Friday, June 17, 2016

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 05/2016

Travelers of the speculative fiction highways, welcome back! Come in out of the heat and let your faithful storytender pour you something to take the edge off. Or put the edge back on, if that's what you're looking for.

The transition of spring into summer is a tricky one of fluid borders and creeping temperatures, cool nights that offer some relief until they don't. And May is right on that border, with a full slew of stories that move from fantastically optimistic to fantastically tragic. The thing that links them all, of course, is that they're fantastic. My selections lean a little science fictional this month, but there's a few fantasy tales thrown in and I hope an emphasis on connection and darkness and hope.

Also super strange for me is that my shots this month all feature young children and parents. They're not always happy and they're not always easy, but they do give people plenty of reason to drink. So sit back, relax, and prepare your palate for another month of story recommendations.


Tasting Flight: May 2015

Art by Peter Mohrbacher
"Breathe" by Cassandra Khaw (Clarkesworld)

With a sense of suffocating alone in the dark, "Breathe" by Cassandra Khaw is a Belgian Black Ale, alive with fizz and air and yet sinking, deep, and smoky, a drink to drown in. The story is set on a distant world, where Alice is a scientist sent below the ice to check on the one life form known to exist in that darkness, a sort of algae that Alice and her fellow scientists hope to study in greater detail once it's ready to be harvested. In the mean time Alice must remain in the dark, alone but for two voices—the voice of a man from her ship there to talk her through the isolation and the voice in her head reminding her to breathe. The story examines the crushing weight of loneliness, the lure of religion to banish the dark, to illuminate the dark corners, to make things seem safe. There's a beat to the prose, a momentum, an urgency that builds throughout. Alice is a woman afraid of the dark in some ways, afraid of annihilation in the face of so much space and scale. But the story is also about human connection. Voice. Intimacy. It builds these bridges, not divine but achingly human, seemingly fragile but, when tested, stronger than steel. Stronger than fear. Stronger than the pressure of unfathomable depths. That, in the end, there are hands reaching out through the darkness, risking everything, for the feel of another, for the comfort of another. Like a Belgian Black Ale there's something almost sweet and crisp even as it beckons the drinker deeper, like maybe the dark isn't such a bad place, as long as you're not drinking alone.

"Director's Cut" by Matthew Bright (Harlot Media) 

Taking a critical look at and through early cinema and continuing queer erasure, "Director's Cut" by Matthew Bright tastes like a White IPA, ethereal in its touch, light and translucent, but with a bite of bitterness and the hope for happy endings. The tale takes a look at the institutional policy to deny queer characters representation on the silver screen—except when their stories are tragic and filled with self-loathing, abuse, and dysfunction. The story is told through multiple lens, showcasing a queer character in a film unaware of his fictional identity but aware of the pressures pushing him to die, to kill himself—denying him a chance at happiness. On his side is an elusive director, working tirelessly to try and save him, and arrayed against him are the censors, the other characters urging him to not make a scene, to aaccept his fate. The result is a story that refuses to adopt the company line that queer stories must always be tragic. That queer characters must always die alone, or diseased, or mad. This is a story about reclaiming a history that has been stripped out of historical films and texts, institutionally and with the agenda to pass judgment on queerness and the value of queer stories and voices. And I love it. I love it for the gentle way it moves and for the resolve of the main character, of the director, who show that just living can be a political statement. Like a White IPA the story can't help but rebel, even in the face of dissolution, even in a sea of forces trying to erase it. The result is brash and fun and full of life.

Art by Robert Carter
"1957" by Stephen Cox (Apex)

Featuring a fractured world flitting between time and space, love and desire and repression, Stephen Cox's "1957" is to me an Amber Bock, a mix of sunny wheat notes with a surprising darkness and an amazing depth. It's difficult to pin down what exactly is going on in the story, and in some ways the ambiguity is part of why I love it, that it's a puzzle that changes based on how you look at it. Whatever's "truly" going on, it stars Danny, who in some scenes is married with children and in others is a student at a boys' school. In both settings he is linked both to Paul, as a friend or lover, and to Rachael, who seems at turns flirtatious or desperate to reach him. The web of Danny's desires pull the story forward, are complicated by what might be going on, by the strange way the story draws the lines between reality and fantasy, fantasy and fear. The story is sensual and soft, a maze of desires and temptations and decisions that Danny might not even be aware he's making. It makes for a story with a lot of possible readings (though I have a favored theory). And it shows how sex, sexuality, and desires can bloom differently depending on the situation, depending on the soil they're planted in. It's a complex tale with a lurking darkness, a sense that something's going on just under the surface. Like an Amber Bock the story is just opaque enough that the true depth is invisible, which makes the game of drinking to the bottom that much more perilous, and that much more enjoyable.

"How High Can Your Gods Count" by Tegan Moore (Strange Horizons)

Tegan Moore's "How High Can Your Gods Count" is delightful and depressing and terrifying and to me is a Banana Nut Brown Ale, sweet and surprising and evocative of creation and destruction. The story stars a group of monkeys living around an old temple. Once the second iteration of sentient creation, the monkeys have become little more than a plague to the humans that usurped them in the gods' favor. The story is dark as fuck for being about monkeys, a look at how animals are valued next to humanity, when humans have taken their resources, their space, their ability to live independently of humanity. It goes deeper, though, the monkeys a sort of reminder of what has come before, of a time before humans when the gods were worshipped by other creatures. And there is a feeling of danger, of loss, of a sort of cosmic apathy. The gods are cruel, evidenced by how they turn on their creations, but those creatures are likewise cruel, assuming their superior is inherent, earned, instead of seeing that no person can be secure in a situation given from being of such immeasurable power. What happens to the monkeys is tragic, violent, and at times difficult to confront, but it's expertly handled in the story, shown bluntly and without blinking. And the ending…well, you'll just have to read that for yourself. The story is like a Banana Nut Brown Ale, a first sweet and charming but with a strength that will creep up on you and a darkness that pervades, meant to be drank on cold nights when the fire seems all there is between you and a cruel universe.

Art by Goñi Montes
"Three Points Masculine" by An Owomoyela (Lightspeed)

Striking to the heart of gender and presentation and expecation, An Owomoyela's "Three Points Masculine" is a Zinfandel, a white wine with a hint of red, a sweetness that borders on dry, and a flavor that is unmistakable. The story centers on a soldier kept out of the main military because he wasn't male enough. The setting is the ruins of what might be America, the soldiers navigating a terrain of old strip malls and megamarts. The main character is a trans man concerned with not being masculine enough. And among the women he's escorting through disputed land is a person officially female but who doesn't present feminine, something that gets under the main character's skin. And I love how the story tackles gender in a setting where people are "allowed" to transition but are still bound by tests, by how masculine or feminine people seem. Which is a great way to show how people, and especially trans people, must navigate a culture with very strict gender roles and where the binary is still very much pushed and accepted, where "acceptable" trans-ness tends to mean passing both physically and mentally as some preconceived paragon of binary gender. All this in a tense military situation with extremists and shootouts and daring escapes and self-sacrifice. Like a Zinfandel there's so much going on, and yet through it all there is this clarity and unity, a complex bouquet of flavor but a rising coherence and a unique flavor that makes for a very enjoyable experience.

Art by Galen Dara
"Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands" by Seanan McGuire (Uncanny)

Featuring a rather power twist on the classic "language barrier" issue between alien races, "Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands" by Seanan McGuire is a Stout spiked with a shot of Whisky, familiar but with an added kick, an extra twist that adds layers and meaning to old favorite. The story is told looking back at the dawn of a new day, the day when humanity could reach out and touch other worlds. The main character is one of the scientists responsible for the breakthrough and for using it, reaching out across the void of space in hopes of finding something, in hopes of communicating. And when they do, when they find alien life and begin the dialogue, everything seems to work so well. The translators function and the main character is thrilled. Until, of course, they discover that something's gone wrong. The story does an amazing job of using tropes and twisting them until they scream, until they're new and vibrant again. There's just such a weight to the story, to the actions of the characters and the idea of translation and expectation. And it's about context. How certain words in certain places can mean entirely different things than those same words in a different place. It's a lesson that humanity doesn't exactly get a chance to learn, but that fortunately the reader does. Like a Guinness spiked with a shot of Whisky, the tale pulls back at hits the reader right in the feels, left me devastated and raw and unsure of the ground under my feet.


Art by Dario Bijelac
"Now Watch as Belinda Unmakes the World" by Lynette Mejía (Flash Fiction Online)

Revealing a deep grief and loss and pain, this one is a Velvet Apocalypse, a mix of one part each peppermint schnapps and creme de menthe with half parts vodka, coffee liqueur, peach liqueur, bourbon, and 2 parts hot chocolate. The story is stark and moving, a progression of loss and memory. The framing of the story is exquisite and wrenching, a mother taking apart a piece of art. Unmaking something. And in that unmaking she's participating in something much larger, is tapping into something that isn't exactly destruction, but it no less tragic or catastrophic. I love the way the story loves, from the out inward, taking things apart a stitch at a time, undoing what took so long to create. It's a deep and moving look at chronic illness and the power of loss. The character work is strong, compelling, and sells the power of the unmaking, the possibility that this is more than just a metaphor, that the world itself is unraveling, coming apart, all from the unfairness and frustration and numb hurt captured in that moment of scissors and art. Like a Velvet Apocalypse there's something nearly soft about it, in the lack of screaming, the feelings all suspended, transubstantiated into something larger, something more profound. And also like a Velvet Apocalypse, there's enough strength in it to unmake the world.

"Espie" by Richard Larson (Terraform)

Looking at the distance between technology and people, between people and people, this story tastes like a Baby Doll to me, a combination of two parts cognac to a part and a half orange liqueur with a half part of lemon juice to bring it all together. The story stars a man visiting his sister and her new kid. And her new kid's SP, or Save Point, a robot doll made to mimic this moment in her child's life. Made to mimic and to never age, so no matter what happens to the child, the parents can pull out this doll and have a feeling of what it was like. The premise is equal parts interesting and creepy as fuck to me personally, but I love the way the story uses that to explore the main character, who is a bit lost. He's an artist but lives in a world where he's unsure what to want or what to do, where he drifts, hoping to find meaning in his life and feeling in some ways hollow. And I like how he sees in the Espie this reflection of himself and his desire, the want to freeze himself and never grow up, never have to worry about money or life. The story moves well, builds its world and especially its characters, the main character and sister both of their time, in some ways betrayed by how they were raised, the expectations they were taught to have and the things technology makes possible. It's a strangely moving piece and like a Baby Doll it comes together slowly, leaving a sweet but kind of odd flavor lingering on the tongue.

Art by Elizabeth Leggett
"Nobody Puts Baby in a Chamber" by Alexis A. Hunter (Mothership Zeta)

Featuring a robot and a baby and a growing panic and care, this one is a Vacuum Cleaner, a mix of one part each whiskey, vodka, rum, and tequila with two parts cola. At first blush this story could be a comedy. It nearly is, with the comic antics of the parent in the background angrily wading through the bureaucratic nightmare of customer service while his somewhat-sentient vacuum cleaner processes the fact that it has accidentally trapped a human infant inside itself. It evokes the science fiction vision of a future where every appliance would talk and think, which is a certain kind of nightmare in and of itself, but also brings the heart, exploring how a sentient vacuum cleaner would feel if it had accidentally trapped a human infant inside itself. And through the goofy premise and humorous antics there's a kernel of darkness and terror, this dissonance between the lighter elements and growing possibility that as a reader I'm about to witness the death of an infant via domestic robotic accident. And fuck the story pulls that off well, that twisting, that shock, so that the ending…well, that would be telling. The story is short and charming with a core of raw panic and like a Vacuum Cleaner it provides a weightless feeling before a plunge of flavors and emotions.


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