Monday, December 1, 2014

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 11/14

Welcome back. Thirsty for some good short fiction? Just sidle up to the bar and let your loyal storytender pour you something to take the edge off. Looking for something sweet? Bitter? A touch of both? Let me tell you, this month's had it all. The hardest part has been picking my favorites (and wow has that been hard. There have been so many worthy stories, far too many to list here). But I think I have managed to find my round for the month, so sit back and relax and get your taste buds ready for some great stories.

Tasting Flight: November 2014

"What Glistens Back" by Sunny Moraine (Lightspeed #54)

Art by Elizabeth Leggett
Written like a heart breaking, "What Glistens Back" by Sunny Moraine is Barleywine, hard and deep and full of a taste like falling. This is not a story for the faint of heart; this is for ugly crying and confessing. The story, an off-world science fiction, is short and incredibly bittersweet. The main character, Sean, is relatable, human, and in his descent toward a planet's surface the reader falls as well. The hook is immediate, that rush of air as Sean falls toward the planet to die. The writing, like the character, is a bit sentimental, framed as Sean's life passing before his eyes, and more specifically his life with his husband, Eric, who also happens to be the comm officer who talks to Sean as he falls. That's right, this a story mostly about a man talking to his husband and they both known he's going to die. Soon. By falling onto a planet's surface. From space. So it hits, and it hits hard, the emotion pouring from the words with art and grace. Which is not to say that there aren't some surprises, as Sean has a revelation of sorts as he approaches the ground. But the story itself is a lot of what I love about science fiction, both the sense of adventure and exploration and also that these characters bring their humanity with them, not in a colonial, terrible way, but in the beauty and vulnerability that is the core of Sean and Eric's relationship. It's not an easy read, just like barleywine isn't an easy drink (at around 10% abv, it's no slouch), but it's satisfying and enough on its own that by the end there will be tears.

"Late Nights at the Cape and Cane" by Max Gladstone (Uncanny #1)

Art by Galen Dara
I almost went with bourbon for this story because it features into the story itself, but "Late Nights at the Cape and Cane" by Max Gladstone is much more a dark ale. A mouthful, to be sure, but still very drinkable, very readable. A supervillain story with hints of goodness, there is some darkness but nothing to overpower the senses. Instead the story offers up a look at the "game," the unspoken understanding between superheroes and supervillains, showing through Doc Sinister a man both desperate for a victory and afraid of what it might mean. Determined to actually win against his nemesis, Sinister does something not just villainous, but evil. It's a clear distinction that the story makes, that makes the denizens of the Cape and Cane, a bar for supervillains, nearly redeemable. Because that is what makes a villain great, not that they are evil incarnate, hurting and killing and torturing at a whim, but that they are striving for their own kind of justice, albeit one bent and distorted. The story focuses a bit on the nobility of the supervillain, the lamentable fate of always being on the losing side, while still offering some hope. As a fan of comic books, this was a fun read, something to smile over despite the rather dark content. Because while the heroes are the ones you might want to win, the villains can sometimes offer up a more interesting perspective.

"We Were Once of the Sky" by Yosef Lindell (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #161)

Art by Juan Carlos Barquet
Blending harsh loss with harsher realities and just a hint of hope, "We Were Once of the Sky" by Yosef Lindell is an Old Fashioned, a mix of bitters and dark spirits and just a hint of citrus. The story centers around a Beta, Kev, a member of an alien race who crashed on Earth a while ago and who now live in terrible conditions. Set during the Middle Ages, the Beta are shunned, treated like second-class citizens, and struggle with both their place in human society as well as their past, which exists only as relics that younger Beta like Kev are having a harder time accepting as valid. As the Black Death spreads throughout the lands and decimates human and alien alike, Kev has to decide what to do, and what to believe. The story does a great job at showing the conflict within Kev, to distance himself from the misery of his people and his parents, to believe in the human doctrines and theories concerning the universe. And yet the faith of the Beta is not one mired in blind belief but in the past, in the knowledge that is slowly being eroded by human logic and progress. It captures both the generational struggles and personal enlightenment that is so integral to growing up, and leaves the drinker chasing the fleeting tang of the citrus through the bitter bite of the rest of the drink. Definitely not something to enjoy at a picnic, this is more something to sip in the dark while gazing at the stars.

"Candy Girl" by Chikodili Emelumadu (Apex #66)

Art by Mark Greyland
I can't help it; "Candy Girl" by Chikodili Emelumadu is a chocolate stout. Dark and sweet but with a deceptive bite, this story about a woman, Muna, being accidentally transformed into chocolate and then eaten is a pleasant surprise. A surprise because you wouldn't normally think something so dark would be so funny. And yet there is such a sarcastic wit at play in this story that even when dealing with such serious topics as cultural appropriation and erasure and sexual objectification, it manages to be a fun read. And I want to think it's because the writer does a great job approaching these topics through the rather outlandish premise of a woman transforming into chocolate. When you really stop and think about it, it's about how she has lost control of her body, how she has been changed into something that she doesn't even like, and can do nothing to stop it. A white man who thinks he knows more about her culture than she does has condemned her to this because he mixed up the word for person with the word for thing. Or maybe didn't really mix them up, but rather said how he actually feels. It's a terrifying prospect, and yet she never really loses hope. It helps that the cast of characters is incredibly fun, from the cousin to the husband to the woman they go to for advice. And what could have been a depressing story, because there is no saving her from the fate of being eaten, is instead hopeful because even having been consumed she finds a way forward, a way to take back her power, if not her life. She lives with the scars of what happened to her, but never loses her spirit. In good stout fashioned, this is a layered story, dark enough to make you stop and think, sweet enough to leave you craving more like it.

"A Moon for the Unborn" by Indrapramit Das (Strange Horizons 11/10/14)

Coming in at my favorite story from an amazing month from Strange Horizons, "A Moon for the Unborn" by Indrapramit Das is a mug of spiced wine. When cold, it rattles the bones, bitter and acrid. When warm, though, it's something else, something to banish the chill, to ease the stress of living and bring back feeling to numb fingers. Here again is a story that deals with some heavy material, with the loss of a child, with transgender issues, with hope and ghosts. And while it should probably be accompanied by some trigger warnings, it manages to be hopeful while giving proper weight and respect to what the characters have gone through. The imagery in the story is sharp, the idea that these stillborn children might walk as ghosts on an alien world very chilling and traumatic for the characters to deal with. At its core, this story is about a relationship which is both traditional and anything but. There's a lot going on in the story, and like mulled wine there is added spice of interesting locations and poignant character moments. I would have liked to see a bit more about the planet and the moon that had caused the phenomenon, a little bit more on what might really have been going on, but I understand that the story really wasn't about that. It was about these two people trying to create new life, and the story ends the way all mugs of spiced wine seem to end, with the reader warm, tired, and a little fuzzy on the inside.

"Mrs. Yaga" by Michal Wojcik (Book Smugglers)

Art by Jacqueline Pytyck
A somewhat creepy but very empowering fantasy, "Mrs. Yaga" by Michal Wojcik is a Merlot, on the sweeter side of things and a lot of fun to drink in quantity. It introduces Aurelia, a young woman who has been the ward of Mrs. Yaga, sold by her parents into something that isn't really slavery, but isn't really freedom. She chafes under Mrs. Yaga's rules, especially the one that keeps getting suitors sent off on far adventures that they never return from. Aurelia has aspirations of escape, and at first pins her hope on rescue from an outside, male party. As she sees her prospects dwindle, though, she finds a streak of stubbornness and decides to just rescue herself. It's a nice idea, bending the conventions of the fairy tale genre in ways that, while not really the newest around, are still refreshing and fun. And the writing itself, from Aurelia's mild naivety that blossoms into optimistic action to Mrs. Yaga's questionable and grey morality, everything worked. The prose is intoxicating, easy to get lost in, and the story moves smoothly, with only a small amount of grit. And there are layers to unpack, especially when looking at the relationship between Aurelia and Mrs. Yaga and the role Mrs. Yaga plays in the community. But more essential to the feel of the story is the uplifting, kick-ass message that sometimes the best way to go about getting rescued is to do it yourself.


"Monoceros, Ptolemy Cluster" by Steven W. Johnson (Flash Fiction Online)

Art by Dario Bijelac
An off-planet space Western, this story is a shot of whiskey. About two old friends caught on opposing sides of a theft gone wrong, the story looks briefly back at their friendship, and on the hard lives they've been forced to live since coming to the planet their final showdown takes place on. The feel of it is one of yearning, one of failed prospects and regret, for which whiskey is infinitely suited. It conjures up the feel of a Western with its dust and sand and rough edges while keeping the frontier among the stars.

"Caretaker" by Carlie St. George (Shimmer #22)

Art by Sandro Castelli
Hiding the harsh reality under a layer of uncertain confection, this story is a snowshoe, brandy and peppermint schnapps. The main character of the story lives with a sort of curse passed on from her mother, who killed herself. Now dead bodies keep appearing at their side, whisked away so that family and friends don't have to see. And the main character buries them where no one will find them so that the survivors can have some hope that they're not really gone. The story hits with the strength of the brandy, harsh and unpalatable for many, but with the sugary sweet of the schnapps, with the covering over of the hard with the easy, it goes down a lot easier.

"The Beetle Farm" by DeAnna Knippling (Plasma Frequency #14)

Art by Jon Orr
Whenever I think bugs I think Jaegermeister, so that's what I'm calling this gem by DeAnna Knippling. About a classroom project where beetles are divided into classes to see how they will react, the story shows the teacher's reaction when one of the experiments turns out much different than she imagined. Dealing with class and expectations, the ending is perfect, bitter and harsh and ice cold, just like how I like my Jaegermeister.

POSTED BY: Charles: writer, reader, reviewer, and recent addition to the Nerds of a Feather team. If the above stories aren't enough, maybe check out his latest, "Handful of Spring," out in the latest issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.