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.
Sometimes, you just have let your nerd flag fly. Have a secret love of stories featuring space whales? Can’t resist a tale about a princess rescuing a dragon from a wicked prince? Stay up late searching for fiction where rough and rowdy pilots race through an asteroid belt riddled with danger? X-cellent! Sometimes, stories just hit that place in the brain that says “This!!!!” And today, I want to highlight six recent reads that made me unashamedly geek out.
From wise chickens (yes!) to emerging, fortune-telling AIs (Yes!!!) to psychic detectives and romances featuring Death Himself (YASSSSSS!!!), today’s X-plorations feature a number of my very favorite (if a bit weirdly specific) things. So declare your most unpopular ships, reveal your guiltiest pleasures, and let’s embrace what X-emplifies our true hearts desires!
“The Privilege of the Happy Ending”, Kij Johnson (Published in Clarkesworld #143, August 2018)
What It Is: Following the loss of her parents, Ada is sent to live with her aunt in a small house where she’s seen mostly as just another mouth to feed. Luckily, Ada befriends local chicken Blanche, who not only knows a lot about the way the world works, but can also talk. Unluckily, summer brings an outbreak of wastoures—ravenous creatures who pass in waves over the countryside, devouring everything in their path. After the wastoures pass through Ada’s new village, she’s left with Blanche to help her navigate a dangerous, damaged world. The story is told as a fairy tale, but one peppered with intrusions by the unnamed narrator, who breaks the fourth wall to challenge the reader to think about the shape of the stories we read, and the expectations we bring in with us as readers.
Why I Love It: Blanche the no-nonsense chicken has got to be one of my favorite characters of the year so far, helping Ada and stealing the show a little bit. After all, it’s Blanche who often comes up with the solutions to Ada’s problems. As the pair deal with tragedy and adversity, and their dynamic is one of the things I most appreciate about the meta-narrative of the story, examining what happens to the characters around Ada. I love it when stories can provoke readers by asking who deserves happy endings, pushing us to consider the entwined roles of the author, literary tradition, and role the reader plays in shaping the narrative. On all of these levels the story manages to be compelling and entertaining. Ada and Blanche make a wonderful pair as they deal with a world that is both ridiculous and intensely familiar, full of both silly jokes and gruesome deaths. And it manages to be intricate and complex while maintaining an air of simplicity, something that’s quite rare in short fiction (and in this case both delightful and challenging).
“The Barnum Effect” by Celia Neri (Published in Apex #111, August 2018)
What It Is: Appearing in a special Zodiac-themed issue of Apex Magazine, this piece introduces Meriam, the head of the BAR project, which is supposed to use a simple learning algorithm to create horoscopes that will seem more personalized. Set in southern France, the story explores the ways in which people want to believe that vague information is actually specifically about them, a phenomenon dubbed the Barnum Effect. A kind of pattern recognition in which individuals fill in gaps left by horoscopes with events and feelings in their own lives, the Barnum Effect is such an attractive lure because it offers advice and answers. So when Meriam begins to notice patterns in BAR’s horoscopes that seem to be actually speaking directly to her, she dismisses it as her own overactive imagination. When the strange coincidences escalate, though, she has to confront just where the limits of the Barnum Effect are, and what lies beyond them.
Why I Love It: I’m a sucker for stories about accidental AI because there is a magic to them that nods toward the fact that sentience, for all that it has certainly done well for humans, doesn’t seem like something that can be planned for or predicted. While sophisticated AI emergence would most likely happen in a controlled, laboratory setting, there’s something so serendipitous about it arising instead right out in the open, when people aren’t really paying attention. And because AI sentience happens almost organically in this story, it allows this new being to develop a rather unexpected personality, because BAR is limited in how they can communicate and in what they’re capable of doing. The thing is that there is a magic at work here, so that not only is BAR apparently sentient, but they can also actually predict the future. Meriam is put in a situation where she has to make some difficult decisions, putting her job on the line in order to try and help the being who saved her life. It’s a fun and fascinating story about uncertainty and about the unknown, about faith, and about fate. And really it’s a great way of capturing both the magic of astrology as embodied by the Zodiac and the sociology of humans wanting to believe in that magic.
“A Taxonomy of Hurts”, Kate Dollarhyde (published in Fireside Magazine #37, August 2018)
What It Is: Imagine a world in which intense pain can manifest outside the bodies of certain people, taking the form of birds or butterflies or beetles. Few people seem able to perceive those manifestations—but those who do can catch them and be instantly transported into their creator’s memories, experiencing firsthand the source and severity of the pain that still haunts them like ghosts. The main character of this story is one of those few and becomes a little obsessed about other people’s pains: what shapes they take, and what those shapes say about the person. Even as they enter into a relationship with a person whose hurts take the shape of mushrooms sprouting from their body, the narrator can’t help but try to catalog and organize them in an attempt to find out what it all means, and perhaps also to try to make sense of their own pains, and why they can’t see their own swarm of memories.
Why I Love It: There is a quiet beauty to the story’s prose, and the aching way that the narrator circles around pain and intimacy. The narrator is stuck in this situation where they can see and even experience other people’s pains, and yet they are unsure if their own can compare. Their insecurity and uncertainty spring from the treatment they’ve received from people, from the rejection they’ve received when they’ve tried to express their pain with words. For me, the narrator’s struggle speaks to the ways that empathy and anxiety often walk hand in hand and yet are so difficult to communicate because to express those emotions is to be visibly vulnerable. I love the relationship that the narrator enters into, how it is so fragile and yet so strong, how there’s so much fear involved, but also so much care. These two people meet, finally talk about their trauma, and in so doing can understand each other, walking the narrow road of consent toward something beautiful and healing for them both. And the narrator can stop worrying so much about what the shape of their hurts are and what that means about them and can focus instead on building a relationship with someone who finds all parts of them beautiful.
“What Man Knoweth”, Russell Nichols (Published at Strange Horizons, August 2018)
What It Is: John Raven is a private detective who blames a local evangelepath for the death of his father, an event that defined his recent life. So when a man is killed in the evangelepath’s church, and state law deems the preacher partly responsible because he should have been able to prevent it, John sees an opportunity to prove his innocence—while also proving him a fraud. Blending noir detective styles with a science fantasy plot, the story digs into guilt, faith, and being so focused on something that you lose sight of what’s important. It’s not a happy story, and is full of grit and histories of neglect, betrayal, and failure. But all throughout, the story aims for justice, asking the reader if, at the end of the day, that’s really what John finds.
Why I Love It: You’re finding out all my secrets today, because I have to admit I love mysteries. I am a BBC mystery junky and I’ll even binge seasons of CSI: Miami just to get my fix. I have a special love of the space where speculative fiction and mystery meet, because it makes a lie out of Sherlock Holmes’ most famous advice: “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” With speculative fiction, after all, there’s no impossible to eliminate—everything, up to and including psychic evangelists, is possible. That might seem like a cheat, but as with this story, playing with what is possible and what isn’t deepens the mystery. Here, John is able to explore the idea of complicity in ways that wouldn’t be possible in a mundane, non-speculative detective story. As it is, he must examine not only who is guilty of causing the present tragedy, but also who was responsible for the past tragedy John keeps running from—the death of his father. And in both cases the truth is shrouded in deceptions that would take a mind reader to sort through. Which, it turns out, is definitely not impossible.
“Momento Mori”, Tiah Marie Beautement (Published in Omenana #12, August 2018)
What It Is: The narrator of this story is an operative of Death. Which might seem scary, except here Death isn’t a looming specter, but rather a being very concerned about the living and the fate of their souls. The narrator is a woman who can transform into a kind of merperson, capable of searching the oceans for the whisper-fragile lost souls Death cannot collect himself. She’s especially good at her job in part because of a rare condition she has in her joints that allows her to move in ways that others cannot. On land, though, her condition is something that causes her constant pain, and makes living on her own in a secluded house something of a risk. Death cares for her as more than just a business partner, though, and as the story progresses their relationship, intimate and respectful from the start, evolves and deepens.
Why I Love It: A layered, consent-based romance featuring a disabled woman and (an also disabled) Death? Yes please! I was charmed by the premise alone, but the story’s execution is also incredible, building up the narrator’s independence and skill and making her every bit Death’s equal. I truly appreciate the care that goes into their relationship, where Death could be so overbearing and forceful, and yet doesn’t really act until she tells him he can. He listens to her, hoping to be more a part of her life, and together they have this very tricky negotiation about what their relationship can and will be. It’s sweet and it’s hot and it’s amazing, and all of that is interspersed with tension and terror and all manner of possible heartbreak. But the two characters show what they’re capable of, and show how they care for one another without having to change or give up who they are. It’s one of the freshest and most surprising depictions of Death I’ve seen lately, and absolutely won me over!
“The House on the Moon”, William Alexander (Published in Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction!, August 2018)
What It Is: A disabled child living on the moon takes a field trip with her class to a strange house: a castle constructed at incredible cost by a rather terrible human being. As she moves through the space, she must face both its beauty and its ugliness. It is a wonder of architecture and design, and yet at the same time it is a monument to the hate and vision of a man whose wealth insulated him from the rest of humanity, and the judgement he deserved. The main character is delightful, jaded and yet eager to learn, bearing the burden of the past she’s carried on the path that took her ultimately to the moon, where the lower gravity is able to give her more mobility and less pain. It’s a path that went partly through the Eugenic War, fought and won but never quite fully gone as long as those like the man who built the castle (and had fought in the war on the side of the eugenicists), still maintain power and can slip through society undetected.
Why I Love It: The narrator of the story captures so much about living knowing there are people out there who want you dead for who you are. Which isn’t something that she always carried, but it was something forced on her at a young age, and something that constantly informs her actions. Especially in a universe that so recently fought a war where so many were willing to kill for, well, their right to kill those they deemed inferior. It’s a burden on her. On the way she carries herself and on the way she has to see the world and move through it. And yet she’s still determined to do things her way, to have fun, to break the rules. And the field trip gives her ample opportunity, especially when she discovers a secret passageway that she’s definitely not supposed to explore. There’s a sense of adventure and celebration even as there’s a definite darkness to the general setting and the castle specifically. And from that duality the story seems to invite the reader to think about the history all around us, the monuments whose stories are full of horrors and terrible human beings with money. But that can still be beautiful and enjoyed, as long as the full context of their constructions is revealed and understood.
But wait, there’s more! Check out there further X-plorations:
“Orphan Tsunami Heathens”, Tiera Greene (Published at Strange Horizons, August 2018) – A young woman named Klein moves back to her hometown following a difficult loss only to find the secret she’s been hiding from, and the hunger that accompanies it, have been waiting for her.
“The Girl with the Frozen Heart”, Y.M. Pang (Published at The Book Smugglers, August 2018) – When Inara is mortally wounded in a land far from home, the god of winter has other plans for her. It’s the intentions of a young man she meets afterward, though, that end up meaning even more.
“The Paladin of Golota”, P. Djeli Clark (Published in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #37, August 2018) – Teffe makes a living picking over the bodies of the dead who come to Golota to die in holy combat. At least, until one of the dying makes him an offer he can’t refuse.
“The Kite Maker”, Brenda Peynado (Published at Tor.com, August 2018)- It’s been ten years since the dragonflies crash-landed on Earth, and found their nonviolence met with intolerance and hate. Now the memories of that time aren’t as fresh, and new wrongs are beginning to blossom.
“Conspicuous Plumage”, Sam J. Miller (Published in Lightspeed Magazine #100, September 2018) – Bette has lost her brother and needs to know what happened to him. So she recruits a boy who can create visions of the past and goes on a roadtrip through memory and pain and loss.
“Ghost of the Pepper”, M.K. Hutchins (Published at Flash Fiction Online, September 2018) – The peppers of a special farm contain the lingering traces of the dead that, when eaten, can ease their grief and allow them to move on from the world. Except that when a ghost pepper grows black with sorrow, it poses a definite challenge to the person trying to help the dead.
“Rapture“, Meg Elison (Published in Shimmer #44, September/August 2018) – The afterlife for authors is a beautiful and wonderful place where poets and other writers wake from their eternal slumber every time someone in the waking world is inspired by their work.
And there you have it—another successful literary adventure! Be sure to come on back next month for more X-citing tours through speculative short fiction!