Friday, December 11, 2015

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 11/2015

Welcome back, weary travelers on the short SFF highways!

Come in, shake off your burdens, and pull up a chair. The bar is still packed, but there's always room for one more here. After a ridiculous October, the year shows no signs of slowing down, and November was another one quite full of speculative short fiction. While some places are winding down, others are launching with brand new content, and there are new projects aplenty in this month's tasting flight.

The stories this month are all about making choices and having to live with the outcomes. Having to face the past and the future. Most of the time the prospect for doing so is...bleak, and I will admit that as the season turns fully to winter that hope is a bit more fleeting now, a bit more ethereal. It remains, trapped in amber, reflecting a hazy light to follow, but many of my selections this month are dark. Mixing future visions mired in sorrow with magic edging the rational world, my selections this month are sure to light a fire in your chest and perhaps bring a tear to your eye. So sit back and let the flavors of November wash over you.


Tasting Flight - November 2015

Art by Bruno Wagner
"Demon in Aisle 6" by Matthew Kressel (Nightmare #38)

With a loss and tragedy at its heart, "Demon in Aisle 6" by Matthew Kressel is an oatmeal IPA, brash and confident and raw and conflicted all at once, with a dark finish that makes it a drink (and a story) that sticks with you long after the glass is empty. Lucas is a gay high school student moved from the city out to a small town, a high school where he's the only openly queer student. Certainly not the only queer person there, though, and the story explores both the way small towns and by extension how insular communities erase difference by making being different dangerous. Without support, people in these communities cannot really stand against the tide of abuse that washes over them, and the story shows this through the eyes of a boy used to being proud, from a place where he wasn't alone, where he was safer. It's a subtle and complicated story and a heartbreaking one, exploring a budding love torn apart by the pressure to fit in, the dangers of navigating a world that hates who you are, where you sometimes have no escape except the ultimate one. Mixed in with that is the twisting guilt of Lucas, the way his actions and his lack of understanding set the stage of tragedy, though he caused none of it, is to blame for none of it. What remains is a hole in the universe, a lack where a person used to be, and the story makes excellent use of the horror and trauma of the situation, and also takes care to leave some room for hope, for life, for love. Like an oatmeal IPA, the taste is bitter and bracing and dark as midnight, something to invite the cold and to keep it just at arm's length.

Art by Melanie Cook
"The Price You Pay is Red" by Carlie St. George (Book Smugglers)

Subverting a whole slew of fairy tale tropes through the lens of a gritty noir mystery, "The Price You Pay is Red" by Carlie St. George is, perhaps obviously, a red ale. Sweet but with an inner fire, the story centers on Jimmy Prince, a charming private eye who finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy involving the most powerful family in Spindle City. I cannot say enough good things about the way this story subverts tropes and provides just a genuinely fun reading experience, though one tinged with tragedy and sadness. Jimmy is a compelling main character, bisexual and having to navigate the tricky question of whether to pass as a respectable (read straight) man to appease his parents and society or to be out about who he really is. And really, this story sells itself as a mystery and pulls it off marvelously, mixing noir and much more modern sensibilities to create a setting that is a mirror to our own past. The character work is gripping and diverse and the plot manages to be both fun and incredibly dark. Throw in assassins, miracle cures, corruption at the highest levels of society, and enough fairy tale references to appease even the most ardent of fans, and the result is a fast paced thrill of a story with a heart that beats and bleeds with its main character. This is the second of three novelettes set in Spindle City, and my favorite of the two out so far. Like a red ale it's sweet enough to keep you smiling but with a fire that pushes things right to the edge of comfort.

Art by Stephen Hamilton
"First Do No Harm" by Jonathan Edelstein (Strange Horizons)

Examining the responsibility of healers, the line between causing harm through ignorance and causing harm in seeking knowledge, "First Do No Harm" by Jonathan Edelstein is a red blend wine, a mix of traditions and technology, surprisingly complex while remaining incredibly fresh and drinkable. The story shows Mutende, a medical student trapped between a field of study obsessed with recreating medical knowledge lost to the chaos of the past and a need to help people living now. The field believes that medical knowledge needs the base of what has been lost, and so concentrates its efforts on trying to recover lost techniques, but Mutende has ideas that might never have been tried before. Methods that are new and that open up entirely original opportunities. The story revels in the distance between meanings of the titular term. Does doing no harm mean not risking human health in order to innovate or does doing no harm mean trying the unconventional even if there is a chance for ruin? What results is a story that walks a fine line but which considers consent and harm on the micro scale versus harm on the macro scale. It's a morally complex story, and one that manages to be fun and refreshing all the same, a man finding out that sometimes the most effective ways to heal come from unconventional approaches, and having to decide what to do with that, how to live with it in the shadow of a field defined by its adherence to convention. Like a red blend wine it’s easy to just sit back and enjoy the show, but there's a depth as well that makes the enjoyment richer and the experience fuller.

Art by Sandro Castelli
"Even In This Skin" by A.C. Wise (Shimmer #28)

A story capturing the fluid nature of a person wanting to express herself amid a sea of complex familial obligations and guilt, "Even In This Skin" by A.C. Wise is a Polar Bear, a mix of porter with berry weiss. The result is a drink that sinks and teases, sweet but deep, and one that you sort of have to drink in multiples for the math to come out right. The story centers on Mar, a person struggling with finding a direction in life, and a way to be. Things are pulling her away from her home, away from her brother, in prison for being involved in a murder, and away from the bubble of what she has always considered "normal." Instead of dealing with things, though, she tries to escape into the press of bodies, into dancing and the hope that there is a place for her. That she is what she feels she is. It's a strong central message, made more complicated when a fox (in the body of a human) finds her and offers her what she wants. The story does an excellent job of navigating what it means to present and what it means to be and what it means to not be entirely sure. Mar is a character in crisis because of what has happened to her brother, and she wants desperately to be with him while she fears that she cannot, that she has to betray him to be herself. But the ending shows that for Mar the answer doesn't have to mean giving something up. That sometimes the best thing to do is to refuse the binary options, the yes and no, the this or that, and follow your heart. Like a Polar Bear, the darkness of the porter is cut by the sweet berry flavors, a mix that doesn't have to settle or pick, that can be deliciously fluid.

Art by James Lincke
"To Die Dancing" by Sam J. Miller (Apex #78)

A dance of delicate and vibrant emotions in a world where to be queer is against the law, "To Die Dancing" is a chocolate bock, sweet and dark and gripping, with a taste that could seduce the devil and a strength that can knock a person back on their heels. The story establishes a world taken over by Christian fundamentalists, an America where women aren't allowed to sing, where any murmur of dissent is violently crushed. And Clive is a man waiting for his time to rise up, waiting for a revolution to give meaning to his fear and his guilt. He's looking for an old friend, and a strange dance party gives him a place to start, a party where for one night people are allowed to show the world as it was, open and free and wild, a chance for a new generation to be horrified at the perversions and filth. What he finds at the party is not what he expected, though, and instead of finding his lost friend he has to face his own failures, his own culpability for the way things went. It's an uncomfortable story and an unflinching one, that looks into the heart that wants to avoid the struggle, that wants to be carried along by the sacrifice of others without paying the price. It is dark and it is bracing and it finds a moment of sweetness in the midst of a terrible situation and it brings it all together in a miasmic glimpse of what could be. Like a chocolate bock it begs the reader deeper, ever deeper, complicating the sweet taste of candy with the dark punch of reality.

Art by Frank Wu
"Sleeping With Spirits" by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (Mothership Zeta #1)

A sensual exploration of jealousy and fear in a relationship, "Sleeping with Spirits" by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam is a winter skål, a crisp beer with a heady spice and a light finish that is perfect for the cold at bay. In the story, Wendi and Nolan are lovers in a somewhat stable and successful relationship, but not one free of guilt or fear or jealousy. Nolan doesn't really trust himself, doesn't really trust that he could be enough for Wendi, just as Wendi fears in some ways that her past partners preclude her from deserving Nolan. And these feelings become manifest in a series of ghosts. Not really of the dead, because the people are still alive, but of past sexual encounters. They weigh on both of them, challenge their relationship, their trust in each other, and yet also prompt the couple to inspect what they have. To find faith in each other, to let go of insecurities and worry. To embrace each other fully. The voice of the story is crisp, wry, and delightful, and the story itself is absolutely bursting with sex. It is jubilant and triumphant and bright despite the darkness that surrounds it. I personally love stories that face sex in an open and positive manner, and this story is certainly a shinning example of that, tender and romantic and lots of fun. Like a winter skål, it goes down smooth and easy and leaves a smile on the lips.


"Elements of a Successful Exit Broadcast" by Stewart C. Baker
(Fantastic Stories #231)

Creating an air of calm control in the midst of utter terror and lost, this flash story is a Plane Crash, a mix of equal parts Mountain Dew and orange juice with three quarters a part vodka and a quarter part triple sec. The story is short (very short), but it creates a definite feel of catastrophe and distance, conveys the terror of traveling the stars and having something go wrong, where there is no chance of rescue and any record of exit, of death, is only for people years and years away. And despite being short, the story manages to be layered, a bundle of raw emotions barely contained. To explore is to in some ways court disaster and ruin. But there is something deeply moving about the attempt, the drive to push back boundaries. And there is an equal tragedy when that drive comes up against the limits of technology and human effort. Sometimes things go wrong, the story seems to say. Sometimes you have to say goodbye. And in a series of simple how-to points it sells a vision of space and the future and the perseverance of humanity, to retain a frail dignity in the face of the beyond. Like a Plane Crash, there is a sweetness here concealing a raw punch, and the result is quite satisfying.

Art by Dario Bijelac
"Vaquera" by Kim Henderson (Flash Fiction Online)

About a young woman coming to terms with an overbearing parent by becoming a school mascot, this story is a Cowboy, a mix of a shot of whisky with a tablespoon of cream. The result appears to be something much less potent than it seems to be. You're expecting a smooth liqueur or sugary drink and instead you find yourself gasping at the strength of it. The story features Tabby, who gets a gig as the school's cowboy mascot in order to open up. To be extroverted in a safe way. It's something she's never been able to do, in part because her father hovers and dotes and also stifles. Makes her life about him. And so a story that at first seemed to be having fun as a mascot becomes one of fathers and daughters and loss and disappointment and honesty and that's the whisky underneath the cream, the hard shot of booze that makes this story surprising. Because even when you get used to the idea of the story being about Tabby and her dad, the story adds yet another wrinkle, one that deepens the story nicely, complicates what could have otherwise been a simple argument about a child's right to be an independent person. What results is anything but simple, and like a Cowboy, the story defies expectations and provides a very interesting experience.

"Noah Takes a Photo of Himself Every Day for 10,000 Years" by Ryan Vance (Terraform)

Following a man taking a picture of himself every day, and also many the fall of humanity as we would recognize it, this story is a Noah, a mix of amaretto liqueur with equal parts orange juice and lemon lime soda. Taking its cue from the viral video from the early days of viral videos, the story examines art in a changing world, the nature of change and also how our art reflects something about our world. The concept of the story is simple, told in a voice that is not Noah's but someone describing the images, and there is a great big of world building in the slow reveal of details, the scene coming together in the snapshots of Noah alive, running and terrified, becoming something that he never expected, a way for an artificial life to understand humanity and seek to preserve it. The story is not particularly happy, but it is one that shows change, and change in some ways without the veil of nostalgia, with the dispassionate eye of a camera. The effect is slightly chilling, looking at where Noah's experiment stopped and something else entirely began. Like a Noah, there is a strange mix of flavors that eventually coalesce into something interesting, something that causes you to step back and wonder what just happened while knowing that whatever it was, you want more.


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