Tuesday, January 12, 2016

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 12/2015

Welcome back, weary travelers on the short SFF highways!

December is a time of cold. At least here in Wisconsin, December means snow and sweaters and dreading having to go out. It means short days and long nights. But it also means drawing together, finding those people you care about and holding to them. This month's tasting flight is all about family and loss and choice, about abuse and comfort and hard decisions. The stories lean a bit science fictional this month, but I think I've found a nice balance of winter themes, death and longing, family and protection. So pull up a stool, put down your troubles, and get ready to enjoy some excellent stories.


Tasting Flight: December 2015

Art by Priscilla Kim
"The Lily and the Horn" by Catherynne M. Valente (Queers Destroy Fantasy)

With a rich fantasy feel and a novel interpretation of war, "The Lily and the Horn" by Catherynne M. Valente tastes to me like an oak spiced ale, traces of bitterness played against a sweeter body, the vague threat of poison laced in the promise of intoxication. The story builds a world where war is not fought on the battlefield but in the kitchen, in the dining halls. Noble families with grievances pit their best poisoners against their enemies best healers, so that those with actual stakes in the conflict live and die for their objectives. At least in theory. Where money and power are concerned, of course it means there are proxies and stand-ins, but at its heart the system is simple and compelling, a push away from the devastation that war causes to something different. And the main character of this story is the best of the poisoners, a dutiful wife and mother and lady of the court, and yet more than that she is a woman who has lost, who is trapped in some ways by the system she finds herself in, unable to seek out the love she left behind. The story builds a world that is both interesting and deadly, where unicorns are twisted at toxic creatures and all the industry of war has warped itself to poisons. It's a setting of beauty hiding death, and it's that idea of artificiality that drives the plot, that conceals the main character's true desires and true actions, that make something beautiful and romantic out of something as horrifying as a war of poisons. Like a spiced oak ale, there is something striking about the story, new and different and a mix of pleasant notes with an edge of something almost medical, earthy and suspicious.

Art by Irek Konior
"Memory Tree" by Jes Rausch (Apex #79)

Told in seven parts surrounding the invention of a device to keep an avatar of a dead person alive as a sort of app, "Memory Tree" by Jes Rausch is barleywine, dense and dark and spiraling toward a blurry and emotionally devastating end. The story starts slow and uses to great effect a range of voices and forms: an online article, a child's report, an artist's manifesto, a diary. Each part explores further what it means to die, what it means to be alive, shows how technology can innovate even death, and how it too is effected by privilege and wealth. More than that, it narrows in on how the living use the dead, how the dead are supposed to be voiced here, supposed to remain, but that what lives in the memory trees are not the souls of the departed by their shadows, or perhaps their portraits, accurate to a point but not the full measure. The story moves from lighter tones to incredibly darkness, showing loss that is personal and inescapable. With each new examination the idea behind the trees in complicated by it being a service, by it being a business. The business of death. And that business operates on capitalist ideals, aims to make a demand and keep a demand, never satisfying and never complete. The story ends with a defiant stand, an almost dizzy account of where capitalism and technology fail. Like a barleywine, the taste starts sweet and dense and moves, sip by potent sip, toward an end that is fogged of reason, that is strong and that is resonant and that probably requires a good lie down and strong coffee in the morning.

Art by Kerem Beyit
"The King of Ashland County" by Caspian Gray (Nightmare #39)

About systems of abuse and escape and freedom, "The King of Ashland County" by Caspian Gray is an American pale ale, it's brash and bitterness cut with a milder longing, it's resistance present but not all-encompassing. In some ways the story is one about inheritance, and John, who's basically an orphan working for a drug dealer called Uncle Reggie, is the main focus. Uncle Reggie here is like a father, or a teacher, watching over a flock of young people and exploiting them, manipulating them into thinking of him as their only option. It's not even that far from the truth, as these children and young adults have nowhere else, no one else, and in that situation even an abusive monster can seem a father figure. When Reggie brings home a Selkie boy from California, though, things change for John, and something in him wakes, yearns for a release from the system, yearns to do something good, to help someone else get out of Ashland County, even if he is doomed by it. It's a bleak tale and a shocking one, but shows a steely strength. How the human spirit can be perverted, how abuse can become a cycle there seems no escape from. Yes, all of that, but also that, sometimes, there are options. Perhaps not good options, but better ones. The story is about the oppression of place and poverty, but also the yearning for something free. Like an APA it doesn't cry for revolution and action (at least not as much as an IPA would) but rather for the slow resistance, for standing when necessary and hoping for something better that might never come.

Art by Julie Dillon
"Interlingua" by Yoon Ha Lee (Uncanny #7)

"Interlingua" by Yoon Ha Lee goes down like a black lager, smooth and dark as space and about games and language and translation. The story follows two sentient ships as they travel toward an unknown reception, an alien presence that has (so far at least) proven a unique linguistic challenge. The ships pass the time (or at least the main character ship does) by creating games for their people on board. There's been a lot of stories that have featured sentient ships, but the voice of this story is interesting, compelling. The ship's kind of an asshole, superior and arrogant and not wholly concerned about the people traveling inside them. They read like the cliche of a game developer, immersed in a different world and different language, creating things for mere mortals as a challenge to pass the time. As the ship tests the game its working on, though, strange things start to happen, and obsession begins to evolve from language, from the unknown. "All names are one name" becomes a mystery that the ship must unlock, must test and work around, striving to find the place where language and form meet, where language and reality meet, where communication between two beings is possible. The story circles around both the idea of communicating with alien beings and communicating across disciplines, across jargon, across experience. The story is deep and murky at times but moves quickly and sharply with the caustic wit of the main ship. And it manages to be fun, compelling, while also diving very deeply into the idea of language, becoming almost metafictional with how it handles narrative and communication. Like a black lager it goes down smooth and rather quickly, but there are depths to it, a darkness that is never quite shaken, and a mystery that lingers after the last words are read.

Art by Peter Mohnbacher
"When We Die on Mars" by Cassandra Khaw (Clarkesworld #111)

Mixing human exploration with the idea of family and loss, "When We Die on Mars" by Cassandra Khaw is a glass of port wine, strong and thick and sweet, with a hint of tragedy but a strong sense of comfort and belonging. The focus of the story is on a group of would-be colonists, the first to go off to Mars to make it ready to handle more. This first wave is trained intensely, solidifies as a team even as it becomes clear they all have their reasons for leaving Earth behind. The main character, Anna, is leaving behind a family she doesn't talk to, whose absence eats at her because of the expectations to miss them, to care for them, to forgive them. The story strikes at the heart of family, how artificial it can seem at times, how those bonds that people say over and over again are the strongest and most enduring, are often enough chains that hold people in situations of abuse and oppression. The story gracefully build up the cast of characters involved in the mission, shows how they fit together, how they must. And in them Anna finds the family that she needs, not those who birthed her or grew up with her but those that care for who she is. The story finds an idea of family that has nothing to do with blood and everything to do with need and comfort and safety and trust. Things that are necessary for a mission that involves no hope of ever returning to Earth. That requires constant care and cooperation. For many people, it's too much spending a weekend with their blood-family. It's a warming story and also a deceptively strong one, like a good glass of port it brings to mind warmth and togetherness, family and trust, and might leave the reader a little teary eyed by the end.

"Be Seeing You" by Madeline Ashby (Terraform)

Set in a future where privacy is a fleeting thing and the idea of protection is complicated by power and freedom, "Be Seeing You" by Madeline Ashby is an extra pale ale, crisp and bitter and transparent but hiding something all the same, a layer of complexity that isn't evident at first sip. Hwa is a bodyguard in the story, once in charge of protecting sex workers but now hired by the new owners of her city, a company that seems to want to help people instead of just exploiting them. For Hwa the prospect seems strange, as all she has ever known has been violence and oppression, and now she has let her employers into her head, or at least one of them, a charming handler named Síofra. The story takes the idea of watching, the way that Hwa let's Síofra see through her eyes, the way that she watches over her charge in a much more analog fashion. The way that everyone watches everyone. That idea of seeing people, not just with sight but seeing them as people, leaps to the front of the story, Hwa's new bosses more dedicated to actually seeing the people of the city but only really being able to do that by seeing through Hwa's eyes, experiencing the world from her perspective and level. The view from above tends to minimize what people are, and Hwa never loses her roots, her beliefs. Tied into this is a fast-paced plot involving kidnapping and sexual exploitation, and it's a dark setting but one with a lot of potential, with romantic undertones and a fresh voice. Like an EPA it pours transparent, open, and yet hides from view a complexity and strength that is surprising and delightful.


Art by John Jude Palencar
"The Log Goblin" by Brian Stavely (Tor)

About remembrance and a impermanence against a cold and unfeeling universe, this story is a Christmas Tree, a layered shot of créme de menthe, grenadine, and Irish cream. In the icy grip of winter, a man in a remote home finds his wood start to go missing, and is surprised when he finds out who the thief is, and why the thief is stealing the wood. What follows is a story that does capture a bit of the feeling of belief and hope and warmth in the face of winter, in the face of the cold and unyielding reality that we live in, that we are mortal and that nothing we do will ever let us linger, not memory and not legacy and not family. Eventually everything fades, but that here, now, it doesn't matter. That there is still warmth, that there is still color, that in the face of everything life continues, and means something. Like a fire burns and leaves behind its ashes, so too do human lives burn out and leave but traces to be carried off by the wind of times. But while they burn there is warmth and comfort and something worth seeing, worth respecting. Like a Christmas Tree, the warmth of a human life might not last forever, but it lasts long enough to enjoy, to cherish and set free. A very short and poignant story.

"Tigerskin" by Kurt Hunt (Strange Horizons)

About a meeting of the wild and free with youth and innocence, this flash fiction is a shot of Tiger Juice, a mix of Canadian Whisky, orange juice, and lemon juice. Ravi is only a child of five when the tiger comes for him. And nothing a child that age can do will stop a tiger. Except that instead of perishing Ravi does something else entirely, finding in the tiger a kinship that works for them both, a strength to be himself and be fierce and resist the easy and the comfortable life that is available to him. The story is about the destruction that humanity brings to wild nature, yes, but also about the way that humanity fails to learn the lessons nature can teach. Here Ravi is young enough, untrained enough, to see the tiger with an innocence and clarity, and in each other (pretty literally) they find a way to be better. To be together and banish the loneliness. To see in each other two halves of one truth, that humans cannot separate themselves from nature any more than nature can truly exist untouched by man. Only together, proactive and fierce, can they find a way forward, can we find a way forest that allows for both human and animal, human and natural. It's a striking story, short and surreal, and like a shot of Tiger Juice it's invigorating and eye-opening and full of raw spirit.

Art by Dario Bijelac
"The Snow Globe" by Kate Hall (Flash Fiction Online)

About breaking free of abusive patterns and destruction and aftermath, this story is a Snowglobe, a mix of blue curacao, Irish cream, and cream soda. The story follows a pair of sisters trapped in a Christmas that doesn't end. Happy, or at least content, until the older one realizes the situation, realizes that they are prisoners, that they march to the tune of another hand. And once this is known there can be no peace or rest or return to the ignorance of before. And the younger sister, unsure, is trapped herself in a place between wanting to be like her sister, that drive for freedom, and wanting to stay secure and wanted from inside the protection of the globe. The story is a strong exploration of family and roles and expectations, about rebellion and what rebellion can mean. In a family, it's never just the person breaking free that is effected, and yet the responsibility falls on each person individually. What's left might be a broken snow globe, but that isn't bad or wrong. The story does a fine job of looking at the relationship between Clara, who must escape, and the main character, who is left behind. It's powerful and vibrant as a Snowglobe, the beauty of its patterns tempered by the strength of its alcohol content.


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