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 cannot be denied any longer. The long winter is over and in a month I’ll be complaining that it’s too hot, but for now in this glorious moment things have thawed, the trees are budding, and color has returned to the Northern hemisphere. To celebrate, the stories I’m X-ploring today feature themes of loss, threat, and survival. Which might not sound entirely appropriate, but they feature characters who are going through some very difficult times, have suffered their own harsh winters, and find themselves reaching toward a spring that’s finally coming ever closer. Healing, hope, and escape all give these stories a warmth to shake off the cold’s lingering touch and herald in the start of a new season.
So find a stylish pair of shades and don’t forget to apply broad spectrum sunscreen as we go in search of X-traordinary short SFF!
“Logistics”, A.J. Fitzwater (published in Clarkesworld #139, April 2018)
What It Is: Enfys, an enby, has survived the end of the world thanks to their immunity to the phage, a disease that has wiped out most of humanity. Traveling alone because quarantines keep most cities locked down, they start recording their thoughts and broadcasting them to whoever’s listening in this post-disaster world. Framed as the transcript from those recordings, the story reveals the resolve and humor of Enfys as they scour the world for tampons (a simple enough desire complicated by how people prioritize post-disaster relief). Even worse, just because most of humanity is gone doesn’t mean there aren’t some vestiges of the worst of humanity lingering, and Enfys finds that there are more dangers than the phage, boredom, and a lack of sanitary products to contend with.
Why I Love It: As far as bad situations go, Enfys’ is pretty awful. Having been in surgery when the end really arrived, their body is not what they want it to be and their world was never the most welcoming to begin with. With reconstruction and survival as their main priority, they opt to wander and record, offering their insights, hopes, and fears as they move through a skeletal landscape. What I love most about the story, though, is that even with the darkness of what has happened and the rather terrible luck that Enfys has had, they remain optimistic in the face of overwhelming tragedy. Perhaps because of who they are and the road they’ve had to walk because of their identity, they face every new adversity with a resolve and refusal to stop or give up. Even in the face of some sadistic and intolerant people ,they find a way to stay alive and to keep pushing for positive change in whatever way they can. The recovering world becomes richer for their contributions, for their voice, their wit, their insecurities, and their fierce drive.
“Murders Fell From Our Wombs”, Tlotlo Tsamaase (published in Apex #107, April 2018)
What It Is: Game and Same are sisters living in a small village where murder is a monthly visitor. The sisters are dreamers in more ways than one: they are fans of films who hope for a better life, but are intimately aware of the ways that women are often made into victims by their portrayals in popular media. That dominating narrative is reproduced in the murders of the village—which always target women. Game, however, has a more direct link to the killings, through the dreams she experiences while menstruating. And when she decides that she needs to take action in order to fight back against the narrative that pushes her and her sister towards death, this has some unforeseen consequences.
Why I Love It: The focus on narrative is what makes this story so deep for me. It establishes this system where Game is always witness to murder, forced to live through them in her dreams just as everyone in the village is forced to witness them in films, on television, in books, and comics. The sisters recognize the system and yet it is so pervasive and complete, especially in their little village, that escaping it seems impossible. Instead, Game tries to subvert the system, to reverse it, only to find that the momentum of injustice cannot be stopped so easily. Women remain victims despite Game’s efforts, though in different, more complicated ways. And I love that the story shows that sometimes the most powerful thing a person can do is not listen to the voice that says there’s no escape. Game refuses to just accept her pain and her victimization. The dreams she shared with her sister might be dead, but that’s not to say that she can’t break free of the grinding wheel of violence and blood she’s been trapped by. It’s not easy, and sometimes it depends on having support and help in uncommon ways, but I feel that Game does show how sometimes the most subversive act can be completely breaking from a corrupt system. But that, at the same time, there’s not always an escape open for everyone.
“Into the Gray”, Margaret Killjoy (published at Tor.com, April 2018)
What It Is: The unnamed narrator of this story is in love with the Lady of the Waking Waters, a mermaid who loves them back but also uses them to obtain sustenance in the form of wicked men to devour. The narrator is someone who has been running most of their life, who never has a t home because they’ve never fit anywhere. With this new love, this new arrangement of procuring food for the Lady of the Waking Waters, the narrator believes they may have finally found a place to call home—they hope to become a mermaid, too. Helping to murder wicked men isn’t the safest of jobs, though, and when their latest victim turns out to have friends determined to find him, it complicates the narrator’s plans and pushes them to make some big decisions.
Why I Love It: There’s something so very real and relatable for me about how the main character is trapped in between—between the land and the sea, between genders, between flight or fight. Despite always having rolled with the punches, moving whenever things became too dangerous, there seems to be a part of them that wants so badly to just fit somewhere and be accepted fully for who they are. Only they don’t seem sure what that would look like or if any single form would be able to truly express who they are. And it speaks to me to the very human desire to bargain with the universe, to try and convince ourselves if we just had this one thing, or this other thing, we’d be happy. The truth is much more complicated, though, and I love how the story brings the narrator to a place where they can see what they’re doing and realize that any bargain is loaded when they don’t know what they really want or what will make them feel okay. They’ve spent so much time trying to change something about themself to fit the world that it takes a huge fucking mess for them to start to see that maybe they are already whole, and that it’s the world that would have to change to fit them. Which is beautiful as well as heartbreaking, and makes for a poignant and bloody read.
“A Most Elegant Solution”, M. Darusha Wehm (published at Motherboard’s Terraform, April 2018)
What It Is: The first human colonists have reached Mars. Scientists of various sorts, they’re to build the habitats that humans will live in with the help of tiny bots that Betsy, one of the colonists, designed. The piece is told jumping through time, from a horrifying present backwards to the excitement of being chosen to go and the promise of the early days on Mars when it seems like humanity was on the cusp of achieving something long dreamed about. Betsy’s voice is what guides the story, from their anthropomorphizing their creations to their numb acceptance of what happened to something even beyond the numbness. There’s horror and science in equal measure, and an ending that delightfully twists expectations.
Why I Love It: Mars has always existed as a place where human dreams go to die. A glittering jewel just out of reach, it represents probably the greatest hurdle to extraterrestrial colonization. Foreboding and gothic, Mars is a challenge precisely because humans were not made to live there. Any number of a billion tiny things could lead to a cascade of disasters that would make this latest colonization attempt nothing but dust and bones. Nor is the hostile planet the only danger, as Betsy’s bots seem to break their programming and turn on their human masters. It’s a story that could easily have been about the horror of human hubris. And yet it’s not. Indeed, for me the story is about a triumph of humanity, a leap in technology and hope and possibility made possible because of stumbling around in the dark, hoping to find a light switch. Most of the time, the narrative becomes about just the horror of the dark and the horror of what people might find there. Instead we are treated to a story about not only finding a light switch, but finding flashlights—a way to push forward into the most inhospitable places and find new ways to thrive.
“Origami Angels”, Derek Lubangakene (published in Omenana #11, April 2018)
What It Is: Duncan is a boy who can’t always stay out of trouble and has no close friends until he meets Asaf, and things change with a jolt. Literally, because Asaf has powers that effect electricity—powers he doesn’t have the best control over. As the two boys grow close, they find in each other someone to confide in and to dream with. They plan, and they work in hopes of creating something perfect, something that will earn them the respect of their peers and the praise of their teachers. For Asaf there is another reason he’s pushing toward perfection, though, and one that threatens to shatters the beautiful friendship that he and Duncan have built.
Why I Love It: Be ready to cry with this one, okay? Seriously, it’s a heartbreak of a story, building this friendship between Duncan and Asaf in the shadow of superhero narratives. I love the way it takes the way that the boys bond over superheroes, over powers, because of Asaf’s situation. They believe in heroes, and in a sort of fairness that often exists in comic books, where the good guys win and the bad guys lose. And through that, they form this strong bond where they help each other through their loneliness and toward a brighter day. At least, they begin to. Twisting the traditional arc, Asaf’s powers seem to come not only with great responsibility, but with a much steeper cost—a shorter life. And in the face of that, the knowledge that he might die soon, Asaf retreats into a sort of bargain, where he thinks if he achieves something perfect it will make his short life mean something. It’s an aching idea, especially because of how seductive it is regardless of age—the thought that making something perfect will lend with it a kind of immortality. By focusing so much on the physical, on making a thing, Asaf almost pushes Duncan away. And it’s just a beautiful story that shows that perfection isn’t always about an object or invention or even an art—sometimes it’s a friendship carefully crafted and dearly prized. Now excuse me while I go weep some more.
“Silence in Blue Glass”, Margaret Ronald (published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #250, May 2018)
What It Is: Arthur Swift accepts an invitation to a dinner party from his older brother. Out of work since convalescing in a veteran’s hospital at the close of a losing war, Arthur hopes to reconnect with his estranged brother. What starts out as a night of reunions, however, takes a bloody turn when one of the guests turns up dead, and Arthur is dragged into finding out who’s responsible. Tense and isolated, the piece captures the feel of a Victorian mystery, a who-done-it set in a gritty but captivating second world where the scars of a great war are still very much visible in both the politics of the city and the mind of Arthur Swift.
Why I Love It: I’m a sucker for a good mystery, and one that combines a post-war fantasy setting with displaced magical populations, PTSD, and a city trying to claw its way out of not just defeat but a legacy of corruption is far too promising to pass up. Arthur as a veteran is damaged but earnest, trying to show that he hasn’t been beaten by his injuries or his nightmares. He struggles in the presence of magic, and the dinner party gives him a bit more than he can handle. Luckily he’s not alone as the mystery unfolds, acting as Watson to the Holmes of a kobold named Mieni. Inquisitive, sharp, and damaged by the war as well, Mieni remains shrewd and optimistic, and proves herself more than a match for Arthur. And I like how the story layers its mystery, making this not just about murder but family, betrayal, expression, and expectation as well. The characters are memorable and vibrant, the clues a wonderful mix of important and red herrings. And at its core it’s a story about a man seeking direction, seeking to put his life back together, and finding that perhaps his calling has fallen right in his lap.
“The Right Way To Be Sad”,Shankar Gopalakrishnan (Strange Horizons, April 2018) – Sheru is a dog used in an experiment to try and integrate neural networks with biological stimuli who instead shows where the sometimes theory loses its urgency in the face of tragedy and need.
“Violets on the Tongue”, Nin Harris (Clarkesworld #139, April 2018) – Eshe, a woman of many Earth cultures, finds herself on an alien world where, with her lovers, she helps to usher in a new mythology that might allow for a future for all the people living on the planet.
“50 Ways to Leave Your Fairy Lover”, Aimee Picchi (Fireside Magazine, April 2018) – A grandmother gives her granddaughter some useful, funny, and poignant advice as she reflects back on her life and particularly on when she was going out with a Fae.
“Godmeat”, Martin Cahill (Lightspeed #96, May 2018) – Hark has accepted the job of serving up the gods of the world to their would-be usurpers to devour, only to find that his role and motivations might not be as simple as he thought.
We’ve come to the end of another journey. I hope that we’ve uncovered something that you’ll love. If not, then at least we’ll be back again (same X-citing place, same X-citing time) to once more plunge into the wilds of short SFF and try to find some hidden gems. Until next time!