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“Unpublished Gay Cancer Survivor Memoir“, by Caspian Gray in Lightspeed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!