Tuesday, November 10, 2015

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 10/2015

Welcome, weary traveler of the SFF highways. Belly up to the bar and let your faithful storytender pour you something to take the edge off. The summer has certainly given up the ghost and we're in the heart of autumn now, and I have a full flight of stories that capture the taste of the season.

Let me tell you, October was a mad month for short SFF fiction, absolutely packed with stories. So many that I could easily have doubled the flight this month with superb fiction. But I restrained myself and have six longer works and three flash fiction stories to share, as usual. Some capitalize on the spookiness of a month anchored by Halloween while others focus on the human need for warmth amid the growing cold. Whatever the taste, the stories are poured and the fire is roaring. Cheers!

Tasting Flight - October 2015

Art by AJ Jones
"The Lord of Corrosion" by Lee Thomas (Nightmare #37)

With the feeling of being lost in the wood with someone slowly stalking you, "The Lord of Corrosion" by Lee Thomas is an Oktoberfest, the taste of falling leaves and crisp mornings and a sweetness that pervades despite the decay of the season. In the story Josh has lost his husband and now finds his daughter, Sofia, acting out in ways that don't make sense, and despite taking her to therapy no cause seems evident. Except that Sofia has an imaginary friend who is telling her things she doesn't want to hear, hateful things that make Josh question what he's willing to believe is real or not in order to protect his daughter. Tense and with a feel of rising danger, the story follows Josh as he searches out what might be happening and inadvertently stumbles onto an open secret both dark and damning. The story shows the rot at the center of small-town life, the corruption that allows true evil to live and carry on, that sees the voice of the old and awful finding purchase in the mouths of the young. It's a truly frightening story, leaving behind safety in favor of action, in favor of standing up to a force that seems impossibly strong. The character work is solid, the action disturbing and compelling, and the ending captures the twisted nature of hate so well, so frighteningly, that it's impossible to look away. Like an Oktoberfest, the story captures the feeling of the autumn, of decay, but instead of sinking into bitterness it rises, shakes off the death and decline and shows a sweetness, a care that is redemptive and powerful and incredibly good. 

"Blue Monday" by Laurie Penny (Terraform)

Cat videos. If this story was only cat videos I think I'd still like it, but it's not. About numbness and catharsis and pain in a world uninterested in being better, "Blue Monday" by Laurie Penny is an Irish coffee, an eye opener wrapped in a depressant, a modern necessity hiding a vice that is politely ignored because we all need to be braced to face the world. In the story, the main character works at a company that provides opiates for the masses in the form of cute pet videos, ways to numb the pain of living, of dealing with increasingly bleak realities. The main character doesn't feel, or professes not to, until she loses her girlfriend and left only with a cat she didn't want. A cat that mirrors her own sadness and despair at being alone, at being left by the only decent person either of them ever knew. Accidental internet celebrity kind of follows, but the story focuses on the hole left behind in the wake of the main character being left, with her growing realization that she cannot survive alone, or maybe that she can but doing so is hollow, is without comfort or meaning. Of course, the system that works to keep people going just enough to not kill themselves is the cloud under which the action of the story unfolds, and the main character slowly realizes that she does care, that she wants to care. The story's voice is brash and bracing, fun and funny in a way that assholes are, which is to say as long as they aren't pointed at you, and the that voice captures a mindset, a force in the world, one undercut by loss and longing. I was not expecting to be knocked back by a story about cat videos, but like a strong Irish coffee there's more to this story than meets the eye, and it's a journey worth taking to pierce through each layer.

Art by Shichigoro-Shingo
"And If the Body Were Not the Soul" by A.C. Wise (Clarkesworld #109)

Dark but with a lightness trapped within and a smooth sweetness that makes for the perfect thing to curl up with on a cold night, "And If the Body Were Not the Soul" by A.C. Wise is a cream stout, expertly balanced and incredibly drinkable. It introduces Ro, a woman repulsed by touch and yet yearning for contact, for understanding, for companionship. Companionship that her coworker, Audra, would like to provide but which Ro finds instead in a unlikely source, in an alien, one of many stuck in a small section of the city because the authorities don't want to deal with the implications they represent. Ro is one of the few to interact with the aliens, and with one, Xal, in particular, but Xal for one is tired to waiting for the government to decide what to do with his people and has started prompting confrontations in order to spur action. It's after one of these confrontations when, injured, Xal touches Ro, and it's nothing she ever expected. The story centers on Ro and her growing relationship with Xal but also her fear of hurting people, her feelings of inadequacy that she doesn't want touch. But the story navigates the landscape of consent and sensuality and resistance quite well, drawing Ro and Xal and Audra together even as it shows the growing realization that some things are not meant to be. The story mixes darkness with light light romance and a core of rebellion, resistance, and confirmation of self. Each character remains true to themselves, in need of no "fixing," and like a cream stout the story is one that leaves a sweet taste on the tongue and a warm feeling in the chest.

Art by Liam Quin
"The Librarian's Dilemma" by E. Saxey (Unlikely Story #12)

A story about the morality of stories, of books, and the morality of people, "The Librarian's Dilemma" by E. Saxey is a hard cider, the familiar comfort of apple cut with layers of depth that complicate the nostalgia evoked. The story is about libraries and librarians, as Jas is tasked with digitizing books, making them available to all. Jas lives for books, for libraries, and yet his job is complicated by the place he works at, a library that doesn't want people accessing the books within, that doesn't want the material being viewed. And for Jas this is a betrayal, because there are books in the collection that provide voice and history for those without them. But the story does not shy away from the importance and danger of books, books written to harm, to misinform, to act as propaganda. The library is both a resource and a wall against the idea in these books. Jas must approach the question of what is more important, access or protection, an idea made more difficult because some of the works deemed offensive are only so because of the politics held by the people doing the collecting. And through it all the story is about Jas being seduced by the prospect that the problem is easy (and also being seduced by a young man with motives all his own). There are choices that Jas makes that seem so clear only to be thrown into question, and one is never sure who is hero and who is villain, because each player, even Jas, believes themself doing the right thing, on the right side. It's a difficult story, in many ways a heartbreaking story for those who love books and have to see them in a new light. Like a hard cider, there is a twisting on something nostalgic, the magic of libraries, drawing down much deeper than expected, and resulting in something challenging but refreshing, crisp but biting, and still very good.

Art by Feliks Grzesiczek
"Geometries of Belonging" by Rose Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #183)

A story about age and consent, about power and choice, about strength and healing, "Geometries of Belonging" by Rose Lemberg is a mulled wine, a drink best served hot with a dense rush of flavors and a comfort for cold autumn nights. Set in the same universe as "Grandmother-nai-Leylit's Cloth of the Winds" (which made the Round back in June), this story focuses on a very different set of characters, namely three-named Parét and his lord and partner. The story is about wounds old and new, and about preventing more of them from forming. It's about Parét facing not just his own past but looking to the future, past his pains and into a place where there is more work to be done, more wounds to be healed. The world itself is sick, and with war threatening there are plots and counterplots, ambitions and betrayals aplenty. The story is long but builds a world alive with history and with cultures mingling and clashing. There are languages of consent and violence that the story dances with, holds and spins and releases, and through it all Parét finds that despite his advancing age he still has things to learn, and that there are things that he will fight for, things worth doing violence over. It's a beautiful story, and lives and breathes through its characters, complex and damaged, all in need of healing and all either denying it or denying themselves. It's another story for the growing dark and the lingering cold, a way to banish the autumn and taste something of resilient strength in the spices and layers of red mulled wine. 

Art by Tommy Arnold
"Hold-Time Violations" by John Chu (Tor)

A story about fixing the laws of the universe and making some very difficult decisions, "Hold-Time Violations" by John Chu is an IPA, a bit brash and a bit bitter but with a punch that's unique and unforgettable. The action opens on Ellie, who is tasked by a rather overbearing sister to take on a quick job fixing the pipes of the universe. The world-building in the story is intense, almost too much to take in, but despite a somewhat steep learning curve the story moves quickly, fluidly, introducing the skunkworks, the plumbing of reality, basically, which connects the universe of the story to the universe above and below, the universes layered in an enormous loop, and the skunkworks defining the laws of each. Ellie is a builder, a fixer, and she's called in to get things running smoothly again after modifications have started throwing the laws of physics slightly out of whack. Together with her "cousin," Daniel, Ellie has to deal with fanatics devoted to the idea that the skunkworks shouldn't be touched even to be fixed and the lingering shadow that is the sickness and decline of her mother's health, who is a legend among builders and whose sickness Ellie doesn't want to face. The emotional beats of the story sync well with the action, with the tension and time limit that Ellie works under. For all that this story and setting deserve more room to breath, what's here is fresh and original, kinetic with a punch. Like an IPA, the first sip can be a little intimidating for those not used to the flavor, but the more you drink the more the story comes together into something fresh and rewarding, something worth savoring.


Art by Shade Tubor
"Love and Prejudice" by Amatesiro Dore (Omenana Issue X)

This story, about love overcoming familial restrictions and hesitation, is a Mother-in-Law, a mix of mostly bourbon with equal parts Cointreau, Maraschino, and bitters, garnished with a single, stemless cherry. The story looks a future where the love between two men is acceptable, but a marriage that isn't advantageous is not. With a certain comic flare the tale introduces a mother very concerned with her son's future, trying to arrange a match that fits more her financial ambitions for him rather than the desires of his heart. The story looks at the hypocrisy of restricting marriage to only "proper" matches, because marriages are almost always rebellions, are ways of declaring that love can overcome, that love is more important than a bank account or the right business connections (or what gender the people getting married are). It argues that caring for your child's future should be more about worrying for their happiness and letting them go where their hearts take them. For the mother of the story, it takes a confrontation with her own mother-in-law to remind her that people should be free to forge their own paths. The story is incredibly charming and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. It shows the ridiculousness of limiting marriage beyond consent and the joy to be found with letting people be free to go where love takes them 

Art by Dario Bijelac
"White Elephant" by Shannon Peavey (Flash Fiction Online)

About the problems we carry with us and the certainty that other people have it easier, this story is, conveniently, a White Elephant, a mix of coconut run and creme de cacao over ice. In it, a woman goes a story where people go to swap. Not partners, though, but faults. Issues. In a guessing game where no one really wins, the woman gives away her rage, a rage that threatens her kids at times and which she is desperate to shed, but what she gets, though she expects it can't be nearly as bad as her anger, is only different. The story does an excellent job of capturing the way people yearn to be free of their demons, the way that we prioritize our problems, imagining that everyone else must have it better, that everyone else must because if they didn't how are they still standing? How can the world live with the pain that is carried in each one of us? The story offers no easy answers, a hope perhaps that, while not worse, certain things will be easier. But more than that, a slow realization that things might not get better, or that it takes something more than magic at a party. That the only to beat our problems is to change the system that causes them. It's a disturbing story, a sad and searching one, but a good one as well, sweet but with a touch of cold.

"Broken-Winged Love" by Naru Dames Sundar (Strange Horizons)

About the love, or maybe the lack of love, between mother and child (who are also dragons), this story is a Dragons Breath, a mix of half measures grenadine and cola with a full measure pure grain alcohol. The moment that the female dragon mates, she knows it is a mistake, that she does not love her child. When he born deformed, without the ability to fly, she is moved only to move away with him, to escape the ridicule of the other dragons, to seek out a place to live with her child in peace. And I love how the story complicates maternal love, not seeking to shame the dragon for her lack of affection, forcing her to love a child that was not her choice, who she never wanted. It does not make her wrong for, nor does it make the story about her finding a well of love within her, of coming around to the idea that this was a good thing after all. The story is about wounds that never really heal as much as it is also about some that do. It's moving and slow and tragic, for in it there are really only victims, victims trying to live and do the best they can by each other. And maybe that is a kind of love, but the story leaves it open, ends almost on a question, challenging the reader to accept without judgement the words of one mother about her son. There is a sweetness here, but one cut by a dark and bracing truth, one that hits right between the eyes.


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