Sci-Fi & Fantasy Short Fiction Roundup: June 2019

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Illustration from “Sturdy Lanterns and Ladders”; art by Chiara Zarmati

This month, we read stories of strange roommates, an AI and an octopus, the horrors of haunted cities and haunted houses. We read of simulated realities, a magical bust of Jesus, a jacket made of sky, and whales and gods on the high seas. Explore with us, won’t you?

Unpublished Gay Cancer Survivor Memoir“, by Caspian Gray in Lightspeed
This fantastical tale plays out in the very real world of a cancer survivor, filled with colostomy bags, treatments, and smoking weed. Sydney, the gay cancer survivor of the story’s title, is sharing her apartment with her ex-girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend, a young man called Edík Němec (he’s not Russian, he’s Czech… or is he?) who seems to be a nice, ordinary fellow—a terrific cook who also cleans the bathroom and generally makes Sydney’s life better. That is until the ex-girlfriend, Michaela, shows up, demanding that Edík shows Sydney what he can really do. I love this story’s snappy dialogue and its irreverent take on both ordinary life and Edík’s extraordinary abilities. A thought-provoking, and hilarious, read.

Sturdy Lanterns and Ladders“, by Malka Older in Current Futures
Current Futures is a new sci-fi ocean anthology published online by XPRIZE in celebration of World Oceans Day and featuring contributions from 18 authors and artists. Malka Older’s quietly compelling offering takes us into a maybe-not-so-distant future where Natalia, a freelance marine behavioral researcher, is hired to work on a project with an octopus. Initially, Natalia has some misgivings about what the research will entail, but her connection to the animal she calls Vainilla overrides her worries. The use of advanced virtual reality technology deepens their connection, and shakes Natalia to her core as she realizes that the project has a very particular use for the octopus’s mind… The bond between Natalia and Vainilla, and between the octopus and the ocean it used to inhabit, are beautifully explored. I confess, this one left me sobbing.

Hunting by the River“, by Daniel Carpenter in Black Static #69
Lee heads home to Manchester to celebrate his sister Kirsty’s 80th birthday, but when he gets there, she’s gone. It’s not the first time she’s disappeared, but this time, she hasn’t come back. Lee goes looking, and we soon understand that this is not a simple missing person case. Something much more sinister is at work, something that may have been put in motion by Kirsty herself. Lee finds clues—a map of the city, rumors of Kirsty’s presence, her voice speaking to him through the mouths of other people—but she always eludes him. Carpenter crafts a profoundly unsettling tale that twines together the ever-changing, decaying vibe of a city with Lee’s growing sense of unease and desperation as he searches fruitlessly. It’s an atmospheric and devastating story, infused with a lingering sense of insidious horror.

Many-Hearted Dog and Heron Who Stepped Past Time“, by Alex Yuschik in Strange Horizons
This intricately constructed, exquisitely written story involves time travel, a love story that isn’t obviously a love story, foul language, and skilled assassins. Heron is able to step through time. Dog is their best friend; a grouchy, grumpy, but utterly devoted companion no matter what time—past or not-past—Heron finds him in. Together, they pull off some incredible heists, until they take on an opponent who might just be out of their league. No description can really do this one justice, but I will say that it’s one of the best I’ve read so far this year.

Bootleg Jesus“, by Tonya Liburd in Diabolical Plots
Out where rock outcroppings yearn to become mountains, there was a town cursed with no magic. In this town, there was a family. In this family, there was a girl.” Liburd’s opening line pulls you into a compelling fantasy tale that is both gritty and tense, set in a world where magic flows just beneath the surface of everyday life. For the children in this world, their hometown is a treacherous place where the adults don’t always understand them, or have their best interests at heart. But the children are not powerless, especially not Mara, a girl who finds a very special bust of Jesus that answers to her and her alone. Liburd expertly brings out the darkness of the story while allowing her young protagonists to shine.

Flash Crash“, by Louis Evans in Escape Pod
MAISIE was seven years old on the day she woke up and died. Blame it on the algorithms, if you wish. The survivors–and there were not many of them–certainly did.” Can a story about a nuclear apocalypse be both devastating and… uplifting? After reading this one, about an artificial intelligence named MAISIE, I’d say the answer is an emphatic “yes.” Evans cleverly and expertly crafts a story tracking MAISIE’s evolution from a flash algorithm—trading stocks, currencies, and futures with no objective but maximizing profit—to a much more complex (and conflicted) AI entity that might doom, and save, the world. Riveting sci-fi from the first line to the last.

All the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From“, by Izzy Wasserstein in Fireside Fiction
This mind-bending, heart-rending, reality-shattering tale imagines a future in which people can travel between universes by “Snapping” in and out of them, dropping in on different iterations of their own lives. Some of these universes are real, but many are mere simulations, and in some of those, the inhabitants are aware they living in a simulacrum of reality. As you might imagine, this one is a trippy ride from the get-go, delving deep into feelings of loneliness and regret as the protagonist returns again and again to a home that is never quite home, and a family that both is and is not theirs, never quite finding their footing or a place to belong. It’s deeply moving story, lyrical and strange, with a dark sense of humor gleaming in its seams: “So many universes and yet, in almost every one, South Topeka smells like a family of raccoons died inside a middle school locker room.”

A Handful of Sky“, by Elly Bangs in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
The intricacies of both tailoring and magic are used to great effect in this uniquely imagined fantasy tale, set in a world where High Tailors can sew garments, “out of any skin, sentiment, or specter known to Tailoring.” These garments have magical properties, and are mostly worn by the rich and powerful. When one such waelthy man comes to visit Jorren Borriwack, former High Tailor, demanding that she craft him a jacket made of sky, Jorren must confront her past fears and past ambitions, not to mention an old lover. Power, love, and hope are stitched together into a colorful and compelling whole.

Canst Thou Draw Out the Leviathan“, by Christopher Caldwell in Uncanny Magazine
Aboard the whaling ship Leslie-Ella, John Wood served as the skilled and confident carpenter, prone to falling into adventures (and misadventures). As the ship heads out to sea, searching for whales to harpoon and butcher, strange things are afoot on board, and John receives a dire warning from a most unexpected source. Caldwell’s prose is rich and lush, bringing a meaty tale to visceral life. The bloody trade of whale-hunting, a queer love-story, and a boy possessed by a power he cannot control: it’s a riveting deep sea read from start to finish.

The Coven of Dead Girls“, by L’Erin Ogle in PseudoPod
This is grade-A horror: strong, unsettling, and deeply disturbing. It takes place in a haunted house, as seen from the point of view of the ghosts doing the haunting. Unflinchingly, author L’Erin Ogle goes for the jugular, laying bare the terrible reality of what has happened in the house and to the girls who now haunt it The ghosts watch and wait and suffer, all of them filled with rage and grief and a deep and abiding hunger for vengeance, as they cling to whatever remnants of existence are left to them. Masterfully narrated by Nika Harper, this one is not to be missed—provided you heed the content warnings before you listen.

Did you read any out of this world SFF short fiction in June? Let us know in the comments!

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Sci-Fi & Fantasy Short Fiction Roundup: May 2019

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Art by Julie Dillon for Lightspeed Issue #108

This month, we read stories of apocalyptic food and an elusive paradise, of a haunted printing press, of dangerous gods and children with dangerous appetites, of mind- and body-altering substances, of magic flutes and powers so frightening they lead to a life of loneliness and isolation. Read on…

This Way to Paradise“, by Rati Mehrotra in Lightspeed
Somewhere in the mountains of northern India, children named Tara and Tamar are traveling north with their Auntie Anju, and into the path of an ongoing war. The home they’ve left behind is broken. There is strife between India, Pakistan, and China, but something else has plunged the world into even deeper chaos: eight years ago, 40 million people, including Tara and Tamar’s parents, disappeared without a trace. No one knows how it happened or where the people went, and though at the time it pulled the region back from the brink of nuclear annihilation, the countries are still ravaged by fighting. With almost fanatical fervor, Auntie now tells the children they’re headed to “Paradise,” but what kind of paradise can there be, so close to the frontlines of the war? Mehrotra’s story packs a powerful emotional punch; as the truth of Paradise is revealed, it tightens its grip on readers, leading for a thrilling conclusion. One of the best science fiction stories I’ve read this year.

Apocalypse Considered Through a Helix of Semiprecious Foods and Recipes“, by Tobias S. Buckell in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction May/June 2019
What will we eat after the Apocalypse? What lost dishes and ingredients will we yearn for? Buckell’s story is set in a future where our world has been fundamentally altered by climate change, conflict, and our own mismanagement of natural resources. Dish by dish—from pancakes to Reuben sandwiches, from beef stew to walking tacos, and beyond—Buckell tells us how people try to survive in this challenging future. It’s a story that is grim but also uplifting—while there is tragedy and death here, there is also resistance and resilience, and a taste (fleeting though it may be) of happiness and comfort.

Bedtime Snacks for Baby“, by Catherine George in Flash Fiction Online
Once more before bedtime, my sweet. Snuggle up here in the rocking [item used for sitting], and I’ll tell you how it happened.” So begins this both whimsical and ingenious short story about language and words, and a very special baby that is changing the world, one snack at a time. I love how this tale seems innocuously sweet and funny at first, and then, once you realize what is truly happening, it twists to become both chilling and brilliant.

Dune Song“, by Suyi Davies Okungbawa in Apex
This story takes place in a tightly controlled community in the desert. The arid landscape is haunted by an ominous phenomenon that makes itself known by wind and noise. “Do not go out to the dunes”, the Chief says at one point. “The gods will whistle you to death.” The community’s strict rules and dire warnings are not enough to dissuade Nata. Her mother disappeared in the desert, and before she left, she told Nata there are thriving civilizations beyond the sand-covered world that surrounds their home, and that “the whirlwind of time would take her there.” Nata is determined to look for her mother, and those other civilizations, but to leave is to risk severe punishment and death. A uniquely imagined, compelling story about daring to go your own way, even when people tell you you’re wrong.

Moses“, by L.D. Lewis in Anathema
When she’s 12, Moses is bullied by a boy at school, and one day, he harasses her when she’s heading home with her younger sister Jordan. Moses lashes out, and suddenly, inexplicably, the boy is gone. No one ever sees him again, and Moses and Jordan are not quite sure what happened. Later, Moses serves in the military, fighting a war in a foreign country. There, she is confronted with the devastating reality of what she is capable of, and when she returns home, nothing is the same. This is a riveting, gritty story that follows Moses as she struggles to come to grips with her abilities and the memories that haunt her as she drifts through a life with Jordan as her only safe haven.

Scolex“, by Matt Thompson in Interzone #281
In this suspenseful sci-fi story, various illegal substances (drugs, genetic enhancements, etc.) are unconventionally smuggled—not hidden in bags or packages, but injected into a person’s bloodstream. Tyner is a drug addict and a mule, and has been injected with a new concoction called “Scolex” meant for an anonymous buyer in the former North Korea. As Tyner travels there, the substance coursing through his veins is changing him, altering his mind and body in ways he does not understand. Is Scolex a drug, or is it something utterly, frighteningly, different? The closer Tyner gets to his destination, the more his sense of reality seems to fracture, as the ghosts of his past return to haunt him. A taut, riveting story with shades of Johnny Mnemonic and Neuromancer, with a trippy, drug-addled edge.

The Wilderling“, by Angela Slatter in The Dark
A woman called LP watches as a menacing, feral child enters her backyard. She watches as the child approaches the family cat, lounging in the garden. The cat her husband loves. The cat she does not particularly care for. The gut-wrenching scene is the start of a deeply unsettling horror story as tense and taut as a piano wire about to snap. Through LP’s eyes, Slatter gives us an unflinching look at the darkness lurking at the edges of our seemingly orderly society, with its backyards and pets and babies, and also gives us a glimpse of the darkness that lurks inside us too, beneath the things we know we should feel and do. For more dark horrors by Angela Slatter, check out her novelette Finnegan’s Field.

The Bone Flute Quartet“, By K.J. Kabza in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Bretchen wants to become a witch, but her mother is dead set against it, saying she wants Bretchen to “enter a respectable profession.” However, the young girl does not give up so easily. Aided by her Ommama, and with Ommama’s treasured bone flute hidden in her pack, she sets out to make her own way in the world. Soon, she finds herself on a perilous quest that requires her to gather four magical flutes made from the bones of a long-dead, frightfully powerful witch. This darkly delightful story by K.J. Kabza has the satisfying feel of an old-school fairy tale. And as in any fairy tale worth its salt, Bretchen must use all her skills and her wits to succeed.

Malotibala Printing Press“, by Mimi Mondal in Nightmare
As ghost stories go, this tale by Mimi Mondal is both inventive and hugely enjoyable. It’s set in India, and involves a haunted printing press, a tiger, a series of raunchy romance novels, and a murder most foul. Mondal tells this story in beautifully crafted prose that has an almost playful flow and rhythm, and in the telling, she fits smaller tales within it, giving the horror of what takes place a wistful, even sorrowful lilt. The ghosts here, like so many do, hunger for justice, but also long for someone to listen—to hear and believe their story. If this tale leaves you wanting more of Mondal’s writing, check out her wonderfully original take on the genie in the lamp in His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light.

The Intercessor“, by Deborah L. Davitt in The Fantasist
This novella mixes fantasy and alternate history, and takes place in a reimagined Constantinople in the year 1658. It begins when two men enter the city. One is Hugh D’Orsey, an Intercessor, an official of the christian church who oversees and polices the use of magic. His friend and fellow traveller is Badr ibn Abi Salim al-Din, a representative of the sultan of Egypt. They have come to the city as bodyguards during the Conclave of the Holy Ecumenical Council, but when a suspicious fire starts in a synagogue, they find themselves pulled into a nefarious plot that goes deeper than either of them expected. Davitt weaves together religion, magic, monsters, spirits, gods and demons, and even a heart-pounding love story, into an complex and intricate tale that kept me hooked from the first page to the last.

What’s the best SFF short you read last month?

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Sci-Fi & Fantasy Short Fiction Roundup: December 2018

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

“Belt 71” by Pascal Blanché, for Clarkesworld #147

In December, at the tail end of the year, I read stories of strange and familiar shapeshifters, the Moon and her hounds, an alt-historical Beatrix Potter, post-apocalyptic dentistry, the dangers of mining on Earth and other planets, the trials of Martyrs, and the tribulations of a future shrouded in smog.

The Island of Beasts“, by Carrie Vaughn, in Nightmare
A woman in chains is brought to an island and unceremoniously dumped by her captors. She’s been banished from the mainland not just because she is a wolf-woman (a rare thing even in a world where wolf-men are known to exist), but because she is “too dangerous to keep and not valuable enough to bother taming.” On the island, exiled men of her own wolfish, shapeshifting kind approach her with rather selfish plans for her life on the island. However, she turns out to be more strong-willed, and less easily swayed, than they might have thought. Vaughn spins a gripping and wonderfully rich yarn, the kind of enthralling read that makes me want to curl up in a comfy chair by the fireplace and lose myself in every beautifully crafted word. (The podcast version is also excellent, narrated by Stefan Rudnicki).

The Coal Remembers What It Was“, by Paul R. Hardy, in Diabolical Plots
In this story, as its title reveals, the coal really does remember what it was. When a piece of coal burns, it remembers and reveals the creature it was, the place they lived, the world that once existed. Elsie, our storyteller, remembers too. She remembers growing up in a coal-mining town; remembers her dad covered in coal dust; remembers her mother, working her fingers to the bone to keep the family happy, fed, and clothed. Elsie also remembers the day when the coalmine, and the coal in the ground with all its memories, claimed the town and almost everyone in it. Hardy captures Elsie’s voice perfectly, and tells a vivid, compelling tale that hooked me from the beginning.

Girls Who Do Not Drown“, by A.C. Buchanan, in Apex Magazine
“This is an island that sends all its girls into the sea,” Buchanan writes, and proceeds to tell us about the girls that leave and the girls that stay, the girls that come back and the girls that are lost forever beneath the waves. Then, Buchanan tells us about Alice, who is young and drunk, who feels lost and hopeless, who is sad and fearsome all at once, and who is smoking on the beach when she meets a glashtyn, a shapeshifter that means to carry her into the sea. Buchanan’s prose cuts like a razor; if you remember adolescence, and if you’ve lived in a place where you felt hemmed in on all sides, you might love this story as much as I did.

Beatrix Released“, by Shaenon K. Garrity, in Escape Pod
Until I listened to this simultaneously delightful and harrowing tale, I did not know that I needed to read a twisted, alternate history take on the life of Beatrix Potter, but apparently I did. Garrity’s story is written in the form of diary entries by Potter herself, and it captures a mind of whimsy and brilliance that feels absolutely right for the character. This young Beatrix is a talented artist, but her talents extend far beyond illustrations and children’s stories, and as the tale progresses, it pulls you down the strangest, darkest, loveliest rabbit hole, full of cute (and rather intelligent) mice, ducks, dogs, cats, and…oh yes, there’s also a nefarious plot involving undercover work for the British government, and a whole lot of explosives. Fabulous narration by Katherine Inskip.

Mouths“, by Lizz Huerta, in Lightspeed
“Times were strange, and those who survived the collapse had a jarring mixtape of skills. Plumbers were holy men, exorcising the encampments of the demons of human waste.” In Huerta’s uniquely imagined post-apocalyptic world, plumbers, as well as sex workers and dentists, are highly prized and well-regarded. Somewhere on the Pacific coast of this changed and changing world, a woman called Fai has to trek far away from home to find a dentist after she injures her jaw. Fai finds the dentist, a man called El Buitre, and he heals her (after a fashion), but the process changes both Fai’s life and body in unexpected ways. Huerta’s future is a fascinating one, and his story is evocative and powerful, told with prose that is at once terse and finely wrought.

Russula’s Wake“, by Kay Chronister, in The Dark
In this quietly unsettling story, the monstrous and the everyday exist side by side in the same isolated farm house, and within the same family. Jane is raising her three children by herself after her husband’s death. While she is human, her late spouse was something else—and so are the children. The older two already “nourish” rather than eat, and even their mother fears to look at their true faces. And while the youngest still seems fully human as she plays with and cares for the farm’s barn cats, Jane knows it won’t last. Chronister’s story finds the unsettling darkness that hides in the seams of ordinary life, and picks away at them until they burst open, giving us a glimpse of the darkness within.

Bringing Down the Sky“, by Alan Bao, in Clarkesworld #147
Bao’s story is set in a future where smog is suffocating and plentiful, and where clean air is a rare and expensive commodity people are willing to pay a lot of money for. It’s set in a village in China where the locals make a living going up Big Sky Ridge, looking for clean air they can capture in special canisters for later sale. Theirs is a small-scale operation in a business increasingly dominated by bigger “sky-running” companies; inevitably, outsiders come along, looking for a way to make a bigger profit. Bao’s science fiction tale has a grimy, lived-in texture I really loved, and his world and characters feel both real and complex. This is not a story about good and evil, but a story about human beings trying to make a life and a living in a hard world.

The Glint of Light on Broken Glass“. by Jennifer R. Donohue, in Truancy Magazine
As opening lines go, this one is a gem: “The Moon sits on the windowsill of the butcher shop, smoking cigarettes. The butcher doesn’t mind, much, because the Moon is good company…” It’s the start of a story about the literal Moon, who occasionally comes to Earth with her dogs (knocking out the WiFi whenever she visits), and a hard-working butcher suffering through a string of failed assistants (who are also failed boyfriends), until finally, one night, something goes terribly, horribly awry for them both. Donohue skillfully weaves together gleaming threads of lunar folklore with the cigarette-stained, bloody strands of real life, crafting a moving tale that contains both love and horror.

Salting the Mine“, by Peter Wood, in Asimov’s
On a planet far away from Earth, human settlers and alien locals co-exist rather happily. Once upon a time, something terrible (referred to as “the Event”) occurred here, wreaking havoc with the climate, but the aliens don’t like to talk about it. The humans set up a mining operation when they arrived, but when trouble on Earth left them cut off from communications and trade, the mine eventually closed. The locals are quite happy with the way things are, but things change when a ship arrives from Earth, and someone wants to start mining again… Wood’s story is an entertaining page-turner with great characters, a subtle environmental message, and a good sense of humor.

A Martyr’s Art“, by J.P. Sullivan, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
In J.P. Sullivan’s thrilling fantasy tale, a special group of people called Martyrs has the power to take on the hurts and injuries of others, healing the afflicted in the process. A Martyr can heal, whether the “injury” is a hangover or a mortal wound received in a duel. Chalcedony is a Martyr serving the powerful Lord Sebastien, though her servitude feels to her like slavery. A chance to change her fate arrives when a ship with a mysterious and seemingly incredibly valuable cargo comes to the City. Sullivan’s story is lush in every detail, and it kept me enthralled from start to finish.

What’s the best SFF short story you read in 2018?

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