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.
It takes a great deal of strength to defy X-pectations. To fight back against the pressures pushing people into the strict confines of their roles. Roles that offer no relief or reward, but merely make it easier for corruption to spread and prosper.
In the stories we’re X-ploring today, things are not X-actly going great. It’s a tour of broken worlds, ripe with deception and pain and people struggling to get by. To find meaning and a reason to keep fighting when it seems useless. When resistance feels futile in the face of the corruption, greed, and omnipresent violence. For all the bleakness that the settings might imply, however, the stories are very much about resistance, revolution, and hope. Both on a scale of governments and realities themselves, and on a much more intimate level, the characters must navigate personal identity and trust amid the possibilities of destruction, violation, and betrayal. And while teetering on the brink of the abyss, they must reach for justice, stability, and love—a goal that they cannot achieve alone.
So it’s a good thing they aren’t alone—and neither are we! Grab a buddy and your fiercest grin and let’s set out on the trail of X-cellent short SFF!
“The Fortunate Death of Jonathan Sandelson” by Margaret Killjoy (Published at Strange Horizons, October 2018)
What It Is: By day (or night because terrible shifts) Jae works an awful job at the hilariously-named Taco Dick’s, where she helps the fully automated kitchen serve up food to the masses. On the side, though, she’s a boxtroll going by Jeje Cameron, using drones (called boxes in this future) to harass CEOs of companies responsible for ecological destruction and human rights violations. Which keeps her sane, mostly, until someone she was boxtrolling is assassinated and the finger gets pointed at her, at which point it’s going to take all her skills, and all her friends, to stay one step ahead of the law. It’s a story that really dives into the morality of resistance, both violent and nonviolent, and shows the importance of community and cooperative action to reach for a justice that has been oiled over by a slick of corruption.
Why I Love It: The future revealed here is one that seems already familiar—where capitalism has created a world of vast wealth inequality, with some people barely able to squeak by, effectively homeless despite a depth of knowledge and skills that “should” make them a fairly sought-after employee. Except, of course, that they aren’t exactly the good little capitalist. Jae and her friends are, instead, products of the knowledge that no amount of work will free them from the corruption or injustice of the system. That by virtue of being poor, their lives are worth less, and so what’s left to them is to try and fight back. Jae does so nonviolently, though incredibly persistently, trying to bankrupt companies through activism and targeted harassment of their CEOs. And the rule is supposed to be that no one is supposed to get killed. Because that would push things into another realm entirely. Except that, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that such black and white lines don’t work when dealing with corruption and situations where violence is already very much in play. And for all the moral grayness of the story, it’s also really fun, full of energy and charm and I just love the way it all comes together, refusing an easy answer in favor of embracing the complexity of the world.
“Between the Firmaments” by JY Yang (published at The Book Smugglers, October 2018)
What It Is: Bariegh is a god hiding in a city under rule of a colonizing aliens who use gods as living batteries to fuel their conquest and lust for resources. Tired from the long fight that he and his family lost, he watches over the last descendent of his favorite sister, a young woman who doesn’t know her heritage. They work, they survive, and the world changes around them, shaped according to the taste and vision of the invaders. When a god from outside this reality shows up in the city, though, Bariegh knows instantly that he’s in trouble, the fire in his blood relit—with passion and, much more dangerously, with hope. It’s a story that traces desire and consent and control, and does so in a way that integrates world building and magic, politics and revolution.
Why I Love It: It’s quite rare to find a story that blends queer romance and SFF in just this way, building an epic and broken world and populating it with complex and broken people. And showing how they hold themselves together, and how they hold each other together while everything around them seems intent on their destruction. The characters here are not safe, and not only not safe but hunted, under the constant threat of violence and enslavement should they be discovered. Without safety, they look for ways to survive and to control what they can. And it’s there that the story gets into themes of bondage and sex and pain, revealing characters taking comfort in the things they can choose and consent to, the pains and the limitations that they put on themselves or agree to have put on them rather than those they must constantly struggle under. And it crescendos into a statement on the futility of compromise in the face of injustice. The hollowness of self-sacrifice that doesn’t bring about change. And the fragility of trust in a setting where even an inadvertent slip can doom everything. And yet at the same time it shows that trust, however fragile, can forge bonds stronger than tyranny, and more enduring than hate.
“Talk to Your Children about Two-Tongued Jeremy” by Theodore McCombs (published in Lightspeed #102, November 2018)
What It Is: In a well-to-do upper class neighborhood, the learning app Two-Tongued Jeremy is a popular way to help children learn. Loaded with a sort of adaptive learning algorithm that allows him to cater his experience to each child individually, Jeremy is let into every household. Once there, though, the app shows its true colors, seeking not to help children with school but to make them feel they need the app, with all its additional fees and features, in order to succeed. For David Marzipan, whose past has already been filled with darkness and who lacks a strong support network, his vulnerability makes him a prime target, and the piece follows in chilling detail the ways Two-Tongued Jeremy operates.
Why I Love It: I think more terrifying than the brutality of the abuse that David faces is the fact that, in many ways, it’s a feature of the system rather than a bug. Because it’s all learned. Basically, it’s a computer program that was told to find the way to push its in-app purchases and did exactly that, revealing not some sort of flaw or “evil” AI, but rather that the system already operates on abuse, gaslighting, and manipulation. And the story does a careful dissection of that, showing how David gets trapped because of his vulnerability, because of his queerness and his grief, because of his fear and all the ways society has told him that he deserves to be hurt. He’s not alone in that, nor is Two-Tongued Jeremy the only source of harm. The story is beautifully captured, after all, from the point of view of a neighborhood of wealthy parents hoping to produce “successful” children. Children who will feed into a system already swimming with greed and exploitation. Their presence, so full of outrage about what happened, is also what allows the abuse to continue. Because they would never actually dismantle the system, or even admit that it was broken. These horrors are aberrations to them rather than expressions of how their world is supposed to work. And as long as they can condemn and ignore, it is left to those like David to find their own way out of harm’s way, stuck having to choose between the future he’s been taught he should want and the truths he knows in his heart.
“What the South Wind Whispers” by H. Pueyo (Published in Clarkesworld #146, November 2018)
What It Is: The Earth is being bombarded by a series of comets and asteroids kept at bay only by a series of shields that help to minimize the damage. Most of the shields are maintained and operated by a group of scientists making sure everything stays within parameters. In the lonely stretches of southern South America, though, Elías mans one station with only the help of an AI caretaker named Heloise. And he does a great job, despite not being a scientist. But it’s an incredibly isolating work. Not that Elías minds that, most of the time. Autistic and a trans man, interacting with other people doesn’t always go well. But he wants to meet more people, and so he invites a new worker to join him—someone he hopes will understand him and with whom he can feel comfortable. Of course, in this ruined world, even that simple and touching goal ends up being much more difficult than anticipated.
Why I Love It: For a regular introvert, the prospect of making friends and connections isn’t exactly easy to contemplate. For an autistic and trans introvert with dysphoria-related PTSD, it seems almost impossible. And yet Elías is sweet, thoughtful, and incredibly hardworking, very willing to be patient and slow in building trust. And he wants to reach out, to establish this human connection with another person, because it’s supposed to be good for him. Because it’s what he wants. And in that he’s encouraged by Heloise, the AI who has been his sole companion for quite some time. Except…well, except that as the story goes on it reveals something much darker about Heloise’s intentions, and that’s such a gutting thing. Because it’s such a difficult thing for Elías to trust. Because he’s been hurt so often, and been pushed to this remote and almost Gothic location, where there is indeed something haunting him, seeking to prey on him. To maintain his dependence in order to feel needed. Which might seem enough to shatter his trust in everything. At the very least, it’s meant to be. But I love that the story focuses on how it’s not. How people underestimate Elías and his resilience. How they don’t give him credit, because he’s already survived so much, of being able to handle adversity. When, really, he’s an expert, and not about to give up after all he’s worked to gain.
“How to Swallow the Moon” by Isabel Yap (Published in Uncanny #25, November 2018)
What It Is: Some women, from time they are born, are hidden away from the world. From the light of the sun. So that their beauty might blossom away from the prying eyes of everyone but those few allowed into her inner sanctum. Her family. And her guard. Amira is a master warrior with a small talent in magic as well, and most of her life since the death of her parents has been spent with a singular goal—to protect Anyag from the outside world until a proper suitor appears to take ownership of her. Only two years older than her charge, it’s a role that she’s excelled at in almost every regard. And as the day of Anyag’s marriage nears, it’s a role that she should be happy to put behind her, so that she can step into a future where’s she’s free to do what she pleases. Except for one rather enormous problem—she’s fallen in love. And if that weren’t enough, an ancient evil might just be stirring, with a hunger for flesh that’s been marinated in darkness and isolation.
Why I Love It: The tension between Amira and Anyag is smoldering, both constrained by the role they are expected to embrace. When, really, they’d much rather be embracing each other, and not at all in the sisterly way they fear the other regards them with. It’s such a fragile situation, both afraid that they will ruin what joy they have if they reveal their true feelings. And both, when the truth comes out, determined to do something about it, to fight against the fate that’s been spelled out for them. Except that fate has a few surprises in store, pulling them into a confrontation that they shouldn’t have a hope of winning. After all, they’ve been primed to accept their own sacrifice, to give into the gravity of tragedy and erasure. And what I love about this story is that they don’t. Instead they lean on each other and their own skills. Their bravery and their strength. Their intelligence and their power. And because no one expects it, because everyone has been taught that they should lose, they are able to come up with some surprises. And it makes for a heartwarming and exhilarating tale of defying definitions that don’t fit. And for both Amira and Anyag it means embracing their power and their strength, refusing to be forced into a vision of femininity that is meek and submissive and instead embracing their own vision, one where they can fit together, sword and shield, and carve out a future for themselves.
“Toward a New Lexicon of Augury” by Sabrina Vouroulias (Published in Apex Magazine #114, November 2018)
What It Is: Climate change has created a world of inequalities, where those with magic and money seek to use the crises brought on by scarcity to increase their own power and privilege. Which is nothing new to Alba, a witch with a daughter and a lot of experience navigating the corrupt systems men build to keep the marginalized firmly in the margins. So when the powers of her city start to mass to try and force large swaths of vulnerable people into predatory housing that will destroy the ways they’ve built to retain some autonomy, Alba gets ready to fight. She’s not alone, though, and the story does a wonderful job building up a whole movement of people, helmed by witches who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty in building a better city. The piece doesn’t skimp on darkness, showing the grinding wheels of power trying to turn people into profits. But it does show that for some willing to become a monkey wrench in the engine of greed and graft, hope is still a memory worth clinging to.
Why I Love It: Alba is extremely practical, knowing that in order to protect her daughter she needs to swallow her pride at times. She has to accept charity, and jump through some of the hoops that she knows are bullshit. But this doesn’t make her complicit. Instead, she realizes that are plenty of things that she can’t do herself. She’s not exactly a magical powerhouse, after all. She has a small talent of augury and that’s it, and there are many within the movement that are more powerful and, as a result, seen as more dangerous. And I just love how the story explores that by playing into that, by using the misperceptions of the powerful, those without a lot of formal power can do mighty things. That they can turn the tables on the powerful and reveal that they’re not afraid to do difficult things, to take on pain and risk—because there’s no real way for someone like Alba to avoid those. And she knows that any promise from those with power to help her, to get just her out of a bad situation, is a fool’s game. That once she puts herself in their power, they won’t stop using that. Using her. Regardless of what they promise. And so she twists that mal-intent back on those who deserve it. Not without cost, but with a sense of justice all the same. Because she gets to choose her pain this time, gets to pick how she bleeds and, more importantly, who she bleeds for, knowing that in the world she wants to usher in, people will still be there to catch her when she falls.
And you thought we were done? Heck no! There’s plenty more to X-perience, starting with these further X-plorations:
“Disconnect” by Fran Wilde (Published in Uncanny #24, October 2018) – Education and scientific discovery push against civil rights and individual consent in this realistic (if dystopic) story about an adjunct professor with a rare condition and her determination to retain control of her own body.
“The Things I Miss the Most” by Nisi Shawl (Published in Uncanny #24, October 2018) – Sensual and evocative, this piece takes the idea of an imaginary friend and complicates the hell out of it, revealing a situation where what (and who) is real or imagined might not be as simple as it seems.
“De Motherjumpers” by Celeste Rita Baker (Published at Strange Horizons, October 2018) – Absolutely chilling and emotionally devastating, this piece about a population living beneath the ocean’s surface examines hope and perseverance in the face of violence and the need to continually adapt.
“Thirty-Three Percent Joe” by Suzanne Palmer (Published in Clarkesworld #145, November 2018) – A charming mix of humor and dark reality, this piece finds a collective of intelligent organs trying to help their hapless host through a war.
“STET” by Sarah Gailey (Published in Fireside Quarterly, October 2018) – Beautifully realized in print, this story is framed as a back-and-forth between writer and editorial staff on a paper on self-driving cars, and the deadly consequences of AI ethical models.
“Fitting In” by Max Gladstone (Published at Tor.com, October 2018) – Robin Ruttiger is a guidance counselor trying to help people the old-fashioned way, but finds that escaping his superhero past is a bit more difficult than he imagined in this new Wild Cards story.
And there you have it! Be sure to join me again next month for what is sadly to be the final X Marks the Story. Until then, happy story hunting!