Friday, June 5, 2015

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 05/2015

Welcome back, intrepid travelers of the speculative highways and intergalactic avenues. Rest a spell and have a seat at the bar and let this storytender pour you something to take the edge off. Not sure what you want? Well I have gathered up quite a selection for this month's tasting flight, from stories with superpowers to stories where whole universe are just stalks of wheat swaying in the wind. 

For something stronger, and in honor of my recent adventures at WisCon, the shots this week are all taken from the special menu from the Bar. Go ahead and check out the image of the full Bar menu (speculative booze puns!) in my write up on Wiscon.

Otherwise, prepare your palate for some delicious stories. Cheers!

Tasting Flight - May 2015

"Zapped" by Sherwood Smith (Tor.com)

Art by Junyi Wu
A story kind-of about young people discovering they have superpowers but also about learning to empathize and reserving judgement, "Zapped" by Sherwood Smith is a strawberry daiquiri, cool and sweet and easily mistaken for something childish except it is also full of enough strength to make the hot nights of summer melt away. Laurel, the main character, can Zap things, literally using some sort of magic power to move objects from a distance. It's a power that she tries to use for good, but like with all superhero stories she doesn't always get it right. The world, after all, is more complicated than even a kid in high school can imagine. Only more so when Laurel finds out that she's not the only one with powers, and she's soon brought into a small group of kids with different gifts who want to use their powers to do good. Or at least to do no bad. It's a noble goal and one that Laurel embraces even as she gets a strange vibe surrounding the first person in the group that befriended her, a girl her age named Mercy. Because it turns out that Mercy is dealing with issues that Laurel didn't know about, prejudices that show that even in very open minded settings a seed of oppression and prejudice can germinate. Around all this the group is trying to figure out what happened to a classmate they suspect was beaten into a coma because of his sexuality and a possible conspiracy that might involve all of them and their powers. There's a lot to like here, and the character work and voice are amazing, making this a fun read, something to read and nod along to despite the at times heavy subject matter. And in the end the story leaves the readers with a great many questions, teasing them with that enchanting taste, which like a strong daiquiri will only leave them wanting more.

"By Degrees and Dilatory Time" by S.L. Huang (Strange Horizons)

Art by Milan Jaram
About a man coming to terms with replacing a part of himself, his eyes, due to illness, "By Degrees and Dilatory Time" by S.L. Huang is a Helles Bock, a brush of hop bitterness with a smooth finish and enough of a punch to make your vision blur. Marcus has been diagnosed with a rare cancer that means his eyes need to be removed. Which seems like a huge thing (and is), but is supposed to be less of an issue because there are now cybernetic eyes that can function (supposedly) just as well as "normal" eyes. Indeed, they are sometimes seen as more attractive. As provocative. To the point that people choose to have their eyes replaced for cosmetic reasons. To Marcus, though, they are not what he wants. They are to save his vision, and yet they make him different. To himself, to others. The eyes are a reminder of what he has lost and what now sets him apart. And yet at the same time that he resents his new eyes, that he hates them, he also grows to see them as a part of himself, not exactly as just a loss but also about change in general, that this too can be him, that he can be something different without being lesser, even to himself. It's a brooding story, about Marcus' fears and insecurities, but his voice is so earnest, so real, that the story just works. It's a bit of sadness, a bit of reflection, but mostly the will to keep going, the belief that things get better, that wounds heal even if the scars never really go away. And like a good Helles the story leaves the reader feeling refreshed and ready to face the world.

"A Sister's Weight in Stone" by JY Yang (Apex #72)

Art by Beth Spencer
I can think of no better description of this story than dark, and so for me "A Sister's Weight in Stone" by JY Yang is a Pinot Noir, a dark wine that's almost black like a storm at sunset or like the sea tinged with blood, but also with a complex flavor and a subtle sweetness like hope that shines through in the end. The story follows two sisters, Little Phoenix and Jade, who are traveling because of difficult times to a new city to begin new lives. On the way, though, Jade is lost during a storm, taken by creatures of the sea, leaving Little Phoenix grieving, unsure of how to proceed. Except that Little Phoenix is also a story teller. She knows how these things go, and figures that her sister has been taken beneath the waves by a dark force and that she must find a way to get her back. Because that's the way of stories, dark princes constantly snatching young women so that someone needs to rescue them. The story is heartbreaking, wrenching, and honestly you need to just go and read it because wow. Told swirling around that traumatic moment on the ship, during the storm, the story blends reality and story flawlessly, leading the reader along before hitting them between the eyes like a hammer. Like a full glass dropped back without a thought, the alcohol steaming like a train toward impact. Little Phoenix must face herself, her situation, and the truth of it all as she stands poised and ready to do whatever is required to get her sister back, as she stands ready to see if she will burn away or rise from the ashes. About grief and guilt and loss, this story has some serious layers, a rich complexity that could seem too dark at times but which is ultimately lifting and redemptive. There might indeed be crying involved, but with Pinor Noir that's only one facet of a riveting experience.

"Let Down, Set Free" by Nino Cipri (Crossed Genres #29)

With a seedpod the size of an oak tree and a wild possibility to it, "Let Down, Set Free" by Nino Cipri is a rye ale, with hints of southern whiskey and the feeling of flying. In the story a recently divorced woman finds said giant seedpod in a field. According to the government such things are supposed to be burned, but she can't bring herself to do it. It was merely lost, like her, tethered when it got caught on a fence. She sees in it her own move from the North down to Kentucky and then her own lack of direction. Being mired in a fence is not the same as putting down roots, and against what might be considered better judgment the woman decides that her and the seed are going to move on together. Told as a letter to her ex-husband, the story drifts beautifully on its way, the main character a bit numb following her husband running off with another woman and being stranded in a state she followed him to. But it's also about lifting, about taking the plunge and moving on after loss, after disappointment and abandonment. About seeking that better place, and not letting yourself get stuck somewhere that's not good for you. A moving story, with enough flavor to make a good rye, hints of smoke and earth and grain and hope. 

"The Garden Beyond Her Infinite Skies" by Matthew Kressel (Clarkesworld #104)

Art by Julie Dillon
A story about scale and abuse and the hope for a better world, "The Garden Beyond Her Infinite Skies" by Matthew Kressel is a wheat ale, full of the taste of wide open spaces and clean air and enough of a bite to remind you that the world is alive and growing. The story follows Aya, a Gardener who, like all her kind, exist to keep the great fields of universes in perfect order. No rot or cancer is allowed to exist, though Aya yearns for finding such irregularities, such growths that seem to promise so much more than the sterile eternity that surrounds her. Her society is one that discourages expression, where the elders routinely abuse their charges and where those charges are supposed to then pass along the abuse to their own offspring. For Aya, though, there must be more, and as her dissatisfaction grows she resolves to find someplace better. Aya and her people are completely inhuman in form, in motion, and yet like all my favorite science fiction stories, this one goes an incredibly job of showing the human in an alien character, in showing with golden clarity the scale and scope of our existence, just a drop in an endless sea, and yet regardless of size that life and sentience need to be respected. That abuse doesn't have to be handed down. That somewhere there might be a place for those who don't fit in. Like a wheat ale, the story is perfect for summer, looking out on clear skies and feeling a little better about the world.

"Restore the Heart into Love" by John Chu (Uncanny #4)

Art by Tran Nguyen
Featuring an attempt to save a world's worth of texts in danger of censorship by blasting them into space, "Restore the Heart into Love" by John Chu is a coffee stout, a drink dark and deep but also infused with the taste of waking up, as the main character in the story does again and again. The crew of the mission to save the texts is kept in suspended animation except for when repairs are needed and Max, the main character, keeps on being woken up due to failures surrounding a section of Chinese language texts, most specifically those using an older Chinese character style that the more modern China was trying to replace with a streamlined version for political reasons. Max, a man who learned the older characters in part to connect with his parents and their culture following their departure from Taiwan when it was invaded by China, at first brushes off the failures as coincidence until he discovers it is a more insidious than that, more targeted, and included a malicious program that rewrote the entire body of text into the new forms. Faced with the possible loss, he must choose what to do next, how to fulfill his mission to return to Earth with the unaltered past, to confront whatever future world it has become with the unedited and uncensored thoughts from before. It's a provocative story, one that questions language and what censorship can look like. The story uses language to create a tapestry of meaning and character, the character linked to how he connects to the various people in his life through the language. And when faced with its loss, the story builds a striking portrait of one man trying to fix what he can and bring a little heart back into the world. Like a coffee stout, it draws the reader deep while gently prodding them to wake up, to open their eyes.

Shots

"Mirror Skinned" by Kelly Sandoval (Flash Fiction Online)

Art by Dario Bijelac
About a person on a journey through space in search of something, and finding bits of it in the arms and beds in many different aliens, this story is a Space Babe, a specially made Sangria with hints of fruit and spice and something undefinable. The main character of the story moves off into the stars and changes themself as they goes, each coupling shaping them further and further away from what they were when they started but it's a transformation of choice, of joy and not of shame. The story is sensuous and melancholy, a bit sad with an element of the ethereal, the yearning for something that can't quite be defined. I loved the way the the person moves from place to place, learning from each partner regardless of gender. I loved the way they're searching out that first taste of the infinite, the boundless, and never quite getting there, but being shaped nonetheless and striving nonetheless. It's not a story of regret for them but of opening up, of bringing their life full circle and the story does a great job in capturing that quest. By the last coupling in the story there is a power to them, and they have become what they was always searching for, that taste of the unknown, of the vast and worldly. They have transcended in a way, and done so beautifully.

"This Side of Time" by Sarah Grey (Fantastic Stories of the Imagination)

This story shows a young woman using a time machine that can show possible futures to search for her perfect match, and is a The Female Manhattan, a mic of brandy, sweet vermouth, bitters, and a twist of orange. The story is told to one of those potential matches, Husband Seven-Sixty-Five, by a sort of omniscient narrator, but it's really about the values that we teach, the way we shape the world with our beliefs. The story of this woman and this man is a hard one, a difficult one, fraught with ups and downs and ultimately rather tragic. And yet it is the kind of story that happens because people can't see the future. They do the best with what they have and do the best they can but everyone is human. But here such learning opportunities can merely be sidestepped. Instead of the hardships, this woman can pick the path she wants. It's both freeing and a bit sad, because while it does let her avoid the unforeseen abuse she might have suffered, the life that was so full of promise but fell short, it also avoid learning from those experiences. And it's how we teach children to be by stressing utility and capital and all the things that make them value people not as individuals but as things. As roles and potential benefits. It's not a happy story but it works, hitting hard and then leaving the floor littered with bodies of passed over husbands.

"Application for the Delegation of First Contact: Questionnaire, Part B" by Kathrin Köhler (Book Smugglers)

At its core this story is about empathy and making contact with alien worlds, and so I can think of no more fitting drinks than a Tears of Our Enemies, a mix of Chamomile-infused Rökker, vodka, simple syrup, lemon, and seltzer. It's a provocative story, told as an actual questionnaire prompting the reader to reflect, to think, to examine themselves and think about how different cultures can see the world. Can see the universe. The goal seems to be to foster an understanding that culture is a sort of universe unto itself, that each culture is an alien world and every meeting between culture is a meeting of alien creatures, and yet also a meeting of fellows, a meeting of sentient life that deserves respect. It is an interesting experiment in form and for me it pays off, it works. The plot might not exactly be present but I don't think every story needs a plot. It prods and it brings up a lot of interesting ideas, and it does so in a way that I hadn't seen before. So this is a Tears of Our Enemies, not because we want to see them cry but because when we understand that they do cry we also must understand that we are like them, vulnerable and somewhat alone.

***

POSTED BY: Charlesavid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014. If you're still in a mood for stories, you can find his latest in this month's Lightspeed Magazine's Queers Destroy Science Fiction.

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