Wednesday, May 6, 2015

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 04/2015

Welcome back to another month of tantalizing speculative short stories and fine drinkables. April saw an interesting mix of stories hit the internet, and apparently for me the majority of the ones making to the bar share an Earthbound, contemporary feel to them. Fantasy or science fiction, pretty much all of these stories don't range too far into the future or past, and all of them keep their feet planted on Terra Firma. Be they retelling old stories in a new context or spinning completely and refreshingly original ideas, these stories share a tie to the world that we know while hinting at all the worlds beyond. So sit back and relax and let your trusty storytender pour you something to take the edge off.

Tasting Flight: April 2015

"We'll Be Together Forever" by Joseph Allen Hill (Lightspeed #59) 

Art by Elena Bespalova
Focusing on a mixed race couple delving into dark magic to keep the spark of their relationship alive, "We'll Be Together Forever" hits with the force of barleywine, deep and mysterious and after which someone normally wakes up having done something they'll regret. The couple, Anthony and Audrey, have been together for a long time but their backgrounds and fears are keeping them from taking their relationship any farther. They are stuck, and so Anthony, an expert on old languages, decides to take a chance on a love potion, and idea that Audrey reluctantly agrees to. And it works. It works far too well. The two become instantly obsessed, and Anthony goes as far as to eat Audrey's favorite shirt to have a part of her essence. The potion brings to the surface all the love but also all the insecurities and fears in the couple. Anthony wants to possess Audrey, to devour those things he feels threaten to impede on her love for him. When he tries to eat her guitar, though, Audrey can't just sit back and be passive. Instead she takes the metaphor to its logical extreme, using the magic book to cast a spell that breaks her into a legion of smaller Audreys. A legion that force their way down Anthony's throat. He devours her. But, she forces him to devour her. And when the potion wears off and they wake up the next morning, their situation is completely changed. A complicated and wild ride, the story is a euphoric mix of magic and a kind of messed up relationship. Neither person is willing to talk about their real problems, their real fears, and so they are doomed to misunderstand each other, to miss each other. The story is moving and the voice energetic and engaging, the final action melancholy and conflicted. They are left afterwards to pick up the pieces, which like after a night of barleywine is a very messy situation indeed.

"The Wild Swan" by Anne Bean (Urban Fantasy #6) 

A retelling of the Swan Princess fairy tale set in modern times with just as much darkness as the original, "The Wild Swan" by Anne Bean tastes like a Riesling to me, a white wine that's semi-sweet and with a lightness to it, an almost feathery quality that helps it rise up from its fairy tale origins to be something more. The story follows the youngest of the seven brothers, Michael, the one who only got half-converted back to human and lives with an enormous swan wing instead of one of his arms. An outcast from most of the rest of his family because of his arm and because of his being gay, the only one of his siblings he gets along with is his sister, Ellie, similarly outcast because of her guilt that she couldn't completely save all her brothers and because she reminds them all of the curse, what they lost and what they were. A story about family struggle and learning to accept yourself over bowing to the pressures put you by your parents and siblings, the story has a bittersweet ending, a way for Ellie to escape the prison her family is to her and a way for Michael to see that he shouldn't need to hide who he is. It's a powerful if slightly mourning tale of two people deciding that they deserve to be happy in the face of a family that is embarrassed about them. And like a Riesling there is a certain rising feeling to the piece, a lightness that leaves the reader hopeful and refreshed despite a somewhat dry bite.

"Noise Pollution" by Allison Wilgus (Strange Horizons)

With a wry punch and a fast pace and a smooth finish, "Noise Pollution" by Allison Wilgus is a golden IPA, just a little brash and bitter but with a taste that makes it incredibly fun and drinkable. The story introduces a rather shiftless Musical, a woman who can use music to create magic. She's a natural talent, but with that talent comes a certain lack of dependability, a certain arrogance that often puts her at odds with her Choir. Which manifests pretty strongly when she gets out late for an important event and things just keep going wrong. Which comes to a head when, on the street bartering for stolen cassette tapes, she doesn't notice her magical wards fail and she is noticed by the Noise. In a moment of terrifying originality, the story makes the Noise a sort of sentient static that hunts Musicals, that seems to ever be lurking behind the tall buildings of the city. And suddenly in a fight for her life, the main character can only hold her own as her irresponsibility comes back to bite her. Luckily for her, the down-on-his-luck man she was trying to buy stolen tapes from turns out to be a latent Musical, and she manages to instruct him enough to get his help. Together the two push back the Noise in a stunning scene and the story ends with the main character having a new card to play, having managed to discover a new talent for the Choir just in time. This story is full of win, with a nice sarcastic voice that brings to mind the bitterness of an IPA but with a smooth action and pleasant excitement that takes the edge of and makes this story something to read with a smile.

"Every Hand a Winner" by Romie Stott (Farrago's Wainscot #14) 

Featuring a spectral deck of cards and a main character just hoping to use it to pull herself out of a bad situation, "Every Hand a Winner" by Romie Stott feels like a rye ale to me, just a bit harsh but with layers of flavor to pull the reader in and a strength that makes the ending a triumph. The frame of the story is that a young woman is giving some sort of interview about her experience with the cards. And so the story is told in her voice, which is fun and a bit wry even in the face of some incredibly events. She simply takes it as a matter of course and when she finds the ghost cards she starts to figure them out. Each card has a different feel, a different aura, and she learns them all as she carries them with her. As once she figures them out, she decides to use them to cheat at cards. Because of course that's what you do. The cards are only visible in low light, though, so she dims the common area of the place she lives, a sort of American hostel, and invites those she thinks have money to spare to play with her. It's not the most ethical of things but it does seem like she's not trying to be mean about it. Like Robin Hood, she's trying to take only what people are able to lose, though when a strange man shows up and wants to play, things begin to get a little out of hand. And it turns out she's being played, as the man turns out to be the original owner of the cards, who might be dead or might be a demon or the Devil itself, because when the narrator sees that she's going to lose it all, she quickly finds a way to get out and still pull out a win. It's great fun but with a struggle to it, a darkness to it, that makes the story a rye ale to me, a deep drink that's still quite fun to kick back and enjoy.

"Silver Buttons All Down His Back" by A.C. Wise (Apex #71) 

Art by Adrian Borda
With a main character struggling with insecurity and fear, unable to bridge the gap between himself and the man he wants to love, "Silver Buttons All Down His Back" by A.C. Wise is a stout, dark as the night sky with a bitter smokiness and a power that will linger well after the glass is drained. Devon is partially paralyzed and uses a rig fused to his spine to live a more "normal" life, but his feelings toward the rig and toward himself are complicated. When he meets Gary, an astronaut who's very sight driven, at first things work out great. They have chemistry and Gary seems to admire Devon's body, to revel in it as Devon revels in Gary. It's an interesting pairing, as Devon is something of a voyeur, watching without being seen, hiding himself while being drawn to others. And Gary loves to be watched, to be seen, even as he also loves to see Devon in return. Insecurity and doubt plague the relationship, though, with Devon not quite believing that Gary could love him without fetishing him, without objectifying his rig. I loved the way the story builds the relationship between the two men, how Gary needs someone to see him, to watch him, and how Devon, in the end, can't let himself, is too closed off to try. For all that they yearn for each other, for comfort and release, they end up betraying each other in incredibly intimate ways, and the tragedy of the piece left me a bit numb. Like a stout, the end of the story is like the bottom of a glass, leaving me empty, a bit woozy, and not sure if I want even more or if I should just curl up into a ball and sleep. An emotionally resonant (and perhaps devastating) story.

"You Can Do It Again" by Michael Ian Bell (Shimmer #24) 

Art by Sandro Castelli
Full of nostalgia and regret and the inability to move on, "You Can Do It Again" by Michael Ian Bell is a pilsner to me, filled with the memory of first drinks, of family, or regret. The story shows a world where a drug, Redo, can take people back in time. Kind of. It takes people back into their memories, to important events. It lets them relive those instants. But rumor is that people can actually change what happened. That they can, with incredible will, shift the events of the past and change their present. And that's what Marco, the main character, is desperate for. He goes back into his past, again and again, searching for his brother, for his brother who left him and never returned. Marco wants to ask him to stay, wants to tell him how important he is. But every time he goes back the events play out the same way, and every time Marco wakes again to his run-down life. Marco has had a difficult life, but his greatest failure has been his inability to open up emotionally. He keeps everything locked away, afraid to show weakness, afraid to show vulnerability, afraid to make a meaningful connection. Trouble has found him and he's found trouble, and he thinks that if he changes things it will all get better, but without changing himself first he's doomed to forever go back and relive the same events. Without actually being able to tell his brother that he loves him, that he needs him, Marco cannot change a thing. Like how drinkers who stick with pilsners never learn to appreciate the different and amazing flavors beer can have (seriously, people drinking Bud or Miller Light are missing out), Marco fails to move on because he's too rooted to what's not working to help him. A tragic story.


"Everyone's a Clown" by Caroline M. Yoachim (Unlikely Story #11.5)

With a terrifying premise and a solid emotional core, this story is (of course) a Clown Car, a corruption of the classic Side Car, but instead of two parts brandy, one orange liqueur, and one lemon juice, the Clown Car is two parts cotton candy vodka, one orange liqueur, and one lemon juice. It's a shot to keep you awake at night remembering it, which fits this story where a mother finds that her child has a terrible affliction where she sees that everything has an inner clown. These inner clowns show their emotions on the outside, and generally speaking a world of entirely clowns should scare anyone. Only when the mother decides to embrace this new vision, though, to help her child through the trauma, to make them feel less alone, do things start to improve. Despite the terror that the vision brings the mother, she pushes through it to help her child, to make everything okay. It's a sweet story in a lot of ways, but one cut by the horror and strangeness of a world made entirely of clowns.

 "You Are Two Point Three Meters From Your Destination" by Fran Wilde (Uncanny #3) 

Art by Carrie Ann Baade
For this incredibly short retelling of the Orpheus story through the frame of GPS directions, I'm going to serve up a Black Orpheus, a mix of equal parts rum and ouzo mixed with a muddled lime and simple syrup. The story itself is minimalist and sparse, but for all that it captures the feel of the myth incredibly well. The descent into the underworld. The confrontation with Hades. The climb up, getting closer and closer and then, the turn, the tragedy. It works so well as a way of enshrining the heartbreak in a way that in some ways is completely devoid of emotion. There is no inherent feelings to a set of directions, and yet the prose here manages to evoke so well that the lines are incredibly powerful. Somehow the feeling of the story remains, the implications all retained and re-purposed to devastating effect. It takes the core of the myth and strips it down and down to the point that this is nearly a poem. Still, it hits hard and takes an old and incredibly popular story in a very new direction (don't kill me for the pun).

"The Kiss" by K.C. Norton (Flash Fiction Online) 

Art by Dario Bijelac
This story about a psychic who can see the future of her relationships from the moment of the first kiss has to be a Kiss, a mix of two parts gin with one each of Aperitif and sweet vermouth with a dash of cherry liqueur. The story follows a date where the psychic wants to kiss her boyfriend, the guy she's been going out with for some time who has been pretty cool about the no kissing but who she wants to kiss. Only, she fears that when she kisses him it will be like the other times, that she will see how they break up. That she will see the bad things to come. And she doesn't want to see that, doesn't want to know that. Still, she refuses to allow that fear to rule her. In the end she takes the chance and the kiss and finds that some things are still mysteries, finds that things don't always have to go wrong. She gets no reading, but whether that means they are meant to be or just that her powers have stopped working she can't be sure of. All she knows is that she'll have to wait to find out, and that anticipation and mystery is part of what makes relationships so exciting and rewarding.

POSTED BY: Charlesavid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.