Friday, July 15, 2016

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 06/2016

If June wasn't enough to make you believe in speculative short fiction, you might just be a lost cause. Not only did it contain Lightspeed's amazing People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction!, but it's probably the hardest month I've had to pick my favorites. There were strong showings across the board, and it feels almost mean to not be able to feature more great stories here. But I have a format and I will try my very best to maintain it. I take my storytending very seriously, after all.

But know that this month the flavors I'm pouring are just a small portion of the rich and amazing ones available. As for the Round, well, this month I'm pouring magic realism and adrenaline pumping science fiction. Vividly drawn second world fantasy and emotionally resonant superhero action. Dark fantasy about family curses and the best piece of The Thing fanfiction I've ever read. There's so much to read and enjoy, so pull up a stool and relax—this Round's on me!


Tasting Flight: June 2016

Art by Sandro Castelli
"Life in Stone, Glass, and Plastic" by José Pablo Iriarte (Strange Horizons)

Delving into art and the nature of loss and hope, "Life in Stone, Glass, and Plastic" by José Pablo Iriarte tastes to me like an Abbey Ale, a mosaic of spices and flavors, warm and evocative enough to transport the taster to another world, another life. Life for Sergio is not exactly rosy. He works multiple jobs to keep him and his wife, who has dementia and must be watched by a nurse, independent and alive. Mostly he fixes things. Cleans. Does odd jobs. But when he is tasked to clean up a mural made of trash, though, he finds himself pulled into the art, finds that he experiences another person's life…and death. And, once experienced, he can't forget it. He goes seeking more, trying to find the artists responsible. The story does an amazing job of showing the oppression that Sergio lives under, the constant fear and hardship, but also his love, his humor, his honor. He is a man very aware of the world he lives in, aware because he has to be, and yet he is not broken by it, sees each joyous moment as a victory. Sergio meets the sorrow of the art, the loss and the injustice, and yet the reason he is compelled to seek it out is not because he has some fascination with death. But because he has something else in mind for such a gift. Not to erase the tragedy, but to also remember the joy. The love. If a story can be heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time, then this story is. Like an Abbey Ale, there is there is a layer of bitterness but also a rush of spices and a deep sweetness that rises as you experience more, that left me warm and wanting more.

Art by Christopher Park
"Omoshango" by Dayo Ntwari (Lightspeed)

Roaring to life with the rising force of resistance and refusal to stay down, Dayo Ntwari's "Omoshango" is like a Double IPA to me, strong and brash and larger than life, with the promise of conflict, yes, but a vision of something beyond, something free and freeing and righteous. The setting of the story is Earth, but in a future where the world has been contacted by an outside force, an Earth where people are being born with wings to allow them access into another place, a new start. But not everyone on Earth is being offered the chance to escape the crush of corporations and a renewed imperialism. White people will be left behind, and in that premise the story makes a complex statement on fear inherent in white supremacy, the fear that white people not be allowed every privilege, that when something comes calling to Earth, it might not be white people it's there to see. And the story has such an energy to it, a cinematic flare that burns the screen, that sells the visuals of people with wings in aerial combat with fighter jets. That sells the idea that racism walks hand in hand with deep insecurity. It's not outlandish to think that an entire group of people could be criminalized for a perceived advantage. One just has to look at the intense reactions to affirmative action, to reparations, to safe spaces for people of color, to recognize the hate that the story evokes and dashes against the wings of its protagonists. It is an uplifting story and a wicked fun experience, and light a Double IPA left me as a reader a bit light on my feet and a bit light in my head, dazed at the power of it.

Art by Jade Liebes
"Kid Dark Against the Machine" by Tansy Rayner Roberts (The Book Smugglers)

With an eye towards how childhood trauma and superheroics can seriously mess a person up, "Kid Dark Against the Machine" by Tansy Rayner Roberts feels like a Dark Ale to me, a drink laced with darkness but balanced by a sweet flush of flavor and taste, not bitter in the slightest and incredibly enjoyable. The tale centers Griff, the former Kid Dark, child superhero sidekick, chosen by a machine to join Australia's team of heroes. And it does an amazing job of showing how it effected him to be this kid, an orphan and a loner, suddenly thrust into this limelight, given a family, given powers. For years. And then to have to face the prospect of having it stripped away. The story evolves slowly as Griff tries to live his life in a sort of hiding, doing what good he can but no longer using his powers to fight crime. Until a young boy at the orphanage he works at starts having a dream about a machine that creates supervillains. And Griff finds that despite everything he thought, he's still a hero. There's so much to the relationship Griff has with his past, to who his identity. In many ways he was denied a childhood, first because of his situation and then because of his role as a superhero. And the story manages a delicate balance between fun and poignant and tragic, showing the damage a kid can endure but also how he can heal. The action may be campy but the story brings the heart, shows how kid superheroes can grow up, can change their stories. Like a Dark Ale there's a lingering shadow but a crisp and refreshing taste to this piece, and it makes for a joyous experience.

Art by Martin Ende
"Nothing But the Sky" by Gwendolyn Clare (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Evoking cages—physical ones but also cages of custom, of body, of perception—"Nothing But the Sky" by Gwendolyn Clare tastes of clear horizons and the feel of wind on your face, and so to me is a Lager, classically enjoyable and satisfying. Dorial, a sort-of flying dinosaur rider, stars in a work that is part mystery, part fetch quest, part layered fairy tale, and all heartwarming. Dorial must search for a missing princess, one who leads him on quite a chase through a city laced with corruption, politics, and libraries. And it's a world fueled by magical materials that allow ships and entire cities to float, to fly. Unfortunately, the secrets of magic have been largely forgotten, and the freedom of flight has been hampered by a military organization that pays lip service to respecting identity but takes the first opportunity to treat Dorial as lesser because he is, in effect, a trans man. And I love the way that Dorial must balance his own drive for advancement and respect against his desire for freedom. How his story is mirrored in that of the princess he is chasing, and in the story that she tells to him in installments, a way of putting off his catching up with her and also testing his cleverness and integrity. The story leaves so much open and yet what it does solidify is Dorial as a character, and the trajectory of his path, up and away and to a place that is (sorry) nothing but the sky. It's a lovely, fun piece that, like a Lager, is clear and triumphant and refreshing as a bright summer day.

Art by Vincent LAÏK
"Things with Beards" by Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld)

Perhaps marking the first time that fanfiction has graced this list, "Things with Beards" by Sam J. Miller is a story about difference and danger, resistance and infection, and to me goes down like a Coffee Stout, dark and biting and deep and with a call to wake up. The story picks up after the events of the movie The Thing, with MacReady and Childs freezing in the ice. Only here they were lovers, and they don't die. Well, they do, in that they are consumed by an alien creature, one whose best defense to believe that is them. And so they live on with strange holes in their memories, infecting those that they come into intimate contact with. Like the sexually transmitted infections that were lurking at the time the film in set, a time when many social movements were moving, working. And MacReady becomes a carrier, a Thing beneath the beard he wears, weaponized both by the alien and by himself, joining a movement to work for justice. The story does a fantastic job of showing what it means to hide, showing how people compartmentalize themselves. The way that MacReady layers himself with the outmost layers those people find acceptable. The man with the beard. Straight. Masculine. White. And yet under those are layers less affirmed, less definite. And MacReady doesn't know where some of those begin and end, only that the is a Thing under a cover of normalcy and that he will use that to further justice. It's a story that looks at what is human and what alien and what can pass for both. It is dark and there is a sense that under the inky surface of the work something is waiting to reach out. Like a Coffee Stout the text adds something new and marvelous to an older standard, creating something new and nuanced and deep and strong and very, very good.

Art by Galen Dara
"The Drowning Line" by Haralambi Markov (Uncanny)

"The Drowning Line" by Haralambi Markov has a taste of the deep, the taste of blood layered with family and fear and hope, and so I feel it fits quite well as a glass (or perhaps a whole bottle) of Sangiovese, dry and striking with notes of fruit and something dark. In it, Heinrich is a man with a husband and two children, one his biological child and therefore a part of his family curse, a curse that stretches back generations and involves water and drowning. It's a past that haunts Heinrich, that has followed him from Europe and to America, that somehow transports him from his bed and leads him to water. Where another man is waiting. The story is sensual and disturbing, the situation terrifying and strange and heartbreaking. A story of the weight of inheritance, which in this case is like a disease but more than that, a magical curse that is hungry, that cannot really be sated. For all the Heinrich wants to run, wants to escape, this is something that has been done to him by his mother, by this family. And the momentum of that, of every previous person to fall to the curse, is not something that can be easily stopped. It's gripping and darkly beautiful, the lengths that Heinrich goes to escape, and the further lengths he goes to guarantee that he will not pass this along to his child. It's a powerful story that tastes almost like seaweed and blood, just the hint of sweetness among the dry notes, and so like a Sangiovese in that the stains it leaves are almost impossible to get out, as this is a story that has stuck with me long after I've read the last word.


"u wont remember dying" by Russell Nichols (Terraform)

With a look at the culture of police violence against black people mixed with a health dose of Walt Whitman, this story is a Bullet to the Head, a mix of equal parts gin, vodka, light rum, and tequila with a part and a half of sweet and sour mix and three parts cola. The story takes place in notes a young black man writes to himself from a hospital, waiting for his consciousness to be loaded into a cloned body after being shot by police for, basically, being out in public. He talks to his brother and he reads old poetry and he tries to tell his future self some of what he might like to know. Because the trauma of w hat  had happened will not be passed along. It's a system that is beautifully rendered in that it strips all need to change police action out of the equation, instead putting the responsibility onto black people to save copies of their consciousnesses so that when they're killed they can be revived. At least partly. And it strikes me because that seems like something people would go for, a way to avoid dealing with the systemic problems and only look at this one symptom of it, which is the death of (mostly) black men. But even here, even with the cost of death lessoned, things are not that much better. People are still shot and the cost of living under the constant threat of trauma and death is something that no one wants to be considered. Like the death is the only injustice. And the story marries this idea to the promise of Walt Whitman, to the idea of what America should be and who is allowed to still believe it. Layered and strong like a punch to the face, this story has all the flavors of [AMERICA].

Art by Christopher Park
"Morning Cravings" by Nin Harris (Lightspeed)

About desire and customs and the unfairness of the universe, this story is an Eggnog, a hot mix of egg, sugar, cream, bourbon, and spiced rum—sweet but also thick, dense, and very rewarding. The action unfolds on a world where humans are not native, where the gods created different peoples to live and to follow certain rules. For one group, those rules include not eating eggs. It's not a rule for Derthye, but it is for her partner, Yeliss. It's not really a problem except that Derthye craves them while pregnant and Yeliss comes full of a desire to know what they taste like. The story looks at how the same action performed by two different people can be policed incredibly differently. How what is acceptable for one might not be for others. Not because of some intrinsic truth or situation, but because of the customs people believe in, because by clinging to tradition they might feel more secure. The story is cute and light and fun until it is the complete opposite, sliding its blade in unnoticed and then turning sharply once it's in deep enough. It shows how extra aware Yeliss has to be, shows how little Derthye really understands the differences between them, and then brings that lesson painfully home. Like an Eggnog, the story coats the mouth, refusing to leave, lingering with the memory of sweetness and the knowledge that it is gone.

"Choose Your Killer" by Abhishek Bhatt (Mithila Review)

Challenging the notions of the social contract and how much we are our impulses, this story tastes like an Impulse Control to me, a mix of equal parts coffee liqueur, bourbon, spiced rum, and grenadine. Tonally the story is confessional, a man, Agami, detailing a rather boring life that involves a lot of going to the movies. When a movie is released that offers to choose a personalized ending based on a viewer's "true" desires, Agami is intrigued. And then conflicted when he can't seem to guess what it will be. It's a moment that spurs Agami to think that the world is doing him a wrong in expecting him to act against his "true" self. It's a startling and darkly funny piece that examines what it means to choose. What it means to act. Everything that we as people do is a balance of impulse and moderation, and though Agami sees this moderation as outside and oppressive, it can just as easily come from the inside, from a person's desires and cognition. And in Agami's rush to embrace his own repressed desires, he steps into just why it is a good idea to have a social contract, that individual actions and impulses are only one part of a chain that form institutions that we depend on to strive toward justice. The story shows the folly of perceiving our most depraved desires as those closest to our "true" selves, and the danger posed by abandoning thinking about what we want and just acting on whatever. Like an Impulse Control, the story is fun and packs a punch, providing a complex and memorable experience.


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