Tuesday, February 3, 2015

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 01/15

It's a brand new year and it's off to a great start with speculative short fiction. January was packed with stories, and your faithful storytender has tried to bring together a selection that will satisfy every palate. From alt-historical fantasies to near-future science fictions, this month's choices offer a diverse range of styles and flavors. Enjoy!

Tasting Flight - January 2015

"Mine-Wife" by Karin Tidbeck, translated by Silvester Mazzarella (Words Without Borders)

The first word that I would use to describe Karin Tidbeck's "Mine-Wife" is deep. It is a deep story, delving both into the Earth and into the past to uncover some very unsettling facts about myths and legends crossing over into the real world. And that depth makes this story a doppelbock to me, a dark beer that brings to mind the tastes of cold earth and long stillness. Told as a series of correspondences between colleagues, the story revolves around the disappearance of a town full of people during a time of hardship long ago. Slowly a picture is drawn of people making deals with creatures that live below ground, creatures that will make deals to help humans in need, but creatures that also are very dangerous when crossed because they pay back any insult many times over. Which is proven when a group of researches find the remains of the missing villagers who had betrayed these creatures and tried to make themselves safe by building a mechanical protector. Instead of saving them, though, it only led to an escalation, as the creatures built their own weapons, weapons that are being kept in wait in case the creatures are even betrayed again. The sense of dread, or danger, is palpable, the threat that lurks beneath the surface waiting to be unleashed. It's a creepy story that sits heavy and brings a contemplative silence with it, a doppelbock to be enjoyed on a cold winter night by the fire.

"Time is a Twisting Snake" by Richard Bowes (Farrago's Wainscot #13)

With a main character slowly seduced into a morally questionable arrangement to retain his youth, "Time is a Twisting Snake" by Richard Bowes to me is like a Zinfandel. Sweet and light at the surface, it's also quite difficult to get exactly right. Just as a story essentially about the old stealing the bodies of the young is a rather tricky premise to do in a way that is original and sharp. The main character could easily be seen as a monster, as afraid of dying and age and irrelevance. Certainly those are aspects of why he decides to go through with the procedure, because he is a social media fixture and because he doesn't want to let go. He wants to stay in the Big Arena, and yet his time is run down. But it's not just that. He also knows that what he is doing is wrong. He knows that his decision, made for the best of reasons, has implications he can only see after the fact. He is conflicted, complex, and that's why I like this story so much, because there is no easy answer, just the sense that something is wrong, and that something is going to turn around and snap. So, like a Zinfandel done right, this story has layers where you might not expect them, and a taste that leaves you wanting more.

"The Half Dark Promise" by Malon Edwards (Shimmer #23)

Art by Sandro Castelli
Winning the award of Most Intense story this month is the urban fantasy "The Half Dark Promise" by Malon Edwards, which pits a young girl with a skin condition and a machete named Tonton Macoute against a dark and deadly creature. A mix of darkness, bitterness, and a tired resolve, this story was an imperial stout to me, strong and pouring with a richness that will knock you back on your heels. Michaëlle-Isabelle, the young girl, is a survivor in many ways, an immigrant from Haiti who finds in the urban pack of Chicago a loneliness that is eased only by a friend, a young boy named Bobby Brightsmith. Only he goes missing and the monster that took him, the Pogo, goes after Michaëlle-Isabelle. The action of the story is intense, immediate, and violent, broken by memories of her father before he died, of the lessons he taught her. Michaëlle-Isabelle suffers from a skin condition that she uses to shield herself from harm, to shield herself from a cruel world, and yet it's not enough when fighting the Pogo. This is the story of how one girl stood up, refused to run, and took back something for herself. Like an imperial stout, this is a story that makes the blood run fast, that gets the heart pumping, that makes you want to shout at the end in triumph. And throughout it's a joy to experience, filled with linguistic flares that make it unique and memorable. 

"Headwater LLC" by Sequoia Nagamatsu (Lightspeed #56)

Art by Zelda Devon
About a young girl who unintentionally betrays her only friend and lives in constant regret of her mistakes, "Headwater LLC" by Sequoia Nagamatsu is a gin and tonic. Which is sort of how I imagine the magical headwater tastes like, the nectar that comes from the heads of the Kappa and prove to be invigorating and addictive to humans. Yoko, the young girl, works as a powerless partner in a company dedicated to the enslavement and exploitation of the Kappa, a role she did not anticipate when she made friends with Masa, a Kappa risen from the polluted waters of his home. The story is strong and fizzy with a strong hint of sourness as Yoko tries to think of a way to undo the damage she caused. And yet continually she delays action, she fails to act on Masa's behalf for fear of her own suffering. She means well, but that doesn't help the Kappa. At it's core, the story seems to be how the best of intentions aren't enough, that at some point one has to act to be free of the burden of guilt. Like a gin and tonic, this story can seem simple and straightforward if taken in too quickly. It begs to be savored, to linger on the tongue to pick apart the different tastes, to let them work. It's a sad story, a nuanced story, and one well-worth reading.

"The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History" by Sam J. Miller (Uncanny #2)

Art by Julie Dillon
"The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History" by Sam J. Miller, a fantasy-tinged retelling of the Stonewall Riot, is for me the story about the magic of a great many people coming together as one and doing something unexpected. In that, it's a bit like a mimosa, which by itself is fun and sweet and flavorful, but which often gets dismissed as a weak drink, as "girly." Never have I seen so many people drunk off their asses, though, than when mimosas start flowing. The story follows a reporter as she interviews various people present at the Stonewall when the police broke in, when the gathered people inside, gays and lesbians mostly, decided that they had been pushed around too much. Each has ideas about what happened, about the reasons for it, but the result is that they manifest a power and a flame that pushes back the police and gives power to the powerless. About activism, about the power of standing together, the story weaves the narratives to create a compelling picture of humanity set against itself, or people refusing to be victimized and becoming something powerful, unstoppable. And while that might not seem at first blush like a mimosa, try having five or six and see how you feel then.

"Cat Pictures Please" by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld #100)

About a well-meaning AI who discovers that it's harder than they thought to help humans, Naomi Kritzer's "Cat Picture Please" is a smooth lager, easy to drink and yet with some subtlety for those willing to look for it. Through the story, an AI obsessed with cat pictures decides that it should try to help people and does so one human at a time. And yet the AI finds that helping someone is very complicated, full of unexpected turns and doesn't really lead to the best outcomes. At the verge of giving up, the AI experiences a moment of success and decides that it might still be worth it to try. And I like stories that decide that it's worth it to try. That might be a theme for this month. Stand up and try. And the AI definitely has the least skin in the game. There's nothing really in it for the AI, except cat pictures, except that they want to do the right thing, and that means trying to help people. It really is a charming story, mostly light but with some nice flavor, and very refreshing after some much darker stories this month. Like a lager, it's just the thing after a stressful day, and best had among friends, with a din of noise and laughter.


"Cliona's Coat" by Leslianne Wilder (Flash Fiction Online)

Sweet but with a feeling of age and regret, this story in a Sherry Sangaree, a mixture of sherry with powdered sugar, soda water, and ice, and with a shot of port floating on the top. About a selkie who has lost her skin, who has lived on the shore through war and through peace and who drinks by herself every night, the story is full of tired moments. For someone who has lost so much, and seen so much, life has become something of a routine, and a sad one. But life is not without its moments of joy, of distraction, of pleasure. Though a bit out of place, she still finds comfort when she can, and the story ends with a bit of a triumph, a promise that everything isn't wasted, that they're still hope even when the world seems drawn and colorless.

"Re-Homing" by Debbie Urbanski (Terraform)

Mixing something childish and exciting with some biting commentary on how people view children, this story is a Kool-Aid, equal parts amaretto, Southern Comfort, and cranberry juice. They story itself features a couple hoping to take in a second-hand child in a world where adoption works much as it does for pets. Children are re-homed without much thought for them, instead focusing on the wants of the parents. It works as a cutting reminder of how people view children, as property and not people, as extensions of their own hopes and not as individuals with every right to turn out the way they want to. It really does a good job of circling the idea that parenting is not supposed to be easy or convenient, that it's supposed to be about what's best for the child and that is not always what a parent wants for the child. Good work, and delightful to read, sweet and with a kick.

"A Million Oysters for Chiyoko" by Caroline M. Yoachim (Daily Science Fiction)

A story about loss and preservation as a diver discovers what happened to her daughter, lost during a dive to gather oysters, this is a Sea Breeze, equal parts vodka, cranberry juice, and grapefruit juice. The story, like the drink, isn't exactly bitter, but isn't exactly sweet, and seems almost salty without there being any salt in it. It follows an older woman diving for sea life, who comes across a small pocket of unspoiled sea free of pollution and corruption, but not free of death. The power of the mother's decision to leave her daughter behind, to leave the oasis untouched, is powerful and poignant. There is loss, definitely, but also an easing of a burden, of knowing what happened and where the remain are. And knowing that there is one place that remains that is still untouched by the damage done to the rest of the ocean. And choosing not to exploit it. The story is powerful and layered and goes down smoothly.

POSTED BY: Charlesavid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014. Find him on Twitter as @ClowderofTwo