Friday, August 12, 2016

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 07/2016

To me July is when summer turns brutal. The days start getting shorter even as they get hotter. The rain comes less frequently and when it arrives it's normally with thunder and lightning, storm and stress. For SFF, July normally represents something of a lull for me as publications close to submissions and get ready for the autumn.

This July, though, has also seen a surge in the smaller publications putting out amazing stories. Of the six stories in the Tasting Flight, a full four come from publications that aren't considered pro. It's a month of surprises, of transformations, of yearning for freedom. Like with the weather, July is for oppressive settings and limited options. It's for longing for the spring again, and dreading the winter.

So welcome, weary travelers on the SFF highways, and let me pour you some recommendations to take the edge off. I've got science fiction stories that imagine worlds both bleak and beautiful, fantasy tales that reveal the hidden magic of our own world or the distant dreams of a different universe. There's something for everyone, I hope, so sit back, relax, and tell me what sounds good.

Cheers!

Tasting Flight - July 2016 

"The Sound a Raven Makes" by Mathew Scaletta (GigaNotoSaurus)

What drink encapsulates not just a world rolling downhill thanks to climate change but the proper respect and horror for what has got to be one of the best uses of Sasquatches in SFF? Well, to me "The Sound a Raven Makes" by Mathew Scaletta is all Bacon Porter, smoky and dark and full of some wild and untamed magic that isn't exactly the most delicious thing in the world but which is certainly memorable. The story focuses on Ash, an aptly-named young man in a world that is burning, where the extremely wealthy hunt Sasquatches on an Alaskan island while Ash helps to render the meat into jerky. The story shows the magic of the natural world and way that it is commodified and exploited, the way that even those who care about it are made tools of its destruction. Ash is young and gay and only got the job because he's related to the owner of the jerky house. And supporting his partner, JB, means dealing with the harassment and the bullshit, means dealing with always smelling of dead Sasquatch. I love the way the story complicates family and privilege, how Ash must weigh the harm he causes to the people he protects to the fact that there isn't much he can do in the face of such loss and damage. The atmosphere of the story is oppressive and shows a yearning hunger for some escape. For some hope. For, if nothing else, a fire to light and clear away the last vestiges of the people and the institutions that have caused so much pain and destruction. It's about power and resistance in the face of death, about fear and about desolation. And for me it's got the taste of a bacon porter, meaty and deep and really rather sad. 

Art by Ben Baldwin
"Postcards from Natalie" by Carrie Laben (The Dark #14)

Some stories speak to me of travel and distance, of adventure and resistance and bitterness. And when they do, like with Carrie Laben's "Postcards from Natalie," I am reminded of a West Coast IPA, full of pale skies and cool breezes and a touch of bitterness that sinks and rises like a wave, or a soul. This story is told by Mandy, who has been left behind by her sister, Nat, thanks to an incredibly unpleasant home life. Nat packs up with her boyfriend and hits the road, sending postcards when she can. And Nat lives for those postcards, for the voice of her sister. The story has this sneaking feel to it, the situation almost normal for all the pain and loss it details. And that's the beauty of it, for me, that this is a story that isn't really unfamiliar. That Nat's story is one that happens and happens often, that reveals this gaping hole in the world, this place beneath what we can see and know. A place of nameless people. And the story makes cutting use of that through Mandy, by showing how she gets left behind, how everyone seems to leave her. And by showing what that means. The postcards are at the same time sentimental and sinister, the story touching and incredibly dark. And for all that darkness the story still manages to hold onto hope, to believe that things must change and that things will change. That nothing stays forgotten. And it gives Mandy, despite her powerlessness in the face of the injustice of the world, a chance to do something, to resist and rebel and take a stand with her sister. And is that sense of boldness and travel and hope that bring to mind a West Coast IPA, bitter but full of life. 

Art by Slimm Fabert
"Her Sacred Spirit Soars" by S. Qiouyi Lu (Strange Horizons)

There are times when stories capture what it means to be between—between cultures; between health and sickness, healing and cured; between human and bird. And "Her Sacred Spirit Soars" by S. Qiouyi Lu, to me, embodies that state of being between, and as such tastes like a Citrus IPA, bright and sweet with a zest for life and an undercurrent of stubborn resolve and lasting hurt. In the story, Meisun in a young woman participating in a study to help heal her after a traumatic event left her in a coma. The study, however, uses mythical birds to try and wake patients up, and the side effect is that part of the bird is imprinted on the human, so that they have to relearn their life, so that they have the memories of a bird taken from its how and separated from its partner, from the other half of itself. And I love how the story looks not just at love but also dependence and assistance and health. The two halves of the one bird depend on each other, cannot live without the other, and yet Meisun lives with only one inside her, knowing that her other half is gone. Only when she comes to befriend and then start to care for another patient does she being to feel what it means to depend on someone else, and in that bond she both gives and receives strength, so that through the budding relationship both people are more complete, more able to stand the stress and the pain of living. These are characters who have lost and who struggle with feelings they cannot control, with the stigma of it and the burden of it, who begin to find in each other a way forward. One that is full of grace and care and hope and longing. One that cannot undo the harm done but that can give the characters wings to fly again. And like a Citrus IPA the story takes two different things, human and bird, and two different people, Meisun and Yaulan, and finds the place where they meet, the place where they make each other better. 

"The Night Bazaar for Women Becoming Reptiles" by Rachael K. Jones (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #203)

For me, beer doesn't quite capture the sense of longing and need and transformation that I find in some stories. Which is why Rachael K. Jones' "The Night Bazaar for Women Becoming Reptiles" seems more like a wine to me, a Merlot, red and with a slight grittiness from the tannins but alive with a semi-sweet flavor, one reaching toward the dryness of the desert and all its possibilities. The story unfolds in Oasis, a city in a desert, a prison because no human who walks in can really walk out again. And Hester is a woman who wants to escape, who wants to be one of the women who eats the egg of a reptile and transforms, receives a body that can survive the sun and sand. Instead the magic doesn't seem to work for her, and she is stuck between day and night, neither giving her relief, neither actually allowing her to express her true self, though she's supposed to be able to. The city is a cage and the bars are the people she wants to care more about, her lovers and her family. It's a story that captures the stifling oppression of being different, of not finding fulfillment or happiness in the prescribed places of society, the roles she's expected to take. The ways in which the story complicates her desires and her situation are deep and fascinating. Everyone in the story is hiding pieces of themselves, so that in day or night they are wearing different masks but masks all the same, covering over the hurt and the yearning to escape. The world is vividly painted and vividly bleak, the transformation into a reptile compelling and rather disturbing. And like a Merlot the story bursts with flavors and color, the sweetness of desire and the lingering taste of sand and heat. 

Art by Likhain
"The Automatic Prime Ministers" by Kate Heartfield (Lackington's #10)

There is something to be said about a story that both rails against the injustices of a populist voting system and at the same time believes in the power of people. And as such "The Automatic Prime Ministers" by Kate Heartfield tastes like a Lager, what I would consider the drink of the common person, fresh and full of light, a cheer spreading from a dozen lips to a thousand, to a million, and on and on. And the story takes aim at the common person, showing a world with a political system that is based on computer analysis and prediction. That weighs what the most people want and seeks by that to cut out corruption and inequality. And yet in doing so the algorithms also fail. Fail because they are limited to a certain country. To a certain region. To thinking of the universe as us versus them. The story focuses on one world leader trying to steer not only her country but other nations away from following the algorithms, even though she was one of those who fought to put them in place. Because aliens showed up. Asking for help. And being hunted. And the increase in scope has changed the rules of the game. The algorithms assess risk and try to predict what's best, but only for the constituents of the nation. What happens to those outside? What happens to the most vulnerable when they are deemed a threat? The story asks some very difficult questions and imagines people who believe both in the power of democracy but also in the power to work outside of it, to open borders and to think more than nationally, even more than globally. And I love the politics of it and the humanness of it, caught between trying to give away our responsibility for death and tragedies and standing up to fight for what's right. Like a Lager it has a heady depth, one that you almost don't realize you're sinking into until the room is tilting and the world seems like it's full of possibilities. 

Art by Sandro Castelli
"Painted Grassy Mire" by Nicasio Andres Reed (Shimmer #32)

Stories have the power to take readers to a place—a time, a location, a culture, a perspective. And Nicasio Andres Reed's "Painted Grassy Mire" reveals a Louisiana that lives and breathes and tastes, I imagine, a bit like a Red Ale, sweet and thick and tinged just a bit like the shade of blood. Winnie takes center stage in the story, a young woman who might seem a bit out of place in a world dominated by men and gators and heat and sweat. And yet this is Winnie's world, where she was born, and in that it is a part of her as she is a part of it. The story looks at origin and inheritance, Winnie caught between the intentions of her father who sees her more as property than as person, and the very world around her, which seems to have its own ideas. When she begins to notice the gators around her village acting strangely, it's the start of an awakening. In some ways the story speaks to me of the harshness of place, this village of Filipino-Americans tucked away in Louisiana, almost a world to themselves. But I feel it's also about the respect for it, the willingness to become of a place, to give yourself to and let it change you. It's something that's special about Winnie, who is more of the swamp, of the gators. If it's a story of transformations then it's also a story about immigration and about generations, about how children change, about how sometimes parents don't change enough. And it's about trying to find a place to be, a place to belong, a place to proud and strong and beautiful. Plus the story makes me want to be friends with alligators, which is not something I ever thought would be possible. Like a Red Ale the story is sweet but also tinged with the red of violence and upheaval and struggle, a toothy grin in the face of the harshness of the world.

Shots:

"Love Out of Season" by Caroline M. Yoachim (Fantastic Stories of the Imagination #235)

Examining the space between people, the rifts that cannot be closed, this story tastes to me like a Guilty Smile, a mix of two and a half parts rum, 1 part brandy, triple sec, and lemon juice, and few drops of orange bitters. The story shows a narrator in a relationship with…well, a time traveler, I guess, a woman who has gone back to months before, who has become, essentially, only a memory. The narrator remembers arguments that she never had, remembers living with her partner, Sierra, but there's this distance between them, of time and of affection and of proximity. Sierra is consumed by her work, by her drive to unlock time, and in pursuing that has left a vital part of her relationship with the narrator suffer. Without the physical link between them, with only the voice of the past, the main character drifts, meets someone else, and… I love the way the story draws the complexity of this situation, never giving anyone any easy answer. The narrator argues with Sierra in the past, remembers the words they say but never has a chance to actually talk with her, to actually hear or be heard. They are literally living in different times and the way the story handles their feelings, the guilt and the longing and the hurt of it all, is incredibly done. Ultimately, it's about how some rifts cannot be closed or bridged, that some trips are one way that leave no one satisfied but cannot be reversed. Like a Guilty Smile, the story is a strong mix of elements that culminate in something bright and hopeful and very strong. 

Art by Wendy Xu
"War Profiteering" by M. Darusha Wehm (Mothership Zeta #4)

Full of the horrors of war and conflict glossed over by the slick styling of advertisement, this story is a Dirty Bomb, a mix of one part absinthe to three parts energy drink. It's a story framed as an ad for a device that can clean food of nanoparticles. Which on the surface seems pretty straight forward, for all that it builds a rather grim picture of a future where these particles are such a threat that the device is necessary. But as the ad continues in true full-page-spread fashion, the reality of the situation begins to sink in even more. And as the footnotes reveal key bits of information hidden in the fine print, the full scope of what is happening is revealed. And the story manages a nice mix of comedy and commentary, drawing a point on the human capacity to draw money out of blood. This is about conflict and about hiding loss of life and corruption and injustice in the footnotes, out of sight and largely out of mind. It's about the comfort that people have now with advertising, with capitalism, and how frightened people can be when there is something that strips that away, something that doesn't care for profit. The story plays with the roll that advertising has across conflicts, how something can be marketing to one group as a weapon and to someone else as a household appliance. The story manages to be funny, frightening, and spot on with its depiction of advertising in the age of sentient nanobots. And like a Dirty Bomb it's sweet but also strong enough to leave your head spinning from the implications. 

"Old Customs" by Rajiv Moté (Unlikely Story #12.5)

This story, told backwards in time as the layers of custom give way to history surrounding a holiday, seems to me like a Wicked Party, a layering of equal parts bourbon, Irish cream, and grenadine. The story starts in the present, or near enough, at a celebration of paint and sticks, one that brings in tourism, that seems to represent some part of cultural identity. The story of the celebration given by a sort of tour guide describes love and courtship, play and mock battle. But like the Disney versions of older fairy tales, this modern narrative only goes so deep. Peeling back the layers shows a history that's much different than the one described, one with elements of that later holiday but much, much darker implications. And I love how the story shows how history gets lost, how it gets appropriated and erased. How even revolutions and bloody justice can eventually become something completely divorced from its origins. And yet even then it shows how it tends to fade in part because that original meaning, that original necessity, fades as well. That as the system improves and the violence becomes less necessary to promote progress what remains is the trappings of violence, is the metaphor more than the literal act. And that as time passes even the metaphor is muddied and what people cling to is the pageantry and the ceremony, even when they don't even know why. Because it brings them together. Because it celebrates where they've been and where they come from. It's a story about holidays and the power of them, and the dark origins behind them. And so to me it's a Wicked Party, light on top but with a darkness buried below.

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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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