Tuesday, July 7, 2015

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 06/2015

Welcome back. 

Let me tell you, June was a crazy month for short fiction. It has caused me to break my unofficial rule of featuring only one story from a publication per month. This month's special issue of Lightspeed, Queer's Destroy Science Fiction, was so packed with fiction (over twenty original stories) that I had to double-dip. That said, it was a great month everywhere, and it was very difficult to pick favorites from across the various publications.

I think I have cultivated a fitting tasting experience, though, starting with a story that shows that violence isn't the only way to tell a damn fine story and moving all the way to magical toilets. Like I said, this was a crazy month. So get comfortable and prepare your palate for a stunning tour of the tastes June had to offer.

Tasting Flight - June 2015

"Forestspirit, Forestspirit" by Bogi Takács (Clarkesworld #105)

Art by Liu Junwei
Telling a story of a former soldier turned guardian of a forest fighting off residential developers led by a faceless AI, "Forestspirit, Forestspirit" by Bogi Takács is a brown ale, a breath of earth with a sweetness that contrasts its dark color. It follows a shapeshifter who fought in a great war that is now over and who has retreated from others, preferring the infinite splendor of the forest. Only one day a child approaches, seeking their aid. What follows is a delightful twist on a number of rather tired tropes, not forcing the former soldier to fall back into the same patterns of violence while also giving nice complication to the threat to the forest. Because instead of showing a greedy bureaucrat hungry for profit, the reasons for the development are neutral, without malice. I'm pretty sure that there's a Rambo movie that's a lot like the basic hook of this story (or I might be making that up), but this story does a great job of showing that violence doesn't have to be the answer. The stakes are just as high, the tension just as real, but there is no blood shed, no oaths broken. Most stories that feature similar dynamics (the former soldier) show the futility of giving of violence, but this story reveled in the beauty of such a change. In true shapeshifter fashion, they were not limited by the past, by what they were before. They changed, and found a new (and better) way. Like a smooth brown ale, the story captures that feeling of harmony despite defying expectations.

"Nothing is Pixels Here" by K.M. Szpara (Lightspeed #60)

Art by Elizabeth Leggett
A gripping and visceral story of a man coming to terms with his perceptions of reality, "Nothing is Pixels Here" is a rye IPA, bitter and fast out the gate but something that settles nicely, that grows more complicated the more you have. In the story, Ash is dissatisfied with his life, which has been spent in a virtual environment since a very young age. He enjoys his relationship with his partner, Zane, but something seems missing. When he convinces Zane to try living out in the non-virtual world, though, Ash finds out that there his body does not reflect who he is. His "real" body is one that does not match his mind's perception of himself. Which prompts him to reevaluate his entire life, his priorities, his plans. It's an amazing punch the story delivers, something that surprised me when I was reading it. The prose is tactile, sensual, and powerful, and the ending is incredibly poignant, with Ash and Zane understanding finally that what is real and what is false is not based on what is computer generated or not, but rather on what feels right. In true rye IPA fashion, it leaves the reader slightly numb but ready to laugh or cry.

"Button Witch" by Jane Lindskold (Urban Fantasy #8)

When a young woman finds herself paralyzed by doubt, on the cusp of entering into a professional and creative life she's not sure she belongs in, she seeks out a magical solution in "Button Witch" by Jane Lindskold, which goes down like a raspberry sparkling ale, sweet and vibrant and uplifting. Penn, an aspiring composer, finds that she hesitates from entering into the important competitions that could secure her future. She doesn't feel special enough, doesn't feel skilled enough. So she follows a magical trail from her hobby of button collecting and seeks out a witch that can grant wishes. It's a difficult journey, and even as she succeeds she faces setbacks and complications. But still she presses on, in the end getting what she wanted but something else as well. Confidence. In the end the story becomes about Penn discovering that she had the skill and power inside her all along, and just needed to realize it. And as corny as I have made that sound, it is fun and unique, the quest and buttons giving the story a charm that just won't quit. With a strong message of not self-rejecting, it manages to be fun and fresh and refreshing, just like a raspberry sparkling ale.

"In the Rustle of Pages" by Cassandra Khaw (Shimmer #25)

Art by Sandro Castelli
Revealing a world where most people turn into buildings when they die, actual monuments to their accomplishments, "In the Rustle of Pages" by Cassandra Khaw is a Petite Sirah, a dark red wine with a spicy dryness to it. It focuses on Li Jing, an elderly woman who is immune to the disease that transforms people into architecture. Her husband, though, the man as devoted to her as she is to him, is dying from it. They both know this, and yet while Li Jing will be left behind, she has a gift, the ability to help her husband shape what he will become. He wants to be a bookstore, a place for Li Jing to run and work out of. Entering into the spoil their plans, though, is their family, who want to "help" by putting Li Jing's husband into a home. Discarding their ability to make their own decisions just because they are old, they try to force them apart, but Li Jing isn't about to let that happen. Her journey is the affirmation that the aged are not incompetent, and should be allowed to steer their own lives, even when it is inconvenient for their younger relatives. What results is emotional and tragic and might have made me tear up a bit. So it makes a perfect Petite Sirah, a fine drink for sobbing into while contemplating mortality.

"Grandmother-nai-Leylit's Cloth of Winds" by Rose Lemberg (Beneath Ceasless Skies #175)

Art by Julie Dillon
A story featuring a young woman who thinks she's comfortable defying cultural expectations having to confront her own ignorance, "Grandmother-nai-Leylit's Cloth of Winds" by Rose Lemberg is a hopped wheat beer, the color of the desert with a dry bitterness yielding to the flavor of the hearth. Aviya grows up without magic in a society that views such lack as pitiable, deficient. And yet she yearns to be a trader, to go out with her friend and lover and discover new stories and experiences. Together with her sibling, a child unable to speak and whose gendered is forced upon them based on the customs of the city they live in. Aviya wants escape from a place she doesn't feel very connected to, and yet she has internalized so much of the prejudices of where she grew that when she is faced with her own grandparent's declaration that he is actually Aviya's grandfather instead of her grandmother, Aviya does not react well. It's an incredibly complex story, but it reads with an effortless grace, with a rich and building style that confronts Aviya with her prejudices and pushes her to examine why she doesn't want to accept her grandfather. It's well done and strong, layers of meaning overlapping and enhancing the world-building, which is amazing. Like a hopped wheat, it provides an arresting flavor that begs to be examined and reexamined.

"Waters of Versailles" by Kelly Robson (Tor.com)

Art by Kathleen Jennings
About a man trying to rise in the court of Louis IV at the height of French debauchery, "Waters of Versailles" is a flute of champagne (or maybe a few), light and bubbly until you realize that you've had more than you thought and find yourself confessing your life story to complete strangers (or getting into sword fights with a platoon of royal guards). Sylvain is a soldier-turned-courtier who has devised a way to run plumbing through Versailles, giving the fabulously wealthy access to new kinds of thrones. Even as he rises in the court, however, he finds himself more and more dissatisfied with life, more annoyed at the lengths he must go to for the sake of his reputation. Running under this is the secret to his success, a young water creature capable of controlling the flow through the pipes, who has the form of a young girl and who Sylvain exploits for his own gain. Slowly the rift inside of Sylvain, between the part of him desperate for attention and fame and betterment and the part of him wanting to be loved for who he is, becomes too wide to be contained, and everything comes to a dramatic head. The story is the longest I read this month, but well worth the time to see it all the way through to its satisfying conclusion. Like champagne, the story rewards sticking around for the long haul, after a few bottles are empty, when the truth finally starts flowing out.  


"Marcie's Waffles Are the Best in Town" by Sunil Patel (Flash Fiction Online)

Art by Dario Bijelac
About a woman living in isolation, a mother hoping for the return of her daughter, this story is a Maple Syrup, a mix of equal parts spiced rum and butterscotch schnapps. The story centers on a diner that is always closed to the outside, always open from the inside. A place where the horrors of the post-apocalyptic world outside doesn't enter in, where Marcie, the main character, keeps everything at bay will sheer force of grump. But at her core is also a gaping hole, a wound from where her daughter left her, and while she keeps letting other young women in, girls who remind her of her daughter, Marcie remains closed to the outside, to truth and to emotions and to everything else. And while the world is waiting outside, while there is a chance for her to make connections and leave behind the loathing and bitterness and fear, Marcie remains closed and isolated, alone in almost every sense, thorny and unwilling to face her own situation. It's a tragic story, heavy and dense and with a hint of sweetness cut but a strong punch. Plus, it features a helluva plate of waffles, which means it's perfect as a Maple Syrup.

"Letter From an Artist to a Thousand Future Versions of Her Wife" by JY Yang (Lightspeed #60)

A woman's final words to the wife that is now forever separated by the gulf of space and time, this story is a Time Warp, one part Grand Marnier to three parts rum with a bit of Grenadine and a splash of lime juice. It's a drink both sweet and sour with a depth that peels away the years, just as the story does an excellent job of traversing the nearly immeasurable distances that separate these two women to bring an intimate vision of their relationship, a touching final declaration across the void that while the will never exchange whispered promises every again, that their love is no less real, and that no matter how far humanity travels from Earth, no matter how different humanity looks in the face of interstellar travel, that what makes them all human is sent along with them, that love and quiet resolve. It's a powerful story, full of kick and with an edge that brought tears to my eyes. For these two women, there is no going back, but what they had will never fade, no matter how far those words trail into the cosmos. Like a Time Warp, they are ageless and profound.

"More Fire Than Earth" by Dr. R. Abdulrehman (Omenana #3)

About a man, half jinn, who finds himself abandoned followed a failed attempt at intimacy, this story is cinnamon whiskey over ice, a rush of hot sweetness that the ice cannot contain, that only dilutes the drink as it melts. The story features a strong sense of loss, of yearning, featuring the main character who is caught somewhere between worlds, between wanting and having and taking. As part jinn his fire is too hot, and when his passions rise they are too much for human lovers. It is who and what he is, and yet the human part of him wants nothing more than human affection, human love. He is trapped by his heritage but also special because of it, unsure how to express himself as a member of both worlds, of both experiences. Unwilling to be callous and violent like his mother, he wonders what that leaves him with, and it gives the story a searching quality, a range as he remembers his distant past and his very recent past with a woman who could not stay. Like the cinnamon whiskey melting the ice around it, he is left as something different than the full fury of fire, but something still possessed of a heat, of a strength that can at times be too much to handle.