Friday, April 15, 2016

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 03/2016

Welcome back, travelers on the lonely speculative short fiction highways. Pull up a stool.

March officially kicks of the spring season, and the short fiction in this month's Round certainly embodies many aspects of the spring. Storms and growth. Renewal and dredging up the past. There's a bit of a theme of family flowing through these stories as well. Siblings, parents and children, and bonds of family that have nothing to do with blood. The stories reveal grief and pain and oppression, but they also battle against those forces, showing a resolve and an awareness that is ultimately lifting. The winter has been banished for another year, and these stories are full of hope in looking forward. Most of them, at least.

So join me in ringing in a new season, a new month of great speculative short fiction. Cheers!

Tasting Flight: March 2016

Art by Rovina Cai
"A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers" by Alyssa Wong (Tor.com)

About sisters and grief and trying to change time and space, Alyssa Wong's "A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers" to me is a barleywine, aromatic and strong as a hurricane, with a sweeping feel and a sinking depth that leads the reader on and on. It stars Hannah and Melanie, sisters separated by a great deal of space but united by their abilities, by how they can bend time to try and change things. The story does an amazing job looking at family and guilt, at power and control. It centers Hannah as the main character and features Hannah's anger and hurt when something terrible happens to her sister. It's about control because it's control that Hannah seeks, over her own life and her own actions, trying to make it on her own away from her family. It's control and the lack of it that rules Melanie's life, control over the body she was born into and the family she was born into and the place she was born into. Control over what happens to her and how she is treated. Both women are seeking control and Hannah's quest to undo what happens shows how control and power are different for them, because in Hannah attempting to alter reality she's seeking to take more of Melanie's control finds herself in some ways guilty of what she's trying to prevent, and the story paints a complex picture of family and roles and power. It's raw and it's powerful and it captures the rage of a storm, of a sister's loss. It's uncomfortable and like a barleywine it punches right between the eyes and hurts in the best of ways, a dark and turbulent journey through grief and despair. 

Art by Steve McDonald
"Braveheart's Homecoming" by Dilman Dila (Mithila Review)

Featuring state-sanctioned slavery and drive required to break free, "Braveheart's Homecoming" by Dilman Dila hits like a red IPA, rebellion and resistance tinged with blood, brash and bitter and reaching for something better. In the story, Dil Bahadur is a man hoping to trade stolen robots for the freedom of his family, freedom from a life he ran away from, a slavery of corrupt capitalism. The story shows with blunt detail the ways that law can and is perverted not to serve people but to bind them. How even when slavery is illegal a new kind of slavery can emerge, one that is almost more insidious because it operates with the illusion of choice and freedom, an illusion that Dil rejects in returning, in trying to free the family he left behind. The story details how respectability and abiding by the laws mean compliance and complicity in a place where laws are corrupt, where slavers co-opt the language of freedom in order to oppress. There is a great blend of action and negotiation as Dil attempts to do the right thing and finds that in some cases the only option is a well timed application of violence, and that even then there is no guarantee of success, only the (perhaps pyrrhic) knowledge that you tried, that you stood up against what is wrong and not necessarily what is illegal. It's a story of borders and transgression and rebellion and violence and the failure of rhetoric in the face of institutional inequality. And like a red IPA it just captures the taste of revolution, of refusing to stand by and be quiet and wait for a turn that will never come. 

Art by Reiko Murakami
"Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station" by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed)

A sort of choose your own adventure story dealing with the bureaucratic nightmare of science fictional healthcare, "Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station" by Caroline M. Yaochim is an amber bock, surprisingly dark and delicately balanced and, ultimately, completely inescapable. The story itself revels in the illusion of choice and the possibility of "winning" in a system of healthcare that's just not designed to actually help people. The moment the story begins there's an inevitability about everything, a progression of events that proceeds along a set track with the promise of the ability to change directions that doesn't exactly present itself. The tone of the story is charming, fast, showing a wide range of corruption, incompetence, and exhaustion that fuel a service that's supposed to keep people healthy. Like real healthcare, everything is strained, everything is teetering on the edge of ruin, and the only option to win is to never get sick, which is excellent worked into the non-choices the story provides. There's tons of little Easter eggs and asides that will tickle any fans of the classic choose your own adventure stories while also keeping things rather shockingly (and depressingly at times) adult. It's fun and it's funny but it's hiding a depth that is expansive, that leads the reader down a dark path from which there is really no escape. Like an amber bock, the story sounds light and fun until you pour it, until you taste the layers and strength of it, and get rocked back on your feet.

Art by Waldemar Kazak
"Chimera" by Gu Shi, translated by S. Qiouyi Lu and Ken Liu (Clarkesworld)

With an eye towards intelligence and humanity and love, I think of no more fitting pairing for Gu Shi's "Chimera" than a glass of red blend wine, a mix of different flavors into one whole but also the fruit of a chimeric plant, mostly Old World grapes grafted onto New World roots. The story itself splits between two times, the growth of a young boy into a man and his eventual role in solving a strange mystery aboard a space ship. It's a joyously science fictional story that explores the potential for discovery while never losing sight of the human. As much as the drive of the woman who pioneers the research into chimera technology is to expand human understanding, it also springs from the love she has for her son, Tony. It's her unique way of seeing the world, without the walls that convention raises, with a strong empathy and morality but also a willingness to try, to push forward what is seen as impossible. It's her story, though it's told by those around her, by her husband and her son and her lover. And yet she is present in all the ways that matter, a constant reminder of the nearly inhuman, the way people are repulsed and drawn to her, the way that she accomplishes so much. The action starts small, personal—a couple working to save their child. But from there the story changes, becomes bigger, about creation of a different sort, a love and a care for something new and wondrous and powerful. Perhaps the story is about what might be if people lost their fears, their species tendency to hate that which is nearly human, and embrace love instead. To see the bonds that draw us all together and all the ways we might help and teach each other. From the small, personal beginning the story grows, touches the stars and implies that there are frontiers yet to reach. Like a red blend wine it's impossible to separate out the various elements that give the story its flavor, and there's something sweet and full of life that lingers on the tongue long after the story is done. 

"Polyglossia" by Tamara Vardomskaya (GigaNotoSaurus)

About language and oppression and culture, "Polglossia" by Tamara Vardomskaya tastes like a pale ale to me, with an edge of bitterness but with a sort of malleability, different depending on the region it comes from, the hopes being used, and yet all linked by a common thread, a taste that varies but remains true to what a pale ale is. The story follows a wide cast of characters all relating to each other through language. Through music. Through food. Through resistance. The story is about the struggle for cultural independence, the struggle of the minority not to be consumed or crushed by the majority, to retain their native language, the particular flavors that make a people unique, that make them a people. The setting is richly built and intricately set, the characters from many different positions within the hierarchy of the city the story unfolds in. And in many ways the story is a study in variations on a theme, how each person relates not only to their own background but to the others they brush against, creating a web of cultures and perspectives. And I love, absolutely love, how the story draws everything together, melds and wraps each layer of history and significance and hope. The story is about the uniqueness of place and of people and the importance not just to preserve what was but to grow and to learn and to experience difference. How being exposed to different people and accepting difference is enriching and vital to adapting to the world, to finding solutions to problems that seem impossible to overcome. Like a pale ale, the joy of the story resides in seeing the many different ways it can taste, not forcing it to conform to one flavor but appreciating how different techniques and ingredients form a wide spectrum of deliciousness.

"The Portal" by Debbie Urbanski (The Sun Magazine)

Contrasting the innocence of portal fantasies with a reality plagued by doubt and abuse and gaslighting, Debbie Urbanski's "The Portal" is a pretzel ale, at turns strange and delightful and disconcerting and conflicting. There are two women in the story, or perhaps just one, but both are stuck wanting, wishing they could escape their lives, their torturous marriages, into a different world. The portal realm is called Mere, a great twist on the idea that on the other side of the rabbit hole there must always be a utopia waiting. Mere is no utopia, not really, though it has magic. For the main characters, though, it represents a place where they can be free from familial expectations, from the "duties" of being a wife and mother. The story explores asexuality and how it is treated within relationships, within society at large. The ways in which women are expected to conform, to give in to a man's sexual desire, the way that they are valued and sexualized. The ways that having a place to merely exist free of those expectations can dominate a fantasy, can create an entire reality that exists just out of reach. The prose is achingly beautiful, difficult and unsettling and stark and moving. The journey the story describes is one of slow realizations and movements, moving through the sludge of abuse and gaslighting and all the ways society seeks to force people to conform, to erase themselves. A pretzel ale might seem a strange choice for this story, but it captures the meeting of expectation and reality, a scent of pretzel, the taste of something strange, unexpected, and yet in the disharmony there is a logic and a hope and a potential that exists that is subtle and challenging and undeniable.  

Shots:

"The Marriage Plot" by Tendai Huchu (Omenana)

With a humorous tone and a great twist on the classic time travel story, this one is a Time Machine, a mix of 2 parts vodka to 1 part amaretto with orange juice to taste. The actual plot of the story revolves around a man preparing to marry his girlfriend and finding himself accosted by future versions of himself. If the story were simply the delivery to a joke, it would work wonderfully. There is an excellent progression in the story, and the main character is appropriately clueless, easily swayed, lead by whatever anyone tells him. But the story goes beyond just being a cleverly told joke, examines the nature of anxiety and worry and how things always seem simple in hindsight. The man of the story is plagued by the fear of future regret, the idea that he might be making a mistake. But the story also recognizes that no matter what choice he makes, the regret would still be there. That there is no predicting the future, and for all that it seems a great idea to be able to go back and redo things, the truth is that having such a net leads to loops of regret, a crowd of voices that have no answers, just demands, just hopes. And the story does a great job of finding a way to keep things light, funny, and yet sneakily profound. Like a Time Machine is mixes a light and fruity flavor with enough strength to make you wake up and take stock. 

Art by Dario Bijelac
"All Souls Proceed" by K.J. Kabza (Flash Fiction Online)

About processions of life and death and everything in between, this story is a Ghost Bike, a mix of 1 part whiskey, 2 parts vanilla rum, and 3 parts cream soda, something ethereal but gripping. The story takes a slow track in examining loss and memory and marking death. The story is filled with ghosts and sharp images, moments of extreme loss but also a sense of time that dulls the ache and, while not erasing what has happened, allows it to be healed. It's about mourning but not becoming consumed by grief and loss. To make life a procession and not a dead end. To continue on. And it's beautifully rendered and full of hope and quiet secrets as the narrator tries to figure out the true nature of the ghost bikes, of the processions that they witness. Before coming to a deeper understanding about absence and about celebrating life and death. About remembering and forgetting. And it's just a striking look at the character finding their place in a greater procession, finding out where they fit in. Like a Ghost Bike, it's translucent and captivating, a balance of sweet and bitter, and very good.


Art by Tais Teng
"Fylgia in the City" by Ian Rose (Plasma Frequency)

With a driving humor, blend of genres, and touch of darkness, this one is a Lucky Charm, a mix of lime and citron vodkas with pineapple juice and blue curacao liqueur, sweet and nearly syrupy but with a kick that is sure to surprise. And I love this story because of the way that it builds itself as a rather traditional story of a magical being hanging out with some mortals for the night, drawing on the ways that humanity is interesting to an immortal being. There are just so many cute moments in the story and the tone is captured perfectly so that I expected a rather traditional ending. But no. Things happen in this that completely surprised me, that make me stop and look back and confirm that yes, okay, that just happened. And it is great. There is such an energy to the prose and the ending still maintains the same voice but with a tinge of sadness, an element of regret that wouldn't have been possible without that ending, without taking where I thought the story was headed and throwing that right out the window. Like a Lucky Charm, there's something almost familiar about the flavors being presented, but there's also something new, something shocking and deep and very, very enjoyable.

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

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