Finding excellent short SFF can often feel like hunting for buried treasure. Sometimes it takes a guide to help fill in the map, connecting readers with fantastic fiction and showing where X Marks The Story–a new monthly column from Charles Payseur.
Welcome to the first installment of X Marks the Story, a series dedicated to trying to navigate the wide reaches of short-form speculative fiction. X Marks the Story aims to help you, the readers, find stories that you’ll hopefully love, and discover others that you might have missed, given how quickly and how much short SFF is published every day, week, and month. I’ll try to focus on recent stories, so the majority of pieces will be from the last month or two, but a couple of less-immediate publications might just slip in from time to time.
Why “X Marks the Story”? The short answer is, because maps fascinate me. I’ve always been drawn to them, to their implications, and their omissions. The best kind of map is, of course, a treasure map—a mystery and a promise, a guide to adventure, danger, intrigue, and triumph. My goal is to push off the beaten path a bit and to find treasure wherever it’s buried. Because, well, what better treasure could there be than excellent short SFF?
On this inaugural X Marks the Story, I’m looking at five stories that show a range of form, theme, and genre. I have a soft spot in my heart for stories that appear at the end of the year, amid the rush of everything, often overlooked as people consider the year done. What with the holidays, travel, and new resolutions pushing out the old, I want to just slow things down a little bit and highlight some speculative treasures. With that in mind, three of the pieces are from late 2017, but there are two from 2018, which is already providing a rich banquet of awesome SFF short stories. So slip on your favorite adventuring outfit, paint your nails something bold, and let’s get started!
“When The Night Blooms, An Artist Transmutes: A Three-Act Play” by Nin Harris (published in The Dark Magazine #31, December 2017)
What it is: A lovely bit of contemporary Gothic drama featuring ghosts, monsters, a haunted tower, art, and the weight of colonization. Full of mood and attitude, it begs to be read aloud, to be experienced as story and performance.
Why I love it: It’s incredibly rare to find SFF drama/plays published at short SFF venues, so it’s a treat to find one that not only works as a text story, but is a delight to read, and to imagine performed—especially for fans of Gothic works. The piece is infused with the power of place and damage, unfolding in a literal haunted tower that stands as a reminder of a past that still casts a long shadow. One resident ghost is a remnant of that past, that colonization, who remains bound by the place and by what he’s done. But there is another ghost—a link to something even older, that the first ghost suppressed, that he tried to erase in order to draw his own reality. I love how the story reveals the power implicit in names and language; the power that comes from being able to set definitions, to name this monster, this victim, this conquered. True reconciliation, and true movement forward, can only come once that power has been taken back. For the older ghost of the tower and for Kasmawati, a woman who comes to the tower and nearly becomes its latest victim, progress can only come once the past has been put to rest, its ghosts dispelled, and the power of naming reclaimed. Using only dialogue and stage direction, the piece manages to conjure a mood and atmosphere that evokes Gothic traditions even as it blazes all new territory, creating an innovative, unique, and memorable experience.
“The Weight of Sentience” by Naru Dames Sundar (published in Shimmer Magazine #40, November/December 2017)
What it is: Trisa, an android “infected” with sentience, seeks to escape a nation where the punishment for being a sentient android is death. Along the way, she learns more about humans and about herself, in a tale tinged with sorrow, loss, but lots of hope as well. Blending genres and breaking hearts, “The Weight of Sentience” is a luminous read.
Why I love it: The story doesn’t pull its emotional punches. It’s daring and visceral, following its heroine, Trisa, as she navigates a world where danger is omnipresent, and where violence toward her is extreme. Disguised as a human and on the verge of escaping to a less-hostile nation, she meets someone—someone who treats her like a person, and from there the story blooms into an exploration of love, faith, and the unfairness of life. The setting is unforgiving, and yet for a sci-fantasy it feels familiar, and hauntingly so. Trisa’s vulnerability and desire for a place to belong, her anger and her fear and her hope, are wrenching and devastating. The story builds up a romance and a belief that life is worth living, that there is still beauty and hope for the world despite its ugliness and wrongs. Not that there isn’t pain, or loss, or injustice, but that there are always choices, always roads forward. If you’re looking for a happy read, this might not satisfy, but this is one of the most emotionally resonating stories of 2017, and hopefully being Shimmer’s very last release of the year doesn’t mean people will overlook what it managed to accomplish.
“The House at the End of the Lane is Dreaming” by A. Merc Rustad (published in Lightspeed Magazine #91, December 2017)
What it is: Blending prose and video games by meshing video game techniques like restarts and arbitrary physical restrictions (okay yes, I laughed when the protagonist couldn’t jump a short wall or walk through a puddle), this piece features Alex, the main character of a game full of creeping dread, an alien invasion, a magical book, and a whole lot of trauma. Deep, clever, and with an ending that hits like the end of the world, it deftly balances tone and action, justice and catharsis.
Why I love it: This story is about resisting the pressure to accept dominant narratives, and about the dangers of treating other people’s pain and loss as solely entertainment. Imagine you’re the main character of a video game in testing, forced down avenues of storytelling that rely on your pain and the pain of those around you. Your town is only bare bones; a skeleton that keeps you prisoner, a place where no one seems to know who they are, or have much of a life outside how they relate to you. And there might be a magic book that has something to do with an impending alien invasion. This is the situation Alex finds herself in, and she must try to find a way to save herself and her world, all while being constantly reminded that she cannot save anyone else—not her parents, or her sister, or any stranger she meets on the street. The story examines the harm of certain video game tropes, in particular narratives of loss and pain that are used to convey a sense of scope, stakes, and satisfaction to players. Alex is put in a position where she’s told her only options are to play along or watch everyone she knows die. Perhaps because the game isn’t finalized, though, Alex finds ways to exploit the flaws of the system, and in the story, in order to write her own ending, and create her own future.
“The Heaven-Moving Way” by Chi Hui, translated by Andy Dudak (published in Apex Magazine #104, January 2018)
What it is: A far-future science fiction tale that finds humanity using alien technology from long-dead civilizations to explore and branch out among the stars, only to find the vast emptiness of space. For twins Zhang Xuan and Zhang Kai, the emptiness tells a story of its own, and might allow humanity to take part in a project that is as old as sentient life our galaxy.
Why I love it: “The Heaven-Moving Way” is astonishing in its sense of scope and optimism. This story features a strong, moving relationship between its sibling protagonists, Zhang Xuan (the main character) and her brother Zhang Kai. Xuan and Kai complement each other, so very different—Xuan is more creative and intuitive, whereas Kai is more mathematical and analytical—and yet both on the same page, pointed in the same direction, able to anticipate and push each other into bigger and bigger discoveries. Despite their differences, both siblings are united in their desire to explore and to figure out the mysteries of the universe. When the pair comes across an anomaly—one that would require them to break the law should they want to pursue the mystery—they do so without hesitation. Through conversations with a gossiping ship AI who I adored, their pasts are revealed even as they find their place, and humanity’s place, in a cosmos that seems devoid of the kind of exuberant diversity they had hoped for as children. The story speaks to the dream of the cosmos—the optimism with which people look up at the stars, imagining naming them all, making a mark on them. Ultimately, the story is about the human desire to find connection in the universe. And while the siblings don’t exactly find a way for humanity to reach beyond the Milky Way, they do discover a way of contributing to the project of making such travel, and such connections, a reality. It’s a story full of life and joy and for all that Apex often features darker works, this one felt warm and bright to me.
“The Epic of Sakina” by Shari Paul (published in Fiyah Literary Magazine #5, January 2018)
What it is: Coming from the Ahistorical Blackness theme issue of Fiyah, this historical fantasy tells the story of Sakina as she deals with a threat to her village, using her wits and supernatural abilities to keep her people safe from hungry forces lurking in the shadows. Full of memorable characters and an impressive world building, “The Epic of Sakina” keeps things moving right along with its tight pacing, subversive humor, and bursts of action.
Why I love it: The characters. From the werewolf trying to get out of a bad situation to Sakina’s best friend, Naima, who is always on the lookout for scandal (when she’s not causing it), the story excels at capturing and showcasing different, charming, fun voices. More importantly, by relying on a large and diverse cast, the story shows tolerance and cooperation triumphing over hatred and violence. Sakina’s village is a unique place, in which many people live side by side as distinct individuals with their own cultures, customs, and traditions. The town is a more vibrant, richer place for including and accepting of all of its people’s beliefs, and Sakina acts as a sort of mediator between the various groups and individuals, an educator and problem solver who seeks to foster empathy and understanding even as war and intolerance loom large. She knows that it’s when one tradition or culture seeks to dominate the others, to eradicate difference and create a homologous environment, that tragedies multiply and atrocities occur. The story follows the clash between those who submit that a single religious belief must rule above all others, versus those, like Sakina, who believe that all beliefs and traditions have value and should be respected. “The Epic of Sakina” uses this tension to tell a story about people coming together to resist and repel a more powerful foe so that cooperation (and a good deal of quick thinking) leads to victory over hate. And it’s just a lot of fun. This piece isn’t available to read for free online, but it’s definitely worth checking out Fiyah for this and more excellent short SFF stories.
And that brings a close to the speculative treasure hunting for today. I hope that we managed to unearth something you’ll love and cherish, and that you’ll join me again next month for more adventures in short SFF!