkozy) in PseudoPod

I accept the house in lieu of a settlement. I don’t want Ashley’s dirty money. The house is the least ill-gotten thing she owns, an isolated property she won in a card game and forgot. We’ve never even been there. I’m hoping that the lack of shared memories will make it a perfect place to hole up while I try to get over her and get on with my life. I’m comforted by the fact that the house is supposed to be haunted. I don’t think I’m quite ready to be alone.

Yes, I do love haunted house stories, and this haunted house story is magnificent. Here, the person moving in actually welcomes the haunted presence in the house and soon establishes a close relationship with it as she cleans and dusts and fixes up the old abandoned house. But few things come without a price, and sometimes, when something seems too good to be true, it really REALLY is. There's an undercurrent of (sometimes dysfunctional) love to this horror that is beautifully subversive as it explores profound feelings of both loneliness and belonging.

She Blooms and the World is Changed by Izzy Wasserstein in Lightspeed

I was six months old when we landed on Lilit. Sera was born three years later. Now I wonder: was I born too soon? Or was she born too late?

A fantastic, gripping, and deeply thoughtprovoking story about two sisters, and the new planet their parents have brought them to. While the parents try their best to shield the planet, Lilit, from any interference and contact with the family, the sisters take a different path. What's happening to the younger sister is proof that contact has already occurred. Can we cut ourselves off from a world and just observe it? Can we live (should we even try to live) without changing, and being changed, by the world around us? Wasserstein's story is a beautiful exploration of change, the fear of change, and what we can find on the other side of that fear.

A Chestnut, A Persimmon, A Cunning Lie by Michelle Denham (narrated by Isabel Kim) at Podcastle

Haewon’s Omoni brought home the tiger-hearted girl and said, “This is your sister, Hyojin. She has been reborn to us, isn’t that wonderful?”

The tiger-hearted girl had amber eyes that burned, red stripes on her face, and long white teeth that gleamed in the dark. Omoni looked at Haewon like she expected her to do something. (A chestnut. A persimmon. A cunning lie.) So Haewon threw her arms around the tiger-hearted girl and said, “Hyojin-ah! I thought we’d never see each other again. I missed you so much.”

I absolutely LOVE this fairytale-tinged story of two sisters and a mother who find a way to live, and make a family, at the edge of a precipice. There are so many facets and so many layers to this story: deception in order to survive, violence and power in society and a family. And also: how do we see those around us? and how are they, and we, changed by how we see them? Denham's story is both gorgeous and powerful as it delves deep into one family, and the power of truths and lies.

Jar by Erin Brown in The Deadlands

They say the Jar standing high on the hill above the city, silhouetted against the sky, alone and imposing, is the eternal stomach of the River God of the Valley, who is praised to devour us one by one. But one doesn’t have to be in the Jar for his digestion of your flesh to begin. I knew this—it was in all the teachings—but I didn’t understand until he chose me.

I adore this beautifully strange and gorgeously crafted short story by Brown. There's a good amount of body horror and some rather gory details here, but they are set in a story that seems to me to be about the transcendence, and the transformation after death -- diving deep into a metaphysical reality beyond the horror of decaying and digested bodies. I particularly like how Brown makes the ritual, the transformation, of Death and digestion so visceral in its details and yet also so lyrical. It's a truly unique take on the afterlife, and a must-read, as far as I'm concerned. 

Carapace by Angela Sylvaine in Dose of Dread from Dread Stone Press

It started with the red heel. Or pump, as my mother called them. I saw it while walking to school with the other kids in my neighborhood. A single red high-heel in the middle of the street. Some of the kids blew it off, didn’t care, while others insisted they couldn’t see it at all. Playing pranks on me, as usual.

A lovely slice of unsettling and surreal darkness that feels like it pays an almost tongue-in-cheek homage to Kafka. I love the deceptive simplicity of this story, and how that simplicity hides layers of meaning and horror, all lurking beneath that surface.

Come Out, Come Out by Myna Chang in Radon Journal

Nati wanted her mother. She needed her mother’s jellied eyes and flesh-whorled fingers. Her heat. The chill of the ruined space station gnawed at Nati’s biometal bones, leached into her human-tinged processing lobes. She was tired of the cold.

An excellently creepy and unsettling slice of science fiction flash. Motherhood can be dangerous and have unexpected consequences, as we find out here. I love the way Chang blends love and longing with fierce, even obsessive, determination.

Money Thirst by Eva Papasoulioti in Radon Journal

“Water is overrated,” they say, and you agree. You’ve been drinking nothing but water for the past year and think, well, you can easily do without. For this kind of money, you definitely can.

What if you could earn a lot of money, just by never ever drinking water again? This is a wicked sharp story about a near future where the protagonist signs a lucrative contract with an energy drink manufacturer, but the terms of the contract might be more than they bargained for... Everything in this story is sharp and jagged, and it has such a deliciously dark and sinister vibe. What can I say? I just love the pitch-black sense of humour and the way it cuts so close to the bone.

How to Stay Married to Baba Yaga by S.M. Hallow in Baffling Magazine

7. In the woods, in the dark, your heart thuds and your breath makes ghosts in the starlight. Nothing here will harm you, but when you stand between white pillars of petrified sycamores, you feel the way you did the night you met her, when you were just another Vasilisa, another Yelena, another Marya, another Ivan Ivanovich: another lost soul in a litany of lost souls whose skulls stake the path to her door. Don’t ever forget how your story started.

A beautifully layered, and thoroughly devastating story about Baba Yaga, written as a list of tips. There's such richness in every detail of this story, in the way it brings together different versions and parts of the tale into a new whole. And there's an emotional depth here where love and pain and fear run through everything. Hallow uses the old expertly and makes it into something new and heartrending.

Quandary Aminu vs The Butterfly Man by Rich Larson in

“Thought it’d be bigger,” Jow says, to mask the crawling in his spine.

“You spilled some,” the woman says.

The butterfly man doesn’t breathe like a human, no familiar up-and-down locomotion to the ribcage. Instead, its whole body seems to ripple.

“We used to play butterfly man, when we were little,” Jow says. “Me and my sisters. Always imagined it bigger. Scarier.”

How scary can something be when it's called a "butterfly man"? Turns out, pretty freaking scary. In Larson's brutally entertaining science fiction tale, we follow Quandary Aminu who is trying to survive the butterfly man sent to kill her. To quote the story description at TOR:

When an illicit trade deal goes wrong and Quandary is blamed for it, she goes on the run to avoid the crosshairs of a bioengineered killer that only lives for 24 hours. If Q can evade it for that long, she just might survive.

This is a high-powered, fast-moving story with a squishy, regenerating body-horror center (the creation of the butterfly man in a bathtub is the stuff of sci-fi nightmares), and I enjoyed every bit of it.

Timekeeper's Symphony by Ken Liu in Clarkesworld

While the question of whether the nature of the universe is continuous or discrete remains hotly debated, there is sufficient consensus that consciousness doesn’t so much flow like a smooth river as leap forward from moment to moment, a glistening frog atop a drifting lily pad.

Any story by Ken Liu is a must-read, and this story, about the way time is experienced, differently by various creatures in various parts of the galaxy is a mind-bending, thought-provoking trip. I love the way Liu takes big scientific, and science-fiction-y, concepts and turns them into lyrical beauties. Here, Liu explores the concept that a creature's metabolic rate is linked to its perception of time, and it is a fascinating and profoundly haunting read.

The Massage Lady at Munjeon Road Bathhouse by Isabel J. Kim in Clarkesworld

Kim Jinah has worked at the Munjeong Road bathhouse for six years. She’s scrubbed the tiles of the large baths. She’s manned the counter that sells squeeze packs of shampoo, baked eggs, and cold drinks. Jinah is now a massage lady. It’s not a glamorous job.

Jinah stands in her old underwear and scrapes the future from women’s skin. Their scales fall to the floor. The women sit up scoured red and smooth.

A thoroughly wonderful and uniquely imagined story where a person's future shows up as scales on their skin, and the thicker and harder the scales become, the less possibility there is of change for that person. Most people cannot see the scales, but Jinah, the massage lady, can. She scrubs away the scales on the women who come to the bathhouse, and also ponders her own scales. Kim tells this story with such gentle and insightful voice, exploring the joy and fear of change, and what futures and what choices we might impose on ourselves and others. What choices would we make if we were less set in our ways, less covered in hard scales? And what choices would we allow others to make if we allowed ourselves and them more freedom? 


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