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.
Spring is in the air. Kind of. Almost. Where I live (northwestern Wisconsin), it’s more of a late winter, where big snows are punctuated by periods of “warmer” weather (in the 40s and 50s), during which everyone wears shorts and t-shirts because it is necessary after five months of snow and freezing temperatures. The season is definitely starting to shift, and that feeling of change and renewal is what inspires today’s X-citing X-plorations.
My selections this month–six short stories from print and online–reach toward visions of love and warmth tempered by the fresh memory of loss, death, and ghosts. Old sins are finally finding their way to the surface even as new loves thrive and grow; happiness blooms, but not without decay, rot, and long shadows.
“The Emotionless, In Love”, Jason Sanford (published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #246, March 2018)
What It Is: Following up on his story from 2016, “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories,” a rare novella from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, follows Colton, a young man whose lack of emotions makes it challenging to find his place among a human population that is kept strictly in check by “grains,” nano AI who enforce a policy of environmental totalitarianism. In a world where every tree cut down might invite retaliation from anchors, humans modified and largely controlled by the grains to act as agents of anti-exploitation of natural resources, Colton’s difference threatens to make him an outcast. Especially because Colton’s lack of emotions stems from his connection to the grains and the anchors–a connection that has been forever severed, but still makes him suspect in the eyes of the other humans. When the group he travels with gets caught up in a larger conspiracy, though, it might be his lack of emotions that allow him to act where others hesitate.
Why I Love It: Being able to sink my teeth into a truly substantive fantasy offering at an online venue is fairly rare, and this story is a treat in terms of scale, scope, and setting. The world comes alive thanks to the vivid conflict between the grains and the humans–the latter living in fear of constant reprisals for cutting down a tree or eating too much food. And against this larger conflict that has completely changed the face of the planet, there’s the more intimate concerns of Colton and those around him: his desire to regain his emotions, to feel those things that everyone takes for granted. There’s a yearning hope to his quest, even as it leads him headlong into violence and pain. When he meets Sri Sa, who is able to awaken the emotions within, things come to a rather dramatic head. There’s a visual flare to the novella, with battles that shake continents paired alongside quiet moments of tender affection, romance, and friendship. The plot focuses at first on the immediacy of the problem Colton and those around him face, but it slowly peels back to reveal a deeper mystery, and a history that’s been long buried. It’s a relentless read, tinged with darkness and blood, but also glowing with a hope that people can overcome their mistakes, and that the family you find for yourself can often end up meaning more than the one you were born into.
“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington”, Phenderson Djèlí Clark (published at Fireside Magazine, February 2018)
What It Is: As the title of this short story implies, it is a history of sorts of the people behind the teeth that George Washington bought to use for his dentures. Structured into nine sections, the story builds up a wonderfully imagined alternate past full of magic, monsters, and war—even as it uncovers the exploitation and abuse lurking at the heart of the very real history of the United States of America. Each story explores a different aspect of the past through a fantasy lens, and yet the truth of what is explored—the pain and atrocities that people faced under the rule of early America—rings with a power that echoes forward through time, reminding us of the origins, and continued injustices, of this country.
Why I Love It: I have read many histories and supposedly-historical texts that are exercises in erasing the very real issues from the intentionally obscured past in order to simplify and sanitize uncomfortable realities. For example, slavery and other crimes are reframed into employer/employee relationships (as recently embodied in a children’s book about George Washington’s chef), or are omitted entirely in favor of looking at the evils of British Rule or the struggles and noble efforts of the American Founding Fathers. This story, dear readers, has none of that. Instead it looks unflinchingly at some of the most horrific corners of the American past, losing none of its historical punch even as it wraps it in fantasy and magic and paranormal adventure. The world building is breathtaking; I would love to read novels set in this particular alternate history. Indeed, the story feels longer than a traditional short story for me because of the strength of its world and the detail of each of the nine characters behind George Washington’s teeth. It’s a scathing look at more modern attempts to paint away the horrors of slavery and racism that has always existed at the very highest levels of the American government, from our first president to our current one. The story confronts readers and asks, what is more difficult to accept—that werewolves fought in the Revolutionary War, or that black people did? And it does so with a power and a breadth that makes this past come alive, in all its beauty but also all its brutality. A brutality that is our legacy, and one that is still festering at the core of America.
“Five Tangibles and One”, D.A. Xiaolin Spires (published at Terraform SF, February 2018)
What It Is: Sam306 is a gender neutral sexbot working with couples hoping to rekindle their relationships in this science fiction short story. When Sam306 is assigned to their latest assignment, everything seems to be going smoothly… except that Sam306 isn’t exactly the newest model out there, and when things look like they might regress for the couple, they decide to bring in some extra help in the form of newer sexbot, Lori729. Lori729 awakens something in Sam306–a sort of viral desire, a viral love, and the story progresses into what Sam306 does with this new programming.
Why I Love It: I’m not going to lie, sexbot stories are much more often misses for me than hits. And yet this story approaches the sex work the bots do without really fetishizing it. They’re sexual therapists, the acts they perform devoid of any deeper emotionality. Instead, the much more subversive and much more intimate acts that the bots engage in are ones that are separate from their professions. It’s love that is a virus, a corruption, an impossibility made manifest. And the story twists that idea of probability and math into a way of expressing what love can do to people and for people. The idea that love can exist for Sam306 is what gets them to fight for their own importance and desires. It’s what pushes them to break the rules and refuse to give in to the machinery of employment and function. They are able to rebel in ways small and large, to become an outlaw, because they were able to experience something that should not have be possible. And it’s a beautiful and poignant look at the power of love and hope even as it brings a dark edge to this future where the rights for sex bots aren’t really a priority.
“Traces of Us”, Vanessa Fogg (published at GigaNotoSaurus, March 2018)
What It Is: Incredibly heartwarming. What, you need more than that? *Sigh* Fine. This short story draws together Daniel and Kathy, two graduate students interested in the mysteries of the human brain, and who might develop a certain focus on the mysteries of the human heart as well. From their first meeting, to their wedding, to a point far, far in the future, the story follows the trajectory of their relationship from its brilliant highs to its devastating lows. It’s split between the story of Daniel and Kathy on Earth and the story of two ships populated by uploaded human consciousnesses meeting in the deep of space, and links and resolves both narratives with a rending and healing look at love, commitment, and time.
Why I Love It: I am a sucker for romance, and this piece brings it in droves. The relationship between Daniel and Kathy is just so lovely and positive, allowing each of them to pursue their dreams without one person having to sacrifice themself in order to make it happen. Their love is based first on respect, as well as their shared interest and curiosity into pushing forward the understanding of the brain, from its smallest part to its largest potential. Which is not to say that the story is without darkness or complication—cancer threatens to tear the two apart long before they’re ready. And yet the story doesn’t hold out some hope for them to find comfort in a plan or will larger than humanity. It’s not in heaven that they hope to be reunited, unless you consider the great field of stars that realm. Theirs is a relationship that doesn’t look beyond for guidance or validation. It’s not about surrendering to a larger or more ineffable plan, but rather pushing for the change they want to see and making it real. It’s about throwing themselves to the limits of human achievement and finding, through their mutual support and skill, that it’s enough. That even in the face of cancer and the vastness of space, the human spirit and the human drive to explore and to love can still overcome. It’s a healing and touching story that glows with the warmth of stars.
“Of Warps and Wefts”, Innocent Chizaram Ilo (published at Strange Horizons, March 2018)
What It Is: In the world of this very strange short story, adults experience split lives. For the main character, it means living days as Chime, a woman married to Ding; and then living nights as Dime, a man married to Felicity. It also means that Ding spends his nights as Ping, who is in a new relationship that has put a strain on his sixteen-year relationship with Chime. The setting of the story weaves together magic and fantasy with a focus on relationships, especially marriage. In a world where the intricacies of gender, sex, and magic could make for a soap opera of hearts broken and marriages ruined, the piece instead looks at how people can connect and reconnect, leaning on the strengths of their relationships to find calm waters in what could easily be a raging sea of hurt and betrayal. (Intrepid readers might pair this with “The Night Bazaar for Women Becoming Reptiles” by Rachael K. Jones for an added look at split marriages and magic)
Why I Love It: Change is something that anchors this story—the immediate change that the characters go through every day and the slower change that can effect relationships and families. For Chime, her husband’s change amid the rush of his new relationship has put a strain on them, and it’s something that both of them are hesitant to talk about. Because, for all the magic of this world, for all the wonder, it seems to be the more mundane fears that trip the characters up. Their own insecurities about their relationships, about what it means to be with someone for a long time, to partner with someone even if it’s split between days and nights. The dialogue of the story is amazing and strikes me as real, as natural—a delightful touch in a setting as different as this one. And the character work is rewarding, bringing Dime/Chime to a place where they’re finally willing to talk about their feelings and their frustrations and their fears. Where they’re able to overcome the hesitation and the silences and speak in a way for Ding/Ping to hear and understand, so that they don’t lose what they’ve taken sixteen years building. So that they can realize that what they have is as important, as deep, and as immediate as the newer relationships that they form. That, for all they each change every day and night, relationships don’t prosper when one person tries to change the other, but rather embraces who they are so that they can work toward solutions together. And it’s a vibrant and ultimately triumphant piece about marriage and family and love.
“From the Womb of the Land, Our Bones Entwined”, AJ Fitzwater (published in Pacific Monsters, Fox Spirit Books, November 2017)
What It Is: Spanning the Pacific Ocean, the story finds Hineahoune, a young trans woman burdened with the power to soothe earthquakes, running from the deaths she was unable to prevent the last time she tried. Called home by her aunt, she must face the past, her family, and everything else she’d prefer stay dormant and distant in an attempt to prevent an even bigger disaster from happening. The piece fits into the larger Book of Monsters project, which seeks to highlight monsters from around the world and center them in the places they are from. Told by writers with connections to the area, the series as a whole features a wide array of short SFF and has visited Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, which is where this story is from.
Why I Love It: The story is an interesting examination of a monster, of E, who is an earthquake, who is more than an earthquake. Who is also fear, and petulance, and hunger. Hine draws parallels between E and herself, their natures and their stubborn pride. In some ways, the story explores the ways that Hine could be a monster but chooses not to be. She has power, and her own hurt and fear could make her either destructive in her own right or by default—by her refusal to fight, to step into her power to prevent tragedy. She and E are made of the same stuff, born of the same womb, and yet the difference between them is support, is in this case family. Hine is not alone, has people who care for her, who are there to help her. Who can teach her how to reign in E’s destruction, even if it comes at a cost. The story is tense and wrenching and shows Hine struggling with her legacy, with the ways she was let down and hurt by the past. The story finds a future for her, though, and a power that comes from embracing who she is and who she might be. It’s a story of faults and the threat of breaking apart but the strength that Hine has to hold together. To remain whole. It’s a wonderful and inspiring piece that carries with it a taste of loss, but also a hope to be found in stepping into a tradition and finding a place to belong.
Some further X-plorations:
“Six Hangings in the Land of Unkillable Women”, Theodore McCombs (published in Nightmare Magazine #65, February 2018) – In an alternate past where men have suddenly stopped being able to kill women, what changes and what stays the same?
“He Dies Where I Die”, Michael Harris Cohen (published in The Dark Magazine #33, February 2018) – A truly claustrophobic and creepy story about hunger and hope and horror.
“Her Beautiful Body”, Adrienne Celt (published at Strange Horizons, February 2018) – An unsettling examination of art, gaze, and women’s bodies.
“Unplaces: An Atlas of Non-existence”, Izzy Wasserstein (published in Clarkesworld #138, March 2018) – A tour of places that might be framed inside a reality that we all hope will not come to be.
“Duck, Duck, Duck”, Samantha Murray (published at Flash Fiction Online, March 2018) – A haunting look at how children are taught to hate, with a nice science fiction twist.
“The Only Neat Thing To Do”, James Tiptree, Jr. (published in _The Starry Rift_, Tor, 1986) – A fantastic novella about space and first contact and the human spirit in the face of the unknown.
And there you have it! Thank you so much for joining me on today’s X-traordinary adventures into the wilds of short SFF. I’ll be back next month with yet more speculative treasure-hunting, so until then, Cheers!