Friday, March 18, 2016

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 02/2016

As I write this, spring is most certainly in the air. In Wisconsin at least that means the snow is melting quite early and people are going outside in shorts in 40 degree weather (yes, myself included). And perhaps it's the changing seasons or maybe it's that February is traditionally considered one of the more romantic of months, but the Flight this time is filled with stories of love, like, and friendship. Stories of reaching out and finding a way through isolation and loneliness.

Not all of the stories are romantic (definitely not in some cases), but by and large they all have fixed their eyes on relationships, on the power of people helping people. In many of the stories the relationships are put to some extreme tests. Mutant wasps and killer androids and a few with ambitious assholes bent on manipulating and using people for financial gain. But mostly the stories are about distance, physical or not, and overcoming it. And it's a breathe of spring in the last days of winter.


Tasting Flight: February 2016

Art by Julie Dillon
"That Which Stands Tends Toward Free Fall" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Clarkesworld)

A story featuring a quiet desire for peace and solitude running up against global conflict and violence, “That Which Stands Tends Toward Free Fall” by Benjanun Sriduagkaew tastes like an Imperial red ale, tinged the color of blood with a bright, crisp flavor and a depth, a strength, that gives it a powerful impact. In the story, Rinthira lives alone, out of the game of war and death and artificial intelligences and killer android assassins. Or she wants to be. But the return of a former lover marks an end to her isolation, and her peace, as she faces her past and realizes what is to be alive in the world. The story balances desires, the dueling nature of Rinthira who both despises and longs for battle and conflict. And I love the way the story complicates war, looks at the trope of the unwilling hero who is drawn into conflict not for the joy of it but because only they can stop whatever “evil” force is on the move. It works on layers, at the surface being an action-packed story of a woman pulled back into conflict (android assassin! fisting! global war!), but deeper being about the inability for peace in a world where isolation is not possible. That escape and peace are only illusory where the entire planet is a battlefield and a culture of war pervades to the point of supreme paranoia and violence. That, basically, war is not something that must be agreed upon, and that sometimes the only answer is to fight and fight well, though in many ways such an action is more defeat than victory. Still, the character work is compelling and the action visceral. The world-building and tone capture both a military focus and a heavily anti-military sentiment. In short, it’s incredibly good, richly imagined and brazenly clear, and like an Imperial red ale touched with the red of blood and a punch strong enough to break bones. 

Art by Priscilla H. Kim
"The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Bereyyar" by Rose Lemberg (Uncanny)

There are some stories (and drinks) that just never fail to bring a smile to my lips, and “The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Bereyyar” by Rose Lemberg is one of those, a cherry wheat, deliciously balanced with a rush of sweetness and a gentle depth that makes it perfect for brushing off the last vestiges of winter. The story is told as a series of letters between two artists separated by a great distance, each of them enchanted by the other’s work. The story is imminently appropriate for February both for its romantic elements (though obviously Valentine’s Day doesn’t really exist in the fantasy setting of the story) and for its use of letter writing (February being LetterMo for many). And it captures a budding relationship, a series of gifts and inspirations, two people from different worlds finding in each other a sort of missing piece, a kindred spirit. The pacing of the story is careful and slow, the events taking place over years of time, and yet there is a building tension to it, a desperate need that grows and lends even the characters’ rather formal correspondences a weight and urgency that must be harmonized by the end, that gives the story its triumph. And the world building is masterfully accomplished, the two characters painting very different pictures of their homes but both part of a single world that weaves them together. And the ending is unashamedly happy, a burst of life and love that, like a cherry wheat, had me smiling, the sweet tartness warming me and making the cold of winter seem like a distant dream. 

"The Scrape of Tooth and Bone" by Ada Hoffmann (GigaNotoSaurus)

A story of respect and betrayal and death and dinosaurs, “The Scrape of Tooth and Bone” by Ada Hoffman puts me in mind of a rye IPA, bold and defiant with a bite that makes for a memorable experience. Indeed, even with the other amazing stories this month, I’m not sure any can live up to the sheer number of different awesome elements crammed into this tale. Steam-powered archeology featuring a queer neurodiverse female protagonist interacting with the ghosts of dapper sentient dinosaurs while acting as a double agent and getting double crossed and navigating some heavy misogyny and it is all just so good. Lilian, the main character, must deal not just with being a woman at a time and in a field where she is largely unwelcome, but also, because of the way she is, faces people constantly trying to manipulate and gaslight her in order benefit from her talents. It’s incredibly refreshing to read Lilian, a character so genuine and expecting others to be similarly so, not trusting exactly but wanting to believe that everyone is what they seem to be. And the world that is revealed in the story is nicely complex, one diverged from our own (because I’m pretty sure we never had sentient dinosaurs) but echoing it nicely, holding a mirror by which to examine ourselves and our history. The story is about bones and about trust, and the various elements of the story fit together just right, with a mix of wonder and humor and drama and action. I suppose I would call it a historical steam fantasy if I had to assign a genre to it, but mostly I would just call it good, moving and endearing and full of wonders. Like a rye IPA there is a resolve and a defiance to it, in the way Lilian refuses to lose hope, refuses to lose her trust, and there is plenty of bite, both metaphorically and quite literally.

Art by David Demaret
"The Four Gardens of Fate" by Betsy Phillips (Apex)

Featuring a strong sense of family and a complex look at prophecy and gifts, “The Four Gardens of Fate” by Betsy Phillips is a cream stout to me, a meeting of light and dark, injustice and hope. The story follows a family of those with the Gift, the ability to predict t he future, to see possibilities. And yet for the family the Gift has often gone along with tragedy and oppression, being confronted by the fact that no amount of forward knowledge can get them ahead in a society dedicated to keeping like them subservient and invisible. That is until they think the times are changing a bit and decide to take a chance. And Kayla, the newest generation of the family, ends up facing the repercussions. I love the sense of family the story creates, the way that it goes beyond blood, and the characters are vividly portrayed, relatable and real. The magic of the story is subtle, swirls around the concept of fate as something not quite either inevitable or elective. That seeing the future doesn’t always mean avoiding the bad things, that sometimes with all the forking paths, there are convergences as well. The action of the tale is dark, often violent, and layered with the weight of race and gender and sexuality. History is like a snowball rolling downhill at times, but the story leaves room for hope, the possibility that, given time and struggle, some snowballs can be shaved down and some new ones begun. That sometimes justice arrives, if a bit late to the party. It’s a murky but deeply satisfying tale, and like a cream stout one that shows a harmony of light and dark, hope and tragedy. 

Art by Keren Katz
"Breaking Water" by Indrapramit Das (Tor)

Defying conventions by creating a “zombie story” about love and compassion and care, “Breaking Water” by Indrapramit Das tastes like a tangerine IPA to, fresh and surprising and filled with a feeling of unexpected life. The story unfolds around a man confronted by death in a shocking and ugly manner and failing to do anything about it. And really, at its core, the story is about having the audacity to confront difficult situations, uncomfortable problems. The zombies of the story are a presence but they are also something of a burden, a question mark that the government in the story doesn’t want to deal with. In some ways the story then is about individual responsibility in a place where government fails to legislate or, as the case here, actively participates in the erasure and covering up of a problem. It becomes a sort of cancer eating away at the soul, and the story shows people reacting to that. Seeing people suffering and being dehumanized and realizing how they become complicit by ignoring what’s happening, that by focusing on their own comforts or how difficult it might be to do something they allow injustice to go on. This is a zombie story in that there are zombies in it, but this is nowhere near the genre of survival horror. Instead it tackles some very complex issues like consent and end of life care and what happens to a person after their mind is altered. It’s fascinating and it’s well developed and it’s strange and like a tangerine IPA it’s something I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy until I got a taste for it and realized that it’s something I won’t soon forget. 

"Vesp: A History of Sapphic Scaphism" by Porpentine Charity Heartscape (Terraform)

An interactive story where you play a woman dealing with drugs and anxieties and giant mutant deathwasps, “Vesp: A History of Sapphic Scaphism” by Porpentine Charity Heartscape is a tall chalice of mead, honeyed and sweat and thickly meaningful but also intensely strange for anyone not used to it. It’s not exactly something that you can just take one sip of, either. It begs to explored and examined, which is a fortunate thing as the story is strangely compelling, the details sharp and the feeling a mix of claustrophobic and expansive. The setting of the story is certainly bizarre, everyone living hermetically sealed lives to escape the deadly wasps all around them, but there’s an uncertainty of what is real and what is not, of how much is in the main character’s head, your head, as the game progresses, as it gives you choices and choices that aren’t quite choices. There are twists and turns and outcomes can be…well, a lot happens in this story—a lot can happen. And it’s a testament to the story just how tightly it moves, how it sells each moment, even the small ones like picking the flavor of food in a vending machine. The vision of the piece is infectious and relentless and yet there’s a weight to it as well, the sense that each action has meaning, is significant. It gives the experience as a whole the feeling of walking through honeyed air, a frantic energy bound by a viscous environment and choices that are not always under the reader’s (or the main character’s) control. But it is amazingly fun and deep and begs to be experienced again and again, the first taste of weird goading the reader on like a tall tankard of mead. 


Art by Jeremy Vickery
"Talking with Honored Guests" by Alexander Monteagudo (Fantasy Scroll)

This one, about guilt and atonement and learning to trust yourself, is a Fire and Ice, a mix of cinnamon whiskey and mentholmint liqueur. In the story, Olufemi is training to be a bureaucrat, which might not seem the most glorious of professions (unless you watch a lot of Futurama), but draws him for the good that he could do there. Settling disputes and averting conflict. Like the situation he finds himself in trying to find common ground between two groups that seem bent on talking over him and pushing for aggressive resolutions to their dilemma. Olufemi has a few tricks up his sleeve, but a traumatic even when he was younger leaves him…hesitant to rely on it. The story makes great use of ability and confidence, hope and forgiveness. And the character work is solid, the setting charming and the conflict well-measured and tightly plotted. The crisis that Olufemi faces is one of forgiving himself, not of letting go of the past but learning from it and allowing himself to try again. The voices of the characters are strong and clear and there is a great humor to a piece that is also haunted by a past tragedy. And like a Fire and Ice, the power is in the blending of sweetness and heat, confidence and humility, action and restraint. 

Art by Dario Bijelac
"Love Letters on the Nightmare Sea" by Rachael K. Jones (Flash Fiction Online)

About love and the danger of distance in any relationship (and also monster jellyfish), this one is a Jellyfish, layers of white creme de cacao, amaretto, and Irish cream with a few drops of grenadine. There must be something about me that loves a good love letter, because this story is the second on the Round this month to feature that particular element. Instead of something sweet and light, though, this story manages a deep darkness and a sense of distance that is nearly overwhelming. It features two women finally having a chance to be together after a long distance relationship, suddenly separated again by an attack by jellyfish creatures straight out of a nightmare. They become stranded, one of them lost into her own head while the other must keep them alive and find a way to beat the creatures that plague them. Their love letters become their greatest strength, their weapon to use against the distance and the monsters besetting them. It is, ultimately, a bit of a sweet story, but one that walks the line of darkness, that sees the possibility for loss and failure and tries anyway. The terror is real and daunting, but for the main character something that must be risked, that must be overcome. Like a Jellyfish there is the taste of something lurking, something strange and dark, but with a bright finish and a lasting sweetness. 

Art by Linda Saboe
"Whaling With Clowns" by Chris Kuriata (Unlikely Story)

With a great mix of chaos and comedy, this one is a Neon Nightmare, a combination of one and a quarter parts coconut rum with a half part melon liqueur and a quart part blue curacao and topped with pineapple juice. It’s odd when a story featuring ravenous clowns held captive for the purposes of whaling is not the strangest entry on the Round this month, but it comes pretty close. There is a desperation to the story, a creepiness that fits with the idea of clowns and clowning, which is captured with a graceful ease. The story takes place at sea, a doomed voyage that has reached new lows as a whale is sighted and the captain makes a rather profound error in judgment. The story marries darkness and humor to excellent effect, managing to be, above everything else, incredibly fun to read. Which, I think, is the ultimate essence of a clown, terrifying and strange, otherwordly, magical, but also fun and funny. The action of the tale is beautifully rendered and I loved the imagination of it, the sleek visuals and the visceral climax. The narrator of the tale is upfront from the beginning—the voyage is a doomed one. But there are many levels of doomed, many ways a crew can experience horror and loss. How this one ultimately decides to unfold is unchained and glorious, a Neon Nightmare if I ever saw one.


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