Friday, August 7, 2015

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 07/2015

July has come, which here in Wisconsin means scorching temperatures and summer storms. It also means, apparently, very good speculative fiction. This month was honestly so full of stories that I loved that trying to pick my favorite nine was really, really difficult. 

The tastes of this month run a little toward the generational, especially with regards to escaping the trap of tradition for tradition's sake. Many of the stories this month involve people striving to honor the past while breaking down barriers, while shattering expectations. It's a difficult thing, to live with the weight of history, but a beautiful thing to learn from it and to strive to do better. From science fiction to fantasy, the stories this month capture that summer hope, that blazing optimism that everyone is capable of steering their own lives into a brilliant future.

So come and taste the stories of summer...

Tasting Flight - July 2015

"Luminous" by A.E. Ash (Book Smugglers)

Art by  Yasmin Khudari
About a woman stranded on an alien world with only her thoughts and routines, who is joined by a being very different than anything she's ever encountered before, "Luminous" by A.E. Ash is a white IPA, effused in light and with a crisp bitterness of age, of longing, of fear. The plot follows Jyothi, a scientist left behind alone on a world after war called her fellow scientists homeward. Out of contact with them, she has no idea if the rest of humanity even exists anymore or not, and isn't likely to find out. She's trapped in routine, monotony, until one day a dream tells her to go west and she witnesses a falling star. Literally. Young, shining, and gorgeous, the man who was a star confounds her, not least because the two are drawn to each other despite Jyothi being much older. The story does an excellent job of exploring the loneliness of Jyothi's situation and strangeness of West's (as the fallen star comes to be known) transformation. I loved the way that "classic" tropes involving love and age are flipped here, how the ending comes off as new and fresh and romantically alive. There is a sense of loneliness ending, of walls being lowered, of exploration and discovery in ways that go beyond cataloging the alien life on a new world. Like the best of white IPAs, the story is refreshing with a soft edge, light and lifting and with the feeling of old ghosts being put to rest.

"The Star Maiden" by Roshani Chokshi (Shimmer #26)

Art by Sandro Castelli
Old and new clash and mingle in a completely different way in "The Star Maiden" by Roshani Chokshi, a story that captures the taste of Kristalweizen brewed with honey, crisp and simple and yet reminiscent of times long past. In the story, Tala is a young girl growing up around her grandmother, Lola, who claims to be a star maiden, a woman once at peace in the night sky but trapped on Earth for a lifetime, trapped not just by the man who seduced her but by her love of him and the love of her family, kept from her true home by the hope that she will be able to go there again, not alone but able to take Tala with her to visit. At first Tala is enchanted by the stories, but as time passes the childhood fancy begins to leave her and she stops believing, setting up the central tragedy of the story, the fracturing of the relationship that brought the most joy to both Tala and Lola. Delicately balanced, the story succeeds in bringing the magic of Lola's stories alive but also making understandable the resentment of Tala, her teenage pain and lashing out. It's a story about falling out of the beliefs and mythology of your culture, about rejecting the past only to find something there, later, worth holding on to, worth rediscovering and cherishing. Like many of my favorite stories this month, this one explores the space between generations, the space for growth and also for understanding, captured so well in the lingering images of Tala and Lola, the rift between them healed. Like a good honey Kristalweizen, the story balances classic flavors and newer innovations to create a complex tasting experience.

"The Rainbow Flame" by Shveta Thakrar (Uncanny #5)

Art by Antonio Javier Caparo
Rupali, a woman responsible for creating the rainbow candles that anchor the stars in the sky and maintain order in the world, begins to question the wisdom of her station in "The Rainbow Flame" by Shveta Thakrar, a story with a different mix of new and old, a red blend wine with rich complexity despite its young age. The story layers traditions upon traditions, traps Rupali in a place where her imagination itself is used to maintain order, to prevent change or progress in favor of keeping the rigid sameness of her elders. And Rupali is left to navigate a course between honoring her family, honoring her ancestors, and doing what she knows is right. The story captures the beauty and possibility of youth, not only its energy but its new perspective, its ability to see around the stock explanations for why things are the way they are. Rupali is alive with potential that is wasted by the necessities of the status quo, without much thought paid to whether she wants to make the sacrifice and, even more importantly, whether that sacrifice is worth making. The action is fast, the characters well rendered and the setting intense, a world kept still and stagnant, if relatively happy. The conflict of the story revolves around whether that relative happiness, that contentment, is worth the subjugation of even one person, is worth the loss of innovation, change, and progress. The story captures the feeling of newness, of optimism that future generations are not just decadent fools, but have something to teach and contribute to society. Like a good blend wine, there is the tendency to dismiss the characters of the story as too young, too inexperienced or lacking subtlety, but there is a joy there to the story, something incredibly drinkable, fruity, and fun for even the most experienced of tasters.

"When Your Child Strays From God" by Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld #106)

Art by Julie Dillon
Following a mother in search of a son she has lost in more ways than one, "When Your Child Strays From God" by Sam J. Miller is all Imperial Stout, a hammer between the eyes in terms of strength but with a taste that is sweet, filled with flavors both familiar and dark. The mother, a religious woman caught in a bad situation, is unwilling to stand between her abusive husband and son who obviously has no interest in being who his father wants him to be. But still she is willing to do anything to find him, to make sure he is safe, taking a strange drug in order to track him down, and in doing so she opens herself not just to the strange visions the drug induces, but to an empathy that she cannot avoid, that causes her world to shake and shatter. Probably the most wrenching story I've read so far this year, it manages to avoid making the mother an object of scorn or even pity. It manages, with elegance and through a surreal landscape, to capture her, mirroring the drug state perfectly, creating for her the same empathy that she finds for her son. Not that it forgives her for her actions, or for what she failed to do for her son, but it does not deny her growth, does not cast her in the role of evil villain. Once again this month delivers a story steeped in the conflict between dogmatic tradition and youthful progress. Here is a story of a woman who finds herself having to make a choice, to either confine her son and herself to the cage that their beliefs had made for them or to find a newer way that, while offering no assurances at salvation, still represents the only way forward, the only way to heal. Incredibly optimistic even as it is heartbreakingly sad, the story hits and doesn't stop hitting, leaving me as a reader a bit numb. Like an Imperial Stout, it is powerfully strong but also complex, layered, and deeply rewarding.

"At the End of Babel" by Michael Livingston (Tor)

Art by Greg Ruth
About Tabitha Horse Raven, the last speaker of the Karesan language, in a future where to be different is to be criminal, "At the End of Babel" by Michael Livingston is a red ale, stained the color of blood but with a promise of sweetness, of relief after troubles. The story moves as Tabitha, the last of her family, travels to the site where her father and most of the other Karesan speakers were killed because in this future there is but one culture, but one language, and any threat to that uniformity is dealt with...harshly. There is a weight to the events, Tabitha's journey being one of fatality in some ways, a wish perhaps to not be the last any longer and so in some ways a trip to die because she is guilty she survived, that she was spared in the massacre that claimed the rest of her family. More than that, though, it is the fulfillment of a promise, the finishing of a dance that her father started, an act of resistance that lingers as long as there are any to speak of it, as long as there are people to remember. The story does a nice job navigating the tricky terrain of the subject matter, honoring the culture Tabitha belongs to with an effort to not make it exotic, not make it a caricature of Native American culture. I'm hardly the best to judge, but it seems to walk the line successfully, capturing some of the history of the Southwest and how the government seems to make the same mistakes over and over again, history repeating. Only there is a magic in language, in any language, and it's something that Tabitha proves as she completes her father's dance and awakens something that was never exactly sleeping, revealing a power that cannot be hidden or suppressed with the red paint of blood. Powerful but with a crisp and flowing voice and style, the story, like a good red ale, presents a nicely subtle flavor, sweet but with an edge that makes it impossible to ignore. 

"The Insurrectionist and the Empress Who Reigns Over Time" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #178)

Art by Julie Dillon
A tale of betrayal and forgiveness, conflict and healing, "The Insurrectionist and the Empress Who Reigns Over Time" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew is a brandy old-fashioned, a drink that is full of regret and pain but one that seems to creep back again and again, an old friend with hidden depth and possibilities. The story, set in a world where there seem to be no men at all, features Sanhi, a strategist specializing in how to bring down corrupt governments, who is possessed of a strange gift of always being able to avoid capture, always being just out of reach of her foes, as well as a group of friends who stand beside her, including her blade-master lover. Until the day the Empress finds her and imprisons her for a year that turns out to be much more than that thanks to the Empress' ability to jump through time. Even as Sanhi expects to be killed, though, it turns out the Empress has a different task in mind for her, and a few surprises as well. The story is, at its core, about trust and betrayal, Sanhi finding that the woman she loved is not who she thought and having to face how much that matters, how much of her feelings were false and how many, despite the duplicity, were true. The story explores the wounds opened by distrust, by not believing enough in the person you love, and how those wounds are not necessarily fatal to a relationship. For in the end the story chooses to show how the mistakes made in the past can sometimes be undone, how lies can give way to truth and how the future is not set in stone, is alive with hope and beauty. Like a brandy old fashioned, there is a feeling of guilt and shame and loss, as anyone who has woken up after having had a few too many can attest to. But there is also a forgiveness and a healing, a vulnerability and a drive to try again, with the knowledge that whatever happens, it's worth the striving for.


"Sometimes Heron" by Mari Ness (Lackington's #7)

Art by Kat Weaver
Quieter and about insecurity and transformation, this one is a Smiling Duck, a mix of equal parts root beer schnapps and bourbon topped with club soda. The story is a personal account of a person transforming from creature to creature, from duck to tiger to cow to heron, each transformation becoming the taking of an avatar, a creature to represent the fluid states of the narrator. At the same time, it is the story of a woman struggling with the different aspects of herself, a boy who breaks roles, a duck who does well in the rain, a cow because sometimes it's hard to avoid becoming things we don't want to be. The story is poignant and builds up the human part of the narrator slowly, though with each transformation, with each confession, a picture of this person comes clearer, and I found myself identifying with each new form. Because everyone has different roles, different ways of coping with the world, different attempts to be the tiger while it seems too often we find ourselves in less flattering shapes. Short and sweet, there is a depth to it that makes it, like a Smiling Duck, a compelling experience.

"How the World Was Made--A Super Crown" by Roger Bonair-Agard (Apex #74)

Art by Carly Sorge
Occasionally I like to cheat on here, and this is my cheat, not a story exactly but also very much a story. This poem, a series of entwined sonnets, is a Trickster, a mixture of amaretto, vodka, brandy, coffee liqueur, and Irish cream on the rocks and topped with milk. The result is a poem that is a striking tale of the creation of the world, of how everything came to be, not with commands from on high but through the act of storytelling. The creator here is Anansi, a dancer and a liar and an artist. The world that he creates is one that he writes, and is only possible because of his skills to lie and to revel in life. There is guidance, of course, a sort of proto-world that Anansi dwells in but it is lifeless without the touch of creativity, without the ability to say what isn't, the ability to make what wasn't. There is such a power and a joy here, the power and joy that comes from creation and art, from writing and from storytelling. That the important part of  it all is not what is true or not, but what is real, and Anansi makes the world he wants real but stamping it down with his feet, by populating it with his dreams. The poem is moving and has some serious legs to it, keeping up its arc over twenty-five sonnets. Like a Trickster, it is full of enough juice to down most people in one go, but is compelling, begging the reader on and on into the dance.

"Portrait of My Wife as a Boat" by Samantha Murray (Flash Fiction Online)

Art by Dario Bijelac
About two women separated by their natures, joined by the love they have for each other, this story is a Salty Kiss, a mix of three parts rum with one part blue CuraƧao with a splash of lime and rimmed with lime and sea salt. There is such a longing with this story, all the loneliness of a couple torn between the sea and the shore. It's more than just one being a sailor, though. In a way that would be too easy to overcome. Instead, one of them is actually a were-boat, is meant for the sea in ways that other humans are meant for solid land. It's a transformation that is slightly disturbing and also beautiful, freeing, though it also takes the two women apart, the one unable to truly offer a pull that is as strong as the sea, and yet even so not hating it, not despising it or her love. Because to hate the sea would be to hate the woman she cares for, and the story manages to tell a tale that is both tragic and empowering, that is freeing and yet makes one glad to have a drink to hide behind, glad that the salty taste can be from the glass and not the tears. Powerful and with a lingering loneliness, the story really does live up to the promise of including a were-boat.


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