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.
Happy Pride Month! Rainbows and unicorns for everyone!
Even as Pride is a celebration, though, it’s also a reminder. For all the progress that has been achieved in striving for equality and justice, the journey hasn’t been easy, and there’s still a lot of work to do. With all of that in mind, I wanted to focus my June sel-X-ions on resistance, resilience, healing, and hope.
From tyrannical suns to greedy scientists, from monsters to wind gods, from warriors and cooks to skeleton detectives—these stories feature a wide range of injustices to fight against and loves to root for. So tie on your favorite flag cape, try not to get any glitter in your eyes, and let’s start this literary adventure!
“I Sing Against the Silent Sun”, A. Merc Rustad and Ada Hoffmann (Lightspeed #97, June 2018)
What It Is: Spinning out of Rustad’s Sun Lords of the Principality setting, “I Sing Against the Silent Sun” picks back up with Li Sin, who last appeared in “Brightened Star, Ascending Dawn” back in March, 2018. Along with her sentient ship, Vector, and nonbinary lover, Gerarr, Li Sin has been waging a rebellion in words—using her poetry to inspire resistance against the tyranny of the Gray Sun Lord. After being captured and tortured five years earlier,Li Sin’s words have been silenced, and her desire to speak out complicated by the trauma of what happened to her. Like with a lot of the stories in this series, heavy violence and oppression are at work, but there’s also a beauty both fragile and unbreakable that pervades the characters and their struggle.
Why I Love It: Poetry prose, song and survival blend together in this collaborative story that proves that there’s definitely room for verse in epic (and really dark) science fiction. And I personally love the central conflict here—the battle not only against a brutal regime but against silence itself. The Gray Sun Lord is terrifying in how he seeks to hold power, by literally making his enemies unable to speak in opposition to him. It includes and surpasses the sort of thought policing that happens at a linguistic level, and reaches into voice itself by crafting a population that is without a physical means to dissent. Li Sin’s battle, then, is against these silencing tactics but also against the fear and trauma she carries at having been a victim of the Gray Sun Lord’s particular attention. And I love how she is able to resist the urge to run away, to quit the resistance—through the support and love of her friends and lovers, and through a renewed connection to her own art, realizing the impact that it can have. As a creative, the pressure to cave to societal pressures and expectations can be intense. Art, though, is something that can be both accessible and dangerous, and makes a powerful weapon when used against injustice.
“Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep”, Nibedita Sen (Nightmare #69, June 2018)
What It Is: A whaling captain of thirty years is making his final voyage, and on that occasion he’s been paired with a scientist rich in ambition. The epistolary story is framed as a written account, a sort of journal, and the events described move from hopeful to violent to something much, much worse. There is a cold efficiency to the captain’s perspective as a career military man in charge of making sure his nation has enough of the vital (and lucrative) resources derived from the whales. There’s also a hunger, though, subtle at first but slowly growing, that gives rise to the creeping horror the story bares to the reader.
Why I Love It: Stories about whaling evoke an early industrial, resource-driven bloodlust. Sailors in these types of stories are hunters, using ever more sophisticated tools to seek and destroy and render whales into meat and oil. While the setting feels an awful lot like our own, it also isn’t tied to any specific time or place, and if I had to guess I’d say this isn’t Earth as we know it. In many ways, the story is a funhouse mirror, a look that reveals the nature of who we were, what we did, but foresees a much different path. The dispassionate words of the captain lead the reader through the business of killing whales, of transforming them into liquid money, into prestige and power. It’s like the story is inviting the reader to treat these deaths, this hunt, as the characters do, as part of a necessary tradition that might be coming to an end with the scarcity of the whales. And that, I feel, is where the story really shines, in how it shows that even with the prospect of these creatures being hunted to extinction, the first thought of the captain and the scientist and most everyone else is the regret that the resources will be harder to find. And it’s that mentality, that distanced disregard for life, that the story brings back around, revealing a hunger even larger than the men aboard the ship, larger than anything human. And realizing that when you live by consumption, you run the risk of being devoured in turn.
“The Cook”, C.L. Clark (Uncanny #22, May/June 2018)
What It Is: A flash fiction with a lot of heart (and just enough spice), “The Cook” introduces a warrior on the eve of battle, sharing a meal and a drink with her fellow soldiers at an inn. The atmosphere is tense, and the characters project what confidence is possible in order to avoid thinking about what might happen the next day. And through the chaos of the inn, this warrior finds herself graced with distraction: food, and the woman who cooked the food. And this confluence starts something rare and beautiful—something that gives the piece a romantic flare, and both celebrates and complicates some classic fantasy tropes.
Why I Love It: The inn is something of a fantasy staple, a place where adventures begin, where warriors are given their quests, and where they return to in order to lick their wounds. For all that they form the backdrop of countless fantasy scenes, though, rarely are readers able to enjoy sensory information outside of the cacophony of sound and movement of adventurers blowing off steam. This story takes a breath and peels back the layers of senses, revealing the types of smell and taste that go well beyond the typical hard bread and stale beer. For me, the story focuses on a moment when this normally mundane setting comes alive with something more exciting than what’s waiting out there on the battlefield. From that first glimpse of the cook, the narrator’s heart shifts from being out there, in the thick of it, to being right there, in the kitchen of that inn, where there’s a much more rewarding kind of adventure waiting. The piece is sexy and sweet without erasing that the narrator, as a warrior, lives always with a specter hovering over her. But for all the uncertainty and the danger, the characters choose not to distance themselves, but to embrace each other and who they are, and try to find a way forward together.
Susurrus on Mars by Hal Duncan (Lethe Press, 2017)
What It Is: Published as a stand alone novella, Susurrus on Mars is a couple of things. It’s a deeply moving romance between two men, Jaq and Puk, as Jaq introduces Puk to Mars and all its distractions and delights, its pleasures and its philosophies. It’s also a sort of guide to the speculative natural world of Mars, as filtered through trees and flowers, brushed by Susurrus, a god of wind, as he moves around Jaq and Puk, captivated by what grows between them. And it’s a reminder of myth, a subversion of every story told of young lovers who were transformed into plants as punishment or reward for something they did in life. Vivid and with a lyric language that makes the vulgar beautiful, the novella weaves a gentle story of love and healing through the serene landscapes of a Mars I wish I could visit.
Why I Love It: With all the reminders of Greek myth, of the lovers transformed and stuck forever apart, there’s an almost doomed feeling to the prose. A sort of lush wonder that preludes the storm, the tragedy, the loss. For all that the story of Jaq and Puk is charming and sweet, being a reader raised on mainstream stories made me expect something terrible to happen. They are almost too perfect, too cute, too good for each other. Jaq is a shameless flirt helping Puk, who has been raised on a much more religiously conservative Earth, find happiness and belonging on the alien Mars. It’s not a utopia, the text reminds time and again. It’s not paradise. And that’s where this story breaks me and pieces me back together. Not by showing a fall or a destruction. Not by turning the love these two men share into something ugly. But rather by showing how distance has allowed people to create not a paradise, but a world so much better than the Earth left behind. Not perfect, but where this love does not have to fail or fade. Because that shouldn’t have to be a paradise. Because that beauty should be allowed to grow wild and free.
“Salt Lines”, Ian Muneshwar (Strange Horizons, May 2018)
What It Is: Ravi, a gay immigrant from Guyana, leaves a nightclub to find that he’s being followed by a figure out of his childhood superstition. A jumbie. A monster. As Ravi flees, and tries to reconnect with his family, with his heritage, he comes face to face with the way that monstrosity was treated where he grew up. And how specifically it hurt him, and continues to hurt him. Grim but slowly resolving into something lighter and more forgiving, “Salt Lines” deals with a heavy darkness, a desire for family and connection even as the toxicity of those connections becomes unavoidably clear.
Why I Love It: Queer people often find themselves reflected in villains. Or, perhaps more specifically, villains often reflect a societal insecurity and hatred of queer identities. Characters that code queer are often forced into roles that expose their inherent evil and open them up to violence at the hands of the heroes. And in “Salt Lines” I see that being explored with folklore, where for Ravi the jumbie was always a monster to be afraid of. To be avoided. To be driven out. But that as his relationship with his parents and his country of birth change, so too does his relationship to the stories he grew up with. Suddenly he recognizes himself in the jumbie. His desires. His difference. His monstrosity. He’s left with the hatred for who he is that his family and his country of birth through their actions and violence condone. And faced with that, faced with being cut off entirely from his childhood, from his traditions and stories, Ravi finds another way. By embracing the villain. The monsters. And by embracing them, accepting himself. Refusing to buy into the narrative that the jumbie is evil or ugly or twisted. By seeing in the jumbie beauty, and pleasure, and acceptance.
“What the Skeleton Detective Tells You (while you picnic)”, Katherine Kendig (Shimmer #43, May/June 2018)
What It Is: Jared and Jamie alternate perspectives in what could be read as a mystery, or maybe a romance, or a paranormal horror, but what is definitely a weird and delightful short story. The speculative element is front and center, too—Jamie is a living skeleton. It’s a condition that allows her to blend in quite nicely at the local skeleton forest, which is convenient if you happen to be a skeleton detective who happens to be investigating the supposed disappearance of a man whose favorite hangout is said forest. Unfortunately (or fortunately, really), Jared shows up before Jamie catches sight of the person she’s looking for, and the two start up a conversation that slowly grows into something more. Strange and macabre without being depressing, there’s a sort of self-deprecating humor to the prose that shines through, and makes for a rather unique reading experience.
Why I Love It: Skeleton. Detective. Seriously, I would love this story for the visuals alone (so I’m extra glad there’s much more to enjoy about it). There’s just something so strange and messed up and vaguely terrifying but also really lovely and fragile about the whole situation. Jamie is incredibly self-conscious about being a skeleton (as one would be), and yet obviously doesn’t want to hide away. She’s seeking connections, from her work to creating online dating profiles—trying to reach through the loneliness that is a side effect of her condition. And Jared, in all his bumbling glory, is just as eager to connect. He’s embarrassed and interested, and she’s guarded but hopeful, and it’s just so much fun to watch when one of the people involved is a literal walking skeleton. But there’s also the mystery elements, too, the way that Jamie begins her investigation and falls into the trap of having her own feelings cloud how she’s interpreting other people’s actions. And, perhaps, how she’s interpreting her own. Talking with Jared allows her to see her own blinders, and remove them. Jared, for his part, is an apt mirror, a sounding board who asks questions and listens and is mostly just supportive. And I want to hug them both.
And in case that wasn’t enough, try out these further X-plorations:
“We Feed the Bears of Fire and Ice”, Octavia Cade (Strange Horizons, May 2018) – Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. But they’re all wrong, because it’s bears. Terrifying, lyrically rendered bears.
“When the Letter Comes”, Sara Fox (The Book Smugglers, May 2018) – When Henry is passed over for magic school in favor of her younger sister, it begins to teach her about patience, injustice, and taking action. A moving coming of age story that’s just wonderful.
“More Blood Than Bone”, E.K. Wagner (Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #36, May 2018) – The Aevern have always used their magical abilities to maintain a social and economic superiority. When Tierence, a mixed racial scholar, begins to threaten that arrangement, things are bound to get messy.
“In the End, It Always Turns Out the Same”, A.C. Wise (The Dark #37, June 2018) – The Super Teen Detective Squad is on the case! Only, with a whole host of issues and traumas, and a shared darkness, I’m not sure that’s a good thing. A meta-textual walking tour of childhood detective tropes meeting real world horror.
“Like Smoke, Like Light”, Yukimi Ogawa (Strange Horizons, June 2018) – Disgrace and ritual trap a young woman from a magical family in a job serving a distant and powerful relative. It also gives her a unique perspective on the nature of ghosts, and monsters, and the makings of both.
“Cherry Wood Coffin” by Eugenia Triantafyllou (Apex #108, May 2018) – Coffins literally speak to the narrator of this story, a coffin maker whose job it is to ensure that the deceased stay at rest. Only sometimes it’s too hard to put the dead in the ground, which can lead to whole other issues. Unsettling, quiet, and so good.
“Variations on a Theme from Turandot”, Ada Hoffmann (Strange Horizons, May 2018) – Mixing theater and history—cycles of violence with thematic song cycles—the lines between Liù and the actor playing her are blurred, as they both struggle to change the narrative that always sees them dead by curtain call.
And there you have it, another adventure through some x-cellent short fiction! Be sure to tune back in next month, intrepid questers for less-than-novel-length delights, for even more speculative treasure hunting!