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.
X Marks the Story – July 2018
Welcome! Ready to defy X-pectations? Because for this month’s theme, I’m focusing on stories that feature characters who…don’t really fit in. Not because they don’t want to, but rather because they find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to societal values. It doesn’t take much, after all, to fall outside the neat lines of what a society values and holds up as “normal.”
More than that, these stories also veer from the well-worn paths when it comes to mapping difference and ability. Instead of focusing on integration, on turning these “misfits” into productive members of society, the narratives seek instead ways for the characters to maintain their autonomy, uniqueness, and independence. And the stories don’t shy away from X-amining what happens when that is impossible, when characters are crushed beneath the heal of injustice and conformity. They are a challenging and provocative bunch of short SFF visions, blazing some interesting and needed trails across the wilds of genre.
So make sure to grab extra water, bring a buddy, and let’s X-plore some fantastic fiction!
“Meat And Salt And Sparks”, Rich Larson (Tor, June 2018)
What It Is: Cu is an uplifted chimpanzee, who successfully sued for recognition of her personhood. Now a consulting detective who brings a fresh (and not human) perspective to solving cases, she’s joined by her human partner Huxley in a buddy cop story that’s familiar enough in trope and scope, but completely novel and refreshing in perspective and shape. When a single murder leads Cu to believe that there’s a sinister presence lurking behind the crime, she’s pulled not only into a futuristic web of proxies and kink, but into her own past as well, and the specific traumas she’s suffered. Proudly an outsider and yet struggling under the crushing weight of being the only one of her kind, Cu brings a wry voice and piercing insight to her role as master sleuth.
Why I Love It: Did you miss the part where there’s a detective chimp? Because yeah, that’s pretty much my aesthetic. More than that, there’s such a mature and complex take on that admittedly kinda silly element. Cu is damaged from her time in captivity, from the experimentation, and from her attempted integration into human society. The story looks very closely at how possible it is for them to assimilate, and how that too is a sort of harm being done to them. Because it requires them to erase their difference, to try and fit into the space that humanity allows for her, which isn’t very large or comfortable. Without that space, though, what remains is dark and incredibly lonely. Cu is not human, and yet almost everything about how they view themself and the world is derived from a human perspective. Because they are unique. Where the story could have used that singular perspective to condemn humanity, though, I feel like it finds hope instead, and beauty, and community. Cu has been intimately hurt, but they have also known kindness, and if not understanding at least empathy from her friends. Which reveals a map for healing, and a way to move forward.
“Nussia”, Michele Tracy Berger (The Book Smugglers, June 2018)
What It Is: The second of the Awakenings short fiction season from The Book Smugglers, “Nussia” follows Lindsay, a young black girl who has won an essay contest for her family to house a Fike, an alien race who have recently opened relations with Earth. Set during the 1970s, the story explores the political and social landscape inside of which Lindsay just wants a friend. She sees in Nussia, the young Fike who will be staying with her family, the opportunity to not always be the weird kid, to not always be alone. Everyone is fighting expectations, though, including Nussia herself, and what follows is anything but the bright future Lindsay imagined. Increasingly dark and horrifying, there’s a momentum within the story towards violence, trauma, and tragedy, and one that builds to an unstoppable force aimed directly at the reader’s emotions.
Why I Love It: I think I forgot to blink for the last quarter of this story. Seriously, the tension builds so subtly, and the use of voice and character is masterfully turned into a weapon against reader expectations. For me, at least, there’s something very familiar about the beginning of the story—a middle grade kind of setup that seems like this story might be about friendship and how Racism Is Wrong and how family is always there for you and…and…and the story instead grows more and more uncomfortable as it progresses, as Lindsay realizes that Nussia is nothing at all what she expected. For me, the story refuses to enter into the standard, simple lessons about race, aliens, and prejudice. Instead it offers a visceral, chilling look at how things can go wrong even when entering into a situation with the best of intentions. And as the story dips down into horror and trauma, it becomes clear that this is not a feel-good story. And seeing how what happens is framed within the story (by the media, by Lindsay’s family, by society in general) reveals how loaded the deck was from the start, how there’s often no winning for people who are already penalized for the way they are—for the color of their skin, and the way they act, and their gender, and everything. It’s a difficult but incredibly rewarding story to grapple with, and one that refuses to soften its message just because Lindsay is a child. That reminds us that, despite her age, society will never truly see Lindsay as innocent, because of its own intolerance, hate, and corruption.
“Kylie Land”, Caspian Gray (Nightmare #70, July 2018)
What It Is: Kyle has a hard time fitting in part because his brain doesn’t seem to work like everyone else’s, and to make matters worse, he lives under a heavy set of rules imposed by his father. Presumably, these rules are to keep Kyle safe, as his differences might make him vulnerable to different kinds of abuse. When a new student, Ramage, begins attending Kyle’s school, and lets slip that he might have telepathic powers, Kyle sees an opportunity to find out if the stifling oppression he feels is for his own good, or something much worse. Together, Kyle and Ramage might seem like unlikely friends, and yet each takes comfort in the other’s difference, neither of them like the other but finding common ground in being outsiders, in being “weird.” And through each other they seek healing and affirmation. That they aren’t crazy. That they aren’t evil. That they are just kids trying their best to deal with what makes them outcasts, and in the process finding that they maybe aren’t quite so outcast as long as they have each other.
Why I Love It: Abuse can take many forms, and it’s always incredibly difficult to face the ways that society supports abuse. Like here, where Kyle’s father is basically encouraged to create these rules in order to “protect” Kyle, which really they are designed to do anything but. But as a child, and a child who isn’t neurotypical, Kyle is stuck, never able to truly believe himself because of how no one else believes him. He is forced to accept an interpretation of the world that he doesn’t agree with, by sheer weight of everyone telling him how wrong he is. And yet he still knows himself, and still knows that how his father treats him Doesn’t Feel Right. And I love how the story explores that through his friendship with Ramage. The boys use each other, consciously and not, and yet they also want to help each other, and are guided not by selfishness but rather by need. Kyle needs to know if his father actually cares about him, and Ramage needs to know that his gift is not a curse. And I love that the story gives them each room to reach for what they want, realizing that for Kyle, remaining in an abusive relationship just because it looks from the outside like it’s normal, is not a good thing. Is not healthy. Is not right. It’s not often I see stories that advocate for children’s right to guide their own lives, especially when they aren’t neurotypical, and this is a dark, but for me ultimately triumphant story about the affirming power of friendship.
“You Can Make a Dinosaur, but You Can’t Help Me”, K.M. Szpara (Uncanny #23, July 2018)
What It Is: Emerick is a trans man and the son of Collier Owen, the head of Owen Corporations, famous for using portal technology to bring dinosaurs forward in time into the present, where they are used for scientific research. The story takes place in the shared universe of Uncanny’s July/August special dinosaur issue, but it also stands well on its own. The story focuses on Emerick and his partner, Leo (another trans man, though very different in how he expresses his gender), as they navigate the incredibly sensitive and difficult terrain of identity, dysphoria, and family. Emerick, needing bottom surgery, is pushed to reconnect with his mostly-estranged father, who could easily afford the expense. Only there’s a very good reason why the two are mostly-estranged, and when Emerick visits his father’s island of dinosaurs, things don’t exactly go as planned. The piece looks at how a scientist who can work to bring dinosaur’s back to life can fail to believe in his son, or recognize the veracity of his identity, despite the consensus of science and medicine concerning trans people.
Why I Love It: There is so much in this story that shattered me, from the beautifully honest discussions Emerick and Leo have about bodies and sex, to the realistic ways that families (and scientists) can stumble so profoundly on such a relatively simple idea as being transgender (the title speaks directly and sharply to this aspect of the story). And it’s such a wonderfully real relationship that Emerick and Leo have, vulnerable and supportive and not without moments of frustration and pain. Especially for Emerick, there’s the struggle to express himself and his needs with regards to gender and body without hurting or devaluing Leo and his situation. There are moments when language, bent as is it toward the dominant narratives, fails to be properly subtle, and both men must step carefully around how the world seeks to erase and illegitimize them. And really, for me, it’s a story that captures how progress works, personally and scientifically. Not by forcing a reconciliation where there is no true acceptance. Not by giving into fear and discomfort where science upsets convention or faith. Not by placing all of the pressure on Emerick to convince an unwilling father to accept who he is. But rather by following the data, and by pushing forward despite resistance, toward a brighter future that won’t get any closer without moving toward it.
“The Athuran Interpreter’s Flight”, Eleanna Castroinni (Strange Horizons, July 2018)
What It Is: Sam-Sa-Ee is an interpreter, which is a bit more complicated than it might sound. Because in this setting, the brains of aliens known as Athurans are extracted and placed into the bodies of Earthian children, and then modified so that all they can do is translate, without choice, without memory, without movement, like dolls to be carried around by Earthian Envoys while going about the business of promoting Earthian financial interests. The story follows Sam-Sa-Ee as she is brought along to negotiations surrounding a mine—a mine that will poison the water supply of a great many Athurans. Though unable to take independent action, the crisis and the pain that Sam-Sa-Ee feels spurs change within her, giving her the ability to make do something, however small, in order to reach toward justice and freedom.
Why I Love It: Okay, so this is not an easy story to get into. Things get intense, and Sam-Sa-Ee is abused on top of being stripped of her autonomy. The story does a wonderful job of showing how corruption works, though, and how it flourishes, and how, at least this time, it can defeat itself, with just a little bit of help. And I love how the story sets up the various alien races, the Earthians right there, vile and corrupt and literally harvesting alien brains and their own children to create sentient dolls just because they make effective translators. Which I think I love in part because it shows the arrogance at work here, the superiority that the Earthians adopt. They put all their faith in their own genius, in how they can twist and manipulate another person as their tool rather than just…learning an alien language. That this Envoy is so sure of himself and on the techniques of creating an interpreter that he would abuse her, and hurt her, counting on her not being able to resist or retaliate. Only Sam-Sa-Ee begins to find that maybe she hasn’t been completely erased. And though she can’t do much, maybe a single action—or inaction—is enough to trigger something much bigger. To me it shows just how much the Athurans are underestimated because they are hated and exploited, and how people think them weak, when really it’s their strength that gives lie to the invulnerability of the corrupt, and shows just how fragile their hatred makes them.
And in case those weren’t enough X-cellent stories, here’s some further X-plorations:
“A Tale of Woe”, P. Djèlí Clark (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #253, June 2018) – Sorrow is a powerful force, and no one knows that better than Rana, a magical Soother, who is drawn into her own regrets and doubts when tasked by her order to set right a wrong that has spread in a corrupt city.
“The Day After the Red Warlock of Skull Top Mountain Turned Everyone in Beane County into Pigs”, Susan Jane Bigelow (Fireside, June 2018) – If the title didn’t clue you in, this story follows the aftermath of a magical mishap, and the effects on the surrounding population, to poignant and powerful effect.
“Three Dandelion Stars”, Jordan Kurella (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #254, June 2018]) – Twisting expectations surrounding fairy tales and happily ever afters, Shai and Amarine are in love, and rely on magic in order to carve out a space for their love to blossom safe from the hate of their village.
“Wild Bill’s Last Stand”, Kyle Muntz (Lightspeed #98, July 2018) – A duel in a weird Western setting becomes an opportunity to examine guilt and violence and shame with a surprising tenderness.
“By Claw, By Hand, By Silent Speech”, Elsa Sjunneson-Henry & A. Merc Rustad (Uncanny #23, July 2018) – A deaf paleontologist finds their approach to communicating with a dinosaur helps both of them bridge the distance between their respective isolations, and find a bit of understanding in a world that is hostile to them both.
“-Good”, Sunyi Dean (Flash Fiction Online, July 2018) – A woman in a rather emotionally abusive marriage finds that, when it comes time to once again sacrifice for her husband, she has other options, and that her body is still her own.
And there you have it! Join me again ne-X-t month!