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.
Get X-cited for some X-cellent short SFF! (Okay yes I grew up on X-Men comics I could do this all day.)
I hope you’re wearing comfortable shoes, because we’re ranging far and wide today to track down some speculative treasures. From ghost cats to librarian witches and alien nightmares, there’s something for everyone in this installment of X Marks the Story. So join me in exploring the wild reaches of short speculative fiction, and let’s get to it!
“A Snow, A Flood, A Fire” by Jamie Berrout (published in Strange Horizons, 01/2018 )
What It Is: Coming in a special issue of Strange Horizons featuring transgender and nonbinary authors, “A Snow, A Flood, A Fire” stars Lupita, a trans woman stuck in an awful job as a security guard at a museum, hoping that she can work her way out of mistakes she made when she was younger and her world was imploding. The changing nature of employment, learning algorithms, employer greed and entitlement, and the dream of economic mobility all collide in a plot that kept the reading experience for me fast and tight and devastating. (And for fans of this story, I also recommend checking out “Dream Job” in January’s Terraform SF, which also explores themes of employment and the traps of late capitalism).
Why I Love It: Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, but stories exploring the future of employment and capitalism seem to be on the rise. For me, it’s a constant reminder of the realities of growing up and entering the workforce in a time where so many things that previous generations take for granted are in shambles or completely gone. Retirement contributions, healthcare, vacation, sick leave, debt forgiveness—the present isn’t exactly a cheery place for many hoping to live and maybe reach for that dream of comfort, security, and autonomy. “A Snow, A Flood, A Fire” finds Lupita working as a security guard, constantly surveilling museum patrons for threats, but also the subject of scrutiny herself from her employers. She is watched and constantly judged by a learning algorithm designed to squeeze every last ounce of productivity out of her without regard for her emotional well-being. The story captures so much of what it feels like to work for an employer who doesn’t trust their employees, who treats their workers like lazy leeches trying to steal from the company by simply…checking phones or going to the bathroom. And Lupita’s situation is even more dire, her past preventing her from doing the one thing she wants, the one dream that she’s held onto to keep her invested in the system—to start a family. It’s vivid and wrenching and so, so real. And I love how the story shows that there’s only so far a person can be pushed, only so much that can be squeezed, until they stop having anything left to lose. Until they see that to make a change they have to take risks and fight back. Because when Lupita is presented with a situation where she can either remain loyal to her employer, who is actively trying to destroy her, or rebel, the choice is that much clearer, and I loved how she fights back, using the very program designed to keep her down and bending it to work toward her liberation instead. It wasn’t an easy read for me, but it’s a rending, wonderful story.
“The Starship and the Temple Cat” by Yoon Ha Lee (published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #244, 02/2018)
What It Is: The ghost of a cat prowls the vacant corridors of a temple space station, the City of the High Bells, that was annihilated as part of a larger conflict. Alone and lonely, the cat refuses to give up its vigil lest the memory of its home fade completely. When Spectral Lance, a sentient ship who had been a part of the original destruction of the temple, returns as part of a pilgrimage of atonement and repentance, cat and ship meet and find themselves once again at the center of violence and conflict.
Why I Love It: Perhaps you missed the part where there’s a ghost cat. In space. And an angsty sentient ship (who would much rather recite poetry than fight). Because of course I loved this story, for all its heart and its quiet moments. Told a bit like a fairy tale, like a myth, it casts these very non-human characters in a very human war, one that has robbed them both of those they cared most about. Their original missions dust in the solar winds, they are weightless, adrift—until they find in each other a renewed sense of purpose and community. For me, the joy of the story comes from the way the characters wake up, trying to overcome the inertia of their loss. Each feels alone, with their happiness and their sense of purpose behind them. Until they meet, and it felt like a spark is introduced, a kick that gets them both moving, that allows them to realize what they really want, and find through their cooperation a way to achieve it. Alone, they will flare out and fade, but together they manage to reach an escape velocity, to find the freedom of open space and the vision of how they can move forward through it. For all that the characters are pursued by war, theirs is a quest for peace, and it’s beautifully done.
“Umberlight” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (published in Clarkesworld #137, 02/2018 )
What It Is: Mack is a bit of a recluse in a rather small colony on a distant world, founded by rationalists who sought to escape secular violence on Earth in this rare novella from Clarkesworld Magazine. The colony itself was able to travel faster than many of its cargo ships, though, and the last is now finally set to arrive just as another milestone approaches—the colony’s third winter, a time when the planet is lit by its more distant binary star. It’s important as the colony’s first winter killed three quarters of the original settlers. Generations have passed, though, and the colony is in better shape. And some of the younger people want to risk a touch of winter in order to retrieve whatever cargo their ancestors sent from Earth. Mack is assigned to guide them. What could possibly go wrong?
Why I Love It: Dear reader, so much goes wrong. And in some disturbing, awesome, skin-crawling ways. The novella crosses science fiction and horror wonderfully, revealing just how little rationality really matters in the face of the great and terrible unknown. Or, perhaps that’s a little harsh. But it does show that a rationality based solely on lessons learned on Earth is sorely lacking when looking at the universe outside our limited experience. For the colony, which operates on a kind of conservative logic designed for physical survival, there’s a lack when it comes to fostering growth, creativity, and a deepening understanding of how things really work on this alien world. Which, it turns out, is way more alien than the colony originally thought. And from there “Umberlight” becomes a tense, nightmarish wonderland of lethality. The pacing is expertly managed, from experiencing the dull grind and care of moving through an alien world where the most dangerous thing is the heat and radiation to moving through the same world but suddenly alive with very active and very hungry dangers. Thrilling and breathtaking!
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow (published in Apex #105, 02/2018)
What It Is: A librarian in a small town in the American South struggles with her duties, the push and pull between connecting patrons with the books they need most and, well, protecting patrons from the books they need most, books that might be dangerous because of how powerful (or magical) they are. Something that’s much more complex a proposition when you’re a witch as well as a librarian. When she witnesses the journey and frustrations of a young man very much in need of a little help, of an escape from his crushing situation that magic could offer, something has to give. Apex as a publication focused on darker SFF, and this story does indeed feature a situation ripe with hurt, powerlessness, and fear. But it also maintains a conversational tone, a resilient feel, and a heartwarming impact. (For further reading, definitely pair this with “The Librarian’s Dilemma” by E. Saxey, which appeared in The Journal of Unlikely Academia in 10/2015).
Why I Love It: While “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” is bolstered by the strength of its narrator, and her desire to help people with the magic she has at her command. The story also explores what books can mean to people, and how they can be used to get away from the immediate pains and problems that they might not be able to do anything about. The narrator here watches a young man as he struggles with being part of a system that doesn’t really care about him. He looks to books for a way to make sense of the experiences he has, mostly fails to connect with things about the “real world,” but finds the idea of the portal fantasy to be captivating. Something he returns to again and again. And the librarian here tries to continue to direct him to books on the sly that might help him cope, that might help him wait out his troubles. Except that, really, there are some things that are too big to be escaped through books. Some pains can’t be waited out. Especially when there’s no guarantee that they will end. And I love the care the story takes with that idea, with looking at the power that the librarian has at this point not as a librarian, but as a witch. With access to real magic. And the story seems to ask what good that magic is if it’s not used. If it’s not shared. And I love that the story explores how wanting an escape is not a weakness or a moral failing. How it can reflect a tragic situation, one that the “real world” often offers no good solution to. And I also love how the story allows the characters to forge their own paths, to make their own decisions, with joy and with rebellion and with magic.
The Fisher of Bones by Sarah Gailey (published by Fireside Magazine, 08/2017)
What It Is: Released both serially and as a single publication by Fireside Magazine, The Fisher of Bones follows a young woman named Ducky after the death of her father, a religious leader who vowed to take his people to a promised land. Losing her own name to become the new Fisher, her role is immediately complicated by resistance from her followers, skepticism in her abilities, and a series of misfortunes that people quickly put at her feet. Revealing the dangers of leadership, especially for a woman in a culture steeped in misogyny, The Fisher of Bones rises and falls and rises again as the story draws darker and darker, each step taking Fisher and her followers to a promised land she was forced to believe in. It shows just how much Fisher struggles with the expectations and double standards put on her, and how she manages to keep moving, her strength indomitable and yet…
Why I Love It: Experiencing the narrative of this story was an education in suspense, hope, and devastation. With each new chapter I was pulled between the desire for everything to work out, to root for Fisher, and the knowledge that, at its core, her mission is rather messed up. Indoctrinated into a religion by her father, pushed into leadership and then undermined, gaslit, and blamed for every setback, Fisher continues mostly because of the faith people have in her. She’s stuck, everyone expecting her to help them, to guide them, but not to make them have to actually, you know, respect her. The world she moves through is similarly bleak, full of desert and danger, and with each new complication it seems often enough that everything is going to come apart and crumble to dust and sand and blood. Every chapter I was biting my nails wondering what terrible thing was going to happen next. Or maybe things wouldn’t be so bad? Or maybe they’d be A THOUSAND TIME WORSE! Seriously, the story maintains a whiplash pace as it moves, the community drawing nearer and nearer to their final destination. Which, oh my glob, is just sharp and crushing and brilliant, like being eviscerated by a Thwomp. It shows just how much is expected of women in power, and just how impossible it still can be to actually survive. That sometimes you can be the most qualified person for the job, can fight and win and keep winning and then on the brink of being able to rest, of being able to actually hold the thing you’ve been fighting for…it can slip away. Just go and read this one, and if you’re into self-punishment, only read a chapter every two weeks.
“Try Looking Ahead” by Jason Rodriguez (published in Try Looking Ahead by Jason Rodriguez, Rosarium Publishing, 06/2015)
What It Is: The collection “Try Looking Ahead” comes out of is framed as a man traveling back from an apocalyptic future to try and find something that was missing that might help nudge humanity away from certain doom. What he decides on is stories, and stories for young readers, full of people of different races, genders, and backgrounds joined by their enthusiasm and innovation. This last story in the collection is what the author calls a Litmus Test, that will seem almost boring and mundane if the world changes enough to presumably avoid the fate he’s traveled back in time to prevent. But trust me, the story is anything but mundane, following a parent and child and some simple advice that turns out to have much deeper implications.
Why I Love It: What thrills me about this story is just how good and positive and healing it is. It focuses on a parent/child relationship and there’s a deep and unbending love and acceptance in their bond. And it’s a brave and surprising story, at least in our present reality. It captures this hope and optimism that things can get better, will get better as long as young people are safe and able to focus on what’s ahead of them—as long as we all can keep looking forward. Specifically, it’s a story that features a queer trans woman growing up and the advice and guidance that her father gives her, the belief in herself and the urge to keep moving toward the future that she wants to live in. And it just works so well as a Litmus Test, because of how rare and needed this story is now. Set in a future where queer and trans youth don’t have to fear, where they don’t have to live always with the present closing in around them, this story might seem only pleasant, a bit ho-hum. Instead, it is one of the only stories aimed at young readers (probably accessible to a Middle Grade level but definitely rewarding for all ages and levels) that is so triumphantly, subversively, and profoundly joyous and hopeful. It brings into sharp focus the reality that even happy stories featuring diverse characters are deeply political, not because they must be, but because the current climate makes them so. These stories are even more important, more vital, in showing a world where people care about all children, all people, where together we can solve the very real issues that plague us. Making the future about more than survival—making it about thriving instead.
As an added bonus, I’ll include a little list here of some other SFF short stories that I very much enjoyed. And, like the 90s X-Men comics that were my childhood, I shall call them…
“The River” by Tori Cárdenas (published in Terraform SF, 01/2018) – In this future of immigration “reform”, a queer main character is forced to move to a Brazil they only have vague memories of from early childhood. Touching, timely, and just shattering.
“Sour Milk Girls” by Erin Roberts (published in Clarkesworld #143, 01/2018 – Four girls in a special foster care home discover the truth about what’s been done to their minds to make them “better” suited to be adopted. Bleak and brutal, but with something deeply beautiful about it.
“Me, Waiting for Me, Hoping for Something More” by Dee Warrick (published in Shimmer #41, 01/2018) – Definitely not your standard break-up story nor your standard ghost story, featuring a trans woman and the particular ghost haunting her. Sharp, strange, and with a fantastic twist to it.
“BATTERIES FOR YOUR DOOMBOT5000 ARE NOT INCLUDED” by A. Merc Rustad (published in So You Want to Be a Robot: 21 Stories by A. Merc Rustad, published by Lethe Press – An original for the collection, the story is a sweet exploration of super-villainy, hope, and longing. It’s romantic, fun, and with a somber darkness giving way to a warming light.
That’s all for now! Be sure to stop back in next month (same X-traordinary place, same X-stounding time). Until then, happy story hunting!