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.
Welcome, intrepid readers, to another X-citing month of short SFF! Though October might traditionally mean pumpkins and spooky stories told around a dying fire, to me it brings to mind one thing above all else: sweaters. As the weather begins to chill (and trust me, we’ve already had some snow here in Wisconsin), it’s a special kind of comfort to slide on a sweater, grab a few X-quisite stories, and wait for the cat to inevitably shed all over me.
With that in mind, I’ve selected a flight of short SFF that speaks of comfort and risk, fear and longing. Where characters are terrified of rejection and exhausted from running, from hiding, from doubting their own worth. And finding, after everything, an oasis of understanding. Of acceptance. Of love. These heartwarming tales are like sweaters on a gloomy October day, a defiant comfort in the face of a hostile world.
So grab your favorite sweater and a frothy pumpkin spice latte, and let’s get started!
“Coyote Now Wears a Suit”, Ani Fox (Published in Apex #112, September 2018)
What It Is: Kupua, a member of a large and often messy Hawaiian family, finds himself pulled into a strange and increasingly dramatic series of disasters when she’s sent to get Coyote, the trickster god himself, out of prison. Kupua is sent because he knows how to shift with the circumstances, to hide who she is in order to try and pass among different people. It’s a talent that has allowed her to get a full ride scholarship to a big name university (far, far from home), but hasn’t exactly helped him come out to his family, something made more difficult because most terms don’t quite capture who he is. In some ways it hasn’t helped him figure himself out, either, because he doesn’t fit into conventional definitions of man or woman. She is both and neither and it’s complicated and raw, all wound around feelings of abandonment, hope, and freedom. As events around him go from bad from worse, however, all his careful lies begin to unravel, and all his truths slip free, even if some defy the language that tries to contain them.
Why I Love It: Kupua is caught between so many different sets of expectations, just as she is caught between pronouns and desires. There’s what his family wants from him and what she wants for herself. There’s the dreams she has of her father and the aspirations he has for his future. There’s the push and pull between him and his family and the mess it all is, dodging cops and layers and layers of prejudice, corruption, love, and hate. And Coyote, in the center of it all, dissembles the lies that Kupua has built to avoid the complexity of his reality, the ways that his identity can’t be contained by the labels and words that others find fit them. He doesn’t have easy answers, and so he avoids answering anything, builds up lies instead. Except with Coyote she can’t. She is made to face her family and herself, her past and her future, and along the way she embraces her truths and her mess. And there’s such a life to the story, such a realness to Kupua’s struggle with identity and expectations. This is not a neat coming out story, through it does have a beauty and joy within this family as they come to terms with Kupua and who he is, and as she comes to terms with herself. It’s a celebration—a reunion and a going away party all at once, and it recognizes fear and doubt while ultimately embracing hope and acceptance and love.
“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth”, Daryl Gregory (Published at Tor.com, September 2018)
What It Is: LT is a young boy when a meteor shower ends up buffeting the Earth with what turns out to be alien seeds. The seeds grow into plants that seem benign at first, until their growth begins to destabilize the larger ecosystem and sets the planet on a course that could end in extinction. Nestled into this large and shattering narrative, though, is a much more intimate one about family and growing up, about harm and love and beauty. It’s another story that features themes of queerness and coming out, and facing the fear of being rejected and the joy of being accepted. And it unfolds over LT’s entire lifetime, from that early memory to an ending far into the future, when everything has changed.
Why I Love It: The idea of Earth being overrun by alien invasive species holds a palpable terror for me, because of how relentless and merciless it can seem. Here, though, there’s also this moving and pervasive beauty that haunts even as it tears the planet apart. And I love that LT has this affinity for the plants, a draw towards them, and how his career and his life is defined by them, by the fear and danger they seem to represent, and then by the love and strength they reveal. And I love LT’s exploration of the alien plants even as he explores his own desires and hopes. How he gets involved with the problems surrounding the plants and how he ultimately helps humanity to find a way forward. For me, at least, the story feels like it traces this fear and revulsion that people have at things they do not understand. It’s something that LT can identify with because of the dangers he faces as a queer man. And, like the plants, queerness finds ways to adapt and to grow, in beauty and in strength, to become a force that cannot be defeated by brute strength—that cannot be defeated at all, really. That must be accepted and embraced, so that everyone has a future, and a home, and a family.
“Shadowdrop”, Chris Willrich (Published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, October 2018)
What It Is: Shadowdop is a black cat in a world where black cats have a special magic gifted to them by an ancient dragon, upon whose sleeping eye an entire city rests. Their magicbends luck, bringing misfortune on those whose paths the cats cross. Ordinarily, this doesn’t lead to too much mischief, but Shadowdrop is a special case, and after weaving a path of destruction through the city, she’s looking for a place to cool off when her brother finds her with a tempting offer. Of course, what starts out as a simple change of scenery becomes something with far great implications, pulling Shadowdrop into a plot that could bring the entire city crashing to the ground. Humorous and lighthearted, this story kicks off a special anniversary issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and it’s one heck of a celebration.
Why I Love It: Cats. Caaaaaaaats!!! Okay yes I admit I might have a soft spot for those furry little monsters, and this story captures their charm and their personality in a fantasy world where the black cats at least carry an added power. And really, it’s their ability to curse humans that gives the story so much of its weight, because for many of the cats this is something that they don’t have to worry about. If they cross a human, after all, nothing bad happens to the cat. SO many of them walk with impunity, expecting humans to watch where they’re going (when they’re not purposefully crossing humans’ paths for the fun of it). But Shadowdrop sees it differently, and she lays out why it’s important for those with power to wield it consciously and carefully, always seeking to do no harm because with that power (and grace and skill and talent and obvious good looks) comes the need to step carefully lest that power be used to destroy the very things that all of catkind (grudgingly, perhaps) enjoys—human attention and companionship. And I just love how Shadowdrop acts for herself, boldly, sometimes without thinking things all the way through, but with an energy and life that’s infectious. It’s a fun and exciting story that could easily have been silly but isn’t. Indeed, it manages to be earnest and emotionally resonating, building up an intricate plot for Shadowdrop to unwind like a ball of unattended yarn.
“Ten Deals with The Indigo Snake”, Mel Kassel (Published in Lightspeed #101, October 2018)
What It Is: Moving from one kind of magical animal to another, this story focuses on bargains, and the snakes who facilitate them. The unnamed narrator of the piece starts out as a young girl who seeks out an indigo snake for a bit of justice, and quickly finds that though snakes can indeed strike bargains for just about anything a person might want, there’s always a price to pay. What takes much longer to figure out, though, is that the prices being paid aren’t always what they seem, and they certainly aren’t one sided. The story follows the narrator as they grow up, as they make deal after deal, some of them harmless, some of them very much crossing a line. It’s a piercing look at addiction and consent, and it manages to showcase this damaged, complex character without demonizing her or punishing her for being a woman in a bad situation.?
Why I Love It: I love the trajectory of this story, how it begins with something so simple but it’s like sticking a quarter in a slot machine and winning on the first pull. It cements this thrill that the narrator comes to long for, the risk that the bargains represent. And with each deal she makes with the indigo snake she loses parts of herself, ceding space in her life for its presence. It’s both a wonderful metaphor for addiction and literal story of a woman and a snake who has no choice in the bargains that are made. It merely sets the terms, but cannot refuse a bargain that it doesn’t want to make. It couldn’t stop the narrator from destroying herself, despite the bond that the two develop. And only slowly does the narrator begin to see that the snake is not leading her, not tempting her. That it’s always her to ask the price, to push for the bargain. And in making piece with her role in this, with her responsibility, she’s able to grow and to work back from the dangerous and harmful place she was at, seeking to subvert consent and violate people’s wills. It draws a fragile but determined picture of the narrator seeking to learn and seeking to heal what she can, without making it about the sins she might have committed. It refuses to blame her or blame the snake, setting that kind of judgement aside in favor of showing them both navigating a way forward together.
“Saudade”, Nelson Rolon (Published in Fiyah Literary Magazine #8, October 2018)
What It Is: Vida is a woman with a magic amulet and a bounty on her head, and running for her life has finally led her to Earth. Specifically, Korea, where she finds a young man named Menino who just wants to escape his boring life. Coming in the Pilgrimage themed issue of Fiyah Literary Magazine, “Saudade” builds a solar system full of fast ships and cyborgs and an incredibly illicit material that can transport inanimate objects through space and bring them to life, often with disastrous results. It’s because of that last bit that Vida is trying to maintain a low profile with a far-too-earnest kid in Korea, hoping to get her ship repaired before violence catches up with her for what she’s carrying—a keepsake from her father that allows her to call statues to fight for her in times of great stress. It would hardly be a story, though, if she just got away without a fight. Action packed and roaringly fun, the story still manages to build a layered and nuanced narrative about running and trust, about hope and harm.
Why I Love It: There are few stories this year that pack such a visual flare as this piece, which is frenetic and wild and captures Vida’s lust for life and adventure. It also, however, captures her loneliness, and her fear that everyone around her will get hurt because of what she’s carrying—because of who she is. The piece jumps nicely from viewpoint to viewpoint, too, building up a cast that each has their own particular connection to Vida and Menino. And really Menino is as much the main character as Vida, his struggle contrasting hers because while she has been chased through the stars, he’s never left his city, and can see his life spread out before him, manicured and planned. It lacks the grittiness of Vida’s life, she as hers lacks the open honesty of Menino. And so they are drawn to each other almost despite themselves, seeing in each other something that they long for, something that seems always out of reach. And they strike up this unlikely friendship that holds the story together, and gives it both its tragedy and indomitable hope and will.
“The Palace of the Silver Dragon”, Y. M. Pang (Published at Strange Horizons, October 2018)
What It Is: Few can resist the song of the Silver Dragon, that calls the hopeless down into the depths of the sea. For Aliah, who is leaving behind the burned remains of a life that never fit her, she doesn’t want to resist, wants to follow where her brother went three years ago and see with her own eyes if the stories of the Silver Dragon are true. What she finds is an eerie underwater palace and a man who is also a dragon who accepts her exactly as she is. The story takes on some very heavy themes, including suicide, intrusive thoughts, violent outbursts, and familial abuse, but through it all it refuses to follow through on what Aliah expects—a final punishment for being different, for not fitting in with her family or really the world above the waves. Instead, it values her and gives her space to recover from the pain she’s endured and the rejection she experienced.
Why I Love It: The story paints a beautifully and often brutally complicated portrait of Aliah, a woman who has never fit in, who grew up always in the shadow of a brother who her parents liked better. Her parents who also had their own issues, each of them taking out a measure of their frustrations and hurts on their children. And what grew from that toxicity is not exactly a well adjusted pair of siblings. And while the loss of Aliah’s brother to the sea, to the song of the Silver Dragon, might have been a tragedy, Aliah views her own leap into the ocean dispassionately, with a sort of numb inevitability. She just wants to see what her brother saw—she wasn’t expecting to find the Silver Dragon waiting to take her in. And I love that what happens between them isn’t a romance. It’s sexual, and in many ways it’s healing, but it’s not about romantic love. And again, Aliah is not punished for that, isn’t deemed lesser because she doesn’t love the Silver Dragon the way he expects her to. Indeed, that’s what helps everyone find a way forward, a way toward healing and freedom. A way to break the cycles of pain and betrayal and erasure. It’s not a happily ever after as we have been taught to expect it, but that’s rather the point. And it’s wonderful.
Before I close the book on this month’s recommendations, though, let me offer up some more X-cellent short SFF for your further X-plorations:
“The Foodie Federation’s Dinosaur Farm”, Luo Longxiang, translated by Andy Dudak (Published in Clarkesworld #144, September 2018) – A worker in a food processing plant specializing in dinosaurs ends up falling in with a group of “human-level-intelligence” dinos in this biting satire of colonial narratives.
“Mountaineering”, Leah Bobet (Published at Strange Horizons, September 2018) – Eli follows his dead brother up onto a mountain in this rending and tender look at family, identity, and loss.
“By the Hand That Casts It”, Stephanie Charette (Published in Shimmer #45, September/October 2018) – Flower arranging and assassinations meet with deadly force in this thrilling piece about coming out of retirement.
“It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog”, Maria Haskins (Published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #260, September 2018) – Magic, loyalty, and the bond between siblings anchors this dark fantasy about bargains and power and difference.
“Sita’s Descent”, Indrapramit Das (Published in Mithila Review #10, September 2018) – Mankind has created sentient AI capable of traveling the stars, only to discover that by basing the AI’s personality on gods from ancient stories might not have been the best thought out decision.
“How to Identify an Alien Shark”, Beth Goder (Published at Fireside Magazine, September 2018) – The Tucabal-Gor are a race of alien sharks much more dangerous because of their obsession with economics than their razor sharp teeth.
“Psychopomps of Central London”, Julia August (Published in The Dark #41, October 2018) – Take a walking tour of London, but do try to keep up as this is only the first leg of a longer journey—one that begins where the land of living ends.
“Court of Birth, Court of Strength”, Aliette de Bodard (Published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, October 2018) – In a Paris ravaged by the wars of the Fallen Houses, Samariel finds himself navigating politics and desperation and lust as he must team with the eccentric and dangerous Asmodeus in order to track down a missing girl.
And there you have it! Be sure to stop back in neXt month for more X-traordinary short SFF!