June 30, 2023

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

The artwork for this roundup includes a detail of the cover for Fantasy Magazine #91, by Warmtail / Adobe Stock. More about Warmtail here: https://www.artstation.com/mariniurii

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:

The Uncool Hunters by Andrew Dana Hudson in Escape Pod (narrated by Valerie Valdes)

Oh my gosh. Read. this. story. It is hilarious, it is heartfelt, and it includes a slapdown, dragout fight in a future Costco where plant-based SPAM, cinnamon pickled dates, and hand-rolled microdolmades are used as weapons (among other things). It’s a showdown between two “uncool hunters” – Rocky Cornelius and her nemesis Amherst Swarthmore. What's an uncool hunter, well, they are market researchers with a twist. To quote the story: “Rocky had an eagle eye for generic branding and had analyzed all fifty-eight seasons of NCIS and its attendant IP multiverse. For a reasonable fee, Rocky could tell the bluechecks and one percenters just what the rest of the country spent their money on.” Which is why Rocky is prowling a Costco at night, waiting for the doors to open: “When the store opened… She’d watch their faces make crucial consumer choices, and from their microemotes divine what they wanted, what they needed. And she’d do it without getting caught, lest she end up bag-headed in a Costco corporate black site.” But Amherst is also prowling the Costco, leading to an utterly hilarious fight that also tells you a whole heck of a lot about the society Rocky and Amherst find themselves in. Brilliant, and hilarious, science fiction.

Constellation Burn by Josh Rountree in Bourbon Penn

Jordan was on the run again.

No fixed direction, just a fast escape from her life with Tad, and a hitched ride with a talkative long-haul driver on his way to El Paso.

A half-dreamed, half-horror gorgeous beauty of a tale that is brutal and mesmerizing and utterly captivating. Jordan is on the run from her life, and ends up hitching a ride with a stranger who says he will protect her and take care of her. The place he brings her to is a corner of the world that seems to exist in the world and yet also be outside of it, and the man's seven daughters haunt and fascinate Jordan with their strange whispers of "mother mother mother". Rountree weaves a tale that feels like myth and horror and real world intertwined, and it is a brilliant read.

Some Assembly Required by Anne E.G. Nydam in Fantasy Magazine

Don’t read my review of this story. Click that link and check it out in person. Nydam’s story is written in the style of an IKEA manual, telling you exactly how to assemble your very own LUFTSLOTT, AKA Castle in the Air. Nydam uses this form brilliantly and to great effect, and it’s paired with some wonderful and beautifully charming drawings.

2. Place one or more inspirations (A) in base position to provide foundation.

Important: Be sure all inspirations are securely tethered before proceeding with assembly.

While this piece is whimsical in tone, there is a soulful, heartfelt depth beneath.

Joy by Dale Smith in IZ Digital

The drone appeared as a little black dot: not one of the bigger ones, but maybe enough to keep her going for another couple of weeks. Last year they’d still been sending them in flocks of thirty or forty, but they seemed to have realised any idiot could wing at least one in a flock that size. Now they usually flew alone. Harder to hit, but in a way it was better: they’d sold their customers twenty-four hour delivery, and the fastest way to Ireland from the warehouses in Denmark was over what they still sneeringly called the former United Kingdom. Until they found a way to increase their range, speed or defences, they’d keep coming, regular as clockwork.

She took aim carefully.

Well, if you, like me, love stories about humans forming unlikely bonds with robots, then this story will be right up your alley. I love everything about this story. The setup with 24-hour delivery drones being poached by human beings trying to survive in a harsh future that truly doesn’t seem so far from our present. The way Joy, the story’s protagonist, finds it almost impossible to attack and disassemble the drone once it speaks to her. AND the way the drone clearly shows itself to have its own agenda, in spite of whatever its programming might say. It’s masterful piece of science fiction, and I adore every bit of it.

Nnome by Audrey Obuobisa-Darko in Cast of Wonders (narrated by Tsiddi Can-Tamakloe, first published in A Mind to Silence – 2022 Caine Prize Anthology)

A riveting, and harrowing, story about Nnome, a child born without magic in a world where magic is expected. Nnome’s father has told them all their life that they caused their mother’s death, that they should have never been born. It’s a life lived with constant harassment and crushing psychological abuse, and yet Nnome has not been crushed. Together with their robot companion, Akuba, they imagine and build amazing inventions, finding a way to use their creativity and dreams in new ways. No matter how Nnome works, though, their father remains hostile and abusive, leading to a terrible showdown between child and parent. This is a powerful story about strength and creativity, and about survival under harsh and difficult circumstances.

The Last Dragoners of Bowbazar by Indrapramit Das from Subterranean Press

It wasn’t a seed pod at all. With practiced care she nudged open the curled, broad leaves, unwrapping it to reveal what was inside.

The broad petals of the pod were the brown wings of a creature that fit gently in the pink cradle of my grandmother’s palm like a bat. Its tail was the thin stem that connected it to the branches of the tree. And curled inside the embrace of its own wings was the contracted body of the beast, its six limbs clutched to its torso in insectile fragility, its sharp and thorny head like a flower’s pistil, the curled neck covered in a dew-dusted mane of white fur like the delicate filaments of a dandelion seed. The gems of its eyes were left to my imagination, because they were closed in whatever deep sleep it was in.

“It’s a dragon,” I said, to encase the moment in the amber of reality.

I am an unabashed fan of Indrapramit Das's work, and this new novella is an outstanding piece of fiction. It is a coming-of-age tale, about family and friendship, and it's a story that features dragons of a kind I've never met before. Dragons capable of traveling between universes. Das tells this story through the eyes of Ru, a boy who is trying to find out, to remember, who he is.

To quote the publisher's official blurb:

 "Ru is a boy from nowhere. Though he lives somewhere—the city of Calcutta—his classmates in school remind him he doesn’t look like them, and must come from somewhere else. When Ru asks his parents, they tell him they are descended from nomads. But even nomads must come from somewhere. The question, forever on the mind of the boy from nowhere, is where.

Ru dreams things that wouldn’t seem out of place in the fantasy novels his father read to him when young. Fragments of a culture that doesn’t exist in this world, but might in another, where sky and sea are one, and humans sail this eternal ocean on the backs of divine beasts.

Ru dreams of dragons, of serpents impossible. Perhaps Ru remembers dragons."

It's a deeply strange, quietly gripping and devastating story, that is also profoundly life-affirming. 

  No Spoilers by Ben Murphy in Many Worlds

This intriguing and intricately crafted epistolary story is written as a missive from one person to another, musing on various scientific and academic subjects related to the multi-world/multiverse of Many Worlds; and as an academic paper (with footnotes and commentary). Wrapped up in all of this, is a tender and fraught love story that sparks questions about the nature of the universe we live in, about free will and fate, about how we play roles in our lives – either consciously or not – and how others might influence and even control our very essence, our thoughts and emotions. It’s a profoundly thought-provoking piece where the academia is wrapped around a beating, troubled heart.

This Is What You Came For by Phong Quan in khōréō

It starts with a beat. A steady electronic thump in my chest. Electric waves pulsing through my body with a feeling like forever before breaking into the tips of my fingers and the doors of perception. I gasp in the first chords of the song as they hit like my first breath of air, and when I open my eyes the club embraces me the way you used to every time the beat dropped: hot, sticky, lingering.

I won’t talk too much about this story, and honestly I'd rather just quote it endlessly, because it is a story that needs to be read, savoured, experienced. The way the prose flows and slips and repeats and swirls around the same place, the same people, coming back again and again. There’s a club, there’s the music and the drinks, the people and the dance, and the music is magic and the lyrics are magic, and all of it becomes the emotions of the crowd, and the narrator is there, looking for something, finding something, but never quite able to hold onto it or fully remember what they are searching for:

I realize my memory of you is a string of songs, of the beat dropping and the music pulsing in our blood, of this place where we never hurt each other because notes don’t bleed. Because that’s all that’s left when love leaves: music and dancing. Is it you I want or the memory of you in this place? Was it you I loved or the beat of the drums on the dance floor? Why couldn’t I decide?

It’s a gorgeous, mysterious, sinuous piece and the prose is pure magic.

What Was Left Behind by Epiphany Ferrell in Coffin Bell

A deliciously dark and wickedly sharp slice of fantasy, about a horse named Robey, a woman named Crystal, and a marriage that does not quite work out. Ferrell captures mood and setting and characters with exquisite precision in this flash story, and the it is as sharp as a knife, with a jagged blade.

After the Animal Flesh Beings by Brian Evenson in TOR.com

This is a post-apocalyptic tale about “[a] post-human civilization of synthetic beings, fixated on the concept of children, grapples with the meaning of life…after life ceases to exist.”

In the time in which we now find ourselves, we acquire our children by digging in the earth. This is hard work, much harder than the way the scattered records we are still capable of interpreting suggest it used to be done for the animal flesh beings. In the time in which we now live, we dig through soft rock and clay and heap this up, delving deeper and deeper in search of something harder, more substantial. When we find it, we tear it out of the earth the best we can and haul it to god.

Evenson’s story is hauntingly bleak, dark and evocative like a future seen through a glass darkly. It is written like a future fairytale or myth, retold by the inhabitants of a future where the past is lost, and even their own origins are forgotten. Were they once “animal flesh beings” or just constructs made by them? Like everything else about the past, only fragments of the truth remain. There are images here that will be haunting my thoughts for a long time, including what happens to the malformed child. Brilliant and devastating.  

A Pilgrimage To Memories Tattooed by Elena Pavlova in Samovar (translated by Desislava Sivilova)

The tattoo machine is humming quietly, and clouds are gathering over the beach on the parlor window. It seems rather cold at that shore. I squint, trying to focus better on the people wandering about—without success. This view is an old model. My eyes are old, too.

You cannot thlog about things of the past while using eyes from the future.

A gorgeously wrought tale about a future where tattoos carry memories and dreams, and where someone is visiting the last tattooist in a small town. What was the purpose of tattoos? the visitor wonders and allows herself to be tattooed again and again, searching for an answer and for a connection to the past and to the world.  Pavlova weaves together a bleak and harrowed present with a conflicted, complex, and haunting past revealed by the tattoos: people and places, emotions and moments, many forgotten or lost by everyone else.

There are no whales nowadays. No elephants either. The rhinoceroses we succeeded in cloning. 

"Are you crying?" she asks. "Don't you like your tattoo?"

"It's most wonderful." I plunge my face into my palms and burst into tears. Tattooed whales sing in the depths of my mind.

Hausferatu by Chris Willrich in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

My friends, it’s been many years since then, and I have found wonders, and freedom from my curses, and strangest of all a poet who’s become my partner in crime, love, and occasionally dubious heroism. But I will never forget the one who, though little I knew it, started me on a changed path. I walk the shadowed cities of the west with more fear, and more heart, since I met the hausferatu.

I've picked both stories from this particular issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies for this roundup, and both of them are stories that put a real twist on what you might at first perceive as a monster. In this story by Willrich, a (very long-lived) master thief meets and enters a partnership with a woman and mother who is sort of kind of a vampire. But she is a hausferatu, rather than a regular vampire. I won't give away the details of the hausferatu's fate, but I really love how this story twists and turns the old vampire trope, and how it also delves deep into issues of motherhood, parenthood, and what a person might lose when their family, children and spouse, demand too much of them. It's a story with a sense of humour and a lot of heart.

Spinning Shadow by Margaret Ronald in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Tarma had only just begun the Widow Fenton’s flax when the Shadow Undying rose once more. At first she thought that the shutter on the upper window must have come unwedged, since the light shouldn’t have failed so early in the day. But the unholy chanting in a voice like the bottom of a well ruled out it being any of the shutters.

The Shadow Undying has risen! Yes, “the master of Frostkeep, the lord of the dominion of night" has been reborn as was foretold. But... things are not at all the way the Shadow Undying had planned when he decided to use magic in order to rise again. A lot of time has passed for one thing, and the he finds himself rising from a shard of crystal that is being used by a woman, spinning thread. Ronald gives us a tender, funny, and heart-tugging tale of redemption and love. Not exactly what the Shadow Undying had planned, but maybe making for a better ending than what might have been the case otherwise. It's a charming, thoroughly enjoyable tale.

Baobab Lover by Kwame Sound Daniels in Tales & Feathers Magazine

You and your sisters left your bodies where they were standing, in a grove in Zimbabwe, some fifty years ago. You left the dead buried among your roots, but still remember the way their bones nestled against your bark. Corporate development hadn’t really reached you yet, but you could tell it would eventually. As the years wore on, the droughts became longer and drier. It was time. So, you and your sisters each took a piece of your bodies with you as you left.

Tales & Feathers is a magazine for the "slice of life fantasy genre", focusing on "the cozy, the comforting, and the sentiment "no plot, just vibes." In this story, a dryad leaves her grove in Zimbabwe and ends up in America. The world is different there, life is different there, and living there requires her to change and adapt. And then she meets Sofia, who also has roots in another part of the world, and has her own, entirely different kind of magic. It's a beautifully woven, quietly powerful story about magic and life, love and finding your way in a new world. 

In Her Wake by Elis Montgomery in Apparition Lit

I try to remember what the others did wrong. Mattias a ribcage in a heap of dead leaves; Nova spread like jam on the skeletal branches overhead.

Do I pray for forgiveness? Strength? Maybe I should ask for privacy, because if Eius listens to my thoughts now, She will know what little hope remains.

In this story, the protagonist is being tested, quite literally, by the gods. It's a deadly and competitive game of worship, faith, and tasks that must be performed in order for the participants to win and stay alive. There's faith here, faith and fear and death, and in the end, we find out what matters most to the winning god. A harsh and harrowing tale with one heck of a kick at the end.

Undog by Eugenia Triantafyllou in Strange Horizons

There’s a dog in this house. A not-quite-a-dog. An undog. I heard its whimpering the first week I slept here, the thump, thump, thump of its bulky legs on the old tiles. I found long brown hair mixed with dust bunnies where the walls met. When there’s a loud noise outside, the undog barks, a wounded kind of bark, and each day I discover a new couch pillow chewed to shreds.

Oh gosh I love this dark and strange and tangled tale of the undog and the haunted house it inhabits, and the way the story's narrator finds a way to live with the creature lurking in the shadows. Triantafyllou tells a visceral, heart-rending tale of abuse and healing, and about how to make space for the undog in your life. 

Want Itself Is a Treasure in Heaven by Theodora Ward in Uncanny Magazine

and in a strip mall parking lot off a side road in some Baltimore suburb my hand is trembling as I take the last of the voidwater in its little bootleg dropper and I peel my eyelid back and though I am so careful and try so hard a bit of the precious fluid dribbles down my temple cold and slimy and for a moment I am seized with furious regret, for this and for all the waste, all the waste in all the world, everything that has ever missed its mark

Aaaa, I love this story. I love the way it winds itself through past and present, the way it soars high and dives deep, and I love the way it captures the real, conflicted, complex, and sometimes terrible emotions of love (and obsession), and the arduous journey it can be to find yourself, your true self, in the world. Ward's story is set in a future where it's possible to install technology into your body and then share your body with someone else. To let your mind enter another person and experience the world as they see it. To see yourself as they see you. Ward captures the love, agony, pain, joy, lust, and grief of the narrator with prose that is both tender and jaggedly fierce.

The Rain Remembers What the Sky Forgets by Fran Wilde in Uncanny Magazine

My favorite childhood memories are accompanied by the rustle of wings. In my dreams. In the shelter of Dr. Ventri’s aviary. The ibis with its clatter. The egret’s nettled song. Sharp beaks nipping my hair for nests. Gathering eggshells after chicks hatched. The echoes of birdsong in the townhouse when they got loose. How silent it must be up there now.

A story that combines a deep and profoundly affecting look at grief and retribution with the art of hat-making, and the terrible trade of using the feathers and bodies of birds to make hats. Fran Wilde's masterful storytelling and prose makes every bit of this story gleam darkly and the ending, OH THE ENDING.... It's worth noting that there is real history behind this tale. To quote the author's note:

...in the early 1900s, the plumage fashion battles were in full swing, with Audubon societies formed to protect endangered birds, and hundreds taking pledges to wear only sustainable feathers. States and municipalities attempted to pass, or successfully passed, numerous local laws, until the Migratory Bird Act passed nationally in 1918.

Place of Four Winds, by Gabriel Mara in The Deadlands

It is not her death that troubles him most. They are a people who live close to death, hear it breathing heavy in the dappled leaves beneath the overstory in a thousand different bodies. All must walk the path, and he knows this even as it saddens him, but this is not the source of his anguish.

What vexes and draws him to this vigil is the fact that the body before him has stopped rotting.

The afterlife is twined together with the world of the living in this powerful and compelling story by Mara. A dead woman fights against the pull of death to warn the living of an approaching danger, while a father mourns the death of his daughter. The implacable forces of the afterlife, and the dead woman's determination to find a way to reach beyond the veil, make this story cut true and deep. I especially like how vivid the world of the dead is drawn here, in all its strange and punishing detail.

There’s a Door to the Land of the Dead in the Land of the Dead by Sarah Pinsker in The Deadlands

Vera works in a theme park called The Land of the Dead. It’s a place out in the boonies somewhere, far from everything, not exactly a roaring success. Vera has come there after a breakup, looking for a place to stay, not quite knowing where the rest of her life is headed. At the theme park, she meets and befriends one of the park’s original employees, Adelaide: “the oldest, coolest queer I’d ever met. Blue hair with a rattail that was either decades out of date or art school au courant, six feet tall even with her back starting to curve in at the shoulders, butch as the local sheriff, who she played poker with because she believed you had to “keep your friends close and your enemies poor,” her words.” Pinsker’s writing is always a treat, and this story is both deeply moving and quietly funny, and its mood deepens and darkens as Adelaide shows Vera a mysterious door, or gateway, in the woods.

Non-fiction pick of the month:

"Whither Queer?: The Genre at Midlife and a Rec-List" by Kai Ashante Wilson in Strange Horizons 

Also, read anything and everything by Wilson himself, for example: 

You can support Strange Horizons current Kickstarter at: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/strangehorizons2019/strange-horizons-2024 

Preorder pick of the month:

If Wishes Were Obfuscation Codes and Other Stories by Malon Edwards (published by Fireside Fiction)

"...collects 10 cyberpunk dispatches, including a brand-new, epic rap novella. On offer is a guided tour of an independent Chicago, a beacon of Black excellence that is done with the ever-hostile State of Illinois showing its ass.

Your guides are a little rough around the edges: hackers and assassins, thieves and grieving parents, elders and teenagers. Don’t fret. These people will take good care of you, so long as you mind yourself.

Welcome to the Sovereign State of Chicago.

This is a grand, dark, twisted, and visceral deep dive into Malon Edwards's cyberpunk future. It's out in September and it's a great read from start to finish.


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