Friday, February 12, 2016

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 01/2016

Well I've made it. 2016. Which means your faithful storytender has been pouring out smooth story recommendations for over a full year now. And you know what? I don't think I'm in any risk of getting sick of sitting down each month and running down my favorite reads. Every month I find so many wonderful reasons to love reading short SFF, and I am as excited as when I started this to provide a taster's variety pack of stories I hope maybe you'll enjoy as much as me.

Somehow, looking over my choices this month, I see that things get a little...well, not-exactly-happy. Which is to say, there's a lot of disturbing imagery, situations, and worlds built in the stories in this month's flight. But that doesn't mean the stories aren't at turns fun, funny, and incredibly uplifting. So sit back, relax, and prepare your palate for some choice speculative fiction!


Tasting Flight: January 2016

"Godfall" by Sandra M. Odell (GigaNotoSaurus)

When the gods begin dying, falling through holes in the sky and crashing to Earth, a whole industry arises to mine the bodies for their wealth in "Godfall" by Sandra M. Odell, a dark ale if I ever experienced one, deep and nightmarish and yet with hints of sweetness to give weight and balance to the dark.In the story, Tully is an old hand at harvesting the dead, getting in and getting as much as possible and then getting out before the worms descend to eat the dead god and anyone unfortunate or foolish enough to stay behind. There is a great mystery to the story, and a sense of decay, both to the world where the gods are dying and to Tully, living off hopes of a dream that seems to recede before him with each fresh tragedy and horror. Tully's new assistant, though, seems to have plans of his own. And I loved how the story just sells how one of the first reactions to dead gods would be to harvest them, that the world has been so twisted and mercenary that there's nothing strange about hordes of people arriving to strip the bones and marrow. It's a great mix of magic and science and awe and ugliness and there's something very human about it, about Tully's wish for something better even as he pushes himself back into the horrors, even as he has to risk everything for just the chance of breaking the cycle of consumption and exploitation. And the ending! I won't spoil it but the story really delivers on the horror aspects it sets up, and the experience as a whole is dark and deep and bathed in shadows, a dark ale with sweet taste of escape and longing.

Art by Kirsi Salonen
"Angel, Monster, Man" by Sam J. Miller (Nightmare)

About three friends who create a personality to stand in for all those artists lost to AIDS, "Angel, Monster, Man" by Sam J. Miller is an IPA bock, dark elements and deep flavors paired with a bitter brash kick and rolled together into an experience that speaks of loss and regret and things that never were. The composite person that is created, one to be author to an entire lost generation of gay stories, pictures, and ideas, is different for each of his creators, changes based on the needs of those left behind. Called Tom Minniq, this gestalt person takes on a life of his own, overstepping the constraints his creators placed on him. Because what has been lost is greater than any of them, works of art that never got the chance to change people, to inspire people, to honor and to remember those who were lost. The story captures a sadness and a loss and a need for those stories that were never published, the pictures that were burned instead of released, the voices and the lives that were cut short by a disease that seemed almost designed to tear a community apart. The horror of the piece is carefully balanced and executed, Tom neither angel or monster or man but all of them together and more besides, a lie that becomes more real than reality. And the true darkness of the pieces comes not from Tom but from the loss he represents, from the actual tragedy that in the story he memorializes, and the dawning awareness that there is no Tom in our world, that for us those voices are likely silenced forever. I loved the way the three voices compliment and complicate each other, the three very different men that give life to Tom, the three very different directions their lives take. And the fear of sex and the fear of life and the fear of dying that exists for all of them like a knife ready to strike. It's an excellent story and like an IPA bock a singular experience, combining a dark smoothness of a bock beer with the bitter demands of an IPA.

Art by Galen Dara
"Secondhand Bodies" by JY Yang (Lightspeed)

Featuring a future where people can change bodies almost as easily as we change phones, "Secondhand Bodies by JY Yang seems an IPL, the bitter boldness of the IPA hiding its notes under the layer of lager, never quite able to escape what lies beneath. The story takes this idea of switching bodies and shows just how it fits neatly into the current dynamics of power and wealth. The main character, Agatha, is constantly dissatisfied by her body, is constantly made to feel ashamed of it by the men around her, by those who have even more than she does, who have something that she can never posses: the respect and validation that comes with the strict gender roles Agatha cannot gain access to. The story does an excellent job of examining the cross-sections of privilege, gender, race, and wealth. She's constantly yearning for something that she cannot have, that is denied to her simply because of her body, and the bitterness and anger that she feels at that follows with her from body to body, acting as a sort of poison, a corruption that she passes down to those she can abuse and bully. The story takes a critical look at body and provides a dark and resonant reading experience. By the time the ending arrives like a blade through the ribs, the story reveals its complexity, the layers of bitterness and sweeter tones, an IPL to spend some time enjoying.

Art by Xiao Ran
"The Mama Mmiri" by Walter Dinjos (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

About twins and gods and justice, "The Mama Mmiri" by Walter Dinjos is an Imperial stout, heavy and deep and inescapable, smooth and smoky with a subtle sweetness that makes it go down easy. It's possible that I like this story especially because of it's use of twins and I am a twin, so there is something about the way it builds, the loss that the main character experiences, that really speaks to me. In its way the story is also about the way that religion can be co-opted and used as a tool to oppress those who believe, as in the story the embodiment of the river can be bought by whoever is willing to pay the price, can be used by the wealthy outsider hoping to build a bridge over it, and the price he pays is in the blood of the villagers, the people who have lived with the river, who make their lives along its banks. And there is something terrifying, seeing it play out through the eyes of the main character, a young man who wants his brother back, who wants revenge against the man who destroyed his life. Despite that it's not an overly gloomy tale, is told with a fresh and humorous voice and an easy flow. There are moments of great physical comedy snuck into a piece that is, ultimately, about loss and death and balance. And there is a beating heart to the story, a child's love of his family and lengths he will go to in order to be whole. The story is something of a tragedy, brutal and final, but there is also hope, and like a stout the story left me shaken but ready for more.

"Tower of the Rosewater Goblet" by Nin Harris (Strange Horizons)

Spanning time and slipping between texts with a subtle and powerful ease, "Tower of the Rosewater Goblet" by Nin Harris tastes like a Belgian ale to me, all dust and spice with a feel of being surrounded by books, each one a creation and destruction, each one a tool and a universe waiting to be uncovered. In great metatextual fashion, the story explores story, the power of voice and convention and plagiarism and appropriation and subversion. There are layers here, layers of history and fiction, the character of Erheani as revolutionary and traitor and author and subject, thief and victim, person and idea. And as I work in printing the fact that the story examines the power of the physical word is very interesting to me, the freedom that can come only by being able to control how a story is produced and distributed, that is blunted by having to go through "official channels" and "conventional publishers." Erheani's is both a cautionary tale and an inspiration to act, all while being her own person, not a story but an author. And the story reveals how texts shape reality, shape the past, can be used both for justice and for injustice, for freedom and for oppression, for expression and for erasure. The structure is brilliant and provocative and blends layers of text and subtext, metaphor and meaning. And like a Belgian ale the result is something slightly odd and unexpected, an old tome buried in a forgotten corner that manages to pack a punch and knock the reader back on their heels.

Art by Matt Davis
"The Tomato Thief" by Ursula Vernon (Apex)

About age and generational shifts and the strength to set things right, "The Tomato Thief" by Ursula Vernon is like a Malbec wine to me, dark and dry as a desert but with a rush of flavors and the hint of something red and growing and the sense that some things only get better with age. The story itself focuses on Grandma Harken as she aims to set right some wrongs, starting with solving the mystery of who (or what) has been stealing her damned tomatoes. From there the mystery only deepens though and Harken must strike out, slowly coming to terms with the fact that she's not a young woman any more, and sometimes, despite her pride and despite her skill, the best thing she can do is ask for help. Still, the voice and the flow of the story is great, the setting strange and deep and elegantly rendered. There is the feeling of powers ancient and dangerous being provoked, and Grandma Harken standing there doing the provoking, the aging trickster out for one more adventure, not wanting to see that she's no longer as able to take on the world alone. That said, it's still a story about how age doesn't make you useless, or worthless, and how people still and always deserve to be treated like people. It's a stark story, a woman walking through a dessert, but there is also something comforting about it, a sense of home and purpose and stubborn resolve. Like a Malbec, the flavor is dry and red as blood and nicely balanced, and stands up better and better the more glasses are consumed.


Art by Dario Bijelac
"America, America" by Okafor Emmanuel Tochukwu (Flash Fiction Online)

Set in Nigeria and featuring a gay main character coming out to his mother, to the ghost of his father, this story is an American Flag, a layering of equal parts blue curacao, cream, and grenadine, something sweet but with a solid edge. Normally when dealing with the idea that America is a disease it is grappling with cultural and military imperialism, but this story features a different kind of American infection. It's an interesting and almost nostalgic piece about freedoms and about love, something that America as an institution has lost sight of over time, especially because America has exported homophobia and intolerance especially in Africa through wealthy religious organizations trying to influence law and opinions abroad. That the main character here found something different in the U.S., something worth taking back to his home, is a call to use the power of America, its influence and its money and its might, to support freedom, the same freedoms that it is starting to protect domestically and should be working to protect aboard. It's a complex story full of ghosts and confessions and betrayals, layered like an American Flag and with an eye toward what that flag is supposed to represent.

Art by Elizabeth Leggett
"You, an Accidental Astronaut" by Sonja Natasha (Mothership Zeta)

Full of fear and unexpected adventures and always a small pang of regret, this story is an Astronaut, a mix of light and dark run with vodka, lemon-lime soda, and pineapple juice, a blast of flavors that capture the feel of adventure but that bring the drinker always back around to something that seems out of reach. The story shows the main character fleeing a relationship out of fear of committing to it, escaping to the stars and falling in with a crew of aliens on a ship that breaks time and space. The pacing is fast, the images grand in scope, the voice vulnerable and accessible. The story is equal parts epic and romantic, about second chances and about growing up, about not letting an opportunity slip away. In many ways the story is about realizing just how brave you are, to be alive, to be able to handle so much, as the narrator is, flying through the depths of space aboard a ship from another world, learning how to fix things that seem impossible, and from that experience realizing that some things are worth trying, are worth sticking around for. The story is fun and fast and full of stars, and like an Astronaut it packs a punch and gets the blood pumping.

"While I Wait" by Layla Al-Bedawi (Fantastic Stories of the Imagination)

A story about the dead and our relationship to them, this one is a Ghost Milk, a mix of gin, sweet and sour mix, tonic, and vodka, strange and opaque but also warm and comforting, a spot of kindness against the cold of winter's reach. The story follows a person haunted, but almost by choice, a person who knows the value of a simple act of kindness. Mood and mystery infuse the story with layers and meaning, hinting at a past that has taught the narrator why such acts are so vital. There is an absence that for them the ghosts help to make up for, the "you" of the story who never quite comes into focus but who stands in for the reader, for a lost child, for a whole world of possibilities. With that uncertainty it becomes more and more clear that the important kindness is not always the one you reserve for those who you know, who are dear to you, but that the most powerful of actions can be to do a kindness to a stranger in need, that one simple act can have a profound impact on someone else. The story lingers on compassion and pain, lack and sustenance, and like a Ghost milk it satisfies with a unique flavor and lingering presence.


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